As they say in the fine print, results may vary. You might adore a book that I loathe. (Don’t get me started on Ulysses…) The joyous thing is that there are so many books – something for everyone! Here are four of my fiction reads from the last year. Not the best, not the worst, better than middling…
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek: A Novel by Kim Michele Richardson
Kindle, 322 pages
File under: historical fiction with a (literal) kicker
There are two historical facts that figure in this novel, neither of which I’d ever heard of before. One is a rare blood condition called methemoglobinemia. The other is the 1935-1943 Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project. Their inclusion greatly buoys the story of a young woman caught in the grip of her cultural moment, as does the author’s beautifully expressed love of the book’s Kentucky setting. It’s not a challenging read and a few of the characters seem more like caricatures, but there is one absolutely memorable standout among them and that is Junia the mule. You best watch yourself around Junia, because if she doesn’t like you, watch out for the nip or a kick. Also, it’s a book about books, so what’s not to like about that? If you read and like it, you’ll be happy to know there’s a sequel: The Book Woman’s Daughter: A Novel.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane: A Novel by Lisa See
Audiobook read by Ruthie Ann Miles and Kimiko Glenn
14 hours 8 minutes: 400 pages
File under: Mothers, daughters and all the tea in China
I encountered author Lisa See when my book club chose The Island of Sea Women: A Novel and I thought I’d read another of her books, which seem to specialize in bringing to light the lives of female characters in islolated cultural settings. In this case it is Li-yan, who is of the Akha people, hill tribes that populate southern China as well as parts of Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Li-yan Lives in Yunnan, China where her people grow Pu’er, a highly prized fermented tea.
I remain on the fence about this author – her prose style can seem almost too simplistic, yet the themes and plots of her books are complex and exhaustively researched. In this book those themes include tea, tea, and more tea, long held cultural proscriptions, mothers and daughters and the byzantine journey of international adoption. Some of the incidents and encounters in the book seem more like events you would read in a fairy tale, but See takes cover in the Akha adage of “No coincidence, no story.” This was named a “best book of 2020” by The New York Times, NPR and The New York Post.
The Searcher: A Novel by Tana French
Audiobook narrated by Roger Clark
14 hours 32 minutes; 463 pages
File under: it’s not all leprechauns in Ireland
Crime fiction is not my usual genre but I can see the appeal. There’s suspense and foreboding but because it’s not real, there is also an overlay of escapism. The bad guys are out there, but they’re not showing up at your front door.
Tana French is considered among the best for this vein of fiction and here she introduces us to Cal Hooper, a retired Chicago cop who pulls up stakes after his divorce and moves to a rural community in western Ireland. Having chosen to work through his memories and regrets in a place where nothing seemingly happens beyond a night at the pub with the locals, Cal is unwittingly drawn into the mysterious disappearance of a local teen. It’s well written and absorbing, and was also a 2020 best books pick by the NYT/NPR/NYP triumverate.
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
Kindle, 192 pages
File under: Old girls just want to have fun, too.
Vita Sackville-West is best known as Virginia Woolf’s love interest, but she was an accomplished gardener on a grand scale, and an accomplished writer on a smaller scale. Wickedly brilliant like her friend, Virginia, here she pens a very witty and yet essentially poignant vignette that portrays the challenges and opportunities of advancing age.
When Lady Slane is widowed, her children – some of whom have a keen eye on her bank account – have certain expectations of what her ebbing life trajectory should hold. But Lady Slane has other ideas. “If one is not to please oneself in old age, when is one to please oneself? There is so little time left!”
She uses her time boldly and well, and even finds unexpected companionship. “…being so old it was agreeable to sit like two cats on either side of the fire warming their bones, stretching out hands so transparent as to let the pink light of the flames through them, while their conversation without effort rose or fell.”
It’s a wisp of a book. I thoroughly enjoyed it.