Gutter Child – Jael Richardson

 A fierce debut novel about a contemporary dystopian world. consisting of the privileged Mainland and the suppressed Gutter world. The history is one of colonialism and exploitation which produces a society rife with injustices. Gutter children are born with an original sin, a debt to society that must be repaid. Elimina is a young 15-year-old Gutter child who has been raised in the Mainland as a social experiment. Her story is one of resilience, to choose a future and defy a system that is patriarchal and controlling. A very powerful story – highly recommended.

Hench – Natalie Zina Walschots

This is an imaginative example of speculative fiction. Imagine a comic book world of super-heroes and dastardly villains. Even villains need administrative help, so Anna is recruited from a temp agency. When Anna is injured as collateral damage in an out-of-control encounter with a super-hero, she develops a righteous anger toward this super-hero (Supercollider). Consequently, she devotes her energy and talents to the downfall of this super-hero (and others) by working for a super-villain. A very interesting take on office politics follows; justice and the nature of heroism are also topics. And how can you not love a story with a villain called Quantum Entanglement! Thanks Amy, for giving me this book.

Amy Notes: It was on the staff recommendations shelf one of my local bookstores; Book Warehouse. Three cheers for independent bookstores staffed by booklovers.

Machines Like Us – Ian McEwan

McEwan has created an alternative 1982 London in which Britain loses the Falklands War and PM Thatcher is defeated by Tony Benn. Most significantly, Sir Alan Turing achieves an artificial intelligence breakthrough resulting in the creation of humanoid robots; prototypes are named Adam and Eve. Charlie purchases an Adam and together with his girlfriend Miranda, Adam’s personality (mind) is personalized. What follows is a fascinating 3-way relationship story. With machine learning, what makes us human? This provocative and enthralling story is one of McEwan’s best.

The Dreamers – Karen Thompson Walker

Given the current concern over a potential coronavirus pandemic, this remarkable book is prescient by capturing the mood perfectly of a contagion, specifically the chaos and confusion. In this story, individuals fall asleep and can’t be aroused; sleep is associated with a profound dream state and is fatal in many cases. This story is not about the medical/scientific search for the cause and cure; the focus is on residents caught in an eventual quarantine. Ms. Walker previously has captured the devastating consequences of an unexpected and unexplained catastrophe in her earlier (2012) book The Age of Miracles.  A topical and riveting read.

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”.

The First Time Lauren Paling Died – Alyson Rudd

An intriguing speculative fiction story set in 1970-80s England. When Lauren dies accidentally at age 13, she reappears in an alternate reality; new lives also begin for her parents. Lauren has glimpses of her former lives, that she has slightly different mothers, for example. By her third life, these glimpses of her previous two lives become increasingly disturbing. This is an imaginative look at loss and grief.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

I first read this amazing book about 30 years ago so a re-reading was in order as a prelude to her new book The Testaments. And simply put, the Handmaid’s Tale is a masterpiece. Atwood’s writing is perfect, a slow reveal of the horrors of the Gilead revolution: the rise of totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism, the loss of women’s rights and autonomy with rampant misogyny. Handmaids are possessed by men (Of Fred = Offred) as breeders and are not taught to read! It is chilling to realize that many of the regressive features of Gilead are happening now throughout the world. Atwood is a national treasure.

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

As a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is equally compelling but with a very different tone. Whereas The Handmaid’s Tale had a single narrator (Offred), The Testaments (set 16 years later) has three voices: two very different young women, one raised in Gilead and one raised outside, and the notorious Aunt Lydia. The resulting story is less introspective with more action, thus less reactive. The seeds of dissent are outlined clearly and logically with some Machiavellian motivations. This is a page turner, a completely engrossing read.