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.


Best Feminist Fiction 2018

ASparkofLightA Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult*****

Goodbye, Paris by Anstey Harris*****

GoodbyeParisThis novel took me by surprise. The first time I saw it, I passed it by, because the cover suggested a light romance, and that’s not a genre that appeals to me.  It’s been compared to Jojo Moyes and Eleanor Oliphant; I read neither. Later I saw an online recommendation for this book and changed my mind, and I am so glad I did. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Touchstone for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

You see, when we begin we recognize that Grace is deluded about David. Oh, how many of us have either been that woman or had her as a friend? Grace and David have been together for eight years, except when he needs to be present at home, for the sake of his children. Grace tells us that David is a devoted father, a dedicated dad who’s promised that he will do a finer job than his own father did, and so even though there’s nothing left between him and his wife, he cannot divorce her until the kids are grown. No, really. And then of course there’s some concern about her mental stability. What if he files, and then she does something awful?

So Grace totally understands why she must be alone every Christmas:  David is with his kids. Grace spends all the most important occasions of the year by herself, making stringed instruments in her workshop; and David is with his family in Paris. He wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true, and she doesn’t ask too many questions, because he is terribly sensitive.

It’s all about trust.

She assists in staying out of the public eye, and she is ever so discreet, but then a random event puts David’s face in the news, a hero that pulls a woman off the Metro tracks just before the train comes. Who is this mysterious man, they ask. And then it all hits the fan. And as we knew—we tried to tell Grace, but she wouldn’t listen—David isn’t a stand up guy. He isn’t even that good as a parent. David is just a philanderer, and Grace has spent eight years of her life planning a future with this asshole, not because she is stupid, but because she is a decent person that expects others to be as upright as she is.

I have never assaulted another human being in my life. I am getting old. But let me tell you, if David had been flesh and had been standing before me, who’s to say he wouldn’t be the exception? I fumed as I prepared dinner, did the dishes, let the dog out.  That rotten scoundrel, treating poor sweet Grace this way. Oh, how crushing for her. It isn’t fair; it really isn’t.

Every reader sees it coming, but what surprises me is that David is outed so early in the book. And here’s the glorious thing: this story appears to be a romance, but it isn’t. It isn’t about Grace and David, and no new knight arrives toward the climax to sweep her away. No, the story is about Grace, and it’s about the ways that friends—true friends—help us pull ourselves together when everything seems to be coming apart. And the metaphors are resonant ones:

 

“I have to take into account that this violin didn’t really work very well, didn’t have much of a voice. If I take these ribs off completely and remake a whole new set, it will give the instrument a better chance to sing.”

 

Grace rebuilds her career as she rebuilds herself, scaffolded by the warmth and emotional nourishment of the friends that love her, and one of them tells her, “You have to grasp life by the balls, Grace…and don’t bloody let go until you have to.”

Ultimately, this is a charming story you won’t want to miss. Highly recommended.

Us Against You, by Fredrik Backman****

“The first time Peter realized that the tiny person was sleeping soundly in his arms. What are we prepared to do for our children at that moment? What aren’t we prepared to do?”

UsAgainstYouUs Against You is the second in book in the Beartown trilogy. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the invitation to read and review. This book will be available to the public tomorrow.

Beartown is in crisis. The hockey team has been undone by the arrest of their star player for rape, and Maya, his victim, has been harassed endlessly as if she were the perpetrator. Resentments simmer. There are anonymous callers. A new coach is hired, not only a woman—but a lesbian. Chins wag. New owners roll into town, friendly and treacherous, generous and oily. Violence hums beneath the surface as the town polarizes between the hometown hockey team and that in the neighboring town, to which some Beartown citizens have decamped.

Fredrik Backman, who is possibly the finest male feminist novelist in the world, is on a roll here. It’s interesting to note that although the hockey players in this story are men and boys, the best developed, most complex characters are the women. I like reading about Peter, Leo, Amat, Benji, and Teemu, but the characters that keep me coming back are Kira and Maya, Ana and Ramona. More than anything I want Kira to pack her bags and seize the opportunities presented to her, with or without Peter. Just go, woman, go. But it’s always easy to suggest that someone else should leave a troubled marriage behind, and the way that she deals with this problem—and the role that her daughter plays in the decision—is thought-provoking.

Meanwhile there are about a dozen other small threads here, and again, Backman is among the best writers when it comes to developing a large cast of town members without dropping anyone’s story or letting the pace flag. His use of repetition as figurative language is brilliant, and he is unquestionably the king of the literary head fake. If I taught creative writing to adults, I would assign my students to read his work.

