Starting with a Bang

21 Jan

Well this year has started off way better than I could have guessed. Six books this month with the chance to finish at least one more. By far my favorite so far this month is the Jeff Tweedy memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). I can still remember the basement I was in when the cool-music-guy I went to high school with recommended that I listen to Wilco. It definitely changed my life for the next few years, I was a hardcore fan. I almost didn’t want to read this because I worried that the man behind the curtain would be revealed as the not-so-great-and-powerful but gosh was this just so so good. Retroactively going on my Best Litpicks of 2018. 5 stars!

The other one I found particularly engrossing was Looker by Laura Sims. Let me start by saying THIS IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. It is pretty twisted, a cat gets harmed…beware. It’s told from the point of view of a nameless female narrator on her descent into, well, pretty much madness. She lives down the block from a famous actress in LA and as she falls further and further into her psychosis she starts to do some pretty crazy things. I thought it was so good, but remember I like those twisted/bang-endings. 4 stars

Along those same lines, Golden Child is another one I enjoyed but would have a hard time recommending. This one will find a big audience without me – it’s the second title on Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint (following A Place for Us). Set in Trinidad, it follows Clyde and his family – his wife Joy and twin boys Peter & Paul – as they deal with their challenging lives. It’s hard to talk too much plot because that would give it away, but I probably could say that Peter is brilliant and Paul is not and the story is about how they are treated differently. It is a HARD read. 4 stars

The Paragon Hotel has been growing on me more and more since I finished it. The story is SO good, but the entire thing is kind of a slog because of her excessive use of slang and jargon. Set in the 1920s in Oregon, Alice “Nobody” James finds herself seeking refuge at the Paragon Hotel, the only hotel in the city that African-Americans can reside in. She herself is white, running from a huge mess in NYC, but she befriends and comes to care for many of the hotel’s permanent residents. I might have quit this early on because it was difficult to read through the writing style/wording but a child went missing and I had HAD to find out what happened to him. Turns out I was surprised by the story and the further I get from it the more I like it. 3 stars rounded up to 4.

Valley of the Dolls was for my neighborhood book club and I am glad to have read it. I think high school me would have L-O-V-E-D this but mom-aged me is kind of unimpressed. I still enjoyed it! Celeb soap opera that it was. 3 stars

Weight of a Piano comes out tomorrow. I pretty much swallowed this one up this past weekend because I was desperate to know which guy Clara ends up with at the end. I typically love these types of novels – chapters alternating between current day and the not-so-distant past. Here we meet Katya, 1962, Russia as she is bequeathed an old Bluthner piano followed by present day Clara as she moves a Bluthner piano out of her now ex-boyfriends house and into a new apartment in Bakersfield CA. We work forward from Katya as we find out what happens to her, how the piano makes it to the States, etc and also forward from Clara as she decides to list the piano for sale and gets an unexpected response. Everyone in this novel is so sad. Not just sad but clinically depressed. I desperately wanted to know what happened but didn’t love anyone involved. 3 stars, even with the perfect ending.

Take Me to the River

8 Jan

Diane Setterfield’s new novel comes out towards the end of this month[EDIT: it came out last month!]. I LOVED The Thirteenth Tale all those years ago, didn’t love Bellman & Black and came into this one with an open mind. It starts off sooo good and creepy – in a small tavern next to part of the Thames. A man stumbles in late and night, bleeding and delirious, and drops the body of a seeming dead girl into the innkeeper’s lap. Examined by the local midwife/doctor, she is by all signs dead. And then she opens her eyes! Creepy. Three different members of the community come forward to claim the girl and the story takes off from there. It’s pretty wordy, and I got to a point about a quarter of the way in where I decided just to skim to the end to see who the child is and to whom she belongs…but then I just couldn’t because I wanted to follow the twists and some of the character’s backstories are so good and interesting. 4 stars

I’m not sure why The End of Loneliness popped up on my radar, but gosh I swallowed it up and found myself reading through a river of tears. Just the sort of character-driven novel that I really enjoy. I think this is a paperback original and probably won’t get too much press but I enjoyed it! It’s the story of a young boy, Jules, and his siblings (brother/sister) after they lose their parents in a car accident. They’re sent of to a boarding school and drift apart. Jules finds comfort in the friendship of another social outcast, a classmate named Alva. 4+ stars.

A New Year, A New TBR

31 Dec

As much as I love the end of the year Top Ten mania, I also find myself ridiculously excited for the upcoming year of books. Usually I come up with a big list and only end up reading a handful, but the making of the list is as much fun as anything. Here is what is currently on my radar:

Are you drooling already? Peter Heller, Jean Kwok, ERIN MORGENSTERN. Swoon.

