The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek – Kim Michelle Richardson

The setting is rural Kentucky in 1936. Cussy (aka Bluet) has a rare genetic condition that produces blue skin (met-hemoglobinemia). Without marriage prospects (by choice), Cussy joins the Pack Horse Library Project, delivering books to remote desperately poor hill communities. The transformative power of books and literacy is offset by shocking prejudice against “coloreds” and some crushing poverty. So be warned, readers will shed some tears. Thanks Joyce, for this recommendation.

Piranesi – Suzanna Clarke

Ms. Clarke previously wrote the highly acclaimed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell (2004). In this new book, Piranesi lives in a house with infinite rooms and corridors lined with statues, a house that is a labyrinth, a massive world with its internal weather. Only one other person seems to live in this house, The Other. When evidence of other people emerges, Piranesi questions his strange hypnotic reality. This is a fantastic tour-de-force of storytelling: a mystery and adventure, meditations on feeling lost and being found. This book is a treasure of imagination.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – V. E. Schwab

Ms. Schwab wrote the fabulous Shades of Magic trilogy and this new book is also a tour-de-force entry in the genre of speculative fiction. In 1714, Adeline (Addie) makes a Faustian deal with a devil (an old god of darkness) to avoid the tedium of an arranged marriage, asking for “time, a chance to live and be free”.  She is granted immortality, but with a curse: that everyone who meets her then forgets her instantly, making her invisible. For 300 years, she struggles to leave her mark in the world. Then in 2014, she enters a bookstore in New York and the bookstore worker says “I remember you” because she stole a book the previous day! This is a sweeping fantasy: a love story that explores the differences between needs and wants, art and inspiration. The final setting of New York City with a central role of a bookstore is, of course, very attractive. Highly recommended.

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

Simply put, this is a brilliant imaginative book. Nora’s life at age 35 is consumed by regrets. She wishes to die but between life and death is a library where books provide opportunities to choose a different life, essentially portals to parallel existences. But a good choice may not produce a desired outcome. The story is deeply philosophical, about not only choices but how expectations drive decisions.

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.

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.

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett

Two African-American twin sisters grow up in rural Louisiana in the 1950-60s with a unique feature – they are very light-skinned. Eventually their lives separate because Stella chooses to live as a white woman. In the 1980s, the daughters of the estranged sisters (one black, one white) meet by chance. So this is a relationship book: twin sisters, mother-daughters, cousins. Of particular interest is the strained and curious relationship between the two cousins which drives the latter half of the story. This is a really excellent identity book with a story line that is never trite or stereotypical – 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.

Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens

This is an emotional book, a coming-of-age story with an inevitable loss of innocence. Kya is progressively abandoned by her family, so by age 10 she lives alone in a North Carolina marsh. Really this is about the psychology of solitude. Her affinity for the natural environment, the sea, sand and marsh life (birds, insects, animals), is remarkable. But her eventual need for human companionship and love produces a tragic outcome that leads to a murder trial. This book is both a fierce and hauntingly beautiful story of challenges and resilience. Highly recommended.