This month’s book recommendations include works by Karen Dukess, Laura Lippman, Colson Whitehead, Bianca Marais, Daniel Ford, Tim Murphy, Zara Raheem, and more!
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.
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Daniel Ford: On the surface, knowing that you’re going to live for a couple hundred years (or more) sounds pretty awesome. However, as you march through time, you’ll likely be faced with some of the same questions Tom Hazard grapples with in Matt Haig’s new novel How to Stop Time. Sure, you may be lucky enough to have drinks with William Shakespeare or F. Scott Fitzgerald, but how many people can you stand to lose? How are you going to live with decisions that set the course of decades, or even centuries, of your life? As Tom discovers, his “gift” is much more a curse than anything else. While Haig does infuse his main character, and much of his narrative, with a sweet melancholy, he also builds time and time again to a hopeful crescendo. Haig beautifully balances an in-depth character study with a thrilling plot that weaves in and out of history and time.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Daniel: Believe the hype—Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage is exceptional. This novel was on our radar even before Oprah picked it for her book club earlier this month! Appearing as though they are the embodiment of the American Dream, Celestial and Roy’s marriage is already showing signs of strain when Roy is wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t admit. The nuanced and layered narrative that follows Roy’s incarceration and beyond speaks to Jones’ extraordinary gifts as a storyteller. She explores all of the characters that populate this book from every angle in an empathetic, honest way, while also subtly and poignantly commenting on marriage, friendship, and black life in America.
Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin
Daniel: Short stories, when done right, leave you wanting more. I demand novels featuring all of the women found in Danielle Lazarin’s incredible debut collection Back Talk. There’s not a bad note in any of these stories.
All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva
Adam Vitcavage: Across nine exquisitely surreal stories (out Feb. 20 from Spiegel & Grau), Sachdeva covers a wide array of characters and settings. The opening story is about a pioneer woman longing for her husband who is away. The title piece is set in modern day war-torn Africa. A later story takes you to the future. Like all good collections, her stories are thematically cohesive. They explore large-scale influences like nature and religion and how they influence us on an everyday basis. Reading the book reminded me of the sci-fi anthology television series “Black Mirror.” Everything is always seemingly normal, but just a little off kilter.
Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies by Ann Hornaday
Daniel: Talking Pictures by Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday is essential reading for film buffs. Hornaday dissects filmmaking into its distinct characteristics and explores what critics think about when watching and reviewing a movie. What choices did a director make that paid off (or didn’t)? How much does star power matter when it comes to casting? How do sound, cinematography, and colors work together? Hornaday also includes plenty of examples of both good and bad films, and each chapter will likely make you think about classic movies (or guilty pleasures) in a fresh way.
Eat the Apple by Matt Young
Daniel: Judging by Matt Young’s writing prowess in Eat the Apple (out Feb. 27 from Bloomsbury USA), he could have easily written a more linear, and perhaps more tongue-in-cheek, war memoir that would have fit in nicely with some of the other veteran literature we’ve read the past couple of years. However, owing to his literary chops, Young played with form, structure, point-of-view, and, I’m assuming, his own memories to produce a searing, brutal look into American men at war. I couldn’t help but think of Joshua Mohr’s memoir Sirens while reading Eat the Apple because of how much honesty and thoughtfulness Young brings to moments that read more like Bukowski fiction rather than real life.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
Daniel: I don’t know what took me so long to read Lisa Ko’s National Book Award-nominated debut The Leavers, but it was well worth the wait. The novel starts with Deming Guo’s undocumented immigrant mother, Polly, leaving for work at a nail salon and never coming home. Ko switches perspectives between Daniel, the name a foster family bestows on Deming, and Polly, whose disappearance is more layered than you can possibly imagine. Needless to say, both characters lives are upended and shaped by this initial act, and their paths are infused with longing, disappointment, anger, regret, and resentment. Ko, of course, offers timely commentary on immigrant life in today’s United States, but also astutely discusses how those themes collide with family, friendship, and finding your true self.
Thief in the Interior by Phillip B. Williams
Daniel: I thought poet Phillip B. Williams’ was a powerful read before I heard him read “Bound” aloud on a recent podcast episode (see below). That’s what I love about poetry; whatever is on the page isn’t static. There’s not only a symbiotic, and constantly changing, relationship with the author and his words, but also a completely independent one that exists between the finished poem and the reader. Williams’ collection Thief in the Interior has a chameleon-like skin, seemingly changing colors and styles line by line, poem by poem. Williams, during our chat, said that poems are never finished—they’re just eventually “abandoned.” That’s certainly not the case for the reader. You’re going to want to keep the poems in this collection around for a good long while.
All the Castles Burned by Michael Nye
Adam: Male adolescent friendship is very rarely portrayed in fiction. Well, it is. But usually their friendship has to be tied to the extraordinary. It’s about finding a kinetically gifted stranger or battling Pennywise the Clown. That’s not so much the case for Nye, who uses basketball and distant fathers to link his main characters together. We follow them in high school during the 1990s and then again decades later. The two bounce from brother-like friends to violent adversaries and back in this quick, yet challenging, read.
Read Adam’s interview with Michael Nye in Electric Lit.
Daniel: I started reading Danielle L. McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance after Oprah mentioned Recy Taylor in her powerful Golden Globes speech. The book not only sheds light on the sexual violence that black woman faced in the Jim Crow South, but also provides an exploration of Rosa Parks’ life before she changed history on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This isn’t easy reading by any means, and it shouldn’t be. The #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements exist for a reason, and both organizations (as well as the NAACP) have roots that go back farther than you might imagine. As Oprah said, Recy Taylor died at 98 without receiving any kind of justice for the horrendous, inhuman crime inflicted on her. Maybe if we look back for at least a few minutes before setting our sights on the future, we can institute positive change for all minorities going forward. (We’ll also need a government that has actually read a book, but that’s a different story).
Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years by David Litt
Daniel: Yes, David Litt’s memoir about his time as one of President Barack Obama’s speechwriter is cheeky, informative, and a much-needed dose of hope (there’s that word again!) for today’s bleak political times. However, more importantly, Litt answers one of the most important questions of any age: where are the best bathrooms in the White House and the West Wing?
Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon
Adam: Set in 1990s Brooklyn, Lyon’s main character accidentally takes a photograph of a boy falling to his death. The rest of this debut novel shows what decisions an artist has to make when someone else’s tragedy will be shown to the world. The book allows readers to question what they would do when art and tragedy collide. It had me reminiscing about the Falling Man photograph from 9/11. It’s an interesting book for any writer who may or may not be inspired by someone they know.
Feel Free by Zadie Smith
Daniel: Even if the essays in Zadie Smith’s new collection Feel Free weren’t thoughtful and brilliantly written (they are), Smith’s forward would be worth the cost of the book and then some. “Reading involves all the same liberties and exigencies as writing,” Smith writes. She also warns against being ambivalent “in the face of what we now confront.” Hear, hear!
By Kew and Willow, a Queens, N.Y., bookshop
The Inquisitor's Tale by Adam Gidwitz is one of the most engaging middle grade books I've ever picked up. The sheer amount of research Gidwitz did to tell this story of three saintly children and one holy greyhound in medieval France is astounding. On top of that, though, the writing is incredibly clever, the story is funny, moving, and fast paced and it never feels bogged down or heavy because of the subject. The pages are also illuminated like a medieval manuscript, so the book is beautiful as well as entertaining.
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui is a graphic novel memoir in which the author tries to understand her place as a new mother, and in the world at large, by exploring her family's escape from South Vietnam in the 1970s. It is incredibly insightful and beautifully drawn. It captures the unsettling creep of war very well, how the family observed small changes, and sometimes large ones, over time that finally culminated in the realization that they would need to leave their homeland. I wound up crying on a bus as I finished this book the first time I read it, and I only had the advanced reader's copy at the time, with pencil sketches in place of actual art.
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg is beautiful yet devastating novel. Almost immediately, I found myself completely immersed and connected to each character as they try to overcome a tragic loss. Each chapter is told from a different perspective, it was so engaging and, in a sense, enjoyable to put the pieces together and see how they interconnected in the end.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is an 814-page book that’s tough emotionally but completely worth the heartache. Ninety percent of the time I read a passage/page and had to close the book because I was blown away by the amazing writing; Hanya is phenomenal. I advise having a box of tissues next to you at all times!
Having read Every Day by David Levithan a few years back, I’m not surprised to say that it still sometimes finds its way back to me. I love it (and you should too) for a few different reasons. The romantic storyline feels typical of any young adult novel but asks us a difficult question: what do we fall in love with, the body or the mind that lives there? Can we even separate the two? The writing is unpretentious and easy to fall into (which is probably one of my favorite things about reading YA—it almost never seems like they’re trying too hard to impress). Finally, there’s the fantastical aspect of it. I know usually we’re looking for an explanation of what’s happening and how it works, but Levithan doesn’t give that to us; it’s left to the reader to think about the mechanics of it. While for some it might be frustrating not to know, for me it’s always been a treat to flex my imagination muscle.
NovelClass is now its own podcast! Listen to Dave Pezza’s introduction and all of Season 1 on iTunes and Spotify! Also stay tuned for information for the live Season 2 premiere in Providence, R.I., later this month (where Dave and a panel of experts will be discussing Stephen King’s The Shining).
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 Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
Daniel Ford: You can tell from the opening lines of The Last Ballad that Wiley Cash had this story in his bones. Based on true events, the novel tells the story of a fateful (and deadly) mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. Shifting between the perspectives of all those involved, Cash explores themes that are as alive today as they were in the 1910s.
On a recent podcast episode, Cash said he was chasing Ella May’s ghost the entire time he was writing the novel. That passion and research led to one of the most unforgettable and empathetic main characters you’ll read in fiction this year. If the book only focused on her, it still would have been great, but, to Cash’s credit, May’s supporting cast is just as finely drawn.
The Last Ballad is a special book, one that I think readers will fall in love with. Cash does the Southern storytelling tradition proud, and he adds even more to the remarkable fiction coming out of that region in the last couple of years.
Shallow Graves: the Hunt For the New Bedford Serial Killer by Maureen Boyle
Sean Tuohy: In the summer of 1987, a killer stalked the streets of New Bedford, Mass. He targeted young women who were addicts. He preyed on them, killed them, and left on the side of the road. In Boyle’s riveting narrative, the killer, a lurking, sinister figure, is left in the background. The author focuses on the victims, their family members, and the town itself. Boyle writes with a passion that shines in each passage, and she shares the pain of the victims.
Have You Met Nora? by Nicole Blades
Daniel: One day I’ll get to tell you my reaction to the final scenes of Nicole Blades’ cheeky and engrossing novel Have You Met Nora? Just know it made Blades “LMAO” in an email chain. Doesn’t get much better for a reader (or writer)!
We’ve come to expect great fiction out of Blades, and this novel is no exception. Have You Met Nora? (out Oct. 31) features a freight train plot and well crafted characters who deliver lines of sassy dialogue as if they were lightning strikes. Issues of identity, race, friendship, and family are all explored without beating you over the head with a blunt instrument. Blades gets bonus points for using punctuation in her title!
bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward
Daniel: I didn’t realize the recent paperback release of Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone features 40 more pages of poetry not included in the original 2014 release until after I finished the collection in roughly one sitting. It says something about Daley-Ward’s talent that a publisher signed off on an expanded edition given today’s publishing market! What’s interesting is that none of these poems feel added on or misplaced (I can’t even imagine the process involved in narrowing them down for the first launch). The collection’s title is apt considering that each poem seems to be stripped down to only its essential components, reveling in their devastatingly honest and personal nature. There’s one section of a poem called “things it can take twenty years and a bad liver to work out” that could serve as a mission statement for most creative types:
There are parts of you
that want sadness.
