The Best of My Reading Year

I had no idea that by mid-year I would be working on the first of what I hope will be a series of contemporary literary crime novels featuring a disgraced Seattle Police Department Violent Crimes detective — my reading year took an abrupt and unexpected shift over the summer. I moved from my usual literary fiction/narrative non-fiction/poetry mix into the worlds of thrillers, mysteries, crime fiction, detective and police procedurals.

Although my 2018 reading list ends pretty heavily weighted in favor of the deliciously dark and satisfying world of murder and mayhem, my best of list crosses genre. What is common throughout is intense conflict, and the intractable mystery of the human soul. I think there’s a something for (nearly) everyone here, from bestsellers to the obscure.

In no particular order:

 

FICTION

Happiness by Aminatta Forna
The narrative moves from present to recent to mythical past, tracing the lines of a wolf hunter in Massachusetts in the early nineteenth century, the demise of Jean’s marriage and her quest to save coyotes in New England in the mid-oughts, and Attila’s work as a hostage negotiator and trauma specialist in war zones from Bosnia to Sierra Leone to Iraq. Despite the breadth of its landscapes, Happiness is the story of what happens deep inside the heart after grief and loss, after love has come and gone. And possibly come again. It is also deeply political, delving into human migration, animal conservation, and war. There are so many layers of theme and character and much of the narrative relies on coincidence to move it forward, yet Forna keeps this all spinning in delicate orbit with sublime writing and wonderful characters.

 

The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

The Cottingley Secret is a curl-up-and-forget-the-world sort of read, an enchanting and delightful escape. A dash of history mixed with contemporary drama and a touch of romance is just the antidote for these cynical, selfish times. Gaynor’s writing is lovely, moving fluidly between past and present, conveying a sense of wonder and possibility while remaining grounded in history and place. I simply adored this book.

Everland by Rebecca Hunt
Everland by Rebecca Hunt (2015)
Two Antarctic expeditions, set a century apart. The first, which ended in disaster, is the stuff of legends and side-taking amongst a group of modern researchers stationed at Aegeus, a fictitious Antarctic base. In 1913, three men set out in a dinghy from the main ship to explore the island of Everland: hard-bitten, calculating First Mate Napps, straight-talking, fearless Millet-Bass, and tenderfoot Dinners, who is as out of his element as a fish on a bicycle. A storm strands them on the island and only Dinners is found alive, barely, weeks later when the rescue crew is finally able to reach them. Napps’ diaries survive, but the truth they reveal is circumspect. What really happened on the Everland expedition remains frozen in time and lost memory.

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Quick, name all the literary characters you’ve fallen in love with… Lizzy Bennet, Ponyboy Curtis, Atticus Finch, Harriet the Spy, Aragorn, Jo March… those are the first who come to my mind. Add to this list the unsinkably spirited Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, an erstwhile aristocrat who in 1922 is sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s elegant Hotel Metropol. His crime is being a man of wealth and manners in Bolshevik Russia, where refinement is an affront to the state.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman
Tin Man by Sarah Winman (2017)

Sarah Winman’s (why have I not encountered her before? Tin Man is that dreaded (by the publishing industry), quiet novel, built around characters and the slow burn of years, tragedy, and a copy of a Van Gogh painting. It is the glaring sunlight of the Provençal sun against the glittering needles of the Alpilles. It is the autumn glow of a waning year in majestic Oxford. It is a couple falling in love during the delivery of a Christmas tree and another in a cemetery where the drunks go to find a moment of tenderness.

The Storm by Arif Anwar

The Storm by Arif Anwar (2018)

Inspired by the Bhola Cyclone that devastated what is now Bangladesh in November 1970, Arif Anwar spins the globe and lands the reader in WWII Burma, the Partition of India in 1947, the 1970 Bhola Cyclone, the 1972 Bangladesh independence, and modern-day Washington D.C. His premise—A dozen major and minor characters chronicle of the recent history of Bangladesh— an ambitious premise, yet Anwar weaves eras, nations, events, and characters together with grace and formidable skill.

