The Golden Age – Joan London

The Golden Age - Joan LondonThe Golden Age is a Convalescent Hospital for children with polio in Western Australia (1949-1959). This is a remarkable and compelling story of children forced to endure a wicked disease, an experience that makes some of the children wiser than adults. This is also a story of how children with a dread disease are treated by children, by their parents and by society at large. There are radiant and touching moments in this splendid book – highly recommended.

Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

Alias Grce - Margaret AtwoodThis book has been on a bookshelf in my home since 1997 but somehow I have never read it, to my chagrin. Atwood’s writing is impeccable, adopting the style of the mid-1800s in letters, for example. Her portrait of the enigmatic Grace Marks is breathtaking: poverty in childhood, a hard life in service, accused of being an accessory to murder at age 16 followed by 20 years of incarceration. The context of early versions of psychiatry and hypnotherapy are detailed carefully. Overall, a joy to read.

The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk KiddSet in Charleston in the early 19th century, this novel tells the story of slavery from two parallel and linked perspectives. One perspective is that of two privileged sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke. The sisters are living in a home with slaves and eventually become crusading abolitionists. The other perspective is Hetty/Handful, a house slave in the Grimke home. The stark reality of slavery is presented effectively in terms of slave abuse and cruelty, by a “good” family.  There is also the church justification of slavery and the reality that the “value” of a slave is equivalent to a specific fraction (3/5) of a non-slave. Therefore, although there have been a multitude of books about slavery, this novel offers some new insights.The story also illustrates clearly the limitations of women in a male-dominated society, with an interesting perspective on Quaker philosophy. The author previously wrote the very good The Secret Life Of Bees.

The Custodian of Paradise – Wayne Johnston

The Custodian of Paradise - Wayne JohnstonJohnston previously wrote The Colony of Unrequited Dreams about Newfoundland and Joey Smallwood. This new novel is a companion story and is much better because the central character, Sheilagh Fielding (a minor character in the earlier Smallwood book) is a fabulous creation; she has a clever mind, a caustic wit and a legendary sarcastic tongue. This is a Newfoundland story from 1916 – 1943, with a New York interlude. Fielding has a knack for controversies, for courting disaster; she is, in other words, a powerful person. There is also a creepy character in the shadows known only as The Provider. Excellent storytelling; thanks Kathryn for this recommendation.

The Tea Girl Of Hummingbird Lane – Lisa See

The Tea Girl Of Hummingbird Lane - Lisa SeeAlthough this novel is relatively contemporary (begins in 1988), the focus is on an isolated ethnic minority in China, the Akha hill tribe. Because of isolation, this group follows old traditional ways; the Chinese cultural revolution has almost completely missed these people. Their traditional way of life is described impeccably, and then the halting transition to more modern ways of living. Contemporary identity issues of Chinese children in America adds to the richness of the story telling. This is the best of Lisa See’s novels so far.

Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan

Manhattan Beach - Jennifer EganEgan won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit From The Goon Squad, and this new historical novel is a gem. Set in the depression-era 30s in New York and then in the naval shipyards in Brooklyn during World War II, the details of place and context are impeccable. The human relationships are a rich blend of secrets, lies and desertion, of love and lust. The writing is dramatic – part of the book describes so clearly the claustrophobic and oppressive world of diving which is also liberating. But it is the complex human dynamics the drive the story, with a very satisfying ending. This is a must-read book, in my opinion.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing - Yaa GyasiTwo parallel lineage stories of two African half-sisters (who never meet). One storyline is Ghana, the other a slave story that leads to America. There is impressive historical detail, especially when describing the Ghana experience of collusion in the trafficking of slaves. The book is Michener-like in using storylines of successive generations, and yes, there is a useful family tree included in the text.