Before anything else I must speak of awards. I’m so excited because my favourite book award, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, announced its 2020 winner last night and it was the only book from the shortlist that I had read and I loved it: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. For my recent review of this beautiful book, click here. It was up against some heavyweights like Hilary Mantel’s third instalment in her Thomas Cromwell series (the first two in the series were Booker winners and the third is on the long-list this year too, sheesh!)
Now when we look at the Booker Prize 2020 long-list (shortlist to be chosen next week) we see Hilary Mantel’s brick of a historical novel, but we also see beside it this quirky slim new novel by Anne Tyler. She is one of my favourite authors but I never expected to see her among the award selections until A Spool of Blue Thread made it onto the Booker long-list in 2015, and now Redhead by the Side of the Road in 2020. Tyler is one of my favourite authors and I appreciate her unpretentious style, but are her novels award material? She did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for Breathing Lessons and to be honest, I am always complaining that award winners are so literary focused that they become unreadable. So yes! Tyler deserves a seat at the table and I will cheer her on for writing approachable novels that have depth and capture humanity. She has a way of making the ordinary come alive…sort of subtle extraordinary, really.
I did love this book, it felt like an undemanding comfort read during this challenging season on the planet. The dialogue is fresh and the main character’s simple lifestyle well described. It’s also surprisingly short (less than 200 pages) and almost reads like a novella. Here is the premise, and even though it may seem at first glance to be like The Rosie Project, it is very different–more profound and realistic.
“Micah Mortimer is a creature of habit. A self-employed tech expert, superintendent of his Baltimore apartment building, cautious to a fault behind the steering wheel, he seems content leading a steady, circumscribed life. But one day his routines are blown apart when his woman friend (he refuses to call anyone in her late thirties a “girlfriend”) tells him she’s facing eviction, and a teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son. These surprises, and the ways they throw Micah’s meticulously organised life off-kilter, risk changing him forever. An intimate look into the heart and mind of a man who finds those around him just out of reach, and a funny, joyful, deeply compassionate story about seeing the world through new eyes.”
Kate Morton has been on my bucket list (and bookshelf) for a very long time and I finally got there. As the title suggests, this is a family saga full of secrets, set in England. There is a shocking and very violent crime at the start of the novel, which sets up the mystery central to the novel’s suspense. Laurel Nicolson, eldest daughter and now an acclaimed actress in London, witnessed something years ago, that has always haunted her. When she returns to her childhood home to take care of her dying mother, she becomes ever more determined to find out what really happened.
In the beginning I was wondering whether this would be formulaic and maybe not worth wading through. Morton’s writing can feel a tad overwritten. However, I persevered, and I’m so glad I did. The story had more twists and turns than I thought it would, and the ending was totally surprising and very clever. It was the kind of revelation that makes you rethink the whole book. For the unhurried reader, this can be a delicious novel to sink into, so it won’t be for everyone, but I really did enjoy it and found it better than expected. It reminded me of those endlessly entertaining Susan Howatch novels I would disappear into for days. Does anyone remember those?
Very, very little is known about Shakespeare. It seems odd that someone so famous, whose writings have been so revered, would be such a mystery to us. This of course, has opened the door to a myriad of works of fiction about the man, to try to fill in the gaps. It’s the kind of thing that drives you to Wikipedia to find out where the lines between fact and fiction have been drawn or embroidered upon. O’Farrell doesn’t embroider though, she enhances. Hamnet and Judith feels like a book in slow motion. For that reason, it won’t be for everyone, but even though I usually prefer faster pacing, in this case I didn’t want it to speed up.
This book is really not about Shakespeare but about family and marriage. In the capable hands of Maggie O’Farrell (author of a compelling autobiography I Am, I Am, I Am and many fine novels), it is in one way a simple and ordinary story of domestic life, but at the same time emotionally stirring and textured. I’ve always wondered how people say they were moved to tears by a book because I never have been. But in this one I came close. The depth of her research is quite obvious and the writing is beautifully poetic. BTW, ‘Hamnet’ and ‘Hamnet and Judith’ (Canadian title) are the same book by different publishers. Hamnet is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction Award 2020, the winner will be announced in September.
Here’s what we know: Shakespeare married Anne (Agnes) Hathaway and had three children. Susanna, and twins Hamnet and Judith. Tragically, Hamnet died at the age of 11. Four years or so later, Shakespeare wrote a play entitled Hamlet, widely considered to be his greatest work. In those days, the name Hamlet was a version of Hamnet, basically the same name.
This series written by North America’s leading forensic anthropologist has always been one of my favourites. I usually try to read one per year but I see that it’s been 6 years since Cross Bones (#8). Oops. No matter, it made me come in fresh again and realise what I like about the character of Temperance Brennan and Reichs’ writing.
This one focuses around a mysterious series of bodies that were all killed in the same and unusual way but the link between them remains unclear. Brennan examines bones of long decomposed bodies when it’s too late for autopsies or pathology. Forensic anthropology applies skeletal analysis and techniques in archaeology to solve criminal cases. It’s fascinating science. Reichs bases her novels on real cases in her work, both in the US and Canada. She explains that when she started her job, her field was not a very popular thing, but forensic science crime drama series on TV like CSI have changed all that, and Reichs even got her own series Bones, based on her books.