 

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran (2017)

Lucky Boy captured me in its opening pages and held me for the scant four days it took to read. Released in early 2017, the novel presciently mirrors the headlines du jour: the travesty at the US-Mexican border of children separated from their parents. Lucky Boy challenges us to consider how to balance the justice and compassion for undocumented migrants with the need for fair and reasonable immigration policies; how to embrace the American-born children, those so-called Dreamers, whose parents left their home and risked their lives to escape poverty and violence. In a culture where ethics, compassion, civility and common sense seem to crumble with each Tweet blasted out from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Shanthi Sekaran’s smart and tender novel makes us feel deeply the controversies that newspaper headlines so often sensationalize to the point of rendering us numb.

 

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)

… It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma… Winston Churchill may have been speaking about Russian national interest, but his famous quip perfectly describes the playfully clever Matryoshka doll of a novel written nearly eighty years later. Magpie Murders is an homage to the cozy mystery that British authors and screenwriters have made so irresistible, from Agatha Christie to the author’s own detective series for the small screen, Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
 Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017)

Like the Greek tragedy that serves as its inspiration, Home Fire is epic, fatalistic, and breathtaking. Shamsie’s story is engrossing, her intelligent and beautiful writing so readable. The political thriller/romance spin serve to make this novel accessible, even while its stylistic and psychological choices push it into deep literary fiction.

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
 The Woman In The Window by A.J.Finn (2017)

I LOVE being surprised by a book. I loved this book. Anna’s voice and her vulnerability rang true, even if her obsession with noir film was just so utterly contrived (can anyone say ‘made for the big screen film deal’, which apparently happened before this book even hit the shelves. Now starring the adorable, admirable, and yes, I’m crazy for her, Amy Adams), but also very, very smart.

 

NON-FICTION

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After 
by Clemantine Wamariya (2018) This is a memoir of visceral emotions, of a young woman tortured by anger and fear and trying to make sense of all the she endured and how she survived. 
Educated by Tara Westover
Educated by Tara Westover (2018)
Educated isn’t about growing up Mormon. I think you’d probably learn more about the Church of Latter Day Saints watching a performance of The Book of Mormon. Westover’s memoir is about growing up in the shadow of profound mental illness—her father’s—and the Stockholm Syndrome-like effects it had on Westover, his six siblings, and her enabling and imprisoned mother.
The Recovering by Leslie Jamison
The Recovering is an exploration of the mythology of addiction and creativity-that the latter depends on the depth of the former, that the two are inextricably linked. By weaving the narrative of her own addictions with those of famous artists, mostly male authors writing in the booze genre (e.g. Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, John Cheever), Jamison delivers an encyclopedic memoir of a literary alcoholic.
The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell
Goodell, a longtime editor for Rolling Stone, concentrates much of his narrative in Miami and Miami Beach, exposing the folly and corruption that built these sand castle communities, the naïvete and stupidity and ostrich-head-burying that will eventually wash them away. But Goodell also takes us to Manhattan and the Jersey Shore to view the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (2012), the heartbreaking plunge of Venice, the water ghettos of Lagos, and the immediate peril in the Marshall Islands, Alaska, and Greenland.

The Best of My Reading Year

“Lost my focus” “Couldn’t concentrate” “I read so little this year” and other similar laments repeated in my reading and writing circles in recent days as friends tally the number of books read in 2017 compared to previous years and goals are set for 2018.

 

I get it. The personal and the political conspired in 2017 to pull my attention away from that which is so precious to me: reading. But the good literary news is that the year was full of many gorgeous, unforgettable reads, even if the sum total of books completed was less than I would have liked. And here, in no particular order, are those that I most treasured and would press into your hands if I could (click on the titles to read my full Goodreads review):

 

FICTION

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (2015)

Time stops with each story in this collection. These are not easy reads and I needed a deep breath and some distance after each story. But Berlin’s is some of the most astonishing writing I have read. Ever. It pains me that it has taken so long for us to recognize her power and mastery, that she will never know how deeply she has affected this new generation of readers. But do yourself a favor. Make it a priority to read this collection- take all the time you need, dip in and out, but know that you will finish a different human being than when you started.

 

News of the World by Paulette Jiles (2016)

But this extraordinary novel is so much more than its plot. This is a story of two misfits at either end of their lives, brought together by happenstance and tragedy who bond during an epic journey through an unsettled land. It is novel of place and of a very particular point in history. It is a few years after the end of the Civil War, but hardly an era of peace. Captain Kidd brings with him news of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, granting black citizens of the United States the right to vote. Texas is still very much the Wild West, and Jiles captures the grit and heat, the awesome threats and beauty of this massive state.

