The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
This long novel is one of the most rewarding and satisfying I’ve read in a while. It’s a first-person bildungsroman about loneliness, addiction, PTSD, the love of beautiful objects, and the far-reaching consequences of actions good and bad. The story begins with 13-year-old Theo losing his mother in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, he befriends a dying man and steals a priceless painting. Motherless, he lives with the rich family of a friend, then with his gambling father in Las Vegas, where he meets a charming drug-addicted Ukranian teenager named Boris, one of the most hilarious, lively, and delightful characters I’ve come across in a while. I’d compare Boris to Alex Perchov from Everything Is Illuminated, because of his adorable way of talking, and because of the way both characters are sweetly innocent, yet also over-experienced for their age. Years later, Theo ends up back in New York, dishonestly managing a struggling antiques business, when his art theft, and Boris, catch up with him. The conclusion surprised me with how happy it was, and then it doused that happiness with a profound, layered philosophical meditation that I’m still pondering. As great as the ending is, getting there is its own pleasure. The story is absolutely engrossing. One of the most remarkable aspects of the book may be the consistency in the quality of the prose over 770 pages. There is at least one sentence on every one of those pages that just sparkles, and often several.
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
This is a really, really long book. I picked it up because I liked Middlemarch, and I think most people who liked Middlemarch would like it too. The beginning was a little hard to get into, as a long flashback confused me initially about the order of events. But once I got to know Gwendolyn, especially the cheeky, haughty thing she is in the beginning of the book’s chronology, I was hooked. I’m still not sure what to think of the education she receives in the book. In a way she’s broken down, and there’s surely an argument to be made that she loses the thing that attracted me to her–the fact that she had a mind of her own. According to the book’s strict morality, she is improved, and she and her family are materially more secure, but her spark seems to be gone, and she’s kind of submitted to male authority, even if it’s just Daniel gently speaking as her conscience.
The one part of the book that I found boring and sentimental and annoying was the character of perfect, meek Mirah, her saintly brother, and the Jewish community in general. I’m sure it’s very progressive for the time to portray Jewish characters in a positive way, but I found them sentimentalized, idealized, and unrealistic. But considering the ending, I can see why that material kind of has to be in there, and sentiment is kind of a general hazard of lots of books of this time period.
There’s also an extended gambling metaphor, lots of business with jewelry, paintings, and singing, and a long-lost mother resurfacing near the end (she might have been the most fascinating character in the whole book). This is one story that might actually be improved by adaptation to screen, assuming it’s a lengthy, faithful adaptation like the ones the BBC usually does. I’m going to try to find it and watch it. I love costume dramas.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This book needs just about every single kind of trigger warning that exists: abuse, sexual abuse, rape, child trafficking, domestic violence, sexual humiliation, self-harm, eating disorders, suicide. The violence is unending and detailed, so physically graphic and psychologically damaging that at times it seemed almost fetishized.
The beginning of the book didn’t grab my interest immediately. It seemed like a bunch of whiny bohemian men, and I wasn’t looking forward to hundreds of pages of that. I wasn’t hooked until almost 100 pages in, when the narrative turned to Jude, the main character, and his past. Jude is the one character who experiences all of those forms of violence, most of them in childhood. But through luck, the help of friends, and deep, deep repression, he goes on to lead a remarkable, even a charmed life: he becomes a lawyer in New York surrounded by successful artists and actors, traveling widely. However, he is deeply scarred by his trauma and the painful chronic medical conditions it has caused. His pathological need for privacy and refusal to accept help and to talk about his past are understandable, but frustrating. The most disturbing part of it is probably the way it gets inside his severely traumatized mind and shows the effect on his self-image. His self-hating ruminations are painful to read.
