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.

Machines Like Us – Ian McEwan

McEwan has created an alternative 1982 London in which Britain loses the Falklands War and PM Thatcher is defeated by Tony Benn. Most significantly, Sir Alan Turing achieves an artificial intelligence breakthrough resulting in the creation of humanoid robots; prototypes are named Adam and Eve. Charlie purchases an Adam and together with his girlfriend Miranda, Adam’s personality (mind) is personalized. What follows is a fascinating 3-way relationship story. With machine learning, what makes us human? This provocative and enthralling story is one of McEwan’s best.

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.

Greenwood – Michael Christie

A sweeping saga of four generations of the Greenwood family, told more or less backwards from 2038 to 1908. What is most interesting in the story-telling is that the Greenwood family is a construct. Two orphans are raised as “brothers’ but have no biological ties; a “daughter” is rescued and adopted into the family under mysterious conditions. Even the name Greenwood is an artificial construct, a name arbitrarily applied to the two (unrelated) orphans. The story has a strong ecological focus, from the dirty-thirties to a global ecological disaster called the withering in 2028. Very strong character, a vivid description of place – highly recommended.

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.

Songs For The End Of The World – Saleema Nawaz

Previously Ms. Nawaz wrote the very fine Bread And Bone.This new novel, researched and written between 2013-2019, is uncannily about a novel coronavirus pandemic, so eerily relevant to today’s world. The storyline involves multiple characters with interacting stories; the pandemic timeline (August-December 2020) is supplemented with some backstory chapters. The key feature is the focus on how humans cope with a pandemic crisis. An attractive aspect of the writing is that it is philosophical rather than sensational. There are graphic descriptions of the worst of times: disintegration of civil society, the irrationality of scapegoating, racial profiling, the exacerbation of co-existing problems like economic inequalities. But there is also the best of times: life goes on, people exhibit resilience. The writing is exceptional, Atwood-like in quality of describing mood when the black cloud of a pandemic lurks everywhere. Highly recommended, especially when we are experiencing our own pandemic crisis. Sarah, thanks for advising me that the e-book was available for purchase now; the paper book will be published in August.