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NYT’s 2015 Top Ten and Book Club Miscellany

3 Dec

Tonight the New York Times released their top ten books of 2015. Kind of an interesting list with NO overlap to mine. You can see the list here.

One of the novels on the list is the 4th in a series by Elena Ferrante – and it just so happens that my book club is reading the first in the series, My Brilliant Friend, this month. I’m a little over halfway through it and loving it. It the best, most honest story of female friendship/competition that I’ve read in a long time.

my brilliant friend

Another of my book clubs is reading A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. It is sold as a trio of short stories, all based on his early childhood. Two are Christmas, one is Thanksgiving and they were fast and good and if you’re in the mood for a holiday-themed pick-me-up you should try this one.

christmas memory

My third book club, the one that meets sporadically and is just a big, bookseller book swap happened the other day and I got to borrow an advance copy of Emma Cline’s The Girls – a novel about Charles Manson’s female posse. This is a little before my time and I embarrassingly had to google the cult to see what was what, but the book has been getting TONS of advance praise. Just today, EW released an article that included a sneak peek of the final cover art. It’s up next after I finish My Brilliant Friend, but you should go ahead and put it on your TBR list now.

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Best Litpicks of 2015

18 Nov

Some years are better than others, that’s just the way it is. 2014 was great in terms of new fiction – some books that may have found a spot on my All Time Favorites list. 2015, sadly, didn’t do so well for me. I found myself struggling to come up with a list of more than 3! Maybe I’ve said before, but I think it alternates – amazing year, not so amazing year, amazing year… The best thing I read this year, the one I am nerdily excited about, comes out in Feb of 2016. More on that at the end of the list. So, here are my Top 4 Litpicks of 2015:

These are the four books I absolutely loved and would recommend that EVERYONE read.

  1. The Improbability of Love: Such a fun novel about the art world with a cast of crazy and fun characters. It has EVERYTHING you could want in a novel – good art, good food, great characters, lots of twists.
  2. Circus Mirandus: Ok, so this one is a middle reader – targeted toward ages 8-10. HOWEVER. If you loved The Night Circus, if you know a child (any child) or ever were one, you should read this. It’ll come out in paperback in early 2016 and sell for a whopping $7.99 or something and it was SO great.
  3. The Red Notebook: Good news! This one is the only one on the list that is available in paperback right now. It’s short and sweet – if it were a movie it would be black and white and Cary Grant would play the owner of a bookstore, Grace Kelly the woman who loses her purse (and her red notebook). If you just need an escape, or are looking for a gift for someone (probably a woman) but don’t know what she reads – this is it.
  4. Fates and Furies: This one is on the short list for the National Book Award (winner announced tonight) and it was the best “literary fiction” novel I read this year. It’s about a married couple and split into two halves – Fates is the story of the husband, Furies the wife’s. The husband’s half is good – but when the narration switches it gets GREAT.

So those are the VERY best of what I read this year. Here are the 6 others ones that make the list:

 

 

5. A God in Ruins: This one is long. And kind of slow going. BUT if you stick with it, the pay-off is worth it. It’s the companion novel to Life After Life, one of my favorites from last year or the year before and tells the story of Teddy, a WWII vet. Kind of jumps around from his early childhood to his years in the war as a fighter pilot to his marriage, children and grandchildren. If you are into historical fiction, this is a great one.

6. Circling the Sun: Another great historical fiction about the life of Beryl Markham. I didn’t know much about her and expected this to be mostly about airplanes, but it was SO much more. Set during that crazy time when lots of British people fled to Africa to drink and sleep around. If you liked Out of Africa, you’ll love all the references to those same people.

7. Book of Speculation: It’s weird that in an off year, two of the books on my list have to do with the circus but that’s just the way it is. This one is for adults, though, about a family with a strong circus history (women who can hold their breath for a VERY long time) and a curse with a deadly timeline. Sort of a gothic-style mystery that moves fast.

8. In The Country: A collection of short stories that was so great – all either set in the Philippines or about Filipinos abroad. I can think of three collections of short stories that I have truly loved – News from Spain, The Other Language, and one that comes out in 2016 (see below), and if you liked either of those you should give this one a try.

9. The Thing About Jellyfish: It’s also weird that in an off year I have THREE books meant for younger readers. This one is, I would guess, a shoe-in for the National Book Award. It’s set in the present day about a young girl whose friend drowns over the summer while on vacation. So a part of it is dealing with grief, which you kind of expect when you hear the plot line. But so much more of it is about being in middle school, struggling to be comfortable with who you are, making new friends, learning the value of family. If you only read one novel for younger readers, it should be Circus Mirandus, but if you love that one and are up for another, put this on your list.

