This is my last review for this year. It’s been a good year for books, so good that my friend Tom agreed with me, we won’t try to pick our three best fiction and non-fiction of 2007. Too much work. I read 150 books this year, and can only think of a couple of turkeys, and of course, I didn’t review those – trying to keep it positive.
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips – O.K., you know all about the “old” gods, you know Aphrodite, Artemis, Eros, Zeus, Hermes, and Apollo. Well, imagine Artemis as a dog-walker, Apollo as a TV psychic, Aphrodite as a phone sex operator, Dionysus as a DJ; you get the idea. They’ve fallen out of favor and on hard-time. They and more are living in a run-down house in London, for the past 300 years, times are tough; their powers are diminished. This debut novel is a disarming, matter-of-fact farce, and I loved it.
Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander – This memoir is difficult for me to characterize. Auslander is an angry Jew; a very funny angry Jew. I’m a goy, what do I know. While I read Foreskin’s Lament, I learned quite a bit about what it’s like to be an observant Jew. Auslander has a love/hate relationship with his faith, and a mostly hate relationship with his family. His attempt, since childhood, to rebel against, and/or escape both of these institutions are what drive his memoir; and lots of it are pretty funny, laugh out loud funny.
This year, I’ve read some Scandinavian authors that I really enjoyed. A lot depends on who the translator is; a poor translation ruins the book in English. Here are the ones I liked the best.
Chronicler of the Winds, by Henning Mankell – This is a beautifully crafted novel that is a testament to the power of storytelling itself.
Borkmann’s Point, by Hakan Nesser - In this riveting novel, full of fascinating, realistic characters and motives, Nesser spins a story that leaves even the most veteran crime novel readers chilled.
I hope you give them a try, I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.
Heart Earth by Ivan Doig - This memoir is so lyrical, I was tempted to highlight phrases, so I could find them again; something I never do. I’ve read Doig’s fiction, the last was Whistling Season, and his fiction is great; but Heart Earth proves how in love with language he is. His mother died on his sixth birthday; in adulthood, he finally got to know her when he was willed a cache of her letters. Through the letters, he discovered a spunky, passionate, can-do woman as at home in the saddle as behind a sewing machine, and as in love with language as he is. In Heart Earth, a tribute to his mother, he eloquently captures the texture of the American West during and after World War II, the fortune of a family, and one woman's indomitable spirit.
The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss - With the elegant sweetness of Plainsong and a pitch-perfect sense of western life during World War I, this is a remarkable story about the connections between people and animals and how they touch one another in the most unexpected and profound ways. Martha, 19, is on the run from an abusive family life, living the rough life of a female horse whisperer trying to make a go of it in a man's world. She’s taller than most and most definitely not feminine. She sleeps rough, or in barns, almost never in a house, by her choice. She’s pretty sure animals are better companions than people. She ends up in a remote part of Eastern Oregon, riding a circle, gentling the un-trainable horses in the valley. Along the way she comes to feel enveloped by a sense of belonging and family she's never had before.
Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan - Compact and intense, Last Night at the Lobster is a portrait of a good man on his last nerve, a man we used to call the backbone of the country. Manny takes pride in a job well done; he has compassion for his employees and his customers; he has a broken heart and soul. The tale is framed by O'Nan's stark depiction of a dying mall--fluorescent lights shining coldly on random shoppers, Zale’s, J. C. Penney, and Finest Formals. A bleak portrait, yet one with hope, because we believe in Manny, and in his decency, even while he despairs.
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon - This is swashbuckling adventure at its best. If a good adventure is all about the journey, this journey has it all; marauding armies, drunken Vikings, beautiful prostitutes, rampaging elephants and mildly telegraphed plot points that aren't as they seem. The two gentlemen in question are a different as night and day; one a cerebral healer, the other a brutish warrior. They are an inseparable duo. The adventures in this short elegant tome take place in 950 AD, and are as exciting as any penned by Dumas or Stevenson. Unusually, for a novel, each chapter of this tale is charmingly illustrated by Gary Gianni. I thought the illustrations complimented the story excellently.
