Lee Child

11 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: December 2016

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.

The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang

Daniel Ford: Jade Chang’s debut novel, The Wangs vs. The World, crackles with angsty verve, frustration, and familial crisis. The Wang family is incredibly dysfunctional, but also fervently proud and wondrously entertaining. Patriarch Charles Wang’s delusions of reclaiming ancestral lands in China, which exacerbate after losing his cosmetic empire, set the story in motion, and events quickly envelop his unsuspecting, and somewhat damaged, children. A tragically comedic family road trip ensues, offering one cringe-worthy humiliation after another. Chang brilliantly shifts perspectives between the main characters—including the car Charles repossesses from his hired help!—and doesn’t let the narrative let up for a moment.  

While the plot and tone certainly make for exciting reading, what distinguishes The Wangs vs. The World is its truly unforgettable characters. One can’t help but love the self-made (and self-destroyed) Charles, his successful, yet recently disgraced, eldest daughter Saina (whose Upstate New York house the family is fleeing to), and his youngest daughter grace, a financially needy social media star. However, for me, Andrew, the lone Wang son, stole the spotlight. He’s unfailingly earnest and sweet, even when he’s bombing on stage trying to get his stand-up comedy career off the ground. To be sure, each of them faces issues that are serious and potentially ruinous, but the Wangs also make you laugh out loud while you watch them burn their lives to the ground.

In The Wangs vs. The World, Chang explores many of the themes you’ll find in the other novels we recommend this month—family bonds, the struggle with the American dream, the immigrant experience, wealth, financial ruin, and race—but does so with an unparalleled joie de vivre. This novel is landing on a lot of “Best Of” lists for 2016, and deservedly so. Don’t miss out on one of the most fun reads of the year! 

The Infinite by Nick Mainieri

Daniel: I picked up Nick Mainieri’s stellar debut novel The Infinite thinking I’d only read a few chapters to get a feel for his work so that I was prepared for my interview with him. I ended up racing through 100 pages, and only put the book down because my eyes had dried out, my hands were cramped, and morning was rapidly approaching outside my window.

The Infinite’s star-crossed teenage lovers, the unflinchingly loyal Jonah McBee and Luz Hidalgo, an illegal immigrant trying to outpace her “ghost runner,” are two of my favorite characters from 2016. Jonah attempts to hold everything in his life together with baling wire and a dream, while Luz struggles to find acceptance both in New Orleans and across the border in Mexico. When an unexpected pregnancy tears their relationship apart, Luz and Jonah travel paths that converge, but never really intertwine as tightly as during their charmed beginning. Luz’s experiences in particular are jarring and violent, ending in a place far different than you might imagine.

That’s the other hallmark of Mainieri’s freshman novel. It is a constant surprise that never feels overburdened with red herrings or unnecessary plot devices. John Irving once remarked that good writers shouldn’t indulge in twists and turns that the reader doesn’t see coming. He said the most effective literary surprises are those the reader will look back on and think, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” That logic is exactly what Mainieri expertly deploys in The Infinite. Jonah and Luz’s fates feel earned and appropriate.

I had to keep reminding myself that this was a debut novel. Much like Taylor Brown’s Fallen Land, Julia Claiborne Johnson’s Be Frank With Me, and M.O. Walsh’s My Sunshine Away, The Infinite reads like it’s penned from a well known master storyteller. Mainieri deftly explores post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and a drug war-addled Mexico in pursuit of discovering the true natures of his main characters. I very much look forward to what Mainieri does next.

Adam Vitcavage: Kathleen Collins might not be a name you recognize. She was a playwright, filmmaker, writer, and an African-American civil rights activist who died in her forties in 1988. So why is this 27-year-old white guy, whose life never overlapped with the author’s, writing about her? A collection of her stories called Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? knocked me on my ass, that's why. Her sixteen stories offer poignant insight into everyday life for African-Americans in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Collins earnestly invites readers into intimate stories like they were lifelong bosom buddies. The ease of the author’s writing balances the explosive content filling the collection, and while these stories are decades old, their themes are more relevant than ever at the close of one of the most racially turbulent years in modern history.