I have some relatively minor quibbles here, although I know so little of Swedish culture that they may or may not be valid within that framework. I would dial the sentimentality and drama down twenty to twenty-five percent; clearly most readers love this aspect of these novels, but I would argue for a smidge more subtlety. There are occasional exaggerations that remind me that the characters are fictional. When the entire town is economically depressed, and yet everyone shows support for something by showing up in matching jackets, and when a preposterous amount of spare change goes begging in the kitty at the local bar, I wince. But then I am quickly drawn back in by the complex, compelling characterizations.

If you’re a fan of Backman’s, you won’t be disappointed. If you have never read his work before, don’t start here. Read one of his excellent stand-alone novels, or begin with Beartown, the first in this series. Recommended to those that love fiction that features excellent, complex characters, particularly female characters.

39 Winks, by Kathleen Valenti****

39winksValenti’s droll new series continues, with Maggie O’Malley and her hunky boyfriend, Constantine riding in to rescue his beloved Aunt Polly. Those that read Protocol, the series opener, know that Valenti writes with swagger, often with tongue in cheek. Thanks go to Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. This title is now for sale.

What would induce a woman to walk away from her job in order to play amateur sleuth? Maggie wouldn’t know. She is currently unemployed. Her career with Big Pharma tanked after she turned whistle-blower, and now she’s been sacked from her position as a retail sales clerk. Damn. But it’s just as well in a way, because Constantine’s Aunt Polly served as “the woman who fit the mother-shaped hole in her life,” and she needs Maggie’s help. She’s in declining health—Parkinson’s? Alzheimer’s? Bad air, bad water, poisoned food, poison gas? And following the murder of her husband, Howard, who even Polly acknowledges “was a bit of an ass”, Polly is under investigation, a favorite suspect since she is the surviving spouse of an unhappy marriage.

Valenti’s feminist spirit could not be more welcome than it is today, and her dialogue crackles. This is a fast read, part satire, part suspense, and I love the banter that unfolds between Polly and Constantine, reminiscent of the snappy patter of Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis in the 1980s TV show “Moonlighting” (which actually draws a mention toward the story’s conclusion).

Take Maggie O’Malley on vacation with you. It will be better with her than without her. Try not to wake the passenger snoozing next to you on the plane with your snickering, though—unless you’re bringing a second copy to share.

Limelight, by Amy Poeppel*****

Limelight“Welcome to Gotham, babe.”

Amy Poeppel is a star, and since I loved her debut novel, Small Admissions in 2016, requesting the galley of her second novel was a no-brainer for me. Thank you, thank you Net Galley and Atria Books. This book will be available to the public May 1, 2018.

Allison Brinkley is excited when her husband receives a promotion that takes them from suburban Dallas, Texas to New York City. The excitement! The opportunities! Most people consider themselves lucky if they are even able to visit Manhattan as tourists. She can hardly wait.

Once they arrive, however, reality sets in. There’s no room for anybody’s stuff, and the bedrooms are tiny. Her eldest child is sulking, and the youngest gets in trouble at school. The mothers at the prestigious private school where the children are enrolled snub Allison as if she were the new girl at middle school.  She loses her teaching position, and then she loses her tutoring job too. She wants to be a good family organizer, provider, and cheerleader; and yet.

On top of everything, she bangs into another vehicle right in front of the school; when she goes to settle up with her insurance details, she instead finds herself in the apartment of a badly behaved teenager that turns out to be a famous teen heartthrob. Allison is mesmerized, but not in the manner to which Carter Reid is accustomed; she wants to know how his apartment and his lifestyle has spun out of control so badly. Where is the boy’s mother?

Before she knows it, Allison is swept into the official Carter Reid entourage. He’s sick in bed, and half of his people have up and quit because he’s so insufferable. But Allison deals with adolescents for a living, both as a teacher and as a mother. She knows how to talk to kids, and she knows how to get them to take their medicine and show up to appointments.

But Carter has another problem nobody knows about. It’s not a problem to be proud of, and it’s getting in the way of his career.

Nobody writes like Amy Poeppel. The beginnings of her novels are bizarre and disorienting because the protagonist’s normal is not most people’s normal. My first impression is that one of us—Poeppel or me—must be crazy. But once I am properly hooked on the story, she pulls me in and lets me know what’s up with that. Before the halfway mark is reached, I want to be the gal pal that drops in on Allison, asks questions, maybe drags her into the kitchen for a conversation. I wonder, how much more of her own money is she going to spend on this wealthy brat before she asks for compensation? Has she forgotten she has kids of her own at home?  Has she completely taken leave of her senses?

I make one prediction after another, anticipating well-worn fictional formulas, but Poeppel doesn’t do formulas, she creates surprises. At the end I find myself walking with my head up and a spring to my step. I will bet you a dollar, reader, that you need some of that too.

Frosting on the cake is that rarest of all things, a positive abortion reference tucked in quietly toward the end. It makes my feminist heart sing.

I can’t wait to see what this writer brings to her next novel; will she bring Allison back with a sequel, or will she start from scratch? Whatever it is, I have to read it. Limelight is sharp, funny, and wicked smart. You have to get this book and read it.

Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao***

GirlsBurnBrighterThanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy, which I read free and early in exchange for this review.  This book is for sale to the public now.

This story is billed as one of matchless friendship, and it is that, but the misery and despair are so stark and ever present as to destroy all hope, and this ambivalence is the reason for my slowness and frankly reluctance to review.

Our story is set in India, and our two protagonists are Poornima, whose struggling father runs a small textile factory that makes saris, and Savitha, one of his workers. They become friends and uphold one another through the desperate struggle for survival. Poornima’s mother is gone, and the daughter is not considered beautiful, which makes her dowry an even more essential aspect of her marriage than it would otherwise be. She herself has no desire to marry, particularly not to someone she has never met and that only plans to marry her for the income generated by the union, but her father is genuinely eager to be rid of her—one more mouth to feed—and she is hustled through the ordeal despite her misgivings.

Savitha has vowed to protect and defend her friend, but she is banished and must make a run for it.

The entire story is bleak, stark, and horrible. For those that are unaware of the fate of some women in some Asian countries, this may be worth reading for enlightenment, but for many feminists this is not news. Stories of Indian women being fatally burned or badly disfigured by accidentally-on-purpose kitchen accidents by angry in-laws that expect more of a dowry price than is actually paid have circulated since the 1980s at least. I would have found the story more compelling and less difficult to read if there was some small twinkle of hope somewhere. At the seventy percent mark I decided I couldn’t stand it, but when I skipped to the end, I discovered that at least one protagonist was still alive, which is better than I expected, and so I went back and read the rest of it. It proved to be a small reward for a great deal of horror.

Don’t get me wrong; if there was a way that even one woman in India could somehow be spared because I had read this novel, I’d be all in. But to read news that is both old and terrible to no end—because if the US government were ever to actively assert the rights of women anywhere, which it hasn’t, it sure as hell won’t be under the current administration—seems like a lot of grinding sorrow to no good purpose.

Recommended to readers with strong stomachs that have no knowledge of how women in India are treated, with the caveats above.

The Magic Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg*****

themerryspinsterMallory Ortberg’s feminist horror collection is bound to be the best short story collection of 2018, darkly funny, cleverly conceived and brainier than I realized when I signed on for it. Many thanks go to Henry Holt and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. This title is for sale now.

Ortberg takes well known children’s stories and fairy tales and injects sinister elements into them, sometimes starting with the exact wording of the story, cited in her endnotes, and then changing it a tiny bit at a time. If you don’t know the story quite well, you may not be able to pinpoint the exact place Ortberg goes off script; some of these are Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which are fairly, uh, grim in the first place and not originally intended for small children. She often combines the influence of a second fairy tale, and everything is beautifully documented at the back, just so you can see how she did it.

At first I wondered if I would react badly to this; I am a grandmother of tiny children as well as a retired teacher, and these stories tread on sacred ground. But it’s done with such genius that all I can do is shake my head in admiration.

There are eleven stories. One of my favorites is the title story, in which a woman is held prisoner by a captor that builds her a fabulous library, but tells her that he will decide what she will read. There’s horror for you. There’s a takeoff on The Little Mermaid that left me with half the story highlighted out of admiration. The Thankless Child features a fairy godmother that is more of a mafia figure, like a supernatural, female Godfather.

But perhaps my very favorite is The Rabbit, which is a takeoff on The Velveteen Rabbit. I began this one with a furrowed brow, because the original story is so dear to my heart, a cherished experience held with each of the four babies I bore and raised. But my prior knowledge is actually a useful thing, because with the original more or less committed to memory, I can see where she begins to alter the story. At first she changes just the tiniest things, and then gradually adds more…and in her version, the rabbit loathes the boy and seeks revenge. In the end it is the same story, and yet different enough that it doesn’t offend me as I suspected it might. She started with apples and made bleeding red oranges.

Ortberg has created a masterpiece of feminist fiction replete with some of the best word smithery found in contemporary prose. It can be read at the surface level, just for your amusement—which is guaranteed to all that enjoy gallows humor—or as a scholarly endeavor. I expected this book to be full of darkly ridiculous stories themed around women’s issues. Instead it is even better, both brainy and hilarious, the best surprise of 2018.

Highly recommended to all that appreciate great feminist fiction and enjoy dark humor.

Not That I Could Tell, by Jessica Strawser****

NotThatIOne year ago today, I reviewed Strawser’s debut novel, Almost Missed You. When I received an invitation to read and review this, her second novel of suspense, I privately wondered whether she had written the same story all over again: missing spouse, missing kids, and is it foul play or a voluntary departure? But although there are many common elements, possibly what will become a signature aspect of her work, I can promise you that this is a very different story. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for letting me read it free and early. This book is for sale now.

