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.

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.