Find them out. Ask them why.
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
Daniel: Gabriel Tallent's debut contains gut punches for days and will make you slam it down more much often than you anticipated. However, you'll keep picking up, sucking the marrow out of Tallent's prose. Turtle Alveston is a heroine for the ages, and the author gets inside her head in a way you won't find in any other fiction. My Absolute Darling also features one of the sweetest and well-earned denouements I've ever read.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Gary Almeter: I read this book immediately after Gabriel Tallent's My Absolute Darling (see above). Sing, Unburied, Sing is also about a child, in this case, 13-year-old Jojo, let down and abused by parents. Jojo is a resilient and caring young man; his wisdom beyond his years is due in large measure to the patience of his grandfather, Pop, with whom he and his 3-year-old sister Michaela live, and the fact that he is tasked with caring for Michaela whenever their mother leaves them for days at a time. Jojo's white father, Michael, is at Parchman prison, the same prison Pop spent time in decades ago.
The whole book is teeming with ghosts. Leonie's brother was murdered and haunts her whenever she gets high; the rural Mississippi setting is haunted by the oppressive and omnipresent legacy of racism; Pop had a friend at Parchman prison whose memory stays with him. Woven into these ghost stories is a road trip to Parchman to retrieve Michael upon his release. The journey becomes a nightmare as everyone learns that there are absences that can never really be filled and ghosts that can never be outrun. Jojo perseveres nonetheless.
Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson
Sean: Ronald Balson does not waste any time. He quickly pulls the reader into the story and allows his characters to build over the course of the story until they are almost too real. After a Holocaust survivor accuses one of the city's wealthiest men of being a Nazi, it’s up to a burned out lawyer to find the truth. Rich in history, Once We Were Brothers is a wonderful tale.
Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett
Daniel: Kellye Garrett's debut novel Hollywood Homicide is such a fun read. In Dayna Anderson, Garrett has created a sassy, determined, and sometimes confused heroine that will be entertaining readers for plenty of beach "Days" to come. Every supporting character is a gem, and the plot moves along like a binge-worthy TV dramedy. Garrett's voice is a welcome breath of fresh air, and I can't wait to see what it has to say next.
Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus by Vanessa Grigoriadis
Daniel: Vanessa Grigoriadis' distinct voice and empathetic, curious reporting are used so well throughout Blurred Lines, a book that delves into the myriad issues surrounding campus rape in the United States. Grigoriadis tackles everything from "Mattress Girl" to Rolling Stone's errant reporting during the University of Virginia rape controversy and the new age of consent to Donald Trump. The author/journalist interviewed hundreds of people, including students, parents, administrators, lawyers, and advocates, and that dogged reporting led to an even-tempered (though not unemotional) narrative our polarized electorate desperately needs.
One of the most refreshing things about Grigoriadis' work here is her ability to include comments, research, observations, and facts that questioned her beliefs or hypotheses. She didn’t pretend to have all the answers or discard information because it didn’t fit into a concrete mold she decided on long before writing the book. Journalism like this is of the utmost importance because of our current political climate. Read this book and recommend it to others.
An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard
Daniel: There’s a reason Kat Howard is one of our favorite authors (check out her “Author’s Corner” below). She delivers opening lines like the ones found in her new novel An Unkindness of Magicians.
The young woman cut through the crowded New York sidewalk like a knife. Tall in her red-soled stilettos, black clothing, that clung to her like smoke, red-tipped black hair sharp and angular around her face. She looked like the kind of woman people would stop for, stare at, notice.
None of them did.
Yeah, we can get down with that. What we’ve read so far of An Unkindness of Magicians proves why Howard has amassed the following she has. This fantasy thriller, which features competing magicians fighting to preserve (or maybe it’s to demolish) the magical system that binds the world, is the perfect read headed into the Halloween season.
Dreamfield by Ethan Bryan
Daniel: I found myself grinning ear-to-ear reading fellow 50/50 Press author Ethan Bryan's debut novel. I think Sid Sanford and his main character “Ethan” would get along just fine. Ethan finds himself transported back to high school, where he has a chance to relive his dream of being a star baseball player (yes, Bryan made me an offer I couldn’t refuse). Part “Field of Dreams,” part “The Rookie,” Dreamfield is a fun meditation on time, religion, family, and baseball.
Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks
Daniel: There is officially no limit to Tom Hanks’ talent. In his debut short story collection (out Oct. 17), the actor brings all of the traits that define him on the silver screen: honesty, irreverence, humor, and unending empathy and passion. Be warned, this is absolutely one of those collections that will cause you to stay up way past your bedtime and mutter, “Okay, just one more.” If these are the types of stories we can expect from Hanks and his typewriter in the future, we’re all very lucky readers.
By Kat Howard, author of An Unkindness of Magicians
Good Bones by Maggie Smith
I try to always have one book of poetry that I’m reading. This is the sort of collection that I’ll turn to again and again. Smith’s writing is clear-eyed, precise, and full of beauty. It gives me hope.
From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury
One of my very favorite books, and a quintessential October novel. Haunted and full of melancholy, it is also gorgeously written. I mean, it’s Bradbury.
All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry
The first of the completed Metamorphoses trilogy, it’s myth and Seattle and brilliant and a book I’ve reread at least once a year since it came out.
From the To Be Read pile:
Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles by Taisia Kitaiskaia
Okay, so maybe Baba Yaga doesn’t spring immediately to mind as the sort of person you’d go to for life advice. But I loved this column when it ran on The Hairpin, and I’m really looking forward to picking this up.
Tales of Falling and Flying by Ben Loory
Ben’s first collection, Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day, was a book I absolutely adored. He writes strange tiny gems of things, and I can’t wait to see what he’s done here.
Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Okay, no one needs me to tell you to read this collection, because it is winning all the awards, getting rave reviews, and is one of the most buzzed about books of the year. If you’ve ever read Machado’s writing, you know the praise is deserved. If not, you are in for a treat.
Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford discuss Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher.
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.
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
Daniel Ford: Hala Alyan’s debut novel Salt Houses is an incredibly beautiful, tender read. Her prose feels personal and lived-in, her characters seem like they’re ready to wander into your kitchen and have a cup of tea with you, and her dialogue is as lyrical and poignant as her poetry. There’s a real heartbeat on every page of this novel.
One of the things I love most about the book is how it’s structured. She jumps from character to character while moving forward several years in the timeline. This allowed her to explore themes like the aftermath of war and the development of personal and familial relationships in a way typically reserved for short story collections. Alyan crafted some powerful lines about love, family, and conflict that only someone who had this story in her bones could have pulled off.
As I said during my interview with the author (which you can listen to on May 8), human stories like the ones found in Salt Houses need to be told widely and often during these troubled political times. Pain and suffering weren’t just invented after Nov. 8, 2016. Humanity has been grappling with issues like identity, race, property, nationalism, and warfare since human’s stepped over the threshold of their cave dwellings thousands of years ago. Thankfully, novels like Salt Houses can delve into those seemingly intractable subjects in a moving and haunting way in the hopes of raising the level of our discourse.
The Wrong Side Of Goodbye by Michael Connelly
Sean Tuohy: Detective Harry Bosch is back in Michael Connelly’s latest thriller. The relentless LAPD detective is hired to find the missing heir to a billion-dollar fortune, while also trying to capture a serial rapist. Connelly is able to make each novel feel fresh and full of life. His characters are well developed, the plot is fast-paced, and you never know what will happen next.
Marlena by Julie Buntin
Daniel: From the isolated cold of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the impersonal, sun-kissed skyscrapers of New York City, Julie Buntin’s haunting Marlena is a coming-of-age story with real teeth.
Fifteen-year-old Cat’s world is off its axis when we first meet her. Her mother has dragged her and her brother to rural Michigan (where they can barely make ends meet), and Cat makes friends with Marlena, an abused drug addict who sets in motion a litany of “firsts” for our troubled heroine. Marlena ends up drowning in six inches of water, and Cat’s life is never the same.
Buntin explores Cat’s psyche and motivations by bouncing back and forth from past to present. The contrast between the simple, hardscrabble life Cat leads in Michigan and her trendy, avant-garde New York City existence couldn’t be more stark, and, in many ways, more heartbreaking.
Marlena is incredibly well written and structured for a debut novel (especially when you consider Buntin wrote a good chunk of it on Google Docs!). Buntin’s passion and dedication to the craft is evident on every page, and you’ll be ready for more of her work as soon as you finish the book.
Janesville, An American Story by Amy Goldstein
Gary Almeter: I have, in the past few months, read Evicted by Matthew Desmond and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, so fancied myself an expert on the effects of post-industrialization on the Midwest and Appalachia. (Evicted has since won the Pulitzer.) So I thought it intriguing to see another middle class-focused book, this one about the closing of a General Motors plant in a Wisconsin town called Janesville.
Janesville, An American Story endeavors to chronicle the stories of people in that town following the plant's shutdown. What Goldstein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, has done here is astonishing. In an engrossing, chronological format, she follows several families, community leaders, politicians, and corporate representatives. She provides facts and the details that make up a life that newspaper headlines just can’t adequately convey.
Little Victories by Jason Gay
Mike Nelson: For six years I’ve been riding the bus to work. As a veteran, you can tell who’s a pro, who’s new, and who hasn’t been on wheels since their drunk uncle pulled them around in a Radio Flyer at a family reunion screaming, “And down the stretch they come,” while spilling his mint julep all over himself, you, and his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend’s daughter sitting behind you. There are rules to be followed on the bus, etiquette to be embraced, common courtesy and thoughtfulness, and funny moments to be had.
This is exactly the type of thing you’ll find in Jason Gay’s Little Victories (but this, specifically, is not a thing you’ll find in his book). Gay, a sports writer for The Wall Street Journal, has had my attention for years as a refreshing voice who can make you think, learn, and laugh out loud (a breach of bus etiquette) all in the course of a paragraph. His stories range from interviewing Rihanna to playing touch football with his family at Thanksgiving to what it’s like to lose your job—each one sticking with you and teaching you lessons you might not need just yet but maybe someday will.
I have three complaints about Little Victories (this is how I rope you in to read the third paragraph of a book review for something you haven’t read):
- This is not a very long book (~200 pages), and even if you try to stretch it out, it goes too fast. I want more, Jason.
- I wish I saved this book for the summer because it is an absolutely perfect beach read.
- I can’t remember how to write with my own voice because Gay’s writing style is so infectious.
The River of Kings by Taylor Brown
Daniel: I read Taylor Brown’s stunning debut Fallen Land in two sittings midway through 2015. I then had to wait six months to crow about it. (The novel ended up at #3 on our best books of 2016 list.) Brown’s sophomore effort, The River of Kings, was released this past March and I’m taking a different approach to reading it. Instead of rapidly powering through the novel, I’m savoring every sentence, every character, every line of dialogue, every chapter. There’s something about Brown’s writing that feels like home, regardless of what he’s putting his characters through. He’s a special talent, one that’s just going to get better with age.
