Friday, February 07, 2014

My Month of Women's Fiction

Somewhere in the third week of January I became aware that except for my clients' work, everything I'd read since the beginning of the year was a novel written by a woman. Nothing about this was deliberate; these just happened to be the books I wanted to read, and they all just happened to be written by women.

Reasons for reading are as numerous and varied as humans themselves. Whatever other motives I might have, entertainment always comes first. I no longer finish books I don't enjoy — that's a privilege I claim in middle age — so although I enjoyed some of these books more than others, you can take this as a set of recommendations.

What I Read in January

Rebecca Chance, BAD ANGELS. "Rebecca Chance" is the glamorous alter ego of novelist Lauren Milne Henderson. Lauren writes crime, while Rebecca writes what she calls "bonk-busters," epic novels of love and money in the tradition of Judith Krantz and Jacqueline Susann. It had been way too long since I'd read a book like this, and it was perfect for New Year's Day: a Christmas-themed romantic thriller set in a Canary Wharf apartment that houses people recovering from plastic surgery. Fabulous, darling.

Louise Penny, A TRICK OF THE LIGHT. I'd stopped reading Penny's Inspector Gamache series after a book I felt did not play fair with its characters or the reader. I returned to this book because the story revolves around my favorite character in the series, the middle-aged artist Clara Morrow, whose professional triumph is obscured by the murder of a woman who turns out to be a long-estranged friend. Penny settles for no easy answers here, and the murder mystery is secondary to the more complex mysteries of envy, love, professional jealousy, addiction, forgiveness and redemption. It was good to be back in Three Pines.

Joanna Trollope, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. This book almost got a blog post all by itself, and I may yet come back to it. This is the first book in The Austen Project, a contemporary reworking of Jane Austen's novels by some of today's best writers. Trollope's always an entertaining read, but even her skills can't disguise the failure of The Austen Project's premise. The financial and social pressures that drove Austen's characters were entirely different from those today's women face. In simply importing Austen's story to the present day, Trollope makes her characters (with the exception of Elinor) behave in ways that challenged belief and tried my patience. That said, I'm very curious about what Val McDermid does with the second book in the project, NORTHANGER ABBEY.

P. L. Travers, MARY POPPINS. "Saving Mr. Banks" sent me back to this book, which I'd loved as a child. It's as good as I remembered it, especially the sequence in which the infant twins lose their ability to talk to the birds. That made me cry when I first read it, and I still grieve over my own lost ability to converse with birds.

Joelle Charbonneau, THE TESTING. The first book in Charbonneau's trilogy for young adults introduces Cia Vale, who desperately wants to be one of the handful of students chosen for higher education in a future society devastated by war. Only the strongest and most intelligent can pass The Testing, which involves more than Cia can imagine. Yes, it has a lot in common with THE HUNGER GAMES, but Charbonneau's dystopia is interesting, and the story speeds like a rocket.

Joyce Carol Oates, THE ACCURSED. Another book that could have a blog post to itself, the story of one doomed year in the life of a prominent Princeton, New Jersey family during the time of Woodrow Wilson's presidency of Princeton. I started this last summer, but could not give it the attention it deserved, and had to return it to the library before I could finish it. After I downloaded a copy when it went on sale for Kindle, I spent every free moment for a week finishing it. Stephen King called it "E. L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’ set in Dracula’s castle," and I can't describe it better than that. It is an epic, sprawling historical novel about class distinctions and suppressed desires and Jungian monsters, and I'd take a class on it if anyone wanted to teach one.

Alison Gaylin, REALITY ENDS HERE. Gaylin's first novel for young adults is the story of Estella Blanchard, half-sister of the famous Blanchard sextuplets and co-star of one of TV's most popular reality shows. When Estella gets a Christmas present that seems to be from her father, who died ten years earlier, she is overwhelmed by the thought that he might still be alive. Her quest for the truth shakes everything she thinks she knows about her family, even behind the scenes. Estella is a terrific character, and the descriptions of the mechanics of the TV show are fascinating.

Charlotte Jay, BEAT NOT THE BONES. The very first winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel was this second novel by an Australian writer whose real name was Geraldine Halls. BEAT NOT THE BONES is a deceptively simple book about a young widow's trip to New Guinea in an effort to prove that her husband, New Guinea's Chief Anthropologist, did not commit suicide. Her quest for the truth takes her deep into the jungle, to discover truths as horrifying as anything Joseph Conrad ever wrote.

Susan Wittig Albert, THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE TEXAS STAR. A charming cozy mystery set in Darling, Alabama in the 1930s, just as the effects of the Depression settle in. The Dahlias are the town's gardening club, and the Texas Star is a daredevil female pilot whose arrival in town wreaks havoc in more ways than one.

Joshilyn Jackson, SOMEONE ELSE'S LOVE STORY.  Single mother Shandi Pierce falls in love with William Ashe after they are held up at gunpoint in a gas station outside Atlanta. William's mourning the loss of his wife and daughter, and Shandi thinks he holds the answers to all her questions. As it turns out, she may not be asking the right questions, and the answers she gets will be not the ones she wants but the ones she needs. A lovely, lovely book about people stumbling toward redemption. I can't explain how or why this felt like exactly the right book at the right time, but it did.

Sue Monk Kidd, THE INVENTION OF WINGS. I didn't read this because Oprah's chosen it for her Book Club 2.0, but I understand why she did. It's a gorgeous historical saga about the lifelong bond between Sarah Grimke and Hetty, the slave girl given to her as a personal maid on Sarah's 11th birthday. Sarah Grimke and her sister, Angelina, were real-life pioneers of the abolition movement. THE INVENTION OF WINGS imagines the journey that took them there, while also telling the story from Hetty's point of view. Brilliantly constructed, beautifully written, inspiring.


Kristopher said...

That is a great month of reading Clair. I covered many of those books on my blog and can certainly see that you enjoyed them as much as I did.

Happy that you returned to Three Pines. Keep going, as the next books are really strong, especially How the Light Gets In.

I have an ARC of Val's take on Northanger and can't wait to dive in.

Have you read Carla Buckley? Any of her three domestic suspense novels would be a great choice, but I am partial to The Things that Keep Us here (the first) and The Deepest Secret (the latest).

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

You are the second person in two days to recommend Carla Buckley to me — I will have to check her out. Thanks!

Muthahun said...

11 books plus editing?! I hope you're taking vitamins for your eyes! Seriously tho, thank you for this. Your reviews are delightful, and I will use them to gird up my literary loins when next I visit the library.

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

Sam, it's amazing how much reading you can do when you (mostly) give up TV! My housemate doesn't watch any television, so we have the most basic cable package, which has completely changed my own viewing habits. It's been good for me.