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

The marvel of this novel is how we become so quickly and solidly attached to the protagonist of each chapter, even though we don’t remain in his or her life for long. And how agile Gyasi is in portraying each generation and location, despite dramatic shifts of culture and geography. The chapters set in West Africa are the most revelatory. I’ve read extensively of the evil and agony of pre-and post-antebellum racism and violence in the United States, as well as the disease of Jim Crow that followed emancipation. But to see the entangled roots of slave history in West Africa, revealed with such vivid storytelling, is astonishing.

 

The Accidental by Ali Smith (2005)

The Accidental shows the rusted and broken bits inside the moral compass of the Smarts, a bourgeois British family of four on summer holiday in a drab northern England town. Eve Smart is mid-list novelist and mother of 17-year-old Magnus and 12-year-old Astrid. Michael Smart, husband and step-father, is a philandering professor of English. It becomes all to easy to detest the Smart mère et père, for they are eye-rollingly entitled and pretentious, but this novel is about the kids. And it is in their voices that Smith’s prose shines like a beacon.

 

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2017)

What a rich and complicated novel. I reeled with each page, cringing in horror at the Great Plains massacres and Civil War atrocities, astonished by the elegance of Barry’s prose, the fresh wonder of Thomas McNulty’s voice, the lovely matter-of-factness of taboo love and the shock of willing participation in America’s brutal expansion. Days Without Endis a work of staggering beauty.

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017)

It is the inevitability of migration that moved me the most. We have always been a world, a mass of humanity, on the move. From the very origin of our species, we have migrated. The notion that one part of the world belongs to one certain group of people and should be closed to others is as absurd as doors in gardens that suck people from Amsterdam and expel them in Rio de Janeiro. I inhaled this elegant, uncanny novel in all its prescient relevance and stunning imagination. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams (2017)

This is an extraordinary debut, written with a masterful sense of plot and pacing and a keen understanding of the thorny world of western intervention in the developing world. Her prose calls to mind the exquisite Francesca Marciano — another contemporary Western writer with personal experience in Africa — with its clarity, precision, and beauty.

 

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (2017)

Lidia’s prose is visceral and shocking and physical. She writes from the body as much as from the mind and the heart and you feel her words. As a reader I was stunned, horrified, aroused and broken. Whatever your expectations of this book, lay them aside. Just read and embrace the power of what fiction can do to tell the truth of the world.

 

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (2015)

THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH is a luminous portrait of friendship and grief, of the cruelty of youth and the resiliency of the human spirit. Younger readers will find solace in Zu’s determination and big heart; older readers will marvel at the sensitivity and deep truths of a finely-wrought narrative. This is an exquisite novel.

 

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (2017)

This is a novel of tangled, rich love, both mannered and wild. Multiple hearts beat with loves unrequited and an aching pervades the pages, expressed in letters, in long glances, in touches to cinched waistlines and damp napes of the neck. Along with the palpable sense of dread that follows rumors of a winged beast is a sense of desperation and longing that may spin out of control at any moment: desire without fulfillment can be as dangerous as a legendary ichthyosaur. This is as lovely a novel as I have read in a long time, reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Sarah Waters. Sarah Perry is a breathtaking writer. Settle in and be prepared to be swept away on a wave of exquisite prose and storytelling. Highly recommended.

 

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (2017)

Snow and ice, the forest, the silence, the hunters and hunted combine to give The Child Finder a sense that it is once-removed from reality, perhaps a relief for the reader even as the narrative dives deep into the horrors of child abuse and abduction. Denfeld calls upon her own childhood experiences, and that as a professional death penalty investigator and adoptive mother of three children. She lives in real time the sadness and desperation of the used and abandoned, and that reality lives in this frightening and yet ultimately uplifting and redemptive novel. A breathtaking combination of suspense, horror, love, darkness and light, The Child Finder is simply one of this year’s most compelling and astonishing reads. Brava, Rene.

