Mexican Gothic – Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexico 1950: Noemi goes to see her cousin Catalina who is living in a creepy old mansion called the High Place. The story has a slow beginning but then accelerates to become a true gothic thriller. Can a house have a malevolent purpose, to possess humans? What will humans sacrifice for immortality?  Can you distinguish a dream from a hallucination? Small spoiler alert: readers of this thoroughly creepy book will never again view mushrooms as innocuous things!

A Large Petal of the Sea – Isabel Allende

Allende’s latest historical fiction novel follows two young Spanish people as they flee the Spanish Civil War in 1938. Roser is a pregnant widow; Victor is the brother of her deceased lover. Their flight to the French border is harrowing. Eventually they are chosen by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to immigrate to Chile but must be married to qualify for the journey. Thus, a long caring relationship is initiated in a new country. A replay of the Spanish Civil War conflict is encountered by the military overthrow of the Allende government in 1973, another battle between freedom and repression. After a 12-year exile in Venezuela, Roser and Victor return to Chile which is their true home. This is an epic story told with Allende’s typical lucidity.

The Eighth Life – Nino Haratischvili

This remarkable book needs two initial comments. First, the e-book version is 1904 pages (the longest book I have every read), so any reader needs to commit to a substantial amount of time for reading. And second, there are some unspeakable acts of brutal violence and cruelty. Given these comments, the story is compelling, and the writing is excellent. At its core, this is a relationship book covering five generations and about 100 years of history for a family living in Georgia, initially part of the Soviet Union. There are fractious family relationships, some vicious acts. Intense feelings, fear and self-loathing dominate some characters. And an important context is the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. The greatness of this book is in the psychological point of view. Can the cause(s) of misfortune be identified? Are motives ever truly understood or explained? A fantastic read, highly recommended; thanks, Renee, for bringing this book to my attention.

Five Little Indians – Michelle Good

A graphic and powerful story of five indigernous children who have experienced Residential Schools, especially the aftermath on their post-school lives. Some tragic endings, some examples of resilience. This book should be assigned reading for those who dismiss the Residential School tragedy and for those who acknowledge hardship but then suggest that “survivors” should just get over it.

Labyrinth of the Spirits – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Labyrinth is the 4th and final book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Context (time and place) is an important feature of Ruiz’ books and this is especially true of Labyrinth: Barcelona is presented as an eerie Gothic wonderland and 1959 features nefarious political and criminal activities. (And at 800 pages, there is lots of space for context!). Labyrinth features the enigmatic Alicia Gris as an investigator tasked with a missing person case, leading to much intrigue as secrets are revealed. And there is some shocking violence. This is a haunting story – highly recommended.

The Future of Another Timeline – Annalee Newitz

An imaginative look at time travel using 5 ancient machines of unknown origin, one of which in Flin Flon, Manitoba. Travellers can go back in time only; most of the action in this story takes place in 2022, 1992-93 and 1893-94. The goal is to alter the timeline, to reduce future misogyny and prevent the loss of female reproductive rights (think Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments).This is a very entertaining blend of historical and speculative writing; highly recommended.

The Old Drift – Namwali Serpell

This delightful novel resents a sweeping saga of Africa (Zambia) from 1903 to the future (2024), covering three generations (the grandmothers, mothers and children) of black, brown and white individuals. The challenges of life in Zambia’s transition from colonialism to independence are highlighted graphically: the conflict of wealth and privilege versus poverty, the HIV catastrophe, revolutionary actions, hair, high-tech drones…. In fact, you should be wondering how these diverse topics can be inter-related!. This is a wonderful blend of historical and speculative writing with some great phrases; a married couple is described precisely –  “their marriage has ceased to be conjugal; his body did not conjugate hers; there was no grammar between them”.

Five Wives – Joan Thomas

Ms. Thomas is an undiscovered treasure, a Canadian writer living in Winnipeg. In fact, her writing reminds me of Carol Shields (high praise). This book takes place in 1956. Five evangelist men heed a call from God to become missionaries in Ecuador, to convert a reclusive war-like tribe, the Waroani. There is an absolute belief in the righteousness of their divine calling and that God will protect them. In reality, all five men are killed quickly after contact with the Waorani. Much of the perspective in this story of martyrdom is from the viewpoint of the accompanying wives, their willingness to travel to Ecuador with a complex mix of enthusiasm and fear and then how they cope in the aftermath with understandable disillusionment but with an acceptance of fate. There is also a fascinating character, Rachel who is the unmarried sister of one of the missionary men. Thomas’ writing is insightful and her prose is beautiful.

The Difference – Marina Endicott

Although I generally do not read much historical fiction (Washington Black is an obvious exception to this statement), Ms. Endicott is just an excellent storyteller. The book has two parts. The first is an around-the-world journey by a sailing ship in 1911-12. Two disparate sisters are on this long sea journey, 12 year-old Kay and her much older sister Thea who is married to the ship’s captain. Kay is temperamental and impetuous but is a keen observer; she is also tormented by memories of her early childhood in Alberta where her stern father ran a Residential School. After two miscarriages at sea, Thea “acquires” young Micronesian boy they name Aren, an exchange for four tins of tobacco. The second part of the book takes place 10 years later at the sister’s home in Nova Scotia. Predictably Aren does not fit in so Kay ranges for a second sea trip back to the island of his origin. The writing is enchanting; a description of a mid-Pacific eclipse is breathtaking. This is a powerful story about differences, especially those that cannot be overcome.