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.
Hum If You Don't Know the Words by Bianca Marais
Daniel Ford: “Just one more chapter,” I told myself. “Okay, one more…fine, last one, I need to work in the morning. This is really the last one…”
You’ll find yourself having the same conversation with…yourself while reading Bianca Marais’ sparkling and superbly structured debut novel Hum If You Don't Know the Words. The novel, set in Apartheid-era South Africa, alternates perspectives between Robin Conrad, a nine-year-old white girl leading a comfortable life, and Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman living in a rural village. Robin and Beauty’s worlds intertwine following the Soweto Uprising. Robin’s parents are murdered and Beauty’s daughter Nomsa disappears. Robin is taken in by her hard-drinking, jet-setting aunt, while Beauty relentlessly searches for her missing daughter.
One reveal after another in this novel just wowed me. Every chapter hooked you right into the next one. I revisited the book while writing my review and my heart got stuck in my throat all over again! Robin and Beauty are at times both incredibly strong and dangerously fragile. The supporting cast helps illuminate the two women’s struggle to realign their lives and provide insights into the segregated and racist world they’re living in. Hum If You Don't Know the Words is a master class in fractured familial drama and should be on the top of your reading list headed into the fall.
The Late Show by Michael Connelly
Sean Tuohy: The reigning king of detective fiction recently published his 30th book and added a brand new character for the modern era. Renée Ballard is a driven young detective who is exiled to the night shift, known as “the late show” at the LAPD’s Hollywood division. After witnessing a victim take their last breath in the aftermath of a brutal nightclub shooting, Ballard sets out to find the killer, even if it means risking her career. The author meets his high standard, as usual, and mixes together Los Angeles, compelling characters, and a driving plot line. The Late Show further proves why Connelly is the king of crime fiction.
Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips
Daniel: The premise of Gin Phillips’ recently published novel Fierce Kingdom is chilling: a mother and son are trapped in a zoo during a mass shooting. While the plot does make your heart race, it’s the relationship between Joan and Lincoln that will keep you flipping pages. Not only does Phillips establish them as characters quickly and efficiently, she also gives them depth typically lacking in this kind of thriller. Lincoln isn’t just an annoying kid who provides comic relief; he has real issues and motivations that test Joan’s ability to keep him safe. The supporting cast could have easily been cardboard cutouts by comparison, but it’s to Phillips’ credit that she burrows deep within the people Joan and Lincoln come in contact with. The situation is terrifying, even considering that these events have become commonplace in the United States. Phillips’ character work distinguishes Fierce Kingdom as a thriller of the highest order.
Of Mess and Moxie by Jen Hatmaker
BookTrib: Part self-help and part inspirational, Of Mess and Moxie (out Aug. 8) is all about inspiring women to embrace struggle and recognize that they’re strong enough to overcome almost anything. Told with a blend of humor and personal stories, Hatmaker offers advice and inspiration, showing readers how to consistently find their inner strength.
Killerjoy by Jon Negroni
Daniel: Jon Negroni can flat out write. He knows how to build a world and suck you right into it. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not the biggest fantasy aficionado, but I couldn’t help but get swept up in Negroni’s characters and narrative. He has a remarkable vision for this project, and if the rest of the series reaches the heights established here, fantasy readers are in for something special. My fellow 50/50 Press writer-in-arms is an author to watch, and Killerjoy should be on your bookshelf ASAP.
A Clean Kill in Tokyo by Barry Eisler
Sean: Zero Sum, the ninth book in John Rain series, was released in June, so I figured I'd swing back and start with the first novel in the long-running book series about the half-American, half-Japanese assassin who makes his kills look natural.
This is a stellar thriller. A fast-paced, but well thought out plot line mixes well with layered characters against the fantastic Tokyo backdrop. Eisler quickly shows the reader that he is a top-notch thriller writer.
The Road to Concord by J.L. Bell
Daniel: J.L. Bell is a Massachusetts writer who runs the terrific history blog, “Boston 1775.” His book, The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War, features everything that makes Bell’s site great: accessible writing style, innovative historical storytelling, and a fresh perspective on events that occurred nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago. The Road to Concord focuses on how four stolen cannons (that British general Thomas Gage was desperately, and perhaps foolishly, trying to recover) may have helped spark the American Revolution. The narrative features colonial hijinks, high political drama, and Revolutionary War heroes not often discussed alongside Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. The Road to Concord is refreshingly original and structured like a thriller. Learning about what led the British and the colonies to war has never been this much fun.
