BEST OF 2018
Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie
Lost Boys. This story exemplifies the phenomenon of young men joining jihadi gangs. Young men who join gangs in general. The familial cultural and societal reasons why having a job, a direction and a present loving father make a difference. Each person’s perspective well told. It’s rare that a novel takes me from my recent hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts to Raqqa, Syria. An important book of our times.
Golden Hill, Francis Spufford
Manhattan 1746. Richard Smith, a young handsome man, appears at a counting house after a long voyage from London. He has a note for an extremely large sum to be paid to him in sixty days. Everyone is wary because his plans for the money are secret. Smith finds New-York gritty and dark where a sense of morality seems out of place. During the days he awaits payment, Smith has many misadventures as a result of bad luck and bad choices. Especially his love for a combative clever girl. But in the end. He rights some wrongs. Historical redemption.
Autumn, Ali Smith
I didn’t intend to like this book based on its subject matter. Dying old guy and young girl as friends. Yet. I did like it. More for its richness of language, word play, concision of phrasing. And. Daniel’s perspective on life as a kaleidoscope of his Pop Art past in living color. An asymmetrically smart platonic relationship. Topical. Not a story novel. A literary journey.
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
Count Rostov wears a gentlemanly attitude despite his confined 30-year sojourn at the Metropole Hotel in Moscow from 1930’s to 1950’s. Under house arrest after the Revolution, this aristocrat relishes the finer things found in his new surroundings from literature to furniture to food. It’s a beautiful story of love and loyalty that takes place within the walls of this old-world hotel yet extends its view into the history and streets of Russia throughout the decades from the Revolution to the Khrushchev years. Guests of the hotel bring the culture-of-the-day in from the cold. And the funny narrator breaks the wall to welcome the reader into the fray.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith
Layered literary canvas. Beautifully written history which brings the reader into the art guilds of the Netherlands in the 1600’s. New York’s gritty Brooklyn & its isolated rich Upper East Side in the later 1950’s. Australia in 2000. The stories are built in coats of oil colors on centuries of canvas. Sara De Vos’ last painting is a masterpiece of an homage to all of the lives affected by her works.
The Woman on the Stairs, Bernhard Schlink
Translation from German well done. Subtle mysteries. Irene, the young woman on the stairs in a painting brings three men together to confront old age and their disparate pasts in Germany. Each evaluates his life as Irene reunites them on her isolated island in Australia as she faces death. All of them loved her in different ways. Possessive, obsessive, unconditional. The latter beautiful. A story of loneliness, regret, then peace.
The Honeymoon, Dinitia Smith
Well structured and researched novel about the life story of literary icon George Eliot, nom de plume of Mary Anne Evans. Her rebellious and difficult childhood was indelibly scarred by rejection from her mother and brother. She retreated into a world of knowledge and books, while doting on her loving father. These gave her the strength to later withstand several heartbreaking liaisons with men. She finally finds a wonderful love with George Lewes from whom she took her pen name and inspiration. This period was her most productive as a writer for over 20 years. Adam Bede. Mill on the Floss. Middlemarch. When Lewes dies, she is 60 and finds solace in a strange 20-years younger dandy named Johnnie Cross. Her “honeymoon” with him is the titular plot line and it is a doozy. Beyond weird. Tore through 400-pages.
The Long Drop, Denise Mina
Beautifully written scenes of the 1950’s in Glasgow, giving context and culture of the times. The asides were even more poignant than the plot. Descriptions of characters in a rough-and-tumble world of pubs and gambling clubs. The most memorable passage depicts three urchin boys playing in an abandoned luxury car and then portends how each of them might be affected by that experience in their futures. The novel was based on real persons and an historic serial murder case.
The Night Ocean, Paul La Farge
I’m not sure. It kept me rapt. Author clearly had lots of things to work through. Personally. Literarily. Many unfinished stories found their way into this dense work. Sprawling disjointed tales of several complex people in different times and places. Spaces. Told from a woman’s point of view, Marina the shrink, working out her own issues. The author gave her an authentic voice. It begins as her husband Charlie disappears into Agawam Lake in the Berkshires. H.S. Lovecraftian fandom less clear. More context necessary for those not acquainted with this cult of science-fiction-horror genre. Nonetheless. Worth the meandering page-turning journey. Lots to think about.
La Farge’s New Yorker article about the story.
Little Deaths, Emma Flint
This made the Baileys prize Long List. Used to be Orange prize. Now both sponsors have ditched the prize. Why does there need to be a segregated literary prize for women authors? Man Booker list and winners include so many women. Anyway. This is a well written mystery. Character development excellent. Some of the plot twists and clues had holes. Feminist agenda aside. It is a compelling tragic story of neglected children and the horrors inflicted upon them by selfish immature adults. Although it takes place in 1960’s Queens, NY, it could be anywhere today.
