First, every book on this list is a gem — I read many, many books, but very few make this list.
Second, a good book is never one dimensional, so classifications are somewhat arbitrary. The list got long enough that it seems like a guide would be helpful. But almost all these books fit into more than one category.
Finally, do enjoy yourself. Imagine having so much good reading without having to wade through all the trash (as I did).
- Rachel Cusk “The Country Life“. Funny, quirky and very appealing.
- Michael Frayn “A Landing on the Sun“. Starts out in a very understated way and then unexpectedly morphs into the funniest book I have read in years.
- Jane Shapiro “The Dangerous Husband“. Very, very funny – I howled with laughter.
- Nick Hornby “A Long Way Down“. That’s from the roof of a high building. Four people with nothing in common except that they considered the short route down wind up getting together, but they are not warm, wonderful, or special in any way. A very real look at how much we need other people, how bad we can be with other people, and how it is worthwhile anyway. Along the way it is also quite a funny book.
- Nick Hornby “How To Be Good“. Here is a marriage that is in trouble. There is a certain lack of communication; plus a certain lack of goodwill. Plus various ambivalent feelings. At least one spouse is a bit nutty, and somewhat inclined to unthinkingly impose his views on others. This could be written in various styles, but while the story rings true, it is amazing how funny it is as presented. Some of the situations are ridiculous, although not impossible. Some of the verbiage is hilarious.
- Calvin Trillin “Tepper Isn’t Going Out“. Laugh out loud book about parking in New York City. The joys of legal parking and being an ordinary person are hilariously explored.
- Steve Hely “How I Became a Famous Novelist”. A very, very funny book about bad writing and literary pretensions. I howled all the way through.
- Chuck Palahniuk “Choke”. First, before I say more, this book is hilariously funny. It is also a little gross, and definitely weird. Nonetheless, it is very educational, if you want to know more about a group of people who really do not fit in. And did I mention it is really funny?
- Joshua Ferris “Then We Came to the End” See the review under Ordinary People.
- John Kenney “Truth in Advertising” If it makes me laugh out loud it probably belongs in this category. However, like all well done books, it isn’t that easy to categorize. Let’s say, a very funny book, and a sad, but eventually encouraging human story.
- Sharon Krum “Walk of Fame” Tom Webster has so-so looks and a stable if unexciting job as a financial writer. His wife just left him for his best friend, citing many complaints clustered around how boring he is. Then one day he gets a very lucrative opportunity to research how PR creates fame. Although initially reluctant, he eventually figures out a good scheme to generate PR and become “famous”. Then things get out of hand. His reputation and his job are in danger. There’s a laugh-out-loud about once per chapter. It feels good.
- William Sutcliffe “Whatever Makes You Happy” This is a good story told in a very funny way. Three mothers, whose adult sons were childhood friends, feel they do not have enough connection with their sons. They make a pact to barge in on their respective sons and stay for a week. The sons all have reasons of different sorts not to want their mothers there. This is awkward enough to present many opportunities for humor, and the author is very good at that.
- Pete Dexter “Paris Trout”. We can understand that someone might take murder lightly. But there is much more going on with Paris Trout than that.
- Ruth Rendell “The Bridesmaid“. The word that comes to my mind about this is “Gothic”, but there are no castles, innocent heroines under threat of murder (and too stupid to run away), etc. Characters who stubbornly remain who they are instead of doing what is good for them – a hallmark of hers. She has written a lot of other books, all very readable. Many of them offer a look into the minds of some very unusual people, but in my opinion this is the best one.
- Martyn Bedford “Acts of Revision” At first I doubted that the main character was crazy – some of what he has to say makes perfect sense.
- Patty Friedman “Eleanor Rushing“. I was reading with great attention this story of a woman who knows what she wants and is ever so much more clever and persistent than I am in getting it (and ever so much more selfassured too). I am pretty dense about things, I suppose, because I was at least halfway through the book before I began to understand what was going on, yet the information was there much sooner. Nonetheless, the second half of the book was at least as good as the first. This is an very subtle and complex piece of writing.
- Zoe Heller “What Was She Thinking“. If you’ve ever been a woman, you don’t have to stretch too far to know what “she” was thinking. This is fortunate, because the narrator tells us what happened but never does tell us what “she” was thinking. We find out much more about what the narrator was thinking, and I am thinking that is more interesting.
- Caroline Leavitt “Into Thin Air“. A young woman with a doting husband and beautiful newborn vanishes; it soon becomes apparent she meant to leave. Why would someone do this? And what happens to her afterwards? And what happens to those she left behind? Intelligently imagined and very interesting to read.
- Mary McGarry Morris “The Lost Mother“. A nasty story, told in deceptively simple language, of bad people trampling all over others who are powerless. Her book “A Dangerous Woman” is also beautifully written and very touching.
- Joyce Carol Oates “Foxfire“. A very unusual teenage girl, who succeeds better than most at serious rebellion. It resonated with me, the failed teenage rebel, and showed me what I suppose I always knew: that what is arrayed against you is massive, endemic and overwhelming. Oates is a very prolific writer, and many (although not all) of her books are worth reading. This one was upsetting, perhaps because of its connection to my own life and failures.
- Elizabeth Benedict “The Practice of Deceit“. Definitely a page turner. A good attempt to depict a pathological personality. Perhaps the most important points are how credible these people seem, and also how much damage they cause.
- Frederic Busch “Closing Arguments“. Not a legal thriller, but a dark psychological study of a perfectly good citizen. Some of the conclusions could have been anticipated, but there is at least one total surprise – yet you see there were plenty of hints if only you had read attentively enough. Fascinating and compelling writing.
- Mark Haddon “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” This sort of looks like it is going to be a mystery or crime novel. Well, it isn’t. The Boston Globe wrote “Goriously eccentric and wonderfully intelligent”. Really, that covers it. I was deeply touched and amazed at all the layers and interconnections in this very simply told story.
- Francisco X. Stork “Marcelo in the Real World” Marcelo hears music constantly in his head; and he is unlike ordinary people in various other ways. However his father thinks he has been coddled too much in his sheltered school environment, and puts him to work at a real job. This is the story of how Marcelo copes and grows, and perhaps a story of why staying in a world of music in your head could be very attractive (if only one could manage it).
- Mary Gordon “Men and Angels” Laura is a very non-standard person. But she is good at covering it up and appearing to be like others. She is also good at covering up to herself; her thoughts are transparent to us, but apparently not to her. Anne is much more usual, although more intelligent than avergage. The two are thrown together in an close situation; and the level of misunderstanding is amazing. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so amazed — we have a hard enough time communicating with people who are like us. Miscommunication is, eventually, the key to what happens.
- Gish Jen “The Love Wife” Here we have a very diverse family – a Chinese father, and American wife, two adopted Asian girls, and a biological son. Lots of love here. But the father has a mother; this may be one of the most difficult mothers-in-law you will ever encounter. Almost anyone can be difficult; not everyone is highly intelligent and deeply devious. This mother-in-law does not approve of the marriage and is taking all possible, and very effective, steps to ruin it. Major complications ensue. Each character comes alive as a distinct person. What happens to the marriage? Read all about it.
- Marne Kellogg “Brilliant” You have probably never met anyone like Kick Keswick, an independent woman who is living the single life very nicely, thank you. She has a high powered, fascinating job, a beautiful home, lovely food and wine on a regular basis, a secret hobby that brings in extra income; and other interesting secrets as well. The secrets, and the mindset behind it, are what make Kick unusual. This book was great fun to read.