10. The War that Saved My Life: This one is also a novel for younger readers, but if I hadn’t known that going into it, I would have looked for it in with regular adult fiction. This story is about a young girl with a club foot during WWII. Her mother is completely wretched and oh so mean to her, so when her younger brother gets evacuated to the countryside the girl decides to go too. She teaches herself to walk (up until that point her mother forced her to crawl) and escapes the city. The siblings end up staying with a single woman who changes both of their lives.

 

Lastly – a sneak peak into my Best of 2016 Litpicks:

armadillos

In the Land of Armadillos is a brilliant collection of linked short stories set in a small town in Poland during WWII. Helen Maryles Shankman incorporates a lot of Polish folklore into the stories and each one is so incredible I don’t even know which to describe first. I think my favorite is a story called Jew Hater about an antisemitic Polish man who has no problem turning in his neighbors or even his friends for helping or hiding Jews. Then one stormy night there is pounding at his door and two rebels leave a young Jewish girl in his care, promising to kill him where he stands if anything happens to her. Over the course of the story the Jew Hater becomes something completely different, and his transformation literally made my heart ache in such an amazing way. For a collection of stories that take place during such a brutal time, I thought that each one was uplifting and complex in a way that everyone will appreciate. Still tough, because they were tough times, but so, so so good. If you skip every single book on the 2015 list, make sure you don’t miss this one. It comes out in February of 2016.

 

World War TwoTwoTwo

27 Oct

Both of the books I finished this week are WWII stories. You’d think two in a row would be one too many, but they were very different from each other and kind of nice as counterparts.

godinruinsThis has been in my To Be Read stack for…oh…a long time. I finally picked it up because my well-read aunt said it made her Top Ten list this year. And guess what? It was pretty great. Much like its companion novel Life After Life, A God in Ruins takes Time and really plays around with it. In this one, we are back and forth and all over Teddy’s life – from childhood to his time as a pilot in the war to marriage and fatherhood and grandfatherhood. To say much more would be to spoil this long but worthwhile read. 4 stars (and maybe a spot on my top ten. Maybe).

crooked heartsCrooked Hearts reminded me a lot of the YA novel I just read last week called The War that Saved My Life. After so many years of reading, having never read about the children evacuated from London (sent to the country for safety), to have read two in two weeks is pretty crazy. This one was also great – the story of young orphan Noel sent from his aunt and uncle’s flat in London to live with Vee – a sketchy sort of character that I was sure I’d never come to like. Shock of all shocks, I came to love her. And Noel. And everything about this story that takes place during the war but is not really about the war. 4 stars.

A New Project, Week 1

17 Oct

This past Saturday was my first back at the bookstore and boy was it glorious. 4 complete hours of talking to adults and thinking about books. In order to fill a Saturday gap, I’ve been asked to brush up on my Middle Reader (ages 8-12) and Young Adult reading so that I can help those customers on Saturdays. It’s nice to have a project. I came up with a big long list of books that piqued my interest and am setting about to read them week to week (at least for the first few weeks). I’m going to bundle them on here weekly, since most of them are fast and pretty much all of them are engrossing I think I can do one a night most nights.

jellyFirst, I tackled The Thing About Jellyfish, a debut by Ali Benjamin. The back flap on this one says that it’s about a 7th grade girl, Suzy, grieving the death of her best friend (who drowned over the summer). Really now why would you want to read about THAT?? it’s so sad sounding. But to write it off simply because of its tearful premise would be a mistake. It was awesome. And not so much about death and grieving as about figuring out who you are, how you fit in and what things inspire you. It all starts for Suzy when, on a school field trip, she reads about a certain kind of deadly jellyfish. Convinced that her friend died of a jellyfish sting, she starts her research. Along the way she discovers a passion for science and also a place in the crazy, awful world that Middle School can be. 5 stars, and my fingers are crossed that I’ll be able to convince people to buy it this holiday season. It’d be a killer combo with Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (the YA version), as suggested by the author in the afterwards.

After a night off for one of my book clubs, I started Jennifer Chambliss Bertman’s Book Scavenger. A really great mystery for kids who love to read, who love ciphers and scavenger hunts.

bookscavengerThis is the story of Emily and her traveling family – her parents are on a quest to live in each of the 50 states. Emily, a middle schooler, is sort of fed up with the whole thing by the time her family moves to San Fransisco at the start of the novel. She really wants to grow some roots, make some friends, etc. She is involved in a nationwide game called Book Scavenger – a game in which books are hidden in public places and the players get points for finding a book (based on an often ciphered clue) and for hiding a book that gets found. Emily, her brother Matthew and her new neighbor – her first true friend – James accidentally come upon a hidden book that leads them on a wild treasure hunt. 4 stars.

