Is there a genre called lite literature? I apply the name to novels that offer escapism while exploring somewhat serious issues. They are well-written, usually historical, always engaging. Novels by Fiona Davis fit the name, examples being The Lions of Fifth Avenue (2020) and The Magnolia Palace (2022), both set in New York City, both featuring likeable young women trying to find their way in different eras. In Davis’s own words: “In all of my books I like to layer a fictional story over the scaffolding of historical facts, and then parse out the inspiration for the plot and characters in my Author’s Note…”
Our Woman in Moscow (2021) by Beatriz Williams also falls into this category based as it is on young British men whose political beliefs in the 1930s led them to become spies for the Soviet Union (alluding to the Cambridge Five). In addition to espionage, the novel treats a theme of sibling loyalty through twin sisters Iris and Ruth.
Beartown (2016) is the first of a trilogy by Swedish writer Fredrik Backman. Through the game of hockey and its pervasive effects on the townspeople, an omniscient narrator develops many characters, exploring their thoughts, motivations, feelings, flaws, all the while illuminating much about human behaviour, individual, group and familial. Backman knows how to turn a phrase; his writing enthralls. I agree with a blurb: “In this story of a small forest town, Fredrick Backman has found the entire world.”
Peach Blossom Spring (2022) by Melissa Fu follows the lives of a Chinese family from China in the 1930s through to the US in the 2000s, instructing us a bit about Chinese history as well as the immigrant experience in America.
Lessons in Chemistry (2022) by Bonnie Garmus. Extraordinary protagonist Elizabeth Zott reluctantly becomes the host of a TV show in 1961, “Supper at Six”, to support herself and her precocious daughter Mad. This captivating story recalls the imperative of the feminist movement. No spoilers but from The Guardian to whet your interest: “A tale of female disempowerment in the 50s and 60s gets a culinary tweak in this sweet revenge comedy.”
In Klara and the Sun (2021), Kazuo Ishiguro echoes Remains of the Day (1989) in a study of service. Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF) who’s taken into service to care for a mysteriously ill teenage girl. Ishiguro says “AF allows him to observe the human condition without prejudices and preconceived notions… AF muses on everything from love and loneliness to the existence of the soul.” Artificial intelligence is not menacing in this novel set in the near future; its embodiment “celebrates the better aspects of human beings.” Rather than analyze this masterpiece, I simply luxuriated in its mood and message.
This Tender Land (2019) by William Kent Krueger opens in 1932 at the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota, a miserable home for Native American children and a few impoverished white orphans. Odie escapes with three others to embark on an odyssey into unfamiliar territory. Krueger’s yarn is riveting; he also brings to light historic events, such as a Sioux uprising in 1862 that, after a mock trial, resulted in the largest single-day mass execution in US history.
In Heather Marshall’s debut novel, Looking for Jane (2022), Jane is not only a character but also the code name for doctors willing to perform safe abortions when they were illegal in Canada and the US. Set in Toronto, cutting back and forth among three time periods, Marshall depicts a postwar maternity home run by the Church, which forces unwed mothers to relinquish their babies for adoption. Be prepared for emotionally charged scenes. Amid the current turmoil about abortion, this historical fiction reminds us of heartrending circumstances in the not-so-distant past.
Matthew Quick said of We Are the Light (2022): “This book was written at the end of a particularly dark period of my life… Writing fiction has always helped me manage my depression and anxiety. For this reason, the addition of severe writer’s block… was a particularly difficult cross to bear.” Conceiving an epistolary novel — letters from protagonist Lucas to his Jungian psychologist Karl — enabled Quick to pen a tale of the citizens in a small Pennsylvania suburb dealing with the aftermath of a mass shooting in the local theatre. Lucas is funny, somber, candid, even painfully so, as he grieves the murders of his wife and other townspeople (18 dead). This novel probes PTSD, psychology, neurodiversity, love, and the healing power of art. Quick writes with compassion for all his characters; he moved me to compassionate tears at the end.
