Polar Vortex – Shani Mootoo

This is a superb introspective relationship story. Priya and Alexandra have a six-year marriage that is disrupted by the impending visit of Prakash, a long-time friend of Priya’s. What are Prakash’s motives for this visit? Why has Priya been withholding information on the significance of this friendship from Alex? And why can memories between friends be so selectively remembered and interpreted? A bit gloomy but overall an excellent read (on the Giller long-list).

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Academy was a notorious reform school in Florida; young African-American boys could be assigned for months-years for trivial reasons. And they were subjected to horrible abuse: beatings, sexual assault, etc. The story focusses on two boys in the early 60s, Elwood and Turner, who have remarkably different viewpoints. Elwood has ideals based on the words of Martin Luther King; Turner is a cynical schemer. Which boy is more likely to survive the Nickel nightmare? The Jim Crow era in the South in the 1960s has evils that are perpetuated in the current #BLM times.  Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for his previous book The Underground Railroad: both are highly recommended.

The Robber Bride – Margaret Atwood

Simply put, this is a brilliant book, one of Atwood’s best. Three women (Tony, Charis and Roz) are each linked to Zenia, a brilliant and beautiful woman who is manipulative and ruthless. Over three decades, Zenia exerts considerable damage by creating really toxic relationships, but all three women remain in thrall, under a spell, beguiled. Even though Zenia’s lies and cons become obvious she somehow retains their sympathy while betraying their trust and treating male partners as loot. Fantastic story-telling.

Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood

Elaine, a middle-aged painter who lives in Vancouver, returns to Toronto (where she grew up) for a retrospective show of her paintings. This causes her to reminisce about her life. The entire book is great but for me, the first 1/3 is perfect. Atwood wonderfully captures the relationships between 8- to 10-year-olds, alternating between friendships and toxic competitions. School with corporal punishments and skipping grades, shopping and shoplifting things at Woolworths. And how children acquire (mis)information in an era when parental communication was non-existent. Another gem.

Normal People – Sally Rooney

This is a superbly-written relationship book. The story covers four years in the lives of Connell and Marianne, one year at high school in the west of Ireland followed by University at Trinity College in Dublin. Rooney’s writing illustrates perfectly that relationships are complicated even between two people with undeniable chemistry, complications by miscommunication and misperception of feelings. There is also emotional paralysis by expectations of inadequacy and not belonging. Connell and Marianne are very different people from different backgrounds, resulting in feelings of isolation and disconnection. This is a great book, better than her first book Conversations With Friends.

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

As a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is equally compelling but with a very different tone. Whereas The Handmaid’s Tale had a single narrator (Offred), The Testaments (set 16 years later) has three voices: two very different young women, one raised in Gilead and one raised outside, and the notorious Aunt Lydia. The resulting story is less introspective with more action, thus less reactive. The seeds of dissent are outlined clearly and logically with some Machiavellian motivations. This is a page turner, a completely engrossing read.

The Island of Sea Women – Lisa See

A detailed account of a friendship between two Korean women who are part of a woman’s diving collective (Haenyo) on a Korean island. The story begins in 1938, then progresses through the Japanese occupation prior to and during World War II. Their friendship is ruptured by an act of atrocity; the post-war years leading to the Korean War are filled with hardships. The latter part of the book is a poignant recalling of broken trust and how difficult it is to achieve reconciliation and grant forgiveness. This is a profound story of women who are powerful in the sea but overcome by extreme forces on  land. The history of Korea, especially the post-war chaos, makes for a powerful book.

The Magicians – Lev Grossman

Note: The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman is from a list of recommended books about magic by Erin Morgenstern, author of the fabulous The Night Circus. More than half of this first book is about a magic school but this is not Hogwarts: the school is in upper New York state and the students are older (post-high school) so they indulge in young adult activities like drinking and sex, making for complicated relationships. There are two difficulties: learning magical incantations is very hard (wands are for sissies) and there is an existential dilemma – what is the purpose of magic in a modern world? This latter issue is addressed by the young magicians entering a fantasy realm, one described in fiction books and thought to be entirely imaginary; all the magicians have read the books about the magical world of Fillory when they were young children. This is where imaginative adventures occur with violence and a significant body count. So this book offers a very different treatment of magic compared to Harry Potter books, but is equal entertaining.

Give Me Your Hand – Megan Abbott

Give Me Your Hand - Megan AbbottThere are two key features in successful mystery thrillers: context and plot. In my opinion, context is often the most informative and dramatic element. This book is about two young women in two time-lines: THEN as high school students, and NOW, as post-doctoral researchers in a University medical research laboratory. Given my own background as a biomedical researcher, clearly the context is novel and appealing, the description of lab smells, the equipment, everything is described perfectly. But this is a book about relationships, in particular a friendship complicated by academic competition. And there are dark secrets: a key phrase repeated in the book is “You don’t have a self until you have a secret”. A key progression from dark secrets are lies and then paralyzing “Crime & Punishment” type guilt. Finally, this is a book about women. Highly recommended. Thanks, Karen, for this book suggestion.