The Beekeeper of Aleppo, by Christy Lefteri

This is a powerful novel about a couple of Syrian refugees, Nuri and Afra, a married couple fleeing their home after their lives have been destroyed around them. It traces their journey from Aleppo through various refugee camps, over a dangerous ocean crossing from Turkey to Greece, and into the hands of smugglers who promise to be able to get them to the UK, a notoriously difficult country to enter as refugees but one where Nuri’s cousin and partner in the beekeeping business, Mustafa, has gone on ahead and is supposed to be waiting for him.

The author, Christy Lefteri, wrote the novel based on her experience working with Syrian refugees during the height of the refugee crisis there during the mid-late 2010s, and the details feel authentic and often harrowing to read about. At its heart, though, this book is a moving exploration of a two people and a marriage surviving through trauma and unthinkable loss.

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Dusk, Night, Dawn, by Anne Lamott

Once again, another in the series of short essay collections Anne Lamott has been doing for the last several years — this one focusing on resilience in difficult times. Surprisingly, she doesn’t have much to say about the COVID-19 pandemic — she references it a few times, but doesn’t, for example, tell any stories about being in lockdown, which makes me think the book was probably mostly completed and delivered to the publisher before last March. She does write about being a newlywed (for the first time) in her 60s, about the California wildfires, a tiny bit (not much) about living in Trump’s America, about the fear of climate change, about being a grandparent, about loving and losing pets — about all the messy reality of life and how we pull together and move forward through it all. In other words, Anne Lamott is continuing, in this latest book, to do what she does best.

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The Girl With the Louding Voice, by Abi Dare

I absolutely loved this novel about a teenage girl in a Nigerian village who is forced into marriage with a much older man who already has two wives, but who still dreams that somehow she will get free to pursue an education and a career. The thing that makes this book such a joy is the totally fresh and believable voice of Adunni, made all the more powerful because the book is written in Adunni’s dialect, so it’s as if you can hear her speaking right in your ears. (You can also notice the so-gradual-it’s-almost imperceptible change in her narrative voice later in the story when she does get a bit more education). Terrible things happen to Adunni, and yet she remains this buoyant, fierce, and optimistic character throughout it all. I really loved this book, loved Adunni, and will definitely read another book but Abi Dare when she comes out with one.

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The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman

This new and wildly popular mystery novel from UK game show host Richard Osman carries the same unspoken (or rarely-spoken) concern that comes with a lot of books by high-profile people who didn’t originally make their name by writing novels: Can a book by a celebrity actually be any good? In this case, The Thursday Murder Club stands on its own feet as an enjoyable and engaging mystery novel, whether you’ve ever heard of its author in any other context or not.

The premise of the novel is that four people living in an upscale retirement community meet weekly to discuss and analyze cold-case murders and see if they can sovle them — just to keep their minds sharp, you understand. These four seventy-somethings all have backgrounds that lend something to the task: Elizabeth, the group’s leader, never says exactly what she did in her pre-retirement life, but she clearly worked in British intelligence; Ron is a former union leader and rabble-rouser; Ibrahim is a psychologist, and Joyce a retired nurse. Joyce is the only one of the characters whose chapters are sometimes told in first-person, since she keeps a diary; she has only recently been brought into the group as a replacement for Penny, a former police officer now sidelined by serious illness. The core group and all the people around them make up a vivid and lively community, a constant reminder that people don’t stop being interesting, or interested, simply because they’ve retired.

Of course, a real murder — then another! — soon occurs in the otherwise-quiet community, and the members of the Thursday Murder Club, assisted by two very different and memorable police officers, Donna and Chris, set themselves the task of solving it. The journey to get there is thoroughly enjoyable and page-turning, although I thought that the solution of at least one part of the mystery — the motive for the second murder — was extremely flimsy. However, this didn’t detract from my pleasure in reading the story, and if there is another Thursday Murder Club novel coming (as I hear there is) I will certainly be reading it.

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Monogamy, by Sue Miller

Looking back through past reviews, I can see that I have raved about Sue Miller’s writing in past novels of hers (The Lake Shore Limited, The Senator’s Wife, Lost in the Forest) and everything I said there about the beauty of her writing and her deftness with observing small details of human behavior and relationships, also applies to Monogamy.

Monogamy is the story of a long-lasting marriage that ends suddenly with the death of Annie’s husband Graham. As the days and weeks following Graham’s death unroll, Annie’s initial simple grief over her loss becomes more complicated as she learns things about Graham she didn’t know — including an affair that is not safely hidden in the distant past of their relationship, but that continued right up to his death. Suddenly, everything she thinks she knows about their life together has to be reexamined. The novel is really just a detailed study of one woman’s journey through grief and her attempt to reconcile what she learns about her late husband with the marriage she thought she had, and it’s beautifully done.

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A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende

One thing I love is when historical fiction teaches me about a slice of history I’d never heard about. A Long Petal of the Sea begins amid the Spanish Civil War, with Victor, a medical student and army medic who, along with all his family, support the Republican cause. Included in Victor’s extended family is a young woman named Roser, originally a boarder in their home but now his brother’s pregnant girlfriend. When Victor’s brother is killed as Franco’s fascists take control of Spain, Victor, Roser, and Victor’s mother Carme are forced to flee, escaping into France as refugees.

This is where the part I really didn’t know anything about began — Victor and Roser’s fictional story becomes part of a true story, the voyage of the Winnipeg, a ship that poet Pablo Neruda chartered to bring Spanish exiles to Chile. As the novel unfolds over the next several decades, Allende once again, as she did in The House of the Spirits, mines the Chilean history so intertwined with her own (she is related to the late Salvador Allende, the deposed Marxist president of Chile). But instead of the magic realism that The House of the Spirits is famous for, A Long Petal of the Sea is a story deeply rooted not only in realism but in the everyday. Victor and Roser’s lives and their marriage of convenience play out against the backdrop of epic historical events, yet their lives are full of the small details of exiles making a home in a new land, and a man and a woman learning to care for each other after a most unromantic start to their relationship.

