This has been a good three months for mainstream fiction, science fiction and urban fantasy with a little bit of Christmas sparkle around the edges. I’ve read thirty-three books, although I declined to finish a record-breaking six of them.
In urban fantasy, I visited with Mercy Thompson a couple of times and lost myself in the third Soulwood book, “A Flame In The Dark” a spin-off series from Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock stories that I think is starting to outperform its parent.
For Christmas fun, I read “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” which was fun but not very festive, “Jacob T. Marley” which was one of the books I abandoned and the surprising and totally engaging “St, Nick” about a cop playing Santa Claus and learning a lot about himself along the way.
So here are my recommendations from the last three months.
Best Mainstream Reads of the Quarter
This was another strong quarter for mainstream fiction, so I’m recommending three books rather than one
I didn’t expect it to be, but “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” turned out to be one of my favourite books this year.
Given that this is a book about a person who is very far from completely fine, who bears the physical and mental scar of childhood trauma and lives in a state of brutal isolation, this might sound like a depressing read. Yet I found it hopeful and sometimes funny, not because it escaped from reality but because it captured it so well but never gave in to despair.
There is so much understanding here of how day to day life really is, how we struggle with it, how loneliness colonises our lives like a carcinogenic mould until our lives become literally unbearable and how important small acts of kindness and regular honest contact are.
The writing is pretty much perfect. The characterisation is both subtle and clear. Modern life is closely observed and then relayed through the unique filter of Eleanor’s perception. The emotions in the book are strong and real but not broadcast in soundbites or flash cards. If this was a movie, there would be no dramatic music, just close-ups of people being people.
What I want to say about “My Name Is Lucy Barton” is: read it and read it soon. It’s full of truth. It will make you cry. It will make you feel less alone. It will give you courage. It will fill your imagination as you read it and echo in your memory long afterwards.
“My Name Is Lucy Barton” is about “A poor girl from Amgash who loved her momma.” It’s not a plot-driven book or even a character-driven book. It’s a book in which Lucy, talking to us directly and frankly shares her thoughts, emotions and memories about how she and her mother were together.
In a few hours of listening, I felt that I knew who Lucy Barton was, at least as well as anyone can know such a thing.
At one point in the book, Lucy says, “I know a true sentence when I hear one.” Well, this seems to me to be a book full of true sentences. I kept interrupting myself as I read to make a note of another true thing. Then I realised that the only way to do justice to their truth was to read the book. I recommend you do the same.
The novel s a coming of age story about Julia Reyes, a Mexican-American girl growing up in Chicago. The book begins with the death of her sister, Olga, who appeared to be the perfect daughter until Julia sets out to discover who she truly was. In the process, Julia begins to understand her family and herself.
What caught me by surprise was the simple beauty of the prose, the depth of the insight into depression and the skilful pacing of Julia’s emotional journey.
Erika Sanchez’s simple, precise, beautiful prose, captures Julia perfectly and helps the reader see her clearly in a way that seems effortless and natural but which requires great skill.
The novel deals with death, love, cultural and personal identity and the impact of trauma and secrets on our ability to be honest with ourselves and others. This is not an easy ride but it is one that is filled with deep compassion, a reluctance to judge and a refusal to simplify or avoid unpleasant things.
Best New Finds of the Quarter
“The Bette Davis Club” by Jane Lotter, is a larger than life comedy, structured around a chaotic road-trip in a classic 1938 MG that careens from Malibu to Manhattan by way of Chicago.
Margo Just, a single woman in her fifties whose life is slowly falling apart attends her niece’s wedding in her childhood home in Malibu, despite being estranged from her half-sister.
When the bride jilts the groom and makes a run for it, Margo’s financially straitened circumstances, combined with the impact of the several vodka martinis and the promise of the use of her dead father’s classic little red sports car, lead to her accept a mission, from her half-sister to join with the groom and bring the runaway bride home.
What follows is a riotous journey with some classic scenes, including a crazed attack on the highway and Margo, who is straight, doing the samba in a lesbian dance competition. It’s also an engaging internal journey for Margo, who is on the cusp of confronting some deep truths about her life that will determine her future.
Matthew Sullivan’s “Midnight At The Bright Ideas Bookstore” is darker, more compelling and much more moving than the title suggests.
The publisher’s summary told me the story would start with a suicide.
“When a bookshop patron commits suicide, it’s his favorite store clerk who must unravel the puzzle he left behind in this fiendishly clever debut novel from an award-winning short story writer.”
I thought the suicide would have all the emotional impact of a body found in a locked room in an Agatha Christie murder mystery.
This book isn’t a puzzle. It isn’t cute. It’s a story about a woman in her twenties, damaged by a night of violence when she was ten, for whom The Bright Ideas Bookstore is a place of refuge, not just a place of work. She is the bookseller who best connects with the “bookfrogs“, the damaged, often homeless, always slightly lost, people who hang around the bookstore for its warmth and shelter as well as its books.
Finding one of the youngest bookfrogs just after he suicides in the store is not the start of a puzzle to be unravelled, it is a traumatic event that is the first tremor in a quake that will collapse her understanding of her own past and leave her scrambling to stand in the rubble.
This is a book filled with sadness, with bad decisions, with love overpowered by guilt or loss and with the genuine evil that sometimes finds us.
It’s also a book about the persistence of the need for love and the possibility of survival through retaining the ability to be kind to others and yourself.
Best New Series of the Quarter
Helen Harper’s “Slouch Witch” is a light, witty, laugh-out-loud, ever-so-slightly-RomCom Urban Fantasy. It twists and tickles Urban Fantasy, odd-couple buddy movies and RomCom tropes until they collapse in a fit of giggles, while still managing to build a credible magical universe and deliver a satisfying whodunnit plot.
This is clever stuff that Helen Harper makes look completely effortless.
Ivy Wilde drives a taxi in Oxford, but it would be a mistake to think of her as a taxi driver. She’s a witch. True, she’s not in the Order like other witches, at least not anymore and her favourite occupation is watching “Enchantment” from the comfort of her sofa while eating food that has been delivered to her door, but she’s still a witch who knows a thing or two.
A misunderstanding compels her to work with a senior witch in the investigative arm of the Order. He is everything Ivy is not. Although he is many things Ivy finds attractive.
As the two of them track down wrong-doers within the order, sparks fly, spells are cast, karaoke is performed and a great time is had by all (well, not the bad guys of course, but everybody else).
This was escapist fun that I sorely needed. Read it and smile.
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter
“White Silence” isn’t the worst book I’ve read this quarter, nor it is it the only book I didn’t finish but is the one that disappointed me the most because I love Jodi Taylor’s St, Mary’s books and had high hopes of this new series.
The cover is beautiful and the publisher’s summary describes it as: “The first instalment in the new, gripping supernatural thriller series.” and as:
“a twisty supernatural thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.”
I got twelve chapters and four hours into this ten-hour audiobook and without experiencing anything like tension. I had difficulty maintaining more than mild curiosity so I gave up.
The premise of “White Silence” is intriguing. It tells the story of Elizabeth Cage, an adopted child with the ability to see people so clearly that she knows their character, intent and inclinations on sight. Trained from childhood to hide her powers, she seeks out a quiet life with a quiet man, only to be manoeuvred into the hands of unscrupulous people who want to use her powers for evil.
Sounds like stirring stuff in a sort of Superman meets Sixth Sense meets Medium kind of way. Except it isn’t. The pace is agonisingly slow. Elizabeth Cage has so little personality that I struggled to care what happened to her and the England of the story seems to be trapped somewhere in an idealised 1950s.