 

NON-FICTION

 

The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life by William Stafford (2003)
The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one in a series of Poets on Poetry, a collection of interviews and conversations with a celebrated poet, as well as selected essays and poems. It includes a beautiful exchange between Stafford and his dear friend and fellow poet of the West, Richard Hugo. A slim volume rich and full of hope and light, compassion and encouragement The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one of the loveliest sources of inspiration this writer has read.

 

Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (2010)
This is a collection of essays and meditations that have appeared over the years in various publications, so they are loosely knit by the theme of finding redemption in the natural world. Moore’s style is poetic and thoughtful, gentle and open- in direct contrast with the often abrupt and heartless way that nature has of carrying on with the business of life and death. But each essay is intimate and poignant, full of gratitude and hope.

 

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro (2017)
I was married for nearly twenty-five years, years that were happy and full of adventure, but perhaps more heartbreak that we could withstand. I celebrate the beauty of what we had and the wisdom in the letting go. Dani Shapiro speaks of “the third thing” that unites couples, whether it’s a child, a Corgi, an avocation or hobby, and this idea resonated deeply. I had several “third things” with my ex-husband, but in my most recent, and recently-ended relationship, the third thing seemed to be a third rail of pain and codependency. Now, as I welcome a deep and gentle love, I have at last the third thing with a partner that I’ve been craving: art. The mutual understanding, celebration and commiseration of what it means to be an artist, whether it’s creating with paint or with pen, is such sweet relief.

A Book is Born!

Friday afternoon: Exhaustion has turned my limbs to chilled butter. Tears press against the back of my eyes, my nose stings with heightened emotion. Nothing is wrong; everything is right. I am just so very tired and this week, the week I saw my novel launch into the world, is nearly at an end. Half an hour on this ship, another hour on the road, and I will be home. Silence. Bath. Cat. The last season of Mad Men on Netflix. Wine.

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Photo Credit: Dave Herron

How to put into words what this week has meant, all that has happened; the outpouring of love and support from people I’ve never met in the flesh; others whom I have not seen in nearly thirty years, taking a seat before the podium where I stand, poised to talk about my novel; the flooding of photographs on my Facebook feed by friends who have found my book on shelves in Hawai’i and Florida, Boston and Houston; others holding up my book in Ireland and Scotland while their friends and family chime in to say, ‘What’s this? You know the author?’—all who have embraced me with such unqualified belief, joy . . . the words don’t come. Only the warm flush of gratitude, the spark of amazement.

 

While I’ve been in Seattle, reading, meeting, signing, celebrating, In Another Life has had at least as full and busy a virtual launch week as its author has had in real life.

 

Here are a few highlights:

 

Trade Reviews

  • A gorgeous review by Nicole Evelina from the Historical Novel Society‘s print publication: Historical Novels Review (Feb 1, 2016)
  • And another that left me wanting to throw a ticker-tape parade, from the Washington Independent Review of Books (Feb 5, 2016). Ann McClellan brought out the novel’s themes with such clarity and grace.
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Photo Credit: Dave Herron

On the Virtual Road

The Blog Tour for In Another Life kicked off a few days before launch and it’s been a whirlwind of interviews, guest posts, and reviews. Here are my stops so far. Warm hugs to these bloggers, who do what they do out of sheer love for reading and the satisfaction of supporting authors and bringing books to their readers:

 

Virtual Launch Party!

Tuesday, February 9, beginning 11:30 EST, I’ll be part of a party of 13 authors whose novels launch between January and March, 2016. Join us for an incredible opportunity to chat with these amazing writers about their beautiful books. And me! Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association Online Book Launch Party

 

Current Giveaways

  • Goodreads Giveaway (3 copies) happening now through February 14.
  • Teddy Rose is hosting a giveaway of In Another Life: 10 days left to enter!
  • And, I’m giving away a gift bag of love, plus a signed copy of In Another Life, now through February 13. Subscribers to my newsletter are automatically entered into the random drawing. Giftbag Giveaway

 

As I wait for the boat to bring me from Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula, a tweet arrives that pulls the exhaustion from my limbs and delivers tears and laughter. Three days after publication, In Another Life returns to press for a second printing.  My gratitude knows no bounds.

