Top of the Heap
I consider myself a reader. I wasn’t always that way. I remember as a kid, my dad and my teachers tried to get me to read books all the time. I read what I had to in middle and high school. But truthfully, I’d always rather be outside playing with friends.
I became a reader in college — after all, I majored in English literature. But I think what turned the corner for me was being able to read outside. I remember those bracing fall days and soft spring afternoons, sitting on the stoop of a college building, reading through Hardy and Hemingway, Wordsworth and Yeats, as well as non-fiction writers like Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill.
I’ve been reading a lot ever since, but never more than now.
Before Covid, I used to say I read a book a week. But I really didn’t. I keep a log. Before 2020, I would top out between 45 and 50 a year. But when I was stuck at home with the pandemic, my count went up to about 60 a year. Now that Covid is largely over — or ignored — I am getting out more, but still somehow reading more books. Right now I’m on my 63rd book of the year.
But of course, the other side of the equation is that I’m always looking for good books to read. So if you have any suggestions . . .
Meanwhile, I thought I would be in a position to recommend some books. So here are my Top Ten of the year (with publication dates so you know how old they are). Disclosure: I tend to read mysteries and histories. My wife reads a lot of memoirs, self-help books and pop psychology. So if you want that, you’ll have to ask her.
Here’s my countdown:
10. The Order by Daniel Silva (2020). Archbishop Luigi Donati is summoned to the Vatican. The pope has been found dead. Donati calls friend Gabriel Allon (longtime Silva character), a top Israeli spy vacationing in Venice. They suspect the pope has been murdered by a secret right-wing group, the Order of St. Helena, so it could take over the Catholic church. Several people are killed before Donati confronts the papal conclave, just in time and with remarkable results. It’s a thriller alright, but pretty far-fetched.
9. The Woman in the Library by Sulari Genrill (2022). Australian writer offers a clever mystery focusing on four young Bostonians — Freddie, Cain, Whit and Marigold — who become fast friends when they hear a woman scream in the library. The woman is found dead. A homeless man — friend of Cain’s — is knifed to death. Whit gets stabbed. His mother is attacked. Who’s the culprit? Is it Cain the ex-con? Too obvious. One of the other three? Or Freddie’s neighbor who writes creepy letters? Some might find the novel manipulative, but it’s still a great read.
8. In the Morning I’ll Be Gone by Adrian McGinty (2019). Irish detective Sean Duffy is a Catholic working for the RUC of Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. Duffy is trying to track down IRA terrorist Dermot McCann who’s planning a major strike. But no one will talk … until Duffy finds Mary Fitzpatrick, Dermot’s mother-in-law, who will turn him in if Duffy solves the murder of her daughter. It’s a clever plot that ultimately leads to a shootout in front of Margaret Thatcher’s hotel. The story is well-crafted, and Duffy a sympathetic and believable detective.
7. The Maid by Nita Prose (2022). A mystery narrated by simple hotel maid Molly Gray, who is presumably “on the spectrum.” She finds the body of wealthy businessman, Mr. Black, in his hotel room. But what else did she see? And can you believe it? It’s clever, to be sure, but sometimes reads like a fairy tale.
6. Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr (2011). Book No 8 of 14 in the excellent Bernie Gunther series, loosely based on the real-life assassination of Reinhold Heydrich in May 1942. Heydrich summons Gunther to Prague to flush out a possible assassin. When Heydrich’s adjutant Albert Kuttner is found dead in a locked room, Gunther has to solve the case … or else. Complications arise as Gunther unmasks the murderer and the real point of the investigation is revealed. Nobody does it like the cynical but honest-to-a-fault Bernie Gunther, and nobody writes like Philip Kerr who left us too early in 2018 at age 62.
5. Marco Polo: The Journey that Changed the World by John Man (2014). Retells and analyzes the famous late-1200s trip to China made by Marco Polo, along with father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo. The trio spent over 20 years trekking across Asia, and at the behest of Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) traveled extensively around China. After Marco returned to Venice he was captured in a sea battle against Genoa, and while in prison he dictated his adventures to a friend. He tells some fantastic tales, and according to Man some of them are actually true. Fascinating book opens your eyes to Asian geography and history.
4. A Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner (2015) An updated and shortened (350 pgs. instead of 650 pgs.) version of his original book chronicles the path of reconstruction from 1863 – 1877. There was some progress, he concludes, in the development of black citizenship and changes in worker relationships, but ultimately Reconstruction was a failure because of resistance from the Democrats, factionalism among Republicans, weak cotton markets, the depression of the 1870s, and KKK violence. The book, honestly, is not an easy-to-read narrative like we get from Erik Larson or Candace Millard. It’s more analytic and legalistic. Still, a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in the era.
3. The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian (2022). I’m a Chris Bohjalian fan, so I love his novels. In this latest book it’s 1964 and movie star Katie Batstow is leading a group of Hollywood types on a photo safari in the Serengeti. They’re ambushed by a gang of Russian mercenaries and held captive. There are fistfights, gunfights, animals attacks. Several people die. It’s all told through the different characters, which I found a little awkward, but it’s still a rip-roaring tale of intrigue and adventure.
2. River of the Gods by Candace Millard (2022). One of my favorite history writers takes on the search for the Nile. She does a good job, especially in giving us a taste of the age of exploration in the 19th century. But the material lets her down a little as our hero, rebellious Englishman Richard Burton, is upstaged by second-in-command John Speke who stole the glory by reaching Nyanza, aka Lake Victoria, and connecting to the Nile. Only in the epilogue does Millard tell us what we’ve wondered all along: a British explorer in 2006 traced the actual source to Nyanza’s largest feeder the Kagera River, now considered the most remote headwater of the Nile.
1. Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones (2021) If you think you live in a brutal world now, take a look at the Middle Ages, from the fall of Rome in the 400s to the Black Death of the 1300s, and beyond to the conquering of the new worlds in the 1500s. This is a very readable, accessible account of a thousand years of history (as opposed to some of his other books which focus in great detail on specific eras). I’d recommend to all amateur historians.
Too many to … uh, mention. There’s Crossroads, Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel from 2021. Vermeer’s Hat by Timothy Brook, an interesting look at 17th century history. The Men Who United the States by one of my favorite history writers Simon Winchester. Bewilderment a 2021 “sciencey” novel by Richard Powers, The Current, an interesting Midwestern mystery by Tim Johnston, The Thin Light of Freedom by historian Edward L. Ayers about the end of the Civil War.
One more thing. I asked for Michael Connelly’s new book Desert Star for Christmas. That’ll surely be on my best-of list for 2023!