Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro has been recognized as a great writer by receiving the Nobel Prize for literature. This new book is simply brilliant, in part because of a unique point-of-view. The narrator Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF, aka robot), with acute powers of observing and learning. She is acquired by Josie and must learn about friendship and the nuances of human behaviour: love, loneliness, sacrifice, what it means to be human. Klara is an AF/AI with empathy, to serve as a companion, to prevent Josie’s loneliness. Empathy is not achieved by programming but rather by machine learning. Overall, this is a compelling story about relationships; Klara has a special relationship with the sun (she is solar powered) which she logically tries to apply to humans. And typically (recall Never Let Me Go), Ishiguro introduces a single word in the text that is not explained for 200 pages, creating a mystery. Fantastic book, highly recommended. Finally, this is a very nice companion book to Machines Like Us by Ian McEwan.

The Mothers – Britt Bennett

Ms. Bennet wrote the fabulous The Vanishing Half, so I wanted to read her first book. The Mothers is about 3 teenagers in Oceanside, north of San Diego; there is teenage sex and a pregnancy and an abortion, actions that have consequences over the next 6 years. This is an excellent relationship book about community in contemporary Black America, friendships undermined by secrets, the aftermath of youthful choices. Finally, the title The Mothers refers in part to elderly church women who are a Greek chorus, commenting on events. And also, the title refers to the issue of absent mothers for two of the characters. This is an insightful, thoughtful engaging story – highly recommended.

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.

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

This is a very satisfying novel. First, the literary style is intriguing: long sentences with lots of commas and yet reading is smooth. Second, the subject matter is very topical; a dystopian future that begins in a localized fashion with two young lovers in an unspecified Middle Eastern location. Escalating conflict leads them to escape through doors that are portals to distant locations (London, Mykonos). Their future becomes uncertain in new lands that are overwhelmed by the arrival of increasing numbers of refugees/migrants like themselves. How do relationships survive when tested repeatedly – highly recommended.

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 Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Academy was a notorious reform school in Florida; young African-American boys could be assigned for months-years for trivial reasons. And they were subjected to horrible abuse: beatings, sexual assault, etc. The story focusses on two boys in the early 60s, Elwood and Turner, who have remarkably different viewpoints. Elwood has ideals based on the words of Martin Luther King; Turner is a cynical schemer. Which boy is more likely to survive the Nickel nightmare? The Jim Crow era in the South in the 1960s has evils that are perpetuated in the current #BLM times.  Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for his previous book The Underground Railroad: both are highly recommended.