The Farther Shore by Matthew Eck - This is a startling, short (less than 200 pages), sharp, first novel; it is about war. The writing is haunting, like a literary machine gun. It takes you inside the mind of a young man caught in the fog of unexpected attack. The setting is Africa, most likely Mogadishu; but since the place isn’t paramount, this is left vague. After a series of horrifying, violent encounters, only a handful of a small U.S. Army unit survives. The characters are haunting, and the emerging story reflects a new kind of military engagement, with all the attendant horrors and difficulties.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – I’d this novel as a grandiflora rose slowly opening to reveal its secrets and beauty. Its secrets are many and shocking, but the evocative writing offers an emotional experience. Although very different in style, this British novel reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s "A Handmaids Tale". Perhaps it takes an author from the Commonwealth to imagine an unthinkable future, without getting all sci-fi, and you’ll have to read the book to finds its secrets. I’m not telling.
Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer – Those of you, who know me well, know that I’m a pretty liberal gal. This chilling tale of violence and fanaticism blew me away; and made me consider the harm that could be done to America if we elected a member of this faith as president. This is storytelling at its most compelling, and it’s not fiction. This is a glimpse into the blood-soaked history of the fastest-growing religion in the Western Hemisphere, the Mormons.
The centerpiece of the story is a grisly double murder committed by Mormon fundamentalist brothers who claimed to have killed at God's direct command. The bizarre details of this brutal crime play out against the equally bizarre history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and its subsequent splintering into fundamentalist sects over the issue of polygamy -- a sacred doctrine put forth by Mormon founder Joseph Smith in 1830.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell – This haunting, multi-generational tale of the horrors done to women, in the name of family and under the guise of mental health, takes place in the last century. Unbowed by rules, always the nonconformist, young Esme disappears from society. Sixty years later, great-niece Iris learns of her existence and tries to reconstruct Esme's lost life. Family voices weave a conflicting fantasy of a peculiar past. Esme is unforgettable, there's a heart-pounding final revelation, and the unraveled mystery is stunning. This will be a novel you think about for a long time.
Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton - If you have a Rock ‘n Roll Heart, like I do, you’re going to love this memoir. It’s the engrossing story of a survivor, a man who has achieved the pinnacle of success despite extraordinary demons. Clapton writes a down-to-earth, unassuming account of his life; he speaks with humor, candor, as if he is sitting around chatting with you over a cup of tea. It is truly remarkable how this legend, remote and private for so long, opens up with grace and ease. Before I read this memior, I was worried; how could Clapton remember much about certain periods of his life, considering the booze and drugs. The answer is - because he kept a journal. Cool. This may be one of the most compelling memoirs of our time.
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – When I finished this book, I said to Bob, “Boy, I wish I had someone to talk to about this”. This novel is very demanding, it’s very long, its language and structure are disorienting, you are immersed in the shattering experiences of its characters, and to the sheer ambition to be the definitive and encompassing novel for the Vietnam generation. It is an arrogant book and you might resist for the first several hundred pages. But it will grab you, and you won’t be able to put it down. It gets inside your head like the war it is describing—mystifying, horrifying, and mesmerizing. Johnson, a poet, ex-junkie and adventure journalist, has written a book that by the end wraps around you as tightly as a jungle snake.
The Shotgun Rule by Charlie Huston – This book is not be for everyone; but you fans of neo–pulp noir fiction will find this book hard to put down. It’s a dark and dangerous coming-of-age tale set in central California in the early 1980s. The story follows four troublemaking teenager boys through a summer of delinquency that culminates in a blood-soaked standoff with a family of murderous Mexican drug lords. It was hard to put down. I think Huston is, or will be Cormac McCarthy’s heir.