The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung

Daniel: Sonya Chung’s The Loved Ones is a compulsive read that is exquisitely structured. The novel’s crunchy, broken characters tell a mutigenerational immigrant saga, a mixed race family struggle, and a coming-of-age tale all at once. Chung juggles these multiple perspectives and cultures with ease, and allows her themes to unfurl deliberately throughout a narrative that’s set primarily in Washington D.C. during the mid-1980s and early 1990s.

You can’t help rooting for Chung's characters despite some of their actions. Charles Lee, the African American patriarch whose father abandoned him, tries to do right by his family while also fighting against his inner demons and an increasingly distant wife. Hannah Lee, the teenage daughter of Korean immigrants who were shunned by their own family for falling in love, uncertainly steps into adulthood and becomes tragically intertwined with Charles’ family. Hannah’s parents silently internalize being ostracized, while also stubbornly clinging to their once forbidden love. Charles’ daughter Veda anchors the novel’s final act, coming into her own without being hurt too much by her family’s dysfunction.

A death early on in the novel sets all of these threads in motion, and sends Chung’s main characters in various, and often times opposite, directions. The second half of The Loved Ones is a fascinating exploration of grief and self-discovery that pairs so well with the author’s heartfelt prose and poignant dialogue. The resolution to Hannah Lee’s parent’s story, in particular, is one of the most moving scenes I’ve read in fiction this year. I’m getting dusty in Writer’s Bone HQ just thinking about it.  

Chung’s voice isn’t just a welcome one in the literary world; it’s a necessary one as we try to make sense of our increasingly uncertain future.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Daniel: I would pay good money to write like Zadie Smith. There’s real craftsmanship behind her prose, dialogue, and characters, and she asks big questions without beating you over the head them. Her exploration of a lifelong friendship touches on myriad themes that could easily be extrapolated into individual novels. Race, class, philanthropy, politics, family, friendship, companionship, globalism, identity, wealth, poverty, fame, commercialism, and art are all issues that are examined through her ever-evolving narrator’s eyes.

Swing Time lives up to its name, swaying effortlessly through multiple decades of the main character’s life and cities and villages around the world. However, with the exception of a scandal hinted at in the prologue, there’s nothing that necessarily propels the narrative forward; you’ve got to completely buy into a character study that, as a Kansas City Star reviewer pointed out, lacks a certain mirth at times. Rather than a weakness, I think that Smith’s straightforward, unadorned style is a strength; she’s much more interested in her characters’ search for joy than whatever cheap thrill one might feel when watching a performance of “Guys and Dolls” or a Fred Astaire film.

Swing Time will certainly inspire discussion and debate between readers, and I imagine those conversations will intensify once the novel is brought to the small screen.

The Pavilion of Former Wives by Jonathan Baumback

Daniel: There's something Paul Auster-like about Jonathan Baumbach's new short story collection The Pavilion of Former Wives. You may not always be able to figure out what’s real and what’s imagined in his characters’ lives, but you will appreciate the author’s determined pursuit of universal truths. Baumbach utilizes tough, but tender, dialogue, and provocative prose to explore the nature of relationships. This collection features a man who gets to re-live some of the most sorrowful moments of his life, a relationship purely defined by emails, a man who loses his parked car (!), and, my personal favorite, a stranded poet who meets a troubled woman at a train station. The Pavilion of Former Wives, much like Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble, finds the humanity in oddball stories that will haunt you well after you put them down. 

Night School by Lee Child

Daniel: I’ve been reading Lee Child’s work since my college roommate put Killing Floor in my hands more years ago than I’m willing to admit. It was a pleasure being the audience while Child discussed Jack Reacher and his approach to writing with Stephen King last year at Harvard. It was even cooler hearing Child’s passion for his character and future plans during his appearance on “Friday Morning Coffee” with Sean Tuohy. We recommend a lot of weighty fiction, particularly this month, but it’s important to remember that reading should also be fun. There’s no better literary palate cleanser than a Jack Reacher adventure, and Night School is no exception. It’s pure escapism that will remind you why you started reading in the first place.

Author's Corner

Murdery Delicious author Peter Sherwood shares four novels you should put on your shelf ASAP.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Dive into the pages of Margaret Atwood’s recently published Hag-Seed and suddenly find yourself caught up in a play within a novel within the retelling of another play. Part of Hogarth’s new series where contemporary authors were asked to reinterpret several of the Bard’s texts in a modern day setting, The Tempest is the tossed landscape here. Atwood’s task was considerable and the resulting novel is as touching and beautifully orchestrated as are the magical works of Prospero himself.

