My year in books – 2016



At the end of each year, I share a list of books I’ve enjoyed that year. (The ones I wouldn’t recommend don’t make it to the list). So here’s my year in books. I hope you will find some good reads here – and that you’ll share your recommendations with me.


A Thin Bright Line by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

The backstory for this excellent novel, revealed in a foreword and an epilogue, is as fascinating as the novel itself, which is saying a lot. Author Lucy Jane Bledsoe was named after her beloved aunt, Lucybelle Bledsoe, a science writer who died in a fire when she was in her 40s and the author was only 9. Lucy grew up to be a science writer herself, and a lesbian – and began to realize that her secretive aunt must have been a lesbian too. But Lucy’s family could tell her very little about her aunt’s adult life, which took place in distant cities. So the author spent years researching everything she could find about Lucybelle – no easy task when the subject lived a closeted life during the oppressive McCarthy era, and worked on a top-secret government project that involved drilling ice cores in the polar regions to uncover eons of the earth’s climate history. What Bledsoe could not learn from research and interviews, she imagined. The result is a rich, textured story about a woman who lived against the grain, demanded a life of the mind and the freedom to love in an era where both were denied her, and paid in many ways for the silences she was forced to hold. All that, and a cameo by Lorraine Hansberry. Highly recommended.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

In the 1950s, a young white woman named Boy escapes a life of poverty and abuse with her rat-catcher father in New York by running away to a town in Massachusetts where most of the residents are artisans. She marries a jeweler named Arturo, who from a previous marriage has an unsettlingly perfect daughter named Snow. Only when Boy gives birth to a daughter does she learn the secret of Arturo and his aristocratic family: they’re African American and have been passing. But Boy’s new daughter cannot pass; she is dark-skinned. While the novel mixes the fable of Snow White with issues of race, the real star of the book is its style: at once dark and light, realistic and fabulist, redemptive and harrowing.


Casualties by Elizabeth Marro

A troubled son who joins the Marines and returns from Iraq physically whole but psychologically ravaged. A loving mother who works for a military defense contractor and climbs to the top of the executive ladder at the cost of too much compromise. A moment in which everything goes terribly, irretrievable wrong. These are the ingredients of a novel that takes us on a gripping journey of grief, guilt and intimacy as Ruth Nolan careens across the country, chasing the faint glow of redemption after her son’s suicide.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

This was the perfect kind of novel for me to read during those raw days shortly after the election. Smooth and well written, it’s the story of two families who get blended as the result of an affair, and the fluctuating relationships of the six half-siblings throughout their lives. Important things happen in the novel, and the stakes are high: life and death, redemption and betrayal, exile and reconciliation. But this is not one of those novels beats you up. The book is written with such heart, and such a sense of connection and commonality, that you end up wanting to live in a world of Ann Patchett’s creation.

Dietland by Sarai Walker

Dietland begins like an ugly duckling fable about Plum, a fat woman who dreams of liberating her true thin self, and who makes a living ghostwriting Dear Amy-type responses to self-hating teenaged girls. Then the author tosses in a flaming match in the form of a young woman in brightly colored tights and combat boots who seems to be following Plum, and the book catches fire. A worldwide network of feminist vigilantes! Equating rape culture with terrorism! A house full of radical feminists and secrets! Dietland is a fierce and witty novel unlike anything out there.

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

A short story collection by the author of the wonderful novel The Orphan Master’s Son. The stories are as varied and excellent as you would expect, considering the literary prizes this collection has won. My favorite is the story about the former prison warden, still living in his long-time home but forever exiled from his vanished homeland of East Germany.

The Girl who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow

With her white Danish mother and African American father, brown-skinned, blue-eyed Rachel Morse doesn’t fit anywhere in 1980s America. When her mother and two siblings fall from the roof of their Chicago apartment building and die—leaving everyone to wonder whether they were pushed or whether the mother gripped her children and jumped—11-year-old Rachel is truly alone in the world. She goes to live with her grandmother in an African American neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. And there she discovers that she is neither black enough nor white enough to find a community. This lovely novel about race and identity won the prestigious Bellwether prize.


Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

Weird and compelling story about a young woman from a twisted family who finally escapes by going away to college. Or so she thinks.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

A classic Shirley Jackson tale about a young woman who accepts an invitation from an unknown professor to step out of her oppressive life for a few days to live with other strangers in a haunted house. This is a truly frightening book – I found I couldn’t read it in bed – both for what happens inside that strange house and within the characters’ minds, and for what it reveals about the haunted lives of women at midcentury. And the writing is extraordinary.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The novel begins in Ghana with two. One marries a high-ranking white Englishman, and one is sold into slavery and shipped to America. Through the bitter slave-catching wars in Ghana and the bloody legacy of colonialism, through the horrors of the Middle Passage and slavery, Homegoing follows generation after generation of these two sisters’ families into the present day, revealing in each chapter the brutal stain of slavery on both sides of the ocean. The book deserves all the praise it has received.


