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.


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 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.

Across the Great Lake, by Lee Zacharias***

AcrosstheGreatLakeI received this book free from Net Galley and University of Wisconsin Press in exchange for this honest review. It will be available for purchase on September 18, 2018.

Conceptually this story has great promise.  The Great Lakes are where important American naval battles have taken place, and yet very little fiction is set there. This reviewer lived near Lake Erie for most of the 1980s, and I thought this novel would be a sure fire winner.

An elderly woman is looking back at her life, and the story starts with her earliest memories, when her parents separate and her father, a sea captain, takes her from her unstable mother and the girl goes to sea with him. Sailors mutter dark things. There’s a ghost ship that the crew speaks of ominously.

Zacharias nails Fern’s developmental stages, which is critical for anyone writing about a child, particularly if that child is going to voice some of the narrative. Failing to do so breaks the spell entirely, and I am cheered when I see it done correctly. There’s also a great deal of painstaking historical and nautical detail here. As a history teacher I appreciate it, and I learned some things.

Sadly, the character feels weighted down by the setting instead of developed by it. I never feel as if I know the protagonist, but rather as though the author has a great deal of research done and is going to use as much of it as is humanly possible. I pushed my way through it until just before the halfway mark, and then I abandoned ship.

The Comedown, by Rebekah Frumkin***

thecomedownThanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy.  This debut tells me that Frumkin is an author to watch. This book is now available to the public.

The story begins with Leland, an addict with a suitcase, and Reggie, the dealer that hates him. There’s Melinda, the unhappy ex-wife, and a host of other characters, including Melinda’s daughter-in-law Jocelyn. The suitcase is the hook; everyone wants it, and so of course the reader must wonder what is in it and who has it now.

This novel grabbed me at the get-go, darkly funny and brutally frank. It struck me as angry fiction, and the energy behind it was fascinating. But ultimately, there are too many characters and too many social issues wrapped into this one story, and rather than making it complex and tight, it wanders in too many directions. There’s an overly lengthy narrative toward the end, and it’s followed by some regrettable dialogue. And there are too many characters named Leland.  The story is an ambitious one, but this should probably have been more than one story, or perhaps a series. The result is a lack of focus.

I would love to see the author write something else using Melinda as the central character, and fewer guys named Leland.

This I Know, by Eldonna Edwards*****

“Sometimes I wish I could catch Mama’s voice in a jar and keep it beside my bed at night, let each note light the darkness like a captured firefly.”

ThisIKnow Eldonna Edwards makes her debut with the best written child protagonist since Scout Finch appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Kensington Books for the digital review copy.

Grace Carter is eleven years old, one of several daughters of a strict evangelical preacher.  Her mother has come undone, slowly unraveling from grief that began with the death of Grace’s twin brother, Isaac. Grace misses Isaac, too, but she has the comfort of his counsel; she hears and knows things that most other people do not. Her mother and Aunt Pearl call it “the knowing”, but her father calls it the work of the devil. Grace grows up understanding that she must keep her head down and avoid getting into trouble. It’s a treacherous path, and now and then things pop out, as they will with adolescents.

Edwards is a gifted writer, and she’s tackled an ambitious project in writing a first person narrative. It’s hard to voice a child in a way that is developmentally appropriate and consistent, and she’s nailed it spot on. Many writers would try to dodge this literary obligation by creating a precocious, academically gifted character, which is so common that it’s clichéd, and as I read this story and see that Grace is just an average kid, apart from her supernatural talent, I hold my breath to see if she can carry it off all the way through, and she does it masterfully. The way Edwards develops Grace, adding layers to her personality and melding it with the dead-accurate setting—the Midwest during the 1960s—makes her one of the most exciting new voices to emerge this generation.  The plot never slows, but with a character and setting this resonant, Edwards could send Grace to sit in her closet for the whole book and her readers would be captivated regardless.

I would have preferred a more nuanced ending, but it’s a small concern. Everyone that loves strong fiction will want this book. Order yours while you can get it on the first printing.

Gods of Howl Mountain*****

GodsofHowl“Christ’s father let him die on that cross,” she said. “I understand why he done it.” She leaned closer, whispering, “But Christ never had no granny like me.”

Rory Docherty has come home from overseas “with war in his blood”; he’s come home to the mountains of North Carolina, and home to Granny May, the local herbalist—some also say she’s the local witch. His mother Bonni is in a mental institution, which was even a worse place to have to go in the 1950s than it is now.  Rory doesn’t know for sure what broke her, because she hasn’t said one word in the years between then and now; Granny May knows, and withholds this powerful secret for reasons of her own. The life of the Docherty family is seldom easy, having Bonni erased from their midst has hit them hardest of all.

I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. I’m not permitted to share my galley with anyone else, but I can do this: I can read it as many times as I damn want to. And although I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done that, out of the five or six hundred free novels that I’ve received in the last few years, I’ll do it with this one.

But back to Rory, to Granny May, and to Eustace, the wily, ruthless old bootlegger that owns Howl Mountain and almost everyone on it. And back to the sweet-faced preacher’s daughter that has lit a fire under Rory’s troubled heart. Granny May would have him stay away from those snake-handling holy rollers, but Rory is utterly bewitched, and when the lights are on at the storefront church, he finds himself there too.

The characters and the setting are what drive this novel, but what also drives it are the cars, most specifically Maybelline, the custom-made vehicle that can outrun Federal revenue agents.  I’m generally not interested in cars; if they run, that’s good, and if I will be comfortable inside them, that’s better. But Brown has some magic of his own, and the way he crafts this ride, which is the family’s main source of income and their most valuable piece of property apart from the mountain itself, is magnetic. It is almost a character itself.

The balance of power is shifting on Howl Mountain now. Rival Cooley Muldoon seeks to unseat the Docherty clan; threats to Granny May have taken ominous forms, and she waits on the porch with her pipe and her gun late into the night. She storms into the brush to find what, exactly, has made the cry like a panther on her roof.

“Death, which walked ever through these mountains, knew she would not go down easy.”

This is likely the go-to novel of 2018. I cannot help but think that Rory Docherty, Eustace, and Granny May will join the ranks of beloved literary characters whose names are recognized by a wide swath of the English-speaking world.

If nothing else, Brown has taken the hillbilly stereotype that some still cling to and in its place leaves believable characters with nuance, ambiguity, and heart.  It’s a showstopper, and you won’t want to miss it.

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.