  • Bangkok Wakes To Rain – sounds like my sort of story, basically following all of the inhabitants of one small house in Bangkok through the years (Feb 2019)
  • I loved Brian Kimberling’s last novel, Snapper, and can’t wait for this new one – follows an Indiana guy who moves to Prague to teach English (Feb 2019)
  • Everyone remembers Night Circus, right? well after, what, at least a decade, she has a new novel on the horizon! A graduate student discovers a weird book in the library and is immersed in it when he suddenly encounters a story from his childhood (Nov 2019)
  • Last Romantics – follows four siblings (compared to Immortalists) (Feb 2019)
  • JEAN KWOK! ah! I loved Girl in Translation. This one claims to be “an emotional drama” revolving around two sisters and their mother. Paula Hawkins is blurbed on the cover, so maybe more suspenseful than her others (June 2019)
  • The Unpassing  follows a Taiwanese immigrant family living in Alaska (May 2019)
  • Look How Happy I’m Making You – stories about all stages of motherhood (March 2019)
  • My boyfriend Peter Heller also has a new one coming, The River, about a couple on a float trip who hear a man and woman arguing in the woods as they float by. Later, they encounter the man on the river – but no sign or mention of the woman. They suspect foul play! (March 2019)
  • Walking on the Ceiling – a woman moves from Istanbul to Paris where she meets and befriends a famous British writer (April 2019)
  • Naamah – the story of Noah’s wife, Naamah and her time on the ark (April 2019)
  • The Night Tiger is on each of the handful of lists that have been published already about upcoming novels. Set in Malaysia – seems to be sort of a twisty, folklore-laden coming of age story (Feb 2019)
  • Inland is Tea Obrecht’s sophomore, following Tiger’s Wife, and is set in 1893 in the Arizona desert (August 2019)

The Millions should be posting their Most Anticipated Books of 2019 list in the next week or so, so I’ll link to that here once I see it.

Top Ten Litpicks of 2018

8 Dec

My favorite time of year! Time for the Best Book lists. The New York Times released their top ten, so I figured it’s time to put mine out there too. This year brought me a third baby and a total of 66 books read. I’ll be the first to admit that I find myself looking for and enjoying books differently in this phase of my life. Things are looking a little lighter!

 

Here we go, mostly in order.

  1. Where the Crawdads Sing was probably my favorite this year. Of my friends who have read it, many have agreed and a few have found it a little too “fairytale” ish which could be true. However, it was just what I needed when I needed it. It’s the story of a young girl abandoned by her family in the marshes of the North Carolina coast and her life as she grows.
  2. Kind of unusual for me to have a memoir on my year-end list but Educated really was something else. You can’t make this stuff up, Tara Westover’s story is so crazy. After the first little bit I thought “this is crazy!” and then after the next little bit I thought “this is crazier than crazy!” and after the third, crazier still. If this was a novel critics would say it was completely unbelievable. Growing up with a doomsday-er father who didn’t believe in formal education or doctors or pain medication, Tara pretty much saved herself by seeking an education. So good.
  3. If you need a character you’ll love to hate, pick up Ladder to the Sky. Maurice Swift will stick with you for a long time – so incredibly terrible. Maurice has known since he was a young boy that he was destined to be a writer, and he will go to a lot of extremes to achieve that goal. There is a little bit of foul language and sex – especially in the first section – but if that doesn’t bother you wow what a compelling read this one turned out to be.
  4. I was hesitant to read My Sister, the Serial Killer mainly because I assumed it would be like the show Dexter (which I liked well enough until I didn’t). Such a pleasant surprise! Even the physical book is so much more appealing that I thought it would be – smaller and shorter than you’re usual novel. It’s the story of a woman who has a sister that somehow ends up killing a boyfriend. Maybe two. Could they prove the third was murder if they tried? It sounds ridiculous to type but when you’re reading it, it just feels so believable. Highly recommend.
  5. I really enjoyed Those Who Knew – it felt at times like a familiar politically driven novel but was also so engrossing that it felt totally different. On an unnamed island that has (a decade ago) overthrown the US-backed regime, Lena believes that the face of the resistance (her former boyfriend and current senator) may have played a part in the death of his attractive campaign aide. Told through a couple of different perspectives, timely and so good.
  6. If you love old black and white movies that feel light enough to have some humor but not so light as to be ridiculous (I’m thinking It Happened One Night or Bringing Up Baby) Dear Mrs Bird is a great one. An old film-style beach read maybe. Set in London during WWII, young Emmy Lake wants to do her part for the war effort and takes a job at the newspaper. She mistakenly ends up working for the paper’s “Dear Abby” equivalent and gets herself in a series of messes. My book club read this on my suggestion and of the 10, 8 really enjoyed it and 2 found it SO BORING. It’s a sweet one – so avoid it if you’re not in the mood.
  7. West by Carys Davies really surprised me. It’s short and ties up a littttttle too nicely but I still really enjoyed reading about Cy Bellman and his quest to find what his contemporaries Lewis and Clark must have missed. Part his story and part the story of his young daughter left at home.
  8. Another physically small and short novel (can you sense a trend?) so beautifully written is Tin Man about a man named Ellis and the two great loves of his life. I loved reading about Ellis and his childhood, the friendship between himself and Michael that over time became something more, and then the way that dynamic changed as he fell in love with and married the wonderful Annie. Tender – that’s the perfect word. The blurb on the cover says something like “heartwarming and also heartbreaking” and that’s apt too.
  9. Circe makes the list just because it’s an astounding work – personally I loved Song of Achilles more. Basically the imagined memoir of Circe, from her childhood to her time with Daedalus and Icarus straight through to Odysseus and beyond (hundreds and hundreds of years).
  10. Home Fire is last only because technically it came out last year and I hate to break my streak of 10 books from 2018. But. There you have it. It was definitely top five for me – the story of a Muslim family living in the UK. When the eldest, Isma, leaves to study in the United States she befriends the son of a polarizing UK politician, setting in motion a cascade of events that has serious repercussions for her family.

