Section Two: Fiction Books and Series That I Enjoyed
2023 was an interesting year (for me) in my fiction reading. In addition to continuing some long-running series that I have enjoyed, I discovered a number of new authors and new takes on genres, such as mysteries, that I have read widely. I am going to primarily spend time talking about new authors and new series that aren’t widely known.
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. Six years after his blockbuster, All The Light We Cannot See, Doerr released this sprawling (in a good sense) book that jumps from the last days of Constantinople to modern day Idaho. Because it jumps back and forth over fifteen hundred years, you need to pay attention to this book. But it really rewards the effort. I have enjoyed both of Doerr’s big books. I have a special affinity for this one because I have become an amateur Byzantinist by acting as my daughter’s research assistant as she has worked on her doctorate in Byzantine art.
The Secrets That We Kept by Lara Prescott. This was maybe the most surprising book of the year. When I need something to read, I will often mine the “what’s available now?” lists on Libby, the public library app. This book caught my eye because it told the story of young women working for the CIA in the late 40s as they transitioned from the crazy days of the OSS under Wild Bill Donovan, to the Ivy Leaguers of the later time. It was the early days of the Cold War and the US was looking for ways to destabilize the Soviet regime. They begin to hear about a powerful new book, Doctor Zhivago, that seems to terrify the Soviets. What unfolds is the twin tales of how the book came to be written and smuggled out of Russia and then how we conspired to get it back into the hands of Soviet citizens. Of course there are twists and turns and romances. It’s a compelling read.
If you want a non-fiction thriller about the same period, check out In The Enemy’s House by Howard Blum. It tells the story of how and FBI agent and an Ivy League professor, cracked the cyphers used by the Soviets in the late 40’s and uncovered a massive espionage network.
The Collector by Daniel Silva. This is the twenty-third installment in the Gabriel Allon series. Allon started as an assassin the Wrath of God campaign in retribution for the Munich massacre. He is both a talented artist and a stone-cold killer. What’s great about the series is that Allon and his friends and rivals all evolve throughout the series. In the early books Gabriel is an angry young man who shoots it out with his enemies. Eventually he becomes the head of “The Office”, the Israeli secret service. Now semi-retired and the father of young children, he is more involved in elaborate intrigues than running gun battles.
I have always related to the Simon and Garfunkle song, The Boxer. “In the clearing stands a boxer, a fighter by his trade. He carries a reminder of every glove that laid him down or cut him ’til he cried out…but the fighter still remains”. Gabriel carries all of the physical and emotional scars of his life. He is not a stainless steel automaton. Now he is a boxer at the end of the day.
Arsenic and Adobo by Mia Manansala. OK. Now for something really different. This is the first in a series of four books written by a young Fillipino-American writer from Chicago. They are all set in a small midwestern town and revolve around food, family, the immigrant community and, of course, murders. These fall into the mystery category called cozies–that is a style not a diss. As an added bonus, all of the books include recipes. A little light but very enjoyable.
Summer of the Big Bachi by Naomi Hirahara. I first heard about this author through a list of last year’s best books in the LA Times. Hirahara’s books are also very deeply rooted in an ethnic sub culture, Japanese Americans, but there’s nothing cozy about them.
Her protagonist, Mas Arai, is a gardener who speaks broken English. He is now elderly but, as a boy, he had been brought back to Japan where he lived through the atomic bombing. This is an interesting counter-point to the experience of Paul Tibbet’s in the the book that I had previously recommended. The stories in her five books in this series are well told and highly engaging. She talks about the different experiences of the first generation immigrants versus those of their children and grand-children. She also has a keen sense for the culture of Los Angeles which I still think of as my home town.
The first book by Hirahara that I read was Clark and Division. Set in Chicago in 1944, it’s great as a mystery story but it brings to life the experiences of Japanese Americans, and in most cases Americans of Japanese ancestry, in the relocation camps including Manzanar. I knew a bit about their detention, but this book really brings that sad experience to life. By 1944, the government was allowing the detainees to leave but not return to the west coast–hence Chicago.
The Tenant by Katrine Engberg. I discovered this author when her third book , The Harbor, was the selection for a book club at my local bookstore, Roundabout Books in Bend. I didn’t want to jump into the series in the middle but I immediately went back and started her now four book series at the beginning.
Engberg is a Danish author and lives in Copenhagen. I think it’s fair to say that nordic authors and filmmakers have a very different sensibility than American authors. Nordic books are often darker and the ways in which the characters think and talk are unique. As a result, they are less predictable than most american novels. Although these books fit within the mystery genre, they are works of fiction more than just whodunits,
The Seven Wonders by Steven Saylor. The blinker is on an I am changing lanes into an even more obscure series that I have loved twice. Saylor has written a fifteen book series about Gordianus the Finder, effectively a detective in ancient Rome. I first read this series in paper thirty years ago but returned to it this year. Once again, although these books are mysteries, they actually do a great job of relating Roman history in the first century BC and what daily life was like. I typically cross-check the plot points against history sources and the portrayals are very accurate.
The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz. Brad Berens mentioned this series in his book. It seems that we discovered it independepently and both love it. Horowitz is a prolific writer with many series. I am specifically fond of his Hawthorne and Horowitz series which Brad describes as reminiscent of Holmes and Watson. The books are set in contemporary London and Horowitz regularly breaks the fourth while by including events from his own life and work. There are four books in this series and most are readily available from the library.
Etcetera, Etcetera, Etcetera Yes, I read a lot. I could keep going but I don’t want to overstay my welcome or your attention. I am looking forward to Jacqueline Winspear adding to and potentially wrapping up her fabulous Maisie Dobbs series in 2024. I was disappointed bordering on angry with the latest installment in Preston and Child’s Prendergast series. Although this series has been beautifully written and innovative, this latest book just sorta stopped in the middle. They even acknowledged the oddness of the non-ending. I have “discovered” Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series and really enjoyed–but so have a lot of people. I also have inhaled several series of World War II historical fiction: the Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia Macneal and the Billy Boyle series by James Benn. Both are enjoyable but miss the mark for a full on recommendation.