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.

Egg On Mao – Denise Chong

Egg On Mao - Denise ChongMs. Chong wrote the wonderful The Concubine’s Children some time ago. This new novel is historical, focussing on a young man, Lu Decheng, in South China who travels to Beijing in May 1989 to anticipate in the student pro-democracy movement. The story unfolds impeccably with two parallel stories: Decheng’s life leading to his fateful decision to go to Tiananmen Square, and his subsequent betrayal by the student leaders and his imprisonment for defacing a portrait of Mao. The complexity and chaos of the student revolution is described graphically, both the highs and the lows. Overall, this is a stunning story that provides a brilliant counterpoint to Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

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.