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.
- Isek Dinesen is one of the pen names of author Karen Blixen who from 1914 through 1931 owned and lived on a coffee plantation in Kenya. While there this last September, I visited her home (and the plantation) and in preparation for doing that, I read OUT OF AFRICA, which is actually a book of essays written in no particular order about her time in Africa. The prose is vivid and describes in a straightforward manner British East Africa before World War II. During the time Blixen was there, her marriage broke up and she had an affair with adventurer Denys Finch-Hatton, but nothing about those experiences appears in the pages of this book. Instead she describes the different people she encountered along the way—and those with whom she worked—and the many adventures she had. The reader learns about the animals she encountered, most memorably Lulu the beautiful gazelle who lived on the plantation for year. While wandering around the actual plantation I found myself imagining where she might have been. An evocative read.
- THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green. I had been hearing about this young adult author for some time but had never read one of his books. Michael Bourret suggested that this was the one to choose, and I am so pleased I did. The YA books I have represented to date are mostly romances and so this is quite different. Here is a writer who clearly isn’t afraid to take on big issues. He does so with such subtle skill that rather than being wrapped up in the fact that the main characters are suffering from cancer, the reader is totally involved in the story as it unfolds. The voice is clear as a bell, and the writing is splendid. I am eager to go out and read other of this author’s books now that I know how talented he is.
- Story telling is one of the most important aspects of any good novel – for me at least, the writing can be supremely excellent, but inevitably I will abandon the effort to finish in the absence of a good tale.THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert is an incredibly well told story. The novel follows the life of brilliant botanist Alma Whittaker, daughter of self-made botanist, Henry Whittaker. Alma is deep into the study of moss and what it tells her about evolution while the man she falls in love with and marries is pulling her into the world of spirituality, and ultimately the magical. The two are drawn to each other by their shared wish to understand the workings of the world. The novel spans most of the 19th century and unwinds quickly taking the reader all over the world. The research is spectacular, the characters are beautifully drawn and the story is well – just incredibly interesting and entertaining. I highly recommend THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS.
- I have never read anything by Beatriz Williams but when I picked up A HUNDRED SUMMERS, I was seduced immediately. The main characters, Lily, Budgie and Nick are all very human and real and the story unwinds in a number of surprising directions (I hate it when I can predict what is going to happen in a novel and although some of this is predictable, a lot of it isn’t). The author does a superb job of capturing time and place. The romance is wonderful and the tension between many of the main characters palpable.A HUNDRED SUMMERS is a superb example of good commercial women’s fiction.
- RULES OF CIVILITY is a totally delightful and very original first novel written by Amore Towles. The story opens on New Year’s Eve in 1937 and follows the adventures of an incredibly clever, witty, and independent twenty-five-year-old woman, Katey Kontent as she goes from living in a boardinghouse and working in a secretarial pool to hanging out with a glittering and elite social circle and working for Conde Nast. We follow Katey and her unexpected adventures through an entire year, where she meets a number of colorful characters and learns a lot about life. There are lots of surprises and a great deal of humor in the book and I enjoyed every minutes of this read. The epilogue and the ultimate review of George Washington’s Rules of Civility made this my current recommended read. I can also well imagine it being made into a wonderful black and white movie – a really entertaining period piece.
- When I first picked up BEAUTIFUL RUINS, I did so because it was highly recommended by one of my colleagues. Frankly, I had not heard about it and I had read no reviews. I had not read anything by the author Jess Walter; in fact I thought “Jess” was a woman and BEAUTIFUL RUINS was a piece of traditional women’s fiction.For the first couple of chapters, I was incredibly confused as to what this novel was. The plot switched from location to location, from the time period ends in which the narrative occurred and even in terms of the cast of characters. But then, I was hooked—hooked into the lives of the people the story was about as they lead their lives, grew and experienced life, encountered each other and ultimately how it all came together. In my opinion, this is a brilliant novel filled with pathos and humor and ultimately a lot of love. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
- The last few months have been extremely busy and I have had almost no time to read for pleasure. But seeing GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn at the top of almost every bestseller list, I simply had to read it. And, once I picked it up, I simply couldn’t put it down.First, not having read any reviews–I often prefer my reading that way–I simply thought this was a novel about a marriage falling apart. Then, however, it became a riveting thriller about how this marriage went terribly wrong.On the morning of Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears and as is the case so often, Nick becomes initially the possible suspect and then almost certainly her kidnapper and killer. But we, the reader, know he didn’t do it, and ultimately it becomes clear exactly who did. GONE GIRL is the ultimate thriller—I honestly don’t remember the last time I stopped everything I was doing over a weekend to finish an entire novel. I had to know the end, and once I did, I felt more than ever that I had read a simply brilliant piece of work which I would highly recommend to readers of all ages and sexes. This book is for everyone.
- If someone had told me when I picked up THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach that I would love a first novel about baseball, I would have objected hugely. Though I adore good novels and I truly love the game of baseball, I cannot say I would have chosen this to read in the normal course of events. But, with the huge advance hype, especially the piece last September in Vanity Fair, I was eager to read this. And ultimately, I loved every minute.From the opening pages of this wonderful story which is indeed about baseball but also about relationships—between friends, family, and lovers—and the unpredictable forces that complicate them, I could not put this book down. Written in clear accessible language and paced beautifully, this is a narrative of considerable length that I found riveting and incredibly moving. The story includes an unintended affair that blossoms into more, a derailed post-graduate plan that ends ultimately in an ultimately satisfying way, a marriage that breaks up, and of course, the single baseball event that proves that bringing mind and body into perfect union is virtually impossible most of the time.I would recommend this book to all readers, lovers of baseball, and those who know little or nothing about the game. I truly believe it will become a classic.
- Never having read Ann Patchett, I was eager to begin STATE OF WONDER and I wasn’t disappointed.This is the story of Dr. Marina Singh whose colleague Anders Echman has died of a fever while in a remote part of Brazil, checking on the research of one of their colleagues, Dr. Annick Swenson, who has reportedly found a way women considerably over the age of fifty, sixty, and even seventy continue to bear children. Marinais sent by her colleague and lover Mr. Fox, the CEO of the research company they all work for, to find out what happened to Dr. Echman and to report back on Dr. Swenson’s progress.This is an exotic adventure story in an exotic part of the world that explores relationships and explorations of the past and how the past impacts who we ultimately become.The writing is vivid and often times surprising; I loved this book although it wasn’t an easy read, and I look forward to picking up others by this talented writer.
- One of my all time favorite books, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY by Oscar Wilde is the story of a man’s wish to stay young forever. Dorian Gray is beautiful and irresistible, and when his friend Basil Hallward paints his portrait, Gray expresses his wish to stay young forever. The wish comes true.Attracted by his depraved friend Henry Wotton, Gray jumps into a life of sin, but every time he sins, his portrait gets older, while Gray remains young and healthy. His life turns into a mixture of sex, lies crime and murder and he hides the portrait which becomes increasingly horrifying in an upstairs room, sometimes going to stare at it and take pleasure in the fact that it and not he bears the stains of his behavior. In time he begins to fear that the painting and his secret will be discovered; he lives like this for eighteen years but finally sees himself as he really is and curses the portrait blaming its magic for his miserable life.THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY is a wonderful novel which serves as well as a morality play of sorts. I read it when I was in my teens and have never forgotten the details of the novel or its message. In fact I can say that about only a handful of books I have read over the years.
- Dexter Meyhew, from an entitled, wealthy background, and Emma Morely meet on the night of their college graduation from a school in Edinburgh, one of my favorite places, in July of 1988.ONE DAYby David Nichollsfollows these two characters through their lives individually and as friends on the same day every year for the next twenty years. We watch each of them grow. Dex becomes a TV personality and slowly succumbs to booze, women and drugs; Emma has a series of horrible jobs but manages to keep her head on straight and ultimately develops into a successful children’s book author. Both become involved in serious romantic relationships which ultimately fail. Through it all their friendship continues to grow.ONE DAYis a real page turner, filled with humor, sadness, love and wonderful moments. It is a superb story of two souls meant to be together always.I enjoyed every minute.
- THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins is the first “young adult” book I have read in years, and I loved every minute of it.Some time in the future, with North America destroyed, a nation called Panem is established. Its incredibly modern Capitol was once surrounded by thirteen outlying districts, but some time in the past, the districts threatened to revolt against The Capitol, and in an effort to assert their dominance, the leaders in The Capitol destroyed the 13th District and killed everyone in it. To remind each of the other 12 districts of its superiority over them, The Capitol forces each of the districts at an annual “reaping” to choose one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, which is essentially a fight to the death which is televised to the entire nation. THE HUNGER GAMES is told by sixteen year-old Katniss Everdeen whose sister is chosen from District Twelve and who offers to take her place. Though this seems like a death sentence, Katniss has survived for all of her years by ingenuity and her wits and has taken care of her widowed mother and much younger sister. Now she will have to fight to the finish against twenty-three other young warriors and everything they and the rulers from the Capitol throw at her.The story is rich in adventure and detail and the book is impossible to put down; I can’t wait to read the other two books in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay.
- I had been hearing a lot about THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett and was intrigued enough to download it onto my Kindle before leaving on a recent vacation. This is a first novel, turned down by many publishers before Amy Einhorn, in her great wisdom and good taste, picked it up. The Help is set in the South during the early 60s, when white women employed black women to take care of their children and clean their homes, but treated them badly. When one of the white women decides to write a book about, and aided by, the town’s housemaids, we learn a great deal about the women on both sides of the fence.The novel is a real page turner, written with compelling sympathy and a great deal of research. It was so good that I never realized what a long book it was, since my Kindle had no page numbers, and was sad to come to the end.Interestingly, returning from my vacation, I discovered at least a half dozen people reading The Help on my flight. All agreed that it is an absolutely superb work.
- I had never read Elizabeth McCracken, and so I was delighted to be introduced to her debut novel THE GIANT’S HOUSE, one of Miriam’s all time favorite books. Originally published in 1996, this is the tale of a romance between the tallest boy in the world and the spinster librarian who falls in love with him. What an absolutely lovely read. The prose is spare and simple, the characters are so well drawn and the plot tightly crafted. I highly recommend this book. It is a real treasure.
- Hearing the story behind THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY – that author Mary Ann Shafer, a first time novelist, got ill toward the end of the writing process and her niece Annie Barrows, a children’s book writer, helped complete it – I was intrigued. And so I started reading – and I absolutely fell in love.Normally I hate epistolary anything. I find the form difficult to read and follow. That, however, is not at all true with this lovely novel. It is beautifully written with wonderfully memorable characters and a well crafted story. The authors’ ability to tell a very sad tale in a clever and sometimes humorous way is engrossing and I found the book difficult to put down every time I had to. It is an absolute delight, and I recommend it highly.
- Last summer, as I was planning a vacation that would include a couple of particularly long plane flights, I asked the staff for some book recommendations. One suggestion was the new James Frey novel, BRIGHT SHINY MORNING. I had never read A Million Little Pieces, although I had heard people loved it despite the huge controversy surrounding both the book and its author. I loaded Fry’s novel to my trusty Sony e-Reader thinking I would probably just dip in a little bit to see what all of the hubbub was about. I found that I really couldn’t put the book down. Frey is a natural storyteller as everybody knows, and he has created a very unusual novel, with the city of Los Angeles as the main character. I admit I didn’t love everything about the book, especially in the final quarter. But I found it to be fresh, entertaining and, despite its length, worthy of the time necessary to finish it. I also believe that this could become a classic of sorts down the road – it is that original in its ambition and scope.
- For years I have wanted to read Khaled Hosseini’s THE KITE RUNNER but for one reason or another just didn’t get around to it. Then, it was assigned as summer reading for my fifteen-year-old son and when he raved about it, I knew I had to see for myself. It is an incredibly powerful story about modern Afghanistan, about friendship, about fathers and sons, about cruelty, and, above all else, love. I was simply riveted from the first page and had trouble putting this book down when I had to. The characters are perfectly drawn; the story moves quickly and unpredictably and the emotional ups and down are pitch perfect. I can well understand the success of THE KITE RUNNER and would highly recommend it to readers of all ages. It is a literary triumph.
- Irène Némirovsky’s SUITE FRANCAISE consists of the first two of what were supposed to be five interrelated novellas about the German occupation of France in World War II. Though the book is incomplete, it is easy to feel the tragedy of what happened not only to the Jews but to everyone living in Paris and its environs during this terrifying period. As interesting as the actual stories are the appendices which tell, among other things, the outcome for the author and her family. Even with all that was going on around her and in the face of impending death, Némirosky captured a time in our history we must never forget.I would hope this becomes a classic.
- Mark Haddon’s THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME is one of the most original books I’ve read in years. Haddon’s ability to get inside the head of a young man with autism is both moving and a superb achievement. This is a fast and extremely satisfying read.
- My favorite memoir in recent times is J.R. Moehringer’s THE TENDER BAR. The author’s voice is incredibly real and sympathetic; his experiences sweet and touching yet filled with real life disappointments and joy. It is one of the best books I have read in this category.
- MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides – I loved the voice, the incredible research done by the author, the character development, and the originality and freshness of the story. I really think it is a brilliant novel.
- I would recommend KILLING FLOOR by Lee Child – the voice is really unique, the hero interesting, and the novel an edgy, dark thriller. Child reminds me of our client Michael Crow.
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.
- When I was an undergraduate at Columbia, there was a superstar professor in the English department we were all in awe of. Carolyn Heilbrun was brilliant and, it was rumored, fun. She wrote deeply impactful books about women in literature—both as authors and protagonists. Under the pseudonym Amanda Cross, she also wrote delightful academic cozies featuring the wry, no-nonsense Kate Fansler (Heilbrun’s fictional alter-ego). For many years, she kept her mystery writing a secret so as not to jeopardize her teaching position in what was for most of her career a bastion of white, male privilege (Columbia was the last Ivy League college to admit women in the mid-1980s). I found the Amanda Cross mysteries frothy fun but I really loved Heilbrun’s “serious” works, especially the influential WRITING A WOMAN’S LIFE Tackling issues of creativity, storytelling, and gender with a feminist’s verve and a scholar’s thoroughness, Heilbrun explores the limitations imposed by culture and society on female authors striving to create their own narratives and those of other women and exhorts her readers to write their own experiences as faithfully, truthfully, and bravely as possible. I felt empowered by that book and still recommend it to young women who are trying to find their voices and tell their stories. Check it out.
- I’ve always been a fan of family dysfunction. Not in my personal life, maybe, but in fiction. You can’t deny that everyone from Sophocles to Albee has been mining that particular literary vein for centuries with often brilliant results. The voyeuristic pleasure of participating in other people’s family dramas is tough to beat as reading experiences go, in my opinion, especially when an author has pitch perfect ability to capture the contradictions—love and hate, anger and tenderness—that underlie the sheer weight of shared experience at the complex core of family dynamics. Jonathan Tropper displays that perfect pitch in THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, in which the extremely f’ed up members of the Foxman clan come together to sit shiva for their father, bringing their problems, neuroses, guilt, and regrets with them but also their caustic humor and unexpected affection for each other. Tropper could be the literary love child of two of my favorite authors, Tom Perotta and Jonathan Franzen, and his novel is a sparkling gem of a book.
