Sorry I’ve been away so long. I was busy epically failing at my New Year’s resolution to write more in 2023.
But I still wanted to share a list of some of my favorite books in the last year.
One of my favorites of the year was Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevon. It is about two kids, Sam and Sadie, who bond through their love of video games in the early 1980s. They go on to become the greatest, most sought-after video game developers of all time (think Gates and Jobs as a parallel in terms of technology duos). I have a little trouble summarizing what I liked about this story because I was never into video games. They do not grab me beyond a passing interest in knowing what people are into. But Zevon infuses her love of the art and the engineering that goes into video games and the evolution of them in a way that was enlightening to me. She conveys the escape and comfort gaming provides by allowing players to adopt their own identity. In videoland no one is ugly, weak, or unloved (unless they choose for their character to be). The story spans 30 years and captures not just the way Sam and Sadie change over time, but the world of video games and the actual world too. The title, taken from MacBeth, reminds us that there is always another chance at redemption. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Recommended!
I also loved Pineapple Street by Jenny Jackson. The elderly and outrageously rich, Stockton parents have moved out of their giant brownstone in Brooklyn and “gifted” it to their son, Cord and his new wife, Sasha. But not without strings. The family, including sisters Darley and Georgiana are thrilled to have the house stay in the family, as long as it stays exactly the same as it has always been. This includes Georgiana’s room (which is precisely the way she left it when she went away to college years ago), the heavy and outdated theatrical curtains on the first floor, and the unexplainable nautical theme throughout the décor. While the house is the anchor, each family member has their own story: middle-class Sasha, the new mistress of Pineapple Street, secretly smuggles ancient family artifacts to the trash; Darley hides that her husband has lost his job; and Georgiana has fallen in love with an unavailable man. Each story comes with a bit of a lesson learned for the waspy crew, most often in a humorous and good-natured way. Home is where the heart is, is the theme, with a bit of a twist. Reading it, I was reminded of The Dutch House by Anne Patchett, I pause here for a moment of reverence to Anne, before saying that in comparison, though they are different, I liked Pineapple Street a little better. (But don’t forget to check out Anne’s 2023 offering, Tom Lake, a gentle and wonderful homage to getting through the pandemic by sheltering at home, in a kindred tribute to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.)
If you need more humor in your reading, try Curtis Sittenfeld’s Romantic Comedy. The main character, Sally Mitz, is a writer for The Night Owl in a literary universe parallel to Saturday Night Live. When megastar, Noah Brewster, serves as dual musical guest and host for the show, Sally ignores her crush on him. Not only is he a megastar, but he is also 10 years younger than she. And while dating incredibly glamorous women half their age may happen for her male co-writers, she is not going to fool herself that that happens for women. So, she ignores the butterflies in her stomach and the giddy laughter she feels when Noah comes to her for help with writing skits, advice on delivering lines, and when he seems as though he’s singing right to her in the dress rehearsal. Fast forward to the pandemic, and Sally leaves New York to stay with her stepfather in Arizona. She and Noah start texting and he invites her to California. The rest is for you to find out. Sittenfeld’s characters are combinations of all the hilarious writers, comedians, and actors you know from the SNL. The humor is clever, self-deprecating, timely and on-target. Not just hilarious, but great story telling and writing.
Carrie Soto is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid is a tennis book, but not for fans only. Carrie Soto, a tennis player known as “the Battle-Axe” by her competitors and sports writers alike, is retired from the greatest pro tennis career of all time. When a feisty up and comer ties her record number of wins, Carrie decides to make a come-back and take her on. This is no small task as she has been out of the game for 6 years. She’s old for a tennis player, and the game has changed. She teams up with her long-time coach, AKA her dad and fellow “senior” pro Bowe Huntley, who also happens to be an ex-boyfriend. The title gives a lot of the story away, but not all. Reid writes an enthralling story, the reader feels the intensity of each volley, every point, and every miss. You really get an inside look into the training and mindset of pro athletics. Always learning, always improving… the game/life metaphor is ripe here and it works. Jenkins Reid writes fun popular literature. She also made my 2023 best-of list with Malibu Rising.
