Best Books of 2019

I read slightly more than eighty books last year. Here are the ones I enjoyed the most and recommend to you. (A) are adult books and (MG) are middle grade books, intended for children grades 3-7. Of course, I recommend them to everyone.

Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, and Pardonable Lies, all by Jacqueline Winspear (A)
In 2019, I discovered the Maisie Dobbs historical mystery series. I’ve only read the first three because the waiting list at my library is long. Maisie was raised in poverty in London, but becomes the protegee of famed detective/psychologist Maurice Blanche. She leaves her training to work as a nurse in WWI. The first book begins with her first case after returning from the war. She is broken in ways that become clear little by little. I love the way she solves cases. Part mystery, part history, part psychology, part mysticism, all enjoyment.

Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard (MG)
Robinson lives with her grandfather, who has taught her about cars and baseball and being more like Jackie Robinson (her namesake). Still, spunky Robbie can’t seem to avoid getting into fights at school. With her grandfather’s memory becoming more and more faulty, Robbie must make some difficult decisions. A beautiful story about family and being true to yourself.

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (A)
This is the sequel to Russell’s novel, Sparrow, in which a party of scientists are sent by the Catholic church to a planet with two sentient species. See my review of Sparrow here.
This follow-up is brilliant. Although it could probably be read on its own, I recommend reading them in order. Character development and world building are superb. They are fast-paced, exciting reads, and Russell delivers philosophical questions that force a reader to think deeply.

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen (A)
World War II may be dragging Americans and the world to battle, but for wealthy New Yorkers Madeline, Ellis and Hank, life is one big, drunken party. When Ellis offends his father and gets his money cut off, he drags his wife and friend to Scotland to find the Loch Ness monster, something his father failed at years before. Their time in Scotland is nothing like they expect, and Maddie finds herself left at an isolated inn. What they learn about themselves and each other makes for a riveting read. Plus, it takes place in Scotland, and 2019 was My Year of Loving Scotland.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (A)
When Willa’s magazine goes under and her husband is let go from the university where he’s taught for years, the two middle-aged, did-everything-right people find themselves without anywhere to live. Fortunately, they inherit an aunt’s house– but the roof leaks, the foundation is cracked, they have no money, and then their adult children show up, needing help. In a parallel, historical story, we learn about another family who lived in/near the house: an honest science teacher, his social-climbing family, and a renegade female scientist. Being the same age as Willa, I felt her pain and confusion in so many ways. The historical story, based on actual people and places is fascinating. This book takes a hard look at the reality of America today, but it isn’t hopeless. Parts are funny, and the characters are incredibly interesting.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells (A)
This science fiction novel is told by a relatively inexpensive “murder bot” hired by people and companies for protection, especially when exploring other planets, etc. The bot spends most of its down time watching entertainment channels, so it has an interesting take on human emotions and intelligence. This is a fast-paced thriller that is funny and surprising. I just discovered that there are more to The Murderbot Diaries series and will be downloading them soon!

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier (A)
Chevalier is one of the best historical novelists writing today. She can make things to which you never gave a second thought fascinating and exciting. In this novel, it is canvas embroidery (needlepoint) and bells rung by pulling a cord, as done in Winchester Cathedral. I reviewed this book for the Historical Novels Society. You can read that review here.

Lady of the Seven Suns by Tinney Heath (A)
Giacoma dei Settesoli, the lady of the title, was a noblewoman who lived in Rome in the thirteen century and was a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi. This novel tells her story, as well as shedding light and insight on the lives of her family, St. Francis, Clare of Assisi, thirteenth century Rome, and the delightful (and probably imaginary) servants of Giacoma’s household. The story is rich in detail and life; it is inspirational, educational, and gratifying.

The Overstory by Richard Powers (A)
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began this long novel. The early chapters appeared to be short stories, unrelated, except that each of them featured a tree—in some of the stories the trees were important, in others, barely mentioned. In the middle section, the characters from the stories come together, in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s, when activists sat in trees and peacefully (and some times violently) battled lumber companies to protect forests. The final section shows the characters today. This is a poor summary of an incredible story. I learned SO much about trees and life and the world. The Overstory is an incredibly important book that I wish everyone could read. I realize the length will turn off some—but I hope many of you will give it a chance. It changed my life because it changed how I see the world.

