For The Someday Book

2018: A Year in Books, Fiction

Posted on: January 1, 2019

Hello, long neglected blog! Perhaps some readers are still receiving notifications and will return. Welcome back!

This year has been so full and so busy with good things that I never paused to write about them here. My reflections found expression in sermons and church writing instead. However, as 2019 begins, I am ready to write again–at least about books–so I am starting up my habit of book reviews once more.

I can’t bring myself to skip all the way to the first review of 2019, so this is a bit of a catch-up list from 2018. I did manage to write reviews for the first few months of the year, but then I started a lot of reading and very little writing that continued until now.

A whole subset of this year’s reading involved a trip to Greece and related books, which is what caused me to get tripped up in the first place. Those are listed in their own post.

First, the fiction.

White TeethWhite Teeth by Zadie Smith, Random House, 2000, 448 pp.

I enjoyed White Teeth shortly after it came out, but I wanted to read it again as a Londoner, as it is considered an iconic novel of contemporary London life. I agree! I understood it much more now that I inhabit this diverse city, and enjoyed recognizing familiar places and types of people. Whether you know London or not, though, White Teeth is worth a read.

A God in RuinsLife after LifeLife after Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, Black Swan, 2014 and 2015, 640 and 460 pp.

The two-part Todd family series tells the narrative of life in 20th century Britain, though both novels play with the reader’s ideas about linear time. Life after Life tells the story of Ursula Todd, who keeps being reborn over and over again, seemingly until she gets it right–managing her own longevity and protection for the lives of others. The London Blitz features prominently. A God in Ruins tells the story of Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, the family favorite and an RAF pilot who flew many dangerous missions. While he does not have his sister’s habit of reincarnation, the narrative does move about through Teddy’s past, present and future simultaneously. Good stories, well told.

Retaliation in KindRetaliation in Kind by Kathryn Allen, Vantage Press, 1994, 343 pp.

Kathy is a clergy friend I knew Kentucky, who came to the ministry after retirement from the Marine Corps. When we were saying our goodbyes before I moved, she gave me a gift: “Just a book I wrote back in another life.” (!!??!!) This international spy thriller draws on her days in the Marines and her own imagination about military intelligence to weave a brilliantly entertaining spy story. Though the geopolitics have shifted dramatically in the last 20 years, it is still an entertaining story.

We Are WaterWe Are Water by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, 2013, 562 pp.

This is just the sort of story I have come to expect from Wally Lamb: long, wrenching, emotional, full of human brokenness and depression. The story here involves divorce after a long  heterosexual marriage and a new engagement between the former wife and her new female partner; a history of childhood violence and sexual abuse (trigger warning); the ex-husband seeking a new life, and the adult children in the middle. All of this is set into a backdrop of artists and art dealers, New England now and in the days of segregation, with a few ghosts thrown in for good measure. It was chilling and disturbing, as Lamb always is, though I did not think it was his best.

London by Edward Rutherfurd, Arrow Books, 1997, 1302 pp. London Rutherfurd

I’m still reading my way through all kinds of books that help me learn the stories of my new home. This novel traces families across generations, from Roman times through the Blitz, often skipping a century or more to pick back up generations later. Consequently, it feels like a period collection of short stories with common threads by name and sometimes occupation or location. The book is quite a commitment, but Rutherfurd provides entertaining and interesting stories to imagine happening around town in ages past.

Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Bantam Classic edition, originally published 1847, 315 pp.

Recovering from my final cancer surgery this year, I spent hours every day walking on Hampstead Heath, near our home. Naturally, I was reminded of Heathcliff and Catherine, though the moors they haunted are far to the north of here. I read Wuthering Heights as a teenager and loved it, so I looked forward to the return. I discovered that Victorian dramas capture something of the passion of youth, and my middle-aged self had far less interest in the swooning, all-consuming love and hatred of these characters. Still, it was good to return to a classic.

A Dark NativityA Dark Nativity by George Pitcher, Unbound, 2017, 335 pp.

I stumbled into this book by accident in December 2017, and bought it to read during Advent 2018, thinking by title and plot summary about an aid worker in the Middle East would connect the Christmas story to the plight of modern refugees. Wrong. Instead, it was a spy novel about an aid worker turned Anglican priest, caught up in international intrigue. Entertaining, but not something to draw upon for sermon illustrations.

The RefugeesThe Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Grove Press, 2017, 207 pp.

For someone who doesn’t usually read short stories, I’m noticing that this is the fourth book in 2018 in this genre, though the other four have a frame story to classify them as novels. The Refugees is everything I love about reading fiction: powerful prose, engaging characters, emotional depth, and a glimpse into worlds I would not otherwise know. Each of Nguyen’s stories tells about the life of a Vietnamese refugee adapting to life in California, unpacking a whole world familiar to all immigrants, yet deeply particular and contextual to this group arriving 40 years ago. I felt like I was meeting real people I may have passed on the street. One of the best books I read all year, and especially worth reading as we work to address the needs of migrants in the U.S. and the UK, currently experiencing displacement and harsh treatment by government authorities.

LibrarianThe Librarian by Salley Vickers, Penguin Books, 2018, 385 pp.

I got suckered by the advert. Named by Waterstone’s as Book of the Month in November 2018, it was described as the story of a children’s librarian saving young lives by the power of books in the early 1950s. I couldn’t resist buying it. I don’t regret the purchase or the time reading it, but it wasn’t especially memorable. A love story, a love of books (most of which, because they were published in Britain before 1958, I did not know), and children changed by reading, all in solid prose, with a restrained, subtle style that felt very British. Good book for tucking in on a holiday with a warm blanket.




1 Response to "2018: A Year in Books, Fiction"

100% agree with you about The Librarian. Will now give up as I kept thinking it woukd get better. Ta!

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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