Aside from the mystery and crime drama, I love the humour and quick witty dialogue that is a hallmark of her writing style. In this one Tempe finds herself stuck on assignment in a house with her former husband and current squeeze which creates some additional tension and the banter is priceless. Hilarity aside, underneath there is real struggle as she is distracted by her own feelings for both men, especially when one of them is hurt during the investigation.
But what I like best about Reichs is her personal philosophical reason for doing what she does–she wants to honour the dead by finding out who they were and what killed them. She says that when bones are found it is the anonymity that is the ultimate insult. Her passion is to reunite the victim with the integrity of their name and cause of death and offer some kind of closure. The motivation for her devotion to her vocation and the fact that her writing is so real because it is extracted from her work, is why I keep coming back for more. But where she found the time to write so many books while advancing a crazy busy career is a mystery I will probably never be able to solve. Check out her website: click here.
Finally got to the latest instalment in the addictive The Seven Sisters series about the youngest sister Electra. She is a super model and in the fast lane to destruction because of drink and drugs. Unlike the five sisters whose birth stories and histories are discovered in earlier books, Electra really has no interest in her past. She has lost the precious letter left to her by her adoptive father Pa Salt and doesn’t want anything to do with her family. She is too famous, too busy, too angry, and too preoccupied with chasing a happiness she can’t seem to find.
Alternating between New York City and colonial Kenya, the backstory gets underway after the sudden appearance of Electra’s maternal grandmother. As usual, Riley offers a page turning historical fiction that captures the imagination. Now there is only one book left in the series which Lucinda Riley is still writing. It has a title…The Story of the Missing Sister. The constellation after which the girls were named has seven stars but there are only 6 adopted sisters. What happened to the seventh? Who actually is Pa Salt and is he really gone? All mysteries, cultivated in little glimpses throughout the series, will be revealed in the final book. It’s going to be hard to wait.
If you are unfamiliar with this series it is good to read them in order, starting with the title The Seven Sisters. On her website, the author outlines the real histories and characters she writes about in the books and includes pictures of her research visits as well as interesting Q & A interviews. Definitely worth a visit. Lucinda Riley’s website: click here.
Three days, three women, one impossible task: the Great Flu.
Set in a hospital Maternity/Fever ward during the 1918 pandemic, in poverty stricken war torn Ireland, right after the devastation of the First World War, this story is not surprisingly quite dark and dismal, and yet is also full of life, light, and hope. Nurse Julia Powers works in a small three bed ward of patients who are both pregnant and fighting the flu. She is helped by a a spunky volunteer named Bridie Sweeney who becomes both a valuable assistant and a special friend as together they minister to those in need without much supply or support. Emma Donoghue has once again created a compulsively readable novel set with only a few characters who are trapped together in a very small space, as she did with Room and The Wonder and Akin.
It is a happy coincidence that this, her latest book, was published exactly during another pandemic, and I was almost reluctant at first to read it because of that. But reading a book on a pandemic during a pandemic was not nearly as difficult as it might seem, given Donoghue’s deft writing skills, and was actually interesting to compare. There was a lot of commonality with challenging public health leadership and health care workers being both at risk and short-staffed. “The human race settles on terms with every plague in the end, the doctor told her. Or a stalemate at least. We somehow muddle along, sharing the earth with each new form of life…a creature with no malign intention, only a craving to reproduce itself, much like our own.”
This is the story of Ana, wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. There is a long silent period of time in the Biblical account of the life of Jesus. What if Jesus had been married during that time? What would that have been like? What would his wife have been like? This is the fiction of this novel, and it is handled artfully and respectfully, seamlessly weaving in what is known and what the author has imagined. The premise of this novel in the hands of a less than excellent author, might have been a disaster, instead it is masterful and I found it enriching. Sue Monk Kidd, who wrote The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings, among others, has taken a potentially tricky and controversial fictional idea and made it into a beautiful story.
There is not much I can say about this book without spoiling it, because for me part of the intrigue was wondering how it would be handled and how the story would be told. I was a little afraid of what it might do to my own imagining of Jesus’ life on earth and his humanity, and I have to say that I felt completely comfortable with it and it actually enhanced my own understanding.
Really though, the book is more about Ana. At the beginning I found it a bit slow, but the background is essential and the convergence of events in the end was brilliant. This is one of those books that makes Bible times come alive. There are extensive Author’s Notes at the end which are instructive and fascinating. She spent a year researching and almost 5 years writing this novel, and the effort shows. This would be an excellent choice for a book club read. Penguin Random House has a thoughtful Reading Guide which includes a conversation with Sue Monk Kidd and some questions to facilitate further discussion: click here. I must end with the flyleaf description that captures the book so well:
“Grounded in meticulous research and written with a reverential approach to Jesus’s life that focuses on his humanity, The Book of Longings is an inspiring, unforgettable account of one woman’s bold struggle to realise the passion. and potential inside her, while living in a time, place, and culture devised to silence her. It is a triumph of storytelling both timely and timeless, from a masterful writer at the height of her powers.”