 

Here are some runners-up I also very much enjoyed:

 

 

AND I’ve read two books that have potential (already, I know it’s early) to be on my list for 2019:

Daisy Jones & the Six is really great about a fictional band from the ’70s (I thought Fleetwood Mac + the way I feel about Wilco + Penny Lane from Almost Famous). Interesting because it’s written as a transcribed documentary. Loved it. When All is Said – an Irish tear-jerker about an older man who is grieving for his wife. Sitting at the bar in his small town’s hotel, he reminisces on five people who had a huge impact on his life. Loved it. Put these both on your list!

Counting Down to 2019

14 Nov

I have been cruising through my giant stack of library books, worried that my FAVORITE book of 2018 is hiding in there somewhere. I definitely loved two of these – Those Who Knew and Dear Mrs Bird.

Those Who Knew takes place on a fictional island that has only recently (in the past decade or so) overthrown the US-funded political regime that was in power. The uprising was led by the current hotshot senator Victor, who may or may not be what he seems. When a young woman who worked on his staff is killed in a hit and run, Victor’s college girlfriend and co-revolutionary finds herself wondering if Victor had any part in her death. So good, and told through a bunch of narrators with interesting roles in the regime and the rebellion. I really liked this one – kinda felt like Home Fire but with a softer ending (that was still so perfect). 4.5 stars rounded up to 5

The blurb on Dear Mrs Bird says something like “a wild romp through wartime London.” Not what you’d expect, really. But I definitely found myself looovving this wartime romp. It has all the makings of your favorite old-school black and white movie starring one of the Hepburns – I pictured Katherine because it is not totally fluffy, there are some serious war-type scenes that seem more like her, but Audrey might work too. Emmy Lake wants to do her bit for the war effort and decides journalism is the way to go. She responds to an ad in the paper and finds herself working, sort of mistakenly, for the ‘Dear Abby’ equivalent of the paper. Mrs. Bird (our Dear Abby) has a long list of issues she will NOT address (all the good ones) so Emmy decides to take things into her own hands. I loved that this made me laugh and felt light, but also had some serious moments, some scary moments, where you worried for her. Easy to read. 5 stars

These two really were the best I’ve read since my last post, the others in brief:

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is one of the 5 Under 35 this year for Friday Black, a collection of great and weird and powerful stories. So many are so good but the one that stuck with me the most is the title story about Black Friday and a young guy who works at a large department store. The shoppers have, over time, become so driven by getting the best deal and getting in on time (like those trampled shoppers in years past) that they’ve devolved into some sort of zombie-like beings. Super creepy. 4 stars

I’ve never read Rhys Bowen and The Tuscan Child didn’t win me over. Wouldn’t recommend because of slowness and length and just boring and predictable.

