This month’s book recommendations include works by Leah Cohen, Elliot Ackerman, Sam Slaughter, Minnie Darke, James Charlesworth, Maureen Joyce Connolly, Chip Cheek, 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).
The first half of 2017 brought an onslaught of so many terrific novels and short story collections, ranging from newcomers fresh off of getting their MFAs to the master of short stories finally releasing a novel. Then there were translations of beautiful work that introduced Americans to incredible writers from places like Argentina and France. Needless to say, regardless of what type of fiction you like, there was something for you to devour in the past six months. Here are 10 I read, couldn’t stop thinking about, and continually suggest to friends, families, and strangers.
One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
An unnamed boy narrates the story about his father’s journey after a divorce. The boy and his older brother have been told countless times how evil their mother is. However, it turns out that the father is an addict and it’s all his fault. That’s the basic premise of Daniel Magariel’s debut. However, that doesn’t do the book justice. His novel is written with such heaviness in such a short amount of pages. He doesn’t waste time, and though your read can be over in less than a day, the content will stay with you long after.
Read my interview with the author.
The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead by Chanelle Benz
Finding a distinct voice is the first benchmark any great writer must accomplish. Chanelle Benz, author of The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead, has created more than just a voice to stand out from the crowd. She’s created 10.
The stories in Benz’s debut collection are told from perspectives ranging from an eighteenth-century slave to a baroque-style piece told in the collective We. The book begins with a non-traditional western that pulls readers in close, then follows up with a contemporary story of family and violence that is just as gripping. It’s not just the wide-ranging eras and plots that make each story stand out; it’s the carefully crafted voices. Benz is a trained actress who learned presentation is everything when it comes to captivating an audience, and she translated that skill into her writing.
Read my interview with the author.
American War by Omar El Akkad
This literary speculative fiction is one I keep thinking about over and over. It’s set in 2074-2095 and there’s another American Civil War. A young girl sees the horrors of life and grows up fighting. The steps Sarat takes in life can be viewed as heroic or villainous. This book follows her arc from innocent child to what a human can be turned into during a time of war.
Homesick for Another World by Otessa Moshfegh
Eileen, Otessa Moshfegh’s debut novel, was one of 2015's best books. Even though her current short story collection was highly anticipated, it somehow sneaked up and surprised me. It’s filled with 14 bleak stories about offbeat loners, liars, and less-than-perfect people. The writer's grip on these unsteady characters is stellar; she never makes a farce of their desires. Even though she pushes the boundaries with expectations, the fringe-ness of Moshfegh’s stories are reeled back in by the protagonists. Expect the unexpected, as cliché as that sounds.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
George Saunders is already one of the most prolific writers of this generation. His short stories have captivated the world for two decades. Since the release of his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, in 1996, Saunders has published numerous books of prose, including the 2013 critical darling Tenth of December. This year, we finally have his first full-length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s the type of book only a master craftsman like Saunders could pull off.
The story, which tracks President Abraham Lincoln on a visit to the grave of his recently deceased son, is narrated largely by ghosts in the cemetery. At 60,000 words, this isn’t a traditional novel by any means. Expect to be tested by the writer’s prose and style.
Read my interview with the author.
Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou
Technically this book may have come out in 2016, but the English translation came out recently and I devoured it. The French language is beautiful, but the prose is still gorgeous in this story. Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko a/k/a Moses grows up in an orphanage and turns to life in the underground crime world of the 1970s and 1980s.
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez
Enriquez’ stories are vibrant depictions of her native Argentina, mostly Buenos Aires, as well as some ventures to surrounding countries. She fills the dozen stories with compelling characters in haunting stories that evaluate inequality, violence, and corruption. Characters range from social workers to street dwellers and even venture into dark magic users. With those characters, the author explores tourists in Argentina, the rich visiting the slums, and so many more dynamic areas of her home country.
Read my interview with the author.
No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts
The characters’ desires in this novel purposefully echo the ones from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby. The parallels between the two works themes are obvious, but do not go into this thinking it's a retelling. Watts has crafted her own world built on rich characters and eloquent prose.
Read my interview with the author.
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
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.
Marlena by Julie Buntin
When high schooler Cat meets Marlena, her world changes. She experiences a series of firsts thanks to her new friend, but then Marlena ends up dead. This leaves a lasting mark on Cat and the story shifts from that year to decades later. Half of the novel is an ace coming-of-age story. The other enlightens readers on what happens after.
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.
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.