All the Bayou Stories End With Drowned by Erica Wright
Daniel: During our recent podcast chat, Erica Wright told me it’s likely that people who say they don’t like poetry just haven’t found the right poem yet. Well, let me tell you, the poems you’ll find in her new collection are indeed the right ones. From her fiery, apocalyptic opener to the eponymous entry that inspired the collection, All the Bayou Stories End With Drowned showcases a poet in firm command of her genre. There’s such depth of character and snappy dialogue that you’ll think you’re reading a short story at times. You’ll marvel at how Wright packs so much heart and fury into such a concise structure. I have a whole new appreciation for modern poetry, and will likely seek out other poets thanks to this collection.
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
BookTrib: It’s all about discovering new parts of yourself in Perrotta’s novel about a mother and son who are thrust out of their comfort zones in various ways. For the 40-something Eve Fletcher that means a sexual awakening that’s connected to the idea of herself as a MILF. And for her son, Brendan, it means readjusting his expectations as he leaves home for his first year at college.
I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet
Daniel: I’ve been tweeting out how much I love Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad for a month. Mekhennet, an Arab-German journalist for The Washington Post, gives an honest and passionate account of her upbringing and journalism career. While her background gave her opportunities to discover stories that may have gone otherwise unnoticed, she also had to hurdle plenty of discrimination (both racist and sexist) in order to get those stories told. This memoir also provides a different perspective on Sept. 11, the War on Terror, and the fight against ISIS, one that’s much more nuanced than the current daily headlines. Mekhennet puts a very human face on both sides of this seemingly endless conflict, and her tenacity keeps her asking that all-important question: why? I Was Told To Come Alone should be required reading at journalism schools. All schools, actually. Read this book.
The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh
Daniel: This novel is going to unsettle your senses from the get-go. Set in the Ozark Mountains, The Weight of Blood features a shadowy, absent mother, a ritualized murder, and a young woman coming of age in a secluded area with an alcoholic father. McHugh writes atmosphere so well, and the Ozarks provide the perfect tableau for this kind of storytelling. Secrets abound in this novel, and you’ll be white-knuckling it long into the night (yeah, you’re not going to sleep, don’t even try).
By Bianca Marais, author of Hum If You Don’t Know the Words
Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
While on tour two weeks ago, I visited the fabulous Copperfield's Books in Healdsburg for an event. They were kind enough to allow me to pick a book in the store as a gift from them, and so I did what I always do: I asked a bookseller for a recommendation.
Emily suggested Into the Forest, saying that the author was local and that it was one of her favourite books, and so naturally, that’s the one I chose. I’m so glad I did, because I absolutely devoured the book that tells that story of two sisters, Eva and Nell, whose worlds are turned upside down when sickness and anarchy rage across the United States as it’s on the brink of collapse. The description appealed to me because I so thoroughly enjoyed Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which was also a favourite of Katie Smith’s, another wonderful bookseller at the store.
Hegland is a masterful storyteller who has written a page-turner that is both lyrical and challenges everything you think you know about society.
A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass
I’ve been a fan of Julia Glass’s since her Three Junes won the National Book Award in 2002. I’ve read all of her books multiple times and was very excited to hear that she had a new one coming out in July called A House Among the Trees. I was planning to buy, it but was given it as a gift by another fabulous bookstore that I visited while on tour, Towne Center Books. And it wasn’t just any copy; it was an autographed copy which made it even more special!
I’m halfway through it and absolutely loving it. Glass has a way of immersing you in her books so that you feel as though you’ve known the characters your whole life. In this, her fifth novel, she tells the story of the unusual bond between a world-famous writer and his assistant. I can’t wait to finish this but I’m trying to read it slowly to savour it.
A Distant View of Everything by Alexander McCall Smith
I haven’t gotten to this one yet, which is another book in the Isabel Dalhousie series that takes place in Edinburgh, but I love everything Alexander McCall Smith writes. I’ve become even a bigger fan of his since my 12-year-old goddaughter, Anya, who lives in Edinburgh, recently went to home to give him my book in the hopes that he might blurb it.
When she knocked on his door, instead of his being annoyed at the intrusion, he invited her (and her mother who was hiding behind the bushes around the corner) inside, offered them tea and even gave them a few autographed copies of his books. He then sent me a lovely email when he didn’t have time to blurb the book before the deadline.
Two for the Road
Two books that I also haven’t gotten to yet, but that I’ve heard amazing things about, are The Elephants in my Backyard by Rajiv Surendra and Everybody’s Son by Thrity Umrigar. I’ve bought them both and am looking forward to diving in shortly.
Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford discuss Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin. Also read author Julie Buntin's review in June's "Books That Should Be On Your Radar."