- Dave Eggers “Your Fathers, Where Are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?” Thomas is a pretty unhappy man. He says he is a very moral person, but his ideas of morality are not standard. Thomas has many questions to ask, trying to understand his life, and has come upon a way to force people to answer his questions, even when they don’t want to. Thomas does not appear to be very sane. But his questions are good ones. The book is so well written it is almost impossible to put down — and I am good at putting down books.
- Jacquelyn Mitchard “Second Nature” Sicily Coyne has been through a lot. Her father, a firefighter, lost his life in a fire that burned her face off. Her mother died shortly afterwards. Under the care of her Aunt Marie, Sicily grows into a strong young woman, even though she has a face that looks like a nightmare and that only barely functions. Then with advances in surgery, she has an opportunity to receive a full face transplant. If it works it would put her back in the ordinary world. Sicily is living a different kind of life from most of us, which doesn’t make her a saint, or really nice, or the world’s most sensible person. This story is quite honestly told.
- Maggie Mitchell “Pretty Is” Two 12 year old girls are kidnapped by a handsome, charming man. The kidnapper doesn’t have to work very hard — both of them are fed up with their lives and get willingly into his car. He takes them to a secluded Adirondack cabin, where he does not much of anything. Apparently he does not mean to harm them. Although they are bored, and somewhat worried about his motives, they don’t run away. The experience creates a peculiar bond between the two girls, and echos forever down their future lives.
- Naomi Alderman “Disobedience” Ronit has fled her stifling orthodox Jewish upbringing and is living alone in New York. Her mother died when she was young; and when her estranged father dies, she returns to the neighborhood, perhaps to pay her respects, but definitely to pick up her mother’s candlesticks. Her closest friend Esti from that time, whom she has not contacted in years, has meanwhile married Ronit’s cousin Dovid. Esti is eager to repair their ruptured relationship; Ronit much less so. Interspersed with religious quotations and explanations of orthodox Jewish life, the book shows how unsuitable Ronit is for that life and Esti’s attempts to rebuild their relationship. It also shows how very unsuited Esti is for the life, and her courage in finding a way to live within the community. It’s always interesting to read about an alien culture, and the explanations of the beliefs, mores and behavior of the community provide a lot of insight.
- Naomi Ragen “The Covenant” While Israel has the most powerful army in the Mideast, the Palestinians have the most powerful propaganda machine. So we hear more about the Palestinian side of the fight. In this book, a slice of the Israeli side is shown. A compassionate and concerned doctor, Jonathan Margulies is kidnapped along with his five year old daughter Hana. The kidnappers’ demand is to release every Palestinian prisoner in the Israeli jails. Jonathan’s wife Elise can do nothing but wait in fear. Elise’s grandmother Leah is a survivor of the Holocaust. While in a concentration camp she made a covenant with three other woman that they would stand together and help one another. Unlike an ordinary contract, a convenant cannot ever be broken. It runs forever. Now, many years later, the four women have all done very well, and when Elise calls Leah for help, quite a lot is set in motion.
- Robert Stone “Death of the Black-Haired Girl” Maud is a very bright student at an elite liberal arts college. Intelligence and literary talent are not the same thing as good judgement, and we can see Maud’s judgement is poor. She is involved in a hopeless affair with one of her professors, and she uses the school newspaper to write incendiary articles. Does this lead to her death? Something does.
- Kerry Hardie “A Winter Marriage” Another book about people continuing to be exactly who they are, even when a small change in attitude and behavior would avoid catastrophe.
- Elizabeth Burns “Tilt“. A very nice woman in a very difficult situation. We are not always the cause of our own problems.
- Alice Hoffman “At Risk“. I cried. I haven’t cried over a book since I was 15 years old. Yes it’s a very sad story, but it was completely free of contrivance or sentimental slush – unadorned tragedy is the most tragic. It also showed how the situation affected a wide circle of people, who were all doing their best, but none of whom were entirely saintly.
- Laurie Halse Anderson “Speak.” Melinda is dreading 9th grade. She calls herself an outcast. People do not like her attitude. She doesn’t like theirs. Her previously good grades have disappeared. She doesn’t have much to say. And somehow the author makes her a very clear person and very likeable. Follow Melinda through her ninth grade year. This story just sucks you in.
- Angela Pneuman “Lay it on my Heart” Charmaine and her family are evangelicals. Father is acting on the word of God as spoken directly to him. Charmaine and her mother do not get along too well. Because of God’s last directive, the family is broke. Much of the interest for me was seeing the depth of faith that the family members bring to their lives, and how well it holds up when circumstances change dramatically.
- Penelope Lively”The Photograph” In the words and thoughts of her husband and sister as well as some of the other people in her life, we get a clear picture of Kath, who is now deceased. The author has done an amazing job of aquainting us with Kath even though she is not here to speak for herself. Apparently there were things about her that most people didn’t notice. Very interesting to read, and ultimately heartbreaking.
- Lisa Wingate”Wildwood Creek” In 1861 a young woman named Bonnie Rose journeyed to the new town of Wildwood to become the schoolteacher there. Bonnie has had a hard life, and things do not get better at Wildwood. In the present day, a famous film director starts an ambitious project: to recreate the settlement at Wildwood for 3 months, putting all of the cast into that 19th century environment and filming them as they go about their daily lives. The details of how different life was then and now are wonderfully drawn; and the difficulties of the modern people trying to cope with what was ordinary life 150 years ago is compelling. By itself this would make the book well worthwhile. But there is a mystery on top of the story: everyone in the original Wildwood settlement disappeared. The director may be hoping that watching a recreation of the village will throw some light on the mystery.
- Alison Amend “A Nearly Perfect Copy “. Elm (short for Elmira) is a mother, art expert, and survivor of a tragedy. Gabriel is a very talented artist who is not able to develop a career for himself. Colette is wildly ambitious and is manipulating Gabriel and Elm to advance her career. Some art forgery gets done, although no one is claiming it is a copy of anything. And there is more serious copying going on. Written in a spare and almost too straightforward style, this is a multi-layered book which is hard to put down.
- Alice Hoffman “At Risk“. I cried. I haven’t cried over a book since I was 15 years old. Yes it’s a very sad story, but it was completely free of contrivance or sentimental slush – unadorned tragedy is the most tragic. It also showed how the situation affected a wide circle of people, who were all doing their best, but none of whom were entirely saintly.
- Alan Cumyn “Losing It“. An amazingly well imagined portrayal of what it might be like to slip into Alzheimer’s dementia. That’s the mother. The daughter has a son in the terrible twos, and her husband is being more of a jerk than even an average jerky husband . Consequences of his sexual roaming are absurdly, but plausibly out of proportion to the crime; consequences of neglecting his wife when she has so much trouble are absurdly but plausibly nonexistent. I think he got about what he deserved, but for all the wrong reasons. She deserved better.
- Kate Grenville “The Idea of Perfection“. Beautifully drawn characters, and a very interesting story drawn from “ordinary” life. Maybe no one is as ordinary as they seem. I was introduced to Kate Grenville via “Albion’s Story”, which is also very well written, and quite horrifying (belongs in the “unusual people section).
- Frances Mayes “Swan“. Swan is the name of a southern town. The death of a young mother has a profoundly bad and long lasting effect on all the members of her family; and then things start getting weird. A nearly perfect narrative, with one unfortunate line in the last chapter which nearly wrecks everything. I decided to pretend that line was not there.