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Gary Almeter: To call this book a miracle is somehow an understatement, but it does achieve something miraculous. Sekaran has written a novel about immigration, the adoption of illegal immigrants' babies, the excesses of Silicon Valley, the Asian and Mexican immigrant experiences, marriage in the 21st century, and prison.
Even with the enormity of all that, the most compelling aspects of this novel are the simple love story and one immigrant mother's odyssey. Through it all, there are no heroes and no (well, maybe a few) villains. Everyone's hat is a shade of gray, and everyone elicits some sort of sympathy. I read this awaiting the ending—knowing that a happy ending was as close to metaphysically impossible as could be. The structure of that novel goes back and forth from Soli's story to Kavya's but the cadence never becomes repetitive. The author surprises you now and again and the writing is just too good to ever not be compelling.
What's also miraculous is the way Sekaran navigates all the worlds—the dusty village in Mexico, the sorority kitchen in Berkley, the Indian wedding, the Internet company's CEO's office. You walk through all these terrains as if you're really there. And you find yourself questioning for whom you are cheering and why.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Daniel Ford: Days Without End is a splendid novel from Irish author Sebastian Barry (who has twice been nominated for the Man Booker Prize). The novel follows Thomas McNulty as he comes of age in a violent era in American history. After surviving a harrowing journey from Ireland in the 1850s, Thomas finds himself signing up for the U.S. Army with his brother-in-arms John Cole.
As it turns out, John is more than just a friend or a close battlefield compatriot. Thomas and John are lovers, and their romantic bond is central to the novel rather than being vaguely alluded to or dismissed out of hand. In a recent interview (which ran in “Friday Morning Coffee”) Barry told me that his son coming out was a big inspiration for Thomas and John’s story. That influence shows in the tender and moving way he describes their love for each other. It’s made all the more poignant by Barry’s decision to tell the tale from McNulty’s point-of-view in a stream of consciousness that makes the novel’s events all the more immediate and crushing.
Barry puts these two men through the ringer. They see all manner of death and destruction during the Indian Wars and the Civil War. However, there’s also a wealth of dark humor and empathy that permeate these pages. Days Without End deals with issues and themes that are set in the past, but are still relevant today in the United States and around the globe.
Selection Day by Aravind Adiga
Adam Vitcavage: Selection Day, the new novel by Man Booker Prize-winner Aravind Adiga, is the perfect novel for the post-2016 Election world our new President has created. Instead of shunning diversity, we should be embracing it. Agida’s novel takes place in his native Mumbai and explores a young boy’s life and how it is consumed by cricket (a sport we Americans know nearly nothing about). It’s not a sports novel by any means, but instead a witty social commentary on a corner of the world that has often been perceived in a cartoonish way by Westerners. The fascinating realism the writer provides for the setting makes this coming-of-age novel a richness that readers should welcome with open arms
Talking As Fast As I Can by Lauren Graham
Stephanie Schaefer: Reading this book was like grabbing coffee with an old friend—filled with laughs, advice, and plenty of sarcasm. I’ll admit that I was a late bloomer to “Gilmore Girls” fandom. Having only seen a few re-runs in high school, I started binge watching the series on Netflix just a few months ago in anticipation of Netflix’s reboot (I have since finished all 7 seasons + “Gilmore Girls: The Year in the Life “and am anxiously awaiting an announcement that they’ll be future installments *fingers crossed*).
Although it took me a while to jump on the Stars Hollow bandwagon, I instantly fell in love with Lauren Graham’s acting on NBC’s “Parenthood” (if you haven’t seen the show before, go watch it, but make sure you grab a box of tissues). I enjoy how Graham can effortlessly switch between comedy and drama in both beloved series. She doesn’t take herself, or Hollywood, too seriously, which is evident in her memoir (essentially, she’s the anti-Gwyneth Paltrow). In a world filled with political drama, I think Talking As Fast As I Can is just what we need: a lighthearted, unpretentious book to make as laugh and escape the tension of the last few months, if only for a few blissful chapters.
The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich
Daniel: The Good Girls Revolt (the book that provides the basis for the Amazon television show) is essential reading for anyone with a judicious and rebellious heart. However, some of the early stats pioneering journalist Lynn Povich includes are shocking. She writes, “Until around 1970, “women comprised fewer than 20 percent of students in medical school, 4 percent of law school students, and only 3 percent of business school students.” Esh.