In Another Life by Julie Christine Johnson

Still devastated by the sudden death of her husband in a mysterious accident 18 months ago, Lia Carrer leaves the U.S. and returns to the Languedoc region of southwestern France. Her family has roots in the region, and she has close friends there. What’s more, she is a scholar of the ancient religious group called the Cathars, who believed in reincarnation and flourished in the region until they were massacred into extinction by the Catholic Church in the early 13th century. She begins to realize that three men who have become important to her – a priest who’s an old friend, a photographer and a wine maker – are in her life for a reason. And that reason shatters everything she thinks she knows about history, time, and death itself, including the death of her husband. In Another Life is an amalgam of genres: mystery, romance and historical fiction, and the writing is gorgeous.

The Longest Night by Andria Williams

Nat, a spirited young woman from California, finds herself facing the winter of 1959 in the small Idaho town where her Army husband has been stationed. Nat is proud of Paul’s job working on the Army’s nuclear reactor and eager to be his helpmate. But as his quietness grows into secrecy, so does her feeling of being trapped and isolated in a town where she knows no one yet is judged by everyone. Paul has more urgent worries: something is dreadfully wrong with the nuclear reactor – and his superiors are doing everything they can to cover it up. Based on the true history of a fatal nuclear accident, the novel brings to life a set of vivid characters, and the mood of America on the cusp of the nuclear age.

Longest Night

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

In 1880s New Zealand, during the frenzy of the gold rush years, 12 men and 2 women become wrapped up in a mystery that will change all of their lives. The mystery involves a fortune in gold, murder, suicide, trickery, drugs, alcohol, friendship, betrayal, true love and, somehow, the Zodiac. This novel won all kinds of accolades, including the Man Booker Prize. I read it on vacation and had trouble putting it down.

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

In the 1500s, an enslaved Moroccan man accompanies his Spanish master, a conquistador, and other Spaniards on an expedition to the Gulf Coast of “La Florida” in search of gold. What they find in their trek through Florida to Mexico is illness, tribulation, and native peoples and cultures that resist the invaders mightily, until ultimately only four members of the expedition survive: the Moroccan, or Moor, and three upper-class Spaniards. The Spaniards consider “Estabanico,” as they call him (his real first name is Mustafa) less than human because he is dark-skinned and a Muslim. Readers will recognize that he is more educated, cultured and intrepid than any of the conquerors. Based on real historical events, The Moor’s Account is a stunning view of history, slavery, and the power of language to erase or uplift.


My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

By this point you’ve probably read many reviews of this novel. Several critics have observed that readers either love or hate this book, and a number of friends with excellent literary taste have placed this novel among the best they’ve ever read. I fell somewhere in the middle. While I appreciated the writing and its close-up focus on the friendship between two girls in a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Naples, I did not particularly enjoy the reading experience and feel no compulsion to read the rest of the series.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Deceptively plain book about a woman looking back on her life, particularly nine weeks she spent in the hospital as a young mother, and the inescapable impact of the horrifying poverty and abuse she suffered in her childhood. The simple sentences pack an emotional wallop.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

A brief, lively and beautifully textured tale of a 71-year-old man, veteran of many wars and father of grown daughters, who takes on the challenging job of bringing a 10-year-old girl from Wichita to San Antonio in the time shortly after the Civil War. The girl was kidnapped from her white family when she was 6 by the Kiowa Indians, and by now believes she is Kiowa, having forgotten both English and the ways of white people. The man makes his living reading news of the world to audiences along the route who can’t read or have no access to newspapers. How these two make common cause and survive the long journey in a horse-pulled wagon, crossing unbroken land beset by white bandits and Indian raiders, makes for a diverting read. I am in awe of the rigorous historical research that must lie behind a story so lightly told.


The Nix by Nathan Hill

Samuel Anderson’s mother left him when he was 11 years old. He never sees or hears from her again until he is in his 30s, a failed writer and unhappy professor of literature, and she becomes an instant media sensation by throwing gravel at a Trump-like presidential candidate. Turns out Samuel’s mother, Faye, was not the Iowa farm girl and suburban wife he had always known – or at least, not only that. She had gone to college in Chicago in 1968, and had a police record as a radical anti-war activist. In an act of vengeance and desperation, Samuel agrees to write a vicious tell-all book about this woman he barely knows, and in the process learns who she is and who he himself is. The narrative swirls around in different time periods, from the point of view of various characters, mixing Norwegian folk tales with 60’s politics with Internet gaming with childhood heartaches until you think the author can’t possibly know where he’s heading. But he does. It’s a complex story of three-dimensional characters, told with verve, humor and sharpness.

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai

Marty Wu lives in New York and has a job she hates, selling ads for a magazine she’ll never read, working for a boss who used to be her boyfriend and sometimes behaves like he still is. Despite all the self-help books Marty reads, bad things happen to her, and many are her own fault. She’s clumsy, earnest, immature and hilarious. When she loses her job and alienates her best friend in an escalating series of all-too-preventable stumbles, she flees to Taiwan with her mother. There Marty soaks in the support of her extended family and uncovers family secrets that force her to take a fresh look at her mother and herself. Not a Self-Help Book treats serious issues with humor and humanity. It introduces us to a heroine for a new era, a wacky, wistful, hyped-up version of our own inner anxieties. (Published by Shade Mountain Press, my own publisher.)


Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford

An enjoyable novel set in 1920s London, during the inter-war era of women’s suffrage and the dawn of radio. The book is about a group of women who work at the young BBC, one of the only places in England that hires women for more than secretarial jobs. A central character, Hilda Matheson, is a lesbian – and a real person, which I didn’t realize until I finished the book. But the novel is peppered with historical figures I did recognize, including Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, among many others. The novel touches on all the larger dynamics that shape individuals’ lives: gender, class, the shadow of war, the role of government, and the power of corporations. The writing was a little too broad for my tastes, but other than that I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell

Moody, smart novel about a young woman who, with her husband, comes to live in the ramshackle Vermont house of the writer Shirley Jackson and her husband. Both husbands teach at nearby Bennington College. The women grow close; in fact, young Rose becomes obsessed with Shirley Jackson and a local mystery about a missing girl that is eerily reminiscent of some of Jackson’s work. A good read about friendship, marriage, secrets, and the “devil’s work” of writing fiction.


The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The unnamed narrator worked as an interrogator for the brutal secret police of South Vietnam, but in reality he was an undercover agent of North Vietnam and a Communist sympathizer. We follow him through the chaotic end of the Vietnam war and his years as an immigrant in America, where he still follows the orders of the brutal General, while secretly carrying out the instructions of the equally vicious North Vietnamese government. His two worlds collide when he is asked to serve as an advisor to a white director’s film about the Vietnam war, and we learn what it really means to have two lives and two stories to tell. This is one of the best books I read in 2016.

To the End of the Land by David Grossman

Ora, a vibrant Israeli woman, feels she can finally exhale when her younger son safely completes his Army service. She and Ofer have planned to take a long hike together to celebrate; instead, he re-enlists. So she decides to take the hike without him and without a phone or any way to be reached, believing even though she knows it’s ridiculous that if the Army can’t find her to notify her of Ofer’s death, he cannot die. She brings along with her – indeed, pretty much kidnaps – Ofer’s biological father, Avram, who has never seen or spoken about his son. Throughout the days of walking, she tries to recreate Ofer for him through stories. The novel illuminates captivating details of Ora’s family life and of daily life in Israel for both Jews and Palestinians. But the book is really about war without end, and the death-drenched culture it has created.

The Trespasser by Tana French

I rarely read crime fiction, and when I do, it’s almost always something written by Tana French. She writes about the detectives of the Dublin murder squad, in this instance about the lone woman on the squad, Antoinette Conway. She and her partner are assigned to investigate a murder that at first appears to be a routine boyfriend-kills-girlfriend – they see far too many of these “domestics” – but turns out to be shockingly different. French is a gorgeous writer, and while her novels have dynamic plots and growing suspense, the most pleasure for readers comes from her psychologically acute character studies, plus the insider’s look at how police work is done.

Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

This powerful novel takes place in a near-future America that is familiar except for one thing: four states, known as the Hard Four, still practice slavery. And that skews everything else in the world, from the fact that most countries will not trade with the U.S. to what happened with a certain novel about a mockingbird. Most importantly, of course, it changes life for all African American people, in the Hard Four states and elsewhere, including the narrator of the novel, known (sometimes) as Victor. He is a former “peeb” himself – a person bound to labor – and now is equally enslaved, by means of a chip embedded in his body, to a federal agency that uses him as a highly skilled marshal to track down escaped peebs and return them to their bondage. When Victor is assigned an unusual case, everything begins to unravel, including his sense of self. The book is packed with chilling details, such as the codifications of blackness that Victor has memorized, and this song, which a giant corporation forces its slaves to sing every morning on the way to work: “These strong hands belong to you, hands and back and spirit too” – and then they must shout out thank yous to the corporation that owns them. As an alternate history of the U.S. and an indictment of the racism that blights every aspect of American life, this novel succeeds all too well.


The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky

The main character of this novel is Dina, an Australian doctor living with her Israeli husband and their young son in the city of Haifa. It is 2001, and the whole country is one quivering tripwire because of the Intifada and the moment-by-moment terror of violence flaring up from the Palestinian resistance, the Israeli army, or more likely both. But Dina has other worries on top of concerns about her patients and the fear that any public gathering could be a target for a bomb. She is haunted – literally – by her late mother, who survived the Holocaust, and by her mother’s memories and acid-etched stories of those who didn’t survive. The novel ratchets up the tension page by page as we watch Dina’s life spiral out of control while she tries to find a home for herself in a country so intent on fighting for its life that it has neglected its soul. I particularly appreciated the fine depiction of smaller characters, from passengers on the bus to patients in Dina’s waiting room to a shoemaker who repairs more than leather.


The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

A satisfying, old-fashioned novel that tells a multi-layered story about the wife of a famous writer, as she ponders marriage (the heterosexual kind), the egotism of men, the mystery of children, the anxieties of artistic success, and the limitations placed on women of all eras lest they grow too powerful. Such smart, assured writing, with a few surprises tucked in here and there.


My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

An interesting and enjoyable account of Gloria Steinem’s life and travels, from experiences with her itinerant, penniless parents, to the months she spent in rural India, to her burgeoning career as a writer, civil rights activist and eventually the years she spent as a feminist leader. I was familiar with some of the incidents she describes, but her behind-the-scenes view is extraordinary. I was surprised and moved to read where, and with whom, Steinem plans to be buried. Luckily at 82, she is still going strong.

