Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.
Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
Daniel Ford: Johnson’s utterly charming debut novel landed in my hands by happenstance. I was perusing the stacks at Porter Square Books, waiting for W.B. Belcher’s reading to start, and Be Frank With Me’s robin’s egg blue cover caught my eye. “I will not buy a book. I will not buy a book,” I muttered as I walked away. After Belcher’s Q and A ended, it took me all of five minutes to snatch a copy from the display shelf and hand the cashier my money.
Structured around a reclusive author, an insecure assistant, and an eccentric and immensely lovable 9-year-old, Be Frank With Me will move anyone who has ever been labeled “different” or “outsider.” It’s heartwarming without being cloying, serious without being dark or overbearing, and laugh-out-loud funny. Frank, whose love of Old Hollywood and debonair style, will be the character that sticks with you weeks after you’ve read this, but Johnson fleshes out his supporting cast in just the right way that you’ll be rooting for all of them by the final chapter.
Run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore (fine, online if you must) and buy this book. As Frank might say, “Allons-y!”
DisneyWar by James B. Stewart
Sean Tuohy: There’s quite the story behind the colorful and family friendly multi-billion dollar company that gave us our childhood memories. Stewart’s book depicts how Michael Eisner took the once-fading Disney, put on the glass slipper, achieved wild success, and then lost it all. A deep and heavy read.
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
Gary Almeter: Every year, a couple dozen men converge on a chain hotel located somewhere off I-95 to re-enact the "Monday Night Football" game played on Nov. 18, 1985. That’s the one where New York Giants linebacker Lawrence "LT" Taylor broke Washington Redskins' quarterback Joe Theismann's leg being broken in two places and ended his career. The men have a lottery to determine who gets to be who, and then they don equipment, jerseys, helmets, and engage in a precisely choreographed re-enactment of the play.
The absurdity of this is tethered by the fact that all of these men—about whom we purposely know so very little except that all are entrenched in middle age—are struggling with the most mundane issues the other 51 weekends of the year. Marital issues, financial problems, issues with children, and questions about career choices all coalesce with the drama of the re-enactment.
Ultimately, the men have to ask what it means to be a participant in life, what it means to be an individual, what it means to engage in ritual, and what it means to be a man. The book isn't really about football, although some familiarity with the game, as well as the play in question, might be helpful. It wasn't a bad play. It's not until they ran the play that the Redskins had any regrets. Which is, it turns out, much like life.
High Dive by Jonathan Lee
Adam Vitcavage: Many books use true events to propel fictional characters into breathtaking stories. Jonathan Lee's novel does what Man Booker Prize-winner Marlon James did in A Brief History of Seven Killings, but on a completely different level. In September 1984, a bomb went off in a British hotel trying to kill the Prime Minister. While the book is technically about the event itself, it’s more so about the lives of random and not-so-random people involved with the fateful day. Sounds serious, but what Lee does so well is that he was able to write a moving story while also using sly humor in all of the correct places. The main reason for picking the book up—even if the plot isn’t something that appeals to you—is the mere fact that Lee’s writing style is ace. Something all aspiring writers should study.
Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach
Daniel: A teenager who can’t talk and rips off guests at hotels. A mysterious woman with silver hair and a healthy bankroll. There may be some added enchantment in the world Wallach creates in Thanks for the Trouble, but lead characters Parker and Zelda generate the real magic. The pair grapples with weighty themes throughout the novel, however, Wallach’s sharp, witty prose and rapid-fire dialogue ensures that the tone never becomes depressing or maudlin. Parker’s new experiences reflect the Young Adult genre (as Wallach explained to me during our podcast), however, those experiences feel fresh and original thanks in large part to Parker’s lack of speech and reliance on a notebook to communicate. Much like Be Frank With Me, Thanks for the Trouble is sensitive without being melodramatic and is devoid of clichés and red herrings. It is a bittersweet story, well told, which makes it a welcome respite from cable news and lesser fiction.
This Side of Providence by Rachel M. Harper
Daniel: Harper's second novel features a Puerto Rican family on the wrong side of the tracks trying to stay together in the face of prison time, drug addiction, and foster care. Told in a multi-narrative style, This Side of Providence contains a plethora of memorable characters.
Cristo, the loyal son, whose young shoulders feel the weight of responsibility for taking care of his sisters when his mother lands in jail. Luz, the brainy conscience who doesn't share her brother's loyalty 100 percent, but who loves and misses her family when they are inevitably separated. The teacher struggling with an eating disorder who attempts to bring order and stability to the kids' life. The drug dealer with a heart of gold. An absent father burning with regret and shame. A mother, whose prison time is briefly a blessing, who can't escape her old life despite her overwhelming love for her children. And Trini, the youngest of the family, whose brief chapter is just as wrenching and devastating as anything Faulkner wrote.
These are characters well worth spending time with, even when they're living through their darkest hour. Harper expertly toggles from one from the other, weaving a tender, provocative story that never lacks for heart.