Best Novels of 2018

If I had prize money to bestow, I would divide it between the authors of these two matchless works of fiction, which in my eyes are the best of 2018. Interestingly, both feature strong women as main characters, and both are Southern fiction. If you haven’t read them yet, do it now.


The War Before the War, by Andrew Delbanco****

You may not have had the grades or the money to attend Columbia University, but you can read Professor Delbanco’s book anyway. It’s meaty and interesting, and it clears up some longstanding myths about slavery in the USA. My thanks go to Net Galley and Penguin Random House for the review copy; this book is for sale now. 

At the outset I find this work a little on the slow side, and I wonder if I am in for five hundred pages of drone. Not to worry. By the five percent mark the whole thing wakes up. Slavery from the time of the early European immigrants to the American Civil War is mapped out, and I found myself wishing I had read it before I taught social studies instead of during retirement. Sacred cows are slain and there’s plenty of information that is new to me. For example, I did not know that the number of runaway slaves was always a fairly small, economically of little consequence but powerful in its example. I didn’t know that Caucasian people were retaliated against sometimes by sending them into slavery; since one couldn’t tell a person with a tiny amount of African-American heritage from a white person, it was possible to lie about someone whose roots were entirely European and send them down south. And although I understood that the great Frederick Douglass was hugely influential, I hadn’t understood the power of the slave narrative as a genre: 

“When [slave narratives] were first published, they were weapons in a war just begun. Today they belong to a vast literature devoted to every aspect of the slave system–proof, in one sense, of how far we have come, but evidence, too, of the impassable gulf between the antebellum readers whom they shocked by revealing a hidden world .and current readers, for whom they are archival records of a world long gone. Consigned to college reading lists, the slave narratives, which were once urgent calls to action, now furnish occasions for competitive grieving in the safety of retrospect.”

It is painful to envision a roomful of young people flipping through their phones or napping during a lecture or discussion about this damning aspect of U.S. history that haunts us even today; and yet I know it happens, because I have seen it among the teenagers I have taught. I want to roar, “Where’s your sense of outrage?” And yet it’s there; but many that are activists against cop violence and other modern civil rights issues haven’t yet made the connection between the present and our national origins. So I feel this guy’s pain. 

For the interested reader of history, the narrative flows well and the documentation is thorough and beyond reproach. Delbanco has a sharp, perceptive sense of humor and this keeps the reader further engaged. 

I recommend this book as an essential addition to the home or classroom library of every history teacher and reader. 

Best History 2018

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Invisible, by Stephen L. Carter****

InvisibleI received a review copy of this affectionate, well-documented biography free and early thanks to Net Galley and Henry Holt. This book is for sale now.

Eunice Hunton Carter was the author’s grandmother, and though her name is little known today, she was an exceptional woman, a scholar, political activist, and social diva that did extraordinary things during a time period when it was nearly impossible for women of color to rise professionally. Carter tells of her impact on what he calls “the darker nation” and in particular, of her role in taking down notorious gangster Lucky Luciano. She was largely invisible to the mainstream press; this was a time when Black people virtually never won acclaim, and women didn’t either, but it was she that devised the strategy that was needed to try to convict him.

The author is a Yale professor and has a number of successful books to his credit already. This biography is written with the professionalism one would expect; the tone is conversational and keeps the pages turning; transitions are buttery smooth; and the documentation is flawless and meticulous. Those interested in African-American history, or particularly in that of African-American women should read this book.

Carter was born into a well-to-do Atlanta family, leaders among the Negro petite-bourgeoisie. (The author uses the term “Negro” because it was the accepted, polite term during the period in which his grandmother lived.) However, the rise of terrorist groups like the Klan forced successful families of color out of the South, and so most of Eunice’s story takes place in New York City, and it is there that she became a famous woman.

Eunice was a die-hard Republican, and the author reminds us that in the early 1900s, it was still known as the party of Lincoln. Though she did not initially aspire to be politically active—a hat that her mother, Addie, already wore—she became involved in Dewey’s various campaigns after working with him in the prosecutor’s office.