The world began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s in large part because of the women's movement. Povich, one of the women of Newsweek who sued the magazine for equal rights in 1970, spins a captivating narrative that details all of the obstacles women in the workplace attempted to vault over both legally and culturally. Based on myriad interviews with former Newsweek staff writers and editors, The Good Girls Revolt features one badass female writer after another, some of which never got to fully reap the benefits of the lawsuit they won. “When I found out the working conditions were illegal," Povich said in a recent interview with Writer's Bone, "I thought, oh my god, it’s a moral imperative that we do something.”
The turbulent 2016 Presidential campaign and the conservative administration that resulted prove that the country has a long way to go in how it treats and values women. However, the size and fervor of the crowds during the Women’s March following Trump’s inauguration gives me hope that the ideals fostered by the women in Povich’s book are alive and well, and will give us all something to emulate and rally around in the days to come.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Daniel: It’s imperative we embrace all immigrant narratives during the next few years, but especially those as well written and sweeping as Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (out Feb. 7). Lee’s novel follows generations of one Korean family, beginning in 1900s Korea. The narrative’s exquisite prose and well-crafted characters perfectly match Lee’s themes of family, love, and faith. The opening line sets the tone, both for the novel and our times:
“History failed us, but no matter.”
It’s in that failing that we discover who we are and who we care about. Lee’s novel may have been set from a Korean family’s point of view, but it could be any of our families. Familial bonds have a tendency to shape our identity and worldview, both for good and for ill, and Lee captures that tension and connection beautifully throughout Pachinko. I look forward to sitting down with the author to discuss her structure and character development later this month.
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
Adam: It’s easy for a psychological thriller to get lost in its own mystery. Some writers push plot twists down readers’ throats without worrying about much else. However, Emily Ruskovich’s debut is a high literary affair with lyrical prose and shifting perspectives that will live a lasting impression on its readers. Idaho is set in...well, Idaho. It explores a family torn apart by the murder of a child while another disappears. Fans of Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek will experience a similar haunting feeling as these characters fall into the depths of despair. While the plot is extremely riveting, it is Ruskovich’s dedication to making her words leap off the page in a beautiful way that stands out. The juxtaposition of the horrors you’re reading and how breathtaking the prose makes this an early frontrunner for a future “Best Novels of 2017” list.
The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak
Gary: The ‘80s were big for a host of reasons: big hair, big cell phones, big escapist television shows like "Dynasty," big concept albums like Paul Simon's "Graceland," big fears about Russia. But paradoxically, the decade was still small insofar as people still shopped in small stores on village main streets and people's obsessions were limited to that which could be covered by three networks and a finite number of media outlets; news spread slowly and stuck around for awhile. When everyone talked about something, everyone talked about it for a long time.
Enter Vanna White's appearance in Playboy in May 1987. It was the only thing a 14-year-old boy could think or talk about for a month. Fourteen-year-old boys like Billy, Alf and Clark in Jason Rekulak’s The Impossible Fortress. The novel is the story of how they try to get a copy of that issue of Playboy so they can see ogle the “Wheel of Fortune” star. Rekulak does a spectacular job of recreating the ‘80s in all of its bigness and in all of its smallness. He does an even better job of recreating the world of a teenage boy—how they are simultaneously omnipotent and insanely vulnerable, and how their limitless dreams are limited by the logistics of adolescence.
The writing is grand and filled with details that evoke a teenager’s mind: “Both of his parents worked—his father hung wallpaper and his mother was a secretary in a Realtor's office—so they were rolling in dough.” Most importantly, Rekulak has created characters that are authentic and likable, which makes the book about much more than stealing a magazine to see Vanna’s hoo-hoo.
Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson
Adam: Kevin Wilson broke out onto the literary scene with a heartwarming and quirky family comedy. In Perfect Little World, he brings his sharp literary prose to a story with a plot that sounds like sci-fi: a commune where you live with your children, but they don’t know who their parents are. It’s clear that the author’s obsession with family is something he’ll continue to explore. Perfect Little World feels fresh every step of the way, at once breezy and thought provoking. His story is offbeat and wholly original. Even when the traditional tropes come into play, he puts an unorthodox spin on it that never makes them feel stale. In an interview with “Electric Literature,” the author expressed how important it was trying to avoid copying The Family Fang in Perfect Little World.
The Seventh Plague by James Rollins
Daniel: A missing archeology professor wanders out of the desert. His body is in a semi-mummified state and laden with clues about his disappearance. However, he unleashes an unknown, and possibly ancient, plague that threatens the globe. That’s the thrilling set up for James Rollin’s most recent Sigma Force novel, The Seventh Plague.
