The Children’s Crusade, Ann Packer — I’ve had a soft spot for Ann Packer ever since The Dive from Clausen’s Pier pulled me out of a horrendous reading slump a few years ago. The Children’s Crusade is a solid read, consistently interesting with compelling characters. (Maybe the mother could have been a shade less self-centered and the father a shade less selfless, but I’m quibbling.) It wasn’t really a standout read for me–I’m not sure how well I’ll remember it in six months–but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Girl at War, Sara Nović (quote) — Set in what was Yugoslavia, just as the civil war breaks out. I was pleasantly surprised by this one — I had expected it to be a sort of issue-of-the-week novel, but it was much more than that. The writing is elegant, and I found that the protagonist really came to life. Nović resisted the urge to soften some of her main character’s sharp edges, which only made the novel feel more real. Some absolutely devastating scenes, and some beautiful ones.
My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout — Beautiful! The best 2016 book I’ve read so far. It’s a very short novel — only about 200 pages, and many of those pages have only a few lines on them. But every word is well-chosen. I know that a lot of readers disliked the brief chapters and the lightly-sketched incidents, but to me the vignettes gave the novel the effect of a verbal mosaic, and at the end I thought the portrait drawn of Lucy Barton was nearly perfect. It is similar to the way that Strout built the character of Olive Kitteridge in her eponymous novel, except that Olive Kitteridge is made up of short stories rather than paragraphs. (I can see similarities to Rachel Cusk’s Outline as well, which I also love.) Highly, highly recommended if this is your sort of thing.
Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World, Adrienne Mayor — I always find Mayor’s thoughts interesting, but she does have a tendency to overinterpret. For example, because Hercules used fire in his mythical battle with the Hydra, “projectile weapons tipped with toxic or combustible substances must have been known very early in Greek history.” Well, maybe. Or maybe the mythmaker had a vivid imagination? Mayor’s interpretation is plausible, but “must” seems a bit strong to me.
No Fond Return of Love, Barbara Pym — British comfort food. I only wish I’d thought to make myself a pot of tea before I read it. It’s my first Barbara Pym, and I will definitely check out more of her work. I do think that the comparisons to Jane Austen on the back cover of my edition were a bit overblown. What it reminded me of more than anything was early P. D. James, except without the murders. (That is a high compliment. I think P. D. James is hugely underrated as a writer.)
The Royal Experiment: The Private Life of George III, Janice Hadlow — More Brits, these of the royal variety. This is a biography of George III, with special attention to his family life. In other words, it is exactly the kind of thing that I eat up with a spoon. George III was a better father than most of his ancestors, which was a low bar to clear. Interestingly, rather than being a negligent, distracted parent, which one might expect–after all, he was the King of England–he was in many ways the original helicopter parent, so devoted to his daughters that he couldn’t bear for them to marry for decades after they came of age. I found it a fascinating book, if a bit long.
If the River Was Whiskey, T. C. Boyle — I like short stories and I like T. C. Boyle (although I miss the days when he went by T. Coraghessan Boyle, if only because “Coraghessan” is fun to say). But this collection didn’t quite do it for me. I think in his shorter work Boyle has a tendency to be weird and/or clever just for the sake of being weird and/or clever. I rarely feel a connection to his stories the way I did, for example, to San Miguel. He’s always worth reading, but nothing here excited me.