Educated – Tara Westover

This is a remarkable memoir where reality is stranger than fiction. The author was raised in the mountains of Utah. Her parents were survivalists and totally suspicious of government so she had no birth certificate and does not go to school. To say that she was home-schooled is rather generous; her learning is self-directed and spotty. Tara is the youngest of 5 children. Her life is complicated by a controlling father and a brother who bullies her both psychologically and physically. The second half of the book details her escape to university, first to Brigham Young University and then to Cambridge England. This is a compelling story of remarkable resilience but at great cost. The contradictions of memory are also a feature of a memoir that is so deeply emotional. Final comment: Westover’s parents make the parents in Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle seem wonderful by comparison! Thanks Erin and Amy, for this recommendation.

Stranger Diaries – Ely Griffiths

This is a very satisfying mystery/thriller. Who would have a motive to murder an English teacher at a high school in the south of England? And then kill another teacher? All the major characters in the story are women: a mother & daughter and the investigating detective who is a single gay woman of colour. The “bad guy” is, as typical in this genre, someone who no reader will ever anticipate, making for a fun read.

Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

Everything Under - Daisy Johnson.jpgThis is a really excellent novel set in contemporary England. The core of the story is a complicated mother-daughter relationship but it is much more: the use of a private language and a river creature and supplemental characters. The timeline is an interesting feature of the story telling. Johnson’s writing reminds me of Sarah Winman, so high praise.

Affinity – Sarah Waters

Affinity - Sarah WatersThis is an early book of Ms. Waters (1999). The setting is England in 1873-74. Margaret Prior, a 29 year-old woman with a troubled past decides to preoccupy herself with good deeds by visiting women prisoners in at Millbank, a notoriously dark and evil prison. There she becomes entranced by a spiritualist, Salina Dawes. The story slowly and inexorably become one of obsession and almost possession, and has a cracking good ending. This book is from a VPL list of “books that broke our hearts”.

Big Sky – Kate Atkinson

Big Sky - Kate AtkinsonHurray, Ms. Atkinson has written a fourth Jackson Brodie novel, a much anticipated gift to the detective-mystery genre. Brodie is in North Yorkshire and has time to be unusually introspective, often with hilarious internal dialog punctuated by pithy comments (in parentheses) from ex-partner Julia. The first third of the book is all character development, a rich cast of quirky individuals. Indeed, the first crime does not occur until the end of 100 pages. The story does take a gritty look at topical themes, from child abuse to human trafficking. Brodie is a delightful character and this book is a must-read!

Smoke – Dan Vyleta

Sometimes speculative fiction creates entire new fantastical worlds. In other examples, like this book, a paradoxical provocation is introduced to a familiar world, in this case England about a century ago. The novel aspect in this story is that evil in thought or deed is manifested by the emanation of smoke from bodies. This produces a class distinction or separation; the upper class aristocrats and gentry generally do not smoke but the lower working classes are drenched in smoke that becomes a dense soot. So London becomes a particularly dark place. The protagonists are three young people exposed to lies, secrets and increasing violence and treachery. The crucial issues: rich versus poor, political differences, right versus wrong, love versus lust, and lots of guilt. This is very fine writing, reminiscent of some of Stephen King’s best stories.

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

Washington Black - Esi EdugyanWashington Black is an 11 year old slave in Barbados in 1832; his life is cruel. A chance encounter with the brother (nicknamed Titch) of his Master changes his life entirely. In fact, one of the strongest features of this impeccably written historical fiction is that it is impossible to predict how the story will progress. Washington makes an incredible escape from Barbados with Titch, and then makes journeys to the Arctic, Nova Scotia and England over the next 7 years. The relationship between Wash and Titch unfolds in an unexpected fashion, and there are rich details about marine biology and painting. This is tour-de-force writing from the Giller Prize-winning author of Half Blood Blues, who will undoubtedly be a strong contender for this year’s Giller.