The story is well documented and the voice is distinctive. Two things got in the way of my enjoyment of this biography. The first and technically most significant is focus. The author seems at times torn between his desire to write his grandmother’s biography and perhaps a desire to write about his entire family. I’ll be absorbed in the events that shape Eunice, but then her mother is mentioned—as is appropriate, since her mother is so influential in Eunice’s development—but then we’ll see more about her mother. More, more, more. Pages of Addie. When the author smoothly returns us to Eunice I sigh with relief, snuggle into my chair, and then a few pages later, there we are again. Numerous times I have typed into my reader’s notes, “Whose story is this, anyway?” Eventually I become so frustrated by Addie’s success in hijacking her daughter’s story that I stop making notes and highlight every transition, from Eunice to Addie, Addie, Addie, and ah, back to Eunice (and then to Addie again).

This irritating diversion, one that makes me feel as I am sitting in the parlor of some elderly, garrulous, lonely individual that has just poured me more lukewarm tea and picked up yet another photo album—Did I tell you about my cousin Rudy? Now there was a character, they say—mercifully abates about halfway into the story, as we move into the Luciano case. Here we are focused, and it’s a fascinating read. But during the last portion of the book, it is brother Alphaeus that needs editing down. Again, this brother has good reason to be here, since Eunice is convinced that her career suffers from his membership in the Communist Party USA; yet I feel as if a strong editor’s pen would be useful for this relative as well. Or better still: maybe let’s not read about Eunice. Maybe let’s have a biography of Alphaeus instead, since it is he that is driven to try to make the world a better place.

Because Eunice, it’s clear, is really out there for Eunice. The author makes no bones about this; yet his glee at her snobbery, social-climbing, and vast ostentatious displays of wealth is not inspirational.

When all is said and done, however, Eunice Hunton Carter deserves a place in history. Had she been born Caucasian and male, who knows? She might have become president, or at least governor of the state of New York. Her drive, talent, and energy seem to have been limitless.

As a read for general audiences, I’d say this is a 3.5 star read, rounded upward, but for those with a special interest in African-American history, or that are doing research for a more specific topic such as African-American women in politics or law, this is a must read.

The Tango War, by Mary Jo McConahay****

TheTangoWarI read my copy free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. This book is for sale now.

This meaty little nugget is one of a kind. I had sworn off World War II, both fictional and historical, because so much information gets repeated; you can only read so much about the most visceral parts of this conflict before your worldview darkens. I am out of the classroom and had promised myself a chance to stop and smell the roses in my retirement years. But then there’s this.

Firstly, there’s nothing about the Holocaust to speak of here. That was a draw card, because I am done with that most searing of horrors for awhile. Instead, she writes about Latin America during the war—and I knew nothing, nothing, nothing about any of this. I was aware that there were some nations down there that are reputed to have flirted with the fascists, and even then, I wasn’t sure it that was the truth or a myth.

The book is broken down, not by relevant Latin American countries, but by subtopics, and this is both more analytical and more interesting than if she’d done it the obvious way. Who knew that there was a model city established inside of the Amazon in an effort to rope more employees—well, slaves—into harvesting rubber for the war? Who knew that vast amounts of South American petroleum ran the trucks and tanks that rolled over Europe? Perhaps most appallingly—who knew that Japanese expatriates and their families, born and raised in Peru and other locations in Latin America,  were kidnapped in a down-low deal between the US and the governments of the affected nations so that the US could intern them, then use them for prisoner swaps?

There are enough weird-but-true facts here to cross your eyes, and the author has her documentation at the ready.  A fifth star is denied because of what isn’t here; why portray United Fruit as upstanding patriots? Many of us know this corporation was a sinister entity with its roots tangled deeply in the CIA. Lots of Guatemalans have plenty to say about United Fruit.  More directly related here is the brief, friendly reference to Disney as a WWII patriot, and yet many of us know how warmly Uncle Walt regarded Hitler: the catch-phrase “Mauschwitz” says it all.  Partial truths make me wonder what else I am missing as I read this.

