My year in books

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The TBR stack is not helped by the holidays and the Key West Literary Seminar.

I never read enough new books to come up with a top 10 of those like the pros do. But I do like to look back on what I read and come up with some recommendations. I read less than usual this year for which I can only blame one thing: radio. Two months of intensive radio school at Transom, and lots of freelancing when I got home, for radio and print, meant I didn’t have as much brain capacity for serious reading as I usually do. Still, I managed to read a few dozen books and made some discoveries.

Favorite work of fiction, overall: Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

Maybe it’s because it’s the last book I completed in 2014, but I don’t think so. I think this story collection would have stuck with me no matter when in the year I’d read it. Stone Mattress is Atwood’s first story collection in almost a decade and she’s still got it. The stories are dystopian without despair, funny and elemental and shockingly perceptive about our most intense fears. And hopes, too. Lots about aging, which is increasingly terrifying, but Atwood’s wit and humanity make it somehow easy to go down.

Favorite work of nonfiction, overall: True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel

I don’t remember hearing about Michael Finkel’s fall from journalistic grace, when he was fired from the New York Times Magazine after making some stuff up. He was no Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass but what he did was bad enough to get him justifiably disgraced. Soon after — in fact at the very moment his disgrace was going public — he learned that his identity had been appropriated by a man accused of murdering his wife and children in Oregon. Finkel, having nothing else to do, struck up a correspondence and eventually a friendship of sorts with his pretender. The book is everything its subtitle promises and there’s no question Finkel is a terrific writer. Read it now and you’ll be extra-informed when the movie version, starring James Franco and Jonah Hill, comes out later this year. More on this book in my September reading roundup.

Favorite work of nonfiction in which I am mentioned in the acknowledgments: The Shelf: From LES to LEQ: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose 

Full disclosure: I know Phyllis, who spends winters in Key West, and I am even mentioned in this book though not by name. She asked me about library weeding practices when I was working at the Key West Library. This book, though, is not about that so much as it is about the delights and perils of semi-random reading. She chose a shelf, not at random but a shelf nonetheless from her library in New York and doggedly read her way through. Her reports are entertaining, sometimes depressing but always enlightening. And she reminded me of the dwindling pleasures of browsing, of just finding a book by accident. You have to do that on purpose these days.

Favorite historical fiction series: Emmanuel Cooper series by Malla Nunn

Malla Nunn appeared at the Key West Literary Seminar last year and was a revelation for many of us. I’m fond of historical crime fiction anyway, and her books are exactly why I love that genre — because it’s a way to enter another era and follow a character in a time and place there is no other way to reach. And because it’s crime fiction, the fissures in society are exposed. This is especially true in Nunn’s series, which is set in early 1950s South Africa, just as apartheid is taking hold. Our hero, Emmanuel Cooper, is a World War II veteran-turned-detective who has connections at many levels of society and has to navigate an increasingly irrational world while maintaining his integrity. The fact that they’re beautifully written doesn’t hurt, either.

Favorite contemporary fiction series: Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith

You’re probably aware that Robert Galbraith is really J.K. Rowling. I picked up the first in this series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, mostly out of curiosity to see if her insanely readable style would translate from YA fantasy to adult crime fiction. It does, and Cormoran is a wonderfully interesting lead, an Afghanistan war veteran who’s lost his leg and his posh fiancee. And he’s the son of a Boomer rock star. But I really fell in love with this series with the second volume, The Silkworm — so much that I wish Rowling would quit messing around with whatever Potter follow-ups she’s doing and just focus on Cormoran. How many books is it going to take before he and his assistant, Robin, acknowledge that they’re falling for each other???

Favorite graphic work: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

It’s not really a graphic novel or even a memoir in the style of Fun Home — Hyperbole and a Half is a compilation from Brosh’s blog posts. But it is so brilliant and funny and honest and all of the things that make me so happy that the Internet exists to give people like Brosh a platform. Just read it.

