Here's what I've been reading lately:
Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver
Naomi Novik, author of the Temeraire series, is one of the few fantasy writers I like to read. In 2016, she wrote the acclaimed Uprooted, which I liked a lot. So when I saw she was bringing out another fairy-tale based fantasy novel, I put it straight on my wish list.
As with all of Novik's books, this one is pretty wonderful. Great characters, great writing, a narrative drive that will keep you reading long after you should be in bed. It's (very loosely) based on the folk tale about the girl who can spin straw into gold; but it's really about these people in this culture. Novik is really good at bringing a culture and its people to life.
Here, the main characters are three women and their families; but all of them live at the borders of cultures, and deal with code switching and conflicts between those cultures throughout the novel -- not in a "poor me" kind of way, but in the way that people just do, who live in multiple cultures.
It's a very heteronormative book, which is the only reason I didn't recommend it to my Kid, because otherwise it is totally the kind of book they would like. Except no dragons or werewolves either. But lots of complex politics and complex people and a couple trashbaby prince or two. And so much snow.
Rachel Pearson, No Apparent Distress
I picked this one up browsing the new books at the library. It's non-fiction, written by a young doctor who got into the field because she wanted to help people who needed the most help -- the poorest among us. Pearson starts her story with an account of her own childhood, growing up in trailers and campgrounds while her father did day labor and her mother worked her way through college. She and her brother worked right alongside their parents, building the house they would eventually live in and the houses her father would rent to the working poor.
Her father's dream was for his kids to get to college -- to move into the upper middle class through education. Pearson started out want to be a writer, but her childhood, filled with days in which she had done things, made things, fixed things, led her to want a life in which she did that. So she ended up in medical school, and then working at what she thought would be a charity hospital in Texas.
Except even as she started at that job, the charity aspects of the hospital were vanishing. More and more, medicine in the USA was becoming a for-profit business.
That's what Pearson's book chronicles -- that change in how America does medicine, and what that change means for most of us.
This is a brilliant and very readable book. Pearson also includes her sources, which I like in a writer. If you care about medical care in the USA (and if you live here you should) this book is a must-read.
Charlotte Voiklis, Becoming Madeline
I like Madeline L'Engle a lot as a kid (who didn't?). In my early 20s, I discovered her adult books, and liked them too. I like her a little less these days. (She's a bit too eager to believe the worst of people she disagrees with, and has some of the flaws of a religious writer who hasn't ever examined her faith.) But she's still a sentimental favorite, and when I saw this one at my local library, I picked it up.
Written by her granddaughters and based on her letters and diaries, it's a biography of the early years of L'Engle's life. Don't look for deep insights here. It's a labor of obvious love, and thus very sweet and touching. Very readable too.
Recommended for fans, not scholars.
Joshilyn Jackson, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming
Another one I found on the new book shelf of my local library. I took this one home based on the first few pages, in which the main character wakes up to find a ghost in her bedroom. Not the usual ghost though! This is a new ghost.
Okay, I was sold.
Set in the South, and written by a Southerner, this one is pretty good on the inherent class issues Southern culture is so rife with. (Jackson doesn't touch racism at all, but I guess not every book about the South has to, even a book set in Alabama.) The fucked-up family stuff is really good, too, as is the ghost story.
Also, the main character is an artist, and her art form is quilts, which I really like.
And it's very readable.
There's a child death right at the start, so if that's too much for you, maybe stay away from this one.
Anne Tyler, Clock Dance
I used to like Anne Tyler a lot. Her Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was one of my favorite books for a long time. And she is still very readable -- I read this one all in one sitting, for instance.
It's the story of a woman from the time she is ten until she is in her sixties. We drop into her life at ten year and then 20 year intervals, at the places in her life where she makes choices and so changes the direction of her life's course.
As I said, it's readable. It keeps your attention. But when you're done, you're left with a vague feeling of blandness. Meh, you think. That was okay, but so what?
I can't say what's wrong with these books, because really nothing is wrong exactly. It's just that nothing is really outstanding about them either.
Maybe that's it. They're about average people doing average things, making choices that lead to average lives. There's nothing wrong with that, but there's nothing all that interesting about it either.
On the other hand, that's what Anthony Trollope's books are about, essentially, and I really like his books. I don't know why Tyler's books leave me lukewarm and his fill me with satisfaction. It's a mystery.