American War by Omar El Akkad
Daniel: Omar El Akkad’s American War follows ably in the footsteps of Ben H. Winter’s Underground Airlines. The novel features a dystopian America, a second Civil War, shadowy characters, familial angst, and a culture that (horrifyingly) doesn’t feel too different than our own.
Within the thrilling tale lies a coming-of-age story (don’t they all?) for the main character Sarat. The young American refugee makes decisions that have implications for not only herself, but for the nation ravaged by war. The book’s release could not have been better timed, and offers a fictional cautionary tale to our politically divided country.
A Brutal Bunch Of Heartbroken Saps by Nick Kolakowski
Sean: I recently received this book from the author and I’m loving it. This is a must read for fans of gritty, hardboiled storytelling. Bill, a man on a run, has the misfortune of being taken hostage during his cross-country escape. Written by someone has a passion for the crime genre, this brutal story balances humor and violence brilliantly.
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris
Gary: I just got an email notification from my library that my copy of Joshua Ferris' The Dinner Party is ready for me to pick up on the reserve shelf. I reserved it back in January (I was the first one to do so), and periodically checked on it to make sure things were all systems go with the reservation.
This is one of the highlights of my 2017. Ferris is an author who makes books and writing cool. He’s the closest thing literature has to Matt Damon. His three novels have been spectacular. He chronicles the absurdity and the normalcy of life in the 21st century with characters that are likable and simple (and with whom we can all identify). This collection of short stories (many of which have appeared in The New Yorker already) is his first. The title story, about a dinner party, is a doozy.
By Josh Cook, author of An Exaggerated Murder
Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli
In perhaps the most important book of 2017, Luiselli tells the story of her time volunteering as an interpreter for undocumented children fleeing violence in Central and South America seeking residency in the United States. Luiselli tries to change the way we talk about immigration, especially from our Southern neighbors, by exploring our complicity in the crises that turned these people into refugees and reminding us that quite often, when we're talking about “illegal aliens” and “undocumented immigrants,” or whatever other term someone might try to scare us with, we're talking about children.
The One-Eyed Man by Ron Currie
An exercise in questioning our assumptions, an examination of the state of our political discourse, and an exploration of the value of being irrational. Obviously, the topical aspects of Currie's great book stand out; reality television, political punditry, what counts for debate on cable, and the madness surrounding the American gun debate, but I think Currie's real target and real brilliance is something both smaller and bigger: how do we make sense of death and how do we figure out how to live.
Recitation by Bae Suah
A drifting lyrical book about place and identity that follows the story—as much as there is a story—of a mysterious Korean recital actress wandering through cities, lives, and apartments.
The Warren by Brian Evenson
If there is such a thing as “sci-fi noir” (and I'd argue there is) Evenson (who also writes more literary short stories) is a master of the genre. This novella is a good introduction to Evenson's dark, gritty, cynical fiction. Definitely for fans of PKD
Unbearable Splendor by Sun Yung Shin
Poetry as essay? Essayistic poems? Poetic essay? There are even some charts. Sometimes the pieces feel more like poems with fluid grammar and freer themes and some feel like they have the focus and coherence of essays. I love books like this that ask questions just by existing.
Hothouse by Karyna McGlynn
McGlynn is a favorite of mine. Her poems have a dark sense of humor and an interesting kind of intimidating sexuality to some of them. Though she is probably closest to Patricia Lockwood in style at the moment, this collection also has the weirdness that I love in James Tate
An anthology of short stories, essays, poems, and art from the literary magazine Make. Make isn't a magazine I'm familiar with, but it's a beautiful book and includes work by some great authors like Valeria Luiselli, Maggie Nelson, Dorothea Lasky, Martin Seay, Alejandro Zambara, and Kate Zambreno.
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
Daniel Ford: Of all the Valeria Luiselli titles author Josh Cook recommended during our live podcast at Porter Square Books, of course I would choose the one with the F train on the cover.
Subway aesthetics aside, Luiselli’s inventive and trippy debut novel is everything you want in a genre-bending story. Is the main character the young woman navigating New York City while championing an obscure Mexican poet? Or is it the poet himself, a man in search of himself while destroying his family? Or, better yet, is our hero a mother juggling her matriarchal and literary responsibilities (while her marriage seemingly slips through her fingers)?
The more I read this novel, the less I cared about any of those questions. Reading Luiselli’s perfect sentences and reveling in the scenes (both large and small) she built was reward enough. Whether it was a Harlem sidewalk, a family’s home, a subway platform, or a character’s daydream, Luiselli crafted a world that felt intimate, lived in, and familiar.
I have more of her oeuvre to catch up on, but if this is the kind of work I can expect, then I’m going to have to revisit my upcoming reading list. There’s also a good chance Luiselli becomes a staple on “Books That Should Be On Your Radar.”
An Exaggerated Murder by Josh Cook
Daniel: Speaking of Josh Cook…
It was a real treat to sit down and pick his brain a couple weeks ago (along with Sirens author Joshua Mohr) about his writing process and his reading recommendations.
Like most trips to Porter Square Books, it ended with me walking out with an armful of fiction. The best part was Cook signed my copy of his novel An Exaggerated Murder and used a plethora of profanity.
I wasn’t surprised when the novel turned out to be a smart, fresh take on the detective genre. Cook’s characters are wonderfully flawed, earnestly eccentric, and hopelessly rationale in the face of a “stupid crime.” The pages start flying immediately, but make you take some time and truly appreciate the craftsmanship that went into this novel. We can’t wait to read what Cook writes next!
(P.S. The author will graciously sign a copy of the book provided you order it from Porter Square Books. Profanity costs extra.)
No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts
Adam Vitcavage: The Great Gatsby is one of the most read books in all of American literature. For better or worse F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel has been a cornerstone of what the American Dream is and what it can do to people. Stephanie Powell Watts’ No One is Coming to Save Us is a profound novel that explores the similar themes Fitzgerald's classic work laid out.
Make no mistake, this isn't merely a retelling of the Jazz Age classic; it is unique and only borrows Gatsby’s mindset. Set in North Carolina, Watts’ novel is about a man returning home to build his dream house to woo his long lost love. Unlike Gatsby, this novel explores America through African-American eyes, and we see factories crumbling and Jim Crow still lingering.
Watts’ prose eloquently takes us on a journey of loss and hope. What stands out even more than her beautiful writing is her rich characters that are some of the most memorable of recent years. Make no mistake, this book deserves to be taught in high schools as much as any other right now.
The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
Daniel: When astronauts reach for the stars, who gets left behind on Earth? That’s the essential question Meg Howrey explores in her recently published novel The Wanderers.
Let me set the scene before I delve into this book’s eclectic cast of characters. A trio of astronauts is handpicked by a private space company to train for a potential mission to Mars. If all goes well, the group goes to Mars. If not, who knows. As thrilling as that sounds, and it is despite some of the monotony the space “wanderers” face, their thoughts are more tied to Earth than ever before in their career.
Everyone in this novel is searching for something, and likely nowhere close to finding it. Helen, a weathered, super-competent veteran of the U.S. space program who is much more at home in the cosmos, struggles to push away thoughts of her sad adolescence and loveless marriage. Her dramatic daughter “Meeps” grieves over the freak death of her father while also fearing for her mother’s safety, finding acting success, and developing a relationship in an unexpected place. Dmitri, whose astronaut father Sergei provides both comic relief and mild paranoia, unconventionally explores his sexual identity. And Yoshi, the crew’s third member, battles his own tortured past while also trying to emotionally connect with his distant, yet equally brilliant wife, Madoka.
That sounds like a lot of characters to juggle in one novel, but Howrey shifts perspectives so subtly and smoothly at exactly the right moments that you won’t have trouble keeping up with the novel’s events. If you’re anything like me, you’ll finish the last pages and think, “Wait, that’s it? I want more!” Trust me, do yourself a favor, spend some time with your head in the stars and read this book.
What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
Adam: So far, 2017 has seen an incredible amount of short story collections. Add Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky to that growing list. Familial connections tie these stories together, but stylistically the stories vary from sort of science fiction to modern realism.
It’s mesmerizing what Arimah can do with a seemingly traditional idea and stretch it into something distinct. Stories include a generational tale about ghosts of war, a father’s attempts to protect his daughter, a woman desperate for a child, and more. However, there is much more to these stories than a simple fragmented synopsis. For instance, the mother who wants a child weaves one out of her hair. Get ready to be wowed by these stories.
The Whore's Child by Richard Russo
Daniel: “Just one story,” I told myself. “You have a reading list a mile long and the third season of ‘Grace and Frankie’ just dropped on Netflix. You don’t have time to read more than one story.”
Well, not for the first time, I lost an argument with myself and ended up reading every story in Richard Russo’s short story collection The Whore’s Child in 24 hours. Also not surprising, Russo’s empathetic—and often hilarious—style translates beautifully to the shorter storytelling format.
The real stand out in the collection is the eponymous “The Whore’s Child.” The story features an older nun who crashes a creative writing class and slowly realizes a painful family truth while writing a “fictional” memoir. The story shamelessly fiddles with your heartstrings, but it also offers biting meta-commentary on the writing process. Paired with Luiselli’s collection, The Whore’s Child should give you all the literary inspiration you need to craft your own short stories.
The Stand by Stephen King
Mike Nelson: The Stand is much more than a prerequisite to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, though that’s the catch that influenced me to dive in last summer (really hope my brother wasn’t lying to me about that, though it’d be a great prank). Yes, I wrote, “last summer,” and, yes, I know this column is meant to focus on books you recently read...we’re getting to that.
King takes readers on an epic, near-biblical journey through his version of the apocalypse, where forces of good are left to square off against forces of darkness in a battle for the earth’s soul. Or a battle for like, the western half of the United States, if you want to be super literal about it. Sitting at approximately a million pages and taking half-a-year for a very casual reader who stops to read other books in-between (out of necessity, I swear), The Stand is much more about the journey than it is the conclusion. As the world flirts with its desistance, how many of its occupants will seek to grant it an extension, and how many others will resign to fate no matter how dark?
If you don’t fear death...if you feel like you have everything in control...if you think humans are intrinsically good, spend some time with The Stand and tell me you feel the same. Or if you’re more like the man they call Trashcan Man, maybe just read it because you like to watch things burn.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Adam: Every year, April brings the welcome return of baseball in America. You better believe there is some “best baseball books” list that makes the rounds (even I wrote one on my blog in 2014). There’s a reason The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach gets recommended on every literature blog this time of year. It’s one of the best “baseball” books published.
While the game plays a major role in this novel, it’s really about a young man’s evolution at a small college in Wisconsin. As the story progresses, baseball fades into the background for the majority of Harbach’s book as he explores sexuality, Moby Dick, confidence, and so much more.
Mad Men and Politics, co-authored and -edited by Lilly Goren
Daniel: I don’t need a good excuse to re-watch “Mad Men,” but I’m glad my recent podcast interview with Lilly Goren provided one. Goren appeared on the podcast recently to promote the thoughtful collection of essays she co-authored titled, Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America.
