Best Reads of 2014…

That time again. Though I really don’t like year-end lists, the notion of reading by the clock, here you go. What did Patti Smith say about the clock?Patti Smiths clock


And as Mel Brooks said, “work work work work…”  Make that “read read read read….”  And “write write write write…”  And my top two novels of the year are:


Wonderland, by Stacey D’Erasmoimgres
In her quietly electric new novel, Stacey D’Erasmo explores that vast, forever green territory – the mystery of art. And in Anna Brundage, D’Erasmo has created a powerful presence, a “too-tall red-headed woman with bangs who rides her bike to school from the East Village.” The child of an infamously artistic father, progeny of the counter-culture, now forty-four, Anna has been trying, without much success, to follow-up her much-acclaimed first record of 2002, “Whale.” Wonderland is about finding a way back, finding the door to that land of artistic wonder. But she’s tangled up in blue. And we’re right there with her. For my full review in The Washington Independent Review of Books, go here.

The Marlowe Papers, by Ros Barber
Okay, after running out of gas a year ago on The Marlowe Papers (it was published in 2012), writing an admiring but unsatisfied review here, I was compelled to return. And I’m glad I did. This time, I sync’d with it – if you can get into the iambic pentameter groove, the beauty of Ros Barber’s language comes through. Yes, it’s a spy story, a 16th century thriller – what if Marlowe wasn’t murdered in that tavern in Deptford? Faked his death so he could get out of town, avoiding the Tower of London – Kit Marlowe was pretty much an atheist, a gay man – dangerous business to be sure. And he wrote all of Shakespeare. Marvelously written. A great achievement. Memorable. Yes, 5 stars.MarlowePapersHC_cover

Followed by…

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Yes, I know, from a few years ago. But whoa. A master class in the art of historical fiction. Yeah, yeah, great story, a retelling of the tale of Henry VIII but filtered through the head of his cunning advisor, Thomas Cromwell. Here’s the thing – it is told in present tense. You are right there, in the early 16th century. A driving narrative. Characters who speak believably, not some pseudo historicity. Gorgeous writing. Whoa.

Enlisted Man Club, by Gary Reilly
Gary Reilly pulls the pin on the grenade that is The Enlisted Men’s Club, then slow rolls it across the table at you. You pick it up – you just know – it’s going to explode. And it does. With the relentless, rising burn of a dark Doors song from 1968, Reilly’s electric novel of The Viet Nam War, steeped in loneliness and pain, is about your war, my war, his war. Any war. Read this book.

The Wine Dark Sea, by Patrick O’Brian
Early 19th century British sea power (wasn’t that a band?), cellos, violins, bromance, the great Cordillera and Cape Horn. Yes, there are the slow bits but, damn, it’s a rip-roaring read. Love this stuff. And oh by the way, Keith Richards loves O’Brien. True fact.
(My third or fourth O’Brian…)


And meh…

Serpent of Venice, by Christopher Moore
Fun book, but not THAT fabulous. Only one or two out and out belly laughs. Okay, this is my first Moore…was expecting more from him, what with his huge legion of fans and his Brand. Yes, it’s entertaining, very creative…love the mash up of Othello, Poe and the Merchant of Venice. Kudos to Moore for his ending Afterword – a look into his research. Nicely done. Overall, 3 1/2 stars.


Best non-fiction

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre
For those into this sort of thing…cold war, spy vs spy, this book is marvelous. LeCarre fan? Here’s a source book – glimpses of real world betrayal, tradecraft, the world of smooth, charming Kim Philby, the origins of LeCarre’s Karla, Bill Haydon and a bit of Smiley. Read this book. You know who you are.18773652



The Moon Before Morning, by W. S. Merwin
“After sundown the crowns
of the tallest palms
stand out against
the clear glass of the eastern sky
they have no shadows
and no memory
the wind has gone its own way
nothing is missing.”



(in progress – may take me awhile with these…)

Capital in the 21st Century, by Thomas Piketty
Every liberal’s economist hero of 2014. Bit of a slog, but much to ponder.

Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume Three
Like Godot, not much happens, but everything happens.

Art in America: 1945 – 1970, edited by Jed Perl

Echo’s Bones, by Samuel Beckett


My geeky, quirky research goes on:

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber
Beautifully written. A new consideration of one of the giants of history. Love him or hate him, Marx matters. This one was on my list last year…still working through it. Also working through The Communist Manifesto.

Joseph Banks – A Life, by Patrick O’Brian
I think I’ve decided that Banks is one of my heroes. Smart, urbane, charming, a polymath, president of the Royal Society, confident…he could’ve been a 20th century man. And O’Brian is such a great writer, the 18th century comes alive.

Newton, by Peter Ackroyd
Marvelous intro to the great magus. Who knew he was into alchemy and all things crimson? And then the thing about the apple…

Voyages of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin
Darwin’s account of his early 19th century voyage through the Strait of Magellan, his explorations of Patagonia, the Beagle Passage and Tierra del Fuego are marvelous. A source book for what became a founding document of modern civilization, The Origin of Species.

Most Secret and Confidential – Intelligence in the Age of Nelson
Love this stuff – the “age of fighting sail”, Nelson, Trafalgar and all that. A well-written, deep dive into codes, code-breaking and the perils of lousy communications on ships of the line, the days of Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander series. Got a terribly important message for London? How does a 3 month lag time sound? Carry on, sir.

Christopher Marlowe – A Renaissance Life, by Constance Brown Kuriyama
A wonderful Marlovian source book, scholarly, beautifully written. Atmospheric late 16th century England, life and times.



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