Another year of wonderful books, requiring some painful choices to create this list. It's noteworthy that of the eleven books, four are Australian, the same number as last year.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. The author, a young man from Washington, DC, has written a complex and emotionally satisfying book set in Chechnya. The story occurs in 2004, but ranges back to the first Chechen war to flesh out the characters. It's a rare author who can use humor to effectively enable you to read the most wrenching tales and keep going.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. The "Groundhog Day" aspect of the storytelling enables the writer to explore many ways events could unfold. Set in England beginning in 1910, the narrative doubles back over events in the main character's life so she is either in a different role or something intervenes to change the outcome. The tone is "Upperclass British Charm," very appealing to me but not everyone.
The Right Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman. It turns out this wonderful book is a prequel to the better-known Mason's Retreat. Both center on an estate in eastern Maryland granted to the original Mr. Mason, a Catholic emigrant who fled England in the 1650s. The Retreat is at times a malevalent being, the site of slaves cruelly sold before the Civil War, a failed crop of tens of thousands of peach trees, a failed dairy that made a break-through in sanitation but didn't keep up, and unspeakable racial repercussions from the slave past. The characters were full-realized and appealing.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. In the course of this novel, the Nigerian characters encounter racism in American and Britain, as well as a hard life in Nigeria. Despite the difficulties they face, they are a successful and appealing lot and their stories are told with a light touch. The book succeeds both in exploring the nuances of racial identity, as well as creating vital and interesting characters whose lives we come to care about.
Am I Black Enough for You by Anita Heiss.I read about this memoir in an Australian literature blog. Perhaps the most telling thing to say about Anita Heiss is that she is hard to describe in a single sentence. Her mother is an Aborigine, her father an Austrian; she completed a Ph.D. and has published books about Aboriginal literature and she writes popular fiction for urban women called by some choc-lit. She is a much-traveled, hard working woman who makes intense friendships and loves having lunch with her many friends. She loves dressing well, thinks about losing weight, and wrote a book called Avoiding Mr. Right.
The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz. The author has written four cookbooks, writes a blog, and his tweets brighten my days. He moved to Paris some years ago and this is the "foibles of the strange foreigners' ways" book. He makes the differences of Parisians funny and is equally funny about his ability to cope with these differences. He has an unassuming, almost boyish tone that I find endlessly endearing. He seems like someone it would be great fun to have a few drinks with, in fact, that's how it felt each time I sat down to read a few chapters in this book.
Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson. This charming book cheered me considerably as I recovered from a nasty cold early in the spring. The main character looks back on her life when she returned to Queensland which she escaped first to Sydney and later to London. She describes the joys of her life in Sydney, remembers her dear friends in London fondly, and realizes she described the husband she left behind in an unfair way just to amuse her friends.
Australia Felix by Henry Handel Richardson, pseudonym. This is the first book of the great trilogy by Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson written from 1917 to 1929. The story is drawn from the lives of her parents and is set in Ballarat, the site of a gold rush in 1851 that drew gold seekers from all over the world in the thousands. I love it for its wonderful language and the characters who come alive with their conflicting idiocyncracies. Looking forward to the next two.
Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt. The effects of three far away wars in the past century on Australians is a thread of this book: Jasper's father never recovered from the trenches of World War I, Jasper was killed at the very end of the Second World War and the boyfriend of Jasper's daughter is affected by Vietnam. Two quintessential Australian characters are Jasper's mother, ever-cheerful despite her considerable troubles and Attie, his sister, who chooses the rough farm life and expresses the joy and beauty of the countryside.
The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler. My favorite for the year, this book is the story of a Jewish family in Canada after World War II. It begins with a wedding of a bride who just arrived from Europe; she is impersonating a woman whose identity card she had stolen after the woman died. The card enabled her to escape the horror that Europe was at the time, but she could not recover from the loss of her own identity. The richly drawn characters make this an appealing book.
The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal The author recounts his family history by tracing the ownership of a collection of netsuke (small Japanese carvings) that was given to him by his great uncle. The collection was originally purchased by Charles Ephrussi, the fellow in the black top hat in Renoir's painting Luncheon of the Boating Party. They left Charles' palace in Paris for a palace on the Ringstrasse in Vienna where they narrowly escaped being taken (as everything else of value was) by the Nazis. This is a wonderful story, well told.