From Goren’s essay “If You Don’t Like What They Are Saying, Change the Conversation” The Grifter, Don Draper, and the Iconic American Hero” to Linda Beail’s “Invisble Men: The Politics and Presence of Racial and Ethnic ‘Others’ in ‘Mad Men,’” Mad Men and Politics takes a deep dive into how Matthew Weiner’s hit show depicted—both successfully and, some would debate, incompletely—corporate culture, machismo, feminism, race, family, war, and identity during the 1960s. Everything from Don Draper’s gray flannel suit and Joan Harris’ pen necklace to Peggy Olson’s rise and Bert Cooper’s stodginess are explored for political, sociological, and psychological context—both for that decade and our current era.
After reading these essays and re-watching a few episodes of the show, I’m reminded that in politics and culture it seems like everything has changed and nothing has changed. Obviously we’ve made strides as a society, but at the same time, we seem to be spinning our wheels with the same issues depicted in the show. Like any good academic or critical writing, Mad Men and Politics will force you to keep asking questions, and make you even hungrier to find the answers.
Dark Money by Jane Mayer
Daniel: Dark Money by New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer is essential reading for anyone baffled or troubled by what’s going on politically and culturally in this country. The exploration into where all the “dark money” being funneled into our political system comes from starts with a furrowed-brow meeting with some of the richest people in the United States (and the globe) after President Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain in the 2008 election. This powerful cabal vowed to finance the opposition to the new President through any means (legal, illegal, shadowy, etc.) necessary.
However, as chilling as the details of that meeting are, it’s nothing compared to Mayer’s investigation into how families like the Kochs made their fortune and then wielded it like a weapon in order to advance a deeply conservative agenda. All of the information Mayer finds is unsettling. From the Koch brother’s father building oil refineries for the Nazis to the DeVos family buying millions of dollars worth of influence, Dark Money makes clear that the radical right is more or less a collection of talking points and sacks of cash.
To be sure, the Democrats would love to have a system this sophisticated and efficient. And if they had anything close to this kind of organization and money, they’d never lose another election again, and a few marginalized groups of citizens might actually get help purely by happenstance. However, a radical wing of the GOP—that believes in a hyper-nationalist, super-racist, and downright grim view of America—has hijacked our political agenda, and is well funded, in large part, by a very small group of individuals.
Dark Money may be uncomfortable reading, but we’re never going to break out of our current political paralysis by avoiding the truth.
The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich
Daniel: I got sucked into Paul Vidich’s The Good Assassin—the follow up to the author’s excellent debut spy thriller An Honorable Man that hits shelves April 18—just as easily as George Mueller gets suckered into doing yet another shadowy errand for the CIA.
Vidich’s Cold War setting feels immediate because of the political shenanigans currently infecting the United States. The author turns up the heat in The Good Assassin—literally and figuratively—by dropping his character in Havana before the fall of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Mueller is investigating Toby Graham, a potentially corrupt and treasonous CIA operative, who our hero has known since college.
A gripping plot combined with Vidich’s signature understated prose and tortured characters makes The Good Assassin a worthy follow up to An Honorable Man. It’s a novel that should be under your arm as you head to the beach this summer (or while swirling a glass of dark alcohol in a plush chair by the fire).
Dimitry Elias Léger isn’t just one of our favorite authors, he’s also one of our favorite readers. He sent over a lovely photograph from Geneva of his current book pile for this month’s Author’s Corner. This is what reading should look like!—Daniel Ford
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Daniel Ford: December and January are typically the months I frantically catch up on all the books I wasn’t able to fit into my reading schedule during the previous year. Brit Bennett’s soulful and empathetic debut The Mothers was one of the novels I was desperate to catch when it debuted but didn’t end up reading until the beginning of this year. I’m happy to report this book was well worth the wait.
Bennett showcases wisdom and verve well beyond her years. The novel, set in a black community in Southern California, begins with academic standout Natalie Turner considering an abortion after being impregnated by Luke Sheppard (the preacher’s son and injured football star). If that weren’t enough, Turner is still reeling from her mother’s suicide and her father’s distant grief. She finds friendship with Aubrey, who on the surface appears devoutly religious and squeaky-clean, but harbors her own secret past. In fact, the only people able to keep up with all the secrets in this novel (although they tend to be the wrong ones) are “the mothers,” a group of town women who likely found themselves in similar circumstances once upon a time.
Bennett’s dialogue matches each character exquisitely. Natalie’s is often angrily blunt and forceful, backed by intelligence and sadness. Luke mangles his words at times, never quite saying what he means, but revealing enough that readers are able to at least peek into his soul. Aubrey, who is arguably as damaged as Natalie, still retains a sense of innocent longing with her interactions, but isn’t afraid to cut right to the heart of the matter when pushed too far by Natalie or Luke.
The Mothers could have easily been a syrupy, paint-by-numbers drama in less capable hands, however, Bennett matches her pitch-perfect dialogue with lyrical prose that elicits just the right literary notes. Natalie, Luke, and Aubrey all stumble and regress at times, all the while revealing insights into the true nature of community, love, race, belonging, family, friendship, and ambition. Add The Mothers to your nightstand as soon as humanly possible, and put Bennett on your list of authors to watch.
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
Daniel: A small bomb explodes in a crowded marketplace in Delhi in the mid-1990s. Two young brothers are killed, while their friend is both physically and psychologically scarred. Families mourn, government officials and security forces promise easy justice, and both terrorists and vigilant citizens follow new paths.
So begins Karan Mahajan’s masterful and devastating novel The Association of Small Bombs. Through the eyes of his conflicted characters, Mahajan examines how subtly and profoundly society is altered by “small” terrorist attacks. The author squeezes the humanity out of every character, including the perpetrators, and adds nuance to every decision and action they take. The novel is most effective in its “small” moments: A disillusioned victim finding solace and healing in prayer, a mournful father losing himself in his work, mothers confronting the limitations of their love and security, terrorists battling with internal and external demons, and a population striving for normalcy in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world.
Mahajan’s sentences are a joy to read, even when he’s twisting your emotions to their breaking points. Considering the times we live in, as well as those we have endured during the last several decades, The Association of Small Bombs is not to be missed.
Sirens by Joshua Mohr
Sean Tuohy: Sirens, the brutally honest memoir by Joshua Mohr that will be released on Jan. 17, carries a hard punch. Mohr is blunt and upfront about his issues with addiction, however, don’t think this is a breezy, uplifting tale about a man overcoming his issues. Sirens features the ugly side of getting clean and relapsing, and Mohr bares his soul to further prove that addicts are never truly over their addictions. Make sure to listen to my interview with the author later this month.
The River at Night by Erica Ferencik
Adam Vitcavage: Erica Ferencik was inspired by “Deliverance” while writing The River at Night. Both are about unfortunate events deep in the wilderness. Ferencik’s takes place in Maine after a girls’ trip goes awry. The first-person narrative puts readers right in the plight, but the author’s focus isn’t too narrow. She carefully considers all points of view as she slowly unfolds the plot. One thing that stood out was the tight pacing that is frantic for the characters, but very breathable as a reader. The tidy construction of events is important for a thriller like this and Ferencik does not fall short.
TV (The Book) by Alan Sepinwall & Matt Zoller Seitz
Daniel: Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz—two of my favorite television critics—begin TV (The Book) with a question that’s long been a staple of living room couches and barroom debates: What’s the greatest TV show of all time? To arrive at the answer, the duo used a scoring system to rank the top 100 scripted shows. The result is a heartfelt, wonderfully written love letter to the small screen. While I was glad many of my favorite shows ended up on the list (Gentleman, I forgive you for leaving off “Men of A Certain Age,” but yay for “Terriers!”), I found myself even more enthralled with the shows I either hadn’t known about or haven’t seen in many years. I went back and watched shows like “Malcolm in the Middle,” “I Love Lucy,” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” with fresh eyes, marveling at the things I missed during my first viewing.
Sepinwall and Seitz’s passion for television—and for writing in general—is evident in every essay, but it’s the debate at the beginning of the book that stands above everything else. Their ranking system produced a five-way tie for first place (a true battle royal between “The Sopranos,” “Cheers,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Simpsons,” and “The Wire”), which led to an intense Google Chat discussion between the authors about who deserved the top spot. The debate features some of the most insightful critical writing I’ve ever read. The history, trivia, and episodic memories that follow are infinitely readable and shareable (You’ll surely annoy the significant other in your life by starting every conversation with, “Did you know that…”).
TV (The Book) is essential reading for any TV nut who frequently shouts, “Yes, Netflix, I am still f$%76-ing watching!”
Moonglow by Michael Chabon
Gary Almeter: I was giddy when, back in July, I became one of the first to place a request for Michael Chabon's Moonglow. This meant that I would be among the first to get it from the library upon its publication. Like the “Seinfeld episode” where the rental car place is good at taking the reservation but less good at holding the reservation, I am very adept at placing the hold requests and less adept at managing the requests. As such, I was in the middle of reading Nathan Hill's The Nix when I received an email from the library that Moonglow was available (along with Jonathan Lethem's A Gambler's Anatomy, Thomas Friedman's Thank You For Being Late, and John Edgar Wideman's Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File).
With all that said, I only read the first chapter of Moonglow before I had to return it. It was not renewable because other, less astute library patrons had put request holds on it. However, the chapter I read was astonishing. Every sentence was an adventure. Sentences like, "Before the day of his arrest, my grandfather had distinguished himself to his coworkers only twice. During Game 5 of the 1956 World Series when the office radio failed, my grandfather had repaired it with a vacuum tube prized form the interior of the telephone switchboard.”
It became apparent that I was going to need all three weeks the library allots its patrons to give Moonglow the attention it warrants. I re-requested it and it remains on my radar screen.
Blankets by Craig Thompson
Adam: Start your year off with this lengthy comic memoir about Craig Thompson’s coming-of-age experiences. The majority of the plot unfolds after Craig meets Raina at a winter church camp, but you don’t have to be religious or from the Midwest to connect with Thompson’s poignant narrative. It offers that cozy feeling that your favorite novel or television series provides, but with a unique perspective that you might not be used to. For those of you who aren’t comic fans, fear not because the stark black and white art is beautiful and his prose is very fulfilling. It may be long, but you’ll be able to devour this fairly rapidly.
Juggling Kittens by Matt Coleman
Daniel: As I mentioned on Twitter in December, Matt Coleman’s debut novel Juggling Kittens had a lot in common with James Tate Hill's Academy Gothic. It’s sarcastic fun, and features an unsettling mystery. Newly minted teacher Ellis Maze has a pregnant wife at home and a wacky, but loyal and plucky, superior named “The Drew,” so why wouldn’t he add an unwise and haphazard murder investigation into the mix?
While Maze’s search for a missing student keeps the pages turning, Coleman’s subtle exploration of rural life, education, relationships, parenthood, and America’s response to 9/11 is the novel’s true selling point. I’m also not ashamed to admit that I would pay good money to watch The Drew in a hot dog eating (while he’s downing PBRs and cursing the entire time).
The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz
Adam: Creating multiple, distinct voices over a short story collection is perhaps one of the hardest concepts for a writer to grasp. Even the lauded Phil Klay's award-winning collection Redeployment struggled with this (though it didn't struggle with much else). Chanelle Benz's The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead succeeds in creating visceral voices over the course of centuries of time. The writer is able to engage readers in invigorating stories about a 16th century monk to a 19th century baroque piece narrated by a chorus of We. "The West of Known,” the opening story, garnered Benz a lot of recognition when it was first published in The American Reader. The story earned her an O. Henry Prize and is an astonishing piece to introduce yourself to her writing. "James III" is a modern piece about violence and family that is narrated from the perspective of a high school freshman in Philadelphia. However, what stands out about Benz's writing is not the thought provoking plot; instead, it is the voice she is able to give James. He feels so real. So do all of her other narrators. Each one is a unique human who really lived. They're not just characters in a short story collection.
