Honor Rolls have been a godsend for me, mainly because that sidereal drift of estimation I mentioned last time applies to all kinds of books, and more to fiction than anything else. At some point in the course of 2013, virtually all of these Honor Roll books spent some time on my Best list, only to be nudged off by some new entrant. And that process is fluid and certainly doesn’t stop at the publication of these lists, but for now this is where the chips land. It’s more immediately convenient and probably more honest to think of these Honor Roll lists as annexes to the Best lists rather than basements to them. Here are, in other words, ten more first-rate works of fiction from the year, albeit ones that strike me – today – as in just some slight way less powerful than the ones to come, but still very much worth adding to your list:
10. The Abomination by Jonathan Holt (HarperCollins) – This first book in the author’s projected “Carnivia” trilogy starring Carabiniere Captain Kat Tepo is a snapping good portrait of modern-day Venice and its seedy ills and stoking tensions. Holt’s ear for dialogue and his uncanny ability to present the most garish and gruesome plot points in brutally realistic terms carries the plot easily over the absurdities inherent in this kind of fiction (Michael Dibdin was another such author, and Holt is certainly working in his fictional world) and keeps it all so vividly memorable.
9. The Boy by Lara Santoro (Little, Brown) – ‘Memorable’ is also the stamp of Santoro’s vivid novella about a woman on the doorstep of middle age who allows herself to fall into an almost heedless erotic relationship with the 20-year-old son of one of her best friends. The prose here glows with a slangy fluency that makes this very old story feel completely new again. You can read my full review here.
8. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking) – As one of the only people on Earth who disliked Gilbert’s nonfiction bestseller Eat, Pray, Love as being maudlin and manipulative, I went into her big new novel with plenty of trepidation. But this lush, hyper-detailed evocation of the world of 19th Century botanist Alma Whittaker and – with a puckish strain of subdued humor – all the various life forms she encounters out in the world utterly calmed my reservations with its profuse intelligence and sure-footed understanding of the hopeless awkwardness of mating, let alone love.
7. Stella Bain by Anita Shreve (Little, Brown) – Shreve has written nearly 20 novels, and I’ve detested all of them as cheap and easy river-bait for wine-sodden suburban book clubs, but I was utterly won over by Stella Bain, the story of a woman who wakes up at the Western Front in the midst of the First World War and immediately starts to piece together her own identity. Shreve manages with exquisite precision her two counterbalanced plot developments, the regaining of Stella’s memory weighted against the complex of reasons why she lost it in the first place – and the result is a far more controlled and beautiful work than anything this author has ever written.
6. The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban (Knopf) – I would ordinarily grit my teeth at the very idea of importing even a nominally YA title to such a list as this; the increased spread of YA writing into discussions of adult literature is a plague currently running rampant in the Republic of Letters, with countless adults gushingly enthusing about the latest installment in some series intended for children, and we shall all live to see Penguin Classics of the Harry Potter books. But as long-time Stevereads followers will perhaps recall, I don’t hate the YA subgenre altogether, and as always it’s the execution that matters - and Laban’s wryly-told story of the problematic high school love between the most popular girl in class and an albino newcomer is executed very nearly to perfection.
5. The First Book of David by Pastor Larry (WestBow Press) – The execution saves this book too, since the story of the Biblical King David has been told in fiction many dozens of times in English alone. In Larry Booker’s handling, where the young man David is seen from the viewpoints of a handful of characters who encounter him in one capacity or another, there’s no plaster-saint hagiography: not only is this David still stumbling toward his legendary status, but his various chroniclers are by turns salty and sarcastic and even sometimes sympathetic, and the whole familiar story gallops along as a result.
4. The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (Harper) – Graver’s story of the generations of the Porter family – who gather at the family home at Ashaunt Point, Massachusetts and from that hub experience all the freaks and fascinations of 20th century American life – would have fascinated me just for its premise, since I’ve known many families (dysfunctional and otherwise) who’ve had such talismanic old beach houses, and I’ve seen the strange and not unattractive gravity the places can exert on their people. But that personal experience would have made it at most a curiosity; Graver’s beautiful prose is what got it on this list. This is one of the handful of novels I’m mentioning this time around that I most clearly see myself re-reading after a little while.
3. Schroder by Amity Gaige (Twelve) – There were quite a few novels in 2013 in which the apparent abduction of a child by a parent kicked the plot into motion, and that would ordinarily bug me, but Gaige’s story here – told from the point of view of the eponymous father who’s accused, among other things, of kidnapping his daughter - is so heartfelt and intelligent that for weeks after I read it, scenes from its pages kept replaying in my mind. Ultimately, in its irresolutions, this is a stranger novel than it seems on the surface, and that also has kept me thinking about it. (Side note to those of you with aesthetic standards: Schroder‘s American publisher has for some reason decided to replace the hardcover’s lovely and evocative cover with something boring and hideous, so you might want to invest in the hardcover, since this is a book you’re going to want to keep)
2. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis (Atlantic Monthly Press) – Even more than the other books on this list, these last two really should be viewed as simply #s 11 and 12 of the forthcoming Best Fiction list; they’re here simply because they didn’t fit there, but they’re both utterly brilliant. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (I stress once again, to all you publishers out there: my services in giving your books non-sucky titles are entirely free and yours for the asking) is Bob Shacochis’ masterpiece, an enormous, sprawling work of espionage, Haiti, World War II, and, not incidentally, dark sexual compulsion that remains constant in any time and setting. The book is well over 700 pages long, but the author’s pin-prick control of its dozens of moving parts never falters for an instant.
1. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday) – Another nod toward the fluidity of these categories: I could have included this incredible book on my “Best Fiction Debuts” list, although at many points while reading it, and for long stretches of reading, I completely forgot that I was reading a debut author. This story, multi-layered and joyously well-conceived, about a mysterious and extremely long-lived island people discovered in Micronesia and the deliciously conflicted people who do the discovering, reads like the work of an old hand, somebody who’s learned the shell game of unreliable narration through many prize-shortlisted earlier novels. As it is, I was swept away by this author’s first effort – this is an amazingly textured book, not at all bogged down by the serious ethical questions that haunt every one of its plot-lines. One appreciative critic, apparently in an attempt to scare readers away from the book so he could have it all to himself, referred to it as “a haunting story of moral absolutes confounded by a seemingly empirical understanding of the merciless caprices of nature” – but don’t let such a frankly terrifying description discourage you! This book will grab you and keep you grabbed right to the twist at the end.