Miss Benson’s Beetle – Rachel Joyce

Ms. Joyce has written some unabashedly sentimental books (e.g., The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) and this book follows in this genre. In 1950s London, Margery Benson, a 46-year-old spinster, flees her teaching job to commence an obsessive journey, a quest for a never-discovered golden beetle in New Caledonia. She recruits a travelling companion, Enid Pretty, who is wildly inappropriate as a research assistant. But this unlikely odd couple eventually develops a close friendship, as one might predict, despite many hilarious frustrations. But all is not sweetness and light in this story: there is a murder sub-plot and a deranged stalker. Some laugh-out-loud sections are coupled with some truly poignant moments. Above all, this is a superb literary example of the transformative power of friendship.

Gutter Child – Jael Richardson

 A fierce debut novel about a contemporary dystopian world. consisting of the privileged Mainland and the suppressed Gutter world. The history is one of colonialism and exploitation which produces a society rife with injustices. Gutter children are born with an original sin, a debt to society that must be repaid. Elimina is a young 15-year-old Gutter child who has been raised in the Mainland as a social experiment. Her story is one of resilience, to choose a future and defy a system that is patriarchal and controlling. A very powerful story – highly recommended.

Trace Elements – Donna Leon

Another fabulous account of Commissario Brunetti’s exploits in Venice. Leon’s stories have recurring themes: a leisurely pace to a single investigation; very little death, in this case a single ambiguous apparent accident; no violence; little technology other than the formidable computer skills of Signorina Elletra. The unrelenting heat and humidity of a Venetian summer is described graphically. But at the core, Brunetti is an observer of human behaviour. And thus, he is acutely aware of moral dilemmas, as expressed eloquently at the end of the book: “Brunetti was both accuser and accused. He had to decide which crime to punish, which to ignore, and choose the greater criminal”.

Amy notes: There are always good meals in her books, and Brunetti reads thoughtfully, which often provides perspective on the mystery

The Midnight Bargain – C L Polk

This imaginative book is in the speculative fiction/fantasy genre. What is novel is the context: a narrative about class and entitlement, and especially gender politics, takes place in the 1800s Regency era in England! Beatrice has a dilemma, to make a very difficult choice between two very different outcomes. First, to be chosen for a bride in a ceremony that is somewhat akin to the Bachelorette; her duty to her family is to secure an advantageous marriage because of family debt. But second is her strong desire to learn magic. These two options are mutually exclusive, thus the dilemma. Magic mainly consists of summoning spirits, for example a good luck spirit. So, this is a romantic fantasy novel about a young woman who must balance her desire to become a great magician against her family duty: a very entertaining book that is a Canada Reads contender.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

It is an extraordinarily hot summer in England in 1976, and someone has gone missing from a suburban avenue. Two 10-year-old girls, Grace and Tilly,  begin a dual search for the missing person and for God (based on a misunderstanding of a Vicar’s sermon). Secrets emerge about a tragic event 10 years previous – is this linked to the disappearance? This is an evocative coming-of-age story that is also about a community in need of absolution. Cannon’s writing is wonderfully descriptive: “carpet the colour of cough syrup”. Overall, a moving and perceptive story – highly recommended. Thanks Joyce, for telling me about this book.

The Library At Mount Char – Scott Hawkins

This is a wildly imaginative speculative fiction story. Carolyn is a “librarian” in a library that contains all the secrets of the universe. However, she is like no ordinary librarian; her agenda is complex and difficult to describe. The story is complicated to enter and impossible to predict. So, imagine gods and monsters, much bloody violence but occasional hilarious sections. Reading this book reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. In short, a very original epic fantasy about cruelty that is also a thriller.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – V. E. Schwab

Ms. Schwab wrote the fabulous Shades of Magic trilogy and this new book is also a tour-de-force entry in the genre of speculative fiction. In 1714, Adeline (Addie) makes a Faustian deal with a devil (an old god of darkness) to avoid the tedium of an arranged marriage, asking for “time, a chance to live and be free”.  She is granted immortality, but with a curse: that everyone who meets her then forgets her instantly, making her invisible. For 300 years, she struggles to leave her mark in the world. Then in 2014, she enters a bookstore in New York and the bookstore worker says “I remember you” because she stole a book the previous day! This is a sweeping fantasy: a love story that explores the differences between needs and wants, art and inspiration. The final setting of New York City with a central role of a bookstore is, of course, very attractive. Highly recommended.

Braiding Sweetgrass – Robin Wall Kimmerer

The author balances science with Indigenous knowledge in this fantastic book. There is much biology and botany together with the wisdom of mother nature and ecology. There are achingly beautiful musings on motherhood which extend to our relationship with mother nature, that mother nature is a wise teacher. The indigenous focus is, in part, on how to retain language with important lessons in sustainability. Plus who doesn’t want to read about migrating salamanders. Overall, a very uplifting book; thanks Joyce, for this recommendation.

Hench – Natalie Zina Walschots

This is an imaginative example of speculative fiction. Imagine a comic book world of super-heroes and dastardly villains. Even villains need administrative help, so Anna is recruited from a temp agency. When Anna is injured as collateral damage in an out-of-control encounter with a super-hero, she develops a righteous anger toward this super-hero (Supercollider). Consequently, she devotes her energy and talents to the downfall of this super-hero (and others) by working for a super-villain. A very interesting take on office politics follows; justice and the nature of heroism are also topics. And how can you not love a story with a villain called Quantum Entanglement! Thanks Amy, for giving me this book.

Amy Notes: It was on the staff recommendations shelf one of my local bookstores; Book Warehouse. Three cheers for independent bookstores staffed by booklovers.