Best New Books of 2011: Lynn W.’s Picks

There were many wonderful novels published this year, making a choice of five challenging. Since I’m drawn to memoirs, mysteries, literary, and historical fiction, my list is reflective of these interests.

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman
Hoffman’s intriguing history of the fictional town of Blackwell, Massachusetts begins in the 1600s when a group of English settlers arrive late in the year, doomed to die of starvation save the efforts of Hallie Brady, who isn’t above eating eel and has an affinity with the local bears. Her favorite bear is killed and buried in her garden only to reappear centuries later as skeletal remains. The interconnected stories cover a 300 year time span and introduce fascinating as well as everyday characters living in and passing through Blackwell, including Johnny Appleseed.  Hoffman’s trademark magical realism is an integral part of this story, and while I usually have no patience with it, it totally charmed me this time out.

Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson
Asa Larsson’s 2008 mystery was translated and published in 2011, perhaps due to the explosive popularity of Stieg Larsson’s books. Asa Larsson’s (no relation) writing is poetic and descriptive of northern Sweden’s lakes, forests, and isolated villages.  This novel begins with a dramatic winter scene ending in an astonishing method of murder:  blocking the hole in a frozen lake which a young diving couple needs to escape. The investigating detectives are drawn into web of secrecy including World War II collaborators with the Nazis and war profiteers with an intense desire to hide and forget the distant past. This book made me eager to return to it and reluctant to finish it, an excellent mystery indeed.

The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell
Kurt Wallender is off his game.  He’s aging and has left the Ystad police force.  Then his daughter Linda’s father in law, a retired admiral, disappears. Kurt begins an informal investigation and becomes embroiled in a complex situation involving a 1980s submarine incident which has somber implications for the government. As always, Kurt questions his life and his choices, ever the gloomy Swede, but this time the self-questioning is poignant, his investigative focus wavers, and the reader asks, “Why is he doing that?” The oh-so-sad ending of the final Kurt Wallender mystery reveals why his state of mind and ability to follow through on his investigation have diminished.  This is an outstanding series finale.

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
I blogged about this title earlier and it remains one of my favorite novels of the year.  In a nutshell, Park So-nyo, an elderly Korean wife and mother of four, has disappeared at a Seoul subway station, inadvertently left behind by her husband who boarded a train assuming she was behind him, as usual.  Her life story and meaning to her family is slowly revealed through four sections  told by her daughter,  by the oldest favored son,  by her once-philandering and frequently missing husband, and another from her own point of view as she wanders Seoul, lost and alone with her disconnected memories.  No one ever quite knew her for herself or valued her as highly as they might have:  perhaps that’s the appeal of this story, which all of us can identify with at times.  A two (hanky wrapped) thumbs up.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller
You really must get to know Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as her daughter names her in several chapters of this memoir.  Now in her sixties, Nicola has lived most of her life in Africa and chafed when she and her husband lived in England for a few years.  They farmed in Rhodesia when the bush wars began about 1970 and Tim Fuller was called up to fight, while Nicola stayed on the farm with the Alexandra and her sister, carrying a rifle when she rode her horse around the fields or drove to town.  As she and Tim reminisce with Alexandra under the tree of forgetfulness while drinking tea or cocktails, Nicola repeatedly says to Alexandra, “I suppose you’ll put that in one of your dreadful books.”  I frankly don’t think I would like this woman and her strong opinions, but she is fascinating for having lived through some tough times and survived with spunk aplenty.  This is a great audio book.

If you’ve read (or want to read) any of these books, please drop us a note in the comments below.

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