Favorite romance novel: Rogue Spy by Joanna Bourne

I’m reading a little less romance in recent months (increasing employment? Proximity to the Key West Literary Seminar?) — but I read a bunch over the summer and fall and the best by far as the latest in Joanna Bourne’s Spymaster series. Half the time I want to push these books on people who dismiss the entire genre as Fifty Shades of Grey-like in their writing. Half the time, I feel like those people don’t really deserve to get a fun, smart read like this anyway.

Favorite cap to a supernatural trilogy: The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

I re-read the first two volumes in this series (A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night) in preparation for reviewing this book for The Miami Herald … and they got better on re-reading. And she brought it all together in the final volume. Brava! Even though I kind of hate it when a series I love wraps up after only three books, I also appreciate that the author has created a world and a story and moved on .. so we’re not all left hanging out there, Westeros-style. A close second in trilogy-capping goes to The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman, which I also reviewed for the Herald and also liked very much.

Favorite beginning to a new supernatural trilogy: The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

I just happened upon this in a really nice bookstore in Falmouth last spring. And when I saw the blurb from Eloisa James calling it something like a love child of Jane Austen and Doctor Who .. I was all in. It’s got time travel. It’s got romance. It’s got intrigue. Just read the damned thing and hope Ridgway doesn’t take too long coming up with the next installment.

Favorite book that won me over despite my cynical attitude: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

I picked this up at the same bookstore in Falmouth — I just had to get some reading in after a few weeks of intensive listening — despite some reservations. Because I have a default contrarian attitude toward books like this that are book club/library patron favorites. My fear, I guess, is that they will be manipulative, or treacly, or not as well written as everyone tells me they are (I’m still getting over having to read Ya-Ya Sisterhood for a book club like 15 years ago). But since this one was about books, I gave it a try anyway and damned if I wasn’t charmed, entertained, touched, all of that. A really nice story.

 

 

 

 

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Starring Alicia Zuckerman and Judy Blume: Miami Book Fair and more

sally j book cover I’m not going to the Miami Book Fair this year, which makes me sad — especially since I’m going to miss my friend and editor/producer Alicia Zuckerman’s event with Judy Blume Saturday afternoon, about the Sally J. Freedman Reality Tour, a project Alicia worked really hard on. While Judy is best known for books like Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, Forever and the Fudge series, Sally J. Freedman is her most autobiographical book. It’s set in Miami Beach in the late ’40s, the same time Judy lived there as a kid. It’s been close to 40 years since I read it and I can still remember details like the fear/dread/excitement of Sally’s conviction that one of their neighbors was actually Adolf Hitler in disguise — and the pain of being stung by a man ‘o war jellyfish.

Even if you can’t make it to the event, check out the story online at WLRN’s website — along with the slide show and the accompanying tour of Judy’s Miami Beach. It’s good stuff, and more than just nostalgia especially if you know and love Miami Beach.

I also wanted to post a couple of recent book reviews I wrote for The Miami Herald. The first was the final book in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins War series, The King’s Curse.* More recently, I wrote about The Forgers by Bradford Morrow, a fine crime novel especially for those who like books about books and fans of 19th century gothic dread. And may I once again sing the praises of my alma mater, The Miami Herald, and editor Connie Ogle for continuing to publish book reviews and news about books and even pay local freelancers to write them? Many a larger newspaper has given up the effort entirely and just runs wire. Like the Book Fair and the great bookstore Books & Books, Connie and her team are irrefutable evidence that South Florida is a far more literary place than you’d guess.

* I liked this book a lot and the series as a whole has helped lead me to more of an interest in the Wars of the Roses, the run-up to the Tudor era. My favorites were probably The White Queen, about Elizabeth Woodville who married Edward IV, and The Lady of the Rivers, about Woodville’s mother Jocasta. Others, especially The Red Queen, about Margaret Beaufort, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter, about Anne Neville, I found more of a slog — probably because the women who were telling the story seemed so unhappy and powerless. Well, Beaufort wasn’t exactly powerless — she did successfully maneuver to get her son, Henry Tudor, on the throne. But she was just a drag to live inside of for a couple hundred pages. I wound up watching the Starz mini-series based on the books, The White Queen, and got into it eventually. I’d recommend it for anyone who’s jonesing for the next season of Game of Thrones, especially since George R.R. Martin has repeatedly said that his Song of Ice & Fire books are rooted in the Wars of the Roses.

