The Ninth Hour – Alice McDermott

The Ninth Hour - Alice McDermottMcDermott is a superb writer, Anne Tyler-like in her precise descriptions of place and emotions. In this new novel, the place is Catholic Brooklyn in the early part of the 20th century, specifically the tenements. Key characters are the Sisters who visit and minister to the poor, elderly and sick, a vocation that is implicit in their Order’s name, the Little Sisters of the Sick Poor. There are two mortal sins that dominate the lives of Annie, a single mother, and her daughter Sally. The first mortal sin is the suicide of the husband/father: ..”he stepped off this grey life – collar and yoke – not for lack of love, but for the utter inability to go on, to climb, once again, out of the depths of a cold February day, a dark and weary afternoon”. Sally performs what she perceives as an act of penance to mitigate a second mortal sin committed by her mother. The actions of the Sisters, the context of working in a laundry with sighs, sounds and smells – everything is described perfectly. Overall, an introspective intelligent book about the limits of love and sacrifice. Also recommended is McDermott’s previous book, After This.

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Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing - Yaa GyasiTwo parallel lineage stories of two African half-sisters (who never meet). One storyline is Ghana, the other a slave story that leads to America. There is impressive historical detail, especially when describing the Ghana experience of collusion in the trafficking of slaves. The book is Michener-like in using storylines of successive generations, and yes, there is a useful family tree included in the text.

The Fortunate Brother – Donna Morrissey

The Fortunate Brother - Donna MorrisseyA gritty angst-filled guy book set in West Newfoundland. The context – geography and people- is described perfectly. A father and son are paralyzed by grief, so they retreat and psychologically “run away” into a life of drink and anger. The book then becomes a murder mystery with deception and lies and misunderstandings. Annoying behaviour to be sure but the descriptions of the people in a fishing outport trying, usually badly, to have each other’s back is compelling. This is one of Morrissey’s best books.

The Nest – Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The Nest - Cynthia D_Aprix SweeneyThis is an entertaining story about a dysfunctional family, the Plumb siblings (Johnathan Franzen territory). The core character is the oldest, Leo, a prodigal brother who is charming but dishonest and deceitful. The plot has a number of surprising turns to make this a very enjoyable read. Leo’s siblings are variably desperate and entitled and conniving. This is another amazing first novel that is highly recommended.

May We Be Forgiven – A.M. Homes

May We Be Forgiven - A.M. HomesHarold has a younger brother, George, who has exhibited psychopathic tendencies his whole life. When George commits an unspeakable act of violence, Harold is thrust into being responsible for George’s two children, a responsibility for which he is woefully unprepared. Initially Harold is very annoying because of poor impulse control resulting in very bad decisions, especially with his relationships with women. However, he slowly grows into his role of protector and confidant. The setting is NY with an interesting excursion into South Africa. This is a very good book about how complex behaviours can evolve. A sub-plot about Richard Nixon is totally entertaining.

The Conjoined – Jen Sookfong Lee

The Conjoined - Jen Sookfong LeeWhat if you are cleaning the basement of your family home after the death of your mother, and you find the bodies of two foster-children in a basement freezer who went missing 28 years ago? This is an intriguing book that examines family secrets and the social welfare system. Some of the ideas reminded me of Zoe Whitall’s book The Best Kind Of People where suspicion is directed to “good” people. What is the cost of bringing foster children into a home for all concerned? Highly recommended.

The Dust That Falls From Dreams – Louis de Bernieres

The Dust That Falls From Dreams - Louis de BernieresDe Bernieres wrote the delightful Corelli’s Mandolin, and his latest book is also excellent. The setting is Britain in 1914. The horror of WWI, the mud and stink and brutal death, is described vividly. Also, very precise details of flying are detailed. But this is a book about relationships within the McCosh family, in particular the 4 sisters. At times, the book is a tender love story that also touches on grief and religion. The relationships are often complicated: a sister loves someone who does not love her in return, and vice versa. There is some wry humour, particularly the class-conscious matriarch Mrs. McCosh who should be played by Maggie Smith if this story is ever adapted for film or theatre. Overall, a very entertaining story.