Negroland by Margo Jefferson

Loved, loved, loved this memoir about a woman’s coming of age as a member of the elite upper-class African American community of Chicago’s South Side. The demands on Jefferson and her family were immense: to be better than everyone else, black or white. Born in 1947, Jefferson’s youth and young adulthood incorporated the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement, among others – tumultuous change that took place between the huge grinding stones of race and class. The book is written with wit, erudition and an appealingly arch tone. Jefferson’s story resonated particularly with me because I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and recognized some of the locations and institutions she mentioned; for example, Jefferson attended the same school as my mother – the Lab School, one of only two private schools in the city that were racially integrated.


The Residence: Inside the Private World of The White House by Kate Andersen Brower

Fascinating behind-the-scenes look at daily lives and professional demands on the permanent staff of the White House residence – the butlers, ushers, cooks, florists, carpenters, housekeepers, etc. who interact intimately with each First Family and keep the private(ish) side of the Executive Mansion running.

Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand

The highly lauded story of an unpromising racehorse who turned out to win more matches than anyone dreamed possible and became a hero and cultural icon during the Depression era. Laura Hillenbrand is outstanding at turning stories that have little inherent interest (to me) into gripping, highly textured narratives.

Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild

The Spanish Civil War was a battle between fascists and democrats, between a secular government and one dominated by the Catholic Church, between left and right. It would, in fact, turn out to be a prequel to WWII – and a lost opportunity to stop Hitler and Mussolini before they waged war on the world. This book takes a deep look into the lives of Americans who fought in the war and the leftist activists and artists who wrote, raised funds, organized supplies, established hospitals, published newspapers, and agitated on behalf of the Republican (secular) side. Hochschild reveals the shocking and illegal support that Texaco, an American oil company whose CEO admired Hitler, gave to Franco and his fascists.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

A 30-something British couple leaves high-stress London and moves to rural Denmark so the husband can work for Lego. The wife, a journalist, decides to spend the year investigating what makes the Danish appear in survey after survey as “the happiest people on earth.” Among her many discoveries is the fact that anyone who works more than 8 hours a day is considered not a workplace hero but a slacker who can’t complete their work on time. I learned a good deal about Danish culture and daily life, and enjoyed the level of humor and snark the author brought to the narrative.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

In this incisive, insightful narrative, Anderson makes an irrefutable case that white people have risen up to block progress toward racial justice at every opportunity, using whatever legislative and policy tools were at hand and not infrequently the torch, the rope and the gun as well. From the post-Civil War years to the era she calls “How to Unelect a Black President,” Anderson reveals a different slant on the story of America that was evident the entire time if we had only cared to look. And fellow white people, we are not the heroes of this story. The book is short, readable, well resourced, and essential reading, especially for white people.


And you?

What books would you recommend to curl up with on a winter night? Which books astonished, delighted or obsessed you this year? What are you looking forward to reading in 2017? Do tell.



Haunting Legacy

Deborah Kalb is an accomplished journalist and the co-author of the influential nonfiction book Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama. Her co-author was none other than her father, Bernard Kalb, who covered the Vietnam War.

So I was thrilled when Deborah interviewed me for her book blog.

She reached out to me because I’m participating in the annual Temple Sinai Authors’ Roundtable on February 27th, along with three wonderful writers:

  • Michelle Brafman, Washing the Dead
  • Maureen Corrigan, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures
  • Sarah Wildman, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind

The panel discussion will be moderated by Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of DC’s venerable independent bookstore Politics and Prose.

So yes, it’s going to be book-lovers’ heaven here in Washington, DC next Saturday. If you’re in the area, please come join us.

Sinai book logo

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #30 Vanessa Garcia

Vanessa Garcia

White Light is a gorgeous novel about difficult subjects: loss, regret, and the craving of artists to create art. Veronica Gonzalez is a young artist in Miami, the daughter of Cuban immigrants. She is barely scraping by when she is offered a gallery showing that could finally fling open the doors to the art world for her. Just as she begins to prepare for this show, her father dies suddenly, throwing her into grief and the chaos of their tumultuous and unresolved relationship.

The color of faraway places

The book is beautifully designed, from the front cover – a section of a painting by the author – to the chapter headings, many of which offer a scribble of color followed by a brief, often poetic, definition. Orange, for example, is “color of Florida and faraway places.” Silver is “a spiritual color. Color of the moon.” Indigo is “the color you see glinting off a non-recorded DVD.”

The book is filled with lyrical language, such as this description of a woman talking, “a slight Caribbean accent tracing her words like smoke.” The book gives the reader a dynamic view of the creative process from the inside, a glimpse of the full spectrum of love and loss, and a reason to look forward eagerly to future work from this multi-talented writer and artist.

Best books of 2015

White Light is the second novel produced by the feminist publisher Shade Mountain Press. The first was my own novel, Her Own Vietnam. While I may not be the most objective reviewer of this novel, I am far from alone in my admiration of it. Among many other accolades, White Light was named by NPR as one of the best books of 2015, under the category “Seriously Great Writing.”

Get a free copy

I’m please to have copy of White Light to give away. To participate in the giveaway, contact me and let me know you want a copy. I’ll randomly select a name. If it’s yours, I’ll mail you a free book. (Sorry, U.S. addresses only.)


My year of books – 2015


Wall of books by Mr. T in DC

Every year I share a list of the books I read in 2015, with brief descriptions of each. The books are listed in alphabetical order by title. An asterisk * denotes the books I particularly enjoyed. Fiction comes first, followed by nonfiction.