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Reading Future, Reading Past = Present Sanity

I see what’s happening here. Life leaving me breathless these days. Brain pummeled by to-do lists, expectations, worries, excitements, anticipations. Book Launch approaches. I can think only in short bursts. My writing languishes, suffers, as creative energy is siphoned off for other uses.

 

My body doesn’t know good stress from bad, it just knows this heightened state of awareness, the light switch on, constantly, like some sort of prison torture.

 

I can take only so much “on” before I need silence, solitude, dusk to replenish and restore. These short days and long nights are a balm to my psyche. The darkness gives me a place to hide. And solace is found in books. I tear through the pages; my level of stress measured in the number of “The Ends” I reach each month.

 

Two distinctly different reads from my current word binge stand out, books I must share with you. Debut novelists, each, (though Claire Vaye Watkins’s short story collection Battleborn met with great acclaim upon publication in 2012). One writes of near-future southern California, the other of an ill-fated 18th century sea voyage, both astonishing for their imagination and fearlessness, the strength and brilliance of their prose.

 

I’ve got to get back to my to-do list, but know that each velvety-black evening, each silent, wet dawn, I am readingreadingreading, refueling my heart and mind with words, as my own build, readying themselves to be written.

 

Gold Fame CitrusGold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

I fear the vast dimensions of eternity. Ciaran Carson, “Fear” 1948

 

In Claire Vaye Watkins’s searing debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, fear is vast. It is blistering hot, white, shifting, a thing massive and predatory, greedy and indiscriminate. It is the desert, created by draining the West of its water, by wringing the climate dry. Fear has a name. It is the Amargosa Dune Sea.

 

Set in a future close enough to see if we shade our eyes and squint, Gold Fame Citrus presents a California annihilated by drought. A massive, moving sand dune is eating up mountain ranges, obliterating cities, and creating refugees known as Mojavs, a dystopian society that recalls the Okies of the Depression-era Dust Bowl. Watkins lists Tim Egan’s phenomenal The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl in her acknowledgments and parallels the desperation and isolation of that time with one of her own keen and savage imagination.

 

Luz was a child star, born into drought just as science began to give up on cure or prevention, and a desiccated society turned toward the mystic and the weird. Luz was to be the hope disaster couldn’t defeat. The government made her a poster child for the new future, until the posters faded and shriveled in the relentless sun. Now Luz squats in the abandoned home of a movie star in a “laurelless” canyon, drinking ration cola while her boyfriend Ray writes lists in his diary that read like poetry and tries to keep them alive. Luz and Ray can’t seem to muster the energy to flee to the cool, green, moist Pacific Northwest, or join the multitudes heading over the Dune, toward cities in the East. It’s not that easy: even if you survive the desert crossing, Mojavs aren’t welcome anywhere, states are building barriers to wall themselves in. And then there is Ray’s past—a barbed-wire fence too tall and entangled to surmount.

 

They aren’t alone in the desert: there are others, outcasts who’ve come together in survivalist colonies, living blackmarket lives. Luz and Ray rescue a little girl, a “strange, coin-eyed, translucent-skinned child”, from one such group, in a scene of an overnight rave party that is grotesque and haunting, like a Cormac McCarthy nightmare of the Old West.

 

The theft of this child, Ig, and fear that they will be pursued, propels Luz and Ray out of their sun-scorched inertia and sets them on the road, seeking a way out of the desert. But of course, the Desert will not let them go that easily. Luz and Ig end up alone, dying of thirst and heatstroke. Watkins’s vision of mercy is also a prison, with convicted survivors sharpening blades of power on a whetstones of control.

 

This is a novel of passion and fierce love; it is cruel and brilliant, shocking and tender, created with an imagination as boundless as the desert. In contrast to the parched environment, Watkins’s prose is lush and vivid, leading you, bewitched, through a shimmering mirage of hope.

