Jane Dystel recommends:
I’ve recently turned my attention back to thrillers and mysteries and have discovered Tana French’s superb debut novel, IN THE WOODS, which is a cross between a police procedural and a terrific psychological thriller.
In the summer of 1984 in a suburb outside of Dublin three inseparable children – two boys and a girl – disappear. The police find one of them in the woods surrounding their neighborhood, but the others are gone, never to be found again. Twenty years later and that lone survivor is now a detective. He, along with his female partner and best friend, is put in charge of solving the murder of a young girl which took place in the same part of Ireland where he and his friends vanished. During their investigation, he gets closer and closer to the real story of what happened to him and his friends so long ago.
Ultimately, one of the two mysteries is solved, leaving the question of what really happened with the other for the reader to figure out given the clues presented along the way. I have come to feel challenged by these stories that are so prevalent in the genre and that seemingly have no resolution, but ultimately I very much admire their creators and the fact that they are pushing their readers to be more involved.
I am so pleased to discover Tana French, who I believe is an incredibly talented novelist.
Miriam Goderich recommends:
Some years ago, through my husband’s work, I was privileged to spend time at the School of American Ballet watching impossibly gifted kids dance. Their athleticism and grace was breathtaking and some of the students I saw perform went on to be principals at major dance companies. From that glimpse into this rarefied world, I knew that ballet is a grueling discipline as well as a gorgeous art form, and that dancers are artists whose bodies are pushed to often painful limits in a neverending quest for aesthetic perfection.
Which is partly why I so enjoyed Maggie Shipstead’s ASTONISH ME, a beautifully nuanced, dramatic tale of artistic ambition and the sacrifices and losses endured for the sake of mastering one’s art. In the early 1970s, Joan is a young dancer with the corps when she falls in love with the dazzling Arslan Rusakov. With her help, he defects and becomes the darling of the western ballet world. Knowing she is not talented enough to partner such a brilliant dancer, Joan sorrowfully watches him move on to the next in a series of women. When she finds out she is pregnant, she knows the time has come to leave the company and her career behind. But, the son she raises with her husband, far from the tumult of New York, turns out to be a prodigy, so much like Arslan that unwelcome comparisons can’t help but be made. And Joan’s marriage and her carefully crafted life are now on a collision course with her complicated past.
Astonish Me is a deeply affecting tale of love—unrequited passion, unconditional parental devotion, quiet affection between a husband and wife—and of the brutal costs to the body and the self of reaching for those elusive moments of perfection. Ms. Shipstead is a skillful storyteller who deftly delves into the souls of her characters and presents her findings with elegance and wit. If you’re in the mood for smart, engrossing fiction check it out. Even if you know nothing about ballet, you’ll come away feeling entertained and moved by this jewel of a novel.
Michael Bourret recommends:
I was familiar with Jon Ronson, of course, but I’d never actually read him until I picked up SO YOU’VE BEEN PUBLICLY SHAMED on the day it came out. I’d been eager to read the book even since an excerpt had run in the New York Times and captivated me with the story of Justine Sacco, and the tweet that spread round the world. I’d remembered her story: PR flack sends out tweet to less than 200 followers, gets on a flight from London to Johannesburg, lands to find out the the entire internet has now seen the tweet and turned on her and she’s lost her job (not to mention the respect of family and possibly her own personal safety in South Africa). A near-private joke turns into a near-career-ending debacle in 12 hours. It’s terrifying. And it seems to be happening with greater frequency and greater intensity. Public shaming is back, and it’s bigger than ever! Ronson explores this and several other stories of people who’ve been tried in the court of public opinion, and if it doesn’t make you stop and think about your own behavior, you’re clearly not on Twitter. An entertaining and through-provoking read about what it means to live life on social media.
Stacey Glick recommends:
I’ve been re-reading with my girls a wonderful book series by Jeanne Birdsall centered around four very different sisters. The first book is THE PENDERWICKS: A SUMMER TALE OF FOUR SISTERS, TWO RABBITS AND A VERY INTERESTING BOY. Having four girls myself I’m always looking for books about sisters, twins, four kids etc. as I find them not only relatable for myself, but also for the girls. These books are modern day classics, with language that is lovely but accessible, characters that are wonderfully complex, and plots that are simple and relatable. I’d love to find something along these lines for my children’s list, and an author who can tackle this kind of subject matter with grace and ease as Birdsall has done with her Penderwick books.