CrenshawI had really high hopes for this one, as I loved loved loved The One and Only Ivan. However. It did not wow me. It has a great premise – a young boy finds his family on the brink of homelessness (again) and his old imaginary friend, a ginormous cat named Crenshaw reappears. I wish it had been more about Crenshaw, as it was I think it focused too much on being poor/hungry/nearly homeless and not enough on the imaginary friend (obviously the story is about poor/hungry/homeless, but it could have been something great instead of something just heavy). 2.5 stars.

warThis one is the best thing I’ve read so far. It takes place during WWII and should be more of the same war-story stuff, but wow was it different and good. It’s the story of a young girl named Ada, 11 years old with a club foot. Her AWFUL mother is just AWFUL and treats her HORRIBLY, making her stay inside their 3rd floor apartment, hitting her when she voices an opinion and locking her in a cabinet for minor mistakes. Ada’s younger brother Jamie is allowed to run wild with the neighborhood boys since he’s not “crippled.” When the war hits London, most of the children were evacuated to the country – thought to be a safer place to spend the war. Jamie is set to go, but the mother refuses to let Ada, saying that she can stay and be bombed. Ada, who you will love, teaches herself, painfully, to walk (something she has been forbidden to do, crawling instead) and sneaks onto the train with her little brother. They end up in the car of a woman named Susan and the story goes from there. It’s not so much about WWII as it is about Ada realizing that she has worth, that she has a brain, and that she is not the repulsive hindrance on society that her mother had led her to believe. 4.5 stars.

circusOHMYGOSH guys, this is it. I wish this book was 100000 pages longer. It was SO GOOD. And today was the perfect day to read it. Remember The Night Circus? Remember what a treat that was to read? Well tonight the Nelson hosted a Night Circus party – complete with performers. Looking at the pictures made me decide to start Circus Mirandus tonight when all the dishes were done and everyone else was asleep. I liked it better than Night Circus. I liked it so well that once I return my copy to the library I’m going to buy one for my own library. Here’s the story: Micah is 11 and living with his grandfather, Ephraim. Ephraim is dying. Ephraim is full of wonderful stories of magic and a secret traveling circus called Circus Mirandus – a circus he stumbled upon when he was a child during the war. In the waning days of his life, Ephraim calls in a miracle he was promised by the Lightbender – one of the circus’ star acts. And then the miracle unfolds. Gosh it was so good. 5 stars, plus a place on my shelf of favorites.

 

BIG news, and two books.

3 Oct

Guys, guess what?? I’m going back to the bookstore. Before you get TOO excited, it’ll only be Saturdays from 10am to 2pm. And only definitely through the end of the year. I’m pretty excited and can’t wait until my first Saturday – NEXT Saturday – to get here. Hopefully I’ll find the other 8 books that belong on my 2015 Top Ten list.

 

I’m not sure either of these books will be on The List, but they were both good in their own rights.

rosie projectThis one has been out for a while and the queue at the library is still 100+ deep. Here’s why: it’s good! Fast and funny with short chapters, oddball characters that you root for until the end. Lots of situational humor and funny twists. 4 stars.

undermajordomoAnd then Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt. This one was whackadoodle. All of the reviews compare it to the films of Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel, etc), and once I read that I was able to go with the flow a bit more easily. It’s pretty bizarre. There were two scenes that were borderline obscene, but otherwise I thought it was a nice change of pace (for me). I can think of a handful of quirky readers who would like this, but it definitely is NOT for everyone. Not for my mom, not for our book club. 3.5 stars.

One Up, Two Down.

15 Sep

If I have to read a dud, let it at least be a fast-moving dud! I read two this week. On the up side, I read one that I liked! And it was non-fiction, how about that?

EileenI thought this was such a promising premise, so darkly intriguing and strangely timely. The story is about a young woman, Eileen, who works as a secretary in an all male juvenile detention center. The question on the jacket is something like “can she be persuaded to commit a crime” or something like that. Immediately after starting it I pictured Eileen as a young Kim Davis, and simultaneously the woman at the Dannemora prison that helped those two convicts escape not so long ago. Here’s what: this book was so uncomfortable and vulgar. Eileen is maybe one of the most disgusting creatures I’ve read, just in a purely hygienic sense. She doesn’t shower, talks disgustingly about her bowel movements and periods. Ugh so gross I’d like to forget her. 2 stars.