News of the World, Paulette Jiles
A short sweet novel. Jefferson “Captain” Kidd reads the news of the world, literally, to small town Texas folk in the 1870’s. The gentleman widower rides on horseback from town to town regaling people with tales from around the world. He is a welcomed attraction. Intellectual, articulate, well-mannered. At one stop he accepts a mission from the local authorities to return a 10-year old white girl to her family. Johanna was captured by the native Kiowa Indians as a child, spent her formative years living amongst them and considers them her family. Along the way adventures ensue between Johanna and “Captain”. An endearing relationship grows and is beautifully portrayed.
Muse, Jonathan Galassi
Pastiche parfait. Reminiscent of St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words. Not as brilliant, but nevertheless a ludic success. Fast forward not too far to get to where books and words are obsolete. Wonderfully derivative yet original characters and realistic literary authors, works and themes. Clever satire from a writer who clearly loves books and laments their future demise. Ida Perkins beautifully drawn muse as were the publishers and Paul, Galassi’s autobiographical soul. Conjured so many greats of historical literature. Love of words reigns supreme.
Church of Marvels, Leslie Parry
Gritty Life Circus. A debut success. It does not rise to the lyrical edgy joy of Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus. This tale is more Robertson Davies’ World of Wonders. Dark. But, glowing writing makes up for it. Turn of the last century saga of tortured tattered lives on Coney Island and lower Manhattan. Endurance. Wit.
The Unknown Bridesmaid, Margaret Forster
Not a silly bridesmaids story. It is a serious look at how we are formed from our DNA as well as experiences as children. Julia was a young bridesmaid who no one recognizes in a family wedding photo years later. A troubled girl by nature, Julia is the observer of her own anti-social and just plain mean actions. Parallel stories told from her past to her present intertwine emotions and case studies which mirror her mis-deeds. Although she never truly evolves, nor feels contrition, Julia is aware of her intrinsic lack of empathy. How guilt and shame shape certain lives.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
Dickens meets Nietzsche meets Dostoevsky in Tartt’s third novel. The Goldfinch, Fabritius’ master painting, is the centerpiece of this epic tale. It becomes young Theodore Decker’s only glimmer of light as his life is blown to smithereens one afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum post- 9/11. As fate fractures, the tethered bird on the shelf also foretells shackles of self-loathing. Theo’s teen years are collateral damage of adults’ bad choices. Even when he’s given sanctuary, he rarely feels worthy. Life with an eccentric wealthy uptown family is muddled. In the Village, he apprentices with an antiques restorer father-figure, but later squanders opportunities. He spends tedious amount of chapters in another American locale, where the saga goes sour. We all waste way too much time with stereotypically corrupt Ukranian “friend” Boris. All semblance of clarity is lost in an increasingly substance-abused haze ending in Amsterdam. Would I recommend this book? I kept returning to it, hoping that Theo would kick his demons. It’s an absurdist journey. Tartt leaves the reader with art as hope and redemption. Without it, life is left both troubled and empty.
Ruby, Cynthia Bond
Bond’s prose is beautiful and takes the reader into Ruby’s world. A grisly depraved story of this poor little girl in the American Deep South in the 50’s and 60’s. Horrors heaped upon horrors, which many children did and do endure. The worst part was that the demented violence against her came at the hands of her own people. Churchgoing elder, Celia, was the most selfish and evil, the all too often woman who blames other women victims for their own abuse, holding deadly secrets as collateral. Resilience. Spiritual escape. Darkly captivating.
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters
A once grand Victorian house as stage for post-WWI English drama. The rooms and setting of the forlorn home are better drawn than its occupants. An uncomfortable and unlikely situation where a newlywed couple become renters of this rambling house, sharing an upstairs with the owner/quirky spinster daughter’s bedroom. She and her mother mostly live on the main level but the WC in the backyard has to be used by everyone so all are bumping into each other on landings and in the kitchen. A nightmare on its own. Worse, the mother and daughter have lost their husband/father, sons/brothers in the war. They live a humdrum daily routine of chores, frustration and regret. The newlyweds aren’t much fun either. They have their own issues. Suffice it to say that it’s a bit dreary. Misandry muddled with major misdeeds dominate the theme. A little bit of boring sex. Lots of bloody mess. However, shocking events occur which is a reason to keep reading.
The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me, Sofka Zinovieff
Hard cover cream-color bound with a pink ribbon bookmark. Delicious biography of a talented wealthy old dandy and his people playthings. Filled with artists, musicians, writers, politicians of the times. Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky, the Mitfords, the Lygons, Evelyn Waugh. Evolving decades of life at an Oxfordshire estate and its unlikely heirs. Fun read.
The Deptford Trilogy, Robertson Davies
Written in the 1970’s. Three unique novels revolve around the murder/death of Boy Staunton from Deptford, a rural village in Ontario, Canada. But, more so, lifelong ramifications of the flight of an errant snowball on three boys. Bottom line great writing.
