Books We Loved, Sep. 2023
Welcome, fall! Not sure where the summer went, but that seems true of every season. And here, for your September enjoyment, we have three new books we loved. Two deal with pressing questions of the moment—climate change and racial diversity/inclusion—while the third achieves emotional depth within its romantic framework. Even when humorous, they are all compelling reads.
T.C. Boyle, Blue Skies (Liveright, 2023)
Three of the members of the family in Blue Skies’ limelight are Frank, the dad and a doctor; the mom, Ottilie, an earnest woman who hopes cooking with insects will have a positive impact on the planet’s diminishing resources; and Cooper, their son, an entomologist tracking insect populations in coastal California where the three live. Cooper’s environmental advocacy is the main inspiration for his mom’s efforts and his father’s ease in going along with them. On the other side of the country, living in a Florida beach house belonging to her boyfriend, is Cat, Frank and Ottilie’s daughter, who is more or less oblivious to climate crisis—and a lot of other things as well.
The villains in this biting satire are the endless hot, dry, “severe fire-danger” days in the US West and the rising sea levels and constant flooding in the US East. Since the story takes place a few years in the future, some readers may assume it is a cautionary tale about what could happen if we don’t take corrective measures. Others may feel that, with the exception of eating tacos made with cricket flour, this is all happening now, a worldwide tragedy unfolding under our noses. Since the characters in the book—not only the family but the various people they hang out with—cover the spectrum from earnestly concerned and doing something about it to mildly concerned but doing next to nothing about it to prepared to make only personal adaptations (in other words, a good representation of our society generally), one can assume that Boyle is suggesting that we have accepted climate disaster as one more unpleasant characteristic of the times we live in, that no one is really doing enough.
Boyle normalizes climate events in the book by mixing them in with all kinds of other disasters that also result from neglect, bad decisions, and/or stupidity. Cat, for instance, buys a Burmese python from a local snake shop, her thinking being that draping a snake around her neck in selfies will help her become a social media influencer. Cooper’s foible is mostly bad luck; he gets bitten by a tick while searching for butterflies. But many of the events that follow in the wake of this misfortune clearly fall into the “bad decision” category.
The snake purchase and the tick bite are only the tip of the disaster iceberg, however; reading Blue Skies is rather like zip-lining over a river seething with hungry alligators. It doesn’t let you catch your breath. But read it anyway. Only then can you comprehend how Boyle, a master at mirroring our society back to us, can manage to be entirely entertaining even as he is describing doomsday. And he does throw readers a lifeline, halfhearted as it might seem, at the very end.—JS
Alix Christie, The Shining Mountains (High Road Books, 2023)
We probably all remember the theory of Manifest Destiny, a staple of high-school US history classes for generations. The basic idea—that (mostly) white European settlers had not simply a desire but a kind of divine right to spread out across the continent “from sea to shining sea”—is engrained in the national consciousness. The brutal reality that in practice the fulfillment of this “destiny” meant cheating, displacing, and flat out exterminating peoples who had lived on the land for millennia was too often ignored, relegated to footnotes about the Trail of Tears and the movement of Native Americans to reservations, or covered up by heartwarming tales of Sacajawea helping Lewis and Clark.
Alix Christie’s new novel, The Shining Mountains, looks at that history through a different lens. Opening in 1838 and following one family for the next four decades, she explores how the initial contacts—through fur trading, much of it conducted by the Hudson Bay Company based in British Canada—between whites and indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest gave way to a full-scale invasion after the Gold Rush of 1849. What had been a relatively respectful discourse between equals soon deteriorated into hostility, suspicion, racial discrimination, warfare, and murder—all justified by the need to impose “civilization,” a claim that rings hollow at a time when we are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental costs of the lifestyle the settlers embraced.
This is also, however, a novel about love and family, the beauty of the natural world, and the struggle each of us faces in reconciling the gifts and demands of our heritage with our personal needs. Beautifully written and timely, The Shining Mountains will get you thinking, but it will also warm your heart.
You can find out more from my blog interview with the author.—CPL
Beth O’Leary, The No-Show (Berkley, 2022)
Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane are three women who have never met and have nothing in common—except for Joseph Carter, the man who stood each of them up on Valentine’s Day.
In this charming and romantic story, each woman’s individual perspective is deftly woven into a tale of a near-perfect, if mysterious, man and how his secrets turn all of their lives upside-down.
But this is no frothy rom-com. Its humorous moments are balanced by plot threads that feel heavy at times, as we watch the characters struggle with mental health, miscarriage, dementia, and workplace harassment. But instead of weighing down the book, these topics give the characters complexity and dimension, making them wholly realistic and sympathetic. Even Joseph Carter, the cad who manages to break three different hearts in the span of 300+ pages, is hard to hate because, although his behavior seems sketchy on the surface, there’s enough simmering under it to know that there’s much more to him than meets the eye.
Fans of clever love stories with depth and satisfying endings will enjoy The No-Show.—CJH