Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. In the familiar setting of Holt, Colorado, home to all of Kent Haruf’s inimitable fiction, Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit to a neighbor, Louis Waters. Her husband died years ago, as did his wife, and in such a small town they naturally have known of each other for decades; in fact, Addie was quite fond of Louis’s wife. His daughter lives hours away in Colorado Springs, her son even farther away in Grand Junction, and Addie and Louis have long been living alone in houses now empty of family, the nights so terribly lonely, especially with no one to talk with. Rating: 3.0
Death at La Fenice, by Donna Leon. Death at La Fenice is the first novel in Donna Leon’s internationally best-selling Commissario Guido Brunetti series. During intermission at the famed La Fenice opera house in Venice, a notoriously difficult conductor is poisoned, and suspects abound. Brunetti, a native Venetian, sets out to unravel the mystery behind the high-profile murder. To do so, he he calls on his knowledge of Venice, its culture, and its dirty politics. Revenge, corruption, and even Italian cuisine play a role. The novel that started it all, Death at La Fenice is an entrancing mystery, rich in atmosphere. Rating: 3.0
Camino Island, by John Grisham. A gang of thieves stage a daring heist from a secure vault deep below Princeton University’s Firestone Library. Their loot is priceless, but Princeton has insured it for twenty-five million dollars.
Bruce Cable owns a popular bookstore in the sleepy resort town of Santa Rosa on Camino Island in Florida. He makes his real money, though, as a prominent dealer in rare books. Very few people know that he occasionally dabbles in the black market of stolen books and manuscripts.
Mercer Mann is a young novelist with a severe case of writer’s block who has recently been laid off from her teaching position. She is approached by an elegant, mysterious woman working for an even more mysterious company. A generous offer of money convinces Mercer to go undercover and infiltrate Bruce Cable’s circle of literary friends, ideally getting close enough to him to learn his secrets.
But eventually Mercer learns far too much, and there’s trouble in paradise as only John Grisham can deliver it. Rating: 3.0
1984, by George Orwell. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. Rating: 3.5.
Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier. The story’s narrator is a woman whom we meet as the young paid companion to a wealthy lady visiting Monte Carlo. They encounter Maxim de Winter, an older English gentleman said to recovering from a personal tragedy. De Winter and the young woman begin an awkward friendship that quickly leads to a surprise marriage proposal.
Maxim de Winter brings his new bride to his estate of Manderly. The young Mrs. de Winter struggles to find her footing in a household dominated by the sinster housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, and haunted by memories of the first Mrs. de Winter, supposedly drowned in a boating accident. When the body of the first Mrs. de Winter is suddenly discovered, everything the second Mrs. de Winter thinks she knows about her marriage is called into question. The dead hand of the past, and a very live hand in the present, will threaten everything she holds dear. Rating: 4.0
The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.
Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town — and the family — Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home. Rating: 3.5.
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. A Gentleman in Moscow is the utterly entertaining second novel from the author of Rules of Civility. Amor Towles skillfully transports us to The Metropol, the famed Moscow hotel where movie stars and Russian royalty hobnob, where Bolsheviks plot revolutions and intellectuals discuss the merits of contemporary Russian writers, where spies spy, thieves thieve and the danger of twentieth century Russia lurks outside its marbled walls. It’s also where wealthy Count Alexander Rostov lives under house arrest for a poem deemed incendiary by the Bolsheviks, and meets Nina. Nina is a precocious and wide-eyed young girl who holds the keys to the entire hotel, wonders what it means to be a princess, and will irrevocably change his life. Despite being confined to the hallway of the hotel, the Count lives an absorbing, adventure-filled existence, filled with capers, conspiracies and culture. Alexander Rostov is a character for the ages–like Kay Thompson’s Eloise and Wes Anderson’s M. Gustav, he is unflinchingly (and hilariously for readers) devoted to his station, even when forced to wait tables, play hide and seek with a young girl, or confront communism. Towles magnificently conjures the grandeur of the Russian hotel and the vibrancy of the characters that call it home. Rating: 3.5
Half-Broke Horses, A True-Life Story, by Jeannette Walls.
“Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.” So begins the story of Lily Casey Smith, in Jeannette Walls’s magnificent, true-life novel based on her no-nonsense, resourceful, hard working, and spectacularly compelling grandmother. By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town — riding five hundred miles on her pony, all alone, to get to her job. She learned to drive a car (“I loved cars even more than I loved horses. They didn’t need to be fed if they weren’t working, and they didn’t leave big piles of manure all over the place”) and fly a plane, and, with her husband, ran a vast ranch in Arizona. She raised two children, one of whom is Jeannette’s memorable mother, Rosemary Smith Walls, unforgettably portrayed in The Glass Castle.
Lily survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and the most heartbreaking personal tragedy. She bristled at prejudice of all kinds — against women, Native Americans, and anyone else who didn’t fit the mold. Half Broke Horses is Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, as riveting and dramatic as Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa or Beryl Markham’s West with the Night. It will transfix readers everywhere. Rating: 2.75.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Referring to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, H. L. Mencken noted that his discovery of this classic American novel was “the most stupendous event of my whole life”; Ernest Hemingway declared that “all modern American literature stems from this one book,” while T. S. Eliot called Huck “one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction, not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet.”
The novel’s preeminence derives from its wonderfully imaginative re-creation of boyhood adventures along the Mississippi River, its inspired characterization, the author’s remarkable ear for dialogue, and the book’s understated development of serious underlying themes: “natural” man versus “civilized” society, the evils of slavery, the innate value and dignity of human beings, and other topics. Most of all, Huckleberry Finn is a wonderful story, filled with high adventure and unforgettable characters. Rating: