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 Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden*****

“Blood is one thing. The sight is another. But courage—that is rarest of all, Vasilisa Petrovna.”

 thebearandthenigh

The Bear and the Nightingale is the most brilliant fantasy novel I’ve seen since Tolkien wrote, and I want you to understand how different, how special it is. I received my copy free in exchange for an honest review—and those of you that read my last two reviews know that this privilege has never made me obsequious. Thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the advance copy. It’s worth its weight in spun golden magic, and it will be available to the public this Tuesday, January 10, 2017.

 

“The brave live…The cowards die in the snow.”

 

Our protagonist is Vasilisa, affectionately known as Vasya; she’s an adolescent with many talents, some of which are supernatural. She generally keeps these abilities to herself, lest she be called a witch. Her father, Pyotr, is a minor prince in the frozen Northern hinterlands of Russia during the 14th century.  The setting here is mesmerizing, and from the first page I understood that this particular story is one I would save for late nights when my family is asleep. Let my other reading be interrupted by the minutiae of running a household, but not this one. This is a juicy tale, perfect for a cold winter night burrowed beneath the quilts. I open this magical tale and am lost inside it.

Our setting is ancient Northern Russia, then known as ‘Rus’, since no central government had formed yet. This is a time when women carry about as much social worth as a poker chip or livestock, and yet as the story progresses, I realize that this is a stand-up-tall feminist folk tale of the highest order; in fact, it’s a lot of things. This is the sort of debut that most likely causes writers like Harper Lee to go back in the house and never publish anything else, lest the second novel be considered a let-down after the first.  I hope, however, that we’ll see a lot more of Arden.

Our story commences in the house of Pyotr, a minor prince whose wife has died in childbirth. He loved Marina dearly, but as his daughters grow closer to marriageable age, he knows he must go to Moscow to seek a new bride to run his home, and marry his elder daughter Olga to a man of wealth and power. And though Olga’s match is a good one, it’s in Pyotr’s remarriage that things go badly wrong.

A brief note about the setting and other details involved with time and place. First know that this story does require a relatively high literacy level; for those that struggle with a high vocabulary level, it may prove to be more work than fun. However—for those reading digitally especially—please note that there’s a glossary at the back of the book. And those that are able to read this digitally on a device with a touch screen will be happiest of all, because it’s so easy to touch a word and get a definition immediately. I also ran a few searches due to curiosity, since I was not at all eager for this book to end. I took my time with it, and while I was buried in this magical world, I was nevertheless learning details of history and geography that I hadn’t known before.

Because I taught teenagers how to write for a number of years, it’s my natural inclination, even in an absorbing story such as Arden’s, to go back and look again to see what specifically produced this alchemy.  Undoubtedly, the development of multiple characters in a deft, expert manner is essential. There’s not one character in this story that I don’t believe. Every last one of them is real to me, a feat in and of itself when writing fantasy. It takes confidence and authority to tell the reader that although the story contains all manner of supernatural elements, it’s all true, and so are its characters.

But also, there are real life details true to the time and place that Arden weaves in seamlessly. As I reread some key passages, I note that when the men come indoors from the snowy woods, they aren’t merely cold, dirty and tired; they’re covered in scratches, they’re voracious, and their boots steam and stink up the room once they remove them. In another scene, when Pyotr travels far from home, he can afford fine guest lodging, but although he gets a big, soft, fluffy bed, he also has to put up with vermin, because they were a part of everyone’s life.  Such details contribute to the immediacy of the story.

It’s Arden’s outstanding word smithery that makes this story a standout. When Arden writes, the mists clear and we are transported, quivering in the snowy forest of the 14th century Russia, tearing pell mell across frozen ground on the back of a noble stallion, facing down death as demons scream and shadows dance.

I won’t spoil any of the subsequent plot points for you, but please know that this is a multifaceted story with a lot of secondary threads that contribute to the main story rather than distracting us from it.  To do so in a debut novel is stunning. A particularly interesting side character is Dunya, the nurse that has raised Vasya and has held onto a talisman intended for Vasya at great personal cost.

Messages and possible themes come out of the woodwork once one looks for them. A story such as this one, in which Vasya defends the old pagan deities against the religion of Kostantin, would once upon a time have caused conservative Christian parents to come screaming to the school with their lawyers on their cell phones in one hand and a flaming torch in the other. It could happen still, but what greater honor could Arden ask than to find her way into the ten most frequently banned books?

Meanwhile, in this trying time for independent women, we need strong female characters like Vasya and Dunya to remind girls and women that we are powerful, and that together, we can conquer those that would strip us of our autonomy and march us barefoot back to our kitchens. I have no idea whether any such direct political purpose is intended by Arden, but it certainly serves as a potent message: we will be oppressed only if we let that happen. Those that have even a fraction of Vasya’s independence, confidence and courage can not only prevent the door opportunity from slamming shut;  we can knock that door off its fucking hinges, for ourselves, our daughters, and theirs as well.

 

’All my life,’ she said, ‘ I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.’”

 

Those looking for themes here have a banquet of opportunities. Though I would say the story is one of solidarity among women, or of woman’s independence, there are so many other possibilities. One could make a case that this story is about loyalty; one could claim it’s about family. One could say it’s about the victory of the collective good over the pride, greed, and ambition of the individual.

