“Shuggie Bain,” by Douglas Stuart, is one of those novels you can’t put down because you are so invested in the characters and so deeply entrenched in their lives you can’t bear not knowing what they’re up to. It is the story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. It is a difficult place to grow up, with men out of work as the coal mines close and a drug epidemic waiting in the wings. Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, is Shuggie’s guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings. Married to a philandering taxi-driver husband, Agnes keeps her pride by looking good, with her beehive, make-up (“it looked to Shuggie like the paint had been layered over several other faces she had forgotten to take off first”), and pearly-white false teeth. But she is an alcoholic who drains away the lion’s share of each week’s benefits – all the family has to live on – on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and vodka poured into tea mugs. Agnes’ older daughter and son find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, leaving Shuggie to care for her. He is, meanwhile, struggling to somehow become the “normal” boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but he can see. His needs are so great he breaks your heart. In fact, this whole story of addiction, and love, and sex is heartbreaking – but in a good way, if you’re the reader, because you so deeply feel the needs and the pain of this family and so badly want things to turn out well for them in this powerful, haunting novel. “Shuggie Bain” won the Booker Prize and was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award, and in my opinion well deserved them all. I loved this book.
““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““I thought “The Vanishing Half,” by Brit Bennett, was wonderfully insightful and thought-provoking. The light-skinned Vignes sisters will always be identical, but after growing up together in a small southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything, including their racial identities. Many years later, Desiree lives with her black daughter in the same town she once tried to escape. Across the country, Stella secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, although separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain interchanged. What will happen when their own daughters’ story lines intersect? The story weaves through multiple strands and generations, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, dealing with riveting emotional family issues against a background of race, gender, and identity. At one point, seeking out her sister at her workplace, Desiree imagines herself as Stella – not the one she once knew, but Stella as she was now. Her friend tells her, “Just keep it light, breezy. Like a white lady with no worry on her mind.” She felt queasy at how simple it was – “All there was to being white was acting like you were.” This story will stay with you.
Several people mentioned enjoying “The Henna Artist,” by Alka Joshi, and I found it to be an engrossing trip back to rural India in the 1950s. Escaping from an arranged and abusive marriage, 17-year-old Lakshmi makes her way alone from her village to the vibrant pink city of Jaipur, where she becomes the henna artist – and confidante – most in demand by the wealthy women of the upper class. Known for her original designs and sage advice, she is careful to protect the secrets of her past from the jealous gossips who could ruin her reputation and her livelihood. Then one day she is startled by the appearance of her husband, who has tracked her down these many years later with a high-spirited young girl in tow – a sister Lakshmi never knew she had. Suddenly the caution that she has carefully cultivated as protection is threatened. There are so many interesting aspects to this story – the complex artistic and social worlds of those who apply intricate henna designs and those who receive them, the long-reaching social aspects of the Indian caste system, the conflicts that can surface between ambition and family, the vulnerability of a woman alone who struggles to survive, much less thrive. This is a rich and complex novel, filled with the vibrancy and color of India. Don’t miss the bonuses at the back – a Glossary of Terms, the Story of Henna and a recipe for henna paste, a brief survey of the caste system in India, and recipes for Batti Balls and Royal Rabri (see the glossary for what they are).
I wasn’t sure I wanted to write up “The Book of Longings,” by Sue Monk Kidd, as I had mixed feelings about it, but because its premise is so intriguing I decided to include it. In her Author’s Note, Kidd refers to a sign on her desk with a quote by Virginia Woolf that says “Everything is the proper stuff of fiction,” motivating the novelist to imagine what’s possible. In this case she reimagines the story that Jesus was a single, celibate bachelor and imagines the possibility that at some point he had a wife. She notes the Bible is silent on the matter, and that the invisibility and silencing of women were real things, that if mentioned they were often unnamed. Also that in the first-century Jewish world of Galilee, marriage was so utterly normative, it more or less went without saying. So, Kidd imagines a young woman named Ana, raised in a wealthy family with ties to the ruler of Galilee, rebellious and ambitious, with a brilliant mind and a daring spirit. She engages in furtive scholarly pursuits and writes narratives about neglected and silenced women. An accidental encounter with eighteen-year-old Jesus changes everything – they fall in love, marry, and make a home in Nazareth with Jesus, his brothers, and their mother, Mary. Ana’s pent-up longings intensify amid the turbulent resistance to Rome’s occupation of Israel, partially led by her brother, Judas. When Ana commits a brazen act that puts her in peril, she flees to Alexandria, where startling revelations and greater dangers unfold, and she finds refuge in unexpected surroundings. Ana determines her fate during a stunning convergence of events considered among the most impactful in human history. This novel is grounded in meticulous research and written with a reverential approach to Jesus’ life that focuses on his humanity. Perhaps at times too reverential, occasionally leaving me feeling at a distance from the story and its characters rather than absorbed in them. But that’s a minor quibble, as due to Kidd’s extensive research her fascinating story is true to its historical, cultural, political, and religious backdrop and I suspect is unlike anything you’ve ever read.
