From delightful discoveries to over-hyped disappointments, counting down a year’s fiction reading from best to worst:
Milkman by Anna Burns: what goes through a young girl’s mind when male sexual privilege inexorably encroaches, endless partisan violence cautions against caring, and virulent rumor ruthlessly inflates the innocent into the unforgiveable? Milkman is a word-loving but miraculously never word-drunk narrative, and while everything’s a little too conveniently resolved, this stream-of-consciousness barrage from an exaggerated rather than unimaginable everywhere is outrageously relevant and involving.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer: in which an author sets off on a road trip comedy of errors, all to avoid the painful wedding of his ex-boyfriend. First I kind of poo-pooed this extended pun, and then I realized I’d fallen in love with it.
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami: exquisite, memorable, a puzzle with music that’s much more than the sum of its parts. (The answer is right on the tip of my soul.)
When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: the first an unanswered question, a numbingly brutal immersion into war in Japan; the second an unrelenting yet placid nightmare, a hellish, accurate analogy of the human condition. Read them both.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Like Dickens for grownups, this grudgingly adventurous bildungsroman takes a young slave from Barbados by balloon, to Nova Scotia by ship, then on to the Arctic and America and England. Science, art, and romance are on board, while a nicely reasoned maturity awaits on shore. It’s all fairly preposterous but wildly imaginative, insightful, and sane.
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano: a bit of a letdown in that I could see where it was going, and far from Bolano’s best, but nevertheless a superb trip through the conscience of a country.
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: this one has the best depiction of malignant narcissism I’ve ever encountered, plus a compelling young heroine and tense, edge-of-your-seat action.
Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeliene Thein: a child’s experience of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, a memory journey of both miles and years, a cyclic reaching out for recovery.
Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan: the very best snarky escapism, and thank you for the footnotes, Mr. Kwan, they were lovely.
Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo: Bejing, youth and eagerness, movie making, struggles – it’s slight but nothing can squash the delicate joy infusing this novel.
Alias Grace by Margret Atwood: NO, NO, NO! What a cheap, cowardly solution, and it matters. Show her as she is, what she was forced to become, because there’s the true tragedy. The factual history of Grace Marks, the 19th century maid convicted for her part in a murder, carries this book despite a nonsensical, mitigating out.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko: an oddly moving book on Chinese immigrants and a boy deserted by his mother, having to adjust to adoptive parents, to become another person with different tastes and perhaps expunged memories. I remember this one clearly despite myself, despite not even liking the characters that much. They keep hanging around like unwanted friends.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson: here’s a writer just having some fun, so I did too. As with The Diamond Age it starts with an absolutely genius concept but kind of runs down. He does this, and it makes me furious.
The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn: a suspenseful novel featuring some nicely timed surprises, one of which works quite well. I guessed the villain of the piece immediately, but still a pretty neat little thriller.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: an atmospheric WWII tale with a mild shock to catch you up with this business of war, adolescence, and the overlooked consequences that filter down to disregarded lives.
Nobody’s Son by Mark Slouka: this one was odd, but interesting. It’s the usual look back at troubled parents and a traumatic childhood, but it carefully constructs its narrative in order to abruptly refute it – the end. What?
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer: contemporary feminism in the style of Little Women. See my Literary Rant here. Want to talk about the difference between organic writing and writing about whatever’s in the headlines?
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple: fun enough, I guess, but the satiric and the serious seemed out of step, and neither idea quite got where it needed to get. All in all an interesting trip to a decent if not exactly valid resolution, so fine.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru: cultural appropriation, time, and race music on a literal and very dark ride into the Deep South.
What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin: a just okay Hollywood mystery in hindsight.
Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta: this story of two female filmmakers bored me; an earnest examination of two basically uninteresting people.
The Girls by Emma Cline: a major disappointment, a pale, exploitative effort that plays around the edges of the Manson insanity but never uncovers anything central or compelling.
A Separation by Katie Kitamura: a husband loses himself in Greece, the wife follows, and nothing much else happens, certainly nothing interesting.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: damply disappointing, just no fun.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Suskind: I hated this book.
Bonus: New additions to some favorite mystery series:
The Knowledge: A Richard Jury Mystery by Martha Grimes: it’s exactly what you’d expect, with a black cab ride to a secret pub, and Melrose Plant with a clever little girl on safari in Africa. So basically all’s right in that particular world, thank you very much.
Lethal White: A Cormoran Strike Novel by Robert Galbraith: what a relief to see these characters getting their silly lives back on track. Also there’s a mystery at Parliament and some upper and lower class characters and so on.
Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton: her excellent last letter.
The Inspector Gamache series (all 14 books) by Louise Perry: because I needed a rehabilitative stretch this summer so took a virtual vacation in Quebec, then suffered some months waiting for the final Gamache adventure, a satisfactory farewell. If you’re not familiar, there’s a perfect hero, a quaint, near-magical village, mysteries of the usual type, political machinations, intelligence, and a rather wicked wit.
(PLEASE NOTE: The Kindle version of Worthy of This Great City is on special, priced as low as it’s going to go. (I was planning on a holiday sale, but I was busy and forgot.) Before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)
Photo credits: Dorine Ruter, Book (CC BY 2.0) / aehdeschaine, Books about books (CC BY-ND 2.0)