The City We Became – NK Jemisin

A very imaginative example of speculative fiction about the soul of cities, specifically New York which is protected by five avatars in the five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. The personalities of the avatars reflect the borough characteristics. But there is conflict, a city takeover by malevolent forces! Highly entertaining with extraordinary visual scenes. Thanks Amy for this recommendation.

Metropolis – Philip Kerr

Another sublime Bernie Gunther crime thriller. The plot is intricate with vivid characters, and Kerr’s books always have superb context. In this book, it is Berlin in 1928 so lingering effects of WWI and the rise of facism are all key features of difficult Berlin life. Gunther is a republican meaning neither a socialist or fascist so he has to navigate complex and dangerous social politics. And there is much moral philosophy about the origins of crime and the role of police. Regretfully Kerr died in 2018 so this will be the last of his writing

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

This is a very satisfying novel. First, the literary style is intriguing: long sentences with lots of commas and yet reading is smooth. Second, the subject matter is very topical; a dystopian future that begins in a localized fashion with two young lovers in an unspecified Middle Eastern location. Escalating conflict leads them to escape through doors that are portals to distant locations (London, Mykonos). Their future becomes uncertain in new lands that are overwhelmed by the arrival of increasing numbers of refugees/migrants like themselves. How do relationships survive when tested repeatedly – highly recommended.

Labyrinth of the Spirits – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Labyrinth is the 4th and final book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Context (time and place) is an important feature of Ruiz’ books and this is especially true of Labyrinth: Barcelona is presented as an eerie Gothic wonderland and 1959 features nefarious political and criminal activities. (And at 800 pages, there is lots of space for context!). Labyrinth features the enigmatic Alicia Gris as an investigator tasked with a missing person case, leading to much intrigue as secrets are revealed. And there is some shocking violence. This is a haunting story – highly recommended.

Machines Like Us – Ian McEwan

McEwan has created an alternative 1982 London in which Britain loses the Falklands War and PM Thatcher is defeated by Tony Benn. Most significantly, Sir Alan Turing achieves an artificial intelligence breakthrough resulting in the creation of humanoid robots; prototypes are named Adam and Eve. Charlie purchases an Adam and together with his girlfriend Miranda, Adam’s personality (mind) is personalized. What follows is a fascinating 3-way relationship story. With machine learning, what makes us human? This provocative and enthralling story is one of McEwan’s best.

American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins

A gritty contemporary story: a woman and her 8-year old son flee cartel violence in Acapulco with the goal of a new life in the USA. What follows is a perilous journey with some heart-breaking violence, theft and sexual assault, tempered by some extraordinary acts of kindness and compassion. This book has been controversial because of criticisms of cultural appropriation and stereotypical presentations of the largely Mexican characters. My limited frame of reference does not permit me to judge this issue. In my opinion, Ms. Cummins has a voice that deserves to be heard; others can judge the truthfulness and veracity of her story.

Songs For The End Of The World – Saleema Nawaz

Previously Ms. Nawaz wrote the very fine Bread And Bone.This new novel, researched and written between 2013-2019, is uncannily about a novel coronavirus pandemic, so eerily relevant to today’s world. The storyline involves multiple characters with interacting stories; the pandemic timeline (August-December 2020) is supplemented with some backstory chapters. The key feature is the focus on how humans cope with a pandemic crisis. An attractive aspect of the writing is that it is philosophical rather than sensational. There are graphic descriptions of the worst of times: disintegration of civil society, the irrationality of scapegoating, racial profiling, the exacerbation of co-existing problems like economic inequalities. But there is also the best of times: life goes on, people exhibit resilience. The writing is exceptional, Atwood-like in quality of describing mood when the black cloud of a pandemic lurks everywhere. Highly recommended, especially when we are experiencing our own pandemic crisis. Sarah, thanks for advising me that the e-book was available for purchase now; the paper book will be published in August.

Had It Coming – Robyn Doolittle

This book is a logical sequel to Ms. Doolittle’s book Unfounded about the complexities and difficulties concerning the prosecution of sexual assault cases. The subtitle of this new book is “What’s fair in the age of #MeToo?”. Is #MeToo a moment or a substantial movement? The narrative contains a thoughtful discussion of difficult topics: rape culture that enables sexual violence, rape myths and stereotypes, the paramount issue of consent, due process, power and privilege and even redemption. This is a thought-provoking book – highly recommended.

The Dreamers – Karen Thompson Walker

Given the current concern over a potential coronavirus pandemic, this remarkable book is prescient by capturing the mood perfectly of a contagion, specifically the chaos and confusion. In this story, individuals fall asleep and can’t be aroused; sleep is associated with a profound dream state and is fatal in many cases. This story is not about the medical/scientific search for the cause and cure; the focus is on residents caught in an eventual quarantine. Ms. Walker previously has captured the devastating consequences of an unexpected and unexplained catastrophe in her earlier (2012) book The Age of Miracles.  A topical and riveting read.