Some recent reading that exceeded my expectations The novel I really want other people to read so we can talk about it is Euphoria by Lily King. It’s historical fiction, though set in the early 20th century in New Guinea, not my usual time and place. It’s based on a period from the life of Margaret Mead though heavily fictionalized. And it’s mesmerizing. Also short enough that you can, essentially, read it at one sitting. It was one of those books where I was intentionally making myself slow down so it would last longer. The Trip to Echo Spring is about writers and drinking. It’s a portrait of six alcoholic writers, two of whom are Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway, so it features a Key West visit. But it’s not a clinical or sociological dissection – more of a literary meditation and travelogue as the author travels around the country visiting some of their homes. I first heard about The Mechanical from this NPR review, the good people at the FKCC Library were nice enough to order it at my suggestion and I read it in less than two days. It more than lived up to my admittedly unformed but moderately high expectations. I’m not a huge reader in this genre but I do occasionally enjoy it and this was a good one. Books that lived up to my expectations: I finally got around to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which got a lot of praise last year and deserves it. Kind of like The Passage (which it even references) but without such a large cast of characters … or the wait for two more installments. I picked it up looking for distraction during a period of high anxiety over a work project. I’m not recommending dystopian stories as a remedy for anxiety but it did take my attention away from my own silly worries. Because why get all consumed with anxiety about a work project when other people are trying to survive a pandemic and its aftermath? C.J. Sansom’s new book in his excellent Shardlake series, Lamentation, is both a classic crime fiction procedural and a fine helping of Tudor intrigue, all in one nice big book. It’s nice to have him back, even if he goes through the usual trials. Maybe even more so. I tried out another historical series, this one set in Anglo-Saxon Britain, with Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell – that was good enough that I’ve got the second volume on request. And I liked The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn, which I found browsing the library’s new books shelf – it’s not exactly Tudor intrigue though it’s told from Jane Seymour’s point of view. It’s about her sister-in-law, her brother Edward’s first wife, who is shipped off to a convent after a sexual scandal. It’s not for everyone though I’d say more for the Hilary Mantel interior psychology fans than those who favor the Philippa Gregory court/sexual power plays. I finally finished The Plantagenets by Dan Jones, a nice meaty nonfiction tome that covers the dynasty from Henry II to Richard II. I am even hopeful I will remember my Edwards and Henrys, at least for a little while. I got through my next work of nonfiction a lot quicker. After a disappointing spy thriller last month, I took a flyer on a thriller based on an ad in Entertainment Weekly. Maybe not the best basis for selecting books but you know what? White Plague was just fine. I was glad the library had it in the collection — I might have regretted spending my own money on it. But I didn’t regret the few hours it took me to read it. Books that didn’t live up to my expectations: I bought The Skull and the Nightingale in hardcover and have had it on my shelf for a couple years. Why? I don’t really remember and when I finally read it — meh. Set in the 18th century but not the sort of romp that, say, Blindspot was. Interred With Their Bones should have been right in my wheelhouse – a lost Shakespeare play McGuffin! Some scenes set in Shakespearean London. But this one strayed over the Dan Brown line of disbelief suspension. The Marriage Game by Alison Weir. Why does Alison Weir keep writing fiction? And why do I keep trying to read it? She’s such a good popular historian – but her fiction reads like some of the most wooden romance writing ever. Ugh. I didn’t finish this one. And you know I don’t do that very often.
If you have any interest whatsoever in Tudor history and/or historical fiction about the Tudors then you already know that Wolf Hall, the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s two Booker Prize-winning novels, has finally reached the U.S. It’s on the PBS show Masterpiece and even if you don’t have cable you can still watch it, online at PBS.org or via the PBS app on your television-watching device.
I will be curious to talk to friends who are watching the show but have not read the books. Mantel’s books are masterful in their immersion into the worlds of their subjects but you really do need to immerse yourself. And there are some potentially confusing jumps around in time.
Mantel’s gotten a lot of press recently, but the best I’ve seen (OK, heard) is her interview with Kurt Anderson on Studio 360, the arts radio show out of WNYC. On the bottom of the page linked there is an extended version of the interview and it was worth it for me. I love hearing her talk about her relationship with these characters, and how she approaches historical fiction (or fictional history, as Anderson proposed she call her work). Especially fun is their discussion of Thomas More, hero of “A Man For All Seasons” but not exactly the best figurehead for religious liberty or freedom of expression, as Mantel points out. There’s also a nice, if short, interview with Damien Lewis, who plays Henry VIII, on the PBS site.
