Andrew W. Taylor, Ann Weisgarber, Colm Toíbín, Geraldine Brooks, Helen Dunmore, historical fiction, Jean-Christophe Rufin, Jerome Charyn, John Spurling, Laila Lalami, Lily King, Mary Morris, Robert Harris
A year ago today, I published my first review as Novelhistorian. My thanks go to all my readers, regular or casual, with a special nod to those who’ve graced their visits with commentary. Without all of you, this blog wouldn’t exist. Thank you again.
When I was growing up in the New York area, a local TV channel broadcast Million Dollar Movie, a program that showed a single film continuously for hours at a stretch. The theme song, as I only found out years later, was from Gone With the Wind; I still think of it as belonging to the TV program. The movies were generally the swash-and-buckle type, like Scaramouche or The Crimson Pirate (Burt Lancaster in a title role he probably preferred to forget). It’s thanks to Million Dollar Movie that I can quote stretches of Duck Soup, without which my education would have been incomplete, or vividly recall James Cagney playing George M. Cohan and Errol Flynn as Robin Hood.
Each showing of a movie closed with the voiceover, “If you missed any part of ________ or would like to see it again, stay tuned after these messages.”
So that’s what I’m offering you today. After reading about a hundred books the past year, the following dozen are the ones that have stayed with me most clearly and probably will for awhile. And if you missed my reviews (or care to read them again), here they are, in recap, with links, following the order in which I published them.
The Lie, by Helen Dunmore, recounts the painful, tragic struggle of an English veteran of the First World War who returns to his village and tries to make a life. The Anatomy of Ghosts, by Andrew W. Taylor, involves an eighteenth-century amateur sleuth who must combat superstition, class prejudice, and political influence to solve a murder–and grows as a person in the process.
The Dream Maker, by Jean-Christophe Rufin, is a gripping tale about Jacques Coeur, the fifteenth-century French merchant who not only helped Charles VII transform his country but conceived of power as stemming from knowledge, a revolutionary idea. I Am Abraham is Jerome Charyn’s stirring portrayal of Lincoln as a man conscious of his physical ugliness and tortured by loneliness and desire as he tries to find his way.
An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris’s novel about the Dreyfus Affair, is more than an intensely compelling story about the most infamous political scandal in nineteenth-century French history (and there were many). It’s also the gold standard for thrillers. The Ten Thousand Things, John Spurling’s novel about Yuan Dynasty China, explores art, sex, love, justice, and politics–you know, the important stuff. For the record, it won this year’s Walter Scott Prize. Colm Toíbín’s subtle, probing Nora Webster, set in 1960s Ireland, takes a commonplace subject, widowhood, and makes it into literary art of the first order.
Jazz Palace, Mary Morris’s lovely rendition of Chicago jazz during the Twenties, captures the era and two of its walking wounded in a hard-edged, deeply felt romance. In The Promise, Ann Weisgarber spins a keenly observed, taut love story of 1900 Galveston, about two people who can see past surfaces and the jealousies that surround them.
The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami, follows the disastrous sixteenth-century Narváez expedition to the Gulf of Mexico, as viewed by its most adept (but socially and culturally invisible) member. Lily King’s Euphoria follows a love triangle among anthropologists in New Guinea in 1931, based on Margaret Mead’s life, in a retelling of exceptional breadth, psychological insight, and power.
Finally, The Secret Chord, Geraldine Brooks’s recent novel, recounts the rise of King David, as told by his prophet and trusted adviser, Natan. Like The Dream Maker, I Am Abraham, and An Officer and a Spy, Brooks manages to infuse edge-of-the-seat tension into a narrative whose events are no surprise.
Here’s to another year of good reading.