Of the 28 books of fiction that I read this past year, in alphabetical order by author, here are 18 that I especially enjoyed ... including 3 trilogies. (Non-fiction was listed last time.)
1. Jo Baker, A Country Road, A Tree. The title comes from the stage directions for Samuel Beckett's play, Waiting for Godot. This book is a fictional but seemingly accurate account of Beckett's life in France during World War II when he joined the Resistance movement. He was an introvert, appreciated silence but liked people, too. He and his future wife were nearly caught in Paris but left very quickly after discovering they'd been outed to the Gestapo by a priest, subsequently making their way to what was then the Free Zone in the south of France but which was soon taken over as well. Beckett preferred staying in France during the war where he had friends and could be of help rather than staying home in Ireland, a neutral country, where he had culture shock upon finding there was such a thing as cream and real coffee.
2. Bruce Chatwin, On the Black Hill. Identical Welsh twins live on their parents' farm all their lives, on the boundary of England and Wales. The story covers 80-plus years. It's likely among the last of this sort of descriptive late 19th and 20th century prose in the style of Hardy and Lawrence--the hard family life with few amenities. The book ends around 1980 when video games are now part of the culture and cell phones are about to make an entrance. A lot of real characters here. Lots of angst and self-appraisal. It was published in 1988 just months before Chatwin died.
3. Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career. Her full name was Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, and she lived from 1879 to 1954. This book, her own fictionalized treatment of a memoir, was made into a movie of the same name starring a young Judy Davis and Sam Neill. It is autobiographical fiction of a teen in 1890's Australia who longs for a brilliant career that taps her imagination, intellect, and ability to work hard.
4. Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea. Or, what about The Old Man and the Marlin? A rather amazing story of how old Santiago, in only a skiff, caught an 18-foot marlin far out to sea from Cuba. A novella, it received a Pulitzer in 1953.
5. Penelope Lively, The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories. Fresh topics, good irony and wit, intelligent, her newest book. One of my favorite contemporary authors.
6. - 11. Olivia Manning. The following 2 trilogies comprise Manning's work called Fortunes of War which was made into a TV mini-series starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. (They met while filming it.) It begins with the start of World War II and though fictionalized follows the author and her husband's route from Europe to the Middle East as the Germans kept advancing. Lots of local color. An abundance of well-defined characters. I found all six books totally engrossing.
The Balkan Trilogy:
Book #1. The Great Fortune. Set in Rumania from September
1939 to June 1940.
Book #2. The Spoilt City. Set as the characters are forced out of
Rumania and leave for Athens.
Book #3. Friends and Heroes. Set in Athens, then as they are
forced out of Greece to Cairo.
The Levant Trilogy:
Book #4. The Danger Tree. Set in Cairo and Alexandria as the
Germans are advancing.
Book #5. The Battle Lost and Won. Describes the battle of
Alamein. Otherwise, set mostly in Cairo.
Book #6. The Sum of Things. Set in Cairo and the Levant as the
war then ends.
12. Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country. Excellent, South Africa 1946, a black family and a white family ... and their shared tragedy. Beautifully written.
13. Kenneth Roberts, Oliver Wiswell. A splendid historical novel published in 1940 about the Revolutionary War from the viewpoint of the Loyalists, taking the reader from 1775-1783. A lot of material that I didn't know. Quite enthralling. Highly recommended. (A gift from a college friend who called it one of the best books she'd ever read.)
14. John Steinbeck, Cannery Row. Amusing, precise, poetic. The Chinese grocer, the bordello's madam, the flophouse guys, the marine biologist, all in a sardine canning section of Monterey, California in the 1930's.
15. - 17. Katherine Towler, Snow Island Trilogy. Chronicles the lives of those in a small, tight community on a fictitious island in Narragansett Bay. The time frame is World War II to the Gulf War. Though each book can be taken separately, they are better as a unit.
Book #1. Snow Island.
Book #2. Evening Ferry.
Book #3. Island Light.
18. Anne Tyler, Digging to America. Two Baltimore families, one Iranian and one American, each adopt a Korean child on the same day and become friends as a result. Good descriptions of their lives as family members and as representatives of their cultures ... with a nice mixture of the two told in an appealing way.