The Starless Sea – Erin Morgenstern

What if you found an old mis-shelved fiction book in a University Library that contains an incident from your own life, described in perfect detail? This is the beginning of this wildly inventive novel and it gets better! Doors are painted on surfaces that become portals to an underground maze of tunnels and rooms filled with books/stories. Characters in reality interact with characters from stories, and time is very flexible. But this magical place is under attack and great quests ensue. Morgenstern’s writing is wonderfully imaginative; previously she wrote the fabulous The Night Circus (2011). Both books are must reads.

 

Amy adds; it’s a love letter to storytelling, and it gripped my heart.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Academy was a notorious reform school in Florida; young African-American boys could be assigned for months-years for trivial reasons. And they were subjected to horrible abuse: beatings, sexual assault, etc. The story focusses on two boys in the early 60s, Elwood and Turner, who have remarkably different viewpoints. Elwood has ideals based on the words of Martin Luther King; Turner is a cynical schemer. Which boy is more likely to survive the Nickel nightmare? The Jim Crow era in the South in the 1960s has evils that are perpetuated in the current #BLM times.  Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for his previous book The Underground Railroad: both are highly recommended.

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett

Two African-American twin sisters grow up in rural Louisiana in the 1950-60s with a unique feature – they are very light-skinned. Eventually their lives separate because Stella chooses to live as a white woman. In the 1980s, the daughters of the estranged sisters (one black, one white) meet by chance. So this is a relationship book: twin sisters, mother-daughters, cousins. Of particular interest is the strained and curious relationship between the two cousins which drives the latter half of the story. This is a really excellent identity book with a story line that is never trite or stereotypical – highly recommended.

American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins

A gritty contemporary story: a woman and her 8-year old son flee cartel violence in Acapulco with the goal of a new life in the USA. What follows is a perilous journey with some heart-breaking violence, theft and sexual assault, tempered by some extraordinary acts of kindness and compassion. This book has been controversial because of criticisms of cultural appropriation and stereotypical presentations of the largely Mexican characters. My limited frame of reference does not permit me to judge this issue. In my opinion, Ms. Cummins has a voice that deserves to be heard; others can judge the truthfulness and veracity of her story.

Girls Like Us – Sheila Weller

Girls Like UsA re-read of a biography of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. This is a heavily researched book, sometimes with too many asides in parenthesis plus footnotes. But the saving grace is this completeness, commentary on the specific social context; the contrasting lives of these three very different artists are presented brilliantly along with the social history of the times. The best and most detailed part of the book is their ascent to fame in the 1960s. Their personal stories with complicated relationships are presented with insightful commentary. A great read for anyone nostalgic for the ’60s or for anyone who is curious about these revolutionary times (a comments from someone who CAN remember the ‘60s).

Dominicana – Angie Cruz

It is the 1960s: Ana is 15 years old and newly married when she moves to New York City with her much older controlling husband. The NY context is the Washington Heights neighbourhood which is colourful and multi-cultural. Ana speaks no English and has no documents so she has a tough life. The 1960s setting in NY is one of the strengths of this story. Thanks Amy, for this recommendation.

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.

Akin – Emma Donoghue

An odd couple makes a trip to Nice France. Noah is a 79-year-old recently-widowed childless retired University professor; Michael is his 11-year-old great-nephew who Noah has never met. Their wildly disparate backgrounds create both considerable conflict and humour as they investigate a series of World War II photographs from Noah’s mother. This is a wondrously written story of love, loss and family.

Olive Again – Elizabeth Strout

This is a sublime sequel to Ms. Strout’s exquisite Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteredge.  Olive remains a somewhat difficult, direct, honest but unfiltered and often irascible character. Her relationship with her second husband, her son from her first marriage, and the townspeople in a seaside town in Maine are, not surprisingly, complicated but entertaining. The stories show a delightful ordinariness of people. And finally, the book has a powerful treatise on ageing and (the lack of) self-awareness. A superb read.