Feel free to share this list. I hope you find some good reads here – and that you’ll share your own book recommendations in the comments. 


*A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Not exactly a sequel to her wonderful novel Life After Life, this is a standalone novel that involves some of the same characters and centers on Teddy, the beloved brother of Ursula, who lived and died and lived again in the previous book. The pivotal time for Teddy was when he served as a fighter pilot in WWII, and that experience affected his life in surprising ways.

Across a Green Ocean by Wendy Lee

A middle-aged woman, Ling Tang, gazes out at the lawn of her suburban house, which hasn’t been mowed since her husband Han died suddenly a year ago. Like the overgrown lawn, the novel seems familiar at first, but grows more mysterious and compelling the further you explore. The Tang family is saturated in secrets, from the parents, both Chinese immigrants, to the American-born daughter and son, now adults. The children begin to untangle the knotted family ties only after the son discovers in his late father’s papers a recent letter from a Chinese friend that says, “Everything has been forgiven.” (Read my full review here.)

*The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman

The Angel of Losses is beautifully written and full of wonders: miracles, myths and mysteries. The story centers on two sisters, Marjorie and Holly, who grew up as close as could be. They adored their grandfather, who lived with them and told them enthralling stories. Both girls were heartbroken when he died. But by the time we meet them, the two adult sisters are estranged, taking dramatically different paths in life. Then Marjorie finds one of her grandfather’s old notebooks and discovers something shocking. He was Jewish, it turns out, a survivor of the Holocaust bearing a dreadful secret. “He’s coming for me,” Marjorie’s grandfather tells her in what she hopes is a dream. “And then he’s coming for you.” (Read my full review here.)

*Blue Stars by Emily Gray Tedrowe

When soldiers are wounded, their families – mostly mothers and wives – live ever after with the legacy of war. Blue Stars is the story of two such women, and it takes you deep into the world of tedium and terror that was Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington, DC during 2005. One woman is a literature professor, a war opponent, and essentially (although not technically) the mom of a young Marine who returns from Iraq as an amputee. The other is married to an officer in the Reserves and lives in “Mil-world,” surrounded by other military families. These two women – whose respective age and class would normally ensure that they never meet – become close friends and lifelines for one another in the high-stress fishbowl of a medical military village where everything is at stake but nothing makes sense. (Read my full review here.)

Days in the History of Silence by Merethe Lindstrom

This Norwegian novel is about a long marriage undermined by silence: the things they cannot say to one another, to their children, to themselves. Ultimately the husband retreats into total silence and a gentle kind of dementia, leaving the wife to excavate their years together and salvage what she can. The writing is austere and its impact surprising from such an understated narrator.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Picture a mobile made of flat, shiny pieces of metal, hung near a window to sway in the wind as it captures and refracts the light. That is the structure of this singular and moving novel about a faltering marriage. Written in small, faceted snippets by the wife (we never learn any character’s name), we see the romance bloom, struggle, crack. She invokes philosophers, scientists, writers, and uses language in fresh ways: Her husband has none of her “raised by wolsvesness.” When she asks him to do something shocking, “He looks shaken by this request, but still I monster on about it.” This is a novel to savor.

The Devils that are Here to Stay by Pamela di Francesco

The novel is allegorical: a nameless Narrator takes an epic journey to find his wife and his own redemption, along the way meeting up with a Native American man with strange powers whose moral mission is larger than his life, and a terrifying Stranger whose lust for gold has made him vicious and vulnerable. At the same time, the book is so grounded in the specifics of daily life in California during the Gold Rush – what people ate, how they dressed, how they spoke – that the hallucinatory aspects of the book are balanced by its tangible details. You can read it to see what happens next, or as a powerful indictment of the cruelties of the Gold Rush years in America or of capitalism itself, or just to submerge yourself in unique characters and a distinctive historical place and time. (Read my full review and an author Q & A here.)

*Erebus by Jane Summer

Part poetry, part elegy, part narrative, part accident report, this was the most remarkable book I read in 2015. It is a new kind of book about an old and aching loss, the death of the author’s beloved friend and 255 others when a New Zealand Air jet smashed into Mt. Erebus in the Antarctic during a sightseeing flight in 1979. Evocative and unsettling, Erebus lets you glimpse the icy landscape of the Antarctic and the equally unforgiving landscape of loss, the moonglow of friendship tinged with regret. (Read my full review here.)

The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Hartnett

In her matter-of-fact way, the novel’s 11-year-old narrator tells us about her life and that of her family, a white Irish-American clan in the Pennsylvania coal country that she believes has been cursed for generations, either by a priest’s malediction or by their own bad choices and worse luck. They live in a plundered landscape where mining companies have gouged the ground hollow and made the earth’s thin crust rage with sink holes, poison gases and underground fires that cannot be extinguished. But when Brigid accidentally discovers the body of a murdered man, things really get tense. (Read my full review here.)

How to be Both by Ali Smith

This novel has won a slew of literary prizes, and you can see why. The book is composed of two gorgeously written stories, one about a painter in 15th century Italy, and one about a contemporary teenage British girl whose mother has just died. The two stories are connected in astonishing ways, and the structure of the book is such that it works whether you start first by reading the painter’s story or the teenager’s. Smith tells two captivating stories, and raises important questions about art, love, gender, power, and how – or whether – we can know one another.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce

The sequel to Joyce’s 2013 novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, about a middle-aged man who impulsively decides to walk across England to visit an old friend who is dying. Queenie Hennessey was that friend, and this book tells the story from her point of view.