One thing I can say for certain is that The Bear and the Nightingale is impressive any way you approach it. It holds the potential to become a favorite of the genre, handed down lovingly from one generation to the next.  Buy it for yourself, for your daughter, your mother, or for any woman that you love, or for someone that loves women and good fiction. A book like this doesn’t come along every day.

Don’t even think of missing this book. You can get it Tuesday, or better still, you can pre-order it now.

Hot Flashes, by Barbara Raskin***

hotflashes“Hot flashes are rolls of unreasonable, unseasonable heat that create a rush—a flush that floods the face from neck to hairline. A hot flash is itchy, prickly and provocative—like a sudden spike of fever that produces a mean and cranky irritability.”

Raskin’s novel about a group of middle-aged women that come together to mourn and bury a dear friend was a New York Times bestseller many years ago, hailed as a “landmark women’s novel” at the time it was first released. I was invited to read and review it by Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley.  And on the one hand, I can see why it was considered ground-breaking in 1987, but on the other hand, some novels age more gracefully than others, and this one doesn’t. My three star rating applies to a niche audience of middle class Caucasian feminist women from the Boomer generation, but even for us, some of what is found here rings insensitive and tone deaf, because the world has moved on, but Rankin’s novel remains the same.

Suki has died, and her friends come to her home, because she has nobody else apart from her teenage son, David. Suki had a breakdown around the time Max divorced her;  Ivy League educated Caucasian women raised in the US during the 1950s grew up with the societal expectation that their own talents were secondary to those of their husbands, and so they placed their own careers—Suki and all of her friends are writers—on a back burner in order to be good wives, mothers, and hostesses. The whining, entitled tone with which the book starts out, giving an overview of a life lived with Caribbean vacations, expensive wardrobes, endless tennis matches and fancy parties is going to set a lot of readers’ teeth on edge. It did mine, and I would not have finished reading it if I didn’t have an obligation to the publisher.

But underneath it all, there’s a second reality, and that’s what perhaps makes this book worth bringing back: these women, the ones that “kept our slave names” once they are divorced so that the ex-husband can marry a pretty, young trophy bride and set his first wife out to pasture, often find themselves with no job skills, their diplomas from Radcliffe and Yale obsolete after sitting in a drawer for thirty years or so, and so they find themselves with no income. Many of them had become isolated during their years of housewifery, staying inside the home to keep it tidy and welcoming whenever they were not driving a carpool of children or running household errands; there is something diminishing in telling an intelligent woman that the right thing to do is to iron sheets and shut up. So there is a Virginia Woolf-ish quality to some of this novel, and it is there that it finds some redemption.

That said, you need to brace yourself for the rest. These women consider themselves progressive if not radical, having prided themselves on their dedication to fighting the US war against Vietnam, and some dabbled momentarily, it seems, in the Civil Rights movement also. They have one African-American friend that appears after the 80% mark to become the token Black buddy, and she gets to deliver a few very wise lines before fading back into the distance. One of the Caucasian women makes a remark about Suki having been “colorblind”, and this made me want to punch a wall. But readers born later than 1970 should understand that white supremacy as an underlying assumption of daily life was eerily prevalent in Caucasian households during the period when these women were young; at that time, pretending that all races were alike was well-intended though frustratingly ignorant.

Another aspect of the text that seems hugely off base today but that was common to most progressive literature of the 1980s is that every single person in this supposedly forward-looking atmosphere is straight. Don’t even think about gender identity issues; back then there was still a hugely prevalent assumption that women loved only men and men loved only women, and everyone was comfortable with the sex organs with which they were born.

And so a formerly progressive book now sounds really off kilter in many, many places.

For those that have been deeply immersed in women’s literature from all eras, including the eras of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Virginia Woolf, this book might be a worthwhile addition to your collection. But as general fiction, I cannot give it a solid recommendation.

This book will be released digitally August 9, 2016.

Clawback, by JA Jance*****

clawbackI’m a long time reader of novels by JA Jance, but until I read this new release, I would have told you that her Arizona series are second string efforts compared to the JP Beaumont titles set in Seattle. Not anymore! Thank you to Net Galley and Touchstone Publishers for the DRC, which I read in exchange for an honest review. The book will be available to the public March 8.

Ali Reynolds is our protagonist. Her parents have retired, investing their lifelong savings with a company that turns out to be involved in a Ponzi scheme. Ali’s father goes to see his investment agent, who has also been a close friend for decades, and finds him dying. In attempting to revive him and another person, Dad gets the victims’ blood all over himself, and so he is suspected of murder when he calls 911. In an effort to help clear her father, Ali, along with her parents and those with whom she works at High Noon, unravels one layer after another of deception and danger.

Those that read my reviews know that I am always sensitive to the subtext. In addition to telling a well woven, technically savvy tale of suspense, Jance is brilliant here in the way she crafts her female characters. She takes apart almost every conceivable stereotype without pausing the story’s pace or becoming preachy or conspicuous. As the mother of a half-Asian daughter, I particularly appreciated the development of Cami. But even for those that don’t care much about social issues as reflected in text, it’s a tightly wound tale that will leave any reader leaning forward in their easy chair, straining to get to that last page and the denouement.

Besides enjoying the mystery, I also learned some things. I had never heard of a “clawback”, a terrible law that has to do with penalties that are assessed victims of Ponzi schemes, and I had also never heard of a “Silver alert”. I read a lot of nonfiction, but Jance’s new book is a great reminder that we can learn things from fiction too, and it’s often more fun that way.

Highly recommended to everyone.