- Nancy Rawles “My Jim“. We all know slavery is a terrible thing – but maybe we don’t know just how terrible. Find out here. And read about abiding love, and absolute decency.
- Anne Roiphe “If You Knew Me” . A boy-meets-girl which is not cute, coy, simplistic, or trite. Charming and very real. You may also like: “Secrets of the City” which describes a big-city mayor dealing with a very difficult (and thus very ordinary) set of circumstances in his city.
- LoisAnn Yamanaka “Behold the Many“. Most books have some “lyrical” passages which are selfconscious and clumsy attempts at more “picturesque” writing, and serve mainly to interrupt the flow of the narrative. Here is a book where the lyricism is intrinsic and fundamental to moving the story forward. Gorgeous and terrible. A masterpiece of fine writing.
- Bella Pollen “Midnight Cactus“. An unusual heroine in an exploration of the contemporary Southwest. Several harrowing substories. Very interesting writing, and very well characterized people.
- Stewart O’Nan “The Good Wife“. When we throw a bad guy in jail, he leaves behind a family. In this case it is a pregnant wife. The story focuses on how she copes – with losing a husband, losing his earnings, raising a child. What happens to her relationship with the husband? There may be as many stories as people in that position. This one is perhaps unusual.
- Patricia Ferguson “Peripheral Vision”. An engrossing story of several people whose lives are entangled in assorted ways. The people certainly seem very real, the cirumstances are plausible, and the whole thing is engagingly written.
- Brad Kessler “Birds in Fall”. Real people dealing with a tragedy. Easy to read, believable, gentle, loving.
- Elinor Lipman “My Latest Grievance”. Counterculture parents who have evidently not completely thought things through. A smartmouth daughter who apparently has. A well drawn narcissist. The story is interesting, and much of the dialogue is hilarious.
- Elliot Perlman “Seven Types of Ambiguity”. This is a substantial book, narrated by seven different people whose lives are entangled in various ways. Very engrossing to read, it is a story about love, anger, marriage, and money. It is centered around a psychiatrist but you won’t find any redemptive tales of a magically understanding person who rescues his troubled patients. Every one of the narrators is an interesting person, and their various views of what happened are, not surprisingly, quite different. Their views of themselves as compared to how others see them are quite amazingly disparate, and it leaves us wondering — what exactly do people see anyway when they see me? Wow, the levels of misunderstanding!
- Jodi Picoult “Nineteen Minutes” Picoult has been writing book after book about serious underlying moral problems in our society, and their effect on ordinary people who are trying to live here. She is always well informed, clear, very interesting to read, and often thought provoking. This book is about the devastating consequences of school bullying, an issue which has only recently received attention, even though practically all of us were bullied during our school years. Picoult is growing as a writer, and this is one of her best works. However, I recommend all her other books as well.
- Elizabeth Brink “Save Your Own”.A young woman who is self-admittedly unattractive is trying to finish her PhD thesis in “Secular Conversion”. A Secular Conversion is a deeply spiritual experience which is not religious. To find subjects who have had such experiences, she takes a job at a halfway house; and also puts out flyers asking for responses. The results are very interesting, sometimes funny, and sometimes moving. Very enjoyable and worthwhile reading.
- Hector Tobar “The Barbarian Nurseries”. A rich couple and their children. Mexican servants. Everything going fine until it doesn’t. People who don’t listen to each other, and some who do. People who are not responsible, and some who are. Miscommunication, mistakes. If you are living a life, you will relate to the people. The story itself is both excellent and educational.
- Joshua Ferris “Then We Came to the End” Written in a very original and charming style, the book follows the lives of several people who were working at highly paid jobs in an ad agency, prior to the Recession. Then the agency stops doing so well, and begins to let people go. But all of them have lives — those let go and those who stay — and those lives are quite varied, and of course, somewhat interconnected. Some of this book is so funny I thought of putting it in the humor section. And it leaves you with a small mystery, which you may solve if you want to (I didn’t).
- Jennifer Haigh “Faith” A story about identity, human connections and fraud; told from within the Catholic Church’s sex abuse situation. All complicated stories have at least two sides; sometimes several sides. I am always interested in the side I am not on, because there is much to learn.
- Anne Fleming “Anomaly” Very few authors can render children convincingly. In this book the children are so real you might have known them yourself when you were a kid. I kept saying ‘wow, that’s exactly how it was’. Even though in my case it wasn’t. Two sisters, close in age, veering between sibling rivalry and love. And the writing totally sucks you in. I rarely have trouble putting a book down, but this time I did.
- Carolyn Slaughter “A Perfect Woman” A classic love triangle, with two very unusual women. Not the story you would expect, but written very convincingly, and interesting to read all the way through.
- Joshilyn Jackson “Backseat Saints” This marriage is not going well, even though they love each other and the sex is great. Thom is violent and Ro is warned that she should kill him before he kills her. Watch how this plays out. The story is very absorbing, and the people all seem real although somewhat strange.
- William Kowalski “The Good Neighbor” A couple buys a charming country house. He is a hard-driving, aggressive stockplayer; she is a blocked poet. He has a horror of dead people, and when it turns out there is an old cemetery on the property, he wants to remove it. She disagrees, as does their nearest neighbor whose relatives are buried there. What’s an aggressive alpha male to do? He does his thing, and matters get very unpleasant. Written in a way that keeps you turning those pages.
- Liz Moore “Heft” An impossibly shy professor, an ugly female student, a child of uncertain parentage, all entangled. Presented from the viewpoints of the professor and the child, it is an interesting story. Most important it is written in a way that involves you and keeps your attention.
- Carol Rifka Brunt “Tell the Wolves I’m Home” Fourteen year old June is very close to her uncle Finn, who is a renowned painter. She is not getting along well with her sister Greta. Finn requests to paint the two girls together. Finn has AIDS, and June’s mother is sure his lover Toby caused it. She has forbidden Toby to see her daughters and has spread the word that Toby is a murderer. A tricky situation for any teenager, and in the middle of it Finn dies. You will like June — she is very individual, clear thinking, and willing to take chances. The book really pulls you in — hard to top reading once you start.
- Alice LaPlante “A Circle of Wives” Dr. John Taylor turns up dead in a hotel room, which he signed into under a false name. It seems to be a heart attack, but then it begins to appear suspicious. The young and uncertain detective Samantha Adams is assigned to the case. She quickly learns that although John Taylor was old and out of shape, women found him charismatic. He has married three of them (simultaneously). The logistics of being married to three woman at once are rather complicated. And with his death, there is quite a mess — not only who killed him, but the financial and emotional entanglements he left behind. Told in the voices of the three wives, and Samantha, the book is very readable, interesting, enjoyable.
- Liane Moriarty “The Hypnotist’s Love Story” Ellen has found a man she is interested in, but on the third date he tells her there is a problem. While she is sure this means he is breaking up with her, in fact the problem is something quite different — a stalker, who was a former girlfriend. Ellen thinks she can cope with this, until she discovers the extent of it. This stalker seems pretty crazy, and very bold and intrusive. That could be the basis of an ordinary book, but here we find out much more about who the stalker is and that she isn’t the villain she may seem to be. For the excellent characterizations, interesting plot and realistic situations, this book rates very highly.
- Rufi Thorpe “The Girls from Coronoa del Mar” The title sounds rather like shallow “chick-lit”, but that’s not this book. Lorrie Ann seems to Mia to be perfect — somehow beautiful without trying, popular without effort, and a naturally good person. Mia rates herself as not much on any of these things, but despite what seems to be an imbalance, the two girls are fast friends. The friendship endures into adulthood, where serious real world problems happen to both girls (now women). The story of the friendship gets ever more complicated and less clear. All the characters are so real it seems you might know them; how they handle their problems is what you would or would not do.