The heart of the book, though, seemed to be the friendships that make Jude’s difficult life worthwhile, the deep gratitude he feels for simple pleasures despite his past. It will be hard to forget because of the graphic violence, but also because of that touching, quiet humility and surprising optimism. The ending is not really happy, but I think it is realistic.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke
This doorstopper fantasy is one of the most fun books I’ve read in a while. It tells of two men’s quest to “bring magic back to England” in the early 1800s. Mr. Norrell, a retiring, bookish magician wants to bring the practice of magic to prominence and respectability, but he has to make a bargain with a fairy to cement a relationship with a member of Parliament, securing his influence. The havoc the fairy wreaks in the lives of that MP’s wife and servant, stealing their health and sleep, forms a major subplot. Every time the poor victims try to tell anyone of their plight, they speak nonsense or tell a fairy story.
Jonathan Strange, a very Romantic figure, becomes Norrell’s apprentice. They use magic to help the English generals and admirals in the Napoleonic Wars, conjuring storms, building roads, and even raising the dead. Strange and Norell eventually disagree, causing a rift in the new magical community. Norrell wants to keep all magic under his personal control, especially the books of magic, while Strange wants to explore the dangerous roads into fairyland. Long, impressively detailed footnotes fill in encyclopedic details, making the novel feel like a history book, but it’s a history in which fairy tales are considered primary documents. The creepy fairy world and its history are a huge highlight. Clarke has created an alternative history in which northern England was ruled for centuries by a fairy king named John Uskglass, and in which magic, not Nelson and Wellington, beat Napoleon. The writing approximates English novels of that period, with the wit typical of Austen and Dickens. I thought it was hilarious, fearful, and wondrous.
Fragments by Dan Wells
This YA dystopia is a sequel to Partials, which I remember liking when I read it a long time ago. However, it seems to be a pattern I’m noticing lately that I don’t like the second book in a series as much as the first. Maybe my tastes are changing, maybe series are harder to continue than to begin.
This book has a lot of action. Kira is trying to uncover the conspiracy that created the Partials (genetically engineered soldiers) and the disease RM that wiped out most of the population. She teams up with two Partials and travels mostly on foot from Long Island to Colorado, through a toxic wasteland. The challenge before our heroes is so huge as to seem impossible, but somehow they make it through, of course. It strains credulity. The emphasis on action and the lack of depth makes me wonder if this series would have been better as a movie or maybe a TV series. The descriptions of ruined cities and poisoned landscapes would certainly be visually striking on a screen. The book is really long, and probably didn’t have to be. Several of the obstacles encountered by Kira and her friends could have been removed, shortening the book without losing much gravitas.
The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness
This sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go picks up right after that book’s cliffhanger ending, as both Todd and wounded Viola are captured by the villain, the Mayor. Narration alternates between Todd and Viola, who are separated for most of the story. Todd reluctantly joins the Mayor’s inquisition, while Viola gets taken in by a mostly-female resistance group, whose leader may be just as bad as the Mayor, in her own way. The most interesting thing about the story might be the way it shows how good people can be convinced to become complicit in evil, especially when the pressure is on and a skilled manipulator pulls the right psychological strings. Gender did not seem as prominent an issue in this book as in the first. Instead, the focus was on slavery and colonization, as Todd served as a foreman forcing the alien Spackle to work, and on terrorism, as the Answer bombed strategic sites. The last book in the trilogy is bound to be just as exciting, as war is brewing and a new power enters the arena–the colonists from Viola’s ship.
Acacia by David Anthony Durham
I think I first heard about this series on a listcicle with a name like “Books to read while you’re waiting for the next Game of Thrones novel” and that’s totally appropriate. The comparison is perfect: Acacia tells the story of the ruling family of a land full of hidden magic as they fall to a rebellion, go into hiding, and begin their own counter-rebellion. Some major issues here are colonization and slavery. The Acacian empire is based on trade with a mysterious “league” that exchanges drugs for children, and the rebels who overthrow them are a people who had been subjugated and treated unfairly, but who continue the trade system. The narrative switches among many characters’ perspectives, on all sides of the war. As in Game of Thrones, no character is safe, no matter how central or virtuous, and complex moral questions arise as the “good guys” get morally tainted. I’d love to see this series made into an HBO series as well. It’s imaginative, engrossing, and super dramatic, with high fantasy language and lots of violent battles and fight scenes.