OK, I admit it. I’m an indiscriminate book lover. One week I’m deep into a fabulous piece of literature, the next I’m tearing through a messy crime novel or a celebrity biography. What can I say, sometimes my brain needs a rest.
Below are some of my recent reads. My absolute favorites. Books I’ll come back to over and over. If you’re like me and you love nothing more than curling up in a comfy chair and diving into a great book - cheap wine in hand - you might enjoy them too!
OK, I admit it, I’m reading a lot of historical novels these days. And this is among the best. The well-behaved woman in the title is Alva Vanderbilt, who - during the Gilded Age - entered into a loveless marriage to one of Commodore Vanderbilt’s unimaginably rich grandsons. But her life did not follow the usual track. She became a suffragette, a civil rights leader and an amateur architect during her fascinating life at the heart of American high society.
As an accurate biography, this historical novel comes up short. Much about the life and thoughts of Eliza Hamilton, wife of Alexander, is pure conjecture. Still, it’s an interesting read, rich in American history and infused with the courtly language of the early 19th century. A few years ago I read “America’s First Daughter,” by the same authors, a biography of Patsy Jefferson Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter. They had more source material and it was a lovely novel. Then again, I adore Mr. Jefferson. Hamilton? Not so much.
Reviews of this novel have been mixed and I didn’t expect to enjoy it when my book club settled on The Miniaturist for May. Once I jumped in, though, I found a fascinating story set in 17th century Amsterdam, a city bustling with merchants and craftsmen capitalizing on raw materials from the Dutch colonies. (A reminder that this little country was once a player on the world stage.) The tale is infused with Alice Hoffman-like mysticism, which means readers must be willing to suspend their disbelief. Predictable, yes. But mesmerizing, too.
Tana French is Ireland’s gift to the world of crime novelists. I’ve read several of her Dublin Murder Squad novels, but “The Witch Elm” is something different. It’s a leisurely, layered psychological mystery told from the point of view of a mildly brain-damaged crime victim. After he’s beaten almost to death for no apparent reason, Toby Hennessy loses chunks of his memory. That complicates matters when he’s implicated in a 10-year-old murder. The pace of this book is slow compared to others by this novelist. But I liked it. A lot.
Don’t start this stunning book unless you have hours to spare. You’ll sink into this unbelievable tale and won’t be able to breathe until it’s over. Tara Westover’s lyrical account of growing up in a survivalist Mormon family in rural Idaho - around the time of the siege at Ruby Ridge - reads like fiction. That fact that it’s not makes the story, which centers around her father’s descent into mental illness and the dangers it posed to his isolated family, absolutely harrowing. The New York Times Book Review put it on it’s Ten Best Books of 2018. For once, I agree with the Times.
Finished this novel today and I’m blown away by it. The language, the cadence, the humor. No wonder it won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for fiction. Maybe I loved “Milkman” because I lived in Ireland for three years during The Troubles. Maybe I enjoyed “Milkman” because it was so unique. Then again, maybe I never wanted “Milkman” to end because Anna Burns is a helluva gifted writer. Note: I listened to this stream-of-consciousness work on Audible. The narrator was fabulous. Highly recommended.
If you’re in a book club, you’ve probably read “Eleanor” already. If you’re not and you haven’t, you should. Read it, that is. Eleanor Oliphant is a 30 year-old single Glasgow woman, living alone and she is definitely NOT fine. While Honeyman has penned a memorable novel - witty and warm with acerbic observations on modern life - this is truly a treatise about loneliness. In an uplifting way. Read it before the movie comes out later this year.
Delia Owens didn’t set out to be a best-selling author. She’s a PhD who spent decades in Africa studying wildlife before turning to fiction. Yet her highly acclaimed first novel, “Where The Crawdads Sing,” is compelling and lyrical. It’s the story of Kya, a feral girl abandoned by her family and surviving in the marshlands of North Carolina. The determined child learns to read and write and becomes an acclaimed naturalist despite crippling social anxiety. Oh, and there’s a murder. I never wanted this book to end.
Maybe it’s all this talk about Russia or my sudden taste for Moscow mules, but lately I find myself drawn to books about this country and its strange, rich history. The four daughters of Czar Nicholas have been described as the Kardashians of their time. This quartet of beautiful royal sisters was the subject of much speculation as they approached marriageable ages in the years leading up to the Russian revolution. Alas, there is no happy ending to their story.
If you’ve ever zipped down Virginia’s Eastern Shore and wondered what it would be like to live there, you owe it to yourself to read this non-fiction work. While it’s centered on the curious story of Tonya Bundick and Charlie Smith - the Eastern Shore Arsonists, who nearly burned down Accomack County about six years ago - it’s so much more than that. A poetic and poignant look at Virginia’s forgotten finger.
Have I mentioned that I belong to a book club that reads only women authors? Thought so. Yet, like most bibliophiles, we consume lots of literature that isn’t on the menu at our monthly meeting. At our last get together someone mentioned “A Gentleman in Moscow” and we all began gushing at once about this marvelous, breathtaking novel. Written by Amor Towles - a man! - this is the best book I’ve read. In years. Enjoy!
Is there a wittier essayist in America today than David Sedaris? No, there is not. His latest book, “Calypso,” offers moments of exquisite hilarity and deep introspection. If you love your Fitbit, as I do, you will find his essay on obsessive walking riotous. On second thought, if you’ve never read Sedaris, start with “Naked” and “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” “Calypso” is a collection for those seriously addicted to the writer. I never wanted it to end.
Loved this sweeping novel set in 1930s and ‘40s New York City by one of my book club’s favorite authors. Egan’s richly drawn characters include gangsters, floozies, bankers and young women working at the Naval yard in jobs that had been held by men before the war. This author always does her homework. Details about diving and the critical role of merchant ships during the war are spot on.
Because I live at the beach, I find my reading tastes change with the seasons. Don’t tell my brainy book club, but in summer, I want to read fun, engrossing novels that will eventually wind up on my book shelves with sand between the pages.
My 2018 beach reading kicked off with “An Innocent Client,” by Scott Pratt. I immediately began working my way through the rest of his addictive Joe Dillard series. Pratt, who has a BA in English and a law degree from the University of Tennessee, writes legal thrillers set in eastern Tennessee. His main character, Dillard, is a career switcher. In this novel, he’s a disillusioned criminal defense lawyer. In the later books he’s the DA.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Pratt said he wrote the series in a way that the reader could start with any novel and that's true. I’m on my third.
I love reading Alice Hoffman. She’s an elegant and quirky writer and when she turns to historical fiction, she’s both mesmerizing and meticulous. “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” is set in 1911 New York. The year of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and a time when wolves and deer roamed remote parts of Manhattan. Read this. You’ll love the prose and you’ll learn something.
Former Baltimore Sun newspaper reporter Laura Lippman is one of my favorite authors. Her crime novels are always compelling, often based on real cases. “Sunburn” is something a bit different. A psychodrama with lots of twists. Enjoy!
The Tennessee Children’s Home Society was an unscrupulous adoption agency based in Memphis during the first half of the 20th century. The owners were able to kidnap poor children and place them with wealthy families for decades before they were exposed. “Before We Were Yours” is a mystery novel based on these horrific real-life events. A great read.
“News of the World” is one of those novels that stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page. It’s the story of a little girl held captive by the Kiowa tribe for four years and the 70-year-old Army captain who’s taking her back to her kinfolk in San Antonio. Sweeping story set in North Texas just after the Civil War. Read this. You can thank me later.