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

Truman Capote’s haunting coming of age novel Other Voices, Other Rooms is exquisitely crafted and filled with fluttering, unforgettable characters clinging to a lazy, long ago South, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. If you haven’t read Capote’s explosive debut before or lately, the Master awaits.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch certainly takes its time, but anyone familiar with Donna Tartt knows there is no rush when she’s telling the story. While the novel winds mostly around a shadow-struck Manhattan, it also feels lush and richly told as our hero navigates his Salinger-esque way through the sudden loss of his mother and the uncertainty of what else could possibly happen afterward.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Finally, when someone says, “There are no words” to describe something, tell ‘em to pick up a copy of Moby Dick. Extraordinary.

Be sure to listen to the audio edition of "Books That Should Be On Your Radar!"

5 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: September 2015

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.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Daniel Ford: Lauren Groff’s novel Fates and Furies was published on Sept. 15 and promptly longlisted for the National Book Award. Considering the novel’s beautifully crafted sentences, its dual narrative structure, and its multi-faceted look at a marriage between two young creative spirits, it’s not hard to figure out why critics and readers alike have made Fates and Furies a hit. The marriage of Lotto and Mathilde begins innocently enough—we’re told from Lotto’s point of view—but like all marriages, it falls prey to doubt, confusion, lies, and tragedy. Because of its narrative structure—the first half focuses on Lotto, an aspiring, out-of-work actor, the second half on Mathilde, a wife dedicated to making their lives a success—Fates and Furies has drawn comparisons to Gone Girl with some justification. However, what separates this novel from Gillian Flynn’s megahit is the presence of actual love and hope. I was much more invested and intrigued by the characters in Fates and Furies than I ever was reading Gone Girl. Without giving too much away, there’s a twist when the perspectives change, however, it fits with the character in such a way that I didn’t completely question everything I had read before. There’s a true love story in Fates and Furies that is as messy, complicated, and passionate as any in real life. The novel compels you to keep reading, so you’ll have this one done in just a couple days, but Lotto and Mathilde will stick with you long after you finish.

Make Me by Lee Child

Sean Tuohy: In Make Me, Lee Child takes readers on a thrill ride that goes from the cornfields of the Midwest to the sun-soaked shores of Los Angeles and everywhere in between. Child's itinerant hero Jack Reacher steps off a speeding train in an oddly named sleepy town in the middle of nowhere and right onto the playing field with a bang, like always. Reacher wants to explore the town’s origins, but he’s suddenly finds himself racing down a dark path searching for a missing investigator and trying to out run hitmen. Child always delivers with solid action, well-paced plots, and hardboiled dialogue that pops out of Reacher’s mouth and socks you in the face.

Daniel: I haven’t read a Jack Reacher yarn in quite some time. I cracked open Make Me after being inspired by Sean’s recommendation and our field trip to Harvard to see Child interviewed by Stephen King. After reading some heavier literature and non-fiction earlier this month, the book was the perfect brain candy. Make Me is wildly entertaining and featured snappy dialogue and Reacher doing Reacher things (like expertly planning out a shootout with a trio of thugs well before the action happens). Reacher also gets a lot more beat up in this book than in some of the others I’ve read. He’s not 100 percent during the novel’s climatic events, which made me think about how the “Justified” writers portrayed Raylan Givens after they realized it wouldn’t be realistic if he shot and killed everyone every episode. Twenty books into the series, Child wisely reminded readers that Reacher isn’t a superhero. He’s just a guy trying to stay off the grid, which is getting increasing more difficult in an increasingly connected world (Reacher even has a debit card now!). Make Me made me (see what I did there?) even more excited for the next 20 Reacher adventures.  

For more insights into Make Me, watch the Stephen King and Lee Child event Writer’s Bone attended at Harvard:

Gary Almeter: Say the title of this book aloud. Just do it. The six words put together are so discordant, so cacophonous that you almost don’t know how to feel when you say them. The rest of the book, on the heels of its title, is no less jarring for all the best reasons. Clegg’s debut novel is a story of profound loss and a meditation on grief, forgiveness, and self-forgiveness. Then it adds a layer of suspense as those affected search for the truth behind the accident at the center of the novel. All of this takes place in a small town where the visiting haves comingle with the native have-nots. The resultant anger and resentment from each are beautifully and authentically realized.