In the witty and delightful “His Only Wife,” by Peace Adzo Medie, Afi Tekple is a young seamstress in Ghana. She is smart and pretty, and she has been convinced by her mother to marry a man she does not know. Afi knows who he is, of course – Elikem is a wealthy businessman whose mother has chosen Afi in the hopes that she will distract him from his relationship with a woman his family claims is inappropriate. But Afi is unprepared for the shift her life takes when she is moved from her small hometown of Ho to live in Accra, Ghana’s gleaming capital, a place of wealth and sophistication where she has days of nothing to do but cook meals for a man who may or may not show up to eat them. She has agreed to this marriage in order to give her mother the financial security she desperately needs, so she must see it through. Or maybe not? I really liked the spunky Afi – she is witty and smart and so very resourceful as she learns to traverse the minefield of modern life with its taboos and injustices and to create a new life that works for her. You know – actually you hope – Eli will regret not making her “his only wife.”
It’s really difficult for the reader to shake off the eerie atmospheric tension created by Rumaan Alam in “Leave the World Behind.” Amanda and Clay head out to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a vacation: a quiet reprieve from life in New York City, quality time with their teenage son and daughter, and a taste of the good life in the luxurious home they’ve rented for the week. But with a late-night knock on the door, the spell is broken. Ruth and G.H., an older black couple who claim to own the home, have arrived there in a panic. These strangers say that a sudden blackout has swept New York, and – with nowhere else to turn – they’ve come to the country in search of shelter. But with the TV and internet down, and no cell phone service, the facts are unknowable. Should Amanda and Cly trust this intruding couple – and vice versa? What has happened in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, truly a safe place for their families? Are they safe from one another? Events become increasingly sinister, and tension gradually builds as weird events increase – a sudden, loud, unidentifiable noise that cracks glass doors, thousands of deer on the move, flamingos – flamingos? – filling the swimming pool. It’s all deliciously unnerving as they – and we – question everything they – and we – have always taken for granted.
“The Glass Hotel,” by Emily St. John Mandel, is an intriguing story with the ghost of Bernie Madoff hovering over it. Vincent (a woman – from Edna St. Vincent Millay) is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star hotel on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby’s glass wall: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass?” Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for Neptune-Avramidis, reads the words and orders a drink to calm down. Alkaitis, the owner of the hotel and a wealthy investment manager, arrives too late to read the threat, never knowing it was intended for him. He leaves Vincent a hundred-dollar tip along with his business card, and a year later they are living together as husband and wife. In Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients’ accounts. He holds the life savings of an artist named Olivia Collins, the fortunes of a Saudi prince and his extended family, and countless retirement funds, including Leon Prevant’s. The collapse of the financial empire is both swift and devastating, obliterating fortunes and lives, while Vincent walks away into the night. Years later, she steps aboard a Neptune-Avramadis vessel and disappears from the ship between ports of call. We cover a variety of landscapes in this captivating novel: campgrounds for the near-homeless, underground electronica clubs, the business of international shipping, service in luxury hotels, life in a federal prison, and what it’s like to live in the “kingdom of money,” as Vincent came to see it. “What kept her in the kingdom was the previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money, because that’s what money gives you: the freedom to stop thinking about money. If you’ve never been without then you won’t understand the profundity of this, how absolutely this changes your life.” This is a very entertaining novel, and it’s so satisfying to learn along the way that prison awaits the guilty.
