Favorite Reads of 2018

photo: Stanislav Kondratiev

photo: Stanislav Kondratiev

I reviewed 72 books on the Cedar Park Book Blog in in the calendar year 2018, and I hosted two additional reviews by a guest blogger. The 15 selections listed here were standouts for me in a year of exceptionally fine reading. You’ll notice that these books are all fiction and are mostly historical fiction. This year, no biographies or social histories made my list of favorites.  

Bear in mind that I never review horror, science fiction, fantasy, or novels with scenes of excessive violence. I haul eight or ten books home from the library every week and reject most of them by page 50. So here are the best of the best, in alphabetical order by title. Click on the title to go to my full review.  

Freya  Anthony Quinn (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION The friendship of two British women, traced from the end of World War II through the 1960s, with insights into feminism, marriage, and culture. 

Heart of Palm  Laura Lee Smith  (2013)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION A family tale populated with gun-totin’, hard-lovin’, rip-roarin’ Southerners—plus deftly developed story lines.  

Holding Graham Norton (2017)  MYSTERY A village in the west of Ireland, a human skeleton unearthed at a building site, gossip about old love triangles, and a bumbling local police sergeant:  all the ingredients for a classic cozy mystery, but this one goes beyond the genre. 

The Italian Party  Christina Lynch  (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION As effervescent and rosy as the Campari-and-soda drinks that the characters order constantly, but the sunny picture darkens as we learn the many secrets of an American couple living in Siena, Italy, in 1956.  

The Italian Teacher  Tom Rachman  (2018)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION An inquiry into how to live a meaningful life, centering on the fraught relationship between a famous visual artist and one of his sons. 

Little Fires Everywhere  Celeste Ng  (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION A story about adolescents in late-1990s Shaker Heights, Ohio, tackles incendiary issues of upper-middle-class Americans: bigotry, greed, and a general disdain for those who diverge in any way from the norms set by their communities. 

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Manhattan Beach  Jennifer Egan  (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION A noir novel with entangled plot lines, mobsters, and plenty of period detail from 1930s and 1940s New York City, especially the Brooklyn Naval Yard.  

Midwinter Break  Bernard MacLaverty  (2017)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION A masterful study, by an eminent Irish author, of the pleasures and trials of a very long marriage, set in Scotland and the Netherlands. 

The Ninth Hour  Alice McDermott  (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION Wonderfully resonant prose about the pros and cons of being Catholic in early 20th-century Brooklyn, exploring the intersections of morality, religion, and culture.  

Peculiar Ground  Lucy Hughes-Hallett (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION A densely layered novel set on a fictional Oxfordshire estate in 1663, 1961, 1973, and 1989, featuring walls—border walls, the Berlin Wall, walls of inclusion, walls of exclusion, and many others. 

Radio Free Vermont  Bill McKibben (2017)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION A local radio show host stumbles into becoming the leader of a movement for Vermont to secede from the United States in this uproarious fable about Trump’s America. 

The Strays  Emily Bitto  (2014/2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION Set in Australia in the 1930s and then the 1980s, a piercingly moving first-person narrative about loneliness, friendship, the art world, and the choices we make.  

Virgil Wander Leif Enger (2018) CONTEMPORARY FICTION In a dying mining town in far northern Minnesota the title character, aided by an ensemble cast, is recovering from a terrible accident. The prose of this novel is quietly dazzling.

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West  Carys Davies  (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION Preposterous plot, peculiar characters, spare language, in a tale that’s akin to ancient myth, set on the North American continent in about 1815, a time when the lure of the western frontier was irresistible.

The World of Tomorrow  Brendan Mathews  (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION Rollicking action at the fabulous New York World’s Fair, in June of 1939, when the Great Depression has eased and World War II is still unimaginable.

Happy reading in 2019! Keep checking the Cedar Park Book Blog for recommendations!

 

 

FAQs at the One-Year Mark

The Cedar Park Book Blogger Answers Your Questions

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What are your goals in posting on the Cedar Park Book Blog?  I select and then discuss books that I hope my blog-followers will enjoy reading. I also want to draw attention to the activities of Cedar Park Press, which hosts the Cedar Park Book Blog. Plus, I find it helpful to my own future reading choices if I analyze a book once I reach the final page!

