Novels of family. The year’s best sequel. Intriguing nonfiction from Maine. Here are a dozen of the best books from the past year, for everyone on your gift list who loves to read.
Books, be they unputdownable novels or edifying non-fiction, are just about the greatest gifts we can think of. With so many great titles out there, the catch is knowing which to give to whom. Here are 12 picks among this year’s offerings for discerning Maine women, whether she’s a mystery lover, favors a family drama, prefers non-fiction or wants something with a local angle.
For those who love a good dysfunctional family story (and who doesn’t?), two novels released this year are must-reads/must gifts. The Dutch House by the wonderful Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, State of Wonder) and Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (Fever, The Walking People) transcend the typical tales of family messes. One of the best books of 2019, The Dutch House, is about the bond between a brother and a sister, their peculiar childhood home and the drama it houses and how their lives play out. Ignore Keane’s ungainly title: Ask Again, Yes’ examination of two families, in particular a couple in love since childhood, and the unusual tragedy that binds and alienates them over decades, is extraordinarily rich. Amy and Mary are both all in for Ask Again, Yes. And for a closeup look at the complexities of motherhood (and career), don’t forget Portland’s own Susan Conley’s spare, wise Elsey Come Home, newly out in paperback.
RELATIONSHIPS & DATING
Amy picks Fleishman Is In Trouble by New York Times writer Taffy Brodesser-Aker is a funny, profound and surprising novel about marriage, divorce, dating, parenting and modern-day culture. But mostly marriage, and the truth of “there’s two sides to every story.” Great twists. In the annals of dating and relationship books, Mary was blown away by how Sally Rooney’s Normal People took her back to the days of first love. We’re talking digging out the old love letters and crying levels of engagement.
HARDCORE NEW ENGLAND
For the hardcore New Englander on your list, Amy recommends Bowlaway by the always entertaining Elizabeth McCracken (The Giant’s House, Niagara Falls All Over Again). This novel stars the fordmidable and eccentric Bertha Truitt, the self-proclaimed inventor of candlepin bowling. A corset-free feminist, Truitt changes for better the lives of many women over the decades in her New England town at the turn of the 20th century. Meanwhile Mary can’t stop thinking about every perfect chapter of Olive, Again, Elizabeth Strout’s sequel to the Maine-set, Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge. Please read to the end and then let’s talk about the magic of the last chapter, which brings in earlier Strout characters.. Another don’t miss with local connections is Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book, which turns the story of a family’s ownership of a Penobscot Bay island into an epic of America in the last century.
Need a good mystery to give? Amy loves Whisper Network by Chandler Baker, previously known for her YA novels, is a blistering thriller about four top-notch professional women and a male boss, a longtime sexual harasser who soon may be in charge of the whole company. He ends up dead. Who did it? Find out and don’t be surprised when this novel uncovers some stark truths about women’s relationships in the workplace. Mary’s pick is Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman, a mystery set in 1966, as Maddie Schwartz leaves her husband, takes a lover and investigates the death of another victim, this one a black woman who has been ignored by Maddie’s colleagues at the paper. The combination of Lippman’s insights about the era and the shifting narrators make this a page-turner.
Amy’s recommendation is to put a bow on The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna by Peaks Islander Mira Ptacin (Poor Your Soul) for the woman who believes in ghosts and for the woman who doesn’t. Both will fly through this highly readable history of an enclave of feminist mediums right in our own backyard. Meanwhile Mary says every suffrage-lover on your list should get the new-in-paperback book The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote, by Elaine Weiss, which is allegedly in development to be turned into a television series by Steven Spielberg’s company (with Hillary Clinton executive producing). Set during the last weeks before suffrage was finally ratified in 1920, this book reads like a thriller, even though we all know the outcome. With the upcoming election year, it feels like a good time to be reminded of how women fought for the most basic rights.
Amy Canfield and Mary Pols are the editors of Maine Women Magazine.