Leonardo da Vinci (biography) by Walter Isaacson: A masterpiece befitting its remarkable subject, this epic tome about one of history’s most fascinating human beings is not a quick read. Nor is it a light one: aside from medical textbooks and coffee table art books, it’s the heaviest book I own. I nearly fell over when I first picked it up. But I’ve long been consumed with curiosity about da Vinci, the ultimate—and literal—renaissance man, whose genius on multiple levels is staggering. I can dive in and out of this book whenever the mood strikes me and it is always interesting. I cannot fathom the amount of research it took to write this, however. Isaacson must be as brilliant as da Vinci. Or, uh, almost.
All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (sci fi): Clever does not begin to describe this time-travel tale: Tom Barren, living in a utopian version 2016, accidentally sends himself to a far less ideal version of 2016—ours, in fact. The catch: the love of his life resides in the crappier alternate universe, and to keep her, he’ll have to replace the entire world he grew up in—“a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder” —with the not-so-idealized version of us, and in the process he’ll change or eliminate the lives of everyone on earth.
It’s hard to know how to start telling this story. But, okay, you know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Flying cars, robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases. All that dazzling, transformative technology our grandparents were certain was right around the corner. The stuff of world’s fairs and pulp science-fiction magazines with titles like Fantastic Future Tales and The Amazing World of Tomorrow. Can you picture it?
Well, it happened.
The Salt Line by Holly Goddard Jones (thriller): My favorite thriller of the year. Since the novel is set in a dystopian future crawling with killer ticks, some people are undoubtedly going to recoil as they picture engorged pincer-wielding monsters hellbent on inflicting maximum carnage. I’ll admit I worried when I started the book that it might be the literary equivalent of the campy 1997 flick Starship Troopers. But rest easy, y’all! While a (normal-sized) tick makes an occasional cameo here and there, The Salt Line is not at all the way I envisioned it…although I will say it would make a hell of a movie.
The novel opens as a handful of people gather at a training camp for an expedition headed into the wilds of the abandoned portions of the former United States. Having been ravaged by a deadly tick-borne disease at some point in the past, the remaining population of the country has retreated behind a barrier ring, leaving vast swathes of unoccupied land. Despite technological advances, citizens are divided into haves and have-nots, depending on their level of prestige and the resources available in their particular zone. In this instance, the members of the out-of-zone expedition are all privileged thrill-seekers: a tech industry titan, wealthy lawyers, a rock star and his girlfriend, the wife of a powerful, shadowy underworld boss. Wearing protective suits and armed with a painful tick-extracting device, they set off into the forests of what was once North Carolina, marveling at the clear air and the unmitigated starlight and the occasional abandoned Cracker Barrel.
Well, you know what is going to happen: things are about to go very wrong. But it’s how and why they go awry that will surprise you, as it turns out that there are, in fact, survivors living beyond the salt line—and they have a secret.
You’ll be hooked from the very first sentence. The author, Holly Goddard Jones, does a spectacular job maintaining tension throughout the entire novel: every paragraph is wrought with intrigue, piquing your curiosity to the bursting point. It’s smart and it’s eloquent and it’s perfectly plotted. You won’t be able to put it down.
IQ / Righteous by Joe Ides (detective story): Published in 2016, IQ pulled me in from the first sentence; the sequel, Righteous, was published this year and I read them together. Twenty-year-old high school dropout Isaiah Quintabe uses his badass intellect and native street smarts to solve crimes in South Central LA. Joe Ides, who is neither black nor twenty, has a genius-level ability to manipulate language: Isaiah is witty and snarky and authentic and compelling. HOW DO PEOPLE WRITE LIKE THIS? I’m a shriveled husk of jealousy.