In the Footsteps of Sheep by Debbie Zawinski (A)
A friend gave me this book shortly after I returned from my Scotland vacation. The author decided to take a “journey around Scotland spinning and knitting the fleece of the Scottish sheep breeds in their native haunts.” She kept a diary, took pictures, and gathered fleece from remote areas in Scotland and its islands. In the rain and the cold, Zawinski camps, walks, boats and makes somewhat dangerous decisions to get her fleece. A fun, interesting, educational travel story—with knitting patterns.

The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin (MG)
Caitlin Breen is the new kid in a small school in rural Vermont. On the first day, her classmates are shocked to discover that Paulie Fink is no longer at their school. Caitlin hears many stories about Paulie and eventually the students decide to have a reality-show-type competition to find “The Next Great Paulie Fink,” with Caitlin as judge. During the school year, their teacher explains Plato’s allegory of the cave, and the book makes much of this philosophical conundrum. Brilliantly constructed, this is a winner.

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman (MG)
Viji’s father has always beat her mother, but when he hits Viji, the eleven-year-old girl runs away with Rukku, her older, mentally-challenged sister. They take a bus to the city of Chennai, in India, and find a “home” on a crumbling bridge with two boys, who teach them how to survive while living on the streets. The story is told in the second person, Viji talking to Rukku. An exciting, heart-breaking, important story.

Best Books of 2018

Books are my inspiration and my solace. No matter how busy I am, I make time to read. It is how I relax and stay sane. Below are the best of the books I read this past year. Intended audience key: MG: for middle grade readers (children ages 8-13), A: for adults.

2018 was the year I discovered N.K. Jemisin (A).

I was blown away by her Broken Earth trilogy (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky), which takes place in a fantasy-earth world where magic controls geology–to a certain extent. Creative and brilliant. You can read here what I wrote about that series in the summer. I also enjoyed Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods. In this world, gods and godlings mix regularly with mortals. The politics of the humans and the gods are elaborate and deadly. Incredible world building. The most appealing thing to me about Jemisin is her use of women and people of color as central, complex characters.

The rest of the books are listed in the order in which I read them:

Unless by Carol Shields (A)

Rita Winter is a mostly happy, forty-something successful Canadian writer whose teenage daughter drops out of university in order to sit in silence on an Ontario street with the sign “goodness,” for reasons nobody understands. Shields’ ability to develop characters, imagine relationships and make a reader care about people is amazing.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead and Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran (A)

Claire DeWitt is a private investigator who obsessively follows the advice of a book she found as a teenager. Something mysterious happened to young Claire and that is slowly revealed as background to the actual mysteries. In the first book Claire is hired to discover what happened to a missing district attorney who may or may not have died during Hurricane Katrina. In the second book, Claire investigates the death of her ex-boyfriend in San Francisco. These mystery novels are strange and dark and, for me, entirely engaging. I eagerly await the next installment.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (A)

In 19th century Ireland, a young girl survives for months without eating. Some call it a miracle, but the church needs “proof.” A skeptical nurse is hired to watch over the child and see if she is eating. Soon the nurse realizes that her watchful eyes could be preventing the secret delivery of food which will eventually cause the girl to die. I found this story fascinating on so many levels: the character development, the religious politics, the plight of women in male-dominated societies, and the discovery that there are many actual historical references to young-girl-not-eating “miracles.”

The Knowledge by Martha Grimes (A)

For years I’ve been a fan of Grimes’ Richard Jury mysteries and this one I found especially good. A murder occurs outside an invitation-only elite gallery/bar, and the alleged culprit immediately escapes to Africa, but he is followed by a young girl who is part of an underground-network of pickpockets, cab drivers, and people watchers. There is a lot going on, and I won’t spoil it. If you haven’t read any Richard Jury novels, I’d suggest reading them all, in order, as part of the fun is catching up with the side characters that are Richard’s friends.

Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley (A)

I’ve never met a Kearsley novel that I didn’t whole-heartedly love. This is my new favorite. As usual, there are two parallel stories. A modern day tale of a Canadian archivist who is hired to make a museum of an old Long Island house, allegedly haunted by someone murdered during the French and Indian War. The historical story follows the origin of the ghost story. In the 1700s a family is forced to billet an enemy Canadian solider, and a relationship develops between the soldier and the family’s daughter. But, of course, there is much, much more going on. Kearsley is a master at bringing history to life, at creating complicated and emotional relationships: both romantic and familial, at weaving suspense between past and present, and by being a little bit spooky. A clever and satisfying story.