Readers are treated to mysterious assassins, a wise-crackin’ Kowalski, and Biblical mayhem in what should be yet another Rollins best-seller. His adventurous blend of science and history never fails to disappoint, and knowing the effort and dedication the author puts into his craft makes following Sigma Force all the more enjoyable. In our current political state, it’s also nice picking up a thriller that embraces and champions facts rather than cowers from them.
Oh yeah, Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla make an appearance and prove integral to the plot! We’re currently prodding Rollins to write a standalone buddy comedy featuring the famed author and inventor.
Lightwood by Steph Post
Daniel: One of the best things about interacting with as many up-and-coming authors as we do is seeing their work improve with each novel or short story collection. Steph Post’s debut novel A Tree Born Crooked was a lot of fun, but you could see how much potential she had to do even more with her prose and characters. She didn’t disappoint with her sophomore effort Lightwood!
Her main character, Judah Cannon, walks out of prison and right back into his family’s criminal enterprise. After a lucrative robbery goes sideways, Judah finds himself caught between his hillbilly king pin father, a disgruntled biker gang hell bent on recapturing its past glory, and a tyrannical, corrupt “lady preacher” who would be right at home on an episode of “Justified.”
Post is a natural fit for the “sunshine noir” genre, and Lightwood is getting great buzz from the crime fiction crowd. Don’t be surprised if Post is a household name by book three!
Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith
Daniel: We do what David Joy says around here. (I also can’t wait to read this book!)
By Rory Flynn
The short days of a Boston winter call for compact, streamlined novels that can be read quickly, before it gets dark. We could turn on the lights, but that costs extra and thrifty New Englanders don’t splurge on lights or heat or food. Those are for libertines.
A short novel has to work like a little machine, with all the gears in place. But they also have to have enough depth to make them emotionally engaging. Here are some that do both.
The Devil in the Valley by Castle Freeman, Jr.
Castle Freeman Jr.’s deceptively simple retelling of the Faust legend, grafted to a flinty Vermont town, is a joy to read. He captures more in a few lines of dialogue than most writers can in several pages. While he may be best known for Go With Me, the cult classic favored by dark writers and readers, Freeman excels at capturing the darkness in broad daylight, the streaks of sin that run through even the most upright citizens. Confession: This novel is dedicated to me, and I couldn’t be more proud of it.
Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway
Not all fictional cops act like real cops. And that’s good for readers, otherwise we’d live in a world of grinding procedurals. If you want to immerse yourself in cop reality, I suggest lighting a car on fire and waiting around to get arrested. You’ll get your fill of cops soon enough. That’s not a problem with Keith Ridgway’s twisted London cops, Hawthorn & Child, who seem as floaty and pleasantly surreal as an afternoon on codeine. Legendary bookseller Tom Wickersham recommended this one, and he’s never steered me wrong. I’m halfway through and this subversively absurd novel just keeps getting better.
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Look out. It’s literature. No cops in sight here in Graham Swift’s earthy gem of a novel. I loved Waterland, his weirder and slightly longer novel. But Mothering Sunday is a textbook study of beautiful writing, indelible characters, and precise delineation of a lost era. I actually forced myself to stop reading so that the book would last longer. I went to one of Swift’s readings about a decade ago and he read so fantastically well that he restored my faith in bookstore events.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Deserved winner of the 2016 Pulitzer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (which checked in at #2 on Writer’s Bone’s “Best Books of 2016” list) could very easily have been a compressed novel in the style of The Quiet American. Saigon falls. The defeated Vietnamese decamp to California. Dissent in the ranks leads to murder and a return to Southeast Asia and new disasters. Most of these historical plot points are explored well in the many, many fine Vietnam-era novels, memoirs, and histories. (Dispatches, A Bright Shining Lie, et al). But luckily, Nguyen goes long, spinning out the story in vast swaths of smart, beautiful writing—the kind that makes even the most jaded reader notice. Though the end of the novel is telegraphed on the first page, I wanted to know how it all happened, even if it meant reading a longer novel.
Daniel Ford and Dave Pezza recently introduced #NovelClass, a new “Friday Morning Coffee” segment that features an in-depth discussion about a novel chosen by Writer’s Bone’s social media followers.
The first installment features Kevin Morris’ All Joe Knight, which was published December 2016 by Grove Press. (Be warned, this discussion contains spoilers.)
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!"
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."
