So last week I was chatting with a friend about the best books of this past year and we came up with a few titles in common. I tend to favor historical fiction, she likes contemporary, but we each had a mix of time periods and settings on our “Best of the Year List.” In a minute I’ll share a bit about some of those books, but first (drum roll!) I want to talk about my hands down favorite–the book I fell in love with and the one I have recommended to countless readers.
A DIFFERENT SUN by Elaine Neil Orr is as perfect a novel as I have ever read. The prose is lyrical and engaging, the characters are complex and wholly original, the African setting evoked with images and turns of phrase that left me breathless.
Emma Davis is an earnest and sheltered young woman, the daughter of a wealthy Georgia slave owner who becomes convinced her calling in life is to become a missionary. After a brief courtship she marries Henry Bowman, twenty years her senior and in 1853 follows him to Africa to plant churches among the Yoruba people. But the realities of life in the bush, and of marriage to the moody and unpredictable Henry is hardly as she imagined it. Ms. Orr, who grew up in Nigeria, has crafted a gem of a story that explores slavery and freedom, faith and love in altogether memorable way. I loved every page of this book and it’s by far the best book I read all year.
I also enjoyed Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway, about the Underground Railroad, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder ( though I figured out the plot twist early on–one of the downsides of being a writer who also is a reader) and to a lesser degree, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, Jennifer Chiaverini’s semi-biographical novel about Elizabeth Keckley, who was modiste for Mary Todd Lincoln in the White House. I found the descriptions of dressmaking and the behind the scenes glimpses of Mrs. Keckley’s interaction with the President and Mrs. Lincoln fascinating and at times heartbreaking. But there were long passages of historical background tossed in that seemed straight from a textbook and not as seamlessly integrated into the narrative as I expected from a writer of such stature. Still the book is an achievement and worth reading for fans of historical fiction.
I polled my Facebook friends for their favorites. Here are a few that were mentioned: A Cast of Stones by Patrick Carr, Dear Mr. Knightly by Kathleen Reay, The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, and another story about a modiste–Kate Alcott’s The Dressmaker.
I’ve just finished my first read for 2014–Donna Tartt’s massive novel, The Goldfinch. My pleasure reading is on hold for the next few months as I write INDIGO POINT, a new novel to be published next year, and a novella, also scheduled for publication in 2015.
Here’s to a year of great books.
“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marks