- Maggie O’Farrell “Instructions for a Heat Wave”. A mother, father, three grown children, some grandchildren, set in Ireland. Clearly a flawed person, the mother is nonetheless sure her husband loves her, and realizes that she is unusual and lucky this way. Then he disappears. No note, no hint, no explanation, but he did take money out of their bank account. All three grown children get involved, and each is a separate and interesting personality with his/her own problems. They seem to have worked out a relationship with their difficult mother, but two of the siblings who were very close as children are not speaking. In fact, one is hiding in America and hardly ever contacts her family. Interesting from start to finish.
- Maggie O’Farrell “The Vanishing Acts of Esme Lennox”. Kitty and Esme are sisters and close. Kitty is conventional but Esme is a little strange. Not a lot strange, but not willing to fit herself into the confined world of Scotland in the mid-20th century. An unfortunate incident causes her exasperated family to lose patience with Esme, with very bad results. This is a deep, complex and sad story. Easy to read; hard to forget.
- Laura Cunningham “Sleeping Arrangements“. Not about sex, or even boy meets girl, but a lovely memoir of growing up in a very eccentric family, and an unsentimental take on the ‘innocence” of childhood.
- AnnMarie MacDonald “The Way the Crow Flies“. A long and very complex story about a “normal” family – maybe the most normal family in the world. Very well crafted and very well written. Fascinating, frightening and infuriating. A number of short essays on the origins of the U.S. space program are scattered throughout the book. The information in them is tangential to the book, and I can’t agree at all with the conclusions she draws. I think the book would be stronger without these distractions. The story stands quite well on its own.
- Carys Bray “A Song for Issy Bradley”. The Bradley’s are a devout Mormon family living in England. The father Ian is a Mormon bishop, and quite inflexible in his devotion to the rules. The mother Claire is a convert, but believes deeply. There are four children, two of whom are old enough to have views of their own. We watch the family going through their regular life, and then trying to copy with a tragedy. The Mormon rules and lifestyle are laid out without commentary, and then we watch the children trying to understand, which is plenty of commentary and certainly points up the contradictions inherent in the creed. It is always fascinating to see how other people really live and what they believe. Although the portrayal is generally sympathetic, I was left with my prejudice against religion enhanced.
- Kim Edwards “ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter“. Finely written book about families, children, and how a serious lie grows roots and branches and works its way into the fabric of life – the liar’s life and that of everyone connected to him; and how such a lie poisons everything. We are all supposed to know this, but this book makes us feel it in a very personal way.
- Rebecca Frayn “Deceptions” This is about a family whose son one day disappeared. Although there was a frantic and extensive search for him, he was not found. How does the family go on? This depends on the people in the family of course, and what kind of relationships they had. Written in a thoroughly engrossing manner, with people who seem very real, this one was hard to put down.
- Lauren Grodstein “A Friend of the Family” Two families have been very close to each other for years. Then the oldest daughter of one gets involved with the oldest son of the other. This is not a sweet love story; there is something very wrong with the daughter. This story is about an ordinary father caught in a web of bad intentions and juvenile stupidity. There are in fact bad people, and they are enormously destructive.
- Elizabeth Strout “Abide with Me”. A kind story of some good people, and some who are not as good as all that. Easy to read, very touching and full of hope.
- Brady Udall “The Lonely Polygamist”. This is not a gimmick. It is a very thorough and nuanced picture of what a polygamous household is like. A lot is shown that we never think about such as: how does one man support four wives and 26 children. And if you think single family life is complicated, imagine how much more so this is. As if this weren’t enough, it is a terrific study of an ordinary man, with weaknesses and strengths.
- Rosellen Brownspan “Before and After”A family is introduced. The mother is a pediatrician, the father has built an at home career and does most of the homemaking. One child is acting like the teenager he is; the younger kid is a goody-two-shoes, perhaps to balance the older. Things are going pretty well. And then the teenager is accused of a serious crime. The book focuses on the family. How do they cope? It isn’t easy. This book tells a plausible story about how these people dealt with it. Holds your interest right from the beginning, and only gets better.
- Yannick Murphy “The Call”A large animal vet with a wife and three kids. Written in a call log style, which somehow works very well. During the year two major life situations arise. And this is how he dealt with them, along with taking care of lots of animals.
- Lisa O’Donnell “The Death of Bees”Two sisters, a teen and a preteen, are left on their own, because their parents are gone. Where they went is made clear right away, but it is not something the sisters others to know about. Yet, there they are on their own, trying to find money for meals and other bills; trying to avoid being put in foster care. Turns out they have a grandfather they never knew. Written in a very plain, straightforward style, and will keep your interest.
- Bella Pollen “The Summer of the Bear”When Nicky Fleming, a charismatic diplomat, dies suddenly and suspiciously many think he may be a traitor. Nicky’s wife Letty and children relocate to a remote Scottish island, hoping to rebuild their lives. These are human people. Letty hates to think Nicky was a traitor, but has to admit there is some evidence. The kids are not sweet little innocents — they are kids. Meanwhile, a bear has escaped from his trainer, and taken up residence on the island. This is an exceptional bear; and he becomes entangled in the lives of the family. Great writing, very enjoyable and slighyly suspenseful reading.
- Kristina Riggle “Things We Didn’t Say”Casey moves in with her older boyfriend Michael, and instantly acquires his three children. Angel is a teenage girl, and not friendly as only teenaged girls can be. Dylan is a little younger, and not unfriendly. And the youngest, Jewel, likes her. Things are not going well and Casey decides it would be best to leave. But suddenly Dylan disappears. It seems he has run away. Enter Michael’s ex wife Mallory, who plunks herself down in the house on the excuse that she must be there because Dylan is missing. It is not easy to write convincingly about a psychopath, but Riggle’s dialogue for Mallory is nearly pitch perfect, making this book special and fascinating. The inability of anyone to cope with her clear enough and is completely typical — it is almost impossible to cope with someone who will not be civilized and can’t understand that this has consequences. Will Dylan be found? Will Casey and Michael survive Mallory’s interference and stay together? Worth reading whether you care about the outcome or not.
- Lesley Kagene “Whistling in the Dark” Sally and Troo are sisters, close in age, and nearly as close as twins. There has been a lot of family disruption. Father was killed in an auto accident. Mother is very sick and in the hospital. Sally and Troo are in the charge of their older sister Nell, who is more interested in being with her boyfriend than in taking care of children. In the last two years two teenage girls have disappeared in the neighborhood — one turned up dead, the other has not been found. Sally is sure she knows who the villain is, and sure she is next. Sally and Troo together are pretty resourceful, but still children. Fun to read; kept my interest all the way.
- Joyce Maynard “Labor Day.” Henry, a nearly 13 year old loner with no friends, lives with his rather peculiar mother. His father has married another woman, and the blended family consists now of Henry, the new wife’s kids, and the kids from the new marriage. Henry is suffering the awakening of interest in girls; his mom, although really pretty, refuses to date anyone. Then an unusual man called Frank falls into their lives, and everything gets changed. Every character here is clearly drawn and believable. The situation becomes very fraught and the suspense scared me, even while I observed how the author built it.