Jim McCarthy recommends:
Few books I’ve read in the past year have been as utterly charming, thoroughly convincing, and unexpectedly moving as Ariel Schrag’s ADAM. A teenager moves to New York City to spend a summer with his lesbian sister and two of her close friends. Through a convoluted and yet intensely believable set of circumstances, he finds himself pretending to be trans so that he can hook up with his sister’s lesbian friends. Schrag’s protagonist is intensely well-developed and thrust into a very specific community that is radically different from anything he knows. He makes upsettingly bad decisions that could have disastrous consequences for himself and others, and yet in a curious way, he remains sympathetic. Schrag’s balance of good will, satire, family drama, and coming of age novel is a high-wire act that reads deceptively straightforward. It takes a tremendous amount of work to make good fiction look easy, and I finished this novel with a feeling of tremendous appreciation for the author.
Jessica Papin recommends:
I’m reading WEST WITH THE NIGHT, the 1942 memoir of aviatrix Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly solo and nonstop from east to west (against prevailing winds, which is to say “the hard way”) across the Atlantic. Markham, who was one of the first bush pilots in her native Kenya, was a formidable adventurer, a scandalous woman, and an elegant writer; her vivid depictions of her colonial childhood, including days spear hunting barefoot with the Nandi, are spellbinding.
Ernest Hemingway—famously parsimonious with praise—raved “Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen.”
Hemingway continued: “But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”
That a woman so patently before her time should be known as a “high grade bitch” is not surprising, but most everything else about this extraordinary account is.
Lauren Abramo recommends:
Roxane Gay’s AN UNTAMED STATE is the kind of challenging, visceral, and beautiful novel that I’d love to have more of on my list. Set around the kidnapping and torture of a Haitian-American woman, it’s a book that isn’t afraid to be real, raw, and brutal. And it’s a novel that understands the nuanced complexity of questions of race, power, privilege, and wealth yet isn’t afraid to broach the subjects. If you’re thinking that sounds like a tough read I don’t blame you, but it’s actually also powerfully transportive and briskly paced. Surprisingly, it also contains one of the loveliest, funniest, most heartwarming depictions of falling in love (and of non-romantic love as well) that I’ve seen in quite some time, told in chapters that jump back from her captivity to the formation of the many relationships in her life. It’s a truly remarkable novel that manages to do so much more than many books even attempt.
John Rudolph recommends:
I started A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS by Marlon James back in January and only just finished it, and yet it’s hands-down the best book I’ve read all year. So why did it take so long? Well, for one, it’s pretty heavy lifting—it runs 704 pages of dense prose, features multiple narrators, it’s mostly written in thick Jamaican patois, and it stretches almost 20 years from the ghettos of Kingston to the crack-addled streets of Brooklyn. And second, for better or worse, the fractured narration makes it easy to put down and pick up, though there were several nights where I stayed up way too late just to see what happened in the next narrator’s section. Yet the achievement here is stunning—every character is so fully realized and distinct that it’s a thrill to spend time with each one, and the writing so perfectly captures both the rhythm and musicality of Jamaica that it reads like one long prose poem. The plotting, while sometimes obscured, usually coalesces into some serious narrative drive (again, why I stayed up late), and by hinging the story on the true-life assassination attempt of Bob Marley, James gives readers a recognizable touchstone from which to explore the chaos and tragedy that has infected Jamaican society for so long. For anyone with even a passing interest in all things Jamaican, it’s necessary reading, mon.
Michael Hoogland recommends:
The next book you pick up should be David Shafer’s debut, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT. Shafer’s meandering, distracted prose that somehow manages to be brilliant and beautiful and move the plot forward, all at the same time, has drawn comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. High praise for any writer, especially a debut novelist. Yet, Shafer’s subject matter is also extremely timely in this age of Big Data where it seems like every day a news story breaks about data mining and the privacy invasions rampant in the digital world. In WTF, three young people discover that an international cabal of some of the world’s wealthiest and most influential people, known as The Committee, have been plotting to gain and control all the information in the world, from people’s credit scores and social security numbers to their hopes and dreams—and their fears. There are exploding ovens, a counter-conspiracy movement, IKEA safe houses, and organically grown plant laptops that somehow communicate numbers to people, which then grants them unique psychic, communicative abilities. In spite of its apparent absurdities, Shafer’s smart, wildly entertaining, and darkly comical debut is filled with vivid, offbeat characters just trying to do their best. There is a reason it was named one of Time magazine’s ten best books of 2014, and made NPR, Kirkus, and Slate’s best books of the year lists. Go see for yourself.