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Highly Recommended Reading: The Silkworm

silkwormEven though I’ve been reading fairly steadily (if not especially voraciously last month), it’s been a long while since something blew me away like my last read: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith. Galbraith is really J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, who published the first book in this private detective series under a pseudonym because she didn’t want it to be overwhelmed by Harry Potter hype.

Her identity came out fairly soon after publication anyway and she’s continuing with the series and I’m so glad she is. In fact, after reading this installment, I wish she’d quit messing around with whatever Potter follow-ups I see reference to occasionally and just settle down with Cormoran Strike. Because it is great.

Cormoran Strike is in some ways a classic private eye — smart but isolated, cynical but still generous enough to offer help to people who need it whether it’s his accidental-temp-turned-assistant Robin, or in this book, his hapless client who is her own worst enemy.

I don’t read a huge amount of contemporary crime fiction though I am trying to increase the proportion. And my favorite is Kate Atkinson, who has recently taken her attention from her excellent Jackson Brodie series to write more literary fiction (I resisted the quote marks! Praise me!!!). Reading Galbraith/Rowling reminds me a lot of the Brodie series because of what both writers do best — character and sly humor, without spilling over into the over-the-top territory of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard. In these books the people seem like real people only more interesting. And both stay mostly focused on our heroes, who are not entirely heroic but entirely human, but also offer occasional points of view from other characters — Atkinson more than Galbraith, who sticks just to Robin as an alternative. Anyway if you’re looking for a satisfying relatively quick read and you’ve got a touch of Anglophilia — or you are just sick of waiting for Atkinson to get back to Brodie — give these a try. The first is called The Cuckoo’s Calling and it’s good enough that I kept going to the second, but I’m saying she’s really hit her stride with The Silkworm.

If you’re in the Keys and you have a library card both titles are available in print. The first is also available as an audiobook, the second as an ebook. If you’re in the Keys and you don’t have a library card, head to your nearest library and get a library card.

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What I Read Last Month: October

lump of coalIt didn’t take long for hubris to catch up and whap me upside the head. After my gold star bragging reading record in September, in October I seem to have read … almost nothing. I had my reasons. First and foremost: Work. I got to work on a magazine project, and I produced a radio feature story, which takes a lot of time. Plus: Fantasy Fest! That takes a lot of time. So anyway here is my paltry list for October. It’s almost all romance, too, which is indicative that I’m feeling taxed enough to want some not-too-taxing reading.

Invisible City by Julia Dahl. I actually read that one in late September but forgot to include it in last month’s post. First in a series of contemporary crime fiction — I really liked the protagonist, a young reporter who winds up investigating her personal roots when a Hasidic woman is murdered in Brooklyn.

The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau — Second in a historical crime series set during Henry VIII’s England, starring young Joanna Stafford who was a novice until her convent got dissolved as part of the Reformation. I liked this book, too, maybe more than the first in the series, The Crown.

Never Judge A Lady by Her Cover by Sarah MacLean — Historical romance, read as an advanced review copy, last book in a quartet. I liked it fine — love a woman who hides as a man and runs a gambling hell to boot. I even went back and re-read the earlier installments in the series, A Rogue By Any Other Name, One Good Earl Deserves a Lover and No Good Duke Goes Unpunished. They’re all very well done; my favorite is probably One Good Early because I’m a sucker for a nerd heroine.

