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.

The Starless Sea – Erin Morgenstern

What if you found an old mis-shelved fiction book in a University Library that contains an incident from your own life, described in perfect detail? This is the beginning of this wildly inventive novel and it gets better! Doors are painted on surfaces that become portals to an underground maze of tunnels and rooms filled with books/stories. Characters in reality interact with characters from stories, and time is very flexible. But this magical place is under attack and great quests ensue. Morgenstern’s writing is wonderfully imaginative; previously she wrote the fabulous The Night Circus (2011). Both books are must reads.

 

Amy adds; it’s a love letter to storytelling, and it gripped my heart.

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 Glass Hotel – Emily St. John Mandel

It is a tribute to Ms. Mandel’s skill as a writer (previous book, the brilliant Station Eleven) that a story about a Ponzi scheme in the economic collapse of 2009 can be both compelling and engaging. It is the psychology of fascinating inter-related characters that is so intriguing: the willingness to seize an opportunity, willful disbelief of reality (if it is too good to be true ..) because of delusions regarding wealth, the simultaneous paradox of knowing and not knowing. There is the enigmatic character of Vincent as a mysterious woman at the centre of the story. And there are hallucinatory ghosts in a spirit world. The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion but all loose ends are linked by the end of the book. Simply put, a great read.

My Dark Vanessa – Kate Elizabeth Russell

Trigger warning: this a disturbing story about sexual abuse, an inappropriate and illegal relationship between a 42-year old teacher at a high school and a 15-year old female student. After a year, the young girl lies; she states that accusations of an inappropriate relationship are a fabrication by her and so she is expelled. Thus the teacher is not revealed as a manipulative pedophile because the young girl, a naive child really, protects him; she believes that the teacher loves her and that everything done to her was consensual. And when she turns 18, she re-initiates a relationship that proceeds on and off for 15 years! This is a complex telling of complicated relationships. Be prepared for some tough reading – the emotions are presented graphically and honestly. Given these warnings, this book should be required reading in this #MeToo era.

American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins

A gritty contemporary story: a woman and her 8-year old son flee cartel violence in Acapulco with the goal of a new life in the USA. What follows is a perilous journey with some heart-breaking violence, theft and sexual assault, tempered by some extraordinary acts of kindness and compassion. This book has been controversial because of criticisms of cultural appropriation and stereotypical presentations of the largely Mexican characters. My limited frame of reference does not permit me to judge this issue. In my opinion, Ms. Cummins has a voice that deserves to be heard; others can judge the truthfulness and veracity of her story.