- During those few moments each day when I’m in bed and still conscious after a very long day that starts with a 6:30 AM commute into New York City and ends with a reading from my 8-year-old’s latest baseball book, I tend to gravitate to fiction that is, a bit quirky, a skosh more literary than is perhaps good business (in our business, that is), more character than plot driven, more domestic and relationship-centric. Young Adult fiction doesn’t often make the cut here but when Jim and Lauren began to loudly tout the virtues of Rainbow Rowell’s ELEANOR & PARK, I decided to see what all the noise was about. And, boy, am I glad I did. The book is an achingly disarming tale about a couple as mismatched as Harold and Maude but just as true in their devotion to one another. Eleanor is “big,” redheaded, and white trash poor with an abusive stepfather and no self-esteem. She’s also the new kid in school. Park is half-Korean with a loving family (nevermind his thug of a younger brother), and has spent his life barely skirting abuse by his loud peers because of his punk style and different-than-Midwestern look. Neither is prepared for the headlong dive each is about to take into the other’s soul when Eleanor finds a seat next to Park on the school bus one day or the heartbreaking obstacles in their path. Rowell captures the gut churning thrill of first love with devastating accuracy and she places her characters in an ‘80s landscape that, for those of us who were around then, feels as familiar as a Cure song. This is a book for young people of any age.
- Maybe, it’s the fall season with its sudden onset of afterschool activities, homework, kiddie birthday parties, and parent-teacher conferences as well as an uptick in business, but lately I’ve been drawn to novels about women who find themselves precariously juggling lots of balls—as in, motherhood, marital and other romantic relationships, work obligations…those kinds of balls. The best of these novels reveal the strain of keeping everything elegantly aloft and take us inside the complicated layers of their protagonists’ lives, showing us the compromises and heartbreaks, as well as the moments of grace, and the carefully guarded secrets that power our everyday interactions. Liane Moriarty’s THE HUSBAND’S SECRET is such a novel. It is a mystery, a suspense thriller, a domestic drama and a beautifully crafted work of women’s fiction.When Cecilia Fitzpatrick finds an old letter from her husband that instructs her to open it only after he’s dead, her curiosity is inevitably and fatally pricked. Her husband is very much alive, but the fact that he’s kept something from her so big that he feels she can only know about it after he’s gone begins to gnaw at Cecilia’s carefully crafted veneer of perfection. But, Cecilia is not the only one affected by this secret and Moriarty skillfully takes seemingly disparate story threads and weaves a story of passion, revenge, and the random acts that define not just individuals but a whole community. In the process, she shows just how precarious the arc of those balls in the air is and how impossible it sometimes is to plaster over the cracks in the façade of a marriage.
- I’ve been reading Jess Walter’s lyrical, heartwarming and -breaking BEAUTIFUL RUINS and found myself laughing out loud in a couple of places. At one point, my seven-year-old was straining to see over my shoulder what passage had me chortling in such a perplexing way. (I explained that he’d have to wait a few years before he could read this one.) The episode made me realize that as many great books as I’ve read in my bookwormy life, the ones that cracked me up were few and far between. Humor and sex, I’ve concluded are the toughest things to write well. So, my recommendation this go-round is for books that will have you snorting coffee out of your nose while people look at you like you belong in Bellevue: The great Nora Ephron’s I REMEMBER NOTHING and David Sedaris’ NAKED. With an uncanny ability to poke fun without malice and to see the comedic possibilities in even heart-wrenching moments, these two authors have brought me many hours of pure, unadulterated glee. Really, don’t limit yourself to those two titles. Read their entire oeuvre. Just don’t do it while riding public transportation.
- WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple is a gorgeously constructed epistolary novel. With perfect pitch and a stunning ability to plumb the depths of her characters’ souls, Ms. Semple delivers a tale that is as heartbreakingly comic as it is satisfying. You will love all the characters, but especially the dazzling Bernadette.Why? Well, Bernadette Fox is a bona fide genius. A brilliant architect who designed the visionary Twenty Mile House (a marvel of Green building before the term had gained purchase in the public consciousness) only to disappear without leaving so much as an Internet footprint, she is now the scattered, eccentric, agoraphobic mother of 15-year-old Bee Branch and wife to Elgin Branch, a Microsoft wunderkind who is a rock star in the world of computer nerds. Bernadette hatesSeattle, with its tedious weather and ridiculous traffic patterns. She hates the sanctimonious PTA moms at Bee’s private school and she hates the thought of interacting with most people, but she is also a fiercely loving mother whose relationship with her daughter (and to a similar extent with her husband) is based on pull-no-punches honesty and a shared sense of the absurd as well as the grateful bond of people who are smarter than everyone around them and who find solace from the world’s stupidity in each other. WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE may well be my favorite book of 2012. It’s funny, sly, clever, and wholly engrossing. Bernadette is an astonishing mess. She’s spiteful, garrulous, and wields her intellect like a weapon. She’s lazy, depressive, and absolutely delightful. Ms. Semple has taken a deeply flawed, potentially unlikable character and made her outrageously fun and deliciously human. In the process, she’s given us a novel to marvel at and savor.
- I’ve been on many wonderful literary voyages in my life, from the jungles of South Americaand the turquoise seas of the Caribbeanto the deserts of North Africaand the steppes of Russia. Europe, of course, has always been a feast, and the American continent full of treasure. But I keep coming back to the moors and mists of Britainas possibly my favorite literary destination and not just in a geographical sense. If you’re a fan of Brit Lit, you probably like the dry humor and gimlet eye with which the best British writers observe and record the human condition. A great example of this is Julian Barnes’ elegiac, ornery, and oftentimes hilarious THE SENSE OF AN ENDING. Only a Brit could write so movingly about youth and youthful failures that chase a man into adulthood and old age with such bracing matter-of-factness and subterranean passion. The writing is stunning and quietly exceptional and the observations sharp and wicked. The novel is a triumph in a career marked by many. Read it and get in touch with your inner anglophile.
- We’re in the middle of another tedious presidential election cycle. The networks are in a 24-hour frenzy of coverage. The talking heads are trying to outdo each other in the art of absurd commentary. The candidates are trying to be all things to all people and mostly coming across as less than able to guide our great and troubled nation through its various challenges. So, it’s hard to see behind the spin and the polish to the essence of the people vying for the most important job in the land. GAME CHANGE: OBAMA AND THE CLINTONS, MCCAIN AND PALIN, AND THE RACE OF A LIFETIME by John Heilemann, Mark Halperin is a wonderful book to read if, like me, you’re fascinated, disgusted, and thoroughly entertained by the Cirque de Soleil that is American politics. In fact, Game Change is one of the more entertaining books I’ve read about the machinations and manipulations that define modern elections. Heilemann and Halperin skillfully draw portraits of people whose contradictions and complexities, arrogance, foolhardiness, and even nobility are as compelling as anything a novelist might imagine. Even though we know all these stories inside and out by now, the authors’ insights (real or imagined) into these colorful characters are as priceless as they are fun…whatever your politics.
- At an NJRW conference last fall, I saw the lovely and talented Anne Stuart do a panel on romantic suspense and the importance of the “dark hero.” Krissie (as we call Ms. Stuart around here) was charming, smart, and provocative, as always, but what I took away from that workshop was a recommendation that I pass on to you here (you’re welcome!). NINE COACHES WAITING by Mary Stewart is now one of my favorite books in this category. With a brooding narrative that calls to mind Jane Eyre and Rebecca, the novel features a no-nonsense English governess whose customary sangfroid is challenged by a cast of exotic and erratic characters, in particular the rakishly handsome, vaguely sinister Raoul de Valmy. The writing is gorgeous, the atmosphere full of delicious foreboding, the sexual tension palpable, and the French countryside that serves as the backdrop for the action seductive. This is a ridiculously compelling page-turner and I suggest that you not pick it up unless you’re willing to read straight through until you reach the very satisfying end.
- Dawn Powell: ANGELS ON TOAST. A TIME TO BE BORN. THE LOCUSTS HAVE NO KING. THE WICKED PAVILION. THE GOLDEN SPUR. And anything else you can get your hands on. Almost fifty years after her death, Powell’s acerbic wit and dazzling intelligence keep her work as bitingly au courant as it was in the ‘40s and ‘50s, when her characters roamed her beloved New York City. Her creations are sophisticated, neurotic, funny, absurd, and thoroughly modern, and Powell is an author that every generation should delight in discovering anew.
- Yankees fans are used to the vilification their team is subjected to for being a perennial front runner. And, let’s face it, if you are a die-hard baseball fan of a less successful team, it can be frustrating to watch “The Evil Empire” take home the World Series trophy seemingly every other year. So, I’m used to having my Bombers reviled by just about everyone who has an opinion or, worse yet, being scorned for being a fan of a team that never loses. What’s the challenge in that, friends who are Mets fans wonder. Yankees fans are pampered and soft, never having to endure season after season of painful defeats and sometimes outright humiliation. And, despite the fact that I can cite a long and miserable drought from the early ‘80s until the mid-‘90s, I know they’re right. Compared to Mets fans, say, we’re insufferably spoiled brats.But even the Yankees have bad years and sometimes the post-season rolls around and your team comes this close to winning it all only to go home empty handed. That’s why WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR by Doris Kearns Goodwin should be considered required reading for both baseball fans and those who don’t know the difference between a strike and a foul ball. In this impossibly charming book, Kearns Goodwin captures the feverish anticipation at the beginning of each season, the obsessive watching of stats and standings, the agony of dashed hopes and the misery of a failed season and the incandescent joy of watching a team you’ve followed for 162 games go all the way. As many things in baseball are, the book is also a parable about life—about love and loss, bitter disappointment and unquenchable optimism. It is about Brooklyn in the 1950s, about family and community, about growing up and learning to accept the fact that no matter how good you are, sometimes you’re just not going to win. And, it’s about knowing that there’s always next year….
- THE ANTHOLOGIST by Nicholson Baker isa jewel of a book. Everyone shouldread it. There’s not much in the way of plot but there’s so much life and so many riches to mine in its pages, that it doesn’t matter that you’re basically inside someone’s head the whole time, watching him struggle to break the creative impasse he’s gotten himself into. Baker’s hero is whimsical, smart, curious, kind, intellectually generous, emotional and hilarious. You root for him in his predicament (a mammoth case of writer’s block) as you would the hero of some more epic adventure. And he rewards you by giving you passages that make you laugh out loud in surprised delight and then cry sympathetic tears. The best thing about this book is how lighthearted and optimistic it leaves you feeling. Even if you don’t like poetry (and it’s basically a long, rambling discussion about poetry) you gotta like that.
- OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout is that rare bird of a book that you find yourself thinking about at odd times, long after you’ve turned the last page. Partly, it has to do with the preciseness of the prose which is beautiful but not frivolously so. But, mostly it has to do with Olive herself, a character made relentlessly unsympathetic by her actions but whom you find yourself becoming positively infatuated with as you are faced with her sheer, complex humanity. Olive is crusty, angry, mean, petty, and overbearing. She’s also generous, wise, and self-aware. Most of all, she’s not a whiner. She takes what life in her small, often claustrophobic Maine town, throws at her and faces it with equal parts hostility and dignity. The most brilliant thing about this work of fiction (which is not quite a novel and not quite a story collection in the traditional sense) is that it gives you glimpses of Olive from many different points of view – the way we are all, in our loveliness and banality, perceived by those we interact with. Read this book. Seriously.
- I love well executed historical fiction, and I’m a big fan of well plotted, original mysteries with strong protagonists you want to follow from one book to the next. MAISIE DOBBS by Jacqueline Winspear is both a precisely imagined work of historical fiction and a compelling mystery which both conforms to and thwarts the category’s formula. Maisie is a literary delight. Her life circumstances might have been invented by Dickens if the old Victorian could have brought himself to make a woman a hero. She is also thoroughly modern in her yearning for the intellectual and physical freedoms that men have always had but also very much a product of her post WWI society. A contradictory, brilliant, and quietly passionate character, you find yourself wanting to sit down with Maisie Dobbs over tea and a biscuit for an extended conversation.
- As a new year approaches, to say that we find ourselves in challenging times is an understatement. There’s bad news all over and a lot of fear about what lies ahead. And, we have a young leader, who many of us see as a beacon of hope in these dark times and who is about to dive into the turbulent waters of history. This puts me in mind of T.H. White’s THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, his elegant, elegiac, and wise retelling of the Arthurian legend. Although the story has been told many times across many centuries (including by such unlikely scribes as John Steinbeck) no one captures the grandeur, flawed humanity, magic, ambition and tragedy that is at the heart of Arthur’s journey better than White. His is a book (four books, really) about how the forces of evil can be kept at bay – sometimes — by the power of honor, generosity, and noblesse oblige. And, it is a cautionary tale about how most of us carry within us the seeds of our own destruction. Above all, THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING is an adventure, a love story, and one of my all time favorite books.
- I was e-chatting with a friend the other day and we were discussing historical fiction. That got me thinking about how much I’ve always enjoyed being transported back in time with a book as my vessel. When it is flawlessly researched and well written, with fascinating characters whose voices ring true to their eras, a historical novel is a true delight. Caleb Carr’s THE ALIENIST is a suspenseful thriller in which turn-of-the century New York City, with all its glorious energy and brash self-importance, is a character in its own right. It is a smart, literary page turner. Check it out.
- Summer weekends and vacations always make me think of high school reading lists. Though those days are way back in the rear view mirror, I still associate this time of year with weighty, literary fiction that I finally have time to read and savor as well as the mysteries and thrillers that keep you glued to the page while you slowly turn a bright shade of lobster red on your beach chair. For a little of both, this summer, I recommend the languorous, gorgeous study of magnificent decay that is Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s THE LEOPARD and the funny, elegiac, suspenseful debut mystery by James Hime, THE NIGHT OF THE DANCE.Slather on the SPF 40 and settle down for hours of great reading.
- I’m a sucker for well-written, engrossing women’s fiction that explores aspects of the female experience while telling a compelling story. But, so much of women’s fiction these days feels like a cross between an episode of All My Children and an Oprah segment that I’m not often tempted to pick up many of the bestsellers in this category. An exception in recent years is THE DIVE FROM CLAUSEN’S PIER by Ann Packer. A thoughtful, thoroughly entertaining novel about a young woman’s choice between duty and independence, loyalty and personal happiness, it features believable characters whose inner lives are lovingly and carefully drawn. The writing is both lush and precise, and the author refuses to reduce her heroine and the book’s central dilemma to a cliché. It is a deeply satisfying read.
- I was recently talking to one of our agents about the current popularity of the female sleuth category and suggesting that he read Dorothy Sayers’ remarkable series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Set in England on the eve of WWII, these books feel as modern as anything published today. Harriet is a delightfully headstrong heroine with some pretty unconventional ideas and Lord Peter is urbane and terribly smart. Sparks fly when they come together to solve crimes—the intense, caustic Harriet a source of endless fascination for Lord Peter whose tongue is always firmly planted in his aristocratic cheek but whose sharp eye and penchant for satire belie his dandyish ways. BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON, in particular, is Sayers at her best. A sharp, evocative and intelligent writer, her books set the standard modern mystery writers should aspire to.