With that one caveat, this book is recommended to you. The citations are thorough and the text is written free of technical terms that might hamper a wide readership.  Read it critically, but do read it.

Round Midnight, by Laura McBride****-*****

RoundMidnightWhat an unusual story! McBride cleverly links the lives of four women, and we follow their individual journeys over the course of fifty years; near the end, we see how they are connected. My thanks go to Net Galley and Touchstone for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

June comes of age in 1960. She marries Del, and they move to the newly emerging city of Las Vegas, where property can be had cheaply; they purchase a casino, and their entertainers perform in “The Midnight Room.”

McBride uses setting like a pro, placing us within the context of the time period without resorting to the overuse of distracting pop cultural references that would tempt a less subtle writer. We see just enough of the ‘60s to remind us that women didn’t have the same range of choices that we have now; we see just enough of the Civil Rights movement— a glimpse—to remind us how awful life could be for mixed race families. The first section ends on something of a cliff hanger, and then we find ourselves reading about someone else.

The other three women are Honorata, Coral, and Graciela. The section dealing with Honorata’s life is a hard read at the outset, gritty and full of horrors: a mail-order bridal arrangement that is more like human trafficking, and the reader has to be prepared to read some upsetting passages involving sexual assault. Honorata is so powerless in all of this, and what’s more, she knows it, and I want to sit down and cry for her. Just at the point when I start to wonder whether it’s worth it or if maybe I should abandon this thing since we’re not having any fun here, everything changes, and in the end, Honorata is the character I love most.

How often do we see well written fiction in which all of the main characters are women, and the male characters only exist as scaffolding for them? This was a super cool book. I picked it up after the publication date after it was recommended to me, and I am so glad I did. I would read this author again in a heartbeat.

The one character I don’t entirely believe is Jimbo; toward the end of the story, I get new information that is meant to surprise me and it does, but I am shaking my head and not entirely believing it. However, Jimbo isn’t a main character. The four women that comprise this epic story are nearly corporeal, and I believe them absolutely.

Highly recommended to feminists, and to those that relish good historical fiction.

The King and the Catholics, by Antonia Fraser****

TheKingandtheCI was rooting around on Net Galley looking for some good nonfiction when I ran across this title. Many thanks to Net Galley and Doubleday for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. This book is now available to the public.

Fraser examines the fight for Catholic Emancipation in Britain, from the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of the late 1700s until roughly fifty years later. It is appalling that so much time, effort and money was needed for so small a thing as religious freedom, but there it is.

My own interest is more in the direction of Catholic history, with Irish history as a major part of that, and so portions of this well written, painstakingly researched and documented tome drew me more than others. I don’t care a whit what the king or any other members of the royal family say, want, or do, so for those with a closer interest than mine, this might well be a five star read. Parts of it are a trifle dry, but then Fraser livens it up with brief, lively sketches of the historical figures involved.

A major player in the struggle was the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, and I read all of the passages in which this eloquent barrister is featured with tremendous interest. I also enjoyed seeing ways in which events in the larger world influenced events in the UK, from the French Revolution to the Boer Wars in South Africa.

An excellent addition to the library of any that are interested in the topic.

The Girl They Left Behind, by Roxanne Veletzos****

TheGirlTheyLeftBehindI was ready for something that was a little different, and then an online friend recommended this historical fiction for review. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC. It’s for sale today.

The story stems from the Bucharest Pogrom of 1941, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. And to show you how much I knew about this particular event before I read this book—my ignorance was so painful—I called to my spouse and said, “Honey?  Isn’t Bucharest in Hungary?”

The world-traveled, multilingual expatriate responded, “That’s Budapest. Bucharest is in Romania.”

Ahem. So this corner of my historical education was severely in need of help, and this was a good start for me.  If I were to rate this story solely on its merit as a novel,  I’d call it 3.5 because of some unevenness in the quality of writing, but the educational aspect of it is undeniable, and it makes a big difference.

