A Large Petal of the Sea – Isabel Allende

Allende’s latest historical fiction novel follows two young Spanish people as they flee the Spanish Civil War in 1938. Roser is a pregnant widow; Victor is the brother of her deceased lover. Their flight to the French border is harrowing. Eventually they are chosen by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to immigrate to Chile but must be married to qualify for the journey. Thus, a long caring relationship is initiated in a new country. A replay of the Spanish Civil War conflict is encountered by the military overthrow of the Allende government in 1973, another battle between freedom and repression. After a 12-year exile in Venezuela, Roser and Victor return to Chile which is their true home. This is an epic story told with Allende’s typical lucidity.

Magic for Liars – Sarah Gailey

This imaginative story takes place at the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages, aka a magic school. The writing is delightful with similes like: “mist was draped across the school grounds like a headache clinging to the temple of a mildly concussed and half-hungover private investigator”. A teacher has been killed at the school. Imagine how difficult it is to be a non-magic PI attempting to uncover a murder mystery when magic is used to confuse, confound and deflect. Very entertaining – thanks Amy for this recommendation.

Polar Vortex – Shani Mootoo

This is a superb introspective relationship story. Priya and Alexandra have a six-year marriage that is disrupted by the impending visit of Prakash, a long-time friend of Priya’s. What are Prakash’s motives for this visit? Why has Priya been withholding information on the significance of this friendship from Alex? And why can memories between friends be so selectively remembered and interpreted? A bit gloomy but overall an excellent read (on the Giller long-list).

The City We Became – NK Jemisin

A very imaginative example of speculative fiction about the soul of cities, specifically New York which is protected by five avatars in the five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. The personalities of the avatars reflect the borough characteristics. But there is conflict, a city takeover by malevolent forces! Highly entertaining with extraordinary visual scenes. Thanks Amy for this recommendation.

Five Little Indians – Michelle Good

A graphic and powerful story of five indigernous children who have experienced Residential Schools, especially the aftermath on their post-school lives. Some tragic endings, some examples of resilience. This book should be assigned reading for those who dismiss the Residential School tragedy and for those who acknowledge hardship but then suggest that “survivors” should just get over it.

Charles Darwin: Voyaging – Janet Browne

This impeccably researched biography of a scientific genius covers Darwin’s early life: his childhood, haphazard University education and then his 5-year voyage on the Beagle. Following his return to Britain, he then spent more than 20 years researching and publishing numerous scientific studies while marshalling his evidence for natural selection that would result in his publication of the Origin of Species. Darwin’s scientific life is impressive because of his breadth of interests and knowledge, from biology to geology, and his transition from observation as a naturalist to an experimentalist. Overall, an insightful description of a genius. Be warned, there is incredible detail, more than 500 pages plus footnotes and references. Browne’s second volume in the Darwin biography, The Power of Place, is equally detailed but less interesting without the Beagle adventures. Thanks, Mike, for this recommendation.

The Night Watchman – Louise Erdrich

Another very fine Indigenous novel from Ms. Erdrich, this time the Turtle Mountain Indians (North Dakota) in 1953-54 who have to counter a USA Government plan to “emancipate” Indian tribes. In fact, this government plan will terminate all support to Indians and force their relocation to cities with loss of their lands. Much of the story concerns the community response to this existential threat. One of the most attractive aspects of this story is the ordinariness of the community. There is angst, to be sure: poverty, substance abuse, human trafficking. But the story does not dwell on the negatives, but rather on the community action. Who are the leaders? How can their initiatives be financed? And there are ghosts! A very fine read.

City of Girls – Elizabeth Gilbert

In 2010,  a very old woman, Vivian, receives a letter with a question: “If you now feel comfortable telling me what you were to my father?” Thus begins a long remembering of Vivian’s life, starting in New York as a 20-year old in 1940. Vivian is the epitome of white privilege, a delightfully hedonistic person with self-deprecating humour. The description of the NY theatre scene in the 40s is fabulous. Overall a recounting of both strong and toxic female relationships for a completely entertaining story. Thanks Amy.

Redhead by the Side of the Road – Anne Tyler

Full disclosure: I love Anne Tyler’s writing. In this slim novel, she continues her theme of writing about ordinary but quirky people in Baltimore. Micah is a 42-year old man who lives a predictable life, constrained by precise patterns of behaviour. “Sometimes when he was dealing with people he felt like he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up prizes but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a remove”. Can Micah find happiness? Tyler describes funny and poignant situations with introspective wisdom.