- A few years ago, I fell in love with Jane Shapiro’s THE DANGEROUS HUSBAND, a hilarious, poignant, witty and heartbreaking novel. Shapiro’s mordant observations on the essential disconnect between the sexes are wickedly nuanced and full of playful irony. She is the literary love child of Woody Allen and Evelyn Waugh.
- David Morrell‘s LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING is an excellent guide for writers of both commercial and literary fiction. It is also an entertaining read, peppered as it is with anecdotes from David’s own illustrious career as a bestselling author and former professor of literature. His insights into plot, story, voice, and character are incisive and tremendously helpful.
- I love all types of fiction, from low- to highbrow and everything in between. But, every once in a while I read something that stays with me because of the author’s sheer virtuosity as a prose stylist, skill as a storyteller, and ability to connect with essential truths about human nature. BEL CANTO by Ann Patchett is such a book.
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.
- My recommendation is for all the people, like me, who have been hearing about GONE GIRL for ages but just haven’t gotten around to reading it. I finally downloaded the book a couple of weeks ago because I was eager to see the movie—David Fincher is a favorite director. But Jim McCarthy convinced me, without much effort, that I really should read the book first. And oh, how right he was. This was exactly my kind of book: so juicy and fast-paced, dark and twisty. It’s the sort of book that you just don’t want to put down because you know there’s yet another surprise coming in the next chapter. But the book isn’t just a pedestrian thriller, one in which you forget the book and move on to the next thing. This is a sticky book, one that makes you look at yourself and your spouse or friends just a little differently. So for everyone who doesn’t believe the hype, the people who reflexively don’t want to read the things everyone else is reading (I count myself as one of you!), I say this one is so worthy of the praise and your attention. You won’t regret it.
- Though I’m not quite finished yet, I feel very confident in recommending Tom Rob Smith’s latest novel THE FARM. I was a big fan of Smith’s impressive debut novel CHILD 44, and when I heard about THE FARM several months ago, I preordered it on my iPad. The premise is that Daniel, our protagonist, believes that his parents live a quiet, happy retirement in rural Sweden. So he’s shocked when his father calls one day, telling him that his mother is having a psychotic breakdown and has been imagining horrible things. But before he can even take it all in, his mother calls and tells him she’s fine, that his father is a liar, and that that what she needs is for Daniel to meet her at Heathrow. Daniel is trapped between his parents, and must decide if the incredible tale his mother tells him about his father is indeed true. This is a fantastic psychological thriller that will keep you guessing—I’m still in the middle of guessing—while also dealing with idea of losing one’s parents. It’s a great read.
- This is the easiest book recommendation I’ve made (since telling everyone to read THE SECRET HISTORY): THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt. Yes, I’m a Tartt devotee. But if this helps my credibility, I wasn’t a fan of THE LITTLE FRIEND. Though I thought the atmosphere and mood in that book were near perfect, the plot and pacing left me cold. This new book, however—I have nothing bad to say. I was swept up in the story from the first pages, and found the section of the book right after the inciting disaster to be some of the best writing I’ve ever read. The mystery of the book twists and turns, with characters dropping in here and there, each like a gun in the first act, and I tore through the pages to see how they’d reappear with a bang. Theo, the protagonist, is a difficult person to love, but oh did I love him. Filled with guilt, shame, longing, and secrets, I couldn’t help but root for him even when he wasn’t exactly doing the right thing. And Boris, his friend—I’m not sure there’s ever been a more likable thug. When this is adapted for the screen (limited series, please, HBO!), every young male actor inHollywood will be fighting for that role. Yes, the book is long. Yes, it’s wordy. But when each of those words is perfectly chosen, and all of the words add up to a masterpiece, I can promise you it’s worth the time. If you only have time for one book, it should be this one!
- Human sexuality is one of the most interesting topics, yet it’s rarely discussed honestly and publicly. That’s why I pre-ordered PERV by Jesse Bering when I read about it in PW months ago. A book about sexual deviancy? Yes, please. And I must say, it did not disappoint. It’s a breath of fresh air to read about the broad spectrum of human sexuality in a frank, judgment-free context. Bering’s basic rule is do no harm–as long as you’re not hurting someone else, what the problem? An atheist, Bering is able to strip the religious and moral judgment from the usual discussion of sexuality, and though I consider myself pretty open-minded, even I had to confront some of my own prudish tendencies. What Bering does most effectively is communicate the pain that shame brings to those whose sexual appetites don’t conform to the norm, and how destructive that pain can be. It’s a book that I hope many people will read, as I believe it has the potential to change not just our dialogue about sex, but the lives of those who suffer because of their innate desires.
- First, I want to second Jim’s last recommendation, GOING CLEAR by Lawrence Wright. I haven’t had a chance to finish it yet, but it’s the book I reward myself with at the end of a long day. It’s worth all of the hype. My current recommendation is a bit of an odd one. One big advantage to living in LA as opposed to New York is space—I’ve got a lot more of it, especially in the living room. There’s a lot of surface to cover, and being a book person generally, those surfaces are covered in books. Suddenly, coffee table books are a huge part of my life, and I can’t seem to stop buying them. But my favorite still is one I received as a gift, CONCORDE by Frederic Beniada. Being a coffee table book, it’s gorgeous, of course. The photos are incredible, and the widescreen-like format of the book is especially dramatic—though it does make the book a bit awkward to hold—and it is clearly a must-have for any aviation geek (guilty as charged). But what surprised me is just how informative it was. Filled with stories about the development, service and demise of the world’s first supersonic passenger jet, it’s a book that I still haven’t finished! I highly recommend it to any fan of aviation, design, engineering, or just great coffee table books.
- I can’t even remember where I heard about this book, but I’m always on the lookout for something unique and out of the ordinary. So when some blog wrote about THE WHERE, THE WHY AND THE HOW: 75 ARTISTS ILLUSTRATE WONDROUS MYSTERIES OF SCIENCE, I knew I’d have to take a look. It’s a collection of illustrations and charts from a wide variety of artists, each illustrating a scientific question that’s still unsettled, such as “What existed before the big bang?” and “How much of human behavior is predetermined?” Along with the illustrations are answers from scientists in each field. The illustrations range from the scientific, to pseudo-scientific, to the fantastical. Some are funny, some are serious and some are quite disturbing. But each one is compelling and worth a second or third look. There’s no narrative, so it’s the perfect sort of book to pick up for a few minutes; I have it on my Nook app for the iPad, and like to read it while waiting for an appointment. Sure beats Angry Birds for some brain stimulation!
- I always have the hardest time with book recommendations. It’s not that I don’t have any books to recommend, it’s just that I’m usually reading multiple books that I’d recommend to different people. This time around, I’m going to suggest a type of books I normally don’t read (and wouldn’t usually admit to, even if I did): celebrity memoir. But I’ve really been enjoying former SNL cast member Rachel Dratch‘s GIRL WALKS INTO A BAR. She talks about the difficulties of not being gorgeous inHollywood, and the candor with which she discusses the issue is refreshing and very affecting. The book is just as good when she talks about her relationship and unexpected pregnancy. Even if you’re not an SNL fan, or if you don’t know who Dratch is, this is a funny read with unexpected depth.
- I’ve always felt compelled to pick novels that I’m reading for my recommendation, but this time around, I’m going to recommend the book in my house that’s gotten the most practical use recently, THE PDT COCKTAIL BOOK by Jim Meehan with amazing illustrations by Chris Gall. The book is named after the author’s popularLower East Side bar, which is famous for its hidden entrance in a hot dog stand; you have to pick up a phone inside and see if there are seats available. As a cocktail fan and hobbyist, I’ve got a lot of cocktails books, but this one has a permanent place on my shelf. The recipes are so well-curated and very particular, including the brand of spirit used in each drink. Classic cocktails abound, like a fantastic recipe for a Martinez (old tom gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino, bitters); as do rediscovered gems, like the Seelbach (rye, cointreau, champagne and bitters); as well as new friends, like the Dry Country Cocktail (whisky, dry vermouth, ginger liqueur and lemon bitters). Along with these recipes (and recipes for the hot dogs at said stand), there are the Chris Gall illustrations that add so much to the look of the package. Known to New Yorkers for his brilliant subway-fish illustration, Chris’s work is an invaluable contribution to the book, and just another element that makes this one a keeper. A must have for any cocktail aficionado.
- If you’re looking for the kind of book that sticks with you long after you’ve finished, Andrew Smith’s THE MARBURY LENS will be right up your alley. This stellar YA novel is dark, twisted, violent, brutal, terrifying, but also smart, brave, hopeful, tender and unforgettable. The story begins badly enough: Jack gets drunk at a party and winds up kidnapped and nearly…well, it’s not good. He escapes, and that’s when things really get bad. I don’t want to say much more about the book, though reviews will give away plenty if you care to read them. Rather, I want to discuss this book with anyone who reads it. So what are you waiting for? Go get a copy and then let’s talk! And, if you want a taste, you can find an excerpt here. After that, you’ll be reaching for the book with the same need that Jack reaches for the Marbury Lens…
- If you’re looking for a fantastic YA read, I highly recommend Paolo Pacigalupi‘s SHIP BREAKER. A finalist for the National Book Award and last month’s winner of the Printz, this is one of those books that I was excited to read but unsure of what to expect. Though the author is known for adult sci-fi, this book fits quite comfortably into the current dystopian trend in children’s publishing—without ever feeling too familiar. The book is a great lesson in world-building, and I’d say this is a must-read book for anyone writing fantasy or sci-fi. But I also think this is a fantastic book to read as an introduction to sci-fi. It’s accessible, smart, and a real page-turner.
- This time around, I’m recommending is Robert Cormier’s THE CHOCOLATE WAR. I re-read the book not that long ago, and I was reminded what a dark, difficult, brilliant book it is. Cormier doesn’t pull any punches in his description of the cruelty, corruption and brutality that is high school. It’s visceral and gritty, and it’s just as relevant and necessary as it was when it was first published. If you haven’t, read it.
- In my reading for pleasure time, I’ve been in a very nonfiction mood, and I’ve been jumping back and forth between a few books. But the one that I keep coming back to at the moment is Daniel Okrent’s LAST CALL: THE RISE AND FALL OF PROHIBITION. I knew only a little about the Prohibition before I started the book, and it turns out that much of what I thought I knew was wrong. I really appreciate the book’s harsh take on organized crime (I’ve never understood the American glorification of the mob), and I’m fascinated by the strange bedfellows of the temperance movement. Who knew that the suffragists and the KKK got together to stop drinking? It’s a thoroughly engaging book about one of the most interesting and misunderstood events in American history. It’s well worth a read.
- For anyone even mildly interested in tennis, I highly recommend A TERRIBLE SPLENDOR by Marshall Jon Fisher, which came out earlier this year. It tells the story of the deciding 1937 Davis Cup match between American Don Budge and Germany’s Gottfried von Cramm, one of the most important tennis matches in history. With the impending world war as a backdrop, the stakes are high for both players, but more so for von Cramm who knew that his usefulness to the Reich would end with a loss. With the interesting twist that he was coached by Big Bill Tilden, the book is a compelling tennis thriller, and reminds me how much I’d like to find a great tennis book to represent.
- Since I got my Kindle, I’ve been doing more nonfiction reading lately – something I don’t get to do enough of. The book I most recently finished was Dave Cullen‘s COLUMBINE. The book is utterly compelling, almost too much so. I found myself reading it when I intended to be doing other things: checking email, calling friends, making dinner. The book is consuming in a way that I haven’t experienced in a long time. Cullen strips away all the assumptions, rumors, myths and misconceptions, leaving a clear, stark, sobering account of what happened. Emotionally gripping from page one, I recommend the book to anyone who thinks they can handle it. They won’t be disappointed.
- For you YA readers out there, at least those of you with a strong constitution, I recommend LIVING DEAD GIRL by Elizabeth Scott. It’s a terrifying, engrossing book that can easily be read in one sitting (and probably will be). This is the kind of edgy, boundary-pushing fiction that I’m always on the lookout for.
- I recently read and loved THIS IS WHAT I DID by Ann Dee Ellis. I’d been reading about the book for a while when my client, Sara Zarr, insisted I read it. I’m glad she did. Logan, a sensitive eighth-grader, is still troubled by an event that transpired before he moved to his new school. In fact, his parents moved because of what happened. As the book progresses, we get closer and closer to the secret in Logan’s past, something darker than we might have imagined. The book is powerful from beginning to end, and Logan’s pitch perfect narration will draw in anyone who picks it up. Ms. Ellis is a writer to keep an eye on.
- I recently read and loved PROM DATES FROM HELL by Rosemary Clement-Moore. It’s the story of Maggie Quinn, a sarcastic and cynical teenager who has to deal not only with bitchy cheerleaders, but also an ancient evil hell-bent on making this prom night one for the history books. While Prom Dates draws on great influences like Heathers and Buffy, Maggie’s voice is one of a kind and carries the novel. This is just the kind of great commercial fiction for teens that I’m always looking for.
- I’ve got two very different, yet thematically related, recommendations this month.The first is Scott Westerfeld‘s UGLIES series (UGLIES, PRETTIES, and SPECIALS). Set in a future utopia/dystopia, the books are a wonderfully engaging story about a girl choosing between a necessarily uncertain life of freedom and the safe, predictable, controlled existence of her modern society. Westerfeld does a great job of asking big questions without letting the philosophy bog down the story, and story is what makes us want to continue reading something, even nonfiction.That leads me to my other recommendation, Chris Hedges‘ AMERICAN FASCISTS, which is a compelling exploration of parallels between past fascist movements and the current dominionist movement in the US, told through first-hand reporting. For anyone concerned about the intersection of religious and public life, this is a must-read, and this is exactly the kind of smart, well-researched, controversial nonfiction that I’m on the lookout for.
- I recently read a terrific new YA book, CLAY by David Almond. Almond did an amazing job of reeling me in, lulling me into the ordinariness of the characters’ lives, and then injecting their world with the shocking and unimaginable. This is the kind of book I’m always on the lookout for, one that deals with complex and often dark subjects (in this case, the dangers of playing God) while also being highly readable. CLAY will stick with you long after you finish it.
- I recently finished books that satisfy the two sides of my personality. The first is a nonfiction classic I’ve been dying to read ever since I took a class on Hellenistic religions – THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS by Elaine Pagels. It’s an engaging book, and I was so impressed by its lucid explanation of Gnosticism. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in early Christianity or the history of the Church.
- On the YA front, I recently read BOY HEAVEN by Laura Kasischke in one afternoon — I couldn’t put it down. I don’t want to give too much away, but if you love mysteries and the supernatural, this is sure to be an instant classic. What makes this novel all the more impressive is that the author injects a very commercial premise with some first-class writing. A must-own for any YA reader.
- When looking for YA novels, I’m always after a fresh and distinct voice – a character you know and relate to only after a few sentences. In the modern YA classic, VISION QUEST, Terry Davis has created just such a character in Louden Swain. Louden is at turns confident and insecure, spiritual and hedonistic, and through him Davis captures the amazing ability of teenagers to be an adult one moment and a child the next, making this a book that can be enjoyed by adults as well as teens.
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.
