Miss Benson’s Beetle – Rachel Joyce

Ms. Joyce has written some unabashedly sentimental books (e.g., The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) and this book follows in this genre. In 1950s London, Margery Benson, a 46-year-old spinster, flees her teaching job to commence an obsessive journey, a quest for a never-discovered golden beetle in New Caledonia. She recruits a travelling companion, Enid Pretty, who is wildly inappropriate as a research assistant. But this unlikely odd couple eventually develops a close friendship, as one might predict, despite many hilarious frustrations. But all is not sweetness and light in this story: there is a murder sub-plot and a deranged stalker. Some laugh-out-loud sections are coupled with some truly poignant moments. Above all, this is a superb literary example of the transformative power of friendship.

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

The angel Aziriphale and demon Crowley are viewing the oncoming Armageddon with trepidation as they both enjoy England despite their contrasting missions. Also, Crowley has “misplaced” the Anti-Christ (spawn of the devil) who will reign triumphant after the apocalypse. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are bikers as added colour. In short, this is a wildly imaginative story; in particular, the author’s capture perfectly the mannerisms of 11-year-old children. This is a gem; thanks, Elliott, for this recommendation.

Anxious People – Fredrik Backman

Backman is a terrific storyteller (Beartown, A Man Called Ove). His new book starts with a failed bank robbery in Sweden which progresses to a hostage situation. What follows is a comic masterpiece with poignant moments. There are laugh-out loud passages, mostly describing idiotic behaviour (not just the hapless bank robber but also by the anxious hostages). There are philosophical chapters with comic insights like “swans can be passive-aggressive bastards”, followed by musings on fear and failure so both humorous and compassionate writing. Highly recommended.

The Sword in the Stone – T. H. White

This is the first book of White’s magnificent 4-book collection entitled the Once And Future King, an epic retelling of King Arthur legends. In this first book, the young Arthur (nicknamed Wart) is tutored by Merlyn so much magic is involved. Lessons frequently involve Wart’s transformation into different animals: fish, birds, a badger, etc. There are also some gut-busting hilarious illustrations of the difficulties of jousting. Imaginative writing is coupled with impressive knowledge of natural history (how to fly, how to swim) makes this an enchanting read.

 

Amy adds: still laughing at the jousting descriptions!

Middle England – Jonathan Coe

A contemporary novel of the last decade in England, a time of profound societal change: the rise of populism, rage against change, the chaos of Brexit and much middle-aged angst. A quirky set of characters undertake some brilliantly funny actions. Thanks Mary & Mike, for this enjoyable recommendation.

Big Sky – Kate Atkinson

Big Sky - Kate AtkinsonHurray, Ms. Atkinson has written a fourth Jackson Brodie novel, a much anticipated gift to the detective-mystery genre. Brodie is in North Yorkshire and has time to be unusually introspective, often with hilarious internal dialog punctuated by pithy comments (in parentheses) from ex-partner Julia. The first third of the book is all character development, a rich cast of quirky individuals. Indeed, the first crime does not occur until the end of 100 pages. The story does take a gritty look at topical themes, from child abuse to human trafficking. Brodie is a delightful character and this book is a must-read!

Keeper n’Me – Richard Wagamese

Keeper n’Me - Richard WagameseIn the tributes to the late Richard Wagamese at literary festivals in Calgary and Vancouver, several Indigenous authors said that this book had a huge influence on their lives. Garnet Raven is a young child in an Ojibway-Anishanabe community in Northern Ontario. He is a victim of the sixties scoop, essentially a kidnapping, and so grows up without any sense of being an Indian. In fact, there are some hilarious instances of his attempts at cultural appropriation. After 20 years, he is reunited with his family and begins to lean the Indian way with an elder named Keeper. It is easy to understand why this book, published in 1993, became so important to Indigenous youth. This book should be essential reading for everyone, to appreciate a way of living in harmony with the land and the important of silence, of a slow pace of life and a solid sense of humour.

Property – Lionel Shriver

Property - Lionel ShriverAs a general rule, I do not read short stories (with a notable exception for the sublime writing of Alice Munro) for a simple and somewhat trivial reason: short stories are too short to engage me. However, Lionel Shriver is a fabulous author (Big Brother, Double Fault, the fantastic We Need To Talk About Kevin…) so I decided to read her first book with ten short stories and two novellas. Shriver is such a keen observer and reporter of human behaviour, and these stories, almost without without exception, are masterful. As is clear from the title, the stories are about the relationships people have with possessions. Her writing is insightful, sometimes hilarious and such a pleasure to read in this format. Highly recommended.

The Shoe On The Roof – Will Ferguson

The Shoe On The Roof - Will FergusonA comic treatment of the neurobiology of behaviour. Thomas is a medical student who initially uses his knowledge of neurobiology for hook-ups with women. He then digresses to try and “cure” three delusional homeless men. Not surprisingly, much chaos ensues. This book has a very entertaining treatment of sanity versus madness, with a bit of magic reality at the end. Overall, a fun alternative for those readers stuck with too many angst-filled plots!