Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Best of the Rest: Great Reads from 2013 That Are Not Romance Novels

Last week I shared my top romance reads of 2013, but while I read more widely in romance than in other genres, my reading tastes are fairly eclectic. I prefer my mysteries cozy, or at least lacking the gore and graphic violence that gives me nightmares, but I have a considerable list of auto-buy mystery authors too. Historical fiction, women’s fiction, memoirs and biographies, poetry—I read them all. I don’t read as much YA as I used to, but I still find a gem or two. So, with the caveat that these have been chosen from a considerably shorter list of books read than were the thirteen romances, here’s my rest-of-the-best list for 2013.

Mystery: Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley

Five books into this series and I find Flavia de Luce as delightful as I did in the first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The dead bodies in this one include that of the Saint Tancred, whose name the local church bears and whose bones are to be disinterred on the 500th anniversary of his death, and that of the missing church organist, who is discovered by Flavia in search of a bat in an organ pipe. As usual, Flavia, now almost twelve, is in the thick of things as the mystery twists through elements that include diamonds, tin soldiers, a leper, and secrets. The real appeal of the series continues to be Flavia and her relationships with her family and other residents of Bishops Lacey. Bradley keeps his young sleuth equal parts old-soul prodigy and credible, needy child. She will make the reader laugh one minute and break her heart the next. Speaking from Among the Bones answers some questions and raises others with its cliffhanger ending. It’s less than a month now until the release of the next book, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, a reading experience sure to brighten mid-January.

Historical Fiction: Longbourn by Jo Baker

This was a particularly good year for historical fiction. I found particularly compelling The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee, The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin, Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain, I’ll Be Seeing You by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan, and In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose McColl, but using the reread test to select my candidate for best of the year, I went with Longbourn.

Austen-related novels are common enough to practically constitute their own subgenre, and most of them are eminently forgettable. This one is a jewel, keeping the reader aware of the world Austen gave her readers in Pride and Prejudice and at the same time expanding that world to focus on the servants who are faceless, nameless background figures in the P & P world.   From the sleazy Wickham’s effort to seduce the young scullery maid, Polly, to Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, and her unconcealed displeasure with a decision Mr. Bennett makes, the reader sees the servants at Longbourn as people with histories, secrets, fears, and dreams and the Bennets as people of their class with all the assumptions and prejudices that entailed. I found myself wishing that I were still teaching. I’d love to pair Longbourn with Pride and Prejudice and listen to the discussions the two together would provoke.

YA Novel: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park is not a comfortable book to read. The brutal world of the mob mentality that leads teens to attack, render miserable, and sometimes destroy those who are different is painfully real, as headlines persistently remind us. I suspect the reading is uniquely painful for adults who are good at burying thoughts of such viciousness, but Rowell makes the cruelties real, intimate, and impossible to avoid because she makes the reader care about these two characters, the half-Korean Park and the red-haired, flamboyantly dressed Eleanor with her body issues and the horrors of her home life. Watching the relationship develop between Park and Eleanor in all its awkwardness and wonder is rewarding, but it also adds to an uneasiness about their vulnerability. After reading the book, I was more than ever amazed by the parents who objected to this book because of the language (directed at the protagonists, not used by them) and the ugliness of Eleanor’s life rather than hoping that reading and talking about the book would make their children think hard thoughts about their own experience—whether they are outsiders or insiders. I’m giving it to some of the teens about whom I care.

Women’s Fiction: You Are the Love of My Life by Susan Richards Shreve

At its center, this is a book about the lies people tell to themselves and to others in order to protect their wounds and to create selves that are larger and brighter and more immune to the slings and arrows life throws at them. The lies exist in the microcosm of the upper middle-class lives on Wichita Avenue in Washington, D.C., where Lucy Painter, a single mother of two children, has just moved into a house she owns but has avoided for much of her life and where Zee Mallory maintains the illusions of her perfect, fragile life. The lies exist in the macrocosm where in 1973 the Watergate hearings have a nation considering secrets and lies and some very important people considering their costs. Watergate serves as mere background for the smaller stories of the fictional characters, but the point at which history and fiction intersect adds subtlety and substance to the novel.

