The Last Neanderthal – Claire Cameron

The Last Neanderthal - Claire CameronThis fascinating book has two story lines. The first, obvious from the title, is a Neanderthal woman known as Girl whose extended family is being decimated by disease and animal predation. The second is Rose, the modern day archeologist who is excavating a grave site in Europe containing two bodies, a Neanderthal woman and a Homo Sapiens. Neanderthal life is imagined as harsh with brutal struggles for survival, few verbal skills but sensitive senses for smells and heat. There are some striking parallels in the two stories that may be too contrived for some readers, but were satisfying to me. In the end, this is book about what it means to be human.

The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer

Meg WolitzerMs. Wolitzer is a very fine writer (e.g. The Wife) but this is her best book so far. This is a sensational relationship book: relationships between men and women, but most importantly, between women. The themes of feminism and an apparently supportive sisterhood are linked to some astonishing acts of betrayal. The characters are vivid and realistic and the progression of the story is superb. Highly recommended; one of the best in 2018 so far.

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste NgThis is a relationship book, a favourite topic for me. The story describes the relationship between two families in a Cleveland suburb. The key relationships are between the two mothers and their children. There are secrets and divided loyalties, free-living versus a life bound by rules, with a sub-plot of a custody battle that divides the community. Ms. Ng writes like Anne Tyler: deceptively simple writing that is incredibly perceptive – highly recommended, one of my best reads in 2018.

The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk KiddSet in Charleston in the early 19th century, this novel tells the story of slavery from two parallel and linked perspectives. One perspective is that of two privileged sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke. The sisters are living in a home with slaves and eventually become crusading abolitionists. The other perspective is Hetty/Handful, a house slave in the Grimke home. The stark reality of slavery is presented effectively in terms of slave abuse and cruelty, by a “good” family.  There is also the church justification of slavery and the reality that the “value” of a slave is equivalent to a specific fraction (3/5) of a non-slave. Therefore, although there have been a multitude of books about slavery, this novel offers some new insights.The story also illustrates clearly the limitations of women in a male-dominated society, with an interesting perspective on Quaker philosophy. The author previously wrote the very good The Secret Life Of Bees.

The Virgins – Pamela Erens

The Virgins - Pamela ErensDonna Tartt wrote the really excellent The Secret History about college students in the 1980s. Erens has written equally wonderful story of high school students in 1979, capturing their youthful innocence that transitions to sexual awakenings and complicated physical and psychological feelings. The book features really excellent writing.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Elephant Is Completely Fine - Gail HoneymanEnjoying a book chosen from a library shelf with no prior information is a wonderful experience. This is a very fine relationship book about complex issues, most seriously the conviction that someone is unlovable and unlikable because of bad things that happen in childhood. Eleanor has many issues like wildly inappropriate social skills, but a chance encounter with Raymond leads, slowly and haltingly, to a happy endpoint There are some laugh-out loud parts but then some heartbreaking sections that will bring the reader to tears. This is Honeyman’s first novel but her writing is mature and reminiscent of Rachel Joyce which is high praise, in my opinion; highly recommended.

Anything Is Possible – Elizabeth Strout

Anything Is Possible - Elizabeth StroutStrout wrote the incomparable Olive Kitteridge (Pulitzer Prize) and the very fine My Name Is Lucy Barton. This new novel is set in a small town in Illinois, the actual home of Lucy Barton. A series of inter-connected stories have links to Lucy Barton, and Lucy actually visits her brother and sister in one chapter after years away. The stories centre on a series of confessional conversations and introspective remembrances that are compelling and captivating. There is an artful simplicity in Strout’s writing; a story about a B&B encounter is exquisite. Overall, this is a great read.