Tuesday, January 2, 2018

My Favorite Fiction of 2017

I figured out a long time ago that the books I love aren't necessarily the ones I can recommend to just anyone; similarly, I have to be careful criticizing a book I don't enjoy because, sure as the world, someone I love will have liked it.  Even though my reading list is quite varied, I have always favored novels over most other reading. I'll start with just a few words about the ones that made my list of favorites:

Paulette Jiles, News of the World  

This book didn't necessarily start slowly, but it was understated at first, as readers are introduced to Captain Jefferson Kidd in 1870. After his printing business failed, he spends his time going from town to town, reading aloud from a collection of newspapers from across the country and the world, changing twenty-five cents a head.  He is asked to return a ten-year-old white girl to her surviving relatives after she has been held captive by Kiowa long enough to identify as a tribe member. I was drawn in quickly by the conflicts he and the girl face as she slowly learns to trust him and to communicate. When I hosted my book club to discuss this book, I had a playlist of fiddle tunes and other period music referenced in the book. 

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

I read and loved Towles' earlier novel Rules of Civility, even finding myself in D.C. at the National Museum with Walker Evans' subway portraits on display as I was just beginning to read the book in which they play a part. The storyline and characters of new novel are so different that I could forget they were written by the same author. When I read A Gentleman in Moscow, I couldn't wait to convince others to read it too. Count Alexander Rostov, the protagonist, is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel because of some of his poetry deemed subversive. He is moved from his comfortable, even luxurious quarters to a small attic room. Over the years of the story, he encounters a number of characters who cross his path, in particular a young girl Nina who engages him in conversation and then exploration. He has a camaraderie with most of the employees of the hotel, but finds one particularly incompetent worker his nemesis. This book so charmed me that I still find myself remembering particular scenes. I've almost convinced myself that I've been to the Metropol myself.

Louise Penny, Glass Houses

One of my best discoveries in the past couple of years was Penny's mystery series set in the fictional village of Three Pines.  Usually I am reluctant to start a series, knowing the reading commitment; I don't gravitate toward mysteries either. But Penny's writing has captured me as one loyal reader. I always advise people to read her books in order, starting with Still Life. She gives enough exposition that any of the books can be read as a stand-alone, but reading in order feels like getting to know a whole community of real people. Inspector Gamache, the protagonist of the series, has taken on a new role in the law enforcement of Quebec and is coming  under criticism for failure to deal with serious crime. The story involves his colleagues, including his son-in-law Jean Guy Beavoir, and the colorful locals I've come to love. Since I've read all thirteen books in the series, my wish for 2018 is that Penny is busily writing away on the next novel.

Lily King, Euphoria

This book also caught me by surprise. King took details of the life of Margaret Mead and transformed the characters, placing a married couple, both anthropologists, in New Guinea in the 1930s. The story is strong enough without a knowledge of the fact behind the fiction, something of a love triangle that develops in this rather competitive marriage and professional partnership. 

Joy Jordan-Lake, Tangled Mercy

Nashville writer Jordan-Lake started this novel, set in Charleston both pre-Civil War during a failed slave rebellion and in 2012, several years ago.  The modern protagonist takes a leave (practically going AWOL from her academic career) after the death of her parents, whose separation left her with unanswered questions. The back story, dealing with the plot of rebellion, follows a slave who words as a blacksmith, allowing him a small small amount of autonomy. Through the book, she moves back and forth between the two time settings, gradually weaving the stories together. She revealed at her book launch that current events forced her to rework the novel. The results make for good reading.

Gin Phillips, Fierce Kingdom

I've always loved zoos, particularly the one in Birmingham where we often took our children when they were small. Even though Phillips never directly names the zoo at the center of her story, I know she hails from Alabama with her family in the area, so I take imaginative liberties. The story begins with a young mother and her son enjoying an outing. As they head toward the exit at closing time, though, they hear gunfire and are forced to take cover as a live shooter incident unfolds. I've read and enjoyed other novels by Philips, and I expect big things from this one. I understand a movie may be in the works.

Nicola Yoon, The Sun Is Also a Star

I'm an unapologetic fan of Young Adult fiction, and I loved this one. The story brings two characters together on a pivotal day for them both. Natasha and her family are about to be deported to Jamaica after her father is involved in a driving incident. She sets out to find someone who can help her avoid the move. She runs into Daniel, a Korean American second son, on his way to a college interview for the "second best" university after his older brother fails to live up to his family's expectations. In this pressure-cooker situation, their friendship develops quickly over less than twenty-four hours.  Natasha is a pragmatist; Daniel, a poet. I loved the way Yoon works in the questions that help people fall in love (from a New York Times piece I saved in my clippings file.)

Hanna Tinti, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

This book presents the story of Loo, a girl raised by her father who moves from place to place, keeping the girls' dead mother's mementos in something of a shrine.  The twelve lives to which the title refers are the twelve bullet scars on Samuel's body.

William Kuhn, Mrs. Queen Takes the Train

Several years ago, I enjoyed Alan Bennett's slender volume, An Uncommon Reader, in which Queen Elizabeth discovers the Bookmobile as she walks her corgis. This novel is a similar fiction treatment of the Queen's daily life, in this case as she begins to take a measure of her life. Kuhn introduces a number of characters, including an Indian teenager working at the cheese shop, the young woman who cares for the horses in the royal stables, and a number of palace employees. Kuhn builds tension,  along with a measure of sympathy for the queen, as much she has taken for granted is being taken from her, all delivered with both humor and tenderness. 

Frank Conroy, Heart and Soul

I've been meaning to read this book for years. My husband read and loved it first and then accidentally left it on an airplane. I knew only that it was about music--piano music.  One doesn't have to be musically knowledgeable or talented to enjoy this novel, but an interest makes the story so much more engaging. The main character, a young boy raised in a dysfunctional home by his single mother, discovers his own innate piano genius. A music store owner takes him under his wing and introduces him to teachers who can help him develop his unparalleled talent. 

Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

I've read most of Lisa See's novels, and this one was especially enjoyable. The story begins in a remote area of China famous for its tea. As she does in many of her books, See explores how traditions have such a hold on people, particularly on daughters. The story also explores adoption of Chinese daughters by American parents. Reading the book was not only a character study but also "steeped me" (pardon the pun) in knowledge of the intricacies of the small family tea industry.


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