- I don’t have a lot of time to read fiction outside of work and our work book club (and a local personal book club I just joined!), but I had lunch with the amazing editor Amy Einhorn several months back and she brought me a copy of her book, the smash hit THE HUSBAND’S SECRET by Liane Moriarty. I hadn’t read the author’s previous novels, and had been hearing a lot of good things about this one. It also happened to coincide with my local book club reading the novel, so I figured it was time to start reading. I was really struck with a lot of things about the novel. The author’s ability to tie together multiple overlapping storylines was impressive and reminded me of another favorite book, Tom Perotta’s LITTLE CHILDREN, my favorite novel about suburban dysfunction. And while the book’s plot, when you describe it out loud to friends, might sound contrived and past the point of believability, it doesn’t read that way and if it does, you’re so invested in the fast-paced narrative that you can forgive it. There are a couple of surprise twists that literally had me gasp out loud (ask my husband and kids when it happened in the car one afternoon). I’d love to find a book like this for my list. Gripping, twisting, relatable, disturbing, and highly entertaining.
- For our recent book club, I read BRAIN ON FIRE by Susannah Cahalan and was completely blown away by it (which, I might note, does not happen very often). It’s 100% the kind of book I’d love to have on my list. I represent a good amount of memoir, and brain science is also an area of interest. Cahalan describes a brief but harrowing episode in her life where she seemed to completely lose her mind. As it turns out, she was suffering from a then rarelydiagnosed autoimmune condition, whichthankfully responded well to meds once discovered. Well enough for her to be able to write a piece for her employer, the New York Post, which became the basis for this remarkable book. The book reads like an episode of House, countless doctors trying to determine the cause of her illness. The combination of an incredibly dramatic story, a fascinating scientific discovery, and a reporter’s eye putting the pieces together of this period in her life makes for a compelling, page-turning book that reads like a medical thriller.
- I’m reading Jennifer Senior’s new book ALL JOY AND NO FUN, based on an article she wrote for New York magazine that received a lot of attention, “I Love My Children, I Hate My Life.” I contacted her back then about doing the book and knew it was going to be a big hit when it released. I just learned it’s on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s a parenting book, but not a practical one. It’s a book that speaks to our generation of parents and how parenting has changed over the last 70 years and the ensuing unprecedented challenges. It’s a big think book and one I’d like to see more of, in the parenting category or elsewhere.
- Every now and again (and probably more often than I’d like) I see a book and think “Why didn’t I sell that?” I guess it’s a good thing to keep me excited and motivated to find new projects I love. It happened recently with a new nonfiction title SOME NERVE: LESSONS LEARNED BY BECOMING BRAVE by blogger and journalist Patty Chang Anker which describes her journey to overcome many of her lifelong fears as she approaches the age of 40 and aspires to be a positive role model for her two girls. I so relate to this personally having grown up with a great deal of anxiety and unrealistic fears of so many things that followed me into adulthood. I wouldn’t say I overcame my fear of roller coasters, but my 8-year-old did convince me to go on Space Mountain last year at Disney! This is the kind of narrative with a self-help bend that really speaks to me. It’s a hard market for it, but if this project had come across my desk, I would have jumped on it (and probably not, literally for fear of falling).
- I’m a huge fan of Sheryl Sandberg’s LEAN IN. The book has done so well, deservedly so, and I’m proud to say I had the idea years ago for her to do a book (I only wish I represented it!). She’s so smart and interesting, and I find her ability to balance work and family truly admirable. People can be so cynical. I remember mentioning it to someone and they scoffed that she probably had dinner with her family while checking her email the whole time. Maybe that’s true but at least she’s there and sending the message to her staff and colleagues that it’s important she leave work early to be home at dinner time! I don’t know what the long term effect if any will change the way we look at working women, or make it easier for working moms to have a better work-life balance, but it’s an easy, accessible read with a lot of personal anecdotes and many relatable and aspirational concepts for women everywhere.
- I love books that tap into a subculture and expose something in a fresh way. The runaway bestseller (and impressive first book) QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT CAN’T STOP TALKING by Susan Cain is a book that speaks to that. I also recently learned that her TED talk for which she hired an acting coach is one of the top 10 viewed talks on their long and prestigious list. It’s so wonderful to see a subject explored in a deep, compelling, and unique way so that the world can better understand what makes us human. I’d love to see more narrative nonfiction that does what Ms. Cain does so well in QUIET.
- I worked with Andrew McCarthy on a TV movie as a kid and I’ve watched his career from afar with fascination ever since. Most recently he’s made a name for himself as an award-winning and critically acclaimed travel writer, and has just released a travel memoir called THE LONGEST WAY HOME: ONE MAN’S QUEST FOR THE COURAGE TO SETTLE DOWN. I generally don’t like when books cross over to different categories, but I do like that this one combines his strengths as a travel writer with his personal experiences as someone struggling to commit to marriage and his fiancé. It’s got a hook (and of course his status as a former member of the Brat Pack doesn’t hurt) that appeals, and makes sense so it has the right combination of elements, essential to any good memoir.
- I always say I’m looking for original parenting titles, and to be honest, I’ve found too few. The market is so crowded and the author generally has to have such a big platform for it to work. But there are books that come along that I wish I’d represented. MIND IN THE MAKING by Ellen Galinsky is one of them. Praised as one of the best books of 2010, it combines scientific research with practical application for a read that is interesting, informative, and useful. It breaks down concepts that we struggle to teach our kids in the current parenting culture. Things like the importance of focus and self control, perspective taking, critical thinking, and taking on challenges are all addressed and presented in a clear, compelling way. It’s an important parenting book, and I’d love to see something like it on my list.
- My pick this time is a book I wish I’d sold. It’s Alice Ozma‘s THE READING PROMISE, and it’s just the sweetest memoir by a young woman about the promise her single librarian dad made to read to her every day for 100 nights when she was 8 years old. Those 100 nights turned into the rest of her childhood and continued until she went to college. This isn’t a flashy book, but it’s so thoughtful and honest, and teaches us about the simple things in life which often turn out to be the most important. If you want to have your heart melt, just read the foreword, written by the author’s dad. In a few short pages, he sums up what it means to be a good parent. It’s beautiful, and a book that should be read, savored, and passed on to others. In a world that moves way too fast, we can all learn something from its simple, but profound, lessons.
- I’ve been fascinated this season by a new parenting memoir that has been getting so much press and attention. BATTLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER by Amy Chua has shot out of the gate like a rocket stirring up anger, resentment, admiration, and lots of word-of-mouth interest. As I mentioned in our blog, I’m always on the lookout for original parenting titles. I also love memoir and narrative nonfiction, and this book is a perfect storm of all of the elements we want to see that make a book stand out in such a competitive marketplace. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Ms. Chua’s parenting choices, but I am impressed to see how she’s managed to turn them into a successful book!
- An editor I was speaking with recently was telling me about a new cat memoir that was selling well called CLEO by Helen Brown. She sent me a copy and I was taken with the tragic, yet uplifting story of how animals have the ability to transform people for the better. This particular cat helped a family who was so broken, they didn’t know if they’d ever heal. Cleo changed them, and made them smile again. There have been many of these animal memoirs over the last few years, some better and more successful than others, but this one is definitely worth checking out, although be prepared for a tear jerker. I always respond to a good story that connects people with animals. My client, Shreve Stockton, author of The Daily Coyote blog and book, is another example of what I’d like to see more of. Nice writing, amazing story, and the ability to illustrate the connections we all share to each other and to the animals that reside with us.
- I have several connections to the author Bruce Feiler, and I was really looking forward to reading his new memoir, THE COUNCIL OF DADS. It’s about a very unique group of men he pulled together after a cancer diagnosis to help raise his identical twin daughters if he didn’t make it. His girls went to school with my daughter, and share a birthday with her. I, too, have identical twins and was recently touched when a very close friend was diagnosed with cancer, so there is so much about this book that is relatable to me personally. But I also think there’s a lot about it that is universal. There are the ideas of love, friendship, parenting, illness, death, serious issues, which Bruce looks at with a new and unique lens. I recommend you check it out, and you might learn something you didn’t expect about your own family and friends, and how it doesn’t have to take a devastating illness to really appreciate what’s important in life.
- A book that I’m really enjoying right now is ONE AND THE SAME by Abigail Pogrebin. It’s a personal story since the author is an identical twin, but also a seasoned journalist’s research into identity and what it means to be a singular, especially when you share that unique bond. She did extensive research on twinship, and interviewed many twins about their relationships with their siblings. As the mom of 9 month old identical twins, I am now a member of this amazing and unusual club, and I think there are a lot of people out there who are fascinated by twins and what they are all about. Even if you don’t have twins in your immediate circle, there is still much to admire in this book.
- I’ll admit it – one of the perks of working in book publishing is getting books for free. So I’m sometimes surprised when I walk into a bookstore and pick up a book that compels me to buy it. This happened recently with Ruth Reichl’s new memoir, NOT BECOMING MY MOTHER. I loved the opening anecdote so much that I bought the book. She’s a lovely writer and the book beautifully captures the essence of the complex woman her mother was. But I know what I’ll come back to again and again is that opening story about the moldy chocolate pudding. It’s a classic in the making.
- I recently read and enjoyed I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE by Sloane Crosley. It’s the kind of writing I’m looking for in that she takes perfectly ordinary topics (and neuroses) and turns them into smart, funny, relatable self-deprecating tales. The voice is distinctive and fresh, and although essay collections generally can be a challenge to sell, this sometimes uneven collection is good enough to make for a satisfying whole.
- Alan Weisman’s THE WORLD WITHOUT US is a great example of high concept, speculative nonfiction that looks at a really unique subject and explores it from almost every conceivable angle. Judging from robust sales, the public is eager to embrace a book like this that doesn’t offer anything strictly historical (although historical elements factor in to his thesis), or practical, or even entertaining, necessarily, but rather interesting and thought provoking. It’s refreshing to see such a unique subject handled in such a dynamic way, and it’s the kind of nonfiction I’d like to see more of.
- I love a good memoir. Joan Didion’s THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING is an emotionally wrenching, beautifully written and painfully honest retelling of the author’s harrowing experience when her husband literally drops dead in their living room just days after their only daughter is admitted to the hospital in critical condition. Its almost melodic rhythm draws you in, and the observations Didion shares about life and death and the fear that comes with the unexpected are remarkable and completely relatable. Memoir is a tough category, but there’s always room for a book like this that rises above the pack and leaves the reader seeing things in a completely different way than before.
- I recently picked up a copy of Steve Almond’s CANDY FREAK, a book I’d heard a lot about when it was published a few years back and hit the bestseller lists. It’s a fun and quirky read, and the kind of book that I love because it’s completely unique and works largely because of the strength of the writing and Almond’s engaging voice. He takes on a subject we all (well, at least I) love—candy—but one no one ever thought to express in a book-length treatment. At the pitch stage, the reaction might have begged some to wonder if it could actually work, but work it did. The combination of a fresh topic, an entertaining narrative, a great package and positive word-of-mouth led to a successful publication that gave a large audience of readers the chance to enjoy the delicious, calorie-free treat of CANDY FREAK.
- Sue Miller’s LOST IN THE FOREST is an engaging, insightful, sometimes riveting and always engrossing read. The thing that most impressed me and I don’t see often enough in commercial fiction is Miller’s skill at drawing the reader in within the first few pages with interesting characters and a terrific setup. That ability to capture the reader’s attention early is imperative in the current market, and the sign of a strong story to follow. I’d like to see more fiction like this that really does grab you at page 1.
- Tom Perrotta‘s LITTLE CHILDREN is an example of the kind of smart, contemporary commercial fiction that I’d like to see more of. With a strong interest in psychology, this novel appeals to me because the author explores a suburban community where nothing is exactly what you expect, and the complexity of the character’s individual choices make them relatable, even if they’re not always sympathetic. Perrotta manages to entertain the reader through often serious subject matter with a light touch and strokes of poignant humor. Like the terrific show Six Feet Under on HBO or much of John Irving’s quirky fiction, Perrotta defies the norm in introducing us to the dark side of suburbia.
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.
- If you pick up a copy of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE, you may notice that the cover is littered with stickers. The book won something like a zillion prizes—it’s so covered that I feel a little bad for the cover designer whose beautiful work is covered up. If you’re at all like me, when you see that many prize stickers on a young adult novel, you might start to worry that you’re about to embark on one of those novels that is more “good for you” than, say, enjoyable. Push through that feeling, though, and you’ll discover a book that is equal parts funny and heartbreaking that also happens to deal with questioning sexuality without being about that. It’s really about friendship and family and confusion and the anger of young men. The best teen novels in my mind breathe with an authenticity of life at that moment between childhood and adulthood. Sáenz’s greatest achievement is capturing exactly what that feels like in a way that is perfectly specific to his characters while remaining expansive in its identifiable nature.
- Editors always want to see fiction that is “high-concept” and has a hook. Writing novels that fit that definition is tricky, though. It’s a fine, fine line between a hook and a gimmick. I confess that I put off reading Kate Atkinson’s LIFE AFTER LIFE for a while because I heard it was a book about a woman who keeps dying and being reborn. It sounded like the kind of thing that would be almost painfully clever. Then I picked it up. And I barely put it down until I turned the final page. The structure of the book is, yes, insanely clever, but it works on a much deeper level, allowing author and reader to explore questions of chance, fate, and choice; and to consider how life is lived, whether there is a definitive right answer to any of the larger questions of the world. Along the way, she tells an incredible story (or really, many incredible stories) filled with comedy, horror, love, death, and everything else entailed in lives after lives. It’s a brilliant novel, and it’s the perfect example of a high concept book done breathtakingly well.
- I don’t read a ton of epic fantasy—not because I don’t like it, but because the books tend to be so long, and it’s all the more frustrating to dislike a book if you’ve invested yourself in it through 700+ pages. I need to receive a hearty recommendation before I’ll dive into the category. That’s exactly how I ended up grabbing Scott Lynch’s THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA. I couldn’t be more thrilled that I did. Lynch’s world-building is perfect. There are no information dumps, no pages filled just with explanations of local life. Instead, he weaves the scene setting through the entire novel effortlessly. His pacing is also brilliant. He knows not only how to build tension, but when to subvert expectations, when to leave readers hanging, and when to give them exactly what they want. Set in a world of blood-drinking glass roses, bondsmagi, and fighting sharks, the most unbelievable thing about the novel is that it’s his debut.
- I’m lucky enough to have a group of clients who have achieved a lot of success in the paranormal, mystery, and young adult worlds. I adore those genres and always will. I do sometimes wish I would see more real life stories. I always tell people I grew up reading Stephen King and Jackie Collins. What’s missing from my list is the Jackie Collins side of things. Reading CRAZY RICH ASIANS by Kevin Kwan, I had a total case of agent envy. I would love to have the chance to represent something this splashy, fun, and refreshing. Not only is it a big throwback to soapy 80s fiction, it’s a peek into a rarified world that I know nothing about. But above all else, it’s just a good, fun romp about rich people behaving badly—the absolute perfect beach read.
- My list tends to lean towards fiction, but I’ve recently found myself doing a lot of nonfiction reading for pleasure. No book has dazzled me as much as Lawrence Wright’s GOING CLEAR. I’m often asked what I mean when I say I’m looking for unusual or unexpected stories. This book, with its peek behind the curtain of one of the most carefully guarded organizations in the country really hit all my buttons. Not only did Wright find amazing stories to tell, but he shared a look into a world that I realized I knew little to nothing about. And let’s be honest: I’m not one to shy away from a book that may court its share of controversy!