What genres do you review?  I review literary fiction, plus some social history and biography. Within literary fiction, I gravitate toward historical fiction and mysteries, but I review quite a few novels set in the present day, including some fiction in the subgenre known (unfortunately, I think) as chick lit. I avoid science fiction, fantasy, horror, thrillers, and graphic novels, so I don’t even crack open a great many of the books being published.

Why do you avoid reading and reviewing certain genres?  I find it amazing that today’s reading public eats up fiction that contains so many gruesome or violent scenes. When this fiction is well written, it can be so realistically scary that it gives me nightmares! Is this public taste for the grisly, the macabre, and the shocking a way for people to feel better about the difficult world we live in? In other words, does reading about a fictional world that is much worse than the actual world make the readers feel better somehow? I prefer books that treat the human predicament more subtly. I also admit that I’m a sucker for happy endings.

What about dystopian fiction?  Dystopian fiction can be part of the landscape of horror, as Jill Lepore wrote in an insightful piece for The New Yorker in 2017. I did venture to review the dystopian novel The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver, though I found it creepy at times. I don’t plan to pick up more books like that one.

Why do you review so many British and American books?  British and American publications are the ones most available to me, but in the blog mix you’ll find a fair number of novels by authors from other countries. In the Archive in the right-hand column, you can click on “Irish Novels,” “Australian Novels,” and “International Novels.” The “International Novels” section includes fiction written in English (like Stay with Me from Nigeria) and fiction translated into English (like Ties from Italy and A Man Called Ove from Sweden).

Do you review only books that were written recently?  I do focus primarily on books that have come out in the past few years. Sometimes, however, I’ll review a classic (like Pat Conroy’s 1986 The Prince of Tides) or a series of books that has continued to the present (like Alexander McCall Smith’s novels about Isabel Dalhousie). I’ve also reached back into the 1990s for reviews of some series of mystery novels that I’ve enjoyed (like Margaret Frazer’s series starring Dame Frevisse).

How do you decide if you’ll review a series of books?  If I find a book in a series that I particularly like, I may binge-read the entire series and then review it as a whole. More often, though, I’ve been following a series for a decade or more, and my review on the Cedar Park Book Blog is triggered by the publication of a new entry in the series. For example, I reviewed the Maisie Dobbs mystery series by Jacqueline Winspear when the latest title, In This Grave Hour, came out in 2017. I found this book the weakest of the series, but I recommended the series as a whole very highly.

Why do I see so many reviews of medieval mysteries on the blog?  This sub-genre is a special interest of mine, partially because of my academic background in medieval studies, so I’ve re-read some of my favorite titles from a decade or so ago and offered recommendations. I’ve also reviewed a good mystery series set in Tudor England, by CJ Sansom.

Within the genres that you review, how do you choose specific books?  I scan the New York Times and my local library’s lists of new books for titles. I read book blurbs, those brief summaries of plot put out by Publishers’ Weekly or Goodreads.com, to help me find suitable reads. I put off reading full reviews of a book until I’ve reviewed the book myself, so that I’m not swayed by the opinions of others. I’m surprised at how many reviews by others are positive. Often (often!) I’ve found a title execrable only to discover that many reviewers at places like the New York Times and the Guardian praised it to the heavens. Ben Yagoda echoed my thoughts in a good article for Slate.com called “The Reviewer’s Fallacy: When Critics Aren’t Critical Enough.” You can rest assured that I’m not receiving kickbacks from publishers or pressure from superiors to praise a book that’s poorly written!

Do you post a review for every book that you read?  I post a review for every book that I finish reading. Every week I haul home from the library six to ten books from my chosen genres. One by one, I stack them into the pile to go back to the library, most rejected after a few pages or a couple of chapters.

What would make you abandon reading a book?  Oh, disgust will do it. For example, I recently started to read Tom Perrotta’s 2017 bestseller, Mrs. Fletcher. Right away, there were sex scenes. I usually like the sex scenes in novels, and I review a lot of fiction with erotic components. But the exploitative sex in Mrs. Fletcher repulsed me so much that I gave up on this book. Scenes of extreme violence work the same way. And I’ll sometimes abandon a novel because the narrative line is murky, as in Jon McGregor's Reservoir 13. Even if a book has great lyricism,  I still want to be carried along by a solid plot, with well-developed characters. I fully understand that there are schools within modern fiction where traditional plotting is disdained. Sorry, friends, but humans have loved plots for thousands of years. I have stories in my life, and I like to relate to the stories in the lives of others.