- Edna Robinson “The Trouble with the Truth.” This is a family story which is unusual and written with such humor that I considered putting it in the humor section. Lucresse Briard has an older brother, who is a huge success at everything, and a father who moves constantly to promote his business. Father’s approach to childrearing is peculiar and rather hands-off; the family is visited regularly by Aunt Catherine who is definitely traditional. The story takes us from Lucresse’s teenage through young adult years as she struggles to make sense of herself in this very unusual family.
- Liane Moriarty “Big Little Lies.” Pirriwee is a beach community in Australia and Jane has moved there on a whim, with her five year old son Ziggy. She is taking Ziggy to kindergarten orientation when she meets Madeleine, who is taking in her own five year old. Madeleine’s best friend is Celeste, whose twin boys are starting kindergarten this year also. Jane is a timid little mouse; Madeleine is aggressive and inclined to start fights; Celeste is overwhelmingly beautiful and married to a fabulously rich man. On the orientation day Ziggy is accused of bullying a little girl, and then things start to get complicated. By the end of chapter one we know there has been a murder. We are also getting a glimpse of the Pirriwee community, which seems to consist of many fallible human beings making matters worse. This book starts gently and then gathers momentum and complications — yet all of it hangs together. Very hard to put down.
- Myla Goldberg “Bee Season.” Eliza seems to be a very ordinary 9 year old, and was kept out of the gifted classes at her school, much to her father’s dismay. But then she wins the annual spelling bee for her class, school and district. Her father becomes very interested, and starts spending a lot of time working with her on spelling, aiming for a win in the nationals. Meanwhile, her brother Aaron, who previously occupied her father’s time is cut off. Her mother Miriam has never been very warm, so Aaron is left isolated. This is not so unusual in families. But as the father teaches Eliza some very peculiar ways to win at spelling, Aaron tries to deal with his loneliness and Miriam engages in a strange hobby, the family looks more and more dysfunctional. So many new and interesting ways of thinking here; easy to read and keeps your attention.
- James Buchan “The Persian Bride“. If you are looking for an insipid love story do not read this. If you are looking for a stunning portrayal of an amazing relationship in difficult circumstances, this is highly recommended.
- Jonathan Dee “Palladio“. Very good, interesting writing, an unusual love story, a fascinating meditation on art and advertising. A lot to think about.
- Michael Dibdin “Thanksgiving“. Love. Sex. Murder? Redemption? Very fine erotic writing. Considerable mystery about what actually happened. Real, believable people. All pulled together almost perfectly.
- Jamie Langston Turner “Winter Birds.” A story about real love.
- Alan Scholefield “Fire in the Ice“. Best quality adventure tale, set in early 20th century Siberia. A fascinating introduction to a time and place not covered very well (in fact not at all) in World History 101. A number of Westerners become stranded there. How they get trapped, how they survive and their efforts to get out and back to civilization make up the book. His book “King of the Golden Valley” is also about an unknown time and place as well as a very underreported tragedy. His later work is more in the line of mystery novels and not as good in my opinion.
- Ann Patchett “State of Wonder“. Pharmaceutical researcher Marina Singh is sent to the Amazon to find out the progress of her former professor who is working there on what might be an amazing new drug. Said professor is very prickly, has no patience for anyone interrupting her work, and has not provided any updates, although Marina’s employer is spending a slew of money on the research. Marina’s officemate had been sent previously, and he died of a fever. Marina is sent to Brazil with only the vaguest idea of where her professor might be. Interesting that she manages to find out, and the remainder of the books is about her stay in the Amazon. This is not romantic. It is a great picture of an original wilderness, and the people who survive there. Patchett’s writing is so interesting that the book is hard to put down. Well worth your time.
- John Boyne “Mutiny“. If you haven’t read “Mutiny on the Bounty” you want to read that before this book. This is an entirely different take on what happened. Since the author consulted a number of historical records, this one might well be more accurate. Written from the perspective of the cabin boy, it grabs interest from the first page. Boyne does a fine job of keeping the boy in character, and the account of the voyage is really interesting. A very good piece of writing.
- Alan Furst “The Polish Officer“. An interesting and multilayered account of a forgotten corner of World War II. Several other books by Furst , all fascinating, explore other forgotten areas of WW II. If you think you are too cynical now, maybe you shouldn’t read these; Furst slips in some pretty shocking facts. I promise you will be more cynical when you are done.
- Scott Turow “Ordinary Heroes“. Better known for his crime novels, Turow is at his best here. His characters are very convincing, the effect of war on “ordinary” people is not prettified. Embedded in the book is Turow’s specialty, a very complex crime — or is it? This one held my attention from the first page.
- Helen Dunmore “The Siege“. A young woman still in her teens gets saddled with a lot of problems when her mother dies, and is coping as best she can. Then Germany invades Russia, and no one can cope really. But somehow some people do. The history is well researched and the story is well written.
- Julie Orringer “The Invisible Bridge“. During the 1930’s a talented young man with no money finds a scholarship to attend a prestigious architecture school in Paris. He is Hungarian, sort of Jewish, and deeply attached to his family. Everyone is wondering about war, but Andras is immersed in his studies, working far harder than any university student I know. Still, there is a little time for leisure, and he manages to meet and fall in love with an wonderful woman. And then there is war. He has to go back to Hungary because the French will not renew his visa. Through Andras’ experiences we get a good history of WWII from the Hungarian perspective. This is a substantial book. It takes its time showing us the characters and the situations. Things seem very real indeed. A page-turner? Yes.
- Laird Hunt “Neverhome“.”I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic”. Constance takes the name Ash and enlists as a soldier in the Union army. The book follows her for two years as she is a soldier, then gets into trouble; all the time missing her husband Bartholemew. This is an unsentimental and rather understated portrait of the Civil War armies, and the way things were in general. It is not pretty. What a bunch of ruffians they were. And the descendents of those ruffians are still among us.
- Audrey Magee “The Undertaking“.During WWII, Peter, an ordinary German soldier, takes advantage of a loophole to get an extra leave from the front. If he marries a good German girl, he gets a honeymoon leave. A match is made, and he marries a girl he has never met. During the leave, the marriage flourishes, and when Peter goes back to the front his wife and soon to be born son sustain him. What is most interesting about this book is the point of view and behavior of ordinary Germans during the war, which I have never seen so straightforwardly and neutrally depicted. Everyone keeps saying “what were they thinking?” Here is a very good answer.
- Helen Dunmore “The Betrayal“. In postware Soviet Russia, a fine doctor gets enmeshed in a case he does not want and is not qualified to deal with. In Stalinist Russia almost anything can get you in trouble. A truly fine piece of writing and a fascinating story about people trying to conduct a life and have a family under nearly impossible conditions.
- E.L. Doctorow “The Book of Daniel“. A cynical look at the nastier side of American government and a compassionate view of the lives it destroys. His other work does not begin to meet the standard of this one.
- Cecilia Holland “Great Maria“. A time and place no one ever heard of, but it was real. The mores and lifestyle are quite unfamiliar, and the author explains nothing. You can only go by what the characters say and do. A prolific writer, her early books are all about unknown pockets of history and, as with this one, lacking any explanation. Figure it out yourself. You wind up getting quite a perspective on our own culture. In my opinion her more recent work is not as good.
- Karleen Koen “Through a Glass Darkly“. England and France in the early 1700’s. The story is interesting and not standard. The research appears to be solid. The way life was lived then and there enhances the story.
- Isaac Bathshevis Singer “The Slave“. An early work by this prolific author, and possibly the best of his writing. Some of his later works get selfconscious or precious, but this one is a gem. A fine study in what “primitive” really means, and a look at a completely forgotten and truly degraded culture.
