A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor TowlesIn 1922, Count Alexander Roskov, a member of the Russian aristocracy, is declared an enemy of the state and subjected to “house” arrest in the Hotel Metropol. The description of his demeanour and manners is exquisite and impeccable, hardly surprising for an author whose previous book was Rules of Civility. Alexander creates new and changing relationships with individuals who work in the hotel over the next 32 years. The prose illustrates beautifully the importance of virtues like loyalty. The Soviet Union undergoes dramatic change in this post-revolution period, so Alexander has to be adaptable. The most impactful change occurs when he becomes guardian of a 6-year-old little girl. This is a wonderful book with masterful writing, so a joy to read.

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

Washington Black - Esi EdugyanWashington Black is an 11 year old slave in Barbados in 1832; his life is cruel. A chance encounter with the brother (nicknamed Titch) of his Master changes his life entirely. In fact, one of the strongest features of this impeccably written historical fiction is that it is impossible to predict how the story will progress. Washington makes an incredible escape from Barbados with Titch, and then makes journeys to the Arctic, Nova Scotia and England over the next 7 years. The relationship between Wash and Titch unfolds in an unexpected fashion, and there are rich details about marine biology and painting. This is tour-de-force writing from the Giller Prize-winning author of Half Blood Blues, who will undoubtedly be a strong contender for this year’s Giller.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje

Warlight - Michael OndaatjeFull disclosure: I have not always been a fan of Ondaatje’s writing; I thought I was never going to get through The English Patient. This book is entirely different because it is enjoyably readable. Warlight is a post-WWII story of Nathaniel, abandoned by his parents at the age of 14 to undergo a bizarre, slightly delinquent upbringing by “guardians”. Ondaatje is a master of withholding in terms of story, so the book essentially is a slow reveal. Why did his mother Rose leave Nathaniel and his sister in the care of a truly odd set of characters, nicknamed The Moth and The Darter? What role did Rose play in the War? There is much left unstated or just left to our wonderment. Masterful writing.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson

Transcription - Kate AtkinsonMs. Atkinson has written an attractive spy thriller and mystery, set in 1940 and 1951. Given Atkinson’s past books, then it is no surprise that the story unfolds in a non-linear format. Juliet is recruited to MI5, and the resulting story is very English with regular tea providing comfort and solace to characters named Peregrine and Prendergast. Much like George Smiley in the legendary Le Carre novels, people in Atkinson’s story appear normal and ordinary, but nothing will be as it seems. This is a very entertaining book with some well-timed plot twists.

The Good People – Hannah Kent

The Good People - Hannah KentThis is Ms. Kent’s second novel; her first was the excellent Burial Rites. Her two books have two characteristics: they are about women, and feature impeccable historical research. The Good People takes place in Ireland in 1825-26. The story is about the conflict between folklore and the emerging modern world of religion and law. The practice of folk knowledge to counter-act the actions of evil fairies leads to superstition, and gossip become malicious. All the characters are rich and compelling: an old crone, a grieving widow, a young maid, and an afflicted child thought to be a changeling. The story is both bleak and beautiful; highly recommended.

The Last Neanderthal – Claire Cameron

The Last Neanderthal - Claire CameronThis fascinating book has two story lines. The first, obvious from the title, is a Neanderthal woman known as Girl whose extended family is being decimated by disease and animal predation. The second is Rose, the modern day archeologist who is excavating a grave site in Europe containing two bodies, a Neanderthal woman and a Homo Sapiens. Neanderthal life is imagined as harsh with brutal struggles for survival, few verbal skills but sensitive senses for smells and heat. There are some striking parallels in the two stories that may be too contrived for some readers, but were satisfying to me. In the end, this is book about what it means to be human.

Prussian Blue – Philip Kerr

Prussian Blue - Philip KerrKerr has written a number of novels about a German police detective, Bernie Gunther, and this is the best so far, in my view. Gunther is the epitome of the hard-boiled Philip Marlowe-like PI. The context of the BG plots is Nazi Germany; Prussian blue takes place in 1939. Gunther is a socialist and anyone not a member of the Nazi party will always be viewed with suspicion by Gunther’s superiors. Then add in the characteristic that Gunther is a Berliner, which makes him flippant, disrespectful, subversive, sarcastic – the list goes on! But he is a good cop in difficult times, and his deductive skills force the Nazi superiors to use him in difficult and sensitive investigations. The novel dwells on the existential crisis of investigating a murder in the Nazi context. This is mystery writing at its best.