The story centers on Natalia, a child that is abandoned during the pogrom when her parents flee from what they believe may be their death; they expect to be caught and killed. She is much loved, but her father persuades her mother that the only way the girl will make it out alive is if they leave her in the lobby of their apartment building with a note. She is adopted by a very wealthy couple that lavishes her with every possible comfort, until the regime falls and Romania comes inside of the Soviet orbit. After the coup, the conspicuously wealthy become government targets, and their assets—down to literally the clothes on their backs in some cases—are nationalized. Over the course of time, Natalia learns of her adoption and the parents to whom she was born.

The story uses the author’s family history as a framework, and notes at the end explain what aspects are autobiographical in nature, and which have been altered for the sake of the story.  There are family photos at the back of the book.

The voice is distinctly Eastern European, and that works in the author’s favor because it transports the reader to this time and place all the more effectively than a purely American-sounding voice would do. However, there are occasional lapses where clichés drop in, and it spoils the magic for awhile. The worst, perhaps, is “The walls have ears.”

The first forty percent of the novel is the most engaging, and I love the development of parents Despina and Anton, and little Natalia. The last half of the novel, however, is too busy and at times seems overwrought.

And then we are back to what I said at the outset: there is so much to learn here.  Historical detail is inextricably woven into the story, and our attachment to the characters, particularly at the start, makes the facts themselves more memorable. So when it comes down to it, I do recommend this book to you. If you can find a better work of historical fiction featuring the Bucharest Pogrom, then I may change my mind, but right now I would say Veletzos has cornered that market for those of us that read in the English language.

This book is one of a kind. Don’t miss it.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter, by Kate Morton***

TheClockmakersDaughterKate Morton is queen of the British historical mystery, and so I leapt at the chance to read and review The Clockmaker’s Daughter. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books. This book will be available October 9, 2018.

This story starts strong with a spellbinding first person narrative told by the woman whose spirit resides eternally at Birchwood Manor. She came here with Edward, a wellborn cad that “could make the very devil pray”, one that called her his muse. Edward seduced her, yes, but he would never have married her.

Elodie Winslow is an archivist in present-day London.  In the course of her duties, she runs across two pictures in a leather satchel. One is a photograph, quite old, and the other is a sketch of a house that seems familiar to her somehow. And so of course, faithful readers are cued right away to watch for a connection between Elodie, and the people, setting, and events that are introduced at the book’s beginning.

Find me a writer that can create more resonant settings in a British historical mystery; I dare you. For the first quarter of this novel, I was in it, steeping in the escapist paradise Morton provides, drinking in the several characters and narratives. But at the thirty percent mark, when yet another new thread, another new character—or is it an old character pretending to be a new character—is introduced, I find myself searching for a nice brick wall to smack my forehead against. It’s hard to get to know any of these characters with so many new ones added.

Usually with Morton’s books, the details and subsections are worth the reader’s careful attention because it all comes together so well at the end. Here, there’s excellent setting and a lot of secrets but not enough plot or character development, and so before the story is even halfway done I find myself eyeing the page numbers. How much longer…?

I also find myself wondering what story elements are classic, and which are simply overused. The old house with the secret doors?  I will never get tired of this element, especially when the writer is as capable as Morton. But bullies at a boarding school—meh. I am ready to be done with that one. And the sack of kittens to be drowned? I gave myself permission to skip a page, because it is. Not. Worth. It.

Many of Morton’s faithful fans will be pleased; her trademark style is unmistakable, and if that’s what you want, here it is. But a story this complex needs more legs to go with it, and less reliance on stale devices.

Am I done reading Morton? Not by a long shot. Every author has a story or two that isn’t magical. But when a story requires this much effort on the part of the reader, the payoff needs to be greater than it is here.

Recommended to diehard Kate Morton fans; even so, get it free or cheap, but don’t pay full jacket price this time.