Every year has me reading a handful of WWII stories – the one above (Dear Mrs Bird) was so original and entertaining – these other two feel like bricks in comparison. Warlight takes place just after the war following a brother and sister as they try to piece together the ways the war took a toll on their family. Good, kind of wandering and a little deeper than I can do right now (i.e. I feel like I missed some things). My Real Name is Hanna is YA and really good about a young Ukrainian girl who survives the war, with her entire family, by taking some extreme measures. Based on a true story. Suitable for younger readers, interesting/important for all readers.

Orange is the color of…

30 Oct

 

The end of the year always has me scrambling to make sure I have a solid Top Ten – I get to November and start to panic. This year its happening again! So I’ve been reading extra hard lately. These two I really liked! I’m not sure if they’ll make it on my end-of-the-year list or not, but they are good for what they are.

The Great Believers you might have read about – it’s short-listed for the National Book Award this year. It’s a novel in two connected storylines; Yale Tishman in the 80s in the middle of the AIDS epidemic in Chicago and his friend Fiona thirty years later trying to reconnect with her daughter (in Paris). This one felt important to read, there were parts of the story lines that I loved (Yale is trying to secure the donation of an art collection from the 1920s) and parts that I didn’t love so much (Fiona’s weird affair in Paris). All in all, it was good. 4 stars

I flew through A Light of Her Own this weekend and I really liked it but I can’t quite figure out why or how much. I know that sounds like a bad thing but it’s not, I promise. Set in the 1600s in the Netherlands about two women who would love to make their livelihood as painters. Pretty much unheard of. Based on the true story of Judith Leyster – the only woman to have been admitted to the Guild during that time period. Very interesting, lots of painting-related drama. None of the relationships felt very deep or passionate or…well…anything so I found myself wondering how I could care about them as I did. It also felt quickly paced with a detailed plot and definite climax but I was sort of confused when I got there. Overall, really enjoyed it but was expecting something more like Tulip Fever.  Maybe Carrie Callaghan will write another one with less of a plot and more dynamic character relationships – I’d read that one too! 4+ stars, out early November.

 

Scary Books to Last a Lifetime

25 Oct

October is such a good month to snuggle in with a creepy read. Unless you’re a scaredy cat like me. In that case, it’s a good month to ask the bravest reader you know for her list of favorite spooky reads. My friend Kate reads waaaaayyyyy more than me – she also reads a much wider range of things. Here are her suggestions if you’re in the mood for some scary reading.

 GHOST STORIES

Heart Shaped Box – Joe Hill – We are our own worst demons. Also, don’t buy and subsequently wear haunted suits. (side note: Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son)
NOS4A2 – Joe Hill – Creepy AF. Terrible villain who cuts through reality and has a haunted car that no one can escape from.
So Cold The River – Michael Koryta – Haven’t read in a long time, but I remember it being super good and scary. Mean ghosts!
The Cypress House – Michael Koryta – More creepy ghosts!
Ghost Story – Peter Straub – the scariest one I’ve ever read.
Dracula – Bram Stoker – Scarier than I remembered – kept me up at night!
Unquiet Grave – Sharyn McCrumb – Based on a folk tale or a true story where a new bride dies soon after marriage and her ghost wants to be avenged.
Meddling Kids – Edgar Cantero – this one was so weird but REALLY managed to scare me. Not sure why it’s YA.
Slade House – David Mitchell – Mean brother and sister messing with people’s minds! Not necessary to have read other David Mitchell but in the same universe as his other books.
Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales – Yoko Ogawa – Translated from Japanese – so good, so creepy.
The Hunger – Alma Katsu – Retelling of the Donner Party. Something is stalking the pioneers trying to reach California but everyone has their own haunted backstories, as well.
Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury – classic, scary.

 THRILLERS

Lying In Wait – Liz Nugent – good murder mystery! Best twist ever.
The Naturalist (series) – Andrew Mayne – super fun connect-the-dots, find-the-clues to track a killer series.
Black Fall (series) – Andrew Mayne – another highly enjoyable series by Andrew Mayne.
Ripper – Isabel Allende – There’s a killer in San Francisco and a kooky cast of characters is hunting for it (and being hunted)
Under The Harrow – Flynn Berry – Think ‘Girl On The Train,’ but better.
Perfume – Patrick Suskind – A classic, totally bizarre murderer whose entire existence is just wrong, but SUCH a great book.

 Ghost stories for Kids.

 

Isn’t that such an amazing list? Seriously. Thanks, Kate! I also asked my cousin and she had some good ones too. Helter Skelter and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark are true crime and I always finds those a little extra frightening.