Category Archives: Literary fiction

Queen Victoria

Without a time machine, historical inaccuracies about personal lives are hard to prove, and the practice of selecting only the best for posterity sometimes shades perception. Jane Austen’s sister conveniently burned the famous author’s diaries; Jacqueline Kennedy famously engineered the Camelot legacy through Theodore White; biographer Julia Baird notes “Victoria’s daughter Beatrice transcribed her mother’s journals and edited out everything that seemed to reflect poorly on her, then burned the originals.”

Until Julian Fellowes created the  movie “Young Victoria” in 2009, most readers thought of Queen Victoria as the short, heavy, frumpy monarch in black who made infrequent appearances.  Although history notes Victoria had nine children, her romantic inclinations and Albert’s courting of the young queen were usually overwhelmed by her later years.  Berated by the royal family for inserting inaccurate scenes to increase the drama – Prince Albert never really took a bullet for Victoria – Fellowes never blinked as he introduced a new look for Victoria and went on to create Downton Abbey the following year.

9781410495877_p0_v1_s192x300A new Masterpiece Theater series on the Public Broadcasting System promises more of the younger queen, and author Daisy Goodwin – creator and writer of the series – offers a glimpse with her new novel Victoria.  Goodwin begins the book with the sixteen year old hoping her uncle, the king, will live to her eighteenth birthday, so she can rule without a regent, most probably her estranged mother.  She gets her wish, becoming queen soon after she comes of age.

Goodwin elaborates on a few vague historical tidbits to provide drama and interest – embellishing the young queen’s infatuation with her prime minister and capitalizing on her accusation of Lady Flora Hastings as a catalyst in her waning popularity.

Though fictional, Goodwin manages to tear away the historical image of a prudish moralistic matron to reveal Victoria as human after all.  Descriptions of her early insecurities about her appearance, her fiercely independent determination, along with happy moments with her little dog and carefree rides on her horse – all transform an icon into flesh and blood.  Amazingly, knowing Victoria and Albert will eventually marry does not detract from the breathless anticipation as Goodwin concludes the novel with Victoria’s proposal.

Goodwin’s Victoria is an easy digestible history lesson, with added spice.  Like her novels The American Heiress and The Fortune Hunter, Goodwin’s Victoria immerses the reader in the world of the heroine, and, if all the facts are not exactly correct – as Julian Fellowes says, “What does it matter?”

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The Top Fiction Books of 2016

Depending on who creates the list and the readers targeted, the “best fiction” of 2016 varies with preferences and inclination.  In comparing lists, I found a few book names appearing in the New York Times “The 10 Best Books of 2016,” the NPR “Ten Best Books of 2016,” and the American Library Association’s Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence longlist for 2017.  The common denominator seems to be tackling a difficult subject, educating the reader, and provoking serious thought.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, a finalist for many literary awards this year, appeared on all three sources.  I have not read it yet; have you?

With a similar theme, Homegoing by Yaa Ghasi appears only on the NPR list, but is on my list of top favorites I read this year.

The remaining choices from my three major sources include books I have yet to read – some currently in progress.  Best fiction of the year named by  NPR, NYT, and ALA include:

  • North Water by Ian McGuire
  • Swing Time by Zadie Smith
  • Moonglow by Michael Chabon
  • Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
  • Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
  • The Association of Small Bombs by Karen Majahan
  • War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

My list of the top books I read this year:

  1. Homegoing by Yaa Ghasi. Read  my review – here
  2. The Many by Wyl Menmuir did not appear on these lists. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, this short novel has a place on my top fiction for the year. Read my review – here.
  3. What Is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi. On the Washington Post Notable List of Books – “A series of loosely connected, magically tinged tales about personal and social justice. Built around the idea of keys, locks and magic doors…including mythology and fairy tales, and smartphones…”  My review – here
  4. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amore Towles- from Bloomberg: “the story of a Russian count sentenced by the Bolsheviks to house arrest in the Metropole Hotel for writing a poem deemed to be counter-revolutionary. The book explores what it means to find meaning in life when deprived of what you have valued most. The Count has been displaced—from his home, from his possessions, from the life he led—and within the confines of the hotel he adapts and, in a way, thrives. Given the political shocks of 2016, the Count’s story seems more topical than ever.”  Read my review – here

Maybe I’ll find another before December ends.  I could use a good book to get me through my Grinchy days ahead.