Why don’t you use a “star” system for rating titles?  I find it deceptive to collapse assessments of plot, characters, descriptions, imagery, historical accuracy, and other aspects of a book into one rating. I addition, I think that star ratings tend to be inflated, that reviewers hedge by granting mediocre books three stars out of five. Instead of this system, I aim for nuanced and candid reviews, to help you decide if you’d want to read the book yourself. If I give a title a full review on the Cedar Park Book Blog, you can be assured that I found the book worth reading. If the book rises into my “favorites” category, I’ll tell you that in my post. If the book is worth reading but I have some caveats, I’ll tell you that, too. For example, check out the caveats in my review of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time.

What are you doing to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Cedar Park Book Blog?  I’m reading more books! And I leave you with a wise sentence from Claudia Roth Pierpont, applicable to both writers and readers: “Words ordered on a page may supply some order for one’s life, may assuage and even redeem tragedy.” (The New Yorker, March 6, 2017)

Cedar Park Press is pleased to announce the publication of Adventures of a Girl Architect by Hazel Harzinger. Click here to purchase this title in digital or paperback format.

Reflections, Part 1

Reflections on Six Months of Blogging

At the six-month mark in the history of this book review blog, I’ve posted reviews of 68 books, and that’s counting as one book each book series that I’ve reviewed, such as the Maisie Dobbs mysteries by Jacqueline Winspear, the Sister Frevisse mysteries by Margaret Frazer, and the 44 Scotland Street novels by Alexander McCall Smith.

photo: Lavender Labyrinth in Shelby, Michigan

photo: Lavender Labyrinth in Shelby, Michigan

As I’ve mentioned in my description of this blog, I don’t post star ratings of books but rather seek a more nuanced approach. If I give a book a full review, I recommend that book to blog readers who have tastes similar to mine, though occasionally with caveats.  In the posts called “Books in Brief” I offer short reviews of books that I found less satisfying for some reason, and I state the reason clearly. It might be that the topic was too melancholy or that the writing was too long winded for my tastes. Some of you in my blog audience may still like these books, so I don’t want to discount them totally.

I reject a great many more books than I review. You’ll never see the titles of the hundreds of books each year that I abandon after a couple of chapters. There are so many excellent writers producing fine prose; why spend time on a mediocre book?

I scan the New York Times and my local library’s postings of “Hot New Fiction” for notices of books that I’d like to take a look at, but I try not to read full reviews of a book until I’ve formed my own opinion. Short summaries of a book help me to determine if it fits my general criteria. I eliminate thrillers, horror novels, science fiction, fantasy, and books with excessive violence. I review recent fiction, with an emphasis on historical novels and mysteries, plus a few social histories and biographies. Literary fiction is my mainstay, though I’ve also ventured into chick lit and young adult romance a few times.

One aspect of my reviews that has surprised me is the number of novels about New York that appear on my blog. (I have an entire category for “New York Novels” that you can click on HERE to read these reviews.) I think that this is partly because a lot of New Yorkers write about their city and its 8.5 million inhabitants and partly because the US publishing industry is centered there. In any case, I love those descriptions of snowflakes falling in Central Park or ships passing the Statue of Liberty or high heels clicking on a sidewalk shadowed by the Empire State Building.

If you’re new to the Cedar Park Blog, be sure to check out the Archive of Book Reviews, located in the right-hand column below Latest Posts. The archive’s categories will help you navigate to the books you like best, whether it’s “Road Trip Novels” or “Social Histories” or “Family Sagas” or “Irish Novels.”

What’s coming up on the Cedar Park Blog? I’ll be continuing to review individual books and book series. In addition, I’m planning some posts called “Faves,” in which I’ll talk about my favorite authors, providing an overview of their works and telling you why I love their writing. Watch for these posts among the Friday regulars. And be sure to follow the Cedar Park Blog on Facebook or set your feed reader to ping you when a new post appears. Thanks for reading the Cedar Park Blog!