I read or listened to fifty works of fiction in 2022; some were excellent, others were page turners, and a few were just ok. Recommendations came from books that I’d noticed were checked out regularly at the library, from coworkers, friends, blogs, and random books that looked appealing. Here are some of the best.
West With Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge. Based on true events, this story is about Old Man and Woodrow Wilson Nickel who drive two giraffes who survived a hurricane, from New York to the San Diego Zoo in 1938. For most of their drive a green Packard with Augusta Lowe, nicknamed Red by Woody, driving. She wanted to print photos in Life Magazine, loved the giraffes, and Woody loved Red. They had many encounters along the way, some advantageous and others threatening. It’s a coming-of-age adventure, and Woody wrote his story to Red’s daughter in the 21st century when he was 108 years old. “…if ever I could claim to have seen the face of God, it was in the colossal faces of the giraffes.”
A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny. Another good inspector Gamache novel about inner demons, regrets, forgiveness, and things that aren’t what they seem to be. The book begins with Fiona’s graduation from engineering school, and we find that she was sexually abused, accused of killing her mother, did time in prison, and Gamache advocated for her and “adopted” her. Her brother, Sam, was not convicted, but Gamache had a bad feeling about him. Jean-Guy felt the reverse – suspicious of Fiona but sympathetic toward Sam. Turns out they were both wrong…and both right.
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. Interesting novel about two game developers, their lives, backgrounds, issues, loves, regrets, and the contrast between the games they make, where they can live again after they “die” and real life, where they must deal with the fallout from their choices. Sam and Sadie, who met in a hospital where Sam was recovering from a serious foot injury, began to play computer games together and eventually created a popular video game. “The redemptive possibilities in play” (from the front cover) intrigued me, for I had never thought about playing video games as redemptive.
The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera. Miss Prim had all of her assumptions and convictions brought into question when she took a job as librarian for “the Man in the Wing Chair,” and they butt heads often. The town in France, San Ireneo de Arnois, is lovely place where intellectual curiosity, art, literature and good food are the usual topics of discussion, and no one is obsessed with money, status, or stuff. The town brought to mind the Kingdom of God. Was that intentional?
The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb. Very good novel about a black musician who loved classical music, had zero encouragement from his family, and took to the violin. A college professor saw him perform in a high school orchestra and offered him a scholarship, which he took. Ray McMillian went to college and played with increasing skill on a violin that his grandmother, the only one who gave him any support, had given him. It was discovered that his violin was a Stradivarius, and suddenly everyone was interested in his violin. The violin was stolen a few months before a major Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, and the search for his violin reveals truth about his relationships, his confidence, and his character. The author says he wrote the book because black musicians don’t get the credit they deserve in classical music.
The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna. A novel about three men, their loves, actions, and motivations in the context of a civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Elias Cole, a professor about to die, Adrian, a psychologist from the UK, and Kai, a native-born doctor, are the three men and they all love the same woman, whose name is Mamakey to Adrian, Nenebah to Kai, and she is Elias’s daughter. Adrian wants to stay in Sierra Leone with Mamakey, Kai wants to go to the US because he knows that Nenebah is having a baby with Adrian, and Elias has his own story to tell about his obsession with Mamakey’s mother and his failure to love both of them well.
The Forgotten Life of Eva Gordon by Linda MacKillop. Eva Gordon is a woman who wanted to go back to her former life in Cape Cod, but her memory isn’t what it used to be, and she now lives with her grandaughter, Breezy. When she learns that Breezy is getting married to Ian and they will both be moving to Ian’s family farm, Try Again Farm, Eva privately resists. But she finds herself at the Try Again Farm where she learns to live with Ian, George, Ian’s uncle, and confronts her regrets. Breezy had a portion of the barn set up for Eva to continue to restore furniture, complete with post-it-notes reminding her of the steps, and Eva didn’t realize that she herself was being restored.
