Books We Loved, Mar. 2018
Damian Dibben, Tomorrow (Hanover Square Press, 2018)
In 1688, a devoted hound receives from his master the command to stay at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice until he returns. And the dog does—for 127 years. His master, an alchemist who has discovered the secret of immortality, has applied it not only to himself and his dog but also, as we soon discover, to his main antagonist, with the usual unexpected consequences. But the center of this story is the dog, who narrates the events from a canine perspective that includes a level of insight gained from his long life and many travels but remains hampered by his own inability to understand deception and the complexities of human relationships. He moves back and forth between ordinary canine concerns—food, territory, smells, interactions both positive and negative with other dogs—and his yearning to reunite with the man he loves, which eventually calls him away from St. Mark’s in pursuit of his master’s scent.
Although I never completely accepted the narrator as a dog, mostly because the book’s language is so beautiful and the narrator’s level of perception so uncannily developed compared to what appear to be the rather pedestrian concerns of the dogs I’ve known, I loved the playfulness of the idea. The writing is gorgeous, and the back and forth between the distant and more recent past (the plot ends in 1815) and between the human and animal worlds as the dog slowly unravels the mystery of his master’s long absence pulled me in and kept me reading. I will definitely be watching for Damian Dibben’s next adult novel and may even seek out his YA series, The History Keepers, when I have a chance.—CPL
Katie Kitamura, A Separation (Riverhead Books, 2017)
“Unsettling” is used more than once to describe Katie Kitamura’s novel about marriage, narrated by an unnamed woman, an inductive reasoner of great reserve. She is separated from her husband who has gone missing. In search of him she travels to a remote corner of the Peloponnese, where purportedly he is researching the archaic practices of professional mourners for his new book.
The mountainous terrain is scorched by wildfires and serves as a metaphor of grief for a man the narrator loved who was essentially unknown to her. Not terribly proactive, conscious of her “stranger” status, and a professional translator, she is intent on meaning. In a fascinating section, she intuits from observation a conversation in an unknown language. This is an unforgettable novel, quiet as it is, because of the author’s idiosyncratic take on intimacy and the revelations of an intensely private woman.—AA
Sharon Shinn, Troubled Waters (Ace Books, 2011)
The waters are not too troubled for Zoe Ardelay, a young woman born in a world where everyone has an affinity to one element or the other. For Zoe is the water prime, which means she can command the forces of water. Changeable and powerful like her element, Zoe is not ambitious or politically minded. We could almost say that Zoe drifts herself for part of the novel, making friends wherever she goes. Only when her elevated status is discovered and she’s brought to the royal court does she begin to wield her elemental power to protect others. No wonder, then, that Zoe feels drawn to the king’s adviser, whose job it is to keep peace among the king’s four wives and guard the king’s secrets, thereby protecting the realm from instability.
A fantasy with elements of nineteenth-century Europe, Troubled Waters offers readers romance mixed in with court intrigues.—GM
Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles (Random House, 2012)
The event that drives the backstory in this wonderful novel is scientists’ discovery that Earth has begun turning slightly more slowly on its axis. To Julia, the ten-year-old narrator—and to her family, and to many others in the world at large—this seems, at first, like a minor inconvenience. Scientists go to work right away, trying to discover the source of the problem. In the meantime, world leaders agree to continue to abide by a 24-hour clock schedule, the rising and the setting of the sun be damned. But soon it becomes clear that the planet’s deceleration hasn’t stopped; it is continually lengthening the amount of time between sunrise and sunset, until whole weeks pass in either darkness or light.
Against this horrifying background is a coming-of-age story. Julia, a girl who would ordinarily have “her whole life ahead of her,” is discovering boys and observing changes going on in her body while simultaneously coming to terms with planetary changes and the vast assortment of responses adults can have in reaction to them. Since there are plenty of parallels to real planetary concerns, such as the effects of climate change and the hodgepodge of responses we have seen to that, the book is not only a great read but also an important one.—JS