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 Golden Age – Joan London

The Golden Age - Joan LondonThe Golden Age is a Convalescent Hospital for children with polio in Western Australia (1949-1959). This is a remarkable and compelling story of children forced to endure a wicked disease, an experience that makes some of the children wiser than adults. This is also a story of how children with a dread disease are treated by children, by their parents and by society at large. There are radiant and touching moments in this splendid book – highly recommended.

Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

Alias Grce - Margaret AtwoodThis book has been on a bookshelf in my home since 1997 but somehow I have never read it, to my chagrin. Atwood’s writing is impeccable, adopting the style of the mid-1800s in letters, for example. Her portrait of the enigmatic Grace Marks is breathtaking: poverty in childhood, a hard life in service, accused of being an accessory to murder at age 16 followed by 20 years of incarceration. The context of early versions of psychiatry and hypnotherapy are detailed carefully. Overall, a joy to read.

Little Sister – Barbara Gowdy

Little Sister - Barbara GowdyGowdy is a masterful writer (Fearless, Falling Angels, The Romantic); she is an under-appreciated Canadian treasure. Little Sister is a fine addition to her collective works, a story about the female psyche and an existential story about entering (not observing but actually entering) another body. There is a grief subplot that is very compelling. Simply put, just excellent writing and story telling.

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.

A Darker Shade of Magic – V E Schwab

A Darker Shade of Magic - V E SchwabThis is a terrific fantasy novel, set in London in 1819. Except that there are 4 versions of London, completely different worlds so multiple parallel universes. A small number of magicians can travel between the different Londons, but there is black magic and tragedy. Full disclosure, there is a significant kill count with collateral damage to some very sympathetic characters (the kindly innkeeper, for example), so this is not Harry Potter magic. Best of all, there is a great character called Lila, a feisty pick-pocket and wannabe pirate. This is a very imaginative and enjoyable read that is often philosophical; thanks Amy for this recommendation.