And I read one graphic novel: Arrow: Year One. I liked it better than Wonder Woman last month, possibly because I know the character better after mainlining a couple dozen Arrow episodes in the last month or so. That’s my other excuse for not reading a lot in October — I watched quite a bit of TV. My husband and I got addicted to Manhattan, a drama set at Los Alamos during the Manhattan project. The whole series is on Hulu Plus and it’s very well done. On my own, I got addicted to watching Arrow, catching up on the first two seasons on Netflix just as the new one started on Hulu. And I am now watching four, count ’em four comics-based hourlong dramas: Agents of Shield, Arrow, Gotham and the Flash. That’s a lot for not having cable. But they’re all pretty good.

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What I read last month: September

bookshelfBecause I cannot fully control my inner gold-star-seeking preening child, and because this is a book blog, I’m going to start posting a monthly roundup, with capsule reviews, of what I’ve been reading. And because I have a lot more reading time on my hands now, and can’t really resist bragging about it.

In September I read:

The Fever by Megan Abbot – The highest praise I can offer for this book is that it isn’t really my thing … and I still couldn’t put it down. High school girls mysteriously get sick, around the same time they are discovering their sexuality and getting vaccinated for HPV. While high school remains, for me, a mostly dreaded land where I have no wish to return even in fiction, I was fascinated by this book. And I didn’t see the end coming, which is always a plus.

Lost by S.J. Bolton – Since the Key West Literary Seminar focused on crime fiction, last January (see Megan Abbot, above), I have been slowly expanding my reading of contemporary crime which had before then been mostly limited to P.D. James and Kate Atkinson. S.J. Bolton is harder-edged than either of those and not as good a writer. But I’m enjoying her Lacey Flint series … and I’ll keep going if only to find out if she’s EVER going to finally jump Mark Joesbury’s bones like they’ve both been wanting for several books now.

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory – I reviewed this one for the Miami Herald. It’s the final entry in Gregory’s Cousins’ War series about the Wars of the Roses, and brings us up to Henry VIII. This time our narrator is Margaret Pole, a York cousin who has a front row seat for Henry’s increasingly desperate search for an heir, growing tyranny and the turmoil England experiences as it breaks away from Rome. I haven’t loved every entry in this series (I liked The White Queen and the Lady of the Rivers, the others not so much) but this is one of the good ones.

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Gen X-ercise

redoaksGeneration X is having a moment. I base this assertion on two items of media I consumed over the weekend.

The first was an episode of Slate’s The Gist, which is an excellent new podcast by Gen X-er Mike Pesca. Specifically, it was Pesca’s spiel at the end of the episode about Schoolhouse Rock, those classic cartoon shorts from the 1970s that taught us about grammar, math and legislative process. They are the subject of a special this Sunday on ABC. If I had cable, I’d watch it.

The second was the pilot of a new TV series on Amazon called Red Oaks. It’s set in a New Jersey country club in the summer of 1985, which is the summer between high school and college for the main characters. It was also that summer for me.

Gen X-ers have to grab our moments because we don’t get many of them. And we treasure them because it feels like that’s all we get. It’s the inevitable consequence of being caught in the sociocultural demographic vise between the Baby Boomers and their progeny, the Millennials. So we got to spend our youth resenting the Boomers and our maturity watching Millenials take center stage. Based on everything I’ve read and the word of many people I trust, I’d probably like Girls, the Lena Dunham show on HBO. But I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it.

(Important note: While I am going to continue bitching throughout this post about both generations, I am aware that these are gross generalizations — and that some of my favorite people on earth and good friends are in each of them. So please don’t take it personally.)

Both of these media experiences — especially coming on the same day! — were sweet because we Gen X-ers, even as we head toward our 50s, don’t get much of a chance for nostalgia. The Boomers own that territory, from the Wonder Years to classic rock (does anyone really need the Eagles or Led Zeppelin on the airwaves any more?????). The Millennials are already going there, rhapsodizing about shows that were apparently on Nickelodeon while we Gen X-ers were working crappy jobs and sporting unflattering hairstyles.