The Infidel Stain by M.J. Carter
Daniel: M.J. Carter’s debut novel The Strangler Vine was a fun adventure deep within the heart of India that introduces readers to the unlikely duo of Blake and Avery. The Infidel Stain, which takes place three years later in Victorian London, finds the pair investigating the troubling murders of several disreputable publishers (is there any other kind?). Blake and Avery are a little worse for wear following their harrowing Indian experiences (especially Blake who spends much of the novel recovering from ailments, beatings, and grumpiness), but they still have enough of their deductive powers to hunt down the perpetrators that the city’s elite population and its corrupt police force would rather see stay in the shadows.
Carter’s novels satisfy the history nerd in me without being overly expository or pedantic. She builds a world in which you can smell, feel, and taste the grime and grandeur of London in 1841, as well as keep you guessing on where the story is ended next. Blake and Avery also prove once again that their hearts are always in the right place, even when one is slowly (or rapidly) driving the other crazy. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, The Devil’s Feast, when it goes on sale in March 2017!
Another Man's Moccasins by Craig Johnson
Daniel: I typically save one of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels for my end-of-the-year reading. I prefer to savor my interactions with Walt rather than indulge my literary desires and binge-read every one of his adventures. Johnson’s plots are always fun and unexpected, but it’s the time he takes eavesdropping on Walt’s inner monologue that makes all the yarns truly special. Another Man's Moccasins—Book 4 in the Walt Longmire series—just might be my new favorite. Walt finds a dead Vietnamese woman on the side of the road, and during his investigation, he’s haunted by a similar crime he sought answers to during the Vietnam War. Flashing back to Longmire’s war service, Johnson explores the themes of race, family, soldiers, and, as always, the mistreatment of Native Americans. If the series only gets better from here, I’m definitely going to have to revisit my Walt Longmire reading strategy. Boy howdy!
Steph Post took some time out of promoting her new novel to share three books on her radar. Post’s Lightwood is out Jan. 24! Pre-order in bulk!
Be Cool by Ben Tanzer
Be Cool by Ben Tanzer is one of the most raw, honest, and hilarious memoirs I've ever read. Ben has a voice like no one else, fresh and self-deprecatingly witty, and his memoir tackles an issue I think we've all been dealing with since we were 11: how to be cool. Ben is a prolific writer, but Be Cool has to be my favorite of his works.
Leadfoot by Eric Beetner
Leadfoot by Eric Beetner is the follow up to Rumrunners, but goes back to the 1970s to tell the story of Calvin McGraw—the most badass old man character I've ever read about—in his prime. The McGraws remind me a lot of the Cannon family in my own novel Lightwood, and I swear one day our two fictional families are going to end up in a showdown. The McGraws are a hard luck outlaw family, and, in typical Beetner fashion, Leadfoot delivers everything you'd expect in a fast-paced, motor-fueled dark and funny caper.
Beachhead by Jeffery Hess
Beachhead by Jeffery Hess is another fast-paced read and this one is set in Florida in the 1980s. It's got everything you need in a killer crime and mystery read, but also has that beer-blurred sandy feel that I love about the "sunshine noir" genre. I think Jeffery is going to be a writer to keep your eye on in the future.
By Daniel Ford
To date, I’ve read 96 books in 2016, which is up from the 87 I read last year. Since you’ve already called me a nerd in your head, please allow me to further strengthen the case. Those 96 books add up to 37,872 pages, myriad reading devices, and two dried out eyeballs. I also managed to get engaged, help build a website at my day gig, edit and shop a novel, and feed and bath myself.
While I’m troubled by the direction the United States and the world are headed in, I’m just as confident that art and literature will continue to inform, illuminate, and ignite a global citizenship that needs to be more engaged and educated than ever before.
30. Everyone Loves You Back by Louie Cronin
Matthew Hefti’s main character is writing a letter to a lifelong friend, but he could have easily been writing a letter to the ongoing conflicts the United States has been involved in since 2001. Hefti is a talent to watch, and he delivers a heartfelt and moving debut.
27. Lay Down Your Weary Tune by W.B. Belcher
During a “Friday Morning Coffee” episode earlier this year, author Richard Dalglish implored writers not to forget about craftsmanship. There’s no finer example of craftsmanship than Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time. Smith asks big, important questions, and I hope that readers debate the answers throughout the new year.
25. We're All Damaged by Matthew Norman
Eddy Harkness isn’t the hero the real world (or the fictional one he inhabits) deserves, but he certainly is the one we need. In Eddy we trust!
23. The Infinite by Nick Mainieri
Nick Mainieri’s debut features two of my favorite characters from 2016. Jonah McBee and Luz Hidalgo’s fervent and turbulent relationship sets off a chain of events that leads to an unexpected conclusion. The Infinite is one of the best debuts I’ve ever read.
22. The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived by Tom Shroder
The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived is essential reading for aspiring authors and journalists. Tom Shroder explores his Pulitzer Prize-winning grandfather’s life while also recounting his own writing career. The passionately researched narrative will fill up your creative tank.
21. Christodora by Tim Murphy
The more I learn about Tim Murphy and his work, the more I like him. His effortless nonlinear storytelling in Christodora perfectly complements his damaged, but tenacious, characters and his exploration of the AIDs epidemic. It’s a gut-wrenching read, but a necessary one.
20. The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung
Sonya Chung puts her characters through hell throughout her sophomore novel. Their responses to tragedy and inner demons don’t make them the best human beings at times, but you’ll easily fall in love with them despite their myriad flaws. The Loved Ones also features one of the most haunting and beautifully sad farewells you’ll ever read.
19. Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay
Joe Hill’s brand of apocalyptic fiction ranks alongside Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and José Saramago’s Death With Interruptions. Much like those works, The Fireman features a harrowing (and down right sexy) epidemic, a sense of humor, and characters you wouldn’t mind spending damnation with. Hill is one of fiction’s best world builders, and his enthusiasm for the craft of writing is infectious. (His live readings also tend to feature kazoos!)
17. The Nix by Nathan Hill
Considering that Nathan Hill’s debut novel tops many year-end book lists, The Nix is arguably ranked too low here. That’s a testament to the quality of fiction we read in 2016. The Nix is a compulsive read that, at times, gets weighted down by some of its pop culture and societal critiques. However, since 2016 proved to be a bitch of a year culturally and politically, I’d much rather have too much of Hill’s wit rather than not enough.
16. Louisa by Louisa Thomas
Louisa proved to be a very welcome and refreshing look at Revolutionary War-era America. Louisa Thomas explored the life of Louisa Adams, our first foreign-born First Lady. While Mrs. Adams does spend a good chunk of time recovering from or feigning illness, she proves more than a match for her surly, ambitious, and misunderstood husband (everyone’s favorite dinner guest, John Quincy Adams).
15. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
If “The Wire” had decided to spend a whole season devoted to a road trip with Bodie, Wallace, Poot, and D’Angelo Barksdale, I imagine it would have resembled something close to what Bill Beverly crafted in Dodgers. It’s a thriller with real heart and muscle, thanks in large part to its conflicted main character East. The opening chapters are written as if they were fired from a gun, and set the tone for the rest of the novel’s coming of age journey.
14. Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye
The Kennedys have been dissected ad nauseam, however, Larry Tye finds a fresh angle to examine the life of Robert Kennedy. Tye follows John F. Kennedy’s younger brother’s astounding political transformation from his days working as a lawyer under Senator Joe McCarthy to his tragic campaign for President in 1968. Bobby Kennedy is unsparing and objective, but also gives RFK aficionados plenty of new reasons to admire their hero.
13. Youngblood by Matthew Gallagher
Matthew Gallagher’s novel Youngblood is right up there with Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, Ross Ritchell’s The Knife, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and the aforementioned A Hard and Heavy Thing. Essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of our foreign policy and understand the men and women who execute it.
12. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout’s short novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, hit me with the right words and subject matter at the right time. A book about healing, motherhood, and love.
11. Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma
Kristopher Jansma’s prologue, interlude, and epilogue are the most beautiful words ever written about New York City. His prologue in particular captures everything I feel about the city I’ve loved since childhood. This novel is a must read for anyone that’s been ensorcelled by the Big Apple’s many temptations.
10. Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
It’s nice to know that the creators of one of the best sitcoms of all time were as eccentric as the characters many of us have come to love. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong discovers one great story after another about “Seinfeld” and its writers’ room. She also lovingly investigates the show’s curious, quirky fans who have kept it relevant well past its final episode. Seinfeldia is a breezy, energetic read that will have you binge-watching the show on Hulu by the time you’re finished. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
9. Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
Ben H. Winters is the master of dystopian fiction, and he outdoes himself with Underground Airlines. In the novel, the Civil War never happened, slavery still exists, and a slave catcher desperate to repress and erase his past takes on an assignment that threatens to crack his carefully manufactured persona. This book is an absolutely thrilling and original tale that should shake a few assumptions of your own.
8. This Side of Providence by Rachel M. Harper
During a recent podcast interview author Jade Chang advised aspiring authors “to be ambitious.” Anyone who has read her debut novel The Wangs vs. the World knows how wonderfully ambition can pay off. Chang reinvigorates the immigrant narrative through the eyes of Charles Wang and his hilariously flawed family. Like many of the novels on this list, The Wangs vs. the World stress tests and critiques all of the tenets of the American Dream, but does so with an abundance of mirth and cynical optimism.
6. Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo
Megan Abbott’s novel should have been titled, You Will Hold Your Breath The Whole Time. I barely survived reading this incredibly tense and finely crafted mystery; I can’t imagine what it was like writing it. She has more than earned the “maestro of the heebie-jeebies” distinction from The New York Times.
4. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad is why fiction exists. The novel serves as a brutal reminder of the past and a cautionary tale for how easily we can slip into easy violence, subjugation, and intolerance. Colson Whitehead has established himself as one of the great voices in fiction.
3. Fallen Land by Taylor Brown
Taylor Brown’s achingly beautiful debut established itself as my favorite book of 2016 way back in August 2015 (I read an advanced copy leading up to its January 2016 pub date). It took two special novels to knock it off the top spot. After going back and rereading a few chapters while preparing this list, I was reminded of what made the book such a joy to read: hearty prose, snappy and spare dialogue, earthy characters, and a hard driving plot.
2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
We met a lot of memorable characters this year, but there was only one Frank. Be Frank With Me is an unforgettable debut that everyone should read. (And, according to the author, the paperback edition can easily fit in a stocking!)
Any of these books could have been added to the top 30. I wrestled with this list for days. I'm just grateful that I got to read so many great novels and nonfiction titles this year! Give plenty of love to these authors’ books as well!
Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins, Perfect Days by Raphael Montes, Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach, Seven Sins by Karen Runge, A Single Happened Thing by Daniel Paisner, The Last Days of Magic by Marc Thompkins, The Duration by Dave Fromm, The Girls by Emma Cline, An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich, The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott, Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts, The Unseen World by Liz Moore, Nefarious Twit by Tony McMillen, The Point Is by Lee Eisenberg, and Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
Christodora by Tim Murphy
Daniel Ford: I was completely enthralled by Tim Murphy’s heartbreaking novel Christodora. The novel features deep, well thought out, damaged characters that were hard to let go once the story ended. Much like Rachel Harper’s This Side of Providence, Christodora is an emotional ride that never suffers from syrupy sentimentality because of Murphy’s straightforward prose and sharp dialogue.