Our setting is Yellow Springs, Ohio, and our protagonists are the women of the neighborhood, primarily Izzy, who comes in search of a fresh start after her sister marries the man she had her heart set on, and Clara, a stay-home mom that also recovering from a traumatic past event that is alluded to frequently but whose particulars are withheld till near the story’s climax. And we have Kristen, college administrator and estranged wife of Doctor Paul. All are close neighbors, and these women–along with other women in the neighborhood–form a tight bond.

At the outset I feel as if I’m the wrong reader for this story. It’s all so light and fluffy; I don’t need to know the name of every child in the neighborhood, nor what everyone is wearing. But I also remember that I felt that way at the start of Strawser’s last novel, and I didn’t feel at all that way further into the book, and so I keep reading. Sure enough, the adverbs drop, the wardrobes and cute kiddies fade into the background, and the tone darkens nicely (said the evil book blogger with a sinister smile).

After a lovely fall evening spent bonding with friends around a backyard bonfire, Kristen and the twins have disappeared. The police take a hard look at Paul, who is seeking half of the hefty sum in Kristen’s savings account in the divorce proceedings, but nobody can prove anything. There are no bodies; she may have taken the kiddies and left. Some things are missing that make us think she’s taken off voluntarily, and yet other aspects of her absence send up flags.

Paul, for instance, is a smooth operator, but he isn’t a nice guy.

Strawser weaves a complex, credible plot with a strong feminist subtext, one that tells us there needs to be greater support for victims of domestic violence, and also that for some of us, happy endings are possible without romantic relationships. In addition, it is heartening to see a strong work of fiction that mostly features women characters.

I recommend this novel to women and those that love them, and I look forward to seeing more of Strawser’s feminist fiction in the future.

White Houses, by Amy Bloom*****

 

“Lorena Alice Hickock, you are the surprise of my life. I love you. I love your nerve. I love your laugh. I love your way with a sentence. I love your beautiful eyes and your beautiful skin and I will love you till the day I die.”

I pushed out the words before she could change her mind.

“Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, you amazing, perfect, imperfect woman, you have knocked me sideways. I love you. I love your kindness and your brilliance and your soft heart. I love how you dance and I love your beautiful hands and I will love you till the day I die.”

I took off my sapphire ring and slipped it onto her pinkie. She unpinned the gold watch from her lapel and pinned it on my shirt. She put her arms around my waist. We kissed as if we were in the middle of a cheering crowd, with rice and rose petals raining down on us.”

 

WhiteHouses

A sea change has occurred in the way mainstream Americans regard lesbian relationships. This book proves it. We would have laughed at the possibility in the 1980s, that a major publishing house would one day publish this novel depicting a revered  First Lady in such a (covert) relationship—while she was in the White House, no less. But Amy Bloom tells it, square and proud, and she lets us know that this is only fiction by an inch or two. Many thanks go to Random House (I will love you till the day I die) and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.  This novel is now for sale.

Nobody can tell a story the way that Bloom does it, and this is her best work yet. The story is told us by Lorena Hickok, a journalist known as “Hick”, an outcast from a starving, dysfunctional family, the type that were legion during America’s Great Depression. The voice is clear, engaging, and so real that it had me at hello, but the story’s greatest success is in embracing the ambiguity at the heart of the First couple, Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So many great things done for the nation; so many entitled, thoughtless acts toward the unwashed minions they knew. A new friend, a favorite visitor brought from cold hard poverty, here and there, to occupy a White House spare bedroom and provide stimulating conversation, a new viewpoint, and to demonstrate the administration’s care for the common folk; then dumped unceremoniously, often without a place to go or money to get there, when they became tiresome or ill or inconvenient. The very wealthy, privileged backgrounds from which the Roosevelts sprung provided them with myopia that comes with living their whole lives in a rarefied environment. It is fascinating to see history unspool as Eleanor visits coal camps and picket lines, visits textile mills where children labor; but then of course, she repairs to the best lodging available before her journey home commences. And Hick is welcome when she is convenient, but she is banished for a time when there’s too much talk.

And yet—oh, how Lorena loved Eleanor, and the reverse was true, but not necessarily in the same measure, with the same fealty, or the same need.

Social class, the dirty secret America has tried to whitewash across the generations, is the monster in the Roosevelt closet. And FDR, perhaps the greatest womanizer to grace the Oval Office, has his PR people tell everyone that he has no manly function what with the paralysis, and that all those pretty girls that come and go are just there to cheer him up. He makes JFK look like a monk in comparison.  Yet we cannot hate him entirely, because of the New Deal:

He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day…He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, Who’s for cocktails?”

I have a dozen more meaty quotes I’d like to use here, but it’s much better if you get this book, by hook or by crook, and find all of them for yourself.  It’s impressive work by any standard, and I defy you to put it down once you’ve begun.

Highly recommended.