I don’t feel I can fully do justice to the brilliant and profound “The Prophets,” by Robert Jones, Jr., whose lyricism has been compared to the prose of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, so I urge you to discover it for yourself. Set during a time of slavery on a Deep South plantation, this novel is about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men, the refuge they find in each other, and the betrayal that threatens their existence. Isaiah was Samuel’s and Samuel was Isaiah’s. In the barn they tended to the animals, and also to each other. But when an older man – a fellow slave – seeks to gain favor by preaching the master’s gospel on the plantation, the enslaved begin to turn on their own. Isaiah and Samuel’s love, which was once so simple, is seen as sinful and a clear danger to the plantation’s harmony. Jones summons the voices of slaver and enslaved alike, from Isaiah and Samuel to the calculating slave master to the long line of women that surrounds them, women who have carried the soul of the plantation on their shoulders. Tensions build and the weight of centuries – of ancestors and future generations to come – culminates in a climactic reckoning. The writing is magnificent. “To survive in this place, you had to want to die. That was the way of the world as remade by toubab (white people), and Samuel’s list of grievances was long: They pushed people into the mud and then called them filthy. They forbade people from accessing any knowledge of the world and then called them simple. They worked people until their empty hands were twisted, bleeding, and could do no more, and then called them lazy. They forced people to eat innards from troughs and then called them uncivilized. They kidnapped babies and shattered families and then called them incapable of love. They raped and lynched and cut up people into parts, and then called the pieces savage. They stepped on people’s throats with all their might and asked why the people couldn’t breathe. And then, when people made an attempt to break the foot, or cut it off one, they screamed “CHAOS!” and claimed that mass murder was the only way to restore order.” This novel is awe-inspiring and devastating.
Mysteries: Along the way I thought John Grisham’s “A Time for Mercy,” might be too long, with too many legal details, but, oh boy, during the trial at the end I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. It’s Clanton, Mississippi, 1990, and attorney Jake Brigance is appointed by the court as attorney for Drew Gamble, a timid sixteen-year-old boy accused of murdering a local deputy. The case seems clear cut and many in town want a swift trial and the death penalty, but Jake digs in and discovers there’s way more to the story, and to save Drew puts his career, his financial security, and the safety of his family on the line. With the courthouse scheming, small-town intrigue, and intriguing plot twists, there are no easy answers, even for the reader. When Harlan Coben ropes you in, he doesn’t let you go until the last page. Windsor Horne Lockwood III – or “Win,” as his few friends call him (and also the title of the book) – is a man of wealth, impeccable taste, and a personal approach to justice that too often lands him on the wrong side of the law. But when the FBI hauls him to a murder scene in an Upper West Side penthouse, Win genuinely has no idea why – until he sees two objects in the apartment: a stolen Vermeer painting and a suitcase bearing the initials WHL3. Turns out the murder victim was also the mastermind behind a notorious act of domestic terrorism decades earlier, and Win has to figure out the connection between the two cases. He’s a terrific uber hero – antihero? – with echoes of Jack Reacher. There are many questions that begin “The House on Vesper Sands,” by Paraic O’Donnell, where high up in a house on a dark snowy night in 1893 London a lone seamstress stands by a window. Why does she jump from the window? Why is a cryptic message stitched into her skin? And how is she connected to a rash of girls who all seem to have disappeared under similar circumstances? We are with a wryly hilarious Inspector Cutter, a Cambridge dropout who becomes his sidekick, and clever young journalist Octavia Hillingdon as they peel back this inventive mystery layer by layer, leading them all, finally, to the secrets that are hidden at the house on Vesper Sands. The darkly comic “Exit,” by Belinda Bauer, is one of the most delightful mysteries I’ve read. Retired and widowed Felix Pink has led a life of routine. He occupies himself volunteering as an Exiteer – someone who sits with terminally ill people as they die by suicide, assisting with logistics and lending moral support but not aiding in any way. Then something goes terribly wrong, and Felix finds himself on the run from the police as he tries to discover whether it was a simple mistake – or murder. This is a charming story with many twists and turns, and an ending you won’t anticipate.
A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it. Samuel Johnson