Ian Reid belies the notion of appropriation in We Spread (2022) as the 42 year old male author convincingly inhabits a much older woman in a first person narrative about growing old. Penny takes us on a journey from her apartment that’s haunted by memories and mementos to a long term care residence in the middle of nowhere, where we meet other odd characters. An underlying creepiness and ambiguity to her story impel us to read on, to try and figure out what’s happening. But how reliable is Penny as the narrator? Is her journey going to and living in the residence or is it a journey through her deteriorating mind?
Whenever Elizabeth Strout comes out with a new novel, I rush to read it. Lucy by the Sea (2022) serves as a diary of Covid-19, set in the early years of fear and anxiety. Lucy leaves behind her familiar life in Manhattan to isolate with her former husband in a small town in Maine. In one scene, a new friend reads to her an observation about life, which can also be applied to the pandemic: “It’s our duty to bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.” In simple language, clipped sentences, short paragraphs, Strout writes wisely about love and life. I also enjoyed rereading her debut novel, Isabelle and Amy (1998).
The Woman in the Library (2022) by Sulari Gentill. Four strangers become friends after a woman’s scream disrupts their calm in the Boston Public Library — in a novel narrated by a character named Hannah, who lives in Australia and, while writing her mystery, gets entangled online in a “real” mystery with a fellow writer in Boston. This nested story is sufficiently suspenseful, if at times confusing, and it led me to discover Gentill’s entertaining series of Rowland Sinclair historical mysteries. (I’ve liked three of ten so far.) Set in 1931 in Sydney, Australia, A Few Right Thinking Men (2010) explores the politics of the day — the rise of communist and fascist groups — the class system, and art, as Rowland (to the manor born) and his bohemian friends naively attempt to solve a murder case. Wit and elegance characterize Gentill’s style.
The Murder of Mr. Wickham (2022) by Claudia Gray. Jane Austen meets Agatha Christie in Gray’s charming, literary mystery that brings a full cast of characters from Austen’s six novels together in the mansion of Mr. Knightley and Emma. When the odious Mr. Wickham is found murdered, the local magistrate plus a few of the guests seeks the culprit.
Stephen King calls The Plot (2021) by Jean Hanff Korelitz “insanely readable” — high praise from the master of suspense. A failed writer and mediocre teacher, Jake seizes an opportunity to resurrect his reputation by stealing a sure-fire plot from a deceased student and turning it into a bestseller. Then The Plot becomes a book-within-a-book as we follow both Jake’s story and the story in his novel, The Crib.
The Maid (2022) by Nita Prose. Molly is on the spectrum and her quirky personality delights in a story of intrigue set at the Regency Grand Hotel where Molly is a conscientious maid. Prose sprinkles nuggets throughout to open our minds. From Molly: “Gran always said that the truth is subjective, which is something I failed to comprehend until my own life experience proved her wisdom… We are all the same in different ways... The world is a better place seen through a prism of colours rather than merely in black and white.” An aphorism worth remembering: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
Fifty years after borrowing The Prophet (1924) by Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), a Lebanese-American writer, poet and visual artist, a good friend returned the book to me. So I reread this “bible” that was popular during the countercultural movement of the 60s and 70s. I must use the word “profound” to describe Gibran’s meditation, delivered in 24 prose poems, on life’s concerns. An example: “Love gives naught but itself and takes naught from itself. Love possesses not nor would it be possessed; For love is sufficient unto love.”
In The Promise of Canada (2016), historian Charlotte Gray relates the evolution of Canada by portraying nine individuals, a few little recognized, who helped to shape our country: George-Étienne Cartier, Sam Steele, Emily Carr, Harold Innis, Tommy Douglas, Elijah Harper and others.
Given my love and frequent use of libraries, I adored The Library Book (2018) by Susan Orlean, who uses an investigation into the devastating fire of 1986 at the Los Angeles Public Library to tell a fascinating story of libraries and librarians. Her book’s full of anecdotes, for instance, in the late 19th century, a head librarian walked all the way from Ohio to Los Angeles just to become acquainted with his country.
I continue to write a post on World Book Day because it generates recommendations in the comments from readers, some of whom will recognize titles in my list above. Thank you for directing me previously to first-rate books and adding your new suggestions below. •