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.

Ridgerunner – Gil Adamson

This is a beautifully written book set in 1917. After the death of his mother, 12-year-old Jack is delivered to the care of Sister Beatrice while his father, William Moreland, leaves to raise money to support Jack. However, Moreland’s only skill is as a thief; some of his escapades are Butch Cassidy-like. Much of the setting is the Banff-Lake Louise corridor with the World War in the background. The characters are rich, and the depictions of the natural world are breath-taking. Hopefully, this book will be a strong Giller contender. Ms. Adamson previously wrote the well–regarded The Outlander.

The Pull of the Stars – Emma Donoghue

Not surprisingly, this is another superb historical fiction story by Ms. Donoghue, a writer who never fails to entertain. Dublin in 1918 is suffering the ravages of the Spanish flu pandemic. The story follows three women over just 3 days in a small Maternity/Fever ward: a nurse, volunteer, and physician. There is impeccable medical detail. But the dominant theme is hopelessness – an inability to effectively treat influenza patients with an over-arching issue of mistreatment of orphans and children of unwed mothers by Catholic residentials schools/homes. Highly recommended but be prepared for some profound sadness.

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.