 

~~~

 

LandfallsLandfalls by Naomi J. Williams

 

So recently set adrift by two novels with multiple points-of-view, each chapter taking me through my paces with a new voice, each novel leaving me parched for emotional resonance as though I were desperate sailor drinking sea water, I thought, ‘No, not again,” when I embarked upon this voyage with Naomi J. Williams and her debut Landfalls.

 

Okay, I’ll stop with the silly seafaring metaphors.

 

But I won’t stop raving about this unputdownable tour de force, crashingly good, tsunami of a novel.

 

Williams offers a kaleidoscopic view of the ill-fated Lapérouse expedition of 1785-89, which saw two frigates filled with over two hundred men attempt a circumnavigation of the globe for the glory of science, human endurance, and the maritime prowess of France. With each chapter the kaleidoscope shifts, offering a different perspective—from seaman to scientist, Tlingit child to French castaway.

 

Several of the chapters were published as short stories and in many ways this novel is a collection of individual works, as Williams leaps nimbly from voice, perspective, and style. Yet with each landfall, the threads of characters’ lives are woven through the narrative, connecting each part to all those which precede it, and the underlying tension of a well-paced thriller holds you fast. The author frames a daring, complicated structure and shores it up, page after page, with a gripping, marvelously inventive, and historically solid story.

 

The scope of Williams’s research is breathtaking yet, like modern masters of the form Mary Doria Russell, Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, you are drawn naturally, unresistingly into a distant era by flesh-and-blood characters. Heartstrings are pulled in the opening pages and are never released, until the gasping end. There is humor and irony, violence and tragedy, longing and despair. I greedily devoured the pages of a dreamlike obsession with a child bride at a Chilean outpost, gasped at the crystalline and savage beauty of Alaska, burned with anger over sadistic priests on the California coast, mourned love found and lost during the heartbreaking Siberian journey of a translator and his devoted bodyguard. The scope of history and setting, of character and voice and emotion, is nothing short of astonishing.

 

This is simply the best of what historical fiction can be: a voyage of discovery that speaks to the imagination and the heart, swallowing the reader whole like a literary whale.

View all my reviews

Euphoria by Lily King #ReviewWomen2015

Last year, writer Joanna Walsh began the #ReadWomen2014 campaign to shed light on the marginalization of women writers in the literary world (as quantitatively evidenced by VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts) and quite simply and joyfully, to bring more readers to books written by women.

 

The #ReadWomen2014 hashtag took off across social media. Debate and discussions regarding literature written by women, “women’s fiction,” the paucity of reviews in mainstream media, and representation of women in the literary arts continue to grow.

 

Journalist and author Hannah Beckerman proposed that 2015 be the year we focus attention on reviewing books written by women. She’s created both a hashtag and a Twitter account #ReviewWomen2015 @ReviewWomen2015  I’m delighted to contribute my words to this effort. I’ll be blogging reviews of books written by women writers this year; only women writers. My Goodreads reviews are posted here View my reviews, but what makes it to the blog are books that set my head and heart spinning, like this extraordinary novel from Lily King.

 

EuphoriaEuphoria by Lily King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picture Lily King in her office, surrounded by a library’s worth of research materials. Drafts of Euphoria are stacked in descending towers along one wall, each draft a stair-step lower. I picture a writer chipping away at her words, like a sculptor to marble, until the true work reveals itself; the words coming to life in the reader’s imagination the way hard, cold stone warms like flesh under the hand.

 

Euphoria was inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead and her experiences along the Sepik River with her husband Reo Fortune and the British anthropologist who would become her second husband, Gregory Bateson. But the story is entirely of King’s invention, including the tribes and their cultures. The novel is a feat of research, imagination, passion, and restraint.

 

A sense of menace pervades the narrative, beginning with the first paragraphs. It is the early 1930s, and American anthropologist Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen are fleeing the aggressive Mumbanyo tribe in a canoe when something is tossed at them. It lands near the canoe’s stern but Nell can’t see what it is: Fen has broken her glasses. He remarks that it’s, “Another dead baby.” Nell can’t tell if he’s joking. When her infertility and miscarriages are later revealed, Fen’s caustic remark becomes unforgivably cruel.

 

Yes, their marriage is a hot mess. Both are gifted anthropologists, but it is Nell, the author of a best-selling, controversial ethnography, “The Children of Kirakira,” who garners acclaim and grant money. Fen can hardly be bothered to carry a notebook and pen. Their months with the Mumbanyo have nearly destroyed the couple physically and emotionally, and they are returning to Australia to regroup and then embark upon a study of the Aborigines.

 

