Being that we have reached the halfway mark of the year, I figured I ought do a quick roundup of my favorite reads of the year. This list won’t be all literary fiction, of course (I’m not that much of a snob!) and it won’t include many of the year’s breakouts (I haven’t read them yet!) But it will be an honest and true account of what I consider to be the high points of my reading life in 2017:
- The Leavers – Lisa Ko’s The Leavers is breathtaking look at immigration and intercultural adoption. Polly’s a character you can’t help but feel both intense anger and intense sadness for. Her decisions cause a spiderweb of strife and pain for her son Deming, but are made in truly impossible times. As he grows up, Deming’s caught between the life he’s living with his adoptive parents and the life he ought to be living his mom. The Leavers is heartbreaking in both the worst and best of ways.
- The Animators – Kayla Rae Whitaker has established herself as a major young talent with her debut novel, The Animators. This story of two best friends, Sharon and Mel, who work as an animation duo, chronicles their personal and professional struggles at dawn of a new phase in their careers. The novel journeys through their pasts and how those pasts inform their current selves and their futures. The relationship between Mel and Sharon is one of my favorite recent depictions of female friendship – full, loving and prickly as hell. And Sharon’s rural background makes me recall my own. I selected this book sort of blindly via Book of the Month Club, and it’s absolutely my favorite Book of the Month Club selection.
- A Passage to India – A Passage to India was my introduction to E.M. Forrester’s elegant and sumptuous prose. How I never read Forrester before is completely beyond me and I’m terribly upset with myself for not reading this amazing novel until I was 30 years old. Forrester’s tale of cultural conflict and misunderstandings between the colonizing English and the India and Indians they colonize is ridiculously lyrical, beautiful and a genuine pleasure to read.
- #famous – I’ve actually reviewed Jilly’s YA novel here. #famous isn’t perfect and this isn’t the sort of work filled with beautiful prose or deep thoughts. But it’s genuinely a fun, adorable read. The characters feel like the teenagers that they are actually meant to be and not some adult’s vague memory of adolescence. The dialogue was snappy and delightful and quite frankly, I need to see this on the big screen.
- Attachments – This, I’ve always reviewed here. I love this book without any sort of hesitation. The plot circles around an IT guy, Lincoln, who falls in love with a woman, Beth, while he reads through the emails she exchanges at work with her best friend, Jen. It’s essentially a ridiculous screwball comedy in book form and how can that not be adored? Attachments leans into the ridiculousness of its premise which is what makes it so enjoyable to read. And again, Beth and Jen’s friendship is fantastic – it’s supportive and loving and not full of backstabbing bull. For me, this was a perfect read to chase a few blues away.
- Freddy and Fredericka – I actually bought Freddy and Fredericka at a used bookstore on a whim and 90% due to the cover. Mark Helprin’s satire of the British royal family (Freddy and Fredericka are a not-even-thinly veiled version of Charles and Diana) is a magnificently fanciful fairy tale farce and it is amazing. Essentially, after a series of embarrassing events, Freddy and Fredericka get carted out to America to prove themselves worthy of the throne. This book is dense, but it’s also hilarious. In some respects, the density is part of the reason I’m so fond of it – yes, it gets off to a slow start, but I found it to be like a marathon – it’s just the sort of book to be savored and read thoughtfully, rather than devoured in haste. It’s sympathetic and mocking of its protagonists and reminds you of their inherent goodness despite the situations of their lives and situations in which they find themselves. Fredericka in particular really comes into her own in the second half of the novel. The novel is both irreverent and down to earth and it’s just honestly, earnestly good.
- The Muse – Some people haven’t felt as kindly towards Jessie Burton’s follow up to The Miniaturist but I really enjoyed The Muse. Burton is amazingly skilled at evoking the feeling of a bygone era and in The Muse, she manages to make both 1960s London and the Spanish Civil War come a life. Not only this, she tackles the tricky work of writing a black woman’s life in 1960s London. I have to love her for writing an experience that is very much not her own and for doing it so very well. Jessie Burton is basically my Literary Girl Crush.
- Moonglow – I’ve loved Michael for a very long time now. At least, it feels like a long time. I read Wonder Boys back in 2000 and I fell in love with his brain then. Whenever I read Chabon, I always feel like his characters are sitting back and regaling me with their tales. Moonglow is no different. Of course, Moonglow is a sort of a retelling his what his grandfather told him during his last weeks of life – a deathbed confession sorts. But early on, Chabon notes that part of this is fictionalized and the dreamy, sprawling feel makes it somewhat difficult to really get a handle on what parts are completely un-embellished. And yet, that is one of the things I liked best about Moonglow. The Goodreads blurb describes it as a “work of fiction non fiction”; an “autobiography in a novel described as a memoir” – this is entirely accurate and entirely wonderful.
- Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky
- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
- American Street by Ibi Zoboi
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
- The Secret Place by Tana French
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Sometimes, a novel will surprise you. That in and of itself isn’t really a surprise. What is a surprise is how the novel surprises you. Do you hate it when you thought you’d love it? Was it not as wonderful as you heard? Or was it better than your friends told you it was?