- Mark Lee “The Canal House“. Romance, adventure, idealism and treachery. The entire story hangs together beautifully, and it all seems quite real.
- Barry Unsworth “Sacred Hunger“. A story of greed, capitalism and humanity. Although the writing is simple, this is a very deep book, full of people being human beings, neither fully good nor bad, not living up to anyone’s ideals and theories; and full of opposing viewpoints, each with their merits. Fascinating reading, and full of things to think about. An amazing book. You could try also “The Rage of the Vulture”, which is very interesting, although not as strong a book in my opinion. . Turkey in 1908 is not well known here. This in depth portrait of the place and time illuminates a lot about the current Muslim world. The main character, a British military attache has an unusual history.
- Charles Powers “In the Memory of the Forest“. Set in a small village in postSoviet Poland, the book tells a very good story, draws numerous characters both admirable and otherwise with respect and without condescension, provides a clear picture of the difficulties both of the Soviet approach and of attempting a transition to a market based economy, and beautifully evokes the natural scenery of the area. Very fine writing.
- Lisa Carey “Love in the Asylum“.Not just another boy-meets-girl, although there is that, but two interwoven stories about women in asylums at different times in our history . Partly horrifying, and partly redeeming. It stayed with me for weeks after I finished the book.
- Sarah Dunant “The Birth of Venus“. Captivating and beautifully crafted story of an intellectual and artistic woman struggling for some space and freedom in 15th century Florence. The background is the battle between the flowering of intellect and art versus religious oppression and the Inquisition. Dunant keeps excellent control of her viewpoint and vision of the characters – never lets us down with any inconsistency or foolishness.
- Thomas Maltman “The Night Birds“. Anyone who has romanticized the pioneer days, or longs to return to that “simpler” world, ought to read this. An unflinching view of how hard it really was. A personalized account of the tragedy of the Indian Wars. A close look at bigotry and the immense damage it causes. A very sweet love story. Lots to like about this one.
- Alison Weir “The Lady Elizabeth”. The early years of Elizabeth I, before she became Queen. As terrible childhoods go, this one is pretty far along. For example, her father did execute her mother using a bunch of nasty lies as a pretext. So a small child learns that her adored father killed her mother; and that her mother supposedly engaged in all kinds of awful behavior. Then her father legally changes her status to “bastard”. When her father dies, her older sister becomes Queen. Sister is jealous of her, and concerned that she may mount an insurrection. Elizabeth is not kindly treated. Despite all this, she became one of the most effective leaders England ever had. The entire book is written in a very engaging fashion.
- Kathryn Stockett “The Help“. A clear and unsentimental look at 1960’s Jackson, Mississipi where so much civil rights action took place. This story is told by three women who are not involved in the civil rights movement, but are simply trying to live their lives. It draws an excellent picture of the culture, both for good and bad. It becomes very, very clear why civil rights intervention was needed. I was around in the 1960’s, but I don’t think I understood until now how things were. That said, the women’s stories are very interesting and authentic. They stand on their own
- Ariana Franklin “City of Shadows“. Again, a book that is hard to categorize. I put it under “historical” because it provides such a detailed look at Berlin between the World Wars, seen through the eyes of ordinary people who are living there. There is also a long running scam, or attempted scam — or maybe it isn’t a scam at all? A series of crimes. A love story. And good reading. What more do you want?
- Anna Keesey “Little Century“. Rural Oregon in the very early 20th century. Things are both lawless, and also in some ways more civilized than nowadays. Peculiar. We hear the term “range war”, but we didn’t live through any of it, and don’t really know what it means. Read this and you will understand better. The story is about a young woman coming of age in this environment; and of course there is some love, but perhaps not exactly what we expect.
- Hannah Kent “Burial Rites“. So what do you know about Iceland in the 1820’s. Probably not much. Meticulously researched, this book tells the life of Agnes Magnusdottir, who has been accused of murder. The language is lyrical, the settings evocative, the culture clearly evoked. And Agnes has a story.
- Anita Shreve “All He Ever Wanted“. Nicholas van Tassel is a pompous professor of literature at a small New England College. He meets Etna Bliss under dramatic circumstances and falls immediately in love with her — or more accurately becomes obsessed. Etna is not that interested in him, but he goes to work on getting her to marry him. The author’s ability to present everything in the self-righteous, rather arrogant voice of Nicholas is amazing, especially as she manages to tell Etna’s story without ever departing from that voice. Nicholas’ prejudices are well rooted in late 19th century ideas and customs. It becomes clear he is not the person to deal with Etna, but he has more power than she. We get to watch where he is able to change, and where he isn’t, and how this leads to a bad result (we know from nearly the first page that things are not going to end well).
- Anita Amirrezvani “The Blood of Flowers“. In 17th century Persia a young woman has just reached marriagable age of 15. But her plans are interrupted when her father suddenly dies. She and her mother are left penniless, and there is no social safety net. They are on the verge of starvation when her father’s half brother invites them to live with him. The young woman has a talent for knotting rugs, and her uncle is a master rugmaker. She begs for lessons, and as he sees her talent he cannot resist teaching her.
Meanwhile his wife is less than pleased to have these relatives in her home. She strikes a bargain with a rich man for a 3 month marriage for the young woman, in exchange for a substantial payment. This is perfectly legal and her temporary husband is not so bad. But it is considered disgraceful behavior for a woman. Caught between her need for money and her wish for a genuine marriage the young woman makes a mistake which causes the wife to eject them. They are again homeless, and nearly destitute.
This is an excellent window into the culture of the place and time, and a fine, complex story about a talented and tough young woman.
- Jesse Burton “The Miniaturist“. Amsterdam, 1686. Petronella, just 17, arrives to join her new husband Johannes, a prosperous businessman of 39. She comes by herself from her village, and is met with a chilly reception from Johannes’ sister Marin and the maid Cornelia. Johannes travels a lot, and pays little attention to Nella, but he gives her a very expensive bridal gift, a miniature of the house in which they live. Nella is to fill it with furniture and people.
She finds a miniaturist and begins receiving exquisite miniatures representing her household so exactly as to be a mystery.
Amsterdam at this point is, for all its apparent capitalism, virtually a police state, with everyone spying on everyone else. Johannes’ home holds a number of pretty major secrets, which he has managed so keep quiet by spreading around money. He is also behaving rather strangely over a shipment of sugar which he is to sell, much to the fury of the owner. Things grow slowly more and more difficult. Captivating from the first page, this book draws its complicated characters very well, and the story is — very interesting.
Science Fiction (does not include “space opera”)
- Margaret Atwood. “Oryx and Crake“. Very high quality science fiction. Most of what passes for “science fictionn” nowadays is space opera or stupid fantasy, and neither about science nor very interesting. Atwood seems to see clearly the probable result of some current trends. She could well be right . Her earlier book “The Handmaid’s Tale” is starting to come true. At the time I read it I thought it couldn’t happen here. Now I think it can. How things change in 10 years, and Thank You to all religious fanatics.
- Kazuo Ishiguro “Never Let Me Go”. The hot shot medical ethicists have their theories and important pronouncements. This book — set in England and a bit science fictional — just assumes that certain things are allowed and follows a number of people through the process. The author draws no conclusions, just lays out what happens in a very easy to read way. It seems perfectly logical and well reasoned, and most likely you will decide we don’t want to go there.