In the historical fiction category, I highly recommend Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See. I loved this book. It takes place in China’s Ming Dynasty (the 15th century). The short synopsis is that in the age of arranged marriage and foot-binding of Chinese aristocratic girls, and a life of servitude and slavery for non-aristocrats, Lady Tan Yunxian breaks social, scientific, and economic barriers through her bond with the women in her life: her mother, who died of an infection from foot binding; her grandmother, who taught her the four pillars of medicine; her servant, Poppy; her father’s steadfast concubine, Miss Zhao; her best friend, Meiling, a “big-footed” (unbound-footed) commoner who she met as a girl; and her unapproving mother-in-law, Lady Kuo. Readers follow Yunxian and her circle of women through the prosperity and eventual fall of the Ming dynasty. Each character is a representation of their economic category and their role at the time. This book reminded me of one of my favorites, Mari Sandoz’s Miss Marissa, Doctor of the Gold Trail, and I cannot recommend either of these enough. It’s not only a fascinating story about a long-ago culture, but also about smart, resourceful, capable women. And it is a wonderful chapter book with new adventures, experiences, and friendships in each segment.
If mystery is the scratch for your itch, None of This is True by Lisa Jewell is about podcaster, Alix Summers, who has made a big splash in the digital audio world with her first production (think Sarah Koenig and the popularity of Serial) and looking for her next topic. One night at a restaurant, celebrating her birthday with friends and family, Alix meets Josie Fair in the bathroom. Having noticed the boisterous celebration, Josie tells Alix that it is also her birthday. “Birthday Twins!” Josie declares. Another chance meeting, and discovery of similarities beyond just birthdays, makes Alix begin to think Josie might be an interesting topic for her next podcast series. But it turns out their meetings might not have been so accidental, and Josie might not be who she appears. And then readers…shit gets real. This is a fun page turner.
Also in the mystery department… if familiar hardboiled detective is what you’re craving, Nelson DeMille’s John Corey is back with his trusty Glock, American-made Jeep, irreverence, and smart-ass-sense of humor. True to form, The Maze begins with retired NYPD/ FBI special forces agent John Corey relaxing in a beach house with no more to worry about than maintaining his supply of Budweiser, when a mystery lands right in his lap. He resists getting involved, but well… there’s a beautiful woman involved and the American way to defend. And it wouldn’t be a John Corey novel without friends with questionable loyalty, bad guys and killers, chase scenes, and close calls. But if you know this series, you know no one will outsmart Corey, and he’ll live to see retirement again.
How can I Help You? By Laura Sims– Murderous nurse turned librarian – Thriller!
Yellowface by R.F. Kuang – A send up of the publishing industry plus ghost story. Read this one.
Whatever happened to Ruthy Ramirez – A family believes they might have found their missing sibling, participating on a reality TV series, years after she disappeared. Good storytelling with some commentary on the visibility of girls of color.
The Firm by John Grisham– I’d never read this and was prompted by the news that Grisham is writing a long-awaited sequel. Good intrigue, and having been published in 1991, it was kind of refreshing to read a mystery not bogged down with today’s surveillance-ready technology.
Failure is an Option by H Jon Benjamin – Matt and I listened to this memoir on a road trip, and I nearly drove off the road laughing. This one brings the haha’s.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson– Politician trying to hide that his children spontaneously catch on fire. Would that human combustion in the family was the biggest concern most politicians try to hide. Funny, weird, and everyone learns a little something. A fun read
And in the “maybe, if there’s nothing else to read” department…
The Hero of this Story by Elizabeth McCracken– A woman grieves the death of her mother. This book seemed to be a lot of good starts and ideas jotted in a diary, rather than coming together as a finished novel. You can do better, Liz.
Take What you Need by Idra Novey– Another mother-daughter story. But it didn’t give me what I needed.
And finally, I book-ended 2023 with the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith (AKA JK Rowling). This is my third mention for Strike and the gang in RSWR. The latest installment, The Running Grave, finds Robin Ellicott, Strike’s partner, going deep undercover in a powerful religious organization, the Universal Humanitarian Church, loved and followed by many including some rich and famous, but rumored to be a cult by others. I never read the Harry Potter books. (Fantasy genre isn’t my thing), but fans tell me that series got better with each new installment. The same can be said for these mysteries. Rowling is a good storyteller and a master at creating well-defined characters you feel you know and understand and want more of. I know I do.
Well, Scramblers, it’s not the whole list, but it’s many of the notables from the year. Happy Reading in 2024. I’ll try to check in more often.