This narrative is told from many different points of view. Clegg navigates through a number of characters’ consciousnesses in an elegant and commanding way. He jumps back and forth between first and third person, back and forth in time, from coast to coast, and from the protagonist to an ancillary character who also sheds insight on the loss.   

Clegg’s story is all about what happens in those serendipitous settings where people who wouldn’t ordinarily meet actually do. And how that meeting propels them forward. It is often beautiful; often adversarial; always interesting. One of the ancillary voices in this novel says, “It’s a relief to finally find where you’re meant to be.” It’s equally rewarding seeing Clegg get them there.

For more insights on Bill Clegg, listen to Gary’s recent podcast with the author:

Daniel: There are two statistics that struck me in Aziz Ansari’s excellent sociological study, Modern Romance. First, in a 2013 study about Japanese dating habit, “a whopping 45 percent of women aged sixteen to twenty-four ‘were not interested in or despised sexual contact,’ and more than a quarter of the men felt the same way.” Wow, that’s a lot of people who are not only not getting any, but don’t want any at all! And this from a country that has a serious population problem! Come on, Japan, get on that. Literally.

Secondly, “in nonmarried but ‘committed’ couples there is a 70 percent chance of cheating.” Damn. That’s a high percentage. And, as Ansari point outs throughout the book, it’s easier than ever to connect and communicate with people, so that number might even get higher in the future.

Some of the findings in the book might lead some to despair over the changing nature of relationships, marriages, and friendships. However, Ansari’s wit and charm ooze from every page and sort of make you optimistic about where we’re headed as a civilization. I’m just thankful that I found the headline to my article in Stephanie Schaefer, and that we got to discuss the book while enjoying a healthy, committed relationship.     

Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill

Sean: There is a disappointing film out right now based on this stellar true-life crime tale. Spanning 30 years, the book, written by two award-winning Boston reporters, covers the unholy marriage between the FBI and Boston crime lord James "Whitey" Burgler. The prose has an odd, almost playful, tone. It’s much better than the film and has the added bonus of being a quick read. 

MORE FROM WRITER'S BONE'S LIBRARY

The Top 5 Jack Reacher Novels

By Sean Tuohy

Stephen King has called Jack Reacher “the coolest character” and the public agrees. For nearly 20 books, the former military cop turned drifter has woven himself into the American literary fabric. Hardboiled and witty, Lee Child’s character is one of the funniest good guys to follow. Tom Cruise also  brought the character to the big screen in the recent action film “Jack Reacher.”

Child’s new book, Make Me, hits stands on Sept. 8, so we decided to help those unfamiliar with the Reacher legend by counting down the top five Reacher novels.

As an added bonus, listen to my interview with Lee Child!


5. Die Trying (Jack Reacher #2)

Not surprisingly, this novel starts with Reacher finding himself as the right guy at the wrong time and place. Kidnapped off a city street, he must figure out the identity of his captors and why they took a young FBI agent along with him. One crazed, but smart, villain, some hand guns, and Reacher’s brawn all adds up to a fun read.


4. Without Fail (Jack Reacher # 6)

Someone is trying to kill the second most powerful man in the United States and Reacher must stop him. Again, filled with twist and turns, this book keeps readers on the edge of their seat. Reacher teams up with the Secret Service to track down a group of well-trained assassins before they can strike again.


3. Bad Luck and Trouble (Jack Reacher #11)

When Reacher receives a distress call from his former army unit he goes west to solve a mystery and stop an attack on the country. Reacher teams up with his former unit and explores what could have been had he not left the army.


2. Tripwire (Jack Reacher #3)

Jack Reacher travels from Key West, Fla., to New York City when the past reaches out to him. Reacher finds himself in front of a lot of bad guys and too many bullets in this taut thriller. Child brings to life one of his best villains; a hook-handed, high-end bookie with a taste for blood.


1. Killing Floor (Jack Reacher #1)

The first Jack Reacher novel has one of the best first chapters in all of modern history. Tight and thrilling, the opening lines smack the reader in the face hard and the rest of the novel keeps on punching.