I found this novel not just informative but engaging and beautiful.

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Miss Benson’s Beetle, by Rachel Joyce

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read from a favourite author. In my ranking of Rachel Joyce books, Miss Benson’s Beetle has to go just below Harold Fry and Queenie Hennessey, her two most amazing creations, but above her other books, for once again introducing me to a character past mid-life who has decided it’s time to make her very ordinary life count for something.

Miss Benson, an aging spinster teacher in post-WW2 England, comes up with a plan as outrageous as Harold Fry’s walk the length of England — she plans to travel to the South Pacific in search of a rare beetle she has been fascinated with her whole life. While life didn’t allow her to become the naturalist she dreamed of being, she spontaneously decides she an still be the person to discover the beetle that has been described but never captured, and sets off with an unlikely travelling companion to fulfill that lifelong dream. It’s the kind of journey that you know is going to be life-changing for the character and heart-breaking for the reader — and I enjoyed every step of the way.

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Red, White, and Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston

I’m not sure why I originally picked up this book or added it to my Goodreads to-read list, except that I guess I saw something about it online and it looked intriguing. It’s a — would you call it YA? I’m not sure. The characters are in their early 20s — anyway, a same-sex romance between … wait for it … the son of the US president, and the grandson of the Queen of England.

This sounds incredibly corny and far-fetched, and it should be, but author Casey McQuiston makes it work, and I was completely pulled into the story. It’s told from the perspective of Alex, the First Son of the first woman president of the US (in this parallel universe, Democrats won the 2016 US election, and Obama was succeeded by Alex’s mom, Ellen Claremont). Alex has always kind of hated the UK’s Prince Henry (who is not as much of a Prince Harry-esque figure as you might guess from the name) when they’ve been thrown into each other’s company at international socialite-type events. But it turns out that hate has been hiding a deep-seated attraction, which is a shock for Alex, who’s always thought he was straight, and for Henry, who knows he’s gay but is deeply in the closet.

Alex and Henry’s relationship is secret, but the possibility 0f it becoming public has huge ramifications, not just for both young men but for both their powerful families? Will true love win out in the end?

I really just fell right into this book despite the far-fetched premise (and despite the fact that, as with another romance I’ve recently reviewed — How to Fail at Flirting — the steamy scenes are a good bit steamier than I usually read. Sorry, I tend to skim through descriptions of people having sex; that’s just me). Not having lived either in the White House or in Buckingham Palace, I coudn’t say how accurate the author’s portrayal of either slice of high life was. It felt like the details of US political life were a little more fleshed-out and possibly more accurate than the UK details (characters kept referring to Henry as a Prince of England, which is not a title I think anyone would actually use).

It was fun spending time in this fictional world which has a mix of actual famous people from the real world, fictional characters who are wholly fictional, and fictional characters who are pretty clearly stand-ins for real people. All the main characters were well-developed and believable even if the larger situation wasn’t, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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The True Story of Pocahontas, by Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star”

This is a slim volume that I came across during research for my current novel, part of which is set in the Virginia colony during the lifetime of Pocahontas. The authors claim that their story is based on oral tradition of the Mattaponi nation, never before written down in this form. Many people are skeptical of the authors’ claims and whether they really are rooted in ancient tradition, but the book, which tells a very different story of this famous Native American woman than what is recorded in English documents, at least serves to remind us that there are many different versions of any historical event. In those early encounters between European colonizers and American indigenous people, history has been written by the colonizers, not just because they were the victors in those clashes (ultimately) but because their language relied on written records rather than oral history. Every story about Pocahontas, including John’s Smith’s (the best known English written version) needs to be taken with a grain of salt and with a careful eye to what the teller was attempting to accomplish with their version. The True Story of Pocahontas may or may not be the actual true story, but it is certainly a significant reminder that “true stories” of things that happened 400 years ago are always to be questioned.

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The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

This took me forever to listen to — the audiobook is over 30 hours long, and I didn’t do it all in one stretch but came back to it after breaks to listen to other books, since this was one I owned and not a library audiobook. I thoroughly enjoyed this work of popular history which is not just about Roosevelt and Taft but about early 20th century America, the “progressive” movement of which both men were part, the “muckracker” journalists of that era including pioneering woman journalist Ida Tarbell, and so much more besides. This book not only informed me about an era of history I didn’t know a lot about, but also gave me a lot to think about in comparing the culture of the early 20th century to that of the early 21st, and the similarities and differences in things like the “norms,” or politics or what the word “progressive” means.

As always, one of my biggest takeaways from any non-fiction or fiction book set in the past is sheer rage at the limited options available to brilliant, ambitious women. Ida Tarbell was a trailblazer — I would love to read a book just about her — but I was particularly interested in the women in the Taft and Roosevelt families. For the most part they were intelligent, educated, strong-willed and ambitious — but that ambition had to be contained within societally-approved bounds of marriage and family. Nellie Taft is particularly fascinating — an educated woman who pushed for the right to be allowed to work as a teacher before her marriage, even though  a young woman of her class was not expected to take paid employment. Once she married William Howard Taft — an idealistic young lawyer whose greatest ambition was to become a judge — she pushed him towards politics because that was the only possible outlet for her own ambition. She wanted to be married to the President of the United States (and eventually was, though things did not work out as she had hoped) — how tragic for her that she did not live in a time when she could have aspired to be President herself, something she certainly was as capable of as her husband was.

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