Illustration by Kat McCall
When I originally came up with the idea of this column being a written list of things that maybe didn’t get the spotlight shone on them the same way all other “Best of’s” in the magazine did – things like the best Circle K to stop at if you want to ensure the ice machine is full for your Polar Pop, or the best speed traps to stay away from during your afternoon commute – it ended up coming off just a little too snarky, even for me. So, in the end, I decided to go a bit less tongue-in-cheek and a little more food-for-thought. When you write for a living, especially novels, you rarely have time to read for pleasure. I am constantly bombarded throughout the year with books from different sources that I need to read for the purpose of blurb writing or public review, so when I do get the opportunity to sit down and read a book simply because I want to, I try to make it count. Here are a few of the best books I read this year, stories I consider to have made the world a better place now that they have been let loose in the world to be allowed to thrive and grow in the wild as soon-to-be-classics.
By Christian Kiefer
Kiefer wrote a novel called The Animals in 2015 that really knocked my socks off, so I’d been waiting a pretty long time for his latest offering, but reading The Animals way back when in no way prepared me for the jarring emotional roller coaster that is Phantoms. The story centers around a Japanese-American soldier who returns home from the battlefields of World War II to his small rural home in North Carolina, not to parades, or even a hero’s welcome, but to a bubbling pot of racism, ugly secrets, and mainly to find that his parents have been taken to an American-made Japanese internment camp.
Yes, y’all, we did that.
But this is not a novel about war, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s a love story, one about the way enemies from all sides attack that love with such brutality. It’s a devastating and powerful story told in such a sweeping manner and with such beautiful language, I could only read it in small pieces in fear of my own heart breaking in half.
“The Reckless Oath We Made”
By Bryn Greenwood
Greenwood’s All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was and still is one of the best novels I have ever read in my life, so I wasn’t sure if it was possible to follow up that remarkable book with one just as good, if not better, but she pulled it off in spades. Oath is another love story at its core. (I bet no one who knows me pegged me for the love story type, but anyway…) This story is told almost like a fairy tale, just not the kind of fairy tale anyone would expect. The book is a world full of richly detailed, relatable characters and an easy read set against the backdrop of a Kansas prison escape, where the über-flawed protagonist, Zee, with a laundry list of her own problems, gets caught up in the abduction of her sister and finds help — and one of the purest forms of love I’ve ever read on the page — from one of the very least-expected places.
“A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself”
By William Boyle
Boyle is an established crime writer who makes his home in Oxford, Mississippi, but with Friend, Boyle has transcended the genre and truly given the world a great book with some of the best dialogue I’ve read since the maestro himself, Elmore Leonard. The novel has been described as The Godfather meets Thelma & Louise, and also as a Screwball Noir, but I don’t think either of those labels really lend themselves to the story Boyle wrote about unshakable friendship and love, with not just one, but three female leads who all find a way to work themselves into the reader’s heart and stay there long after the book goes back up on the shelf. I could spend a few sentences trying to explain the plot, but you’re just going to have to trust me on this one. If there is one book I think would appeal to just about anyone who loves to read, it is most definitely this one.
I also think it’s worth mentioning that all of the books I talked about are on the shelf or orderable at the best bookstore in Augusta, The Book Tavern on Broad Street. So, go buy a few books from the storeowner, David Hutchison, and tell him I sent you. He might even tell you about another novel that came out this year called Like Lions written by a certain columnist who works right here for Augusta Magazine.
Appears in the October 2020 issue of Augusta Magazine.