The Martian by Andy Weir

A fun read about an immensely resourceful astronaut whose crew accidentally leaves him behind on Mars, believing he has been killed. The astronaut, Mark Watney, is a great character, full of snark and creativity, and the book includes one or two other sharp characterizations. But most of the characters – including all of the women – are mere collections of tics, many of them implausible. Read this book for the plot and the science, not for the writing.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

A young Australian Army doctor falls in love with a married woman, then is deployed and captured by the Japanese in this sweeping novel that moves from the WWII era to decades later. The sections that take place in the POW camp are breathtaking, as are the segments that follow Australian prisoners and their Japanese captors after the war. But the portrayal of the intense love affair at the center of this novel strains credulity, as does the ending. For example, there’s a moment when the doctor is so smitten he forgets his own name. The novel has won much acclaim, including the Man Booker prize. I hate to think how far back in the Romance section the book would have been buried if it had been written by a woman.

Nora Webster: A Novel by Colm Toibin

Another fine, quiet novel by Toibin about a complex woman, in this case the newly widowed Nora Webster, who must deal with raising children, making a living, and creating an independent life amidst her own grief and the political and cultural upheaval of Ireland in the 1960s.

*The Normal State of Mind by Susmita Bhattacharya

In urban India during the last years of the 20th century, two women tumble off the small, flat world known as “normal life.” Dipali has been married for only three years when her beloved husband is killed in one of the terrorist bombings that have convulsed Mumbai. Far away in Calcutta, Moushumi has also found love, but in a dangerous place – the arms of another woman. She is exiled from her family and flees to Mumbai. Dipali and Moushumi, both teachers, develop a friendship as they explore their shared experience of being “edged out into the border of society.” (Read my full review here.)

The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton

Engaging novel about two women journalists, a writer and a photographer, struggling to get to Paris in time to cover the Allied liberation of the city from years of Nazi occupation. They must face all the danger and deprivation of the ongoing war, as well as the determined efforts of the military to prevent women correspondents from doing their jobs by, for example, denying them access to the information, transportation, food and housing provided to male correspondents.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

During WWII, a young American woman pilot gets shot down over occupied France and ends up in Ravensbruck, the infamous women’s concentration camp.

*Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Silver Sparrow is a book with a beating heart. The novel is about two girls growing up in Atlanta during the 1980s who have much in common. They’re the same age, live in the same middle class black community, frequent the same malls and follow the same rules and rituals of teenage life. But only one daughter, the smart and beautiful Dana, knows what they really share: a father. And she’s understood since she was six years old that she and her mother are the family that must remain a secret. (Read full review here.)

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

A desperately depressed writer is obsessed with a photo her best friend took, of a young girl blasted away from an explosion that killed the rest of her family. To save the writer, her friends – all of them artists – decide to find that young girl and rescue her from her war-ravaged Eastern European county by bringing her to the U.S. But that plot serves as only the skeleton of this raw, wild novel that has attracted such critical acclaim.

*Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

A well-written novel about two teenage sisters and their struggles as they face the death of their beloved uncle from AIDS, and the discovery that he had a long-term partner the girls did not know about, and no one else in the family accepted.

The Untold by Courtney Collins

Fictionalized and stylized story of a real-life woman who stole horses and carved out an arduous but free life (except for her stints in prison) in Australia during the 1920s. Once you get past the identity of the narrator, this is an enjoyable read, with lovely language.

*Vera’s Will by Shelley Ettinger

The novel is about two women, a grandmother and her granddaughter, who grow up as perpetual outsiders: Jewish, leftist, and lesbians. Vera Resnick and her family flee the pogroms of Czarist Russia and end up in New Jersey. There she falls in love with a woman, loses her to the influenza epidemic, and marries a businessman. When she falls for another woman years later, Vera’s husband decides she cannot be allowed to raise their two sons. He takes the children away but Vera eventually finds them and follows them to suburban Detroit, where her sons grow into resentful adults. One of them has a daughter named, unwittingly, after Vera’s first, lost love. That daughter also grows up to be a lesbian, and the second storyline in the novel is hers. Through their eyes and their activism we see wars, McCarthyism, labor action, the civil rights movement, the rise of the women’s and lesbian/gay rights movements – a history of social change in America. (Read my full review here.)