Here, If You Need Me - Kate Braestrup I almost didn’t read this book. I received an advance copy at the BEA this year, and kept passing it up, when I was choosing a new book to read. It became a B&N Discover title, and I was still passing it up. Neither the title nor the book cover was attractive to me. Then a customer told me how much she loved this book, and I decided to read it. It was great. Braestrup takes you on her journey after she loses the love of her life, the father of her children and a police officer. She does this with grace and a great deal of humor. As with all great memoirs, at the end, you feel as if you’ve made a friend.
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen – This is a love story, a family story; a truly magical first novel. When I finished, I promptly shipped it off to Carrie, because I knew she’d love it, too. Garden Spells has something for everyone; the gardener, the romantic, the dreamer, everyone with an inner magician at work. Symbolism and imagery bloom on every page.
Away by Amy Bloom – I read this book in mid-June, and waited until now, the end of August to recommend it. This is a tough one. I hadn’t read Amy Bloom before; I liked the novel, but I loved the author. She has humor and wit. She uses language both elegantly and irreverently. She has an unflinching understanding of passion and the human heart. All that comes together in Away; it is heartbreaking, romantic and unforgettable.
Are you ready for some football?!?! Hurricane Season: A Coach, His Team, and Their Triumph In The Time of Katrina by Neal Thompson. Did you love Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger? I did. Up to now it was the best sports book I'd read. Hurricane Season doesn't usurp Friday Night Lights, but it is equal, and that's saying a whole lot. This is about a small high school football team and how they survived Katrina; but it's much more than that. Their coach doesn't just coach the team to win football games, he teaches them to be men and warriors, how to survive in our society for the rest of their lives. So, they win football games and survive amongst the devastation of Katrina. My third fav sports book, after these two, is Among the Thugs by Bill Buford. It's about the fanatical, maniacal fans of Manchester United.
Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee – Stephen King is famous, of course, and he is widely read. He reads everything, not just his genre. He recommended this colorful series of personality profiles. McPhee devoted nearly 10 years to research for this “uncommonly” good read, when he wasn’t busy with his “day job”. He thumbed rides with cross-country truckers, international shippers, river tow-boaters, and coal train engineers who transport freight from place to place. McPhee is a great writer, but what I liked most about this book of essays was how much I learned, while enjoying myself.
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones – Jones lives in New Zealand, and this is the first time I’ve read him. This short novel is a young narrator's, Matilda, coming-of-age story that unfolds against an ominous backdrop of war. When war comes to this small island, all the white (educated) people leave except one, Mr. Watts, who is married to a native. Since education is important the parents on the island prevail on Mr. Watts to become their children’s teacher. He agrees, though he feels ill equipped. On the first day he acquaints himself with the children and tells him he’ll introduce them to Mr. Dickens the next day. Mr. Pip is about the abiding strength that imagination, once ignited, can provide. As artillery pounds the island, thirteen-year-old Matilda and her peers are riveted by the adventures of a young orphan named Pip in a city called London, a city whose contours soon become more real than their own blighted landscape. As Mr. Watts says, “A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe.” Mr. Watts also invites the village elders to share tales of their own that bring alive the rich mythology of their past. But in a ravaged place where even children are forced to live by their wits and daily survival is the only objective, imagination can be a dangerous thing. This tale will be on my yearly best list, no doubt.
Dreaming in Libro by Louse Bernikow – If you’re a dog lover, as my family is, you’ll love this book. Bernikow finds a lost boxer in a NYC park, and even though she’s never has a pet (!!!), brings him home to her fourth floor walk-up. She tries locating a “lost” owner, to no avail. She names him Libro because he understands Spanish. This is a book about a modern family of two, about joy and grief, and realizing that the life you’ve made is more than enough.
North River by Pete Hammill – Pete Hammill loves New York. Each book I’ve read of his takes place in NYC. It’s were he lives; he makes me love NY, too. This novel takes place in Depression-era New York. Dr. Delaney generously helps others, often without being paid, but since his wife and then his daughter have disappeared, he can barely help himself. Everything in his life changes when he must care for the grandson abandoned on his doorstep. When he turns to friends from the neighborhood for help, his world is changed, again.
