Last month, I wrote about the annual LibFaves list, where librarians shared their favorite books of 2019. This month, I read the three titles that I hadn’t read (or listened to in audio). The mainly fiction-based list is impressive, with several genres represented, and a nice mix of debut authors and long-time favorites.
Ann Patchett is one of these longtime favorites. Patchett’s latest, “The Dutch House,” is the story of Maeve and Danny, two siblings who grow up in a gorgeous home — the titular Dutch House. Danny is a toddler and Maeve is in her early teens when their mother leaves. Soon after, their father, Cyril, meets a woman named Andrea, and after a lengthy courtship, they marry. Andrea’s relationship with Maeve and Danny is tense. She feels like an outsider, and her presence brings a significant change to the family’s dynamic. Cyril dies when Danny is in his teens, and Andrea inherits the majority of the family fortune, as well as the house. Andrea’s response is to exile Maeve and Danny from the house, leaving them with little to survive on.
“The Dutch House” is character-focused and nonlinear, and Patchett unspools her dysfunctional family tale in measured prose, showing how everything in Maeve and Danny’s lives pivots around their childhood home. Danny’s frequent visits to Maeve often lead to long conversations in a car parked outside the Dutch House, but they don’t venture onto the grounds until a series of unexpected reunions forces them to confront the myths they’ve built around their childhood. It’s a thoughtful novel filled with lovely writing and a story that, like life, is full of unexpected twists.
I was a fan of Blake Crouch’s last book, “Dark Matter,” so “Recursion,” the follow-up, was a must-read. I met the author in January 2019 at the American Library Association conference, and got a signed pre-release copy. I didn’t get around to it until it popped up on the LibFaves list, but if I had read it sooner, it would have been in my top 10 as well.
Crouch specializes in high-concept science fiction, and “Recursion” is all about memory. The novel opens with a police officer responding to an emergency caused by False Memory Syndrome, a mysterious affliction that is plaguing the world. With False Memory Syndrome, people remember things that never happened — often, entire lives where different choices were made. Then we meet Helena, a researcher who began looking into memory as a way to help her mother, who has dementia. Helena is approached by a billionaire entrepreneur with a tantalizing proposition: all the resources she needs to develop her memory chair, which allows the mapping and recreation of memories. But her benefactor wants to bring this technology to a dangerous extreme, allowing people to fully relive their lives.
What follows is an intricate braid of timelines that touches on science, technology and ethics. Fast-paced action is blended with technical information about neuroscience, and thoughtful commentary on the nature of memory. “Recursion” keeps readers thinking about what they might do if faced with the opportunity to not only relive their memories, but alter them.
“Gideon the Ninth” by Tamsyn Muir was one of the buzziest science fiction/fantasy debuts of 2019. Muir opens with Gideon’s planned escape from the House of the Ninth, the dank planet where she has lived a dull, orderly, adventure-free life. Unfortunately for Gideon, a missive from the Emperor arrives just as she’s planning to leave, throwing her plans into chaos. The Emperor has summoned the heirs of each of the nine houses, plus their cavaliers, to the First House. The Ninth’s leader is Gideon’s enemy, Harrow, who has harassed Gideon throughout her childhood. There’s a bet, Gideon loses, and she’s conscripted as Harrow’s cavalier, an honor that she never wanted.
From there, the adventure takes off. Gideon and Harrow move into Canaan House, where they begin a series of trials that are challenging, creepy and violent. They are free to explore Canaan House, with one caveat: They cannot open a locked door without permission. Keys are power, and the representatives of the various houses must decide whether to combine their keys and work together, or to go solo and hope for the best. When an heir and his cavalier are found dead, the group bands together to figure out who’s behind the murder, and their investigation brings them deep into the labyrinth of Canaan House.
Muir defies readers’ expectations throughout the book. She incorporates elements of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, adventure and horror, peppering the fast-paced story with witty (and sometimes crass) one-liners and unusual twists. The ending is a thrilling, epic battle that forces Gideon and Harrow to set aside their anger and their differences to defeat a powerful and unexpected enemy. It takes skill to blend so many genres into a cohesive and enjoyable story, but readers who enjoy uncanny tales will be enthralled.