Rachel Stout recommends:
One would think that Cheryl Strayed doesn’t need a lick more press about how wonderful WILD is. I’ve seen it used as a comp title in a thousand and twelve query letters, Reese Witherspoon’s movie of the same name came out at the end of last year, and anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock has heard of the book. However, I still want to recommend it for a few very convincing reasons. First of all, and I know I’m not the first to say this, as I’ve found quite a few people who thought the same, I shied away from even reading the flap copy on Strayed’s gut-wrenching memoir for a very long time. I only read it in the first place because a friend of mine shoved it into my hands, positive I would love it. I was dubious. She was right. I was expecting a glut of over the top, eyeroll-inducing, falsely inspirational nonsense that I would be annoyed with and slam shut fairly quickly. I realized how wrong I was three sentences in. Having experienced the same kind of loss as Strayed at around the same age and feeling it impossible to adequately express the emotions and thoughts associated with it, I was floored by how exactly perfect Strayed’s portrayal was. Hers is the best description I’ve ever read (and I’ve read my fair share). It’s honest, it’s raw, it’s sentimental only when necessary, and it hit so close to home that I felt a connection with her that still hasn’t broken. For anyone who has been wary of Wild, I urge you to find a copy (it’s literally everywhere) and read. Strayed’s masterful writing and amazingly colorful character descriptions (herself included) cannot be matched. I only wish I’d read this sooner.
Sharon Pelletier recommends:
I keep telling writers and editors that I’m looking for gripping nonfiction sitting on the line between hard-hitting reporting, and stirring memoir…and IRRITABLE HEARTS: A PTSD LOVE STORY is just such a book. Mac McClelland, an award-winning human rights journalist, reports on the epidemic of PTSD in returning war veterans and the heartbreaking obstacles those suffering face in trying to get help; at the same time, she ruthlessly excavates her own struggles with PTSD following an assault she suffered while investigating a story in Haiti. The result is an absolutely fascinating, uncomfortable, and moving book. McClelland discusses the societal attitudes that make PTSD so difficult to identify, acknowledge, and treat, and the ways our veterans system is failing those who serve, while investigating the workings of her own psyche with equal candor and poetry. I was impressed by her openness and ruthless self-appraisal that never feels gratuitous, but is well-integrated with her reporting of the larger issue. Read this book…and if you’ve written one like it, send it to me!
Eric Meyers recommends:
When a really fine fiction writer can speak to us as adults while illuminating the essence of childhood, that, to me, is something to be cherished. The older we grow, the harder it is to place ourselves back in time, and to remember the details of our earliest emotions. P.L. Travers managed to do this with her Mary Poppins books, as did A. A. Milne with his Winnie the Pooh books and Robert Louis Stevenson with his exquisite A Child’s Garden of Verses. Americans like Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, and Booth Tarkington also captured that lightning-in-a-bottle insight into the emotions and perceptions that fill our formative years.
Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow, 2013) gave me that kind of wonderful jolt of recognition, and it released long-forgotten feelings in a way I hadn’t really expected. Gaiman clearly remembers the powerlessness, confusion, and frequent terror young children feel in the face of the adult world. And he writes about it in a manner that is so heartbreakingly real, it will snap you right back to your own childhood, with all its questioning, fear, and insecurity.
Told as a first-person remembrance of the unsettling supernatural events that took place one summer in the life of a seven-year-old boy, this is an instant classic, a near-mythological tale that carries certain echoes of The Wizard of Oz. And, like that greatly loved story, it gives its little protagonist friends and protectors—angels, in a sense–who help shield him from the otherwordly evil that seeks his destruction.
Gaiman, the prolific author of over 20 works, had been writing for young audiences for many years, but made his return to adult literary fiction with this acclaimed book. It is universal enough in its scope, however, that it undoubtedly appeals to his younger fans. I probably would have loved it as a child—though I would have missed out on the rich frisson of recognition, not to mention the emotional catharsis, that can only come from reading this marvelous book through adult eyes.