The Last Green Valley by Mark Sullivan. My sister and dad read this novel because we think our ancestors once lived in a Gernam settlement of Ukraine. If this story is typical, I hope they had a better experience. The story is of a German couple, Emil and Adeline Martel, living in Ukraine at the end of WWII. They had to decide whether to escape Ukraine with the Germans or to stay under Stalin’s rule – two lousy options. They went with the Germans, and the first half or so of the book was one disaster after another. They persevered, but Emil gave up on God and felt that he alone needed to be strong enough to protect his family and get them to safety. Adeline had a strong faith, but it was tested when Emil was sent to a prison camp and Adeline continued her westward trek to the green valley of her dreams.
Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale by Ian Morgan Cron. Interesting book about a pastor, Chase Falcon, who started a successful mega church, but then had a public melt-down, ranted in a sermon, was asked to take a leave, and went to Italy to visit his uncle, Kenny, who is a priest. Kenny introduced him to Francis of Assisi, they visited several places of spiritual interest in Italy, and Ian slowly came to know God, not just know about God.
Sugar Birds by Cheryl Grey Bostrom. Aggie, who accidentally started a fire that burned down her house and seriously hurt her parents, feels terribly guilty about it, fears that she will be arrested, and runs away into the woods. She loves birds, nature, and enjoyed being in the midst of the woods, and her father had taught her useful skills for surviving in the wild, so she avoids detection and stays alive. Celia, mad at her father for leaving her with her grandmother and her mother for being so obsessed with her work that she was oblivious to Celia’s needs, flew in from Houston during the search for Aggie. She wanted to escape too. Celia met Aggie’s brother, Burnaby, who is autistic, and good-looking Cabot, who appears to be a good catch, but Celia finds out he is not what he appears to be. Eventually, Celia and Aggie meet and save each other.
Undermoney by Jay Newman. A disturbing novel about how people with a boat load of money are controlling countries, development, and businesses far more than we realize. Having started reading it when the Ukraine war began, its comments on Putin and Russian involvement in our finances and politics seemed categorically plausible. It is evidence of how the love of money truly is the root of all evil. Lord, help us.
Summer Light, and Then Comes the Night by Jon Kalyan Stefansson. This book won the Icelandic literature prize, and I wondered what such a book would be like. It was about life in a small Icelandic town, 400 residents, and each chapter concentrated on a character. It begins with the astronomer, who sold everything he had, learned Latin, bought books, and his one goal seems to be to learn how and why we are living. Other stories involved couples who were reasonably content until one went astray or died, saw their lives go from light to night.
The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal. Edith and Helen were sisters, Edith was a strait-laced woman who did her duty and didn’t complain. Helen desperately wanted to make beer and married an heir to the Blotz beer company – Drink lots of Blotz – and made plenty of Budweiser type beer. She and Edith had a falling out when Helen took Edith’s inheritance to get into the beer making business and they didn’t speak to each other for 50 years. Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, also gets into beer making, becomes rather proficient, gets married, has a baby, and has an accident putting her out of commission for a while. At this point, Edith and a few buddies attempt to make beer for Diana, even though they have never even thought about it before. Turns out they love making beer and feel like they’re doing something useful and enjoyable for once in their lives.
Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos. Charles Marlow is father of an autistic young adult and a daughter who is in college. He is divorced from his go-getter ex-wife who has never given up on their son, Cody. Charles teaches high school English and remembers an experience in fourth grade with a stern teacher who taught the Palmer Penmanship method, which Charles handled well. He was not terribly popular, and he became friends with an autistic boy in his class who loved practicing penmanship with Charles. Their relationship was a foretelling of his future son. It was a sad but hopeful book.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Barry. Jayber says this is a book about heaven. An unlikely hero, Jayber was orphaned at a young age, went to seminary, left seminary, loves to read, is a barber, makes do with a simple life, falls in love with a woman who is married to someone else, and opens up his barber shop in hospitality to the Port William town. It’s an uneventful life, but we see that it’s a life in which he thinks about the good of others before the good of himself.
Have you read any good fiction lately? I’m always looking for recommendations!