In the spring and fall, publishers release some of the best new books of the year, the ones that most support the joy of reading.  This year’s releases have been no exception.  The past few months have brought an abundance of great new fiction titles.

Sometimes, as is currently the case, my recommended books appear to be lifted straight from the best-seller lists.  Generally, I select my reading material from professional reviews published or posted in advance of publication, or through word-of-mouth by friends who read and review galleys, or advance readers copies.   Whatever the source, my recommendations for 2024 are each a pleasure to read, but far from undiscovered treasures.

American-Irish novelist Tana French has long been one of my favorites.  Set in the mountains of West Ireland, The Hunter features retired Chicago police officer Cal Hooper and his teenage protegee, Trey.  Together, they make and repair furniture.  Things get complicated when Trey’s deadbeat father Johnny returns home after many years of absence.  Along with a phony English partner, Johnny sets out to swindle the locals.  Things turn ugly as the town turns on Johnny and, by proxy, his family.  Cal does his best to protect Trey, but she has an agenda of her own, which brings more challenges.  The Hunter is a page turner; I could not put it down. 

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride was given to me as a gift by my friend, writer Jessica Lipnack, after she learned that I was on the wait list at the library with months to go.  This was my first experience reading James McBride (but it won’t be my last!), and all I could think was: “this writing is brilliant!”  The book, set in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, a small town not far from Philadelphia, features colorful, diverse characters and a rich plot.  Perceptively, it captures the foibles and realities of human behavior.  The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store was published in 2023 and has been on the best-seller list ever since.

Pottstown, Pennsylvania is a real place, where Jessica grew up.  The following quote is from a letter she wrote to James McBride and published on Medium:   “Because I was born and raised in Pottstown, I was so taken with your understanding of this little town that I find it hard to believe you’re not from there. It’s all in perfect pitch: Your descriptions of the leafy streets; the close-knit neighborhoods I lived in and visited; the downtown that was the pulsing heart of commerce with its many Jewish-owned shops; the bus that cost a dime to ride from the North End to those stores; the food that is unique to the communities there; the diversity of people; the evil mental institution that everyone feared and we kids made fun of (‘Watch out or you’re going to Pennhurst’); the knowledge that the Klan was still rumored to be active nearby when I was growing up; the big band venue (where I met the regulars from American Bandstand and teen idol Fabian); the appalling racism that tracked Black kids into less challenging classes and worse; and, on the positive side, the camaraderie, humor, and extraordinary love within the community.  [T]he book is sad, funny, honest, and ultimately uplifting.”

This novel is a perfect selection for book clubs and reading and discussion groups.

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt is a novel I first read and loved in 2022.  Marcellus is a giant Pacific octopus, who resides in a tank in an aquarium.  At night, he climbs out of his tank to explore his surroundings, often helping himself to tasty treats found in other tanks.  While on his excursions, he meets Tova, the night cleaner for the aquarium.  Over time, they develop a trust and eventually a friendship, as Marcellus leads Tova to new discoveries about her own life.

So why is this novel back on the best seller lists?  I like to think it is because of our growing awareness of the high intelligence of octopuses.  Perhaps the 2020 documentary My Octopus Teacher contributed to this understanding.  The New York Times postulates that the continued success of Shelby Van Pelt’s story is a result of word of mouth praise.  “Remarkably Bright Creatures” is one of those increasingly rare success stories: a quiet, quirky literary debut that has been buoyed by bookseller love and word-of-mouth recommendations. To date, the novel has sold 1.4 million copies, an impressive feat for a debut that features an ornery octopus narrator,” said Alexandra Alter in her December 2023 NYT review.  Remarkably Bright Creatures also would foster some great conversations by book groups, as well as contribute to the joy of reading.

Currently, I am reading Amor Towles’ Table for Two.  I have been a big fan of Towles ever since reading the unforgettable A Gentleman in Moscow, but am not necessarily a fan of short stories.  The form can be confusing, consisting perhaps fragments of a larger work in the author’s mind.  For the most part, I prefer to dig my teeth into a good novel. 

Table for Two, however, upended this notion of mine.  Each story is thoroughly enjoyable, and the reader can mentally expand on any one of them and imagine its continuation and perhaps ultimate conclusion.  In “The Line,” how does Pushkin, the enterprising, non-English speaking Russian farmer, find his footing after landing in New York City?  Does Tommy, in “The Bootlegger,” ever find peace with himself?  Eve, in the novella “Eve in Hollywood,” has a role in Towles’ earlier book, Rules of Civility, proving that each of his characters has their own story to tell. 

These books were a delight to read, and will foster the joy of reading.

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