Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012 Fiction Reads

Unlike my 2012 non-fiction reading some of the novels I read were actually published in 2012.  Not all of my fiction choices are historically-based but the genre appeals to me which is why my favorites tend in that direction.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen L. Carter, (2012)

A counterfactual tale of political intrigue well told.  Abraham Lincoln survives the assassination attempt only face impeachment two years later.  The narrative centers on Lincoln’s defense team including the story of an unlikely but believable strong, female African-American law intern engaging the white oligarchy.  Carter recreates 19th century Washington—its sights and its feels—as well as the parry and thrust of the impeachment proceedings.  Mostly fast paced, sometimes burdened by detail and procedure, the story is clever and engaging.

HHhH, Laurent Binet, (2009, translation 2012) 

“Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”—HHhH for short in German—recounts the life and assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, number 2 in the SS and known variously as “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich”, “The Beast” and “Butcher of Prague”.  HHhH is a tense action story that builds toward the climax the reader knows will come.  At the same time, it is a reflection on the art of writing.  HHhH is delivered in short bursts—257 sections, some only a sentence or two, few span more than a page—the pacing moves all three stories, Heydrich, the assassins and the writer, to their inevitable intersection.

Enchantments, Kathryn Harrison (2012)

Grigory Rasputin’s 18 year-old daughter, Masha, becomes the companion of Tsarevitch Alexi after her father is murdered in the final days of the Romanov autocracy.  Masha is a child who grows up quickly and gives a good account of life in the Tsar’s household after he is forced to abdicate and then held prisoner at Tsarskoye Selo in the year before the Bolsheviks killed the entire family.  Masha escapes through a marriage arranged by her father—a loveless affair that had the benefit of enabling her escape to France.  Her final escape is to the circus where her Siberian experience riding horses earns her a spot in a performing troupe that brings her to the US where she also stars as a wild animal trainer until she is mauled by a bear in Peru, Indiana in 1935.

The Sojourn, Andrew Krivak (2011)

An infant tossed from a Colorado railroad trestle by a mother and older child trapped in the path of an oncoming locomotive in the opening scene grabs the reader’s attention right off and Krivak’s sustained narrative holds it.  The tossed infant is rescued to become Jozef Vinich whose father returns to his native Austria-Hungary in the decade before World War I.  Jozef leans to learn the hard life of a shepherd and acquires survival skills that will see him through the war that engulfs his home in his 15th year.  Krivak evokes all of the skill, horror and sheer chance that is the soldier’s life.  Most of all, Krivak honors the endurance of the combat soldier.  The Sojourn is well and beautifully written with a sense of place that gives the story a truthful depth.

My New American Life, Francine Prose (2011)

Illegal Albanian immigrant to the US, 26 year-old Lula, lives in the in the New Jersey suburbs as somewhat of a nanny in an estranged family.  Her well-meaning, well-off liberal employer has an old friend who is the dean of immigration lawyers in New York who has all but secured legal residency for Lula.  The household is strange.  Sullen teenager, Zeke, and his ascetic father, both abandoned by mother/wife Ginger are as strange to Albanian Lula as she is to them.  Along the way, the reader meets her Albanian “cousins”, the lawyer Don, his associate and enough incidental characters to move the plot along smoothly.  Francine prose weaves a good story, tells it well, and is fun to read.



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