harriet chanceAnother dark one, although you’d never guess it based on the cover. The cover sets it up to read like Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (which I liked). And there are funny parts, to be sure, but it was also so sad and twisted. This is the life’s story of Harriet Chance. Her husband is recently deceased, her children grown and moved out. After her husband’s death, 87-year-old Harriet learns that he had bid on and won an Alaskan cruise. So she decides to invite her best friend and have an adventure. Turns out to be a whacked out trip. 3 stars.

boys in teh boatHere is the one I liked! Along with just about everyone else in the nation who has read it. It’s the true story of the mens rowing team from Washington University in the 1930s. Comprised of a bunch of poor farm boys and scholarship students, the team shockingly pushes past its competitors and qualifies for the 1936 Olympic games in Germany. I loved the parallel stories, most heavily the boys in the boat but also the German preparations that went on ahead of the games. If you haven’t read this, you should. 4 stars.

Add them to the List!

10 Sep

I’m determined to get back into the reading swing. Now that we are moved and semi-settled I think I can make time for some reading. Driving home from lunch with my mom today, I realized that working at the bookstore (and not having a husband or baby) was such a luxury. It gave me time to read a lot of not-so-great stuff in order to get to the great ones. I think if I had to guess I’d say it was 8 duds to every 5-star read. Now that my time is limited, I’m petrified of picking a dud and I think it’s holding me back. So, my new strategy is to always have 9 books handily available to read! Just kidding. Sort of.

I did some sleuthing and came up with books that are either just out or coming out this fall and queued them up on my library account. Here are the ones I’m now in line for:

For sure, without a doubt, there are at least two 5-star novels in here. I hadn’t heard of Eileen until I started googling around, turns out I’m number 53 in line at the library! Guess I’m late to the party. If you are reading this and live in KC, I’ll let you in on a little library secret: If you frequent any of the Johnson County Libraries, and are way down deep in line for something, check with the KCMO library. For some reason the hold line is always MUCH shorter – I’m number 2 for Eileen there. Plus they sometimes get new books a week or so faster. Don’t go telling all your friends so that we can keep it that way!

 

Also, I forgot to mention that one of my book clubs read Go Set a Watchman. I was all set not to like it and to read scenes of Atticus Finch holding court at the local KKK meetings. Turns out, I really liked it and there was nothing so blatantly racist as all of that. If you mostly remember the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird and aren’t obsessed with preserving the characters as you remember them, you should read it. Knowing that it was basically the first draft of TKAM, I loved reading it. I can completely see how an editor read it and declared that the parts about Scout’s childhood were (by far) the best parts of the book. It’s worth reading for those scenes alone. I think I gave it 4-stars.

go set

Back from the Dead!

18 Aug

Did you think I had fallen off the face of the earth? Or replaced my reading time with diaper changes, toddler chases and naps? Well, pretty close. Things have been crazy over here. BUT. I had a great weekend with lots of good things in my stack of books. Two are already out, one is coming in November but I want to mention it now so that you can queue up for it at the library or bookstore.

First, a Europa paperback out this year called Distant Marvels. My great bookstore friend led a bookstore book club discussion of this novel and said that every single member loved the book. That hardly EVER happens in book clubs so I thought I’d check it out.Distant Marvels

And it flew by. Set in Cuba during one of the (many) revolutions, it opens with a huge storm looming on the horizon. Maria Sirena, in her eighties, refuses to leave her seaside house. She’d like to die in the storm. But the story has other plans for her as she is pulled from her home by some police and taken to safety. Sharing a room with a dozen other older ladies, Maria Sirena passes the time by telling the story of her life, a story that has been weighing on her for a lifetime. It kind of reminded me of The House of Spirits – a multi-generational story of political rebellion, forbidden love, and so many secrets. 4 stars.

fishbowl

Fishbowl by Bradley Somer just came out at the beginning of this month. It’s been getting lots of rave reviews from independent bookstores across the nation, including Rainy Day. I liked it, I sped right through it, I thought it was clever BUT. It felt so short! The entire novel takes place over half an hour in an apartment/condo building. It was an action packed half hour (death, birth, love, break-ups, beauty, sorrow, etc), but still at the end I felt like “And that’s it?” I did like all of the people, I even liked the unlikeable ones. It reminded me of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists – but that was one I loved and this was a little lesser. 3.5 stars.

