Circus of Wonders – Elizabeth Macneal

In Victorian England, the circus featured “human curiosities”, aka the freak show. The “performers” are exploited and objectified but also experience fame as someone no longer relegated to the shadows. There is also an interesting back-story of the Crimean War. A richly detailed historical novel, an enthralling slice of Victoriana.

Matrix – Lauren Groff

In the late 12th century, Marie is banished to an English abbey by Eleanor of Aquitaine. Under her leadership, first as prioress and eventually as abbess, the abbey prospers because of Marie’s ambition, pride and yes, arrogance. This is a feminist story, of female creativity, religious ecstasy, and passion.

When We Lost Our Heads – Heather O’Neill

Simply put, this is a wonderful book about compelling and complex women in Montreal at the end of the 19th century. Men in the story are mostly inconsequential, despite some appallingly boorish behaviour. Marie and Sadie are best friends as children, but theirs is a classic love-hate relationship (“Every decent friendship comes with a drop of hatred. But that hatred is like honey in the tea. It makes it addictive”). Marie is spoiled and entitled; Sadie is subversive and dangerous. Ms. O’Neill‘s writing is enchanting with exquisite similes describing disparate worlds: life in a brothel, exploitive factory work (the Squalid Mile). Female relationships are infinitely complex with righteous anger, pettiness and jealousy, and a self-absorbed woman who has no empathy toward other women. Powerful feminist themes abound: the invisibility of marriage, sexual awareness leading to female empowerment. And finally, anticipate a late plot twist and an extraordinary ending. This is O’Neill at her best, a Montreal noir story.

Hamnet and Judith – Maggie O-Farrell

It is the late 16th century. Agnes marries a Latin tutor and they have three children, Susanna and twins Hamnet and Judith. The death of one of the twins produces intense grief, so readers be warned that the final 100 pages of this historical novel are extraordinarily sad, culminating in the writing of Hamlet by the Latin tutor, aka William Shakespeare.

A Single Thread – Tracy Chevalier

Ms. Chevalier writes superb historical fiction featuring strong female characters (e.g., Remarkable Creatures). In her new book, it is 1932 and 38-year-old Violet is one of the “surplus women” left unmarried or widowed by World War I. She finds purpose by moving to Winchester to learn needle point to create kneelers for the cathedral. And there is impeccable information on bell ringing. Sometimes a sentimental story is just what is needed.

Miss Benson’s Beetle – Rachel Joyce

Ms. Joyce has written some unabashedly sentimental books (e.g., The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) and this book follows in this genre. In 1950s London, Margery Benson, a 46-year-old spinster, flees her teaching job to commence an obsessive journey, a quest for a never-discovered golden beetle in New Caledonia. She recruits a travelling companion, Enid Pretty, who is wildly inappropriate as a research assistant. But this unlikely odd couple eventually develops a close friendship, as one might predict, despite many hilarious frustrations. But all is not sweetness and light in this story: there is a murder sub-plot and a deranged stalker. Some laugh-out-loud sections are coupled with some truly poignant moments. Above all, this is a superb literary example of the transformative power of friendship.

The Midnight Bargain – C L Polk

This imaginative book is in the speculative fiction/fantasy genre. What is novel is the context: a narrative about class and entitlement, and especially gender politics, takes place in the 1800s Regency era in England! Beatrice has a dilemma, to make a very difficult choice between two very different outcomes. First, to be chosen for a bride in a ceremony that is somewhat akin to the Bachelorette; her duty to her family is to secure an advantageous marriage because of family debt. But second is her strong desire to learn magic. These two options are mutually exclusive, thus the dilemma. Magic mainly consists of summoning spirits, for example a good luck spirit. So, this is a romantic fantasy novel about a young woman who must balance her desire to become a great magician against her family duty: a very entertaining book that is a Canada Reads contender.

The Jane Austen Society – Natalie Jenner

Given my predilection for angst-filled introspective relationship books, it is always a delight to read something entirely different. It is England in the 1940s: a disparate group of 8 people create a local Jane Austen society to preserve Austen’s home and legacy. Much debate ensues about favourite Austen characters (Emma versus Elizabeth Bennett). And delightfully the relationships between some of the 8 society members plays out like an Austen plot. In short, a thoroughly charming book.