Thursday, January 2, 2014

Thirteen for 2013. My Year of Great Fiction

Clarie Messud
This year I did not read the usual 100 plus books but ended up with a count of niney-five. As usual I read both old and new and I  was lucky to find wonderful books this year. However, we all know that some books should not be put lightly aside but should be tossed across the room. I did not actually toss, but, following a personal rule, if I was not drawn in by page 50, the book went back to the library or back on the shelf and thence to the second-hand bookstore.
I confess I do not read for literary uplift but for plot, engaging characters and great settings. I want books to draw me in and let the rest of the world go by. I especially love historicals including historical mysteries. I especially hate books with violent self-absorbed protagonists or slacker males who drink and feel sorry for themselves. I love a book that opens a door, that has something meaningful to say, that plants ideas into an unused brain cell, that relates to my inner intellectual life, even if the book is set in 16th century Venice.
Here is my personal top thirteen of 2013.

1. The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak Early years of Catherine the Great told by her friend who is also a spy planted in Catherine’s entourage. The two women have to survive the treacherous intrigues of the royal court. A superb historical by a very good writer.
2.The Reinvention of Love by Helen Humphries  The love affair of Charles Saint-Beuve and Adele Hugo is the basis for this interesting novel. Based on the true story, and set in 19th century France, it portrays a  long-running clandestine love affair between Adele Hugo, wife of Victor,  and writer, Saint-Beauve.  I enjoyed this book as I do all of Humphries’ books.
3.      The Old Man and the Sea by Earnest Hemmingway. Unforgettable story of loss and courage. I love Hemmingway’s short stories but his novels—not so much. I had ignored this book until prompted by local writer John Pringle who named this book as very significant to him. So I read it.  A slight novel and a riveting one, it tells the story of an old Cuban fisherman, down on his luck, who fights an agonizing battle with a giant marlin, Hemmingway works with  the themes of bravery and personal triumph in the face of loss. The Old Man and the Sea won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.
4. Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee. Wonderful book. Great plot and great characters. Helen Armstead’s marriage has fallen apart and so, back in the working world, she finds a job in public relations and discovers that she has a rare gift, the ability to help spin crises by making the perpetrators admit their mistakes.

5. Longbourn by Jo Baker – We are with the Bennett family at Longbourn or rather in the kitchen with the over-worked servants. In this alternate view, Mr. Collins and Mary are the good people. Much plotting goes on below stairs against a well-loved background. And, joy, Mr. Bingley is back in town! And Mr. Wickham is always lounging around in unexpected places.
6. The Goldfinch. By Donna Tart. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives a bombing in an art gallery. Devastated by the loss of his mother and the loss of his former life, Decker clings to the one object that reminds him of the past, a painting of a small bird.
7. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud A harrowing book about a single woman, a teacher and an artist, who becomes entranced by a neighbouring family. They take her on and betray her. Or perhaps, they take her on in order to betray her. It reminds me of the account by Mary Miggs in her memoir. Miggs is befriended by Mary McCarthy and her husband and then used as a disturbed character in one of McCarthy’s novels. Art at its most vicious. This novel was listed for the Giller.
8. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. A group of teens at a summer camp bond into life-long friends. As they move into adulthood, the friendship endures but their lives take on different shapes. Wolitzer examines the themes of love and marriage, creativity, wealth and poverty, loyalty and loss.
9. Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen. So Hiassen and thus,so funny. The main protagonist, cop Andrew Yancy, is a rough-talking impetuous guy demoted to restaurant inspector, or the cockroach count. But murders, grisly ship wrecks and beautiful women hinder the roach-filled life of a health inspector. Hiaasen does not mince words about Florida’s larcenous citizenry including its public officials
10. The Cuckoo’s Calling by J.K. Rowling writing as Kenneth Galbraith. Very good, complicated story in the old fashioned gum-shoe mode. A famous model is murdered and our down-and-out but intrepid detective is on the case, along with, of course, a female assistant. 
 11. Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa.  The events in the Portuguese community in Toronto in the late 70’s are told  from the perspectives of a young boy and his friends. Their friend, Emmanuel Jacques, the shoe shine boy, is missing and will turn up dead. Based on the true account, this book looks at the wider ramifications of a sordid murder.
12. Michael Winter- The Great Why, I picked this book up in CD form in the airport in St; John’s, Newfoundland. An artist leaves New York to settle into the tiny town of Brigus, Newfoundland. His wife and children join him and they endure the hardships of old outport life and share the triumphs and grief of their neighbours. 
13. How it All Began by Penelope Lively. An extremely skillful writer, Lively zooms a story along with such ease that it makes my teeth ache with envy. Her style is offhand, informal, teasing, and colloquial, interspersed with peppy dialogue. The book starts with a mugging and branches out to tell the stories of all concerned.

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