- Laura Kasischke “In a Perfect World”. This starts out as if it is going to be a standard chick-lit love story. Airline hostess Jiselle begins seeing the most handsome pilot, who is tender and caring. Eventually they marry, and Jiselle takes over running his household with his three children. Two of the children hate her, and her husband is mostly not home, since he is flying. This could go in a predictable direction, but instead, things in the outside world start getting weird and threatening. Hubby is not there to help. How Jiselle copes is the real story. Not chick-lit. Very satisfying.
- Martin Clark “The Legal Limit”. Most “crime” or “law” novels are hopelessly contrived. This one is organic. Everything that happens flows naturally from the beginning, which is itself quite logical, or likely, given who the characters are. Most “suspense” annoys me, being itself contrived. The suspense here had me scared and reading hard. I also appreciated that there were no white knights on a charger — things worked out within the framework of what is legally possible.
- Donna Tartt “The Secret History” A chilling story of homicide. Not a detective thriller, we know from the beginning that it happened and who did it. But why? How did this happen? And if you entertain any thoughts that high intelligence implies good judgement, it is time to be disabused.
- Cammie McGovern “Neighborhood Watch”. An unusual “whodunit”, focusing on the woman who was wrongly convicted of the crime. Very fine, absorbing writing.
- Nancy Pickard “Ring of Truth”. Offering all the interest of a finely crafted whodunit, without all the stupidity of inventing vicious details to titillate the supposedly jaded reader. This is a complex story with very believable, real characters. Without any particular tricks or apparent devices, and the simplest style of writing, it held my attention (not easy to do).
- Evelyn Anthony “The Doll’s House”. A believable plot and nuanced characters. This was worth reading from the first page, and the quality stayed throughout the book. Anthony has written many, many books in a similar vein; most are very enjoyable.
- Eric Ambler “The Intercom Conspiracy”. Ambler writes stories of crime and espionage. This is a particularly inventive crime. Yet, the book is so funny I considered placing it in the humor section. I laughed and laughed. Another fascinating thing is that although this book was written 50 years ago, some of what is going on today is very well presented. Will you see what is so funny? Give it a try. Almost everything Ambler has written is a pleasure to read, and full of insight into people.
- Paul Doiron “The Poacher’s Son”. Well constructed murder mystery, with believable characters, regular rather than super-human police detectives, lots of complications. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it held my attention throughout.
- Eli Gottlieb “The Face Thief”. For those who are tired of tired murder mysteries, unintelligent and unimaginative authors, and plots that don’t hold together, here is a truly intelligent and imaginative crime novel. The criminal is very interesting, the victims behave as victims might. And it’s one of those “read straight through” books — very hard to put down.
- Petra Hammesfahr “The Sinner”. Right at the beginning an ordinary woman with her husband and son visit a beach — where she kills a stranger in broad daylight in a public area with lots of witnesses. It seems to make no sense at all. The book explores what really happened. Impossible to put down. If you’ve ever engaged in jumping to conclusions, this book might convince you to be more deliberate in your judgments.
- Zoe Ferraris “Kingdom of Strangers”. It was hard to tell where to put this book. Certainly it is about crimes; but the crime part is rather conventional and wouldn’t have gripped me. Yet I was gripped. The novel takes place in contemporary Saudi Arabia, and the in-depth picture of that society is — well — compellingly interesting. Religion and its values are deeply, deeply entrenched and do seem to get in the way of just about everything, although obviously in the view of many of them it is modern life that is getting in the way of everything. Some of it is savage; and some of it is ordinary modern life. A very weird combination.
- Steve Hamilton “The Lock Artist”. A very young man with a traumatic history and some unusual talents gets dragged into a criminal enterprise, unwillingly. He also falls very deeply in love. The crime story and love story are thoroughly entangled. Unpretentious and really quite charming writing.
- Stef Penney “The Invisible Ones”A small time investigator is asked to look into the disappearance of a man’s daughter, Rose. She disappeared six years ago, but only now is the father inquiring. He worries that she was murdered. The family is Gypsy, and they lost track of her after her marriage. But she is definitely not with her husband. The investigator was chosen more because he is part Gypsy than for any other credentials; but he does appear to be competent. As he looks into the family of Rose’s husband, a very complex, multi-layered situation emerges. I certainly have never imagined anything like it. This one is a page turner. The writing style is compelling, the situation is fascinating, and I couldn’t find a flaw anywhere in the chain of events (very unusual).
- Elizabeth Silver “The Execution of Noa P. Singleton”Noa introduces herself right away as an inmate on death row. She has been convicted of capital murder. She appears not to be a very cooperative person; but then again, when you are on death row, why be cooperative? The book retraces the steps that led to a murder conviction. Definitely a crime was committed. Maybe Noa didn’t do actually do it. Certainly other crimes have been committed in connection with this matter. Will they finally execute Noa despite the doubts about her conviction?
- A.S.A. Harrison “The Silent Wife”Jodi has been married to Todd for twenty years. Although she has a part time career as a therapist, she is mostly interested in creating a lovely home for Todd and herself. She knows Todd is a womanizer, but she is okay with this, thinking there are much worse faults, and that giving him lots of rope makes the marriage work. And then things start going wrong. In my opinion quite a few crimes get committed here, if we understand that what is illegal and what is criminal may not be exactly the same thing. Harrison is quite a writer. There are few books I consider “page-turners”, but this one is.
- Joseph Kanon “The Prodigal Spy “It is 1950 and Walter Kotlar is being questioned by a Congressional committee about whether he is a communist. He’s holding them off with a lot of wit and charm. Then a young girl commits suicide, and Walter vanishes. His wife and son are devastated, but try to pick up their lives and go on. But nothing is as it seems, and little by little we learn more about what really happened. A pretty subversive book, but pretty convincing too. And hard to put down.
- Tana French “Broken Harbor “Patrick and Jenny Spain seem to have a perfect life — a beautiful house, two terrific children, and a marriage so good their friends envy it. Then Patrick and the two children are murdered, and Jenny nearly so, inside their home. With children involved, the police assign their top investigator, Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy. This is a complicated whodunit, but every development seems natural. The contortions of whodunit authors are thankfully absent here. We learn a lot about the Spains, their family, their friends, their less than perfect subdivision; and a lot about Kennedy also, who has plenty of problems of his own. In the end what happened and why is as important as who. Very carefully written, very interesting to read. French has written a number of police procedural books. They are all carefully worked through, with complex characters, excellent pacing, and unusual situations.
- Camilla Lackberg “The Ice Princess “Alex is found dead, frozen (the furnace is off) into her tub, with slashed wrists. Erica, one of the first to see the scene, was a close friend of Alex when they were children, and somehow gets drawn into the investigation of what happened. It appears to be a suicide, but quickly it is determined that it is murder. This multi-layered, very intelligent whodunit holds together perfectly through all the complications and unexpected turns in the case. Very few crime books are so complex, so understandibly motivated, and so carefully crafted. And with interesting writing too. This one really held my attention.
- Peter Abrahams “The Tutor”. Brandon is a spoiled teenager with a bad attitude. His parents, Scott and Linda, have ambitions for him, such as a top college; he has no ambitions. In an effort to get his grades up, they hire Julian, a well recommended tutor. Julian has an attitude also, but he proves surprisingly effective in ways that bely the attitude we know he has. Yet, little by little things start going wrong for the family. Little sister Ruby, whom no one pays attention to because she is a) no problem and b) a little kid is racking her (apparently considerable) brains to understand what is going on. This novel is frighteningly suspenseful and too interesting to put down. Peter Abrahams has written many entertaining books, but this one is the most intricately and convincingly crafted.