*White Light by Vanessa Garcia

A beautiful novel about difficult subjects: loss, regret, and the craving of artists to create art. Veronica Gonzalez is a young artist in Miami, the daughter of Cuban immigrants. She is barely scraping by when she is offered a gallery showing that could finally open the doors to the art world for her. Just as she begins to prepare for this show, her father dies suddenly, throwing her into grief and the chaos of their tumultuous and unresolved relationship. The book is filled with lyrical language, such as this description of a woman talking, “a slight Caribbean accent tracing her words like smoke.” White Light gives the reader a dynamic view of the creative process from the inside, a glimpse of a Cuban-American family at the breaking point, and a reason to look forward eagerly to future work from this multi-talented writer and artist. (Note: In January, look for my full review and a giveaway of White Light, which was published by my own publisher, Shade Mountain Press.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Originally published in 1859, this novel is widely considered the first detective novel. I found it tense and gripping, despite its Victorian pacing and flourishes. The plot centers around two half-sisters who are devoted to one another. The younger sister inherited wealth, and her father on his deathbed promised her in marriage to a titled gentleman. But since then she has fallen in love with an art teacher – a man who straddles the class line between gentleman and working man – and a mysterious woman in white has raised disturbing questions about her promised husband and a secret he holds. The older sister is smart, resourceful, courageous and loyal – and both sisters are in peril because of this secret. The novel is narrated in sequential sections by several characters, as each gives individual testimony about the crimes, conspiracies and tragedies sparked by the baronet’s greed and his need to hide his secret. The art teacher acts as an amateur detective to piece the storylines together and resolve the mystery. I was surprised by how boldly the novel addresses issues of gender and class, making it clear, for example, that it is the sisters’ powerless legal status that puts them in such danger.


Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

This doctor argues convincingly that America manages aging, death and dying by handing them over to doctors, who are utterly untrained and unprepared to deal with these inevitable life processes. There are no truly new ideas in the book, but Gawande uses stories from his medical practice and his own life to illustrate how we could face our mortality more humanely – and how difficult this is.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

A gripping retelling of the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania in 1915, which caused 1,200 deaths and propelled the United States into World War I. Telling the story from the perspective of both the people on the doomed ship and the German U-boat commander who destroyed it, Larson reveals the national hubris and corporate greed that led to this utterly predictable and preventable disaster.

*Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

In the days following Hurricane Katrina, the doctors, nurses and staff in New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital had to care for their sick and terrified patients in an apocalyptic environment with no electricity, floodwaters rising, and racially-charged rumors of violent crowds roaming the streets. Faced with this catastrophe, some doctors and nurses decided to euthanize patients they thought could not survive being evacuated once rescue finally arrived. Sheri Fink does a captivating job of recreating the crisis and the decisions the exhausted staff faced, exploring their perspectives, and noting pivotal moments when events could have gone a different way. She then places the entire experience within a broader context of how different communities conduct triage and decide who is considered worth saving – and who is qualified to make that judgment.

*Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

So many murders take place in South Los Angeles, and yet so few are solved by police even though many people in the community know who the killer was and why they committed the act. This book begins as a tale of a particular murder and a particular police detective who is determined to solve it. It then pulls back to show us the landscape in which such intimate crimes take place: the anguished black communities that generation after generation have been estranged from the law, its benefits and protections – a direct legacy of Jim Crow. “It’s not the guns,” Leovy writes about what distinguishes such communities, “it’s the grief.”

*H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Beautifully written memoir about how Macdonald handled her grief about her father’s sudden death by submerging herself in the ancient art of training a hawk. And not just any hawk, but a large, fierce goshawk she named Mabel. Throughout her own story, Macdonald weaves the stories of other hawk trainers, particularly the writer T. H. White, whose own account of trying to train a goshawk is both an inspiration and a warning to her. If you enjoy audiobooks, try listening to this one. Macdonald narrates it herself, and she has a lovely voice.

Master of the Senate – Part 1 by Robert Caro

Another chapter in the remarkable saga of Lyndon Johnson, who both created and destroyed modern American politics.

Means of Ascent by Robert Caro

This segment of Caro’s comprehensive exploration of Lyndon Johnson examines how he charmed, cajoled, cheated and clawed his way to power, from his early Congressional experience to his service (or lack of it) in WWII to his hotly contested and improbably won Senate election. These years saw the evolution of the political process in America from a person-to-person connection to the mass marketing approach we recognize today – and Johnson either created or was among the first to use each innovation.

Midnight in Siberia by David Greene

David Greene – the co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition with the warm, confiding voice – decided to travel across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railway to meet regular people and hear their stories about life in Russia today. He and his wife had lived in Moscow for three years, but that was not the “real” Russia he wanted to see. So Greene and his translator traversed the vast country on the train, stopping for a few days where the train stopped. Traveling mostly third class, Greene learned that everyone shares food and drink and no one considered his American protein bars as food. I enjoyed this travelogue and the glimpses of Russian life it revealed.

Nixonland by Rick Perlstein

“Nixonland is the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coincide in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans.” Perlstein’s thesis is that Richard Nixon created the Divided States of Red and Blue that we now live in, and he supports it in 750 entertaining pages of facts, anecdotes and narrative. I had forgotten, before reading this book, just what chaotic and consequential times my generation has lived through. Perlstein’s writing is a little too “Look at me!” for my tastes, but his insights are compelling.

On the Run by Alice Goffman

As a young sociology student, Goffman – a white woman – spent six years in a low-income African American neighborhood in Philadelphia, chronicling at close range the lives of a group of young men who were rarely employed, sold drugs to support themselves and their families, and defended their turf with guns. Goffman lived in the neighborhood and spent all her time with these men, their friend and families, and their constant fear of and strategies to evade the police. The book reveals the astonishing extent to which every single part of life – every casual transaction, every stroll down the street, every visit to a friend – is made criminal and perilous by the constant intrusion of the police. Goffman illustrates how often a young man is turned into a fugitive because he can’t pay court fines: hundreds of dollars levied against already poor people, even in the frequent cases when they are dragged into court unfairly. She describes how police pressure women to reveal the whereabouts of their sons and lovers: through beatings, threats of eviction, and threats to take away their children. Goffman concludes that police presence in low-income black neighborhoods constitutes “the last remaining repressive regime of our time.”

