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.

The Thursday Murder Plot – Richard Osman

Four 70-80-year-old members of an upscale retirement village in SE England meet on Thursdays to discuss unsolved cold cases. The murder of a local developer suddenly affords the the opportunity to apply their talents to a “live” case. Their manipulation of the police to share information is sublime. The writing exhibits wit and intelligence, and the diabolical plot is riddled with red herrings. Thanks Joyce, for this recommendation.

Slow Horses – Mick Herron

When MI 5 intelligence agents screw up, they are banished to a London location known as Slough House, and the disgraced agents are referred to as “slow horses”.  The story is devilishly complex: everyone has ulterior motives, like a Le Carre story. And the Slough House leader”, Jackson Lamb, is a deliciously wicked man with gross personal habits. This is an excellent spy story with 6 more to follow. Thanks Joyce, for this recommendation.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

It is an extraordinarily hot summer in England in 1976, and someone has gone missing from a suburban avenue. Two 10-year-old girls, Grace and Tilly,  begin a dual search for the missing person and for God (based on a misunderstanding of a Vicar’s sermon). Secrets emerge about a tragic event 10 years previous – is this linked to the disappearance? This is an evocative coming-of-age story that is also about a community in need of absolution. Cannon’s writing is wonderfully descriptive: “carpet the colour of cough syrup”. Overall, a moving and perceptive story – highly recommended. Thanks Joyce, for telling me about this book.

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.