I live near a college town, and every June the local newspaper sends out a request for lists of the five best books people have read in the last year and the books (up to five) they plan to read during the summer. The lists themselves are a study in sociology: prepared in advance, carefully crafted. Some people insist they spent the year reading James Joyce’s Ulysses with a chaser of War and Peace. (It’s a college town, so maybe they’re telling the truth, but most academics I know—and I know quite a few—keep the heavy stuff for work and read detective novels in their spare time.) Some of the lists proclaim political correctness: every title speaks to a disadvantaged ethnic group or gender. Some focus on authors and titles, with no sense of what made the books special. Others give capsule descriptions that read like mini-reviews. A few go for the obvious: Harry Potter, the Hunger Games. Most don’t.
I’ve never submitted a list, but this year, with a brand-new novel to promote, I decided this was my chance to alert the town to the book’s existence. Still, I didn’t want to go overboard, so I had to make some decisions. First off, I needed real books. I like the mini-review style and don’t like the obvious, so even though I read all three of the Hunger Game series and loved the first two, I left them for others to praise.
Here is my list (F stands for fiction; NF for nonfiction). I’m wondering what yours would be.
Daphne Kalotay, Russian Winter (F)
A Russian ballerina, now elderly and paralyzed and living in New York, decides to sell her world-renowned jewel collection to benefit charity. The sale attracts the attention of a local scholar with a long-time interest in her career, and the story gradually reveals the dancer’s troubled past in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Kalotay juggles present and past with great skill, and her writing is beautiful.
Tasha Alexander, A Crimson Warning (F)
The most recent of a series of Victorian mystery novels featuring Lady Emily Ashton that began with And Only to Deceive. I really enjoyed the first few, but the series began to stutter with Tears of Pearl. Alexander is back on her game here, though: a resentful unknown with inside information paints the town red (literally) in his/her attempts to force enemies to admit their past misdeeds while Lady Emily and her husband work to unmask the miscreant and high society trembles, wondering whose scandal will break next.
Two of the best books I read this year were actually re-reads:
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (F), which I picked up on sale in the Kindle Store during the height of the Santorum campaign. Its dystopian vision of a future in which right-wing fundamentalists strip women of their jobs and economic assets and confine them to the home seemed eerily prescient in the midst of the flap over Rush Limbaugh’s attack on the Georgetown student Sandra Fluke.
Connie Willis, The Doomsday Book (F)
As a specialist in sixteenth-century Russia, I have always loved this novel about a time-traveling historian who, due to a programming mistake, ends up in the middle of the Black Death. Willis’s grasp of the difference between the medieval world and our own is dead-on. A lighter excursion in the same series is her To Say Nothing of the Dog, set in late nineteenth-century (and World War II and sometime in the future) England.
But the book I read most often and which I certainly hope will make some people’s “best” lists next year was my own: C. P. Lesley, The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel (F), published in June 2012 and available now via Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble (e-book). Another group of time-traveling historians, except that this lot don’t go into the real past but instead visit their favorite novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel, by immersing themselves in a computer game. They are graduate students competing to work with the “hot” professor in their field, French revolutionary studies, and their contest not only pits them against one another but causes them to rewrite the plot of the novel. A light-hearted look at a fantasy many book lovers share: to relive the novel they love most.
Planned for Summer
Jason Goodwin, The Janissary Tree (F), a mystery set in 1830s Istanbul
Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (NF)
Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium. An Englishman’s World (NF)—research, but the entertaining kind.
And maybe I’ll manage to finish Anne Perry’s The Sheen on the Silk (F), about Byzantine court intrigue and papal politics a generation after the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204.