Books We Loved, Jan. 2020
Updated: Mar 14, 2020
And let’s not forget our own C. P. Lesley’s Song of the Shaman, released January 14, 2020. Find out more about the second in her Songs of Steppe & Forest series by clicking on her title.
T. C. Boyle, Outside Looking In (Ecco, 2019)
T. C. Boyle frequently writes novels based on real people, often visionaries, who feel driven to attempt to reshape the world. In The Terranauts, for instance, he delivered a fictionalized version of the Biosphere, the multi-biome, contained prototype built by highly ambitious scientists in the Arizona desert in the early 1990s to “house” (impound?) eight people for a period of two years in order to access their survival skills in case Earth becomes uninhabitable. If you’re thinking “close quarters” may have been an issue—in both the real event and in Boyle’s book—you’re right. Close quarters seems to be one of Boyle’s favorite themes.
In his newest novel, Outside Looking In, Boyle shines his literary light on Timothy Leary, the man who introduced the world to LSD in the 1960s. We come to know Boyle’s fictionalized Leary through one of the students he is mentoring at Harvard, a young doctoral candidate by the name of Fitz Loney. When Leary begins experimenting with various doses of LSD on weekends, he invites Fitz and other students to participate. Fitz is reluctant, but eventually he joins in, and after a couple of “bad trips” he gets the hang of it and begins to relax and enjoy, as does his wife Joanie. As this is a scientific venture, meant to better understand mind expansion and its potential for real-world benefits, everything is documented. But over time the “getting high and having fun” aspect of taking LSD more and more regularly in ever increasing dosages supersedes the best scientific intentions, and as a result, Leary gets thrown out of Harvard. His core group—his students and their spouses and children—moves en masse into a 64-room mansion, donated to Leary by a friend of a friend, in Millbrook, NY, where they plan to experiment with living a highly communal, free-spirited lifestyle in which everything is shared: everything! Predictably, this is the point where things begin to really fall apart.
Boyle’s writing style, somber in this particular book, works perfectly to showcase the flamboyance he describes for us. Think of it: these are people hoping to push the limits of their minds to the point where they can see God. What cause could be nobler? But in their effort to get there, their physical needs and the commitments they made along the way begin to feel mundane, which creates a whole other category of problems. Boyle’s newest novel is insightful, surprisingly tense, and highly entertaining.—JS
Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered (HarperCollins, 2018)
If you can bear to read more about America in crisis mode, it helps. Unsheltered is set in today’s socio-financial flux as America slouches toward the unknown. Juxtaposed is the nineteenth-century struggle over Darwinism as played out in Vineland, NJ—the home of the real Mary Treat, an amateur naturalist who recorded fascinating discoveries in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
Deft, lyrical, funny, and overlaid with scientific objectivity, the plight of a middle-aged couple—Iano, an untenured poli-sci prof, and Willa, a downsized magazine writer—worsens as they inhabit a picturesque but crumbling nineteenth-century Victorian. Their Harvard-educated, startup-guy son and their strident leftie daughter argue endlessly. In the mix are a Trump-supporter father-in-law, a communally reared newborn, and a Latino neighborhood of broken families united in survival. In the nineteenth-century parallel, a science teacher and lady naturalist stave off the anti-evolutionists. The strife, anger, and resolution is reported by Willa, the mother—shown like many mothers as holding together, repairing, negotiating, learning. I would like Willa more if she stopped her son from bullying the daughter or if she had compassion for her dying father-in-law. So she is an imperfect mother, eyes closed to more than late twentieth-century values, yet a sympathetic voice.
The characters are relatable, their conversations real, but as stand-ins for a slew of progressive, liberal viewpoints the narrative conflicts can seem intellectual, despite murder, suicide, and miscarriage. By the end, the progressive leftie is the voice of reason, and we realize that unresolved conflict is the true nature of our country—an imperfect novel but a comforting point.—AA
Priya Sharma, Ormeshadow (Tor Books, 2019)
A slim volume you can swallow in one melancholy winter afternoon, best with sips of a mellow amber whisky with undertones of peat, Ormeshadow is more about human beasts than the actual dragon that slumbers under the earth. The fraternal archetypes—the civilized and the wild brother—are seen through the eyes of a bewildered child, Gideon, who becomes a man during the course of the story.
The two brothers in question are Gideon’s father and uncle. Gideon’s father, John, is a scholar, happy with books but also bound to the land (and what lies under it). Uncle Thomas, first described in a sentence that can be read several ways, is a dark man. When Gideon’s father, John, is forced to bring his family back to the farm where he and Thomas grew up, familial competition raises its ugly head. From a lone mysterious carved chair to John’s beautiful wife, everything seems to be contested ground. John often yields to both his demanding wife and his volatile brother, Thomas. It seems that Gideon, who has inherited John’s gentle nature, is fated to be an underdog as well.
But Gideon’s kindness and gentleness have won him protection among forces more powerful than men.—GM
Charles Todd, A Test of Wills (William Morrow, 2009)
I discovered Ian Rutledge relatively late in his career, with The Black Ascot—already no. 21 in his series. I loved it, and I kept meaning to go back and read the earlier books. Time got away from me, and I didn’t follow up. But as I was getting ready to dive into Rutledge’s next adventure, A Divided Loyalty—due for release on February 4, 2020—this first book appeared on sale on Bookbub. I grabbed it, and the second book as well. And I’m so glad I did.
The mystery here revolves around the death of a colonel with an illustrious World War I record whom no one in his small English village can imagine having anything in his past that would provoke the kind of murderous rage that would cause an enemy to blow the colonel’s head off his shoulders with a shotgun early one morning. The preferred police suspect is the local Bolshevik, often heard ranting about the need to rid the world of the colonel and every other member of his class, but the Bolshevik has a rock-solid alibi. The villagers focus on a war veteran suffering from shell shock, which in their eyes makes him a coward and therefore capable of any crime. But it’s the possible involvement of a flying ace honored by the king that leads the local police to refer the case to Scotland Yard, where Rutledge’s boss leaps at the chance to assign the case to his least favorite inspector in the hope that this time Rutledge will fall flat on his face.
The mystery is tightly plotted and interesting in its own terms, the characters deeper and more faceted than is common in detective novels, and the writing solid. But it’s Rutledge who grabs the reader and won’t let go. Because he too is a veteran of World War I, and he too suffers from shell shock—manifested through a voice in his head called Hamish who provides a steady stream of warnings, scoffing commentary, and insights in a Scottish accent that never falters. And in this first book we find out not only who Hamish was but why he continues to haunt Rutledge long after the war has ended. It’s a harrowing tale but, alas, very typical of the war that was supposed to end all wars.
Podcast interview with the authors about Ian Rutledge and their other books at New Books in Historical Fiction.—CPL