What You Left by Will Allison – This is Allison’s first novel. He has published short stories and taught creative writing. What I liked best about the story was it read like a memoir. Each section of the book focused on one of the characters, telling his or her story. Loss and redemption take center stage in the soulful, salt-of-the-earth tales of hurt and hope in redneck-proud South Carolina. You can’t beat it.
While I was on vacation, in June I read some YA, young adult novels. Three were geared to males. These are all great:
Alabama Moon by Watt Key – this is an arresting work of fiction for all ages. It’s an amazing tale of a boy forced to make life-changing decisions long before his time.
The Black Book of Secrets by F. E. Higgins – this won’t be released until October. It’s a fantasy for all ages. A boy, thru mishap and circumstance, is apprenticed to a pawnbroker. But the main business of the shop is to buy peoples secrets, and pay them well for them.
Boy Toy by Barry Lyga – Lyga’s first book was Fanboy and Goth Girl; a fun teen novel. This one is totally different. It deals with abuse, specifically, by a female teacher.
I have a “new” author to add to my favorites list, Marianne Wiggins. First, I read the advance copy of The Shadow Catcher, which will be released in June. In this book Wiggins fictionalizes the life of renowned photographer Edward Curtis. She skillfully weaves together a historical novel with a modern story of his biographer’s life. The tales become seamless; an amazing feat of writing. I loved The Shadow Catcher so much I read Evidence of Things Unseen, (I conveniently found it at the Murrieta Friends of the Library bookstore. I love a bargain.) This story is set in Tennessee, at the time of the TVA and the brink of the Atomic Age. It is a multi-generation story that is gripping and wonderful. I hope you love these as much as I did. I can’t wait to read more of Wiggins.
American Youth by Phil LaMarche – This is a riveting tale; an astounding first book. I could hardly put the book down. LaMarche’s writing is controlled and powerful as he tells the tale of a teenager confronted by a terrible moral dilemma following a firearms accident in his home. Set in a town riven by social and ideological tensions - an old rural culture in conflict with newcomers - this is a classic portrait of a young man struggling with the idea of identity and responsibility in an America ill at ease with itself.
Chronicler of the Winds by Henning Mankell - This is a strange, sad tale of an African country boy who suffers too much and dies too young. He is a leader of street kids, rumored to be a healer and a prophet, possessed of a strangely ancient wisdom. I could hardly put this book down. Mankell vividly depicts, in this compelling fable, the ongoing tragedy of Africa's disenfranchised. It's impossible not to be moved by the tale of a short and painful life. This is a departure for Mankell; he is world famous for his Kurt Wallander mysteries, which have been published in thirty-five countries.
My French Whore by Gene Wilder – What a title! Wilder’s tale is about a brave coward and a scarlet woman, and their romance during WWI. This slim debut novel is outstanding. Our hero thinks he’s a coward, but bravely impersonates one of Germany’s most famous spies. I’m glad I read it. It’s a quick read at 178 pages. Now I think I’ll read Wilder’s memoir, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger”.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini – I put off reading this book or a long time. I’m very leery of novels that receive a lot of hype. I really loved the story and am sorry I waited so long. This is a story about salvation, betrayal, redemption, friendship and the price of loyalty. It’s about the bonds between fathers and sons. Written against a backdrop of Afghan history that has not been told in fiction before, The Kite Runner describes the rich culture and beauty of a land in the process of being destroyed. But through the devastation, Hosseini offers hope in mankind. It’s clear that Hosseini loves his country as much as he hates what has become of it.
The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz – If you like Evanovich, but are getting a tad tired, not too excited about the next installment, this is the book for you. I enjoyed the funny dialogue and interesting characters. This is a page turner filled with plenty of action. The Spellman’s are a totally dysfunctional family of PIs who spy on each other from birth. Lutz mixes chick-lit, mystery and a dose of TV nostalgia. This is a great debut from a promising new author. I hope it’s the beginning of a long series.