Pre-WWI, the first novel, Fifth Business, is told from Dunstan Ramsay’s point of view. He is an unwitting catalyst in the snowball saga and his obsession with its victim and her family. The Manticore is the story of Boy’s family from his son David’s perspective. It focused on Jungian theory of psychology. The third, World of Wonders the best.
The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, Elizabeth Speller
Downton Abbey meets Easton Manor. As with Downton, the brutally devastating impact of World War I is sharply drawn in daily English country life at Easton. Heiress of the manor, little Kitty’s accidental disappearance provokes pervasive rampant guilt and suspicion. Upstairs, downstairs. All through the surrounding village. Plot twists and turns. An ancient church with a maze. Fun NOT to have guessed the ending.
The Sea The Sea, Iris Murdoch
1978 ManBooker Prize Winner. Good writing stands the test of time. Muddled relationships. Obsessive possession. Nothing is ever as it seems in a ramshackle antique house perched on a rocky English shore. Wonderful read.
Also loved The Black Prince by Murdoch.
Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe
Although this work does not rise to the brilliance of Bonfire of the Vanities, or I Am Charlotte Simmons, there is no one who can coin a culture like Tom Wolfe. Sharp, keen, stripped bare to the bone. Society, humanity, individual vulnerability. Glad I pre-ordered before all the reviews are in. Another cherished journey courtesy of one of our greatest writers. Miami as a glimpse into the global demographic tipping point.
Snowdrops, A.D. Miller
This short Man Booker short-listed novel is a keen clear look into modern Russia. Corrupt, debauched, cynical, economically and morally depressed. Plot a bit silly but for current Putin-era context a must read.
An Unexpected Guest, Anne Korkeakivi
A day in the life of American-born Clare living as the wife of a Brit ambassador in Paris. Her obsession with an old boyfriend Niall and her behavior with him as a young adult causes excessive fretting on the day of a big diplomatic dinner. Meanwhile she neglects her children. Her tolerant Brit husband is clueless. There is political preaching, too. Detailed descriptions of les rues, food, event prep, servants in supporting roles all good.
The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty
Moriarty successfully conflates non-fiction and fiction. A soon-to-be famous true-life actress, Louise Brooks, and her chaperone Cora face childhood demons on a trip from Kansas to New York in the 1920’s. Cora’s profound epiphany emanates from her meeting with the past and the realization that life should not be bound by superficial morality.
All Our Yesterdays, Erik Tarloff
This novel was billed as a ‘Big Chill’ derivative. Berkeley friends meet in college there and stay through adulthood. It was far more than that. It was a story of enduring love and good triumphing over evil. Zeke falls for his soul mate Molly in their early twenties. She strays for bad boy radical adventure and life happens to both of them. They reunite in a swirl of mayhem from the past. Zeke’s voice is authentic, poignant. His character the most deeply drawn. The narrative wavers a bit when the point of view changes and can get confusing. Some words and dialogue seem forced at times. But, nit-picking aside, I would recommend this read as well worth the investment.
That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo
Marriage in the ‘sandwich years’. Relatable to us of a certain age. Coming to grips with elderly parents, young adult kids while our generation is trying to navigate retirement and the next phase. It ain’t easy to make sense of life in that context. Russo shines a sweet glimmer of hope in this light-hearted yet poignant quick novel.
Blood, Bones & Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton
Glass Castle-esque memoir. Gabrielle Hamilton learns butchering and natural cooking from erratic eccentric parents in a ramshackle Pennsylvania silk mill. When she finds herself on her own at 14, she survives by working in catering and camp kitchens from Northampton to New York City. Sporting scars, tatoos, and drug history of a migrant cook, she develops into a wife, mother, featured food writer and James Beard award-winning chef. Her acclaimed East Village restaurant, Prune, opened 1999.
It’s no wonder that Northampton restaurateur Linda Schwartz didn’t recognize her former quirky college line cook from the 80’s.
“After retiring from the restaurant business in the 90’s, Linda Schwartz became a culinary arts professor and enjoyed reading essays by Gabrielle Hamilton, a young food writer who shared her distaste for pretentious chefs posing at farmers’ markets with baskets on their arms. Schwartz learned that Hamilton opened a restaurant called Prune in New York. Schwartz wanted to meet this kindred writer, so went to Prune and introduced herself as a fan. Looks of familiarity passed between them. Hamilton shrieked, ‘I worked for you when I was at Hampshire College!’ Schwartz then realized that this was the avant-garde student line cook who worked for her back in the day.”
-excerpted from Table’s Edge, 2005.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web, David Lagercrantz
Amazing accomplishment. Keeping original characters true. Lagercrantz has written a fun sequel homage to Stieg Larsson’s Salander and Blomqvist. Fast-paced techno action drama in the spirit of Tattoo and Hornet’s Nest. Except for the sugar-coated ending. Bravo.