So I’m going to revel in our little moment here, while we’ve got it. I hope Amazon picks up Red Oaks. I may watch some YouTubes of Schoolhouse Rock or go see if the library still has that DVD. And I would like to point out that while the generations before and after us have had their cultural impacts — oh, have they had their cultural impacts — that a few of us have managed to stand out. Specifically, I’d like to appreciate:

  • Jon Stewart. If I had to choose one person as the voice of our generation, it would be him. Because he is funny as hell, and smart as hell. If there is any legacy bestowed on us by the Boomers that we have enthusiastically furthered it is the erosion of institutional authority. Stewart embodies our generation’s tightrope walk between idealism and cynicism and he embodies it by constantly pointing out that the emperor has no clothes — whether that emperor is Ronald Reagan or Jerry Garcia.
  • Wes Anderson. Speaking of nostalgia — almost every one of his movies is designed to hit that late ’60s, early ’70s analog sweet spot in our memory banks. And if his films have one overarching themes, it is fathers — and father relationships from the generation before parents thought they were supposed to be their kids’ friends.
  • Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz. I remember, in college in the ’80s, when Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney were all the rage, I came across a copy of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and immediately knew this guy was the real deal. I didn’t hear about Diaz till later because he’s even closer to my age but wow, what a talent. One thing I really appreciate about both of them is their appreciation for weirdness in the genre/scifi/comics/whatever sense.

I know this Moment isn’t going to last long. And just thinking about it long enough to write this blog post has me wondering: Maybe there’s an advantage to our squeezed-in-the-middle demographic position. There’s the pleasure of feeling aggrieved, which is always satisfying, but more importantly there’s the pleasure of being part of a more select club. I always attributed my underdog sympathies to growing up as a Red Sox fan … but now I wonder if it’s more of a generational tendency. Our time was going to come, and then it was already gone. But we’re still here.

 

 

 

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Aren’t they fantastic?

book coversI recently reviewed two books that are right in my realistic fantasy wheelhouse for The Miami Herald — both are the final installments in trilogies and both were just great, in different ways. I’m going to link to the reviews here but they will eventually go off the Herald’s free site so I’ll try to remember to change this once that happens. In both cases, I strongly recommend reading the entire trilogy and not starting with the third volume.

First up was The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness, the finale in her All Souls Trilogy. The first book was called A Discovery of Witches; the second is The Book of Night. Harkness writes for those of us who are open to stories of the supernatural but don’t really want to deal with Twilight and its ilk. As I said in my review, despite most of their characters being witches, vampires and daemons, these books share more DNA with A.S. Byatt’s Possession than they do with Twilight. They start out in Oxford’s Bodleian library and its main characters, witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew Clairmont, are brought together by a long-lost manuscript that Diana accidentally conjures up during her research into medieval science (ie. alchemy). That manuscript is, of course, the titular Book of Life but to re-find it Diana and Matthew have to, essentially, change the world. And travel back in time to Elizabethan England (that’s the setting for the second book, The Book of Life). So if you like Tudor stuff, as I do, that’s another gold coin for you.

The second was The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman. This also includes the supernatural but it is a more conscious riff on other books, especially The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Mostly they are the story of Quentin Coldwater; at the beginning of the first book, The Magicians, he is a hyper-intelligent super-dorky kid who likes to practice sleight of hand (coin and card tricks) and can’t quite let go of his devotion to the series of books about Fillory, the rough equivalent of Narnia. What is supposed to be a college interview turns into his introduction to Brakebills, an academy of magic that is kind of like Hogwarts with sex and drugs. The second volume, The Magician King, recounts Quentin’s post-Brakebills adventures. The third has him back in the real world, ie. the Earth that we know, and confronting adulthood as he nears 30. I don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoilers but if you loved Narnia as a kid, these books are a must-read. And the final volume, especially, is in many ways a love letter to books and reading — I think it captures the way we all want to — and in fact, do — practice a little alchemy when we’re really immersed in a book no matter how unrealistic or different from our own lives it may be. Not surprising, since Grossman is the book critic for Time magazine, I suppose. I can’t wait to see what both these authors do next.

 

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