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a deeply affecting debut novel about what it means to lose a family and a country; and what it takes to create a new home. This is a haunting and powerful first-person narration that casts the streets of Washington, D.C., and Addis Ababa through the eyes of an African immigrant. The physical location of the book is Logan Circle in Washington DC. Last year, Bob and I stayed a couple of blocks away and I found Mengestu’s physical descriptions wonderfully accurate. I loved DC, and enjoyed re-visiting on these few, 240, pages.
The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle - This is the 25th book I've read this year, and so far, the best. It's wonderful book by a first time author; one of those novels that stay with you for a long time. It's different, of course, but I'd compare it to The Turtle Warrior, Augusta Locke, Name all the Animals, and Blind Your Ponies. For me, fits in with these greats because I couldn't put the book down, when I had to, I couldn't wait to get back to it. And it passed my ultimate test; it stayed with me long after I closed the book for the final time. Kyle paints a true picture of the modern American West, and the struggles of the families who live there. This is what the BN website had to say: "When her older sister runs away with a rodeo cowboy, 12-year-old Alice Winston is left to bear the brunt of her family's troubles, including a bedridden mother, a struggling, overworked father, and a run-down horse ranch. As the hottest summer in fifteen years unfolds, and bills pile up, the family must weather a devastating betrayal and a violent series of events that tests their love and proves the power of forgiveness. The God of Animals is a magnificent story of western life and character."
Queen of Broken Hearts by Cassandra King - Every once in awhile it’s good to read some “chick-lit”, and Cassandra King always fills the bill handsomely. This novel about friendship, heartache, self-discovery and love, in all its wounding, wacky, and wonderful forms; had me laughing out loud, and then moved me to tears. Most “chick-lit” I don’t bother with, but I always make an exception for Ms. King.
Looking for Alaska by John Green - This is the first novel by Green, a NPR commentator. It’s a deeply affecting coming of age story. Green perfectly captures the intensity of feeling and despair that defines adolescence in this hip, shocking, and emotionally charged work. I’d recommend this to any young adult, and most old adults, too.
Red Cat by Peter Spiegelman, I’ve found a “new” author, at least new to me, Peter Spiegelman. I have to admit the artwork on the dustcover practically convinced my not to read this mystery, then I read 1, 2, then 3 positive reviews, and saw the copies flying off the shelf, I relented and dove into a great mystery. This is a murder-mystery that defies an easy solution. Spiegelman’s writing and character development are second to none.
Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida – I pick this book to read, because I liked the cover; I judged the book by it’s cover, and won. When her Dad dies, Clarissa finds, while going thru his documents, that he wasn’t her birth father. Because her mother abandoned them when Clarissa was 14, she has no one to question. She sets of suddenly, for northern Finland to find her “real” roots. Dark whimsy suffuses the whole book and accounts for much of its peculiarly biting charm. This novel walks this very fine line between high-camp comedy and the lyrical seriousness that Vida’s title portends.
Transgressions, Ed McBain, Editor – This is a four book series of novellas by some of the biggest names out there. McBain feels the novella is one of the hardest to write and get published. He approached many authors and came up with 10 who were interested, got the blessings from their publishers, and would devote time to his project. They are Stephen King, John Ferris, Ed McBain, Walter Mosely, Donald E. Westlake, Sharyn McCrumb, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Perry, Lawrence Block, Jeffrey Deaver, and himself. You won’t be sorry you picked up one or all of them, as I did.
Love Is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield – This memoir is a beguiling, hilarious, and heartbreaking story about courtship, marriage, and loss told through the prism of music. Rob is a music critic for Rolling Stone. This is his poignant, sweet, and evocative love letter to his wife, an unforgettable woman. This is how my B&N Staff Recommends will read:
Geek + Hot Punk Rock Babe + Music = True Love.
What are you reading?