If any of this is making you crave some reading about Tudor times, specifically the reign of Henry VIII, I have some fiction recommendations. If you haven’t done so, and you like the TV series, you should read Mantel’s books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. The mini-series encompasses the events from both books, up to the execution of Anne Boleyn. Oh, sorry! Should I have included a spoiler alert?
I am a big fan of C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake novels — and hey, there’s a new one out after a long gap! They are mysteries but they stand on their own as satisfying novels and portraits of the period, from the point of view of a lawyer who once worked for Cromwell and keeps getting roped into the increasingly scary orbit around Henry’s court. Apparently the TV adaptation never happened but there’s a radio serial from BBC 4 . . . that is not available online. Rats.
The appearances of Mary Boleyn, Anne’s older sister and Henry’s former mistress, in Wolf Hall made me want to re-read Philippa Gregory’s best known book, The Other Boleyn Girl. Sometimes I like Gregory’s books and sometimes I don’t but I think this is one of the better ones. So is The Constant Princess, which tells the well-known tale from Katharine of Aragon’s point of view.
A couple others from writers who are less well-known: Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle is the story of Katherine Parr, Henry’s sixth and last wife and stepmother to Elizabeth. And Portrait of An Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett is about Hans Holbein’s introduction to the Tudor court, under the sponsorship of the family of Sir Thomas More.
There are tons more and lots on the nonfiction side, too, but these are the stories that have stuck with me.
Now that I no longer work at the library, I think I appreciate it even more. (Be nice to the librarians, people! Especially during season!) I especially appreciate the ebook collection — especially now that I no longer have to coach people through using it when the people who need the coaching inevitably don’t know their Amazon password, or insist they don’t have one, even though they own a Kindle. Or are understandably frustrated and confused at having to register with Adobe AGAIN to download an epub book. Or have some hand-me-down five-year-old off-brand e-reader …
But seriously, it’s getting easier! And once you get it down, it’s almost as easy as buying an ebook from Amazon or Apple, only without that part where your credit card gets charged. And it has the great benefit common to ebooks — instant gratification (as long as no one else has requested that title). I am currently #23 on a wait list for one of the library’s two ebook copies of The Girl On The Train. I’m #56 for one of the five print copies. Which will show up first?
But I digress. The point of this post is that I recently learned of two works of historical fiction, I suggested them to the library as ebook purchases and wham, there they were within a couple days. And besides appreciating the excellent responsiveness of my particular library (which I know from talking to other patrons is not just to me), this is to say that wherever you are, the chances are pretty good that your library welcomes your suggestions — that way they know that somebody wants the book. So check your library website, or ask next time you’re there. And if they don’t have or can’t get what you’re looking for, just browse around. Ebook collections are growing astonishingly fast so if it’s been a couple months, you might be surprised at what — and how much — you’ll find.
The books, by the way, were The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman, and The Tapestry by Nancy Bilyeau. Ariana Franklin was the author of the excellent Mistress of the Art of Death series, set during the reign of Henry II. Franklin, whose real name was Diana Norman, died in 2011. I was upset to hear that both because I really liked that series so I was saddened to hear of her passing — and because the last volume left things in a kind of precarious place. So selfishly, I was glad to see that her final book was taken up by her daughter, Samantha Norman — and even more delighted when I read on Goodreads that the daughter intends to take up the Mistress of the Art of Death series. The Siege Winter is not part of that series — it’s set earlier, during the civil war between the Empress Matilda, Henry II’s mother, and her cousin Stephen. But it’s a really good book that stands on its own. It’s not as much of a historical crime or mystery book as the others, but a piece of historical fiction. And it was nicely done. I’m only about halfway through The Tapestry and unfortunately am liking it less, even though it’s set in the Tudor court. Joanna is just a difficult heroine to inhabit sometimes, and some of her feelings and actions and motivations don’t seem to make sense. But I like it enough to stick with it to the end and recommend it for others who are hooked on the Tudor era for historical crime (C.J. Sansom, S.J. Parris, P.F. Chisholm, etc.). Hell, if nothing else, Bilyeau should get extra points for using her full first name and not initials, right?