The Path to Power by Robert Caro

In this first volume of Caro’s sweeping biographical series on LBJ, we see deeply into his life, from childhood through winning his seat in Congress and losing his first Senatorial campaign because his opponent “stole more votes than we did.” Johnson is a fascinating character, with gigantic energy, dedication and faults, and an almost total lack of ethics or political values. So much of the 20th century political process was shaped and in many cases invented by him, for good and ill. Despite the heft of this book – I listened to it as an audiobook 40 hours long – I was hooked, and immediately moved on to the next book in the series.

Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda Hirshman

This interesting and accessible examination of the first and second woman on the Supreme Court explores their upbringing, their struggles as women in an all-male field largely controlled by all-male legislatures, and their roles and rulings on the Supreme Court as they affected women’s ongoing quest for legal equality.

To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild

A British political and social history of WWI that features not only soldiers and statesmen, but activists – particularly the suffragists and pacifists who played such a major role in shaping the war years and their aftermath.

*To the River by Olivia Laing

A lovely and thoughtful examination of the river Ouse in England, the role of rivers in human history, and the writers through whose lives the Ouse flowed, including Virginia Woolf, who lived near the river and drowned herself in it.

What was the best book you read in 2015?

Please share in the comments. I’ll give you a shout out in 2016 if I review a book you recommended.

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #28 Natalie S. Hartnett

Natalie S. Harnett

The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett presents several views of hell. The hell of craving to be loved in ways your relatives cannot manage. The hell of struggling to get by economically as hopes and options dwindle to nothing. Most of all, the hell of living in a plundered landscape where mining companies have gouged the ground hollow and made the earth’s thin crust rage with sink holes, poison gases and underground fires that cannot be extinguished.

The novel’s narrator, Brigid Howley, is eleven years old, going on forty. In her matter-of-fact way, she tells us about her life and that of her family, a white Irish-American clan in the Pennsylvania coal country that she believes has been cursed for generations either by a priest’s malediction or by their own bad choices and worse luck.

Sinkholes and secrets

Brigid’s beloved father, a miner like all the men in his family, was injured years ago in a mysterious mining disaster that took the life of his brother. Brigid also has a beautiful, prickly mother and a baby brother. In 1961, the family is living with a great-aunt until a sinkhole sucks her under and turns her house uninhabitable.

The Howleys have to move in with Daddy’s mother and father in the even more bleak and ecologically devastated town of Barrendale. There Brigid makes a best friend and discovers the body of a murdered man, a crime that brings to light all the secrets, blame, guilt and longing that have roiled under the surface of her family for years.

Upending my expectations

The Hollow Ground upended all of my expectations. Before I opened the novel I had just finished a powerful book that still had me slightly under its spell, so I expected to read a good bit of The Hollow Ground before it fully won my interest. Nope. By the time I had read the prologue – less than a page long – I was utterly absorbed.

The prologue begins, “We walk on fire or air, so Daddy liked to say,” and ends with this: “I’m just saying that sometimes what we seek is something we hope, with all our blood and bone, we’ll never find.” Who can resist such an opening?

I generally don’t like child narrators, and expected Brigid to be equally problematic, either too cute or preternaturally wise. She is neither. Brigid Howley is a unique character with an original narrative voice that is brushed with rough poetry. In fact, every character in the novel – from the members of the Howley family to the women who work in the mill with Brigid’s mother to the detective who investigates the murder – is clear-cut, full-bodied and memorable.

A monstrous crime

But the star of the novel is the earth, exploited and abused by the coal companies until it no longer resembles the planet we know. “Steaming green lawns in the dead of winter.” A character “would talk about which part of her basement was too hot to touch and how many tomatoes had ripened in what should have been the frostbitten ground in her garden.” To me, the murder mystery that creates one strand of the novel shrinks to insignificance in the face of the monstrous crime committed by the coal companies against the land and all the families who live on it.

Most striking was the way the characters and their entire communities take the devastation in stride. When they learn that an inspector needs to test the air in each house in the middle of every night so they don’t suffocate in their sleep, the local families simply leave the door unlocked for him. “They [the coal companies] don’t care how many houses and families they wreck,” Brigid’s grandmother declares, “as long as they get every last flake of coal down to the bedrock.”


This is a novel that creates an unforgettable world teeming with full-bodied characters. Each page rewards the reader with some new insight, character revelation or bit of fresh, distinctive language. Once you read it, you won’t be surprised to learn that The Hollow Ground, published in 2014, won both the John Gardner Fiction Book Award and the Appalachian Book of the Year Award for Fiction.

Get a free copy of The Hollow Ground

The paperback edition of The Hollow Ground was just published in August. I’m happy to have a copy to give away. There are two ways to toss your name in the hat to win a copy.

You can contact me through this blog and let me know you’d like a copy.

Or better yet, you can sign up for my newsletter to be eligible to win this and other free books by women writers.  When you receive the newsletter, just hit reply and tell me which book you want.

I’ll choose a name from those who contact me. (Sorry, I can only ship to U.S. addresses.) I hope you will appreciate this new voice in literature and look forward, as I do, to future books by Natalie S. Harnett.

Hollow Ground cover