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson (MG)

Many people think this may win the 2018 Newbery Award, and I won’t be surprised if it does. I’ll admit the story started slow for me, but then I got caught up in it and couldn’t put it down. Candice finds a clue in her grandmother’s house that could lead to finding a large amount of money for the small South Carolina town where she is currently living. Unfortunately, chasing after this fortune ruined her grandmother’s career and reputation. In a parallel story, we follow the historical injustice that happened in that town and created the inheritance. This is an impressive puzzle-mystery that children will really get into, and it also covers important topics like racial injustice, segregation, divorce, bullying and more. That makes it seem heavy, which it isn’t. It’s a fun read with humor and great characters.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (A)

This is a collection of essays written by Ann Patchett for magazines and newspapers, for speeches given at commencements and conferences. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I love Ann Patchett, so I gave this collection a try. Every story rang true for me. Interesting and engaging and wise. The title comes from one essay– not all the writing is about marriage. Many of the essays involve advice to writers or observations about writing, but Patchett covers many other topics as well.

Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (MG)

This children’s novel takes place in the middle ages and follows the adventures of a hunchback boy who is hired to carry a bag for a pilgrim. They have adventures as they travel and the reader comes to realize there is something unusual about the boy (who doesn’t eat and can talk to animals) and the pilgrim (who is more a thief than a religious person). I cared a great deal for Boy and found this story a lot of fun.

Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo (MG)

Kate DiCamillo’s writing always draws me in. There is something about her style I find appealing: it’s simple and yet deeply true, personal and heartfelt. This story follows Louisiana, a character from DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale. Louisiana has been raised by her crazy, odd-ball grandmother who, at the beginning of this book, wakes Louisiana in the middle of the night to “run away,” leaving behind all the girl’s adored pets and new friends. An empty gas tank and a toothache cause them to end up in Richford, Georgia, where Louisiana learns much and finds what she needs.

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (MG)

Amal’s dreams of becoming a teacher are dashed one day when she doesn’t give up her pomegranate to the richest man in her Pakistani village. He calls in her father’s debts and Amal ends up a servant in the Khan’s household. This is an engaging story with an intelligent and strong protagonist. It took turns both expected and surprising. A well-needed story explaining the indentured servitude that occurs to many young women around the world.

Circe by Madeline Miller (A)

Circe is a daughter of Helios, Titan and god of the sun, and the nymph Perse. My knowledge of Greek mythology and Homer’s The Odyssey is rather mediocre. It was great fun to see the cast of characters I knew (the minotaur, Icarus, Jason) and and did not know (Aeetes, Hera, Scylla) pass through Circe’s story. The writing is beautiful and the character and world development perfect. Great fun.

I’d love to hear what your favorite books are of the past year.

Happy New Year!

Author Interview: Martin “M.J.” Lee

martin leeToday I’m welcoming Martin Lee to my series of author interviews. Martin writes historical crime novels under the name M. J. Lee. His books include the Jayne Sinclair Genealogical Mystery series, the Danilov series, and the Pepys series.

Elizabeth: Welcome, Martin–or would you prefer to be called M. J. ?

Martin: Hi Elizabeth, Great to be here. Martin’s fine. Unfortunately, there are about six other Martin Lee’s writing: that’s why I use my initials.

Elizabeth: Your latest mystery, The Somme Legacy features Jayne Sinclair. Can you tell us a bit about this novel and why this series is labeled as “genealogical” mysteries?

Martin: The Somme Legacy is set in the years around the first World War. It’s a follow up to The Irish Inheritance. I was drawn to the story because it was such a dramatic time for people in England; women were demanding the vote, the nation went to war and, caught up in this maelstrom, are two young lovers, David Russell and Rose Clarke. Jayne Sinclair is trying to prove they actually married in order for an ancestor to claim an inheritance. You’ll have to read the book to find out if she succeeds!!

I love genealogy, history and crime stories so these genealogical mysteries are my way of wrapping my three loves all in one book. They are a joy to write, and, I hope, a pleasure to read. At heart, genealogy asks the question ‘Who are we?’ In a more and more dislocated age, where ‘fake news’ abounds, answering that question becomes truly important to our sense of self. And besides, there are some wonderful family stories out there.

Elizabeth: I assume your Pepys series features Samuel Pepys, seventeenth century English diarist. Can you tell us about these mysteries?

Martin: I love Samuel Pepys. An auntie gave me the edited diaries when I was 15 and I loved the wit, bonhomie and sheer bravado of the man. I’ve now read the complete diaries three times, so I thought it was about time I brought him to life. He was such a great observer of human nature; he would have made a great detective. If fact, he did organize an investigation into his own wrongful imprisonment in 1688.

Elizabeth: Your third series features Inspector Danilov of Shanghai; tell us more about the detective and the setting.