Enter Andrew Bankson, an Englishman who has been in New Guinea for years, studying the Kiona tribe. Bankson, escaping the shadow of an overbearing mother and the ghosts of two dead brothers, is on the brink of suicide. He invites the Stones to return to New Guinea, but they are aware of the competitive nature of anthropologists and fear there’s no more room in the territory for them to set up camp. Bankson, loneliness seeping from his pores, introduces the Stones to the Tam tribe and the three become a triangle of intellect and intrigue.

 

The narrative is told in third person from Nell’s perspective, in first person from Bateson’s, and through Nell’s journal. The alternating voices, the shifts in time, and the retrospection serve to enhance the tension. Bankson leaves clues that something terrible has happened, but the author reveals only enough to compel the reader onto the next page, and the next. This is a novel that will make you late for work, or keep you reading far past your bedtime.

 

The anthropologists devise an ingenious grid to classify all of human culture (riffed from a classification theory that Margaret Mead herself devised), but they are utterly incapable of understanding their own hearts. Bankson falls hard for Nell the moment he sees her, and she is torn between her partnership with Fen, her ambition, and the shelter she finds in Bankson’s adoration. But there is nothing maudlin about their interactions; King maintains the sexual and emotional tension like a piano wire plucked and humming.

 

Vivid and extraordinary are the encounters between the Stones and Bankson and the tribes under their study: Tam and Kiona, respectively. These are the genius moments of Euphoria, as these three Westerners assume the role of cultural scientists with the arrogance born of ignorance. Theirs is a new science and they are eager to experience the euphoria of discovery and understanding. When a breakthrough is made, they feel they could “rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew.” Here, too, there is intrigue, as Nell is allowed deeper into the female-dominated society of the Tam while Fen—in all his petty jealousy and arrogance—secretly plots to obtain his own piece of fame.

 

Lily King had so much rich material to work with. She could have offered us a doorstop of a read, a cultural and emotional epic. Instead, she chiseled away until she reached the heart of darkness. Euphoria is all the more profound and moving for her restraint. An excellent novel.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

When I travel, I gravitate to the small, forgotten places—the crumbling ruins rather than the soaring cathedrals; villages with their backs turned to the road instead of bustling capital cities. I wonder at the secrets that lie within the stillness, the stories that whisper in the broken stone or behind shuttered windows.

 

I’d not read Anthony Doerr before All The Light We Cannot See, but as I lost myself in the delicate suite tendresse of this novel, I felt I’d found a kindred spirit. From the grandeur of European cities and the drama of war, he uncovers the gems hidden in quiet, forgotten lives.

 

The trope of two star-crossed young protagonists—(a blind French girl, an orphaned German boy) and the hints of fable woven through the characters’ childhoods, set against the dramatic backdrop of opposing countries on the brink of a war—would seem to tread familiar ground.

 

But nothing in this shimmering tapestry of a novel is like anything I’ve read before.

 

The story opens in Saint-Malo on France’s Breton coast—an ancient walled city where the high tides swamp medieval cellars. In August 1944, the town is occupied by German forces and shattered by Allied bombing. Alone in her home, sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc catches one of the hundreds of leaflets falling from the sky. It smells of new ink, but no one is around to tell her what it says.

 

Just a few streets away, Werner Pfenning, a young German soldier, is slowly suffocating in the foundation of a bombed hotel, trying to raise a signal on his radio. Finding voices in the still and empty dark has been his gift since he was a child, trapped in an orphanage in a German coal mining town. At last, he hears the voice of a girl—Marie-Laure—reading passages from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

 

How these two lives come together is the simple, melodic premise of this symphonic novel. Layered into the composition are wonders of science, literature, and music, the horrors of war, poverty, and occupation, and the legend of a priceless blue diamond known as the Sea of Flames.

 

The light in the novel’s title takes many metaphorical forms. It is the light Marie-Laure’s father, the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, shines on the world for his blind daughter. He creates intricate models of their Paris and Saint-Malo neighborhoods so that Marie-Laure can memorize her world with her fingers and not fear what her eyes cannot see. It is the light her father offers in the lies he writes after he is taken prisoner. It is the light of the people left behind who love and care for a brave, perceptive child. It is the light of the Resistance, a flame of hope and defiance.

 