“All right,” she said. “Inductive reasoning. It’s what those so-called detectives on CSI, SVU, LMNOP and all the rest of them call deductive reasoning, which is wrong and they should know better. It’s inductive reasoning, a tool you will use frequently in geometry as well as calculus and trigonometry, assuming you get that far and that certainly won’t be you, Jacquon. Stop messing with that girl’s hair and pay attention. Your grade on that last test was so low I had to write it on the bottom of my shoe.” Mrs. Washington glared at Jacquon until his face melted. She began again: “Inductive reasoning is reasoning to the most likely explanation. It begins with one or more observations, and from those observations we come to a conclusion that seems to make sense. All right. An example: Jacquon was walking home from school and somebody hit him on the head with a brick twenty-five times. Mrs. Washington and her husband, Wendell, are the suspects. Mrs. Washington is five feet three, a hundred and ten pounds, and teaches school. Wendell is six-two, two-fifty, and works at a warehouse. So who would you say is the more likely culprit?” Isaiah and the rest of the class said Wendell. “Why?” Mrs. Washington said. “Because Mrs. Washington may have wanted to hit Jacquon with a brick twenty-five times but she isn’t big or strong enough. Seems reasonable given the facts at hand, but here’s where inductive reasoning can lead you astray. You might not have all the facts. Such as Wendell is an accountant at the warehouse who exercises by getting out of bed in the morning, and before Mrs. Washington was a schoolteacher she was on the wrestling team at San Diego State in the hundred-and-five-to-hundred-and-sixteen-pound weight class and would have won her division if that blond girl from Cal Northridge hadn’t stuck a thumb in her eye. Jacquon, I know your mother and if I tell her about your behavior she will beat you ’til your name is Jesus.”
Manhattan Beach (literary historical fiction) by Jennifer Egan: Oh, to be able to write like Jennifer Egan! Is there anything she cannot do? This is a gorgeous piece of historical fiction, relaying the tale of Anna Kerrigan, a WWII-era heroine mystified by the disappearance of her father. The genius of this novel is its utter immersion in a complex microcosm of society: the world of gangsters and divers and union men. Again, such beautiful language and so much research.
“Since the Depression, we bankers have had the leisure and . . . solitude, you might say, to think about the future. The Civil War left us with a federal government. The Great War made us a creditor nation. As bankers, we must anticipate what changes this war will thrust upon us.”
[…] The old man leaned forward and took a long breath. “I see the rise of this country to a height no country has occupied, ever,” he said quietly. “Not the Romans. Not the Carolingians. Not Genghis Khan or the Tatars or Napoleon’s France. Hah! You’re all looking at me like I’ve one foot in the funny farm. How is that possible? you ask. Because our dominance won’t arise from subjugating peoples. We’ll emerge from this war victorious and unscathed, and become bankers to the world. We’ll export our dreams, our language, our culture, our way of life. And it will prove irresistible.”
The Salt House by Lisa Duffy (women’s/contemporary fiction): A beautifully written family drama, The Salt House is the story of the Kelly family; Hope, a writer; her husband Jack, the fisherman; her sixteen year-old daughter Jess, and her eight year-old daughter Kat. All of them are still reeling a year after the day the youngest child, one year-old Maddie, goes down for a nap and is found dead in her crib a few hours later by her mother. Devastated, the Kellys abandon renovation of their dream home, an ocean-front cottage called the Salt House, too mired in the struggle with grief to regain the ordinary happiness they once took for granted. In addition, their finances are now precarious; Hope cannot bring herself to write and Jack’s lobster business is barely afloat, a preachment made worse by the startling return of his oldest rival, a troubled man named Ryland Finn. Hope and Jack, each concealing something from the other, find their marriage crumbling as their bewildered daughters try to cope with the loss of their baby sister.
It could have been grim, but this book is actually enchanting. Each of the Kellys—four very different people—is utterly believable and utterly lovable, their voices ringing with such authenticity that you’ll be pulling for them from the first sentence. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lifelong coastal Maine resident yourself, or a Southern belle, or a Wyoming cowboy, or a Hollywood megastar: we’ve all—every one of us—contemplated the unspeakable plight of the Kellys. Who among us hasn’t winced from the lancing blows of our worst fear—that someone we love will perish unexpectedly? It crosses the mind of every mother, every father, sometimes daily: What if he doesn’t come home? What if she doesn’t wake up? We banish these thoughts, but they occur to us all, worming back into our awareness with a little wriggle of terror. For the Kellys, there is no escape from the nightmare of this loss, but, as the book progresses, you’ll find yourself engrossed in the unexpected turns their lives take in the second year after Maddie’s death. A lovely, atmospheric, heart-wrenching book.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (nonfiction science): Technically, I’m cheating by listing this book because I got it for Christmas and I’m just diving in. But I love Neil deGrasse Tyson, and who does not want to want to contemplate the epic mysteries of the cosmos over your holiday vacation? Tyson is one of those science writers who makes you feel smarter even when dumbing things down to your level, and he does it with such wit and joie de vivre it’s like chatting with an extremely smart friend. (Another science writer I adore with a book coming out in a few months: Michio Kaku. Read all his books immediately if you haven’t yet.)
For more of my recommendations from 2017, visit kimmerymartin.com