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.

The Robber Bride – Margaret Atwood

Simply put, this is a brilliant book, one of Atwood’s best. Three women (Tony, Charis and Roz) are each linked to Zenia, a brilliant and beautiful woman who is manipulative and ruthless. Over three decades, Zenia exerts considerable damage by creating really toxic relationships, but all three women remain in thrall, under a spell, beguiled. Even though Zenia’s lies and cons become obvious she somehow retains their sympathy while betraying their trust and treating male partners as loot. Fantastic story-telling.

Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood

Elaine, a middle-aged painter who lives in Vancouver, returns to Toronto (where she grew up) for a retrospective show of her paintings. This causes her to reminisce about her life. The entire book is great but for me, the first 1/3 is perfect. Atwood wonderfully captures the relationships between 8- to 10-year-olds, alternating between friendships and toxic competitions. School with corporal punishments and skipping grades, shopping and shoplifting things at Woolworths. And how children acquire (mis)information in an era when parental communication was non-existent. Another gem.

Lady Oracle – Margaret Atwood

This is another literary prize book with some inspired comic events like joining Brownies as a child. The core of the story is about split identities; Joan was fat as a child and then transforms Ito a slim attractive version of herself. Jean also writes “Costume Gothic” books (aka Harlequin Romances) under a pseudonym. Many examples of this writing are included: Redmond is described as having rapacious lips, thinks that “he’d become tired of the extravagance of his wife Felicia: of her figure that spread like crabgrass, her hair that spread like fire, her mind that spread like pubic lice”! Wow. In contrast to this florid prose, Atwood’s classic phrasings like “the joy of self-righteous recrimination” are a joy to read. Joan even acquires another identity as a serious author of poetry so her personality is split further. And there are ill-fated relationships with men and blackmail. This book is a delightful pleasure to read.

Little Women – Louisa M. Alcott

Everyone seems to e familiar with the March sisters from multiple movies and TV series, but I had never read the original novel published in 1909.  Part 1 was read from an old book inscribed as being the “Property of Maisie Bentley 1913”, purchased in Bristol I think. Part of the charm in reading this very old book was inclusion of 8 full-page colour illustrations. Part 2 was read as a library e-book. Alcott’s writing is necessarily old-fashioned with emphasis on morals and some authorial homilies. These characters are so indelible and well-loved that it was a treat to read the original words.