The light in Werner’s life is much dimmer. His scientific genius is recognized and he is taken from the orphanage—saved from certain death in the coal mines—and sent to a Hitler Youth academy, where hope is extinguished by duty. He becomes a radio operator in service of the Führer, and certain death awaits him in Leningrad or Poland or Berlin. Science, math, and distant voices transmitting in the dark are his only lights.

 

The blue flame pulsing from a priceless diamond with a cruel past is another kind of light—one followed by sinister characters who use the trappings of power during the chaos of war to pursue their obsessions to the most bitter ends.

 

Anthony Doerr’s prose is lovely. It pirouettes on the fine line between lush and lyrical, flirting with magical realism, but never leaving solid ground. The imagination it takes to bring a reader into the head of a blind child learning to navigate her world so that we see, feel, smell, and hear as she does is breathtaking. The ability to evoke empathy without tumbling into sentimentality is admirable. The weaving together of so many scientific and historical details so that the reader is spellbound instead of belabored is nothing short of brilliant.

 

Structurally, All The Light We Cannot See is bold, its suspense masterful, its prose confident and beautiful. But it is the fragility and strength of Anthony Doerr’s characters that linger longest after the novel’s final pages. Highly recommended; one of this year’s best.

 

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A Break in the Clouds

I travelled to France last month with a story in my heart. It’s a story I’ve carried around for years—one I chronicled here: The Prisoner’s Hands—and I spent time gathering details of place and researching the region’s history during WWII. I thought, having seen through the writing of two novels, I was ready to undertake something nearly bigger than me. This story reaches far beyond the realm of alternative history I created in Refuge of Doves. There, my goal was to invoke a sense of place and time, but not to mire the narrative in medieval depths or lose a sense of playful speculation.

 

But I’m wasn’t looking to retouch history here. Not with this story.

 

A book reviewer commented recently that the WWII literary idiom has been done ad nauseam. In the words of Love and Rockets, It’s all the same thing; No new tale to tell. The world doesn’t need any more stories from WWII.

 

As a reader fascinated by literature and research emanating from and inspired by WWI through the end of the Second World War, I couldn’t disagree more. There will always be room and readers for stories from these eras, as long as the stories are well told.

 

In the past week I’ve read two extraordinary novels that take place during WWII: Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, set in France and Germany; and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, set in southeast Asia and Australia. Doerr’s novel was just nominated for the National Book Award; Flanagan’s won the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Both are beloved by professional critics and every day readers like myself. So yes, there is room for more WWII stories.

 

But one night, deep in jet lag insomnia, as I read All The Light We Cannot See, I realized I had to set aside my story. I came to accept that I am not yet the writer I need to be to tell a story deeply layered with sociopolitical nuance. Nor am I yet the researcher who could create the authenticity readers would rightly expect. 

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Autumn light shines on a new story. © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

 

Tony Doerr spent ten years researching, crafting, and writing All The Light We Cannot See. Richard Flanagan wrote a novel steeped in so much historical detail and personal history (his father survived the Burma Death Railway—the subject of The Narrow Road to the Deep North), I can only guess he spent years carefully choosing each detail.

 

The understanding came laden with sadness and relief and not a small measure of anxiety for this writer. Setting aside a story I’d been thinking about for so long, that I spent time in France researching, meant I’d opened a yawning chasm of “Now what do I do?” My post-holiday plan, when I knew I would need to work on something new as I began the agent query process for Refuge of Doves and sought beta readers for Crows of Beara, had been to dive straight into a new novel.

 

Suddenly, I was without a story. I had no plan.

 

But if I’ve learned anything along this writer’s journey, it’s to trust that the next story is always there, shimmering at the edges of my peripheral vision, just within earshot. If I let go of trying to capture it and wait quietly, it will settle on my shoulder like a rare and fragile butterfly, or beam out like a piercing ray of sun from a rent in a storm cloud.

 

And come it did, during the middle of a writing workshop the week after our return. The story idea isn’t new—in fact, its themes and some its characters have appeared in at least one of my short stories—but the Eureka moment came only after I’d let go of the search. Suddenly, quite suddenly, at 2:45 on a rainy Saturday afternoon in late October, I had my premise, my protagonist, and the quivering butterfly of a plot.

 

Let the writing begin.