- I read Megan Abbott’s DARE ME because a good friend in the business told me I had to. When she told me it was a thriller set in the world of high school cheerleading, I assumed I knew exactly what to expect. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In spite of the dead body and mysterious circumstances, nothing about the novel was more acutely thrilling than being plunged into the darkest corners of the teenaged brain with some unpredictably vicious, arrogant, self-involved characters. When I turned the final page and grabbed my phone to text the person who told me to read it, I wasn’t interested in hashing out the details of the case. I wanted to talk about the incredible characters, delighted and disturbed by the novel’s pitch black gloss.
- I’m not usually a fan of Westerns, but Patrick deWitt’s THE SISTER BROTHERS is hardly typical of the genre. This blackly comic novel about two brothers working as hitmen in the old West is about the California gold rush, the nature of greed, and the strength (and limitation) of familial bonds. But besides being funny, bloody, and action packed, the novel features a fantastically fresh protagonist, a meditative murderer tied down by his past but yearning for something more. It’s a brilliant and original novel, and I would have given a finger to have represented it.
- People often ask what I mean by saying I want to see “unusual and unexpected” material. The perfect example: GEEK LOVE by Katherine Dunn—a soulful, humorous, magical story about a family of carnival freaks and the incredibly strange relationships between them. Besides the astonishing prose, Dunn manages to imbue a mythic quality to the characters while simultaneously keeping them grounded and relateable. An oldie but a goodie. I love this book.
- Sure, selling a memoir is easier when you’re famous. And lots of semi-celebrities have used that ease as an excuse to write mediocre memoirs about not especially interesting lives. There’s a glut of dull autobiography out there, and so I was hesitant to dive into Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS, even though it received a ton of wonderful attention. When I finally broke down and got it, I was thrilled to discover it wasn’t just a great memoir for a rocker. It was a great memoir, period. Focusing on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, she weaves together beautiful stories that explain how much a single friendship can build to a white hot intensity that leaves them irrevocably changed years after the fact. It is a towering achievement that should be read by any aspiring memoirist who wants to see how someone can use their own stories to illuminate truths far larger than just their own.
- Jennifer Egan‘s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD is a brilliant novel—beautifully crafted, dazzlingly inventive, moving, and thought-provoking. Like Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin and Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, it tells the stories of dozens of characters, in Egan’s case crossing generations and continents, without ever losing focus or threatening to dissolve into its disparate pieces. It is astonishing in its precision and specificity, and anyone who wants to see how a character can leap off the page in less than a paragraph need look no further for masterful examples.
- Laurie Halse Anderson is a tremendous writer. Chains, Wintergirls, Fever 1793: all fantastic novels. But one novel towers above the rest (at least for me). SPEAKwas Anderson’s first novel, and she set the bar for herself enormously high. The story of Melinda, a teenager who chooses silence rather than admit to tragic events in her past, SPEAK is an enormously powerful, deeply moving book that not only tells its story with beauty and integrity, but it reminds us how important storytelling is. A dark and difficult read, it is ultimately triumphant and affirming.
- Jonathan Tropper’s THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU is a pitch-perfect blend of comedy, pathos, and heart. It reads like a slapstick version of The Corrections, and it is a delight every step of the way. With a brilliantly realized cast of characters and a deep sense of compassion for them, Tropper grabs hold from the first page and doesn’t let go. It’s a joyful book about life’s harder moments which is achievement enough. It’s an easy novel to love.
- When I first heard the plot of Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES (a bunch of teens are selected to battle each other to the death—on television!), it sounded derivative of Battle Royale and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. It also seemed like it would be impossible to pull off in a satisfactory way that was also appropriate for its young adult target audience. That the book succeeds so completely is a testament to Collins’ ability to confound expectations, her ability to create wholly realized, deeply sympathetic characters, and the sheer scope of her imagination. I hate that the next book in the series isn’t out yet.
- Written as one exceptionally long complaint letter, Jonathan Miles’ DEAR AMERICAN AIRLINES could have been gimmicky and one-note. Instead, he turned a charming concept into a gutbuster-cum-tearjerker. Laugh-out-loud funny, deeply emotional, and remarkably true, Miles’ slim novel ultimately feels expansive, earnest, and emotional, a feat of focus, precision, and narrative momentum.
- Deeply disturbed individual returns to deeply creepy family home. Pathos ensues. We’ve been there before, but Entertainment Weekly television critic Blake Flynn brings numerous new twists to an old concept in her debut thriller SHARP OBJECTS. This is an uncomfortable book that gets under your skin and stays there. Reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Flynn’s book is a brief, exciting trip into dark hearts and minds.
- Historical fiction always seems to me to be especially difficult to pull off, which is why I was particularly impressed by the dazzling, heartbreaking blend of the personal and political in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel of the Nigerian civil war, HALF OF A YELLOW SUN. Brilliantly structured and beautifully written, it is at once the most devastating and simply the best novel I have read in recent months.
- Sometimes I wonder how many times the same subject can be written about before there’s nothing left to say. Then along come authors like James Swanson who, in MANHUNT, takes the history of Lincoln’s assassination and imbues the story with suspense, intrigue, and a thrilling, fresh perspective.
- Five years after I read Jennifer Egan’s LOOK AT ME, its characters remain vivid in my memory. A deeply unnerving novel of profound insight, Egan’s work imprints itself on the reader. It is a spellbinding book that deserves to be widely read and appreciated. I am awed by the author’s talent and thrilled by the unsettling visions she created.
- Memoirs are incredibly tough to do well. It’s tricky to make your life fascinating and make yourself likeable while also pulling no punches and being honest (insert James Frey joke here). This is why I can hardly say enough good things about Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s I AM NOT MYSELF THESE DAYS. As a former drag queen who spent a number of months living with his hustler boyfriend in a Manhattan penthouse, his experience is rarified at best. That said, you can relate to him on every page—through the screw-ups and heartbreak and insanity. Not only does he fill each page with laughter and pathos, he backs it all up with a deep understanding of people and a powerful level of sympathy and compassion. Framed beautifully within seven months of his life, the book is in turns gut-wrenching and laugh-out-loud hysterical. In my humble opinion, it is the very best that memoir has to offer, and I recommend it whole-heartedly.
- Charlie Huston‘s CAUGHT STEALING is a fantastic example of what happens when all of the pieces–the writing, the plot, the character, the pacing–rise to the level of greatness in a work of commercial fiction. I would love to come across a writer who has written a thriller that’s just as, well?hrilling as this hyperkinetic first novel.
- I love a great sentence as much as the next guy, but I’m more interested in an author getting to the meat of the matter rather than exercising their prose ability. I recommend Dennis Cooper‘s GOD, JR. for its ultra-spare, incisive writing.
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.
- If you’ve read and seen Gone Girl, another good way to get that tension fix is Paula Daly’s KEEP YOUR FRIENDS CLOSE. Daly takes a familiar premise—man abandons sexless marriage under the neglect of his careerist wife because of her slutty temptress friend—and deliciously loads it with secrets and intrigue until the book has you hooked. By the time all the skeletons have been extricated from their closets and carefully orchestrated lives have been toppled, you’ll know the characters for who they really are and still have a hard time seeing just where they’re heading. With a surprising amount of suspense for a novel where the reader knows more than the protagonist plus a delightful hint of campy glee, it’s the perfect way to fill the void in the week between new episodes of Serial.
- David Stuart MacLean came to on a train platform in India with no idea how long he’d been standing there, who he was, or where he was going. With the help of some concerned souls who took him for a drug addict, he made his way to the hospital where he discovered he was a Fulbright scholar who’d had a psychotic break as a result of known but unadvertised complications of the anti-malarial drug he’d been taking. With his memory in disarray—he remembered his parents, but not his girlfriend, and other memories, like the redheaded drug addict with whom he shared a rundown flat seemed to be a fabrication of his psychotic mind rather than an actual memory—he was forced to reconstruct his own notion of his identity and try to figure out both who he is and who he was. THE ANSWER TO THE RIDDLE IS ME is the extraordinary story that begins the moment he regains lucidity on that train platform, as he investigates himself, his feelings, and his role in his own life. There’s so much at stake and so much irreparably lost, but it’s not a misery memoir. MacLean never paints himself as someone to feel sorry for so much as he paints his condition as one to be interested in. It’s an effort that makes the book the perfect intersection of memoir and popular science.
- One of my biggest life goals is to turn my two young nephews into life-long readers. Sure it’s costly now, but someday those boys will use their own money to buy my clients’ books and help pay my rent! Fortunately, all evidence indicates it’s working, so I’m very pleased to recommend some picture books that really get their attention. My older nephew happily finishes the sentence “It was a….” with little prompting, since Judith Viorst’s ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY (illustrated by Ray Cruz) is one of his favorites. His little brother is a slightly tougher sell, but they’re both obsessed with Bill Cotter’s DON’T PUSH THE BUTTON. They recently built a snowman and named him Larry, after the main character of that book—and if you’ve read it you may be delighted to know they next tried to make a snow button so they could easily make more snow Larrys. And you kind of can’t go wrong with Mo Willems: my older nephew dies for anything featuring Mo’s Pigeon (especially DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS and THE PIGEON HAS FEELINGS, TOO, since he loves practicing his angry face). And his little brother is very into THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA!, which works best with silly voices. Their newest favorite is Peter Brown’s MR. TIGER GOES WILD, which has roaring for the little one and opportunity to spot the differences between the town and the wilderness for his brother. If you have any new recommendations for me, don’t hesitate to send ‘em my way on twitter (@laurenabramo)!
- When my friend Rebecca picked Ernest Cline’s READY PLAYER ONE for our book club, I wasn’t entirely sure if it was going to be my cup of tea. It takes place in 2044, for starters, which is fine, but it’s not typically what captures my attention in fiction. Everything I’d heard about it was that it was deeply invested in video game culture as well. Don’t get me wrong, as a child of the ‘80s I grew up with Atari and Nintendo, so I see some of the appeal. But my understanding of MMOs only goes as far as wondering how “massively multiplayer” even became a phrase, and I don’t think I’ve played a video game that wasn’t on my phone in a couple years. No judgment on gaming culture, but I assumed I wouldn’t get the references enough to care. The thing about great fiction, though, is that you really don’t have to. I still don’t know which of the games referenced in READY PLAYER ONE are real, I’m sure I missed 75% of the jokes, and somehow it didn’t matter. I was fully invested in Wade’s mission and in the book and several months later I still sort of miss it. It pops into my head all the time, and it already feels like a classic. It’s also probably the most universally liked book that my book club has actually read, which I think would have surprised us all if you’d told us. I don’t feel like we were the target demo, whereas we clearly were on so many other books we’ve picked, but READY PLAYER ONE is just the kind of novel that anyone who likes a good story can get behind. And for all that it’s got a pretty commercial edge to it, it also inspired one of our best conversations. Well played, Mr. Cline.
- I’ve been meaning to read Kevin Wilson’s THE FAMILY FANG since I first heard about it, so I was thrilled when a friend picked it for our book club. Wilson’s voice is assured and delightful, and the premise is thoroughly believable but truly odd. The Fangs are a team of performance artists, led by headstrong parents with their reluctant children as accomplices, whose life’s work is to create “art” out of disruption. Alternating between the early years of the Fangs and the children as adults trying to find their way in the world, damaged by years as pawns in their parents’ strange antisocial game, it’s both an engagingly quirky tale, an intriguing mystery, and a mesmerizing look at some really heady subjects: the meaning of family, the nature of dysfunction, the value of art, and figuring out how to take responsibility for who your parents raised you to be. It turned out to be the perfect book club book, because it’s a quick and compelling read with tons to unpack. I highly recommend it, but be sure to find someone you know to read it alongside, because it’s the kind of book you’ll want to talk about.
- I’ve always meant to read Tom Perrotta (as the friend whose copy of Little Children has been on my shelf unread for years can attest), but until an editor handed me a copy of THE LEFTOVERS at a lunch meeting, I didn’t actually check him out. I’m so happy that I did: THE LEFTOVERS is a mesmerizing look at the big questions and the small ones about a world rocked back on its heels and a family falling to pieces. With a strong hook (what would happen to the people left behind if many of the people in the world just disappeared one day without a trace?), a charming and captivating voice, and insight to spare, it’s a book I’d recommend to anyone wanting to understand how a book can be both literary and commercial at once.
- If you’re interested in young adult publishing, you can find no better example of what people are looking for than John Green’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. It’s a compelling, absorbing, and heart-wrenching read, but it’s also entertaining, funny, and a fine example of that most elusive quality: voice. Green is a superstar in the world of young adult contemporary fiction, but for any author who is trying to figure out how an author captures voice, he’s well worth a read. It’s one of the hardest things to explain, but you know it when you see it, and with THE FAULT IN OUR STARS you’ll definitely see it. If you’re a crier—and probably even if you’re not—be warned that no one seems to be able to make it to the end with dry eyes.
- If, like me, you are the kind of nerd who loves the thought of economics and statistics but doesn’t actually tend to understand things when people start talking in numbers, I might just have the book for you. Though you’ll also have to be a big fan of international soccer, so if you’re not both those things, you might just skip on down to the next rec. I’ve been meaning to read Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanksi’s SOCCERNOMICS for a while now, but it took me some time to psych myself up for the confusion I was expecting. It turns out I should’ve just dug in ages ago, since it’s written in a really accessible way that managed to educate me without making me feel like a moron. A FREAKONOMICS for people who are unusually fascinated by the English tendency to expect to win every major international tournament despite rarely even getting close to the final, SOCCERNOMICS breaks down all kinds of cool and unexpected mathematical realities as they pertain to the beautiful game. I love nonfiction books that expertly pull you deeper into a subject than you ever might imagine you were capable of or interested in following.
- I heartily recommend Don Winslow’s SAVAGES. It’s like the love child of Weeds and The Wire as written by Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, with narration so smug all the writers in Brooklyn must be seething with jealousy. That might not sound like a ringing endorsement, but trust me, give it a shot. You’ll be saying, “Oh, please, get over yourself,” from the second page, but before you even know it you’ll have turned the last one. The pace is breakneck and the voice sublimely compelling, so the book ran out of words well before I had a chance to run out of patience for the gimmick, which I never would have bet on. I love a book that challenges you to hate it, but pulls it off so well that you finish up knowing ten people you’d like to lend it to.
- When I wrote on our blog about celebrity memoir and mentioned my love of Stephen Fry, his book MOAB IS MY WASHPOT was heartily recommended to me by reader Pooks. And Pooks was right. It’s a touching, insightful, hilarious, and informative retelling of Fry’s early years, focused on his time at school and the downward spiral that led him to prison and a suicide attempt. It’s clever, as Fry always is, but as much as it immerses the reader in a broader world he or she might not be intimately familiar with, it also feels honest and confessional. While Fry doesn’t refrain from tangents that catch his fancy, he also manages to tell a story and find a narrative arc in his own life, a harder feat than you might think if you’ve not attempted to write a memoir or read the attempts of others. It’s a celebrity memoir to be sure, but it’s also a book that I think would stand on its own if Fry had not come out of the dark places in his life to achieve what he has since. I welcomed the chance to become a part of his world for a while, and I was truly sad to leave it. That, to me, is the mark of an excellent memoir.