- Lisa Gardner “Hide” . Annabelle’s father has moved the family from city to city, purchasing new identities for them, and leaving behind his credentials which would allow him a good job. As a young woman, Annabelle reads in a Boston paper that she has been found dead. The police are having trouble picking up a trail for what seem to be old serial murders. Annabelle knows nothing about them except that she isn’t dead. The book follows the long winding trail of the police as they attempt to dig up information about the crime, and figure out what Annabelle’s connection is. It caught my (hard to excite) interest from the first page, and kept that interest for the entire book. Good writing. Overrides the flaws in the plot.
- Derek B. Miller “Norwegian by Night” . Sheldon Horowitz, now in his 80’s, has moved to Norway because his only family, his granddaughter Rhea, has married a Norwegian and moved there. Sheldon complains about the couple upstairs, who are always noisily quarreling. Then one day the quarrel spills out into the hall. Sheldon opens his door to let the woman in, and she brings with her a young son. The man starts kicking in the door. Trapped in the apartment, Sheldon hides with the boy in a closet, and listens while the woman is murdered. Deciding that he had better get the boy away from the murderer, Sheldon manages to slip out of the apartment with him. Alone in Norway, without the language, with a failing body, and a traumatized boy, Sheldon sets out to elude both the murderer and the police whom he does not trust to keep the boy safe. He doesn’t know what a complex situation he is now entangled in; but he does have resources he has never told anyone about. This one is a page turner.
- Yannick Murphy “this is the water” . Annie has two teenage daughters, both on the swim team, and she works very hard to get them to and from the practices and supply them with all the things that are required. Her marriage has arrived at a point where her husband pats her hand instead of hugging her. All around her are other mothers and some fathers with their daughters. There is Chris, who is ridiculously beautiful, Dinah who is ridiculously judgemental, Paul who is very sexy, etc. A murder far away gets everyone talking about how glad they are to live in their small New England town, where things are quiet and there is no murder. But they are wrong — there is a murderer among them. He has been quiescent for years, but now he is inspired by the far away murders to take up this hobby again.
- Naseem Rakha “The Crying Tree” . Irene and Nate’s son Shep has been brutally murdered. The murderer, Daniel Robbin, made no effort to escape capture, and is sentenced to death. Irene’s grief for her son is boundless, as is her hatred of Daniel. It takes over her entire life. After many years she gets notice that Daniel’s appeals have run out and he will shortly be executed. In an effort to free herself from a remaining lifetime of hatred Irene decides to forgive Daniel. What follows is quite unexpected. Forgiveness is very au courant, and many are the articles urging us to forgive for our own sake. I am not a fan of this idea. But it is interesting to follow through one scenario of how it could work out.
- Graham Greene “The Human Factor” . Graham Greene is a master of the espionage genre, justly famous because his books are so excellent. Intelligence and human understanding shine through this story of a very dull worker bee in the British system, who has a very beloved wife. Such a pleasure to read.
We should understand that the most horrible creatures are not imaginary man-eating aliens, nor creatures from the black lagoon, but in fact people. Some people are incredibly terrible, and unfortunately, they are entirely real.
- Robert Cohen “Inspired Sleep“. Starts out like it is going to be a light boy-meets-girl, but that isn’t where it is going. Scary, thought provoking and occasionally truly funny. By comparison most “horror” novels seem contrived and trite.
- Lisa Carey “Love in the Asylum“.Not just another boy-meets-girl, although there is that, but two interwoven stories about women in asylums at different times in our history . Partly horrifying, and partly redeeming. It stayed with me for weeks after I finished the book.
- Chevy Stevens “Still Missing”. How do you survive a kidnapping? And if you escape, how do you cope with life after that? Written with enough distance that it is not too upsetting to read, but very absorbing. Nuanced, real people, including the kidnapper. Several unexpected plot twists, which actually hold up based on the material earlier in the book. (I find unexpected plot twists hard to pull off — usually they come out of nowhere, and seem to be there only to be unexpected. All plot twists should be supported by the entire story, and any that are not will not make this list.)
- Simon Lelic “A Thousand Cuts”. Written in a spare, almost elliptical style, the book focuses on the investigation of a murder-suicide. Was the murderer the raving lunatic he seemed to be? Maybe not. Is there justice to be had in this world? Maybe sort of, sometimes.
- Chris Cleave “Little Bee”. Very easy to read with well drawn characters and a very likeable heroine. Still, I put it in the “horrifying” category. Read it and see why.
- Lisa Tucker “The Promised World”. Lila is a beautiful young woman, with an absorbing career and a loving husband. Her best friend is her twin Billy, with whom she shares a profound bond, and whom she sees often. Then something goes wrong, events cascade, and the situation seems stranger and stranger. After awhile it is almost inpenetrably complicated. What is going on? Eventually the story works through to an explanation. What are the lies? What is the truth? And see how one awful human being can affect an ever widening circle of people, most of whom had nothing to do with it.
- Arthur Solmssen “Alexander’s Feast“. If you’ve been looking for a cliffhanger about merger and acquisition law, search no further. This book really is exactly that, and a very interesting, surprising and intricate story it is. It is also a portrait of a very complicated man. We women rarely get this kind of look into how men think. All Solmssen’s other books are worth reading, but this one stands out.
- Jojo Moyes “The Girl You Left Behind“. This starts as a war story, about a French village under occupation in World War I. It continues as a very entangled legal case 100 years later, arising from that occupation. As we see, war casts a very long shadow; just because it’s “over” doesn’t mean it has gone away. At the center of the war situation is a woman who would probably be ordinary in ordinary times, but has to make extraordinary efforts because of the occupation. At the center of the legal situation is also an ordinary woman, pushed into extraordinary effort. The two are connected only by coincidence — but coincidence can ruin lives. Suspenseful and very interesting to read.
Hard to Classify
- Paul Watkins “The Forger” Beautiful creative writing, plenty of suspense, well researched and with unusual characters who are understandable and believable. The plot holds together without any inconsistencies or stupid, irrelevant digressions. We’re talking about art forgery here, not check forgery.
- Ann Patchett “bel canto“. Yes, there is a singer, but this is a story about people and our common humanity. The writing is very high quality, the descriptions of the beauty of music are amazing – it is really hard to put these things into words. The story is always interesting, and the different people are very well drawn. This one held my interest from beginning to end.
- Jane Smiley “Good Faith”. Throughout this book the impression is that some major scam is going on. Yet the protaganist and potential vicitim is neither naive nor.stupid; the apparent perpetrator seems to be an awfully nice guy. I could not figure out whether there really was a scam or not. A very entertaining read, with a very great deal to think about. Try also “A Thousand Acres” I find the quality of her books variable, but these two are among the best.
- Elizabeth Kostova “The Swan Thieves”. A story about a very fine artist in modern times who becomes obsessed with painting one beautiful woman; and the wife and other women who try to cope with him. But intertwined with this is a story from the previous century about the development of another fine artist. These two stories seem quite separate throughout most of this book. But towards the end they begin coming together. And somewhere along the way a crime is uncovered. Excellent, absorbing writing. A long book and worth every minute of your time.
- Paul Murray “Skippy Dies”. Boys at an Irish boarding school, depicted in all their unloveliness and inexperience. Administrators at same school, pictured in all their unloveliness, not mitigated by inexperience. Tragedy waiting to happen, and it did. What happens before and after. One of the more cynical — or maybe realistic — books I have ever read, with a very clear view of humans and their behavior. And despite all that, some very wicked humor. Gripping writing style.