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.

The Rosie Result – Graeme Simsion

The concluding book of the Don Tillman Trilogy finds Don, Rosie and their 11-year old son Hudson relocating to Melbourne. Hudson’s school observes some social troubles and requests an autism assessment. This stimulates Don’s formidable problem-solving abilities, the Hudson Project, to aid Hudson in acquiring skills to fit in. The story addresses important questions: is labelling useful in terms of identity; should people on the autism spectrum adjust their behaviour and thinking to match neuro-typical norms? And there is bullying and a confrontation with an anti-vaxxer parent. Overall, a compelling read, with humour and psychological insight into the complexity of human behaviour. Highly recommended.

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 Psychology of Time Travel – Kate Mascarenhas

A sensational first novel for a number of reasons. The important characters are all women. Specifically, four women perfect a time travel procedure; there is no emphasis on technology, the reality of time travel is treated as a matter-of-fact occurrence. Instead, as the title indicates, the story is about the psychological consequences of time travel. Future versions of an individual can co-exist. How do you cope with knowledge about your future self: who you marry, how you die? And finally, the book contains a cracking good mystery. Very entertaining.

Woman at 1000 Degrees – Hallgrimur Helgason

Hallgrimur HelgasonOne of my goals is to read Icelandic literature and this is an epic story, deathbed recollections by an 80 year-old woman who has had a remarkable life. She is a unique individual: sardonic and above all, a survivor. Her existence as a young girl in WWII is harrowing and disturbing. The storyline is non-linear, like the ramblings of an old woman. This books gives some significant insight into the Icelandic psyche, an isolated under-populated island, plus varied experiences in places like Argentina.