- I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about Emma Donoghue’s ROOM on our blog a time or two, but it’s good enough that it bears repeating here. Donoghue’s novel, narrated by a 5-year-old who was born and has lived his entire life in a single room largely unaware that anything exists that he and his mother cannot see in front of them, is an absolute masterpiece. From paragraph to paragraph, it teeters between horror, joy, humor, and wonder. Throughout the book I caught myself laughing out loud, only to belatedly grasp the tragedy behind some delightful and adorable sentiment of Jack’s. It’s captivating, exhilarating, and a real demonstration of just how brilliant a novel of ideas with well rounded characters and a compelling plot can actually be. It’s utterly stunning and a completely pleasurable read, while still asking very difficult questions about who we are, how we understand the world, and what we are capable of surviving. Read it. Seriously.
- Anyone who loves middle grade books, is curious about them, thinks they won’t like the category, or used to read voraciously at that age—so, well, everyone reading this, essentially—should get themselves a copy of 2010 Newbery Medal winner Rebecca Stead’s WHEN YOU REACH ME. It’s a future classic, inspired by Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and infused with a feeling for New York that calls to mind E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. Stead perfectly captures how enormous the tiny moments can feel when you’re twelve, when everything feels like the end of the world or the start of a new one. In the novel, protagonist Miranda’s small world suddenly gets wider just as the one she’s familiar with starts to shift. A mystery with high stakes—someone is going to die if she doesn’t help, but she’s not really sure how or who—propels the novel, making it a very quick read, cleverly written and constructed, and a page turner even if you see the resolution coming. I’ll definitely be getting a copy of Stead’s previous effort and whatever is to come.
- I’m not always a fan of narrative nonfiction that relies solely on a gimmick, but when the “X author does Y thing for Z months” formula works, it can be really fascinating. In Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, the gimmick works. Roose is a student at progressive liberal Brown University who was raised by Quaker parents, but takes a semester to go undercover and study at Jerry Falwell’s evangelical Liberty University. It’s no surprise to discover that Roose first came up with his plan while working for king of the gimmick books, AJ Jacobs. But unlike most books of this sort, I found that The Unlikely Disciple comes with a great deal of honesty and a pretty open mind. Roose deals with his family’s concern (and his own disgust) at the anti-gay politics of his new evangelical friends and also worries that truly keeping an open mind could result in his changing more than he’s comfortable with. It’s an honest, refreshing look at a subculture I find fascinating, and it manages to give a much more reasoned and considered view than I expected (or would have thought I’d welcome).
- Anyone looking for daring, fun, and well executed fiction should check out Josh Bazell’s BEAT THE REAPER. It’s darkly comic, at times a bit nauseatingly graphic, and definitely edgy, with a driving plot that will get you to the end of the book in a sitting or two. A thriller featuring subplots about Auschwitz and child sex slaves doesn’t sound like a laugh riot, but somehow it is, and Bazell doesn’t hesitate to go to some uncomfortable and potentially offensive places. The climax of the book features what must be the most disgusting scene I’ve ever read—if “read” still applies when half looking at the page out of the corner of your eye while peering through your fingers—and yet somehow it still works. Even the moments you can anticipate knocked me off balance a bit. A fantastic and surprising read.
- I’ve recently begun reading Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation which has given occasion for me to fondly recall the Friday night I canceled my dinner plans because I’d started reading THE PARTLY CLOUDY PATRIOT on the subway after work and knew I wouldn’t be socializing till I was done. Admittedly, it’s not an especially long book, but I barely stopped reading long enough to walk from the subway station to my apartment and then sat riveted in the same spot till I turned the last page. I wonder if the collection would still resonate as much as it did when I read it a couple years ago, deep in the woes of the Bush administration and less hopeful political times, but I suspect Vowell’s voice would still do the trick—and essays like the one on the cafeteria 750 feet below ground in Carlsbad Caverns have no need of political context. The book is like a chat with a particularly amusing and brainy friend who can articulate what you’re feeling better than you ever could yourself. If you’re looking for a political call to arms with a sense of humor or just a fun and fast read unashamed of its own nerdiness, you need look no further than THE PARTLY CLOUDY PATRIOT.
- For me voice is the make-or-break feature of fiction writing. I’m as fond of slow, thoughtful and quiet plots as I am of fast-paced, heart-stopping tension. I don’t have to love a protagonist to find him or her fascinating. But the voice has to be there, and if it’s not, I’m not either. That’s what I loved so much about Joshua Ferris’s THEN WE CAME TO THE END. From the first paragraph, Ferris nails his narrative voice and he (almost) never breaks from it, even as you think he can’t possibly sustain it or your interest for another page. And yet somehow he does—keep it going and keep you hooked—and the one shift in voice and POV is intentional and serves its purpose in the narrative. Like a literary version of The Office minus the crazy boss, THEN WE CAME TO THE END is a delight that I’d recommend to anyone—and I’m eagerly waiting to see what Ferris comes up with next.
- We often talk about needing to “fall in love” with a first novel in order to champion it, and it’s absolutely true. For that reason, I’m surprised and delighted that Tom McCarthy’s phenomenal REMAINDER made its way to bookshelves. It’s not an easy book to love in the traditional sense—the protagonist is detached and disturbed, and I can imagine that readers who need to fall for and feel for their main characters won’t find that here. It’s a fictional investigation of weighty issues of reality and human experience, and the delight in reading it is being sucked ever further into the protagonist’s bizarre worldview. I didn’t love him or hope for any particular outcome for him (as you would that the hero gets the girl or vanquishes the enemy), but I was utterly fascinated by the inner workings of his mind and how he played that out in the world around him. Well worth the read for fans of thought-provoking and experimental fiction.
- One of the great joys of excellent nonfiction is falling in love with a subject you don’t have any pre-existing interest in. I recently had the pleasure of reading a book Jane represents, Michael Weinreb’s THE KINGS OF NEW YORK. In it, he tackles the world of high school chess and manages to make it completely and utterly riveting. By maintaining the perfect balance between participation and observation and exploring the lives of these fascinating students beyond the chess arena, Weinreb drew me in from the very first chapter and kept me hooked in a way I would never have thought possible. I cheered when the students won, felt sympathy when they lost, and experienced the excitement of every tense competition. I wouldn’t have guessed that chess could keep me on the edge of my seat, but in Weinreb’s hands it was delightfully possible.
- While I’ve read and loved many books by Julian Barnes, one that made a particularly strong impression was the novel TALKING IT OVER. A convoluted love triangle between Stuart, his girlfriend Gillian, and his best friend Oliver, Barnes turns typical narrative structure on its head by telling the story entirely in the words of its protagonists as each tells their own version of how their triangle was ripped apart. Presenting three opposing viewpoints on the same events, Barnes makes the reader decide whose version to believe without the benefit of an objective narrator—and in doing so, he creates three characters brimming with depth and nuance, whose flaws are as apparent as their strengths. This kind of inventive storytelling technique is hard to pull off without seeming like a gimmick, so it’s a delight to see it done so well.
- We have so much reading to do around here that I genuinely appreciate novels that make a real impact and stick with me after I’ve read them. New plotlines and characters are constantly crowding out the old ones in my brain, but some books just stay with you whatever else you might read down the line. For me, Siri Hustvedt’s WHAT I LOVED is a wonderful example of such a book. Moving, thought provoking, and engaging, Hustvedt’s story of the interconnected lives of an art historian, an artist, an English professor and a Ph.D. student specializing in madness in the 19th century is one I recommend to anyone looking to read a compelling story well told.
- My attention span for non-fiction isn’t as long as I’d like it to be, so I’d love to see more books like Philip Gourevitch‘s WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES. He makes the appalling story of the Rwandan genocide come alive without boring or discouraging the reader. The book is informative and well-informed but never dry, and it really is tough to put down. An engaging style and tone are important, especially when your message is as vital as this book’s. It feels relevant and never dated and I predict it will be an engaging and valuable read even years down the line.
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.
- THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by Joel Dicker is a sly, page turner of a whodunit, a story within a story that is both a clever satire of writing and publishing and a well-framed mystery. Translated from the French but set in New England, it is international crime only in that it comes from abroad. It will not do for New Hampshire what Stieg Larson and Jo Nesbo have done for Scandinavia, namely convince the reader that these liberal social democracies are teeming with neo-nazis, sadists and sociopaths. Instead, it’s a brainy sort of beach read featuring a wunderkind of an author, his Norman Mailer-ish mentor, a missing manuscript and a vanished Lolita.
- Vali Nasr’s THE DISPENSABLE NATION is a fascinating and sobering insider’s account of foreign policy in the Obama Administration. Nasr, who was an advisor to Richard Holbrooke, writes clearly and compellingly of the infighting and interdepartmental rivalries, the tensions between the White House and the State Department, and the impact these have on the broader world. NOT a dull policy tome, but not exactly pleasure reading. For that I turned to Hanya Yanaghigara’s THE PEOPLE IN THE TREES, a gorgeously written, utterly bizarre and totally engrossing adventure of a young doctor who signs on to an anthropological expedition to a remote Micronesian Island whose people are rumored to live preternaturally long lives. What he discovers among this “lost tribe” is revolutionary, and the consequences of his work are profound and unpredictable. I didn’t know quite what I was in for until I realized that the beautifully embossed floral designs on the book’s spine were, in fact, maggots.
- I just began Donna Tartt’s long awaited new novel THE GOLDFINCH, and while I am being careful not to drop it on my foot, I am thrilled that I have an excuse to immerse myself in terrific fiction without having to come up for air for a good long while. On the nonfiction side, I recommend Scott Anderson’s gorgeously-researched LAWRENCE IN ARABIA: WAR, DECEIT, IMPERIAL FOLLY AND THE MAKING OF THE MODERN MIDDLE EAST.
- I am reading HOW TO LIVE: A LIFE OF MONTAIGNE by Sarah Bakewell. Were I braver or more rigorous, I suppose I’d read Montaigne without the help of a twenty-first century interlocutor, but I’m enough of a lightweight that I rarely down my 16th century philosophes neat. I find HOW TO LIVE particularly interesting because, as Bakewell points out with a great deal of sly charm and skill, Montaigne is the great-great-great-grandpere of the personal essay, the blog, the memoir, the very solipsistic navel-gazing, self-obsessed style of writing that we love and lament in equal measure. I also like that this book is an inventive take on a traditional biography, one that highlights the contemporary connections that a dead white guy has on the way we write and think today.
- I am reading and loving THE POWER OF HABIT: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, which is a terrific blend of science journalism, narrative nonfiction, and just flat out fascinating facts.
- WE MEANT WELL: HOW I HELPED LOSE THE BATTLE FOR THE HEARTS AND MINDS OF THE IRAQI PEOPLE by Peter Van Buren, who may or may not still be employed by the US State department as a result of publishing a book that so baldly and apologetically anatomizes the failures of the American “project” in Iraq, is not much of a feel good story, but I’ve found it a welcome dose of reality amid the high flown campaign rhetoric. On the fiction side, Hilary Mantel’s BRING UP THE BODIES. Bring up another Booker, I say. Mantel’s recreation of the life of Thomas Cromwell, clear-eyed and cold-blooded advisor to Henry VIII, is a brilliant book, vivid, thoughtful, provocative, and despite its seeming removal from all current affairs, remarkably relevant.
- First, Michael Lewis’s BOOMERANG:TRAVELS IN THE NEW THIRD WORLD. Here, the always engaging Lewis illuminates the European debt crisis in a narrative-driven approach that leaps fromIceland toIreland toGreece, and renders complex economic relationships that are not only apprehendable but fascinating. True, the news is bad, but the messenger is just too talented to shoot.
- Second, an older title, Julia Glass’s quietly incandescent THREE JUNES, which loosely tells the story of the McLeods, a Scottish family of no extraordinary distinction. But the characters were so beautifully drawn, the relationships so complex and nuanced and felt, that despite the fact that this book was lauded when it came out in 2003 (it won the National Book Award), I felt as if I had made a remarkable discovery. That is, of course, part of the magic of good books—the original relationship they establish with every reader, the sense that the story they contain has been crafted for an audience of one.
- Following the recommendation of Jane and the 2010-2011 Pulitzer Prize board, I’m reading THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES. In this “biography” of cancer, Columbia University Professor of Medicine Siddhartha Mukherjee takes a sprawling and terrifying subject and finds a fascinating narrative that is at once sweeping in scope and human in scale. As most of us know, cancer is a wily and implacable foe, and our efforts to understand it, much less eradicate it (as Nixon’s “War on Cancer” once promised to do) have been thwarted. Joining a venerable and august tradition of physician/authors, Mukherjee writes with clarity, compassion, and a remarkable sense of pace—this work of popular science is a riveting page-turner.
- In honor of the events unfolding in Egypt, I am rereading Naguib Mahfouz’s MIRAMAR, a novel that relates a slice of that nation’s modern history via the residents of a faded Alexandria pension. The story of Zohra, a lovely young servant girl, emerges, Rashoman-style, from the perspectives of the four characters who seek to win her heart—one of whom is moved to commit murder. The novel is a terrific read, a smart political allegory in which Zohra stands in for Egypt, and a helpful tool in illuminating Egypt’s political past.
- I realize I am playing catch-up here, but I finally had the opportunity to read Rory Stewart’s altogether splendid THE PLACES IN BETWEEN. Stewart’s account of his 2002 walk across Afghanistan is a remarkable feat of journalism, memoir, and ethnography; reflective, thoughtful, and beautifully told, Stewart’s book sets a high bar for travel narrative. Give that Afghanistan is no less in the news now than it was eight years ago, the book still manages to be timely, even prescient.
- I have two: first, THE GLASS ROOM by Simon Mawer, published by Other Press, and second, A.S. Byatt’s latest, THE CHILDREN’S BOOKS, published by Knopf. Both books are historical novels, both by accomplished British authors whose ability to enfold vast swathes of intellectual history into their storylines is at once awe-inspiring and humbling.At the heart of Mawer’s novel is a house; a modernist masterpiece called The Glass Room, a shimmering construction of glass and steel. It is built for a young Czech couple, a Jewish industrialist and his gentile wife who wish to create a home that is somehow the architectural antithesis of the ruined, parochial old world. Set on the eve of World War II, in a nation that will be eviscerated by Nazis and then swallowed up by the Soviet Union, The Glass Room is a novel of ideas, of history and of heartbreak.Byatt’s novel, a bestseller and widely reviewed by critics more astute than I, is the work of a magician; if you are looking for a grown-up fairy tale, a book that horrifies and spellbinds and transports, a book that illuminates the shadowy human heart and the colorful ideas of its day (Fabians, free-love advocates, utopians and anarchists) look no further.
- I just read Margaret Atwood’s engrossing, disturbing and brilliant YEAR OF THE FLOOD, in which she returns to the post-apocalyptic landscape she mapped in Oryx and Crake, this time looking at a cult of extreme urban homesteaders known as Gardeners, whose gospels reconcile science and faith in ways that would render both Richard Dawkins and Jerry Falwell apoplectic. Atwood is so celebrated and her books so anticipated that she hardly needs my voice added to the chorus of praise, but I do think it’s worth noting how, in an increasingly category-bound marketplace, literary works of “speculative fiction” can be sold outside of genre. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Audrey Niffeneger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, and the less well-known but the wonderfully weird Under the Skin by Michel Faber, all books I loved, rely squarely on the conventions of science fiction and yet are successfully marketed to a mainstream literary market. Perhaps these are the exceptions that prove the rule, or maybe (as I like to think) they are demonstration that really good books are bigger than the categories we assign to them.