And, sometimes, the surprise is that it’s so much more than you ever anticipated.
When I requested an ARC of Miranda Emerson’s Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars, about 85% of the thought process that went into that decision was based on the over. I mean, look at it – it’s lovely!
The other 15% percent was the synopsis – it seemed like it’d be a fun romp. I only expected what I was promised – a group of people, lead by the titular Anna Treadway traipsing around London, investigating the disappearance of an actress, Iolanthe Green, who may or may not wish to be found. What I found within the pages was much more than this.
AKA: Navel-Gazing Ennui
After finishing Sweetbitter and thinking on it for a while, I think I understand why there’s such a sharp divide in how people feel about it. People seem to absolutely love or loathe this book.
I feel both feelings at the same time.
There’s a lot of beauty in Sweetbitter. Danler absolutely knows how to turn a phrase and how to set a scene. I found her words melodic. I’ve noticed often that people tend to complain about her descriptions of food not being very “culinary.” They aren’t, but I’m not sure why people wanted them to be. As far as I can discern, this novel is not meant to evoke memories of strong culinary loves. It’s simply a roman à clef and a bildungsroman of sorts. This is a novel about a young woman moving to New York and working in a restaurant. That’s it.
The few descriptions of the culinary world and the food itself are heady and and crisp – they’re enough for what’s meant to be there. It think it’s fairly obvious that the focus of the novel isn’t particularly to ensnare you in endless descriptions of food and culinary adventuring, but to immerse you in the mind of this young woman who happens to be working at this restaurant. Much of the story could function the same if it were removed from its setting and placed elsewhere – like, for instance, an advertising agency or a private school.
A few months ago, I won a Goodreads Giveaway. I’d been waiting to read Jan Ellison’s”A Small Indiscretion” for months – it was simply something which kept getting pushed back to the back of my To Be Read list.
So, I was excited when I won and pleased as I’d now move the book farther up my reading list. As I was in the middle of a few books, I didn’t get to it right away. Finally, after some time, I did.
I find “A Small Indiscretion” to be a difficult novel to consider.
The novel centers around Annie Black and hops between her misspent youth, living in England and her more stable adulthood in San Francisco.
The book is narrated in Annie’s voice. This is her story that she tells us. The catalyst for this divulging of her secrets is the rather serious accident in which her son was injured.
I found it somewhat difficult to keep my attention on this novel. In theory, this is just my sort of book – it’s all about the internal turmoil caused by silly actions.
There’s this sort of subset of literary fiction I like to call “The Fucked Up Family Novel”.
You know what I’m talking about.
These are novels that were fucked up family dynamics are the centerpiece. The reasons for and results of those dynamics drives the narration. I’m not talking about the sort of novel that has one character with issues, but the family itself is functional. I’m talking about the sort where the whole family in general is fucked and their lives together are essentially fucked as well.
These sort of novels are my wheelhouse. I am SO down with these. I loved “The Virgin Suicides” and Zoe Heller’s “The Believers”. I loved Meg Mitchell Moore’s “The Admissions.” I live for these stories most likely because I have my own fucked up family and like to feel as if I’m not alone in having messy familial relationships. It feels nice to feel as if you can commiserate with your book, you know?Recently though, I’ve read a few of these sorts of books and I wasn’t feeling the love for them they way I’d hoped I would.
James Bailey’s “Sorry I Wasn’t What You Needed” was the first in a list of Fucked Up
Family Novels to disappoint me this summer. The premise sounded spectacular: CJ, who lives far from his family, gets a what seems to be a random, late night phone call
from his dad. Later he finds out that his father commits suicide. Now he has to return home and face the family he’s kept his distance from for the better part of 10 years.
How could that not be amazing? It wasn’t. I found the prose to be juvenile – almost like a YA novel and the characters were ridiculous. Their actions were nonsensical
and they were stupid. I can take a lot of things, but not idiotic characters. I didn’t see any real humanity in them – they sort of felt like caricatures of screwed up people rather than actual damaged people. I felt there was no subtly; no nuance. Because of that, I found it boring. Continue reading
I’m not sure if I’ve recently read anything I’ve loved more fully than Meg Mitchell Moore’s The Admissions. As soon as I finished, I added her other work to my TBR list.
I don’t want to give too much away regarding the story, because it’s really a treasure that should be discovered for itself, so I’ll just provide a little synopsis.
The Admissions is essentially a drama centered around the frazzled Hawthorne family – Nora, Gabe, and their two daughters Angela and Cecily (and their youngest daughter, Maya.) Angela’s in the process of applying to college, Nora is trying to handle difficult real estate clients, Gabe has a huge secret in the he’s attempting to keep shuttered and Cecily is struggling to maintain her typically sunny exterior. The title refers not only to Angela’s application process but also to the family members’ revelations and realizations to themselves and to each other.
You’ll notice that I almost mentioned Maya as an afterthought and, in some respects, that’s exactly how she reads. This is not meant as a slight on the character or the author for that manner, but it is how Maya functions in the story.