What is your nomination for the best book you read in 2016?  images-2








List of 2016 Notable Books

unknownThe New York Times recently updated its list of 100 notable books for 2016 – see the list here.   Scrolling through the fiction, I found a few I’ve read and reviewed as well as some still on my to read list.

Notables I’ve Read (click on the title to read my review):


Notable Books on My Shelf to Read – Have you read them yet?

  • North Water by Ian Macguire
  • Nutshell by Ian McEwan
  • Swing Time by Zadie Smith



100 Years Is A Long Time to Last

December has the centenary anniversary of two of my favorite authors – Shirley Jackson and Penelope Fitzgerald.  Have you read The Lottery or The Blue Flower? If you have not, consider celebrating with a few of these authors’ good stories.

unknown-1A few years back I was so excited to hear a local book club had invited the author of The Lottery to speak; imagine how disappointed I was to discover it was a local author with a fictionalized memoir of buying a winning ticket in the sweepstakes.  Sadly, many in the audience had not read or heard of the famous author of horror and fantasy, Shirley Jackson.  When I read Jackson’s short story The Lottery as a young girl, her eerie Gothic world fascinated me, and I soon went on to read The Haunting of Hill House.  Her practice of writing one thousand words a day – more ambitious than Virginia Woolf’s goal of two hundred fifty – cemented her place in my list of writers to model.  December 14 is her 100th birthday.

unknown-2 Discovering Penelope Fitzgerald’s short novels accidentally opened a quiet escape for me.  I have her Man Booker Prize winning novel, Offshore, on my to-read list, but my two favorites of her writing are The Blue Flower and The Bookshop.  In her obituary for The Guardian, Harriet  Harvey-Wood wrote of her: “Throughout Fitzgerald’s novels, there are certain recurring themes, the most striking of which is the single-minded and blinkered innocent (usually male), whose tunnel vision causes disaster to those around. There is an example in almost every book, the most satisfying perhaps being Fritz von Hardenberg, Novalis in The Blue Flower.”  Perhaps because she found her voice later in life (writing The Blue Flower when she was 78), Fitzgerald represents an author to emulate. December 17 is her 100th birthday.


22trevor-obit-blog427 Today, a friend told me William Trevor died, and I looked for his obituary in the New York Times.  Although his birthday is in May, he deserves recognition.  I discovered Trevor when I read he was a favorite author of the revered British actress Maggie Smith, and I enjoyed his lyrical Irish flavor in The Story of Lucy Gault.  Have you read it?


Who Won?

Although the outcome of the Presidential election in the United States remains in the minds of most Americans, tonight the National Book Award ceremony, hosted by Larry Wilmore, affirmed the power of books. The host wryly noted: “Books may be our only evidence of a civilized society at some point.”

Live streaming the National Book Award today on my iPhone was an easy way to rub elbows with literary luminaries. A few of my favorite authors were at tables eating dinner together; judges included Katherine Paterson (The Bridge to Terabithia) and Karen Joy Fowler (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves).

unknown  I saw an emotional U.S. Congressman John Lewis, civil rights activist and Freedom Rider, win the award for Young People’s Literature for  his graphic novel about the civil rights movement in March: Book Three.  I heard Daniel Borzutzky acceptance when he won the poetry prize for The Performance of Becoming Human – a book published in a New York apartment.

9780385542364_p0_v3_s192x300 The award for fiction was awarded to Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad.  Michiko Kakutani called the book “…a potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of slavery” in a review for the New York Times.  Whitehead is a MacArthur Fellow but also had the dubious honor of being placed on the Oprah Book Club list.

Lynn Neary for National Public Radio offered a succinct assessment of the National Book Award and its influence…

The bitter presidential campaign exposed a fault line in the United States that will not easily be repaired. And while there’s no one simple answer, Lisa Lucas, head of the National Book Foundation, recommends one way to understand the other side: read.

“My life is small” she says, “and I think books are a way to make your life larger…We all need to be reading across the lines we’ve drawn in our lives…a book is a great connector, so the next time you’re looking for something to read, don’t just read the thing that you think is for you … read the thing that’s not.”