- Not long ago, a colleague gave me a copy of THE AYATOLLAH BEGS TO DIFFER: THE PARADOX OF CONTEMPORARY IRAN by Hooman Majd, an Iranian born American who offers a fascinating insider’s perspective on a country most memorably characterized as part of the “axis of evil.” Unlike so many books on the Islamic world, which, whether explicatory or alarmist, tend toward the humorless, Majd’s exploration of his homeland, its rich and ancient culture, its faith and politics (the latter often indistinguishable owing to the present theocracy) is witty, nuanced, and engaging. The grandson of an Ayatollah, the sometime translator for President Ahmedinijad, a regular contributor to GQ and the New Yorker, the author is something of a paradox himself, but his book is essential–and delightful–reading for the armchair internationalist.
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.
- From way back in high school, when my band at French Woods Festival for the Performing Arts summer camp put on a concert rendition of TOMMY (long before it was on Broadway, thank you very much), I’ve always been a huge fan of The Who. I guess my dedication has flagged a bit, since it took me a while to get to Pete Townshend’s memoir, WHO I AM. But I finished it up a few weeks ago, and of all the rock bios I’ve read recently (Rod Stewart’s, Bob Mould’s, Neil Young’s), it’s by far the most thoughtful and introspective. What’s fascinating, too, is how much Pete thought of himself as an artist with a capital “A”, and how much serious artistic intent went into not only the Who’s music but virtually every aspect of his life. And while Pete had his share of transgressions, unlike Rod the Mod who laughs them off, Pete digs deep into his soul to try and explain his behavior (a lot of which comes with apologies to his ex-wife Karen). My only quibbles are that Pete, as a former editor at Faber & Faber (a job which he seems to have taken quite seriously), should have given Karen more personality on the page and spent less time listing his boats—the dreaded Chuck Berry effect. But with an incredible sharp eye for detail and a no-holds-barred approach to his own failings, as well as those around him, WHO I AM is must read for even the most casual Who fan. And like quite a lot of the Who’s music, it’s pretty darn funny, too.
- Every summer, the Rudolph family heads up to Maine to spend a week with my in-laws followed by a week at the beach. It’s hard to think of a better place to spend the summer (though a recent weekend in Nantucket offered some stiff competition), but this year I thought I should know a little bit more about the area that I’ve been visiting for nearly 10 years now. So, I’ve been reading THE LOBSTER COAST by Colin Woodard, which is a fascinating history and cultural study of Maine since the beginning. Woodard is a Mainer himself, so his account is both personal and biased, particularly against Massachusetts—and I have to say, after reading how terribly Boston treated Maine for two centuries, it’s hard to understand why so many Mainers root for the Red Sox. But on the other hand, Woodard does a great job of exploding a number of Maine myths, particularly the idea that there’s some kind of authenticity to a Maine summer vacation, since “rusticators” have been escaping to Maine since the early 1800s. All-in-all, a highly readable and educational survey of a place whose story goes far beyond L.L. Bean and lobsters.
- In the Rudolph house, we don’t get a lot of new picture books, since our shelves are overflowing with titles from my days as a children’s book editor. But recently, we’ve added some new stuff, and two in particular have been in heavy rotation: ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts, and THIS IS NOT MY HAT by Jon Klassen. What I love about both titles is that, like the best children’s literature, they defy the so-called “rules.” With ROSIE, you’ve got a rhyming text, which most publishers will tell you is passe, while with HAT, there’s an ambiguous ending–another “no-no” for a lot of editors. And I’ll even admit that the rhyme in ROSIE could be smoother in places, but the story is a great one, especially in how it celebrates efforts over results, and by pairing the story with Roberts’ highly contemporary art style, ROSIE comes out feeling fresh and lively and makes for a great read-aloud. On the other hand, my boys and I have spent plenty of time discussing whether the little fish in HAT gets eaten by the big fish or gets away. Boys being boys, they usually come down on the side of eaten, but the fact that they’re talking about a book at all is gratification enough. And of course, the art is spectacular, well within the Carle tradition of cut paper yet totally fresh and new, especially in its use of black–another picture book “no-no!”
- Full disclosure: I’ve known Helen Wan since college, so yes, this is a shameless plug for her debut novel THE PARTNER TRACK. However, in all the years we’ve been friends, I’ve never read even a sample of her work. So when the book came out, I was naturally eager to see what she’d come up with—and needless to say, she did not disappoint. What I found most fascinating about THE PARTNER TRACK is its deceptiveness. On first glance, it’s the simple story of Ingrid Yung, an attractive, Asian-American female attorney navigating office and romantic politics to make partner at a prestigious New York law firm. And with its breezy prose style, glamorous scenes of fancy parties, and some steamy office canoodling, I’m not surprised that THE PARTNER TRACK is getting tagged as chick-lit. Yet Ingrid’s position as both a woman and a person of color in the old boys’ club of the firm makes for a thoughtful, tricky narrative, one that peels back layers of prejudice and assumptions that might seem trivial on first glance but cut much, much deeper. And without giving too much away, I will say that the ending completely turns things around in a way I did not see coming—hey, Helen, maybe your next book should be a thriller!
- I just finished WONDER by R.J. Polacio, which I’d been dying to read ever since it started tearing up the Times bestseller list. And true to its name, WONDER is a wonder—full of rich characters, distinct narrators, and a story that beautifully evolves from frustration to triumph. But WONDER is also a wonder, in that from the Nicholas Sparks blurb to the Natalie Merchant epigraph to the scene where parents discuss school districting, it’s the probably the most successful Middle Grade book I’ve ever read that seems squarely aimed at parents (i.e., buyers) as much as kids. Not that that’s a bad thing—thematically, there’s as much to be gained here for adults navigating issues of tolerance and bullying in their kids’ schools as for kids themselves. But it certainly makes WONDER an unusual (if not unique) bestseller for kids. And no less wonderful for it!
- With two young boys at home, a lot of my reading these days involves picture books. And right now, there’s no better practitioner of the picture book form than Mo Willems. From the Pigeon series to the Knuffle Bunny series to my personal favorite, the Elephant and Piggie series, Mo’s work strikes the perfect balance between entertainment for kids and laughs for adults that never go above a kid’s head—a neat trick he no doubt learned from his years at Sesame Street. From the pigeon’s unrelenting utzing to Gerald and Piggie’s flair for the dramatic, Mo somehow taps into a sense of humor that resonates at all ages, and better yet, he does it through a perfect marriage of story and art, with each piece doing an equal share of the work. Whenever I’m talking with picture book creators about their art, I always seem to circle back to Mo as the ultimate example of someone who’s doing it right. So even if you don’t have kids, spend some time in Mo’s world—I guarantee you’ll come out of it happy!
- I’m always a sucker for a good rock star bio—or even a not-so-good one, as long as it’s juicy! But RJ Smith’s THE ONE is one of those special books that totally transcends the genre. From the opening chapters, where Smith connects Brown to historical aspects of the segregated deep South that I’d never heard about before, you realize that you’re in for a lot more than sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. And while Smith doesn’t skip on the life-story details, by placing both Brown and his music in a larger context, it makes for a much more thoughtful read. At the same time, Smith never sacrifices information for storytelling or narrative—I tore through THE ONE on vacation this summer, and while I’ve long been a big James Brown fan (check out In the Jungle Groove if you want your mind blown), it takes a special kind of writer to keep me away from the beach!
- Earlier this summer, I was having drinks with an editor from Norton. Around the second martini, we got to talking baseball and somehow it came out that I had never read Michael Lewis’ MONEYBALL. A few days later a copy arrived in the mail (hardcover, no less), and I brought it along on vacation. Okay, not exactly a beach read, but like with any great plot-driven novel, I was totally absorbed by the story of Billy Beane and how he used statistical analyses to make the woeful Oakland A’s one of the best teams in baseball on a shoestring budget. Obviously, it’s a testament to Lewis’ storytelling skills that he could bring the wonkiness of sabermetrics to life by recognizing the larger themes therein, but his authorial love for the characters is evident throughout, which gives the book its great heart. It’s exactly the kind of narrative nonfiction I love to read—and exactly what I’d love to see as an agent (hint, hint). Sounds like the movie measures up, too—can’t wait to see it!
- THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X by Keigo Higashino totally blew my mind this past spring. What appears at first to be a simple cover-up for a crime of passion quickly turns into an epic battle of wits between hunter and hunted, and the plot twists will make your head spin—what an ending! Like the Millennium Trilogy, it’s very exciting to see a thriller that bridges a cultural gap while providing a view into an unfamiliar world. And major kudos to the translator, who artfully renders the story in simple, declarative prose that keeps the plot moving at all times. If this is the Japanese version of a “thrill ride,” then I’m sure glad I had a ticket!
- How often does a massively hyped book actually live up to expectations? I’d nervously been waiting for Keith Richard’s LIFE since its publication was announced, and boy, did it deliver. Sure, the sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll are there, but never before have they been presented in such a lively and readable voice. In fact, more than anything this narrative voice is the crowning achievement of LIFE, for with it Keith creates one of the most indelible characters I’ve read in a long time, namely himself. Tellingly, he notes at one point that he’s been refining that character in public for over 40 years now, but even so, it’s a long way from having a distinct public image to making that persona come to life on the page. By contrast, he admits that even he can’t get a handle on Mick Jagger, though he paints Mick’s inscrutability with a fine brush. I really can’t recommend LIFE enough, even if you could care less about his antics (though the scene in the Playboy Mansion bathroom is pretty priceless). In fact, you don’t even really have to be a Stones fan to enjoy LIFE—as a literary creation, “Keith Richards,” is a character every writer should get to know intimately.
- M.T. Anderson has been justly praised as one of the best writers for kids these days. But while his recent novels have won the major awards, I’ve always favored his debut, THIRSTY , which I recently re-read—and I never re-read books. Yes, it’s about vampires, but it’s not Twilight. For one, it’s about a boy, Chris, who’s a typical teen with a major problem—he’s becoming a vampire. And rather than powerful, sexy creatures, vampires are public nuisances that people think nothing of lynching and killing. Meanwhile, poor Chris is duped into freeing the evil Vampire Lord Tch’muchgar by a cosmic spirit called “Chet” who promises him a cure for vampirism. Satire abounds here, yet Anderson also sympathetically contrasts Chris’s growing blood-lust with typical high school crushes and humiliations. Best of all, Anderson breaks one of the cardinal rules for YA fiction by ending on a note of sheer hopelessness—despite all his efforts to do the right thing and stop Chet, Chris is still becoming a vampire. Yes, it’s dark and scary, but it’s also very offbeat and funny, plus YA readers will marvel at how it turns YA conventions on their head. Definitely one to sink your teeth into!
- 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.
- I never read Joshua Ferris before picking up TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR, and I’m kicking myself for such an oversight. Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, the novel follows the complex Dr. Paul C. O’Rourke DDS, a Manhattan dentist with atheistic tendencies and a pathological obsession with the Boston Red Sox. Paul is a misanthrope who loves people and only wants to belong, an atheist who wants to believe, a dentist who struggles to tell people to floss, and a technology addict who—you guessed it—hates technology. We meet Paul as he is living his conflicted life after recently breaking up with his girlfriend, Connie, who is also his receptionist. Then one day, he discovers his online identity has been stolen: a website has been created for his dental practice, comments all over internet forums are written in his name, and a Twitter account appears spouting strange religious messages tweeted by the hand of none other than Dr. Paul C. O’Rourke, DDS. Originally furious at the perpetrator, the more Paul reads his “own” writing, the more interested he becomes in the man behind himself, and when he begins corresponding by email with the identity thief, Paul can’t deny the pull of the man’s claims: that a people, the Ulms, have survived since the ancient times of the Old Testament, secretly persecuted and eliminated from spreading their message, the message to doubt God. And perhaps, just maybe, Paul has finally found a something that could be everything. Hysterical, heart-breaking, and beautiful all at once, TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR has everything you look for in a novel in as far as characters and storyline go, but Ferris’s observations of the minutiae of everyday modern life is what makes it the best book I’ve read in years.
- THE YELLOW BIRDS is a powerful and beautifully written debut novel by Kevin Powers. It is the harrowing story of two soldiers fighting to stay alive in the first years of the Iraq War. Private Bartle promises to bring 18-year-old Private Murphy safely home, but we quickly learn that Bartle fails to keep that promise. The chapters alternate between settings, ranging from Iraq in 2004, at the height of battle, to Virginia one year later, when Bartle is home, feeling hollowed and grappling with Murphy’s mysterious and violent death. There is a cinematic quality to the storytelling: the colors are bright and Powers uses unusual descriptors that lend a subtle surreal element to the battle scenes. Bartle is an observant narrator, noting minor, poetic details that make this novel captivating and devastatingly truthful. As a veteran of the Iraq War, Powers seems to precisely capture the disorienting and illogical nature of combat. This is a brilliant, deeply profound first novel and I highly recommend it.
- Alan Weisman’s THE WORLD WITHOUT US is a fascinating book. It’s thoroughly researched and compellingly written, and perhaps most importantly, it’s an eye-opening narrative with revelatory insight into mankind’s impact on the environment. Weisman begins with a simple concept: what would happen if all human beings suddenly vanished from the face of the earth? Buildings, bridges, and transportation systems would steadily fall to the natural world around it. Megafauna would once again cover the land; cities would fall into disrepair as water floods through underground subway tunnels, destroying man’s underground infrastructure as well. Without people around, power plants and dams would fail. Species on the brink of annihilation would experience a resurgence. And what, if anything, would we leave behind. What is our most lasting legacy? THE WORLD WITHOUT US is narrative nonfiction at its finest. It does what books are supposed to do: makes you think.
- I strongly recommend FROZEN IN TIME by Mitchell Zuckoff. It’s a true story about lost airmen who crash-landed somewhere on the massive Greenland ice cap during World War II and the heroic men who risked everything trying to rescue them. Zuckoff is a talented writer who produces a very engaging read—and I do mean very engaging. While the book has its slow moments, these were far outweighed by the mesmerizing narrative, one that seems so implausible that it almost reads like fiction. As the story unfolds, you find yourself in disbelief over the misfortune that befalls the stranded men. Rescue attempt after rescue attempt sees them nearly saved, until would-be rescuers die or become stranded on the ice cap themselves. You can’t help but think what they did at times: that they were fated to die on the glacier.
- I strongly recommend any book in the WHEEL OF TIME series by Robert Jordan, but you should probably start with the first in the series, titled THE EYE OF THE WORLD. The book—and series in general—can be considered a coming-of-age story that revolves around three young boys who are taken from their small village by a mysterious stranger on the night that an army of creatures burn their homes to the ground—monsters thought to be myth and were used to frighten little children into behaving. The Dark One himself is after one, or all, of the boys, and they soon discover that they will have a large part to play in the events that are to come—events that pit the Light against the Shadow with the very fate of the world at stake. This book is for anyone who loves Tolkien or YA fantasies in general. Not only does Jordan create a cast of relatable characters you grow to love, but he is unparalleled in the art of world-building. As soon as you read THE EYE OF THE WORLD, you can tell that this story is only the start of what will become an epic saga spanning three decades. Although Jordan dies before he can finish the series, Brandon Sanderson does an admirable job finishing the final three books of the series based off Jordan’s copious notes and partial manuscripts. In fact, Sanderson did such a remarkable job that I even consider the final three books among the best of the series.
