Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

Washington Black - Esi EdugyanWashington Black is an 11 year old slave in Barbados in 1832; his life is cruel. A chance encounter with the brother (nicknamed Titch) of his Master changes his life entirely. In fact, one of the strongest features of this impeccably written historical fiction is that it is impossible to predict how the story will progress. Washington makes an incredible escape from Barbados with Titch, and then makes journeys to the Arctic, Nova Scotia and England over the next 7 years. The relationship between Wash and Titch unfolds in an unexpected fashion, and there are rich details about marine biology and painting. This is tour-de-force writing from the Giller Prize-winning author of Half Blood Blues, who will undoubtedly be a strong contender for this year’s Giller.

Stray City – Chelsey Johnson

Stray City - Chelsey JohnsonThis book was a chance discovery at the library, so was read without expectations. Therefore the pleasure of reading a very fine first novel was palpable. Andrea leaves a strict childhood in Nebraska to be immersed in Portland’s lesbian life. A bad breakup results in a brief hookup with a man, and a pregnancy results. Much of the book details the difficulty of relationships, in particular the idealized fantasy of a relationship. There are funny parts and sad portions but the core of the book is about the family that we choose, for an excellent story.

Two Steps Forward – Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist

Two Steps Forward - Graeme Simsion and Anne BuistAn engrossing story of two people’s 2000-km 90-day journey from Cluny, France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Chemin St. Jacques aka Camino de Santiago. Zoe is a 45 year old Californian whose partner has died recently. Martin is a 52 year old recently-divorced engineer from Yorkshire, England. Their separate but interlinked journeys offer introspective musings on human truths: that life is complicated and that relationships can be difficult. Nothing earth shattering in the content but presented in a very pleasing and satisfactory manner, and the context of the journey is superb.

(Graeme Simsion wrote the The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect)

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.

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing - Jesmyn WardMs. Ward previously wrote the excellent Salvage The Bones, and this new book is even better. The setting is Mississippi, a multi-generational family struggling to live, to love and to survive. Past atrocities live on in the form of ghosts. There are indelible portraits in this story: a thirteen year old boy trying to find his place in the world, his mother who is incapable of loving her children, his mixed-race grandparents. Powerful and evocative storytelling.

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.