January 2023 Book Marks
January has always been my least favorite month; the long stretch of weeks which feels like a door stop after all that cheer and excitement of December. This holiday season was tinged with the loss of my mother, a rapid descent that stunned us in the calm and quiet that came after. She left us as she had wanted to, in her own home and on her own terms. She was 89, lived a long, full life and knew she was loved.
Scattered around my mother in her final days were novels, books about art history, ancient history and a bible. It was a reminder how she had fostered in all of us a love of books, words and reading.
It’s a pleasure and a gift to be able to share what I read and like with you. I hope that January brings only joyful things and if you are feeling a little blue, please heed the words my mother always used to close out a call or visit..
“Be good to yourself!”
Reef Road by Deborah Goodrich Royce
Keeping in her genre of wonderful noir mysteries that unravel like an old sweater, Royce serves up her best one yet with this thriller based in Palm Beach. The book begins with the discovery of a severed hand on a surfing beach by a cop. A crime writer works in another part of town to solve a mystery and at the same time, a husband and children are reported missing. What’s so brilliant about the story is that when two seemingly unconnected tales finally connect, the story accelerates even faster like a rocket booster. The crime writer’s life has been defined by her mother’s childhood loss of her best friend. Linda is a bubbly mother of two, whose marriage to a controlling husband has grown stale. When his brother comes to stay, things get interesting. Royce has created a compelling tale that crosses a number of genres. This is one to put by your bed.
Ms. Demeanor by Elinor Lipman
Jane Morgan is a successful lawyer until a nosey parker neighbor spots her having sex on her NYC apartment rooftop at night. This unexpected tryst with a younger co-worker causes her to be fired, with the judge sentencing her to 6 months of house arrest. Jane leans into a Tik Tok cooking blog with surprising results and when she meets a fellow white-collar felon in the building, a romance sparks. The police show up at her door one day with questions related to her green card match-making with her dentist, who lives in the building. Mix in her relationship with her twin sister, Jackleen, a dermatologist who is also experiencing love troubles, and you have a fun-filled romp of a read that twists, turns and delights with Lipman’s signature story-telling.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson
This short, taut, beautiful novel is set in the early 70’s in a small town in Ontario, far north of Toronto. A young girl named Clara is dutifully watching Mrs. Orchard’s house and cat while she is in hospital, but she’s also hiding a secret about her run-away sister Rose, who has not been heard of for weeks. When Liam, comes to stay at Mrs. Orchard’s house, Clara discovers the truth that her beloved neighbor is dead. Nursing a failed marriage and a mid-life crisis, Liam is using the house as refuge. What follows is a cut gem of a story told from different perspectives, including that of Mrs. Orchard, at the end of her life and in the hospital, where she will eventually die. It’s her stunning revelation that sews all the pieces together in this gem of a novel that deals with loss, grief, the connection of community and what defines a family.
Small World by Laura Zigman
When her older sister Lydia calls to tell her she is divorced and moving back from LA after almost 30 years, Joyce invites her to stay with her in Cambridge. She herself is divorced and happily settling into a single routine with a job she loves, archiving people’s photos and videos to create memories. Instead of creating a stronger bond, the relationship frays, exacerbated by other factors like the neighbors upstairs. But one thing they don’t discuss, which has been the defining factor of their lives and relationship to one another, is the loss of their seriously disabled sister Eleanor, who died when she was 10 and was the undivided focus of their mother’s attention. When new revelations from the past come to light, will this break them further apart or bring them together? A deft writer, Zigman knits this story together like a beautiful scarf.
The Kudzu Queen by Mimi Herman
Today we know the plant species kudzu as a horribly invasive species, but in the 1930’s and 40’s in the American South, it was seen as a potential savior crop for Southern Agriculture. It’s 1941 in Copper County, North Carolina and James Cullowee, the self-proclaimed “Kudzu King,” comes to Mattie’s town, pedaling a miracle crop that will improve soil, feed cattle and even cure headaches. When a Festival to name the Kudzu Queen is established, 15-year-old Mattie decides to win it. But as everyone soon learns, both the kudzu and the man have a dark and predatory side which Mattie is forced to reckon with as she hatches a plan to bring him down. Class barriers, racial inequity and tragedy all mingle together under the microscope of small-town life and the characters are strong and well-written in this worthy debut novel.
Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso
Waitsfield, Mass used to be a town where the Boston Brahmins lived. By the end of the 20th century, it has become a frigid and unforgiving place, where secrets and violence lurk. Ruthie is descended from Italian and Jewish immigrants and has perpetually been dogged by feelings of inadequacy. As she grows up, she becomes keenly aware of the shame that lies beneath this town. Written in a style that carves its own cadence, the debut novel breaks new ground with a very American portrait of a girl feeling the crosswinds of adolescence, history and class as they meet the remnant wisps of WASP culture.
The Romantic by William Boyd
This sweeping novel moves from County Cork, Ireland, at the end of the 18th century to Zanzibar, Sri Lanka and Pisa as Cashel Ross lives multiple lives in which he experiences joy, loss, years of luck and poverty. He faces a terrible moral choice, experiences a great love, and witnesses every vicissitude of life as a farmer, writer, felon, father, solider and lover, set against the backdrop of the growing turbulence of the 19th century, where fortunes are made and lost.
*These are books I genuinely love and am thrilled to recommend to my friends. These are Bookshop.org affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I get a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. Alternately, if you prefer to rent books at your local library or buy from your local bookstore, I very much support that!