improbability

This is the upcoming title, The Improbability of Love. Maybe it’s because I read this first (of these three) or maybe it’s because of my mood, but this was far and away my favorite. It pretty much combines all of my favorite things to read about: quirky characters you come to love (lots of them), art intrigue, a meatier back story but still a light-feeling novel. Our heroine, Annie (I loved her), stumbles across a painting in a junk shop. It is covered in grime and more money than she can afford (but not a lot of money, she’s just broke), but it speaks to her for some reason and she decides to buy it for her “boyfriend.” Things happen and she ends up stuck with the painting (and rid of the boyfriend). After spending time with it, she starts to think that maybe it’s not some junk painting, maybe it’s a masterpiece. So then we get to know a large handful of other people who potentially would be interested in obtaining this painting – the museum director looking to revitalize his museum, the head of the auction house looking for something to redeem his recent poor investments, the aging philanthropist looking for one last glorious purchase, the list goes on and on. But they are all so great that I can’t think of one I would’ve cut out. It’s a love story, a mystery and an ode to the romanticism of Rococco paintings all in one. If I told you that the painting itself narrated a few chapters, it might turn you off but DON’T LET IT, you will love him. 5 stars.

Reading up a Frenzy.

8 Jul

Whoa. I finished two entire books this week, plus one the week before. I keep laughing at how much things have changed in my life, not so long ago I could spend an entire weekend reading and get through 3 or 4 books. Right now 3 books in two weeks feels like a massive achievement.

For starters, I dug back through my To-Be-Read pile and pulled out Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling’s Cuckoo’s Calling. Lots of my favorites have recommended it and I felt like I needed something suspenseful to get me back into the swing. cuckoo's callingI was so pleasantly surprised with this – what a great mystery! For some reason I wasn’t expecting it to be a Hollywood dazzler sort of a story, but it was thoroughly entertaining. Here’s the plot line: A high profile model apparently jumps off her balcony, ending her life and setting off a media wildfire. Her much older brother employs private detective Cormoran Strike to investigate some months later, as he is displeased with the police’s ruling of suicide. So good, so twisty. 4 stars.

in the country

Seems like every year there is one short story collection that somehow ends up in my hands, and somehow it is always amazing. Every time it happens, I feel like I preface the post with “Well, I don’t really like short stories…” Up until now. Guess what? I kind of really like short stories every now and then! This collection, In the Country by Mia Alvar, was awesome – all the stories are about the Filipino community – either in the Philippines or in Bahrain or in the States. There were so many that I loved – the one that sticks out the most to me is the title story, the last story in the collection, about a young nurse in the Philippines who organizes a strike for equal pay, only to fall in love with the reporter who comes to cover it. The rest of the (longest) story follows their relationship through political prison, charges of treason, frightening revolutionary things. It was great. 5 stars.

ill-give-you-the-sunI swallowed this entire YA novel up in one great big greedy gulp. It was such a wonderful, wonderful story. I let the baby fidget in her crib an extra fifteen minutes this morning because I just HAD TO FINISH it. The story is about twins, a boy (Noah) and a girl (Jude). The chapters alternate in perspective, Noah’s are told when the twins are 13, Jude picks up the story and the following chapter three years later at the age of 16. So you sort of read the novel from the outsides in – you know the set up, but you also know the outcome fairly quickly. For instance, you know that at the age of 13 they have a mother, at the age of 16 they don’t. At 13, they are inseparable but at 16 they pretty much avoid each other. At 13, Jude is the popular one and Noah is an outcast, at 16 roles have pretty much been reversed. So you work your way closer and closer to the meat of the story and then back out again to the resolution. It was SO GREAT. Lots of art, lots of passion, lots of amazing imagery. 5 stars!

 

 

One of Ten Thousand Family Affairs

1 Jul

Sometimes all you need to get you out a reading funk is a well-written story of a messed up family. Guess what? I found one! among

If you can see (it’s small), Jonathan Safran Foer gave a pretty nice blurb for this debut novel – reason enough for me to pick it up. He’s a favorite of mine, and one who doesn’t blurb often. Page one tells us that the husband in this family drama, Jack, has had an affair. The recently scorned other woman has printed out an entire novel’s worth of all of their emails and texts, wrapped it up with a bow and sent it off to Jack’s wife, Deb. Pretty common groundwork for any novel that includes an affair. However! Usually in these novels, I find one of the two (Jack or Deb, in this case) completely unsympathetic. The wife is to wishy-washy, the husband too unconvincing, why were they ever even married in the first place? what did they see in each other? In Among the Ten Thousand Things, I liked both sides. I totally believed that there was love in that relationship, love that would make you really consider staying or leaving. Yes, the story is sort of depressing. Yes, there are children involved who are directly affected by the marital drama. Yes, there are some hilarious moments and great lines. I’d give this 3.75 stars, rounded up to 4 for ease (and because I haven’t read ANYTHING lately). Hits shelves July 7, 2015.