My reading so far this year has been almost exclusively historical fiction (with two exceptions, one good and one not-so-much).
I went on a Bernard Cornwell binge, picking up the Saxon Chronicles with the second volume, The Pale Horseman, then gobbling down the the next five after that in fairly short order (The Lords of the North, Sword Song, Death of Kings, The Burning Land, The Pagan Lord). I did this even though I’m not sure this is the best way to read this series. I got a little tired of Uhtred sometimes. But these are fine adventure tales and now I feel a tiny bit more educated about the history of England before it was England and the various Norse incursions. If you like the TV show Vikings, these are definitely worth a read.
I read The Day of Atonement by David Liss, a writer of historical fiction whom I’ve admired since I reviewed his book The Whiskey Rebels for Solares Hill back in the day. This new one is an interesting take on European historical fiction, set in the 18th century with the hero being a Portuguese Jew who is forced to flee to England as a boy and returns to take his revenge. Another fine adventure tale.
Not historical: on the recommendation of Cheryl Tan, I read Man V. Nature by Diane Cook. It’s a book of short stories and the first published work of fiction by a former This American Life Producer (yay, radio!). Dystopian on the rocks from a woman’s perspective. If you like the world of George Saunders, check these out and keep an eye on Cook.
In February, around the time that Fifty Shades of Grey movie hype was reaching full cry, I retreated to much-better works of romance written by another E. James — this is Eloisa James, who writes very good historical romances (and in real life is Mary Bly, a professor of literature at Fordham). The books I read this time were her Duchess Quartet (even though they don’t all feature duchesses, whatever) — not quite as good as some of her more recent titles but enjoyable nonetheless and if you want some enjoyable entertainment with some sex in it and possibly unrealistic romantic scenarios — skip Fifty Shades and read her instead.
I also caught up on a couple of historical crime series in my favorite period — the Tudors! Treachery by S.J. Parris wasn’t published in the U.S., so far as I can tell, so I broke down and ordered a copy from Amazon UK. It’s the fourth in her Giordano Bruno series and it’s as good if not better than the predecessors. I continue to have concerns about her hero’s future prospects, based on the fate that befell the real-life Bruno. But I enjoy these stories anyway.
And finally got around to An Air of Treason, the latest from P.F. Chisholm, aka Patricia Finney when she’s writing her excellent series about Sir Robert Carey, cousin/nephew of Queen Elizabeth. And this one has a couple cameos from QE I herself, along with Carey’s usual entertaining way with the ladies and his enemies.
I got an early look Dennis Lehane’s third novel about the Coughlin family, World Gone By, because I reviewed it for The Miami Herald. If you follow the link you’ll see I liked the book a lot — it continues the story of Joe Coughlin, the center of the previous book, Live By Night. This one is set in the 1940s and while Joe hasn’t left the world of organized crime he’s stepping back from running the show. As you can imagine, though, extricating yourself and protecting those you love isn’t that easy, even for an exceptionally smart guy like Joe. I think this book stands on its own though it would be enriched by having read Live By Night and even the first in the series, The Given Day. Apparently, Lehane’s contemporary crime fiction sells much better, which is a shame if it discourages him or his publishers from more books like this.
The best and worst for last. The best book I’ve read so far this year is another work of historical fiction: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This was a National Book Award finalist, for good reason. It’s an immersive novel set during World War II, with the intertwining stories of a blind French girl and a talented German radio operator. The chapters are really short so it has the page-turning propulsion of a thriller but with beautiful writing that makes you simultaneously want to slow down and savor it. Just a great read, on just about every level.
Not so great: I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. This is disappointing because it came at the recommendation of a reading friend whose tastes are very similar to mine. While I don’t read a lot of thrillers, I enjoy them occasionally (I liked Red Sparrow a lot when I read it last year). This one had promise, coming from a veteran screenwriter — I have come to trust that writers from the world of screens know how to craft stories. But this one, while far better written than, say, the works of Dan Brown, hit my plausibility buttons too many times. I *know* these are not supposed to be realistic. I enjoy James Bond and Jason Bourne movies. But the idea that this one guy would be at the center of all these events that happen to all collide at one place on the Turkish coast? Oh well. I did finish it even though it was annoying me and I didn’t really care how our hero was going to save the world. Since then I’ve been bouncing off a couple different books, which is REALLY annoying. Which has led me to conclude: I’d rather be immersed in a book I don’t like all that much than not immersed at all. Is there a name for that syndrome?