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.
- Long a fan of Colm Toibin’s sparse, yet elegant prose, I was eager to get my hands on a copy of his latest, NORA WEBSTER, which, recounts the life of a woman, possibly unremarkable, and delivers a narrative so deeply human that it’s impossible not to feel. Feel what, well, that changes throughout the course of the book, but every page is filled with a feeling of some sort. Nora, recently widowed, is left in Enniscorthy in County Wexford, Ireland. She’s got four children, yet struggles to connect with each of them in a different way. Mourning, and looking for a way to first recreate the life she had with her husband and then, later, to compose a new life for herself altogether, Nora comes into her own, as an observer and finally, an active participant. It’s not the story so much as the characters, the aforementioned raw emotion and the timelessness of Toibin’s beautiful writing—though the book takes place half a century ago, the sentiments and sense of it are as relatable and real as anything we know today.
- One of my very favorite writers of all time is Julian Barnes—he can write essays and responds to interviews really well. His fiction is amazing in its sparseness, and whether short story or full length novel, I have devoured everything of his I have ever read. So this makes it kind of hard to pick one, but to stay contemporary, I’m here to recommend his most recent (though not recent enough) THE SENSE OF AN ENDING. Really, this Booker prizewinner isn’t about too much, just middle-aged Tony Webster’s musings on his life and past, but it’s the memories, emotions and realizations that wash over Tony as he recounts minutiae and seemingly insignificant details from his past that are so powerful that it’s nearly impossible not to be completely sucked in. I had to try and conceal grins and moments of “aha” realizations as I read this very short book in public, so please be mindful of this when you dive in. It’s a great introduction to a wholly wonderful author.
- Much more than a picture of New Yorkin both its heyday and downfall, Amor Towles’ debut RULES OF CIVILITY is written in such a light, lively manner, evoking perfectly the tone and voice of a young woman in the late 1930s. Katey Kontent is living in a boarding house inManhattan, 1937, with her farm-raised, fresh-faced roommate Eve Ross. The two have spent the past several months perfecting the art of living lavishly and wildly on spare pennies when their lives are wonderfully, horribly, amazingly altered by Tinker Grey, an old money young man with a twinkle in his eye who takes a shine to the two girls. What happens over the next year sees the girls in extremes and the ultimate conclusion is both heart wrenching and beautiful. Towles’ prose flows across the page and it’s easy to fall in love with Katey and feel deeply for her immediately and fervently from the start.
- I’m clearly on a kick with these old New York sagas following gaggles of interesting ladies, because the next book I’d love to recommend is THE BEST OF EVERYTHING by Rona Jaffe. I adored this book, based on the author’s real experiences, following the lives of four young women trying to make it in New York City in the late 1950s. Of course, the primary focus for most of them, as was expected for girls of the time, was marriage, but Jaffe’s characters are so much more than that. There’s the ice queen Caroline who’s really quite compassionate, but doesn’t know what she wants in the way of romance, still pining after the college boy who broke her heart. April’s the wide-eyed farm girl who transforms herself into a sophisticated cosmopolitan in the eyes of society, yet still sleeps on a lumpy Pullman bed in her shabby apartment. Far from the bohemian ingénue actress Gregg portrays herself to be, the waiflike beauty may be the most troubled of them all. What I loved most about Jaffe’s delectably salacious account is how relatable it still is today. While describing how he and his wife met years before, an older companion of one of the girls is recounting their eclectic group of friends (paraphrased): “and there was some guy with a guitar. There’s always a guy with a guitar.” Sixty-five years after the line was written, it still rings true and made me giggle—‘cause she’s right—there is always a guy with a guitar.
- I went into my local bookstore the other week with the intention of buying one book. I walked out with four. One of the books I had grabbed off the shelf without more than a cursory glance at the cover was THE GROUP by Mary McCarthy. Chosen solely based on recommendation, the best I can do here is pay it forward and recommend this book written in the ‘60s about a group of eight Vassar girls, class of 1932 and their lives with and without each other in and away from New York City. It was slow going for the first few pages, only because I was so caught up in remembering who each of the characters were, keeping tabs on their particular traits and backgrounds, but once I got into the book proper, it was near impossible to put it down. THE GROUP focuses on each of the girls in turn, though they all play a part, large or small, in each other’s lives, so the movement as a whole is never lost. McCarthy makes these revolutionary twenty-somethings of the thirties so delightful, so immediately familiar that it’s almost hard to believe that the eras in which it was written and in which it takes place are so far removed from today’s world. While there isn’t a singular linear storyline, per se, I promise you’ll finish the book feeling as if you’ve lived a life that is at once familiar yet wholly other and exciting along with each member of The Group.
- Knowing little more about the book other than that I loved the title and that I’d heard too many gushings and ravings to ignore it any further, I picked up a copy of THE SISTERS BROTHERS by Patrick DeWitt—and promptly finished it not two days later. DeWitt’s prose, as he tells the story of the hired guns Eli and Charlie Sisters, trekking down to San Francisco in the days of the California gold rush, on a mission from the mysterious Commodore with orders to kill a one Hermann Kermit Warm, no questions asked, is simple and straightforward, yet somehow imparts a poetic sensibility that one would not expect from an assassin in the wild, wild West. Eli, the younger brother and narrator is an immediately endearing voice as he has doubts about his and Charlie’s chosen profession, feels a tenderness for his beaten up horse, falls in love several times over, and tries to moralize the actions he and Charlie must take in order to make it through with their lives. Subtly comic and completely lovely, I would wholeheartedly recommend THE SISTERS BROTHERS to anyone, fighting protestations of, “but I don’t like Westerns” all the way. You do like Westerns. You’ll like this book.
- I was already won over when I read the description for Emma Straub’s newest book, LAURA LAMONT’S LIFE IN PICTURES, so it was only a matter of my expectations being fulfilled in its pages. I mean come on: 1920’s Hollywood, farm girl turned movie star, a timeless great love—what else does a story need? Thankfully, Straub delivered that and so much more as she chronicled the life of Elsa Emerson, with her blonde Wisconsin milkmaid looks and simple upbringing, her flight to Los Angeles to follow her silver screen dreams, and her evolution into the glamorous movie star, Laura Lamont. Not only is it a fascinating look behind the scenes of Hollywood’s golden era, but Straub beautifully portrays a life at its highest and lowest points, settling, finally, on the truest meanings of love and success.
- I picked up HUMMINGBIRDS: A NOVEL by Joshua Gaylord solely because I liked the cover and the bookstore was having a massive sale. I glanced at the back cover and thought it sounded like a quick, mildly guilty read that would be fun for the price. I was so wrong in the best way. Centered around the Carmine-Casey School for Girls, a prestigious Manhattan high school, Joshua Gaylord’s omniscient narrator takes the reader deep into the minds of teachers and students alike. Gaylord manages to avoid the tropes and clichés that often accompany stories about teenage girls. They might be named things like Dixie Doyle and Andie Anderson, but Gaylord’s writing is so distinct, so well-crafted and smart that this only serves to deepen the story. This is a book about high-school girls, about marriage, about relationships (both friendly and romantic). It’s about literature and art and it’s about secrets and indiscretions. It wasn’t until I finished the last page and wanted so badly for the book to keep going, that I realized how much I had connected to Hummingbirds. This is Gaylord’s first novel and I can only hope there are more to come.
- “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Captivating and charming from the very first line, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith is one of a rare class of books that can be read and reread many times over. Cassandra Mortmain, the hyper-aware young girl whose diary serves as the book’s text is one of those narrators whose precociousness and naïveté are endearing rather than off-putting. The Mortmains, an eccentric, secluded and pitifully destitute English family living in an abandoned castle have a host of obstacles to overcome. When a pair of wealthy American brothers takes control as landlords, the lives of the Mortmains are forever changed. Bright and witty, Cassandra’s observations of the crumbling and rebuilding of the restrictive world she once found familiar and comforting are tragic, beautiful, humorous and insightful all at the same time. For the imagery and characterization, if not for the story itself, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is a timeless and wholly enjoyable read.
- I opened Colum McCann’s LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN to the first page with high expectations—which in a lot of cases can kill my perception of a book. Not so here. I was drawn in immediately, reading faster and faster through the prologue, which is written in such a way that is so beautiful and so compelling that I actually felt that I had to speed up to take it all in. Hardly anything happens as the crowds on the street stare up at the precarious tightrope walker above them, yet there is such a sense of urgency and emotion to the writing that it’s easy to feel the excitement and tension as if all was happening in the present moment. To feel that connected to a book within the very first pages is a rare thing. Of course, the momentum slows down to a more manageable pace for the actual narrative of the story, but it doesn’t lessen in its ability to capture. I know I’m late on the bandwagon on this one, but LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN is the first book I’ve read in a long time that I actually couldn’t put down. McCann’s ability to change perspective, to shift in view and character so fully is amazing. Each character is written differently, and each works as an individual while threads of time and coincidence tie each of them to one another. No one is forgotten or overlooked despite the jumps between the Irish brothers living in the Bronx to the grieving, Upper East Side mother whose son has been killed in Vietnam to the hooker on trial in a downtown courtroom. While there are seemingly no similarities between any of these people, McCann manages to embody each wholly and to beautifully create a story that manages to connect them all. This book is undoubtedly timeless—it’s less about any one person or era and more a work of human conscious as a whole.
- I’d wanted to read Anne Enright‘s THE GATHERING ever since it won the Booker in 2007. I’d read other novels and short stories by her, so I knew already that her voice and writing style were simply and honestly realistic and thus incredibly engaging. THE GATHERING had me in tears before fifty pages had turned, more due to Enright’s skill in conveying human emotion than to actual tragic or woeful circumstances. She is truly a master at creating characters that become immediately close while still keeping her words and descriptions comparatively sparse. Spanning an ambiguous amount of time for the actual narrative, THE GATHERING compiles the thoughts, musings and confusions of Veronica Hegarty, one of the middle children of her mother’s twelve as she tries to deal as well with her closest sibling, Liam’s, death. While the loss of Liam is surely the central trauma, Enright uses it solely as a point to alight back on as a grounding center while Veronica’s head is swimming with imagined pasts, tumultuous presents and uncertain futures. I was wholly satisfied with the novel, and it served to strengthen my favor towards Anne Enright and her ability to tell a story.
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!
- If you tried to read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in 2004 when I came across it in book club circles, or if you picked it up last fall when it hit the movie screen, only to find yourself perplexed by its segmented narratives and sometimes unintelligible dialects…well, now is the time to come back to this bold, mischievous, and imaginative author. Mitchell’s new novel, THE BONE CLOCKS has the same sweeping audacity as his previous works, but this one is also just a rollicking good time. Like Cloud Atlas it boasts several sections that jump through time and are narrated by different voices, but The Bone Clocks tells just one story easily traced through the time hops and perspective shifts. And it is a story that considers humanity’s deepest questions – our mortality, our planet’s mortality, how best to protect those that we love – through the lens of one very ordinary woman pulled into a most extraordinary supernatural battle. Whether you’re giving Mitchell a first chance, a second, or a third, you won’t regret it.
- Roxane Gay is a writer I have long admired via her essays and her tweets (yes, really), and her first novel is a work of unmatched compassion, bravery, insight, and life. AN UNTAMED STATE is violent, brutal, and thus not an easy book to read; but neither is it an easy book to put down. The narrator is kidnapped in Haiti during a trip to visit her family there, suffers unspeakable things during her captivity, and upon her release flees to her mother-in-law’s Nebraska farm. Mirielle’s ferocious love of her husband, her child, and even herself pulls you through each page. Most of the reviews of this incredible book discuss its importance as a political novel about socioeconomic tensions, but I disagree—this is a novel about womanhood, about the ways women take care of each other, and about knowing who you are relative to your family.
- Full disclosure: I am a Fitzophile. Attach F. Scott or Zelda Fitzgerald to a book in some way and there’s a 92% chance I’m going to read it. But I don’t love every book that drops that golden name. I don’t always scribble exclamation points and mini-essays in every margin. I don’t often admire a biography as much as I admire its subject. When I do, though, you can bet a diamond as big as the Ritz that I’ll be telling everyone about it. And CARELESS PEOPLE: MURDER, MAYHEM, AND THE INVENTION OF THE GREAT GATSBY is one of those rare jewels. Sarah Churchwell has written a smart and thoughtful mosaic of the Fitzgeralds and the world they inhabited in the fall of 1922—the time in which Gatsby was set. Part literary criticism, part author bio, part cultural history, part aesthetic philosophy, CARELESS PEOPLE is told in singing sentences that Fitzgerald himself would surely admire.
- I’m always hungry for thoughtful, well-written books that are funny. Who says great literature has to be so serious all the time? One such book is THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion. It’s the first-person narrative of Don Tillman, a –ahem— socially challenged scientist in search of a suitable mate. Think The Big Bang Theory meets Bridget Jones’ Diary. No romance allowed, just pure research and laboratory-level evaluations. Well, as you can imagine, nothing goes according to plan. Don’s struggles are absolutely hilarious, and the lessons he slowly learns about accepting the unexpected are authentically moving. The author is completely inside Don’s voice, yet you, the reader, can see the pitfalls of his quixotic efforts in plenty of time to chuckle at them. (Don’t read this one in public if you don’t like to laugh or cry in front of strangers.)
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.
Amy Bishop recommends:
As someone who grew up with the young adult genre, I find myself still perusing YA shelves when I’m at a loss for something to read. A good friend recommended that I pick up a copy of Jandy Nelson’s I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN, a colorful and poignant YA novel about twins trying to stay afloat in their own ways in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy. The lyricism of this narrative combines the often brutal experiences that accompany any coming of age as well as the beauty of beginning to find pieces of oneself in unexpected places.
The struggles that Noah and Jude face are narrated to the reader in their own unique voices—quirky and honest and brave. The way they see the world made me see all the color and art in my own world and all the sacrifices we make for our families. Additionally, as a poet myself, I’m incredibly interested in writers who manage to mix narrative and imagery effortlessly, and Nelson (who has an MFA in poetry) does this with stunning and often heartbreaking effect. This book is a must-read for anyone who loves YA, stories centered around family, and some good, lyric writing.
Kemi Faderin recommends:
I am currently reading A LITTLE LIFE by the brilliant Hanya Yanagihara and while I am not quite done with it yet, it already is by far the best book I have read this year.
A LITTLE LIFE is a coming of age story that follows the lives of a diverse group of friends from the time they settle in New York City in their late 20’s and through the next forty or so years. There’s handsome Willem, who dreams of making it as an actor while working at a restaurant; sharp-tongued J.B, who wants nothing more than to be a recognized artist; Confused Malcom; and Jude, who inherently the book revolves around.
Yahagihara is able to capture the true spirit and culture of New York City, the struggle of young people new to the city and still hoarding big dreams, and a relentless and admirable friendship. There is so much more to this book than it seems and the farther I get into it, the more consumed I am by this riveting and gut-wrenching story. It is no wonder A LITTLE LIFE is nominated for the Man-Booker Award.