Every time I sit down to write one of these lists, I have to pull up my detailed book spreadsheet that’s my pride and joy, search for my reviews on AAR, and open up my blog where I comment on every book and poem I’ve read. Thus, with all this data on hand, putting this Best Books list together was fun, and I got to look back into exactly why I loved the books that I did.
Belgravia by Julian Fellowes
I delighted in the gossipy tone of Belgravia by Julian Fellowes. Set in early Victorian times, the book is written with the soaring arc of a saga and the delicacy of shifting emotions. At its core are two intense love stories spanning two generations and class boundaries, and the women in this story, through their love for their men, shake up the 19th century aristocracy. The various story threads allowed me to appreciate the subtleties of class in society and how much of an impact it had on piddling day-to-day matters and grand dynastic changes; on life and death, on life’s choices and restrictions, on behavior and dress… oh, on everything of any import. I liked the book’s deep immersion in place and time. Fellowes has really excelled in highlighting the telling details and nuances that make the story set in the early Victorian period so believable. Women’s gowns, hair styles, house interiors, the London streets, the aristocratic titles, attitudes, thoughts, and so on are scrupulously spot-on and in exquisite detail. Belgravia is a rich, complex, engrossing story told very well.
Lord Richard’s Daughter by Joan Wolf
A traditional Regency by Ms. Wolf never fails to warm my heart and make me cheer when the characters get their HEA. Ms. Wolf does people so very well, and her books are always well-researched. Julianne and John are so different from each other. Her wild teen years following the restless adventurous company of her father has made her crave security, safety, and domestic ties. His stifling childhood has made him wild for the freedom of living as he chooses. And yet, they have Egypt in common. Both love Africa and adventure is in their blood, reluctantly in hers and passionately in his. Julianne sees Africa through a writer’s eyes, meticulous and creative. John sees Africa through an opportunist’s eyes, where he makes money by applying his intelligence. Neither one cares for English society and the rules and strictures that cage guide the ton. Best line in the book: “I would hardly call Egypt uncivilized. There was a civilization on the Nile before England was ever heard of.”
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
If historical fiction is to be written, it should be like this: full of gorgeous details that are as much about the scenes as about the emotions of the people inhabiting the scenes. The word painting is so vivid that it feels like a motion picture. Seventy-One-year-old Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd rides from town to town in North Texas of the 1870s, reading from newspapers from the east and as far away as London. For a dime, people flock to hear the stories, real and fantastical, with which he entertains them. After one such reading, a freight driver approaches him with a freed captive. She was a German American girl who had been captured by the Kiowa when she was six. Four years later, the U.S. army has ransomed her back, and she needs to be returned to her family near San Antonio, four hundred miles to the south. And Captain Kidd is the only person who can do it. A/BN/iB/K
A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi
Zeba is the abused wife of Kamal, and one day, she’s found in the back courtyard next to her husband covered in blood. Kamal is dead with a hatchet buried in the back of his skull. Did she do it? Or didn’t she? This story of modern-day village-life in Afghanistan is told through the voices and thoughts of young Afghanis. It is far more of a cultural and societal commentary than a murder mystery, but don’t mistake it all for dry prosing on with fiction only as window dressing. That would be doing this book a grave disservice. The story is clearly a mystery, the unraveling of which requires the unraveling of the mysteries of Afghan society, and it is all endlessly fascinating, because of the beauty of Ms. Hashimi’s prose.
Paris for One and Other Stories by Jojo Moyes
This is an anthology of one novella and other short stories. The novella, Paris for One, is one of the sweetest love stories I’ve ever read. It is set in Paris and is so quintessentially Parisian, it is a delight. Nell is a meticulous, organized woman in her mid-twenties. She works a corporate job in London that involves detail-oriented work at which she excels. On a personal level, she has always been overlooked, passed over. So when she finds herself alone in Paris for a weekend, she decides to be bold and enjoy herself. This is a story of the blossoming of Nell from a shy, exacting, quiet girl into a beautiful, confident woman who takes charge of her destiny with a new zest for life. The other stories in the collection are an examination of marriages and what happens to the people a few years after they’ve said, “I do.” A/BN/iB/K
The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen
I sobbed my heart out reading this book. This is what good children’s books should be about: hope, joy, the power of dreaming big, hard work, focus, and living in this big wide world of ours with people of all kinds. This story is about a gifted teen runner, who loses part of her right leg after a tragic accident, and her journey of recovery from the depths of despair towards hope for herself and compassion for someone she perceives is not as lucky as she is. This is also the story of sheer grit and courage as this teenager learns to run 10 miles with a prosthetic while pushing a wheelchair with a 100-lb girl with cerebral palsy. Wow! A/BN/iB/K
The Innocents by Margery Sharp
This book really made me think and feel. Oh, mostly feel. With a deft, delicate hand Ms. Sharp navigates the mind and circumstances of a girl on the autistic spectrum and through it all she opens this innocent child to our understanding. We learn about her personality, what she values, what she needs, and most importantly, what she gives to those around her. This is not a saccharine look at autism as Hollywood has it. It is a quiet look at a human being in all her complexity despite her paucity of years. And it is a quiet look at the adult human being in her twilight years who has an enormous capacity for patience, understanding, and caring to bring up this child in comfort and security and respect.
Good Time Coming by C.S. Harris
This is a powerful story of the U.S. Civil War as seen through the eyes of an observant and courageous young girl. The brutality of the story is told unflinchingly and in exquisite detail; the grace and beauty of the prose could only come from C.S. Harris. In ever complex layers, the book shows how the Civil War affected life in the small towns of Louisiana. What to the rest world must have appeared to be a righteous war of unionization and abolition is very different up close and personal. In the minutiae, it’s like any other war, where people die in the thousands and hundreds of depredations are committed on the innocent. There’s no glory, there’s no valor, there’s no redemption, at least in the eyes of a thirteen-year-old girl. A/BN/iB/K
The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer
There is such a meditative quality to this book about meditation. That is what I like best about Pico Iyer’s writing. His words reflect his subject matter. Taking time out to sit still, according to Mr. Iyer, will allow you to find fresh time and energy to share with others. So, somehow, taking time out for yourself is a way to offer more of yourself to the world. It’s precisely when you’re busy and stressed that taking time out to sit still for a few minutes will allow you to engage with the world with renewed enthusiasm and energy. You’ll bring a focused attention to the world that’ll elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary. Leonard Cohen keeps cropping up in the narrative like a coda; as a Benedictine monk, he had a big impact on Mr. Iyer’s journey towards stillness. If you’ve always wondered about meditation and whether to do it, this is a good book with which to start out. A/BN/iB/K
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Unforgettable! This book is simply unforgettable. This young man – brilliant neurosurgeon, literary scholar, son, husband, father – has lived life with such grace, such elegance that you feel you’re going to miss his presence even though you’ve only known him through the pages of this book. The question this remarkable young man pondered all throughout his short life was: What makes human life meaningful? And when he is only months away from finally graduating as chief resident, months away from finally living the life he has pursued with such dedication and tenacity, he finds out that he has stage IV lung cancer. So what does he do? He writes his memoir. A/BN/iB/K