Springtime means reading time! Actually, every season is the right time to read, so I thought I’d share a list of books I’ve read so far in 2021.
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
Well-built and well-written story of two women who live in the same house on a windy Scottish coast during different eras. In the post-WWII years, one woman is raising her husband’s two boys from a previous marriage, while he spends increasing amounts of time in London. She grows to love the severe, lonely coastline but finds the house, the town, the culture strange and haunted, her own life shrinking around her. Decades later her grand-daughter lives in the same house, with an equally uncertain grip on how to live a stable life. Woven like a red thread throughout the novel and the braided stories (including a third story from a much older time, about a woman accused of witchcraft), is the exhausting, constant menace of male violence.
Broken Harbor by Tana French
Another tour de force by Tana French, this time examining the murder of a young family in Ireland at the height of the 2008 recession. As with all of her novels, the question isn’t so much who did it, or even why, but what dark social and psychological forces gave rise to a world in which violence can be confused with salvation.
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
Wonderful and lively novel about the struggles of two brothers in Spokane, Washington in 1909, as the IWW and other unions fight against brutal plutocrats and police so that people who work with their hands and bodies can earn enough to survive. The novel turns American history deeply human, with warm characterizations of the two brothers, other workers they ally with, some cops and detectives, two women called Ursula the Great, and a dazzling star turn by the real-life union organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
A coming-of-age story that takes place in rural northern England, where 15-year-old Silvie, observant and nature-loving, is spending a week in the woods with her parents, an archaeology professor, and a small group of students. They are all wearing home-made togas and sandals, and trying to live like Britons in the Iron Age. Her father, a bus driver who is obsessed with Iron Age history, lore, tools, and skills, has forced Silvie and her mother to spend all of their holidays in these pursuits, and now serves as the expert for the professor and his students. But only the lone woman student sees how cowed Silvie and her mother are by Silvie’s violent father, and the sojourn in nature takes a harrowing turn when the two men decide to simulate a human sacrifice ritual, with Silvie as the doomed maiden.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
Piercing and original narrative about two teenage sisters of Chinese descent who have lost their parents and try to make their way toward some kind of better future through the ravaged landscape of post-gold rush California. The novel has earned all kinds of acclaim, including being one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2020.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
In rural France in the 1700s, a young woman about to be handed over to a dreaded marriage prays for deliverance, and the devil answers. He grants her everlasting life, with one caveat: no one she meets will ever remember her. She lives for centuries, all over the world, absorbing art and learning new languages, but can’t maintain a relationship or establish a home, because friends, lovers, and landlords forget her the moment she is out of their sight. But in 21st century Brooklyn she meets a boy who does remember her, and she must reckon with the bargain she made. An enjoyable romp through the ages and examination of the power of art.
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
This novel in camouflage takes the form of a mystery about two sisters. One is a drug-addicted sex worker, the other a police officer who has been seeking her missing sister for a month in the midst of a series of murders of other local women in similar circumstances. But really it’s a eulogy for a community—the working-class neighborhoods of Kensington in Philadelphia—ravaged by addiction, and an indictment of the unaccountable power of police.
The Lost Diary of M by Paul Wolfe
A woman named Mary Pinchot Meyer was part of the “Georgetown set” of Washington, DC, high-ranking politicians, journalists, and spies (all men) who traded gossip at cocktail parties during the Kennedy administration. Divorced from a leader in the CIA, Mary was an artist, a pacificist, and had a serious relationship with JFK while he was in office. She was murdered a few months after JFK’s assassination; her murder that remains unsolved. All of this is historical fact. She was also reputed to have left behind a diary, which was never found. This novel purports to be that diary. I enjoyed the novel’s behind-the-scenes glimpses of Washington power brokers conducting the Cold War, and the DC locations. But the author stumbles badly in terms of writing from a woman’s point of view, creating such cringe-worthy clunkers as when Mary, in her own diary, describes herself as “a luscious blonde” and refers to her breasts as “my creamy ladies.”
Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
In 1950s England, a group of friends and acquaintances—all upper-class Brits in their 70s and 80s—receives a series of anonymous phone calls in which a stranger very politely tells them, “Remember you must die.” With sardonic wit, the novel examines the upheaval these calls trigger in the recipients’ surprisingly eventful lives, and explores the parallel experiences of a group of elderly working- and middle-class women now in a nursing home, one of whom was a long-time assistant to one of the aristocrats, invested with all of her secrets. I first read this novel in my youth; it a different experience to read it in my 60s, but a delightful read at any age.
