The Orphan Girl – Kurt Palka

Sometimes a sentimental historical novel fits the bill perfectly. The time period is 1944-46. Kate survives a London bomb but then circumstances force her to live with a doctor friend, Claire. Complex issues complicate their lives: a murdered father and the return of Claire’s troubled husband from the war. This story is about friendship, promises, courage and independence. Key details are left unexplained, to make for a very satisfying plot.

The It Girl – Ruth Ware

A mystery-thriller set in an Oxford college (yay!) Ten years after the murder of her roommate, Hannah begins to suspect that the person convicted of the crime may have been innocent. Was the actual killer one of her Oxford friends? Typical of the amateur sleuth genre, there is rampant suspicion and multiple red herrings. And I can confidently predict that no one will be able to predict the big reveal at the end.

Shrines of Gaiety – Kate Atkinson

It is 1926 in London and Nellie Coker is the formidable owner of multiple nightclubs. Of course, success breeds envy and creates numerous enemies for Nellie and her 6 children, and crime is rampant. Ms. Atkinson’s writing, as always, is sublime: words (iconolatry), phrases (wore her bereavement with triumph rather than sorrow), and droll asides and magnificent metaphors. Overall, a delightful read about (mostly) bad people – highly recommended.

Babel – R. F.Kuang

This is an imaginative work of historical and speculative fiction. The context is all important: Oxford in the 1830s where scholars (professors and students) work in the Royal Institute of Translation, in an academic tower known as Babel. Is there power in words, in etymology? Words lost in translation can be added to silver bars to create magic: protective wards and the casting of spells. Academics can also serve colonialism; can change ever occur peaceably, or does profound change encompass the necessity of violence? What is striking in this book is the role of indecision and questionable motives. Highly recommended.

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.

The Dictionary of Lost Words – Pip Williams

Full Disclosure: this fabulous book is about two of my favourite things; words and Oxford. The story covers the more than 40-year feat to assemble the Oxford English Dictionary (1886-1928). Words selected for dictionary entry are given context, mainly by white Victorian men. Esme is first brought to the Scriptorium as a young child by her widowed father, a lexicographer. She begins to collect “women’s words”, first those discarded by the male lexicographers and later from conversations with women. And this awareness of the importance of the context for words is influenced by the suffragette movement. A great story – highly recommended but be prepared for some very sad moments.

The Last Chance Library – Freya Sampson

Full disclosure: I read any book with “Library” in the title. This book is an unabashedly sentimental and schmaltzy story about a campaign to prevent the closure of a small-town library in England. There is an emphasis on books and literacy, but also on the role of a library as a community location. The plot has many predictable tropes but still …. this is a book for library lovers.

So Much Life Left Over – Louis De Bernieres

Daniel Pitt is a WWI flying ace who struggles to fid purpose after surviving the war – what to do with life inexplicably left over. His story from 1925-45 includes Ceylon, England, France and Germany. His marriage to Rosie slowly disintegrates, and Rosie acquires a remarkably mean-spirited persona. And there are Rosie’s three sisters, each strong individual characters. The story evolves in short chapters with different points-of-view. Overall, a compelling story of complex relationships in post-war and pre-war contexts.

Amy adds: Louis De Bernieres also wrote The Dust that Falls from Dreams, and the excellent Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Exit – Belinda Bauer

Felix, a 75-year-old widower in SW England, is an Exiter, someone who offers companionship to terminally ill people who have chosen to die by suicide. His role is entirely passive, to lend moral support and then remove the evidence to not distress family and loved ones. But this act of kindness and charity goes off the rails with a terrible mistake when the wrong person dies. But what if this fatal mistake was a set-up to enable a murder? A wondaful treatise on aging with some seriously funny moments.