Key West has long been absurdly fortunate in its theater offerings, punching way above its weight for a small town. The combination of talented locals who choose to live here and generous patrons who spend winters here and support theater companies leads to some productions that you would be happy to see on almost any stage in America.
Now there’s something new under our sun. On The Rock Productions was founded by New York theater veterans Juliet Gray and Landon Bradbary and Key West native photographer/artist/director Mike Marrero. They are bringing locally written pieces to a new island stage, at the Key West Community Theater on Eaton Street. Their first production is called Bones & Pie.
If you are in or near Key West and you are interested in local culture, theater, history or creative endeavor, you should go see this production. It’s five short plays, ranging from a quick sketch to a piece that my husband Mark called a “cuzzy bubba tour de force.” He meant that as a compliment, and it’s so deserving.
In recent years, the summer One Night Stand theater project at The Studios of Key West and the 72-Hour Film Challenge at the Tropic Cinema have shown what local talent can do, and the audiences have been appreciative. And sold out — in the depths of summer. Now that same spirit is getting more sustained wintertime attention and the results are impressive on just about every level. Two highlights for me: “The Nightwatchman” by Eric Weinberger, performed as a monologue by Chad Newman. Wow. If he dropped or flubbed a line I sure couldn’t tell and my attention was held the entire time. (I have a short attention span.) The other was the finale, “Locura” by Mike Marrero. That’s the cuzzy-bubba-tour-de-force and it’s a two-person piece. Maybe that’s called a duologue? Landon Bradbary and Brandon Beach are two local boys who recount their (mis)adventures at the cockfights and beyond. It gets to levels of Conch culture and character that rarely make it to the page much less the screen. And it’s immensely powerful in performance.
So like I said … just go. Bones & Pie runs Wednesday through Saturdays, through Feb. 15. You can get tickets at Keystix. You will want to be able to tell people later that you saw this one.
If you’re interested in books, writers and just hearing interesting stories from smart people — and you happen to be near Key West — it’s that time of year. Mondays are the Friends of the Library lecture series, when you get to hear writers and other interesting people talk … for free!
The first lecture of the series is this Monday, Jan. 19, at the Lecture Series’ temporary new home, the Community Theater of Key West, 512 Eaton St. That’s across the street from the new Studios of Key West, where the series will eventually be held.
And this lecture should be particularly interesting: Michael Mewshaw will be talking about his new book, Sympathy for the Devil, recalling his 40-year friendship with Gore Vidal. Those of us who were here for Vidal’s appearance at the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar know firsthand that, even in his final years, he lived up to his reputation as a fearless provocateur who said exactly what he thought.
The lectures continue every Monday through late March. The schedule is available on the Friends of the Library website. See you there.
I never read enough new books to come up with a top 10 of those like the pros do. But I do like to look back on what I read and come up with some recommendations. I read less than usual this year for which I can only blame one thing: radio. Two months of intensive radio school at Transom, and lots of freelancing when I got home, for radio and print, meant I didn’t have as much brain capacity for serious reading as I usually do. Still, I managed to read a few dozen books and made some discoveries.
Favorite work of fiction, overall: Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
Maybe it’s because it’s the last book I completed in 2014, but I don’t think so. I think this story collection would have stuck with me no matter when in the year I’d read it. Stone Mattress is Atwood’s first story collection in almost a decade and she’s still got it. The stories are dystopian without despair, funny and elemental and shockingly perceptive about our most intense fears. And hopes, too. Lots about aging, which is increasingly terrifying, but Atwood’s wit and humanity make it somehow easy to go down.
Favorite work of nonfiction, overall: True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel
I don’t remember hearing about Michael Finkel’s fall from journalistic grace, when he was fired from the New York Times Magazine after making some stuff up. He was no Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass but what he did was bad enough to get him justifiably disgraced. Soon after — in fact at the very moment his disgrace was going public — he learned that his identity had been appropriated by a man accused of murdering his wife and children in Oregon. Finkel, having nothing else to do, struck up a correspondence and eventually a friendship of sorts with his pretender. The book is everything its subtitle promises and there’s no question Finkel is a terrific writer. Read it now and you’ll be extra-informed when the movie version, starring James Franco and Jonah Hill, comes out later this year. More on this book in my September reading roundup.