Memoir/Biography: Marmee and Louisa by Eva LaPlante

I think I was eight the first time I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Even at that age, while I sighed over Meg’s romance, cried at Beth’s death, and found Amy’s burning of Jo’s stories utterly unforgiveable, it was Jo and the near-omniscient Marmee who knew her so well and gave her such wise advice in whom I was most interested. That interest has not diminished through more than half a century of rereading. I knew as soon as I heard that an Alcott relative with access to newly discovered personal papers was writing a biography focusing on Alcott’s relationship with her mother that this was a book I wanted to read.

Marmee and Louisa shows Abigail Alcott as a practical woman married to a man little suited to the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood. While Bronson Alcott retreated from his family to read and contemplate ideas, his wife worked as a social worker and sanitarium matron in addition to tackling the heavy domestic tasks of the household and passing her progressive ideas about abolition and gender equality on to her second daughter, Louisa. It was Abigail who challenged Louisa intellectually and who encouraged her writing. The book is a warm and revealing look at a mother’s influence on a writer who is more often portrayed as her father’s daughter.

Poetry:  Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
More and more I discover that the poems I want to read are those by poets with whom I’ve lived for years, whose words are familiar yet always bringing some new revelation. So this year I have read Emily Dickinson, as I have every year since the summer I turned ten. I have read Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, a series of linked, blank-verse sonnets about the effects of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. I have spent much time with Seamus Heaney in this the year of his death, reading again the early poems from Death of a Naturalist and Wintering Out, his translation of Beowulf, and his final collection, Human Chain. I have read John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christina Rossetti and Andrew Hudgins and Kathleen Norris. I have read very few books of poetry published this year. I did read and love Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs, in part because the poems are by a poet who loves dogs and written for people who love dogs, in part because the illustrations are wonderful, and in part because my friends who think they don’t like poetry can look at this book, read the poems, and smile at poems like “The Poetry Teacher” about the speaker’s dog who, according to the terms of her contract, can be in her classroom.

Then they would all
Ben, his pals, maybe an unknown
or two, all of them thirsty and
They drank, they flung
themselves down
among the students. The
students loved
it. They all wrote thirsty, happy

What non-romance books from 2013 do you highly recommend?


Quantum said...

I haven't read any of the Flavia de Luce mysteries and am intrigued by the thought of her experimenting with test tubes, flasks and chemicals in her home laboratory.

Reminds me of my school days where I had a 'Liebig Condenser' among my treasured chemistry kit. The mysteries that fascinated me in those days were all of a scientific nature though!

To learn more and start the series,I have downloaded 'The sweetness at the bottom of the pie' narrated by Emilia Fox.

Janga I have just finished listening to Connie Brockway's 'No Place for a Dame' which produced a new grin on almost every page. Comets are indeed fascinating. I'm going to get the other books in the series soon!

Thank you for a wonderful set of recommendations over the past year. Thinking about the best of the rest, I wonder if I might distract you for a while with a few lines from Walter de la Mare:

Sitting under the mistletoe
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen—and kissed me there.

If you are comfortably distracted, sitting under the mistletoe I would like to steal an admiring kiss .... or two. *smile*

Merry Christmas Janga

Of the non-romance fiction of 2013 I think I have enjoyed the novels of Jojo Moyes the most but also Deborah Smith's 'Cross Roads Cafe' ... another of your recs .... must try more of Smith's work in the new year

Janga said...

I'm so glad that you enjoyed No Place for a Dame, Q. If you read All Through the Night, you will see that Brockway does dark romance as well as she does lighter fare. And I hope you do read more Deborah Smith. She is another long-time favorite author.

Ah, the music of de la Mare's romantic poems! He too is an old favorite. I still sometimes recite "Silver" on a moonlit night. Thanks for sharing his mistletoe poem. I hope you and Mrs. Q and all your family have a very happy holiday.