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Best of 2016: Book Edition, Part 2

This year I’m in the unusual position of having already written posts about almost every book in my top 5. Sometimes it’s harder to write about books that I really love because I just want to say, “It’s sooooo good,” but I’m happy to have longer musings to offer. Here are my favorite books of 2016!

5. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Dead Wake Cover

I feel like I’ve read a great deal about World War II and very little about World War I. Thankfully Erik Larson, the wizard of history writing, turned his attention to that era. Dead Wake follows the events leading up to the sinking of the Lusitania, one of the catalysts for the U.S. entering the war in Europe. This being Eric Larson, he gives the full scope of the event, from the ship’s passengers to military intelligence to the soldiers aboard the German submarine. I consider it one of his most fascinating works. (You can read my full review here.)

4. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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As Gillian Flynn did in Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins plays with timelines and perspectives. The Girl on the Train follows Rachel, an alcoholic woman who becomes interested in a couple she sees from the train every day. Although this thriller is mainly focused on plot, I keenly felt Rachel’s loneliness and desperation. Other perspectives come from Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s ex, and Megan, the girl she watches from the train. I relished looking into these flawed women’s psyches. (You can read my book-to-film comparison here.)

3. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

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Eowyn Ivey made us wait four years for her second novel, but this was worth the wait. To the Bright Edge of the World is another piece of exquisite historical fiction set in Alaska. While her first novel focused on quiet moments, this one has plenty of action as Colonel Allen Forrester leads an expedition up the Wolverine River. Yet their journey also contains simple moments of human connection. Back at the military barracks, his wife Sophie pursues an interest in photography that raises eyebrows with the other wives. A beautifully written, beautifully human novel with a hint of the uncanny. (You can read my full review here.)

2. Room by Emma Donoghue

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Room is a triumph of character voice. The story of a woman held captive in a single room is narrated by her five-year-old son Jack, who has never known the outside world. Even though I committed the cardinal sin of watching the movie first, I could appreciate what Emma Donoghue achieved with this novel. Jack has a distinctive way of speaking that reflects his age and bizarre upbringing. I wanted to jump through the page and hug him, but that’s not to say that the story is saccharine. As was mirrored in the film, Ma and Jack are perfectly imperfect.

1. Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

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Suzanne Rindell is my favorite new author on the literary fiction scene. Three-Martini Lunch deals with three characters searching for literary success in 1958 New York City. As in her first novel The Other Typist, Rindell explores the ways that we present ourselves to others and how small decisions shape our lives. The narrators range from Cliff, a deluded Greenwich Village hipster, to Miles, a black man coming to terms with his identity. Even as they made mistakes, I cared so much for these characters and hated to leave their world. I suspect this isn’t the last time Suzanne Rindell makes my list. (You can read my full review here.)

Thanks for joining me on this year-end review!

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Dead Wake Brings World War I to Life

Dead Wake Cover

For me, 2012 was the year of Erik Larson. As part of a concerted effort to return to better reading habits, I read The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts. Although nonfiction is still a small fraction of my overall reading intake, I can thank Erik Larson for reminding me that true stories can be just as engrossing as fiction. I knew that I would eventually read his 2015 release.

Erik Larson’s latest book is Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. I’ve always felt distinctly lacking in World War I knowledge, especially compared to the relatively large number of stories I’ve read about World War II. The sinking of the Lusitania is one of the major events you often hear mentioned in relation to the United States entering the war, but I discovered that even my broad understanding was mostly incorrect. The Lusitania was a British liner with some American passengers. Even after the ship was sunk by a German submarine attack, it was another two years before the U.S. entered the war.

Dead Wake is presented in Larson’s typical novelistic style. Chapters provide perspectives from British naval intelligence, the White House, the U-boat that would eventually sink the ship, and the Lusitania itself. I hope that any historian worth his salt would explore all sides when recounting an event, but I still appreciate Larson’s efforts on that score. Even a seemingly simple act of war comes from a chain of cause and effect. How did Germany reach the point of attacking passenger ships? And why was the Lusitania sailing unprotected through waters that had been declared a war zone?

History books make me lament the end of letter-writing. Mostly on the basis of letters written during and after the voyage, Larson is able to paint a detailed picture of life aboard the Lusitania and single out some of its passengers as “characters” for his story. The same can be said for his portrayal of Woodrow Wilson, the heartbroken widower trying desperately to keep America out of the European war. Larson’s handling of the U-boat takes a slightly different tone because its primary source is the captain’s log. Historians have detailed knowledge of the U-boat’s movements, but can only speculate on the captain’s true feelings about sinking a civilian vessel. However, because of those passages, I can say that life on a U-boat might well be my worst nightmare.

As a reader I was less disturbed by the U-boat’s actions, however brutal they may be, than by the role of naval intelligence in the Lusitania‘s demise. More precisely, information was withheld that could have saved the ship at several turns. The Imitation Game touches on the same dilemma: if you act on every piece of intelligence, the enemy will likely figure out that you’ve broken their code and your advantage will be lost. Moral dilemmas and potential conspiracies abound in Dead Wake, making it a fascinating read for any history fan.

I feel like I should read more history books. The narrative aspect appeals to me, yet I’m also learning something. Add that to the ever-expanding reading goals.

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