Martin: Talking about this, I’m beginning to think I write too many series!!! Danilov came to me when I was working in Shanghai. One night, I was walking through the art-deco area behind the Bund. The area went quiet, and I suddenly imagined I was back in the middle of 1930s, with jazz pouring out of clubs, flappers on the streets and long, streamlined Studebakers prowling. Danilov was born and demanded to be written. The third in the series, The Murder Game, will be published on March 31st.

Elizabeth: You have lived in many places: Shanghai, London, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, and Bangkok. How has this influenced and informed your writing?

Martin: All my novels have a very strong sense of place. The cities are characters themselves. This is just as important to me as plot, voice, structure and all the other elements of the novel.

Elizabeth: How much historical fact is woven into your stories?

Martin: A lot but hopefully it isn’t too obvious. I love research and took a research degree in history. I’m very comfortable working with original documents. For example, my novel, The Irish Inheritance, is set partly in the Easter Rising of 1916. We’re very lucky as there is an extensive archive of interviews with the participants in the Rising at the Irish Archives, the Bureau of Military History, on RTE, the state television station, the Pension service, as well as many memoirs for the period from the likes of Eamonn O’Malley. The Bureau of Military History in Dublin contains over 1200 interviews from people involved in the Easter Rising, transcribed in the 1950s. These are a wonderful trove of original material which I used extensively to ensure the events I described actually took place. Historical accuracy is incredibly important to me, but I’m writing a novel not a work of non-fiction. The imagination comes into play when I see the events through the eyes of my characters, with all their eccentricities and flaws.

Elizabeth: You worked for more than 25 years in advertising before becoming a novelist. How do you feel that background has helped or hindered you as a historical mystery writer?

Martin: Definitely helped. I’m used to working to deadlines and creating under pressure. I never (touch wood) suffer from writer’s block or anything like that. I sit down in front of my PC and the words flow. And working in advertising means I enjoy editing: shaping and refining something to make it better.

Elizabeth: What is your writing process?

Martin: I’m sort of half a plotter and half a pantser. I usually plot the first 30,000 words and then listen to the character and the story, letting them take me where they want to go. If a novel is all plotted, it can feel very formulaic, lacking those twists and turns that keep a reader reading.

Elizabeth: What have you read recently that you feel passionate about?

Martin: I did a lot of research on the suffragettes for The Somme Legacy. And, having a young daughter, I find it amazing that women are still arguing for the same rights and treatment as men 100 years later. How can it take until 2050 before we approach pay parity? How can we have boardrooms dominated by men? How can women still be unequal in this day and age? It defies belief.

Elizabeth: Yes, it defies belief. I could go on and on about that injustice, but instead I’ll stick to our interview. Can you tell us more about yourself?

Martin: I was dragged up in Manchester and both my parents were Irish. Unlike most people I think I was a pretty crap writer at school despite the ministrations of countless good teachers. Writing sort of grew on me as a way of expressing what I love. I went to University and got a degree in History, going on to do a research degree which I never finished. Mrs Thatcher saw fit to cut my grant. For the rest of my life I have been working and traveling. Every seven years, I took a sabbatical from work to do what I loved at that time; traveling, writing, being with friends. I think the worst thing one can do with a life is work. I mean, how many people when they hit 60 wish they had spent more time in the office? Do what you love and love what you do.

Elizabeth: Excellent advice! We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:

Elizabeth: Coffee or tea?

Martin: Both. Coffee in the morning and Chinese tea to keep me going.

Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?

Martin: Mountains, there’s always another to climb in the distance.

Elizabeth: Hiking or shopping?

Martin: Hiking every day of the week. I shop once a year and only if I have to. Bookshops, of course, don’t count as shopping.

Elizabeth: Violin or piano?

Martin: Violin. Anything by Bruch.

Elizabeth: Mystery or fantasy?

Martin: Mystery. Although I am a great Game of Thrones fan.

Elizabeth: Scarlett O’Hara or Jane Eyre?

Martin: Jane Eyre. Scarlett was a spoilt brat…

Elizabeth: Love scene or death scene?

Martin: Death scene. Love scenes are so hard to write convincingly…

Elizabeth: To buy Martin’s M.J. Lee books or to learn more about him and his writing visit these sites:

The official website for M.J. Lee
Facebook
Twitter: @writermjlee
Amazon US
and
Amazon UK
Martin has also just published a novel under his full name, Martin Lee, called The Fall, set in Singapore during World War II. Learn more about The Fall at Endeavour Press.