Nonlinear storytelling has been a literary trend of late, and can be tough to pull off. However, Murphy makes it look effortless, bouncing from character to character across multiple decades without ever losing narrative steam. The Christodora, the building in the East Village that the Traum family inhabits, is just as much a character as Milly, Jared and their adopted son Mateo, and really anchors the narrative while it sways in and out of each decade. Murphy never delves into cliché and captures the city I fell in love with more than many of the other New York-centric novels that have come out in recent years.
Murphy’s unblinking exploration of the AIDs epidemic also gave me a refresher on the early AIDs fight, as well as explaining issues that those with HIV and AIDs still battle with today. He paints a real human face on the epidemic and, for me at least, kicked away some of the complacency I felt toward recent medical breakthroughs.
This book is well worth the tears and anxiety it is sure to induce.
DF: Tom Shroder’s insightful, personal investigation into his Pulitzer Prize-winning grandfather MacKinlay Kantor is the perfect tonic for despairing authors and journalists.
Kantor, who won said Pulitzer for his novel Andersonville in 1956, is endlessly fascinating. His childhood and early adulthood were marred by a rapscallion father, he suffered through poverty and bad breaks to become a respected author, made friends with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and John D. MacDonald, won the Medal of Freedom for his reporting during World War II, and published more than 30 novels.
Kantor’s rise to fame (and subsequent fall) was entertaining and wonderfully researched, but I was most struck by the personal elements in Shroder’s narrative. His relationship with his grandfather, Kantor’s relationship with his degenerate father, the remarkable women that kept this family together over the years, and Kantor’s dogged pursuit of the written word had me completely spellbound. And as an amateur historian myself, I also loved Shroder going into detail about his research process at the Library of Congress and everywhere else he found bits and pieces of Kantor’s story.
Shroder also absolutely nails what it’s like suffering through writing highs and lows. His journey as a writer eerily mirrors Kantor’s at times, and in some ways serves as a time capsule for journalists who came of age at the end of the 20th century. However, despite the obvious technological and format changes writing and journalism have undergone in the 2000s, the writing path still has similar perils, and Shroder offers plenty of useful tips and humorous anecdotes for those crazy enough to still want to pursue these maddening fields. The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived filled my creative tank and gave me the inspiration I needed to flood the world with more words.
Before we move on, I’ll leave you with this poignant quote from Kantor that Shroder unearthed:
“I wish that all writers might have as good of friends as I have owned and still own. Writing is desperately lonely business. It is scarcely worth living for in itself. But friends help to keep you going.”
The Thunder Beneath Us by Nicole Blades
Lindsey Wojcik: Thunder certainly rumbles throughout author Nicole Blades's second novel. In a flashback prologue, main character Best Lightburn literally experiences thunder beneath her feet as she walks across an icy lake in Montreal with her two brothers one Christmas Eve. When the ice cracks and all three fall in, Best's survival instincts kick in and she climbs out of the lake as the only one alive.
When we meet Best in present day New York City, a decade after the accident, she's a magazine writer with an arsenal of descriptive adjectives for vagina. With the opener, "Coochie. Vajayjay. Box. Beaver. Taco. Vadge. Bajingo. Lady Garden. Call it whatever you want; the goddamn thing just killed my career," readers are immediately drawn into The Thunder Beneath Us.
Present-day Best seems to have it all—she’s a rising star in the New York City magazine world, she’s dating a hunky actor, and has fabulous socialite friends. However, in New York City, this type of luck doesn’t last long in fiction without some sort of drama or angst rising up from the depths. In Best’s case, she is internally struggling with the guilt of surviving the horrible accident in her youth. Naturally, this plays a major role as her life begins to unravel. Best gets in her own way throughout the course of the novel and struggles to find a way to forgive herself, so she can heal and ultimately find happiness.
Blade crafts a distinctive voice for Best and the supporting cast of characters, and when the thunder settles, readers will find that compassion for the human condition that Blades hoped to achieve with The Thunder Beneath Us.
Be sure to read my full interview with Blades, and then go out and read the book!
The Nix by Nathan Hill
Gary Almeter: A big part of what makes protagonist Samuel Andresen-Anderson likeable, in addition to his redundant surname, is his love for the Choose Your Own Adventure books. I couldn't help but recall the wonder with which each of those books—each decision, each new world, each potential destiny—filled me as a kid.
Author Nathan Hill fills The Nix with that same wonder. The book meanders and careens through 1968 Chicago Riots, the oppressive tranquility of rural Iowa, the chaos of 2011’s Occupy Wall Street, wealthy suburbs filled with unsupervised ‘80s kids, modern day academia, and ancient Norway. Hill has a keen awareness of the idiosyncrasies that make each event unique, and why they have made Mr. Andresen-Anderson distinctly disconnected.
The book follows Samuel as he endeavors to reconnect with his mother—accused of pelting an uber-conservative Wyoming politician with rocks—who abandoned him decades ago. He struggles to connect with his students, his grandparents, and his “friends” who play "World of Elfscape," an online fantasy game.
Along the way, Hill skewers modern popular music and politics, as well as a ton of other things that deserve to be satirized. It can often feel like a bit much, but the consummation and/or dissolution of the connections in Samuel's life really propel this timely narrative.
At Home by Bill Bryson
DF: I have been a huge fan of Bill Bryson’s ever since my cousin’s husband lent me I’m a Stranger Here Myself and A Walk in the Woods (which was recently made into a film starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte). However, after slogging through A Short History of Nearly Everything, I took a break from the travel writer, more content to re-read A Walk in the Woods once a year rather than dabble in his newer material.
Following my trip to London earlier this year, I picked up Notes From A Small Island and caught the Bryson bug again! I quickly ordered some of the books I missed during my asinine hiatus, and hunkered down with At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
Bryson investigates every room in his house—a former Church of England rectory located in “a village of tranquil anonymity in Norfolk”—and quickly gets lost in a wonderful swirl of delectable forgotten history and entrancing trivia. The prose features Bryson’s trademark cheekiness, and never groans under the weight of all the fascinating (yet incredibly arcane) tales the author uncovers.
I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with family and friends while reading this book that started with “Did you know…” Like, did you know that the French were once known for “pissing in chimnies” and defecating in staircases, or that the invention of hydraulic cement made the Erie Canal possible, or that fires killed as many as six thousand people a year in America during the 1870s?
Listen, if that doesn’t send you running to your local bookstore, then I don’t know what will. At Home doesn’t belong in the attic (where Bryson begins and ends his homebound journey), it belongs in your hands.
The Murdery Delicious Blood Stone Secret by Peter Sherwood
DF: First our haunted Halloween collection and now “Books That Should Be On Your Radar?” What’s next for Peter Sherwood, a Pulitzer?!
Like Sean Tuohy mentioned during his intro to last week’s “Friday Morning Coffee,” Sherwood’s finale to the Murdery Delicious is much like the author himself: “very witty and very smart.” We find Reynald and Willoughby Chalmers, “a little older, perhaps wiser, and undoubtedly more terrified,” and trying to survive the perils of the Blood Stone Manor with their wives and children. The Murdery Delicious Blood Stone Secret is chock-full of Sherwood’s theatric dialogue and whimsical prose.
I always feel better about literature and writing whenever I finish a Sherwood yarn (not to mention hungrier!), and this novel was no exception. It’s been a real joy tracking Sherwood’s progress as a writer, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. While I hope that this isn’t the last time we see with the Chalmers brothers, if it is, then it is more than a fitting (and ghostly!) conclusion to their adventures.
The Best American Short Stories 2016, edited by Junot Díaz
DF: I read the Best American Short Stories collection every year, but I typically don’t include it in “Books That Should Be On Your Radar” because I end up liking individual stories more than the overall compilation. The 2016 edition is a strong collection, however, and clearly (and positively) influenced by author Junot Díaz’s personality and style. Like any anthology, there are hits and misses, but Díaz made some inspired choices that led to a more eclectic, cohesive, and diverse reading experience. I found something that tickled my literary brain in just about every story, even the ones that didn’t quite work for me. There are also some absolute powerhouses that I expect to return to for inspiration, including Louise Erdrich’s “ The Flower,” Lauren Groff’s “For the God of Love, for the Love of God,” Meron Hadero’s “The Suitcase,” Smith Henderson’s “Treasure State,” Ben Marcus’s “Cold Little Bird,” Karen Russell’s “The Prospectors,” and Sharon Solwitz’s “Gifted.”
Collections like the Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories (next up on my reading list) are invaluable tools for aspiring writers who to gravitate to the short story form. These volumes also include contributor notes, which allow the authors to share their motivations and writing processes. In Best American Short Stories 2016, John Edger Wideman’s note includes a real gem: “A story desires and sets out to see what is there—and sometimes finds a bridge—with a history, names, walkers, jumpers, memories, etc.—so starts across.” Amen!
Starting with famous author Tony McMillan, “Books That Should Be On Your Radar” will now feature recommendations from our favorite authors. Or in Tony’s case, authors we tolerate. Enjoy!
Tony McMillian: I loved Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. My favorite ongoing comic book right now is Head Lopper by Boston boy done good Andrew MacLean. Also, Skullcrack City by Jeremy Robert Johnson was damn fine, and transcends Bizarro the way Van Halen transcends butt-rock. Quote me.
Oh, and Notes from the Shadowed City by Jeffrey Alan Love is a fully illustrated book that's as lyrical in its prose as it is in its artwork.
Be sure to listen to the audio version of "Books That Should Be On Your Radar!"
Everyone Loves You Back by Louie Cronin
Daniel Ford: Louie Cronin’s debut novel Everyone Loves You Back features everything I could ever want in a novel: Angtsy radio personalities, a bumbling love triangle, a fight with encroaching hipsters, and a New England sensibility. Yes, perhaps I’m biased because the book is set in Cambridge (where I work and across the river from where I live) and Cronin was the producer on “Car Talk,” one of my all-time favorite podcasts, but that doesn’t change the fact that the writing contained in Everyone Loves You Back is top notch. Main character Bob Boland, a humble radio show producer (something else I can also relate to), is trying to hang onto his neighborhood’s identity in the face of “urban treehuggers and uppity neighbors," while also attempting to bed two women after a small lifetime of loneliness and jazz on vinyl. It doesn’t help matters that his buddy Riff’s show, as well as the small radio station as a whole, is in a constant state of flux, or that one of the women Bob desires happens to work with him and the rest of the overnight crew. Wonderful shenanigans ensure (I also wouldn’t come to this novel hungry; Bob likes to eat).
Everyone Loves You Back is a breath of fresh air in the literary market. It’s so hard finding solid, heartfelt prose like this these days. The novel almost had a throwback feel to it; I can almost imagine it being produced as a mid-1990s dramedy (More crunchy and serious than “Wings,” but perhaps featuring a similar amount of mom-jeans and baggy shirts). As I wrote in my interview with the author last month, “Cronin’s passion for storytelling and bubbly optimism is infectious, and translates to every page of her fun debut novel.” Everyone Loves You Back is sarcastic, warm, earthy, and real. Be ready to shower it with plenty of literary love when it comes out on Oct. 21, 2016.
Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts
Sean Tuohy: The Long Beach Homicide series reinvigorated my passion for the detective stories. Dilts breathed new life into the slowly decaying genre by refreshing the key elements all detective yarns need—interesting characters, a new city or culture to explore, and a solid who-done-it—and putting a modern spin on a gumshoe’s life.
In Come Twilight, we find an author firmly living up to all the potential we saw in the first three books of the Long Beach Homicide series. Danny Beckett's life is going well for the first time in a long time. He's got love in his life, giving him something to wake up for besides his job (which he’s still really good at). Of course, Beckett’s peace (although it’s still a begrudging peace on his part) is disturbed by trouble early on in the novel when someone tries to blow up his car.
Danny wants to put everything on the line to find out who is after him, and try to regain that peace, but is largely sidelined because he’s the victim for once and not the objective, determined investigator. This brings a completely new set of issues that Danny has to wrestle with, which is a perfect match for Dilts’s sensitive, conflicted prose. We’ve been saying Dilts is an author to watch since we started Writer's Bone. It’s time you started paying attention.
The Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne
Listen, I loved being dropped in the world of Harry Potter again after all this time. I got goosebumps thinking about the gang at Station 9 ¾, I enjoyed seeing all of them become the corporate drones so many of us become after heroic beginnings (even if those heroics happened in your backyard while pretending you’re saving Lois Lane from harm), and I enjoyed the smaller moments between characters like Harry and his troubled son Albus.
But, whoa boy, does that storyline suffer from some serious high school creative writing class blues. Time travel plots? Was the ideas cupboard that bare? The Cursed Child was an amnesia subplot away from being an episode of “24.” And Ron, who I’ll admit wasn’t exactly my favorite character in the original series, is depicted as a cartoonish buffoon. I wouldn’t spend five minutes alone with his Dad jokes. The dialogue between all of the characters seemed forced and corny at times, the already meager plot kind of petered out at the end, and I felt more relief than satisfaction when I closed the book.
The Cursed Child isn’t as awful by any means, and it’s certainly worth a read. I also think it may benefit from a live performance; maybe something is getting lost in translation on the page and would be better suited to the stage. If nothing else, The Cursed Child will remind you how much you loved reading the original series, and may inspire you to pick up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and begin again (which I promptly did).
Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye
Daniel: There’s something to be said for writing a fair, balanced biography—based on more than 400 interviews and prodigious secondary reading—and walking away a bigger fan of your subject than when you started. Larry Tye managed to do just that with Bobby Kennedy.
Being a liberal Democrat from New England, I am also predisposed to liking the Kennedys, however, I always find myself more interested in their faults than in their glossy, somewhat manufactured public image. Tye strips away all those public perceptions and really gets to the heart of who Bobby Kennedy was and why he mattered. From working with Joseph McCarthy (!!!) and rooting out organized crime to leading John F. Kennedy’s successful Presidential campaign (at an insanely young age), serving as U.S. Attorney General, and being elected to the Senate from New York State, Bobby Kennedy undergoes personal and political transformations that culminate in his spirited, and, in the end, tragic 1968 campaign for President. He’s quotable, shaggy-haired, and fiercely dedicated to his family and his country. As Tye points out, RFK would be skewered in today’s political climate for his evolving views on a whole host of issues, but his legacy should provide evidence that good politicians can change over time without being burned in effigy or eviscerated on social media.
Again, Bobby Kennedy is incredibly balanced, meticulously researched, and totally engrossing. It is not to be missed.
Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer
Sean: Jon Krakauer wonderfully tells the tragic story of Pat Tillman, the NFL player who gave up a $3 million dollar contract and joined the U.S. Army in the days following 9/11.
The book bounces between Tillman's life and the earlier events in Afghanistan—the Soviet invasion, the rise of the Taliban—and then details how Tillman’s life ended following the U.S. invasion. The following cover-up by the Army regarding Tillman's death by friendly fire, and how government officials tried to benefit from his death, are shown in troubling detail. Filled with great interviews and deeply researched, this is a great book that any reader of current events will eat up.
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
Daniel: A lot of nonfiction on this list! I love it.
As I mentioned in my feature essay about my recent trip to Canada, my older brother and I share an affinity for history. Erik Larson is one of the authors we follow religiously, and I’m ashamed how long it’s taken me to pick up Dead Wake. With some helpful nudging from Tom Ford (the principal, not the designer), I finally did and loved every harrowing page.
Dead Wake tells the story of the Lusitania’s doomed trip across the Atlantic. Larson expertly sets the scene, describing a world at war and an isolationist U.S. foreign policy led by a man more intent on getting some from Edith Galt than focusing on global issues. While the stories of those who survived the Lusitania’s sinking, as well as those who didn’t, are heartbreaking, the truly remarkable aspect of this work was Larson’s recreation of life aboard a German submarine. Who wouldn’t sign up for tight quarters, suspect craftsmanship, ever-changing weather patterns, a pissed off Royal Navy, and, oh yeah, the very real threat of sinking to the bottom of the ocean and never being found?
The best part of my reading experience was that Larson himself liked a snarky tweet I sent out while reading the book. You can’t beat that!
The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott
Daniel: I lost a bunch of sleep reading J. Todd Scott’s terrific debut novel. The Far Empty rumbles like a freight train, picking up steam as it goes. The novel features meaty, broken characters that weave in and out of trouble throughout the story. The plot keeps the pages moving, but it’s the multiple narratives and internal struggles that forced me to mutter, “Just one more chapter…,” several times after midnight.
Much like Dilts, J. Todd Scott exhibits a muscular, yet sensitive, potential that’s only going to get stronger over time.
And in honor of Scott’s inclusion in this month’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar,” I went back and fixed the audio on our podcast so we don’t sound like we recorded it in an oil drum. Give is a listen and add The Far Empty to your fall reading list.
Also listen to the audio version of "Books That Should Be On Your Radar!"
Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay
Sean Tuohy: Daniel Ford and I spoke about this book, and he said it kept him up at night and that he kept checking to make sure the closet door hadn't opened. After spending a sleepless night finishing the novel, I totally agree. Fast-paced and always making the reader double guess what's coming next, Tremblay’s novel builds a world that is all too believable, which makes it much more terrifying. After a young boy goes missing in the local forest, a small New England town begins to notice a figure looking into windows (I kept looking out my window to make sure there was no looming outside).
There’s a scene that made my skin crawl that don’t want to give completely away, so I’ll just say it was all the more horrifying because of how relatable and simple it was constructed. A woman enters a bedroom and feels something (or someone) lurking nearby…
It was enough for me to shut the book and make sure I was alone in my room.
Daniel Ford: This book scared the pants off me. The novel is so well crafted and tense that I wanted to pull a Joey Tribbiani and put it in the freezer. My favorite line from Tremblay during our podcast at Brookline Booksmith was, “Why not take my favorite place in the world and make it creepy?” Clearly, a sign of a deeply troubled mind…(plus, he likes math!). Can’t wait to see what Tremblay writes about next!
Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Daniel: I stole a line from author Joe Hill and described Jennifer Armstrong’s new book Seinfeldia as “aggressively readable.” It’s a terrific read for anyone that loves television or great reporting, but for me, the best part was the time and effort Armstrong put into highlighting the writers of the show that weren’t named Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David. The creative process for “Seinfeld” was so innovative and invasive, leading many of the writers to have pseudo-out-of-body experiences while living their lives outside the writer's room.
Using a breezy, yet incredibly researched, narrative style, Armstrong lovingly tells the tale of the “ultimate underdog story in television.” Real life “Seinfeld” characters—including the man who inspired Kramer and the actor who played The Soup Nazi—blur the line between reality and television, giving the book its beating heart. The show, which arguably is still relevant thanks to reruns and endearing publicity stunts, could not have found a better chronicler than Armstrong. (Okay, maybe a grumpy Larry David providing commentary for the episodes he hates the most, but still!)
Sadly, nothing I say can compare to the truly inspired tweet by Derek Thompson, a senior writer for The Atlantic, earlier today:
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
Stephanie Schaefer: Curtis Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of one of my favorite novels, Pride and Prejudice, is an entertaining beach read. The book, which deals with similar themes as the original, focuses on a 21st century Bennet family, headed by a stubborn patriarch and money-hungry matriarch who hope to marry their five unwed daughters off to rich suitors. Sittenfeld successfully takes the traditional tale and weaves in present-day fads (think CrossFit, Paleo diets, and reality television). The sarcastic humor and over-the-top characters make for a page-turner even if some aspects of the plot seemed far-fetched. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a light-hearted read this summer.
Originally featured in Songs, Stories, and Spirits.
Dr. Knox by Peter Spiegleman
Sean: Dr. Knox is the right mix of simple, but fast-moving, plot lines with strong and interesting characters, which creates a great summer read. Dr. Adam Knox is trying to keep his head above water. His underfunded clinic is about to be shut down, and his side business as a no-questions-asked doctor to the stars and Los Angeles lowlifes is not cutting it. Things get worse when a woman on the run leaves her son in the doctor's care, and soon after he discovers gangsters and soldiers of fortune are searching for the boy. With the help of his ex-Special Forces friend, Knox must try to find the boy's mother without losing his life in the process. The standout in this book is Knox, a man filled with demons that he desperately wants to escape from. He just wants to do good in the world, but too many years of witnessing awful acts of violence have left him drained and on the edge of losing his mind.
Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick
Daniel: In a recent episode of “Friday Morning Coffee,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joby Warrick said that storytelling helps people understand things. His book, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, proves once again that a narrative structure can inform without distorting reality. Warrick’s engrossing, and important, depiction of the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and ISIS puts the daily headlines we’ve become desensitized to into proper context.
Of all the key players in Black Flags, al-Zarqawi looms the largest for good reason. It’s entirely likely that some other organization like ISIS would have arisen in the aftermath of the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq, however, as Warrick points out, “personalities matter,” and ISIS took on al-Zarqawi’s violent and criminal personality. There was even a point when Osama bin Laden distanced himself from the terrorist and his organization because of the group’s brutal actions.
National security, for better or worse, is a key issue in the current Presidential campaign, which is why Black Flags is essential reading. Warrick cuts through the political responses to ISIS and gives the reader a clear view on who the enemy really is and why ISIS's origin story is important to understanding its current state.
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
Daniel: Reading Meg Abbott’s You Will Know Me is like marveling at a snake slowly unwrap itself, and then being blindsided when it sinks its fangs into your tender flesh.
The novel is just as unsettling and hair-raising as Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil's Rock because it also grounds itself firmly in a reality that is all too close. If two loving parents bankrupting their family to realize their daughter’s Olympic potential doesn’t make your stomach churn, then you might be able to handle all the lies, betrayals, and tension that follow a tragic accident that throws a tight-knit community into turmoil.
You Will Know Me is insanely well paced and structured. Every revelation will make you lose your breath and compel you to keep reading (even if it’s well past your lunch break and Excel spreadsheets beckon). There’s a damn good reason The New York Times called Abbott the “maestro of the heebie-jeebies." The reader doesn’t know who to trust, or who to trust enough to figure out what the hell is going on, which makes the mystery and darkness all the more creepy.
I couldn’t agree more with author Paula Hawkins, who called You Will Know Me, “unbearably tense, chilling, and addictive.” If this book were cigarettes, I’d be buying two cartons a day. Go out, buy the book immediately, and smoke up!