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
In a time exactly like our own except that almost all the undomesticated birds, fish, and mammals are already extinct, an ornithologist seeks to follow the arctic terns on their last great migration, from pole to pole. In Greenland, she hitches a ride on a fishing vessel that plies the empty seas, on the promise that if they follow the terns she has banded with GPS devices, the birds will lead them to hidden fish habitats. Franny, the ornithologist and narrator, was born in Ireland but raised in Australia, and calls nowhere home, except perhaps the husband to whom she writes letters that she never mails. As she becomes more engaged with the crew of the fishing boat and learns their urgent language of knots and nets, Franny reveals to readers more and more layers of herself, and almost nothing we think we know about her turns out to be true. A well-paced novel that gleams with the romance of cold places.
The Missing American by Kwei Quartey
An American man who has been bilked by a Ghanaian internet scam goes to Ghana to confront the scammer, and disappears. Emma Jann, a young Ghanaian woman just starting out as a detective, sets out to find him. The book is much warmer and more charming than the usual dour detective fare, thanks to the engaging Emma Jann and many other Ghanaian characters, and we get fascinating glimpses of life in Accra and the mechanics of the “sakawa,”or internet fraud, trade.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
Short stories plus a novella about contemporary African American women who consistently find themselves in situation that raise a piercing question about white Americans: Do they know I’m human yet? Crisp, fresh writing that creates a powerful resonance.
A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell
In an exhilarating mash-up of genres, a military surgeon named Dr. Janet Watson, who lost her arm in the still-ongoing civil war against the New Confederacy, joins forces with a government agent called Sara Holmes to solve a mystery that deeply affects Dr. Watson and her fellow veterans. Throw in the fact that they’re both Black women, both lesbians, and most of the action takes place in Washington DC in the very near future, and you have a book that’s irresistible to a reader like me. I’m trying to broaden the genres I read, and this novel ticked several boxes.
Summer Water by Sarah Moss
Brief, lapidary gem of a novel about a handful of couples and families, mostly from Glasgow—strangers who become neighbors for a few days in a remote lakeside vacation community during an unusually rainy Scottish summer. The author draws us deeply into the varied characters, with their small dramas and deep questions, but something larger is building, and we can feel it in the tiny details. Brilliant.
Becoming Duchess Goldblatt by Anonymous
A memoir about how a writer whose real life brought her sorrows upon sorrows created the fictional Twitter character of Duchess Goldblatt, who now has more than 50,000 followers, including me. By writing her particular brand of tweets—smart, tart, facetious, yet somehow warming—Duchess has created an online community of like-minded readers, writers, and artists, some of whom have in turn created a family for her still-anonymous creator. This book is in a genre all its own: a personal memoir of an online phenomenon.
Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard. A collection of smart, witty, and beautifully crafted essays about race, identity, and the notion of home. Bernard is a Black woman who grew up in the South but has spent her adult life in ultra-white Vermont, where each time she leaves the house she is “engaged in an act of representation.” She throws her light on experiences that range from a brutal stabbing she survived to minor racial misunderstandings that take place over cups of coffee with friends, to the joys and efforts of raising her multi-cultural family (white husband, daughters originally from Ethiopia) in a white space. Highly recommend.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabelle Wilkerson
The author of The Warmth of Other Suns explains America to itself through a new lens, redefining racism as an implacable caste system similar to the long-lasting one in India and the more modern caste system of Nazi Germany, which, she reminds us, was based in part on the efficacy of U.S. racial laws.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker
In this compelling story of the Galvin family—military dad, religious mom, and 12 children—the author chronicles how the family dealt with six of their ten sons developing schizophrenia, and interweaves that with an exploration of how the scientific understanding of the illness developed in the 20th century, in part through studying the Galvins. For me, the most chilling aspect of this book was the fact that the parents regularly left their two young daughters to the care of their much-older, mentally ill brothers, who abused them in numerous ways, including sexually. The author achieved astonishing access to the family, such as being allowed to quote at length from family members’ journals. There’s much to appreciate about this book, but it’s not for everybody.
Most anticipated book
The Hive by Melissa Scholes Young (fiction)
I’m in the midst of reading an advance copy of The Hive, a novel about four sisters in conservative, small-town Missouri in 2008 who must scramble to save their family pest control business and figure out a future for themselves in the wake of their father’s death. They learn that he has plunged the company into debt, and left it in equal shares to the four sisters and a distant male cousin, certain that no woman can manage a business, although the oldest sister had been doing so for years. Their mother, a “prepper” who’s convinced the end is imminent, especially if Obama is elected, is little help. This is the rare novel that recognizes racism, sexism, and the shifts of history are as much family concerns as grief and debt. Although the novel deals with serious themes, it’s shot through with warmth, quirkiness and wit, like the Fehler family itself. The Hive will be published in June, 2021. Look for it.