Favorite work of nonfiction in which I am mentioned in the acknowledgments: The Shelf: From LES to LEQ: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose
Full disclosure: I know Phyllis, who spends winters in Key West, and I am even mentioned in this book though not by name. She asked me about library weeding practices when I was working at the Key West Library. This book, though, is not about that so much as it is about the delights and perils of semi-random reading. She chose a shelf, not at random but a shelf nonetheless from her library in New York and doggedly read her way through. Her reports are entertaining, sometimes depressing but always enlightening. And she reminded me of the dwindling pleasures of browsing, of just finding a book by accident. You have to do that on purpose these days.
Favorite historical fiction series: Emmanuel Cooper series by Malla Nunn
Malla Nunn appeared at the Key West Literary Seminar last year and was a revelation for many of us. I’m fond of historical crime fiction anyway, and her books are exactly why I love that genre — because it’s a way to enter another era and follow a character in a time and place there is no other way to reach. And because it’s crime fiction, the fissures in society are exposed. This is especially true in Nunn’s series, which is set in early 1950s South Africa, just as apartheid is taking hold. Our hero, Emmanuel Cooper, is a World War II veteran-turned-detective who has connections at many levels of society and has to navigate an increasingly irrational world while maintaining his integrity. The fact that they’re beautifully written doesn’t hurt, either.
Favorite contemporary fiction series: Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith
You’re probably aware that Robert Galbraith is really J.K. Rowling. I picked up the first in this series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, mostly out of curiosity to see if her insanely readable style would translate from YA fantasy to adult crime fiction. It does, and Cormoran is a wonderfully interesting lead, an Afghanistan war veteran who’s lost his leg and his posh fiancee. And he’s the son of a Boomer rock star. But I really fell in love with this series with the second volume, The Silkworm — so much that I wish Rowling would quit messing around with whatever Potter follow-ups she’s doing and just focus on Cormoran. How many books is it going to take before he and his assistant, Robin, acknowledge that they’re falling for each other???
Favorite graphic work: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
It’s not really a graphic novel or even a memoir in the style of Fun Home — Hyperbole and a Half is a compilation from Brosh’s blog posts. But it is so brilliant and funny and honest and all of the things that make me so happy that the Internet exists to give people like Brosh a platform. Just read it.
Favorite romance novel: Rogue Spy by Joanna Bourne
I’m reading a little less romance in recent months (increasing employment? Proximity to the Key West Literary Seminar?) — but I read a bunch over the summer and fall and the best by far as the latest in Joanna Bourne’s Spymaster series. Half the time I want to push these books on people who dismiss the entire genre as Fifty Shades of Grey-like in their writing. Half the time, I feel like those people don’t really deserve to get a fun, smart read like this anyway.
Favorite cap to a supernatural trilogy: The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness
I re-read the first two volumes in this series (A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night) in preparation for reviewing this book for The Miami Herald … and they got better on re-reading. And she brought it all together in the final volume. Brava! Even though I kind of hate it when a series I love wraps up after only three books, I also appreciate that the author has created a world and a story and moved on .. so we’re not all left hanging out there, Westeros-style. A close second in trilogy-capping goes to The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman, which I also reviewed for the Herald and also liked very much.
Favorite beginning to a new supernatural trilogy: The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
I just happened upon this in a really nice bookstore in Falmouth last spring. And when I saw the blurb from Eloisa James calling it something like a love child of Jane Austen and Doctor Who .. I was all in. It’s got time travel. It’s got romance. It’s got intrigue. Just read the damned thing and hope Ridgway doesn’t take too long coming up with the next installment.
Favorite book that won me over despite my cynical attitude: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
I picked this up at the same bookstore in Falmouth — I just had to get some reading in after a few weeks of intensive listening — despite some reservations. Because I have a default contrarian attitude toward books like this that are book club/library patron favorites. My fear, I guess, is that they will be manipulative, or treacly, or not as well written as everyone tells me they are (I’m still getting over having to read Ya-Ya Sisterhood for a book club like 15 years ago). But since this one was about books, I gave it a try anyway and damned if I wasn’t charmed, entertained, touched, all of that. A really nice story.