An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich
Daniel: As if I didn’t need enough stress in my life after reading Abbott’s You Will Know Me…
As I pointed out during my interview with the author, Paul Vidich’s An Honorable Man is an old school spy novel in the best sense. Set in 1953, the novel exudes a quietness and uneasy tension, however, the hunt for a mole in the CIA pales in comparison to the deep character studies Vidich writes to perfection. George Mueller comes off as a sad sack spook, tapped to do one more job where he can nurse his hidden pain and let the bloodthirsty next generation take over. However, he proves he’s good at the spy games while also genuinely carrying around a bruised heart that refuses to develop any scar tissue. He’s a character you root for, while at the same time not completely trusting.
There are moments in An Honorable Man, much like in John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, that make you feel like you’re intimately eavesdropping on people’s lives. At times, I half expected Mueller to leap out of the page, lead me out the door, and double bolt the lock.
Vidich’s novel also provides a cautionary tale to our current political melee. We may have evolved past Joe McCarthy’s tactics, but, considering the current contest for President of the United States, we must ask ourselves, how far have we really come?
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Stein
Daniel: Where has this book been all my life? I had seen it’s bright, inviting neon cover in bookstores, but for some reason never even picked it up to read the first couple of pages. What a dope!
On a recent trip to Portland, Maine, I finally picked up a copy at the charming Sherman’s Books and Stationary. I was hooked immediately after reading, “Lost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder.” From there, we learn why our hero Clay Johnson, witty and resourceful Millennial that he is, is tending shop at a musty old San Francisco bookstore owned by the mysterious (and super old) Mr. Penumbra. The store isn’t what it seems, and a colorful cast of characters band together to find out its secrets. There are moments of outright hilarity, warmth, and keen insights into the plugged-in world we live in.
I devoured this book on the beach in one day, and loved every single moment of it. If you’re looking for something exuberant and uplifting to read this summer, put this novel at the top of your list.
(Also, I have it on good authority that the book cover glows in the dark!!!)
A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman
Daniel: A Man Called Ove is quietly, and devastatingly, profound. Featuring an old curmudgeon trying to find his bearings, this novel could have easily been a caricature or a literary version of the Disney movie “Up.” However, Fredrick Backman's emotional and comedic touch ensures that Ove’s journey from tortured (and suicidal) old crank to neighborhood protector is a hearty example of feel-good fiction. The emotions don’t come cheap and aren’t cloying, but hit you at the right moment for the right reasons. Ove’s world is full of zany neighbors, mischievous stray cats, and a wife who constantly reminds him from the beyond why life is still worth living. This book had been on my to-read list forever, and I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to crack it open. Let me channel Ove for a second… “Don’t make the same mistake this bozo did, go out and buy read this now, goddammit!”
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Daniel: When in doubt picking your next read, always listen to Oprah! Can’t wait to dig into Colson Whitehead’s new novel The Underground Railroad.
Here’s the premise:
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
Daniel Ford: Short stories provide authors a narrow window in which to build a world. Themes, characters, and plot need to grab the reader quicker, and exploration into each of those elements has to be as succinct and poignant as humanly possible. Kelly Link makes the art of a short story look easy in her recent collection Get in Trouble. Every tale Link spawns is cheeky, innovative, and downright fun. She brilliantly balances laugh-out-loud moments and genuine human experiences (even if those involved aren’t exactly human). In my opinion, the most chilling story is “Two Houses,” which features a team of astronauts hurtling through deep space. Reality and illusion are blurred during a celebration that takes a dark turn after a slew of haunting ghost stories. Link’s other stories feature everything from demon lovers to superheroes and temperamental magical houses to iBoyfriends, so there’s plenty of trouble to get yourself into.
Cold In July By Joe R. Lansdale
Sean Tuohy: It's not easy to define this novel. Is it crime fiction? Is it a revenge story? Is it a story about family bonds? Well...yeah, it’s all of those things and so much more. The book begins as a simple story about a family man who kills an intruder and then must deal with the victim’s revenge-seeking father. Lansdale, however, also explores complex themes and develops a very human story. Characters deliver snappy dialogue and feel so real you'll think you're sitting at the kitchen table with them. This novel is just stellar.
Perfect Days by Raphael Montes
Daniel: Author Raphael Montes wastes no time in entangling readers in his dark, twisted web. In the first chapter, Teo, a medical student, describes the only person he likes in the world. Readers can tell instantly that he’s a loner, however, it’s not until one realizes he’s waxing poetic about a corpse does one understand that he’s a sociopath. Teo, of course, eventually finds a living, breathing female to torture. Once Clarice enters the picture, Montes’ plot makes novels like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train read like Sunday school lessons. To his credit, Montes never loses sight of the characters on both sides of what he calls “shocking scenes,” which is why each new level of Teo’s depravity hits your gut with a sledgehammer. You don’t come to like or root for Teo, but you can’t help but smirk as he stuffs a drugged Clarice into a pink suitcase or chains her to the hotel bed. His inner voice…okay, voices…convince him he’s great with families, he treats women right, and his new belle should appreciate all he’s given her! You’ll want to read Perfect Days with the lights on, perhaps while holding on to a meat cleaver, but you’ll be glad you dropped into Montes’ malevolent world.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Daniel: I suppose I don’t have to tell you to put a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel originally published in 2000 on your radar. For whatever reason (gross negligence most likely), Michael Chabon’s masterpiece eluded my nightstand for too many years. During our “Best Books of 2015” discussion, Gary Almeter not only judged me for having not read this book, but he also ordered me to rectify the situation by the end of 2016. Turns out, I delivered well before deadline, and I’m happy to report that the novel lived up to all the hype. Chabon’s language is beautiful and exquisitely chosen, his characters are earthy and tortured, and New York City has never looked so good in print. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay follows two Jewish cousins as they develop a nose for comic books and struggle to make sense of a world torn apart by war, genocide, and uncertainty. Starting in the 1930s and traveling into the 1950s, this tale grabs a hold of you so hard that you won’t be ready for it to let go. When I finished the last page, I felt the same way Kavalier and Clay did after watching “Citizen Kane” for the first time. I didn’t only want to grab my notebook and write; I wanted to make great art with my words. This book is a treasure and should be read by aspiring artists of all kinds.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Daniel: Considering I'm typing this on a MacBook, with my iPhone and iPad close by, you'd assume that I was in the tank for Steve Jobs well before reading Walter Isaacson’s engrossing biography. To a certain extent, that's true. I remember buying the first iPod in college and marveling at the fact I didn't have to lug around my Sony Discman and assorted CDs around campus. More Apple products landed in my life, however, my adoration for Jobs was tempered by his bruising personality. Did such an undeniable genius have to be such a prick?
That question is returned to again and again in Isaacson’s narrative. The unveiling of each innovation—the Apple II, the first Macintosh, the NeXT computer, the iPhone—is the culmination of Jobs' unrelenting and bullying management style. Rather than repulsing me, his behavior, told through the eyes of people above and below him, made me smirk in disbelief and, on occasion, awe. Creative types who needed someone to light a fire under them might feel the same. He might not have always been right, but his probing questions and relentless pursuit of perfection ended up revolutionizing the way we read, create, and listen. Plus, Jobs never betrayed his essential Steve Jobsness. You've got to begrudgingly admire someone who’s that consistent throughout one lifetime.
Like all good biographies, this one provided me with not only a deeper understanding of the subject, but also a panorama of our currently "tuned in" world. I also enjoyed Jobs’ Bob Dylan fanaticism (and my jealousy over Dylan playing one of Jobs’ favorite songs in concert with the Apple CEO in attendance knows no bounds).
Finally, anyone with a day job will appreciate Jobs' thoughts about PowerPoint presentations:
“I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking. People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. I wanted them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint."
We’re going to let Frank Sinatra sing us into our roundup of great summertime reads:
ST: Tim Dorsey is the reigning king of Florida fiction and that is because he understands the kooky landscape of the Sunshine State better than any other human. In his first novel, Dorsey introduces us to a cast of whacked, greedy, and blood-thirsty characters that you can only find in good ol’ Florida. Dorsey’s tour of Florida craziness will make you want to find a lawn chair and park in the shade on some beach.
Daniel Ford: Yes, I’m biased because Peter is a friend of mine and was kind enough to do a podcast interview with us. However, summer is meant for fun and Sherwood’s book is tremendous fun. I finished it a couple of weeks ago, but I still find myself chuckling thinking about the antics of the main characters. I’ve never highlighted more delightful passages on my Kindle. Give it a read while swaying in a hammock…but watch your head!
ST: Evans is a legend. He sums up the craziness of Hollywood’s past. He helped bring some of the biggest movies to the screen; “The Godfather,” “Love Story,” and dozens of other movies. Evans is also the man who helped create the modern day blockbuster. His very personal and revealing biography gives us a firsthand look at his rise to Hollywood big wig. From his highest highs to his lowest lows, Evans is upfront and never flinches while telling his story. Enjoy this travel down the back roads of Hollywood pool side.
DF: I read most of this book sitting by a pool in Florida in February. It’s the perfect summer biography; it’s light, entertaining, and funny. There was no celebrity that enjoyed being a celebrity less than Carson, which makes his life all the more fascinating. I recommend drinking a lot of booze while reading this. Just don’t try to keep up with the people in it!
Heather Kuka (Life enthusiast and Writer’s Bone contributor): The main character in A Life of Men is dying of cystic fibrosis and the story is about her friendship with her best friend, who dies unexpectedly, leaving the main character alone. She starts living her life for the two of them instead of staying home with her doctors and parents. The book follows her relationships with all of the men in her life—lovers, her adoptive father, her biological father, brother, and, eventually, her husband.
It’s about how life isn't just about experiences, it's also defined by the people you share those experiences with. It also shows the complicated aspects of love and sex.
ST: Summertime means taking the boat out with your buddies. Unless the boat is a 4,500-year old shop that may have taken man west. Kon Tiki tells the tale of six Dutch adventurers who sailed on a log raft from Peru to the Pacific islands. If this does not get you in the mood to travel then I don't know what is wrong with you. The story is full of adventure –with tender moments as well—but overall it’s what men will go through to reach their goals. It’s an awesome read for the sailors of the world.
Catherine Kearns (Daniel’s college cohort, mother of two, and Writer’s Bone contributor): I’ve read all four of Tana French’s books and I can’t wait for the new one to come out in August. All the books are connected in some way and always feature an ending you are not expecting.
DF: Even if you’re not a runner, you’ll appreciate this tale that features running Tarahumara Indians, ultra-marathons, and Barefoot Ted. McDougall also makes a strong case that humans survived because we evolved into runners. This book will make you want to grab your running shoes and hit the pavement!
ST: If you want to relax this summer and get a good laugh, pick up this tale of a comic’s life journey. Patton Oswalt lets you view the world through his eyes. Oswalt allows us to take glance at his early years as a stand up and shares his funny coming of age tales.
DF: There is no more original comedy biography out there. His stories involving a movie theater are laugh-out-loud funny.
Read Your Own Damn Book!
ST: This summer, you’re going to be outside enjoying the warm rays and cool air. Your brain is going to be pumping. Ideas will be flowing. Why not create your own story? Sit down and pump out your own story and read it back. Share the story with others. Get feedback. Repeat.