By Sean Tuohy
Have you ever asked yourself, "Where the hell do screenwriters get ideas for movies?" Most of them come from the minds of deeply troubled writers or the back of Captain Crunch cereal boxes, but some originate from books!
Here's a collection of some of the best films based on books.
Drive by James Sallis
“Drive,” the indie darling film of 2011 featured Ryan Gosling as a movie stunt driver who moonlit as a getaway driver. The film was filled with stellar acting, a pumping soundtrack, and a solid storyline. American post-noir master James Sallis wrote the novel of the same name. Mixing together a sparse writing style with heavy characters, Sallis created a stunning tale.
Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” was the kid’s movie that was really meant for adults. Overflowing with beloved cartoon characters, the film mixed together live action for the first time in history. The plot follows hard-boiled, cartoon-hating detective Eddie Valiant, who must help Roger Rabbit prove that he didn’t commit a murder. Where the movie is rides the line between adult and children, the novel is darker in tone and deals with a stranger world then the one in the film, It’s a fast, but odd, read.
The strange story of how “Die Hard” went from novel to screen could be it’s own book. Written as a sequel to the “The Detective” (also turned into a film starring Chairman of the Board), Nothing Last Forever follows retired detective Joe Leland as he visits his daughter’s Christmas office party in L.A. when it gets taken over by terrorist. Leland must fight his way though terrorist as he tries to save his daughter. There are major differences between source book and film. The ending the book much darker, the main character is a truly flawed hero with many issues, and the terrorist are not bank robbers. A solid, fast paced read that makes you need to take a shot of whiskey at the end.
58 Minutes by Walter Wager
To learn more about how this story became the basis for “Die Hard 2,” swing by The Nicest Guy In Hollywood Doug Richardson’s website and take a read, totally worth it. But in the novel, a father must save his daughter from a madman who threatens to crash all the planes at JFK during a snowstorm. It’s great little read, but, man, who doesn’t love watching this scene:
Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin
Before Fat Amy, there was the source book. A reporter spent one season following college-aged wanna be singers as they tried to win an a cappella championship.
The Running Man By Richard Bachman (Stephen King)
Arnold Schwarzenegger on a game show where he must stay alive for 24 hours? 1980s action gold! Before the one-liners and cheesy ‘80s effects there was the novel The Running Man by Stephen King’s alter ego Richard Bachman. A short, but wickedly fast novel follows Ben Richards, an unemployed father living in a broken world, as he completes in a popular game show. He must stay alive for a week while being chased by hunters. King claims that he wrote the book in three days.
Brian Panowich and David Joy go together like dark alcohol and a heavy glass. I read their novels fairly close to each other and befriended the authors on Twitter, so I didn’t have the heart to split them up.
As I said in “Bruce, Bourbon, and Books,” Panowich’s debut novel Bull Mountain follows the Burroughs clan throughout several decades in the North Georgia Mountains. At the center of the story stands Clayton Burroughs, the sheriff of Waymore Valley, an honest man standing at the foot of a corrupt mountain. A shadowy Federal agent gives him an opportunity by to finally extricate his family name from drug running and death, however, his hillbilly crime lord brother wants no part of any such redemption.
The narrative spans several generations of Burroughs men, always at odds with themselves, their kin, and the innocent bystanders in their wake. As with many of the other crime novels we’ve featured on Writer’s Bone, this one shines because of its literary dedication to its main characters. They feel as old and familiar as the book’s mountain setting and are hardwired into the plot in a dramatically complex way.
Panowich is also a helluva talker (as you’ll hear in the podcast below).
Joy’s novel is pure Southern noir poetry. As I mentioned in “Bruce, Bourbon, and Books” (are you sensing a pattern?), you’d swear some of the perfectly crafted lines in this work swam out of a high-end bottle of bourbon, picked up the first shotgun they saw, and blasted their way through Appalachia.
He also said one of the most insightful things about the writing process I’ve heard in all the interviews we’ve done this year: “I need one good sentence before I can move forward.” It’s true for a lot of writers and I like how Joy’s method led to Where All the Light Tends to Go's lyrical style.
I’ve been hearing good things about his follow up, so restock your bourbon shelf and finish off his debut so you can devour the next one!
4. The Tusk That Did All the Damage by Tania James
Tania James’ The Tusk That Did the Damage completely charmed me. She utilized three narrators—including an elephant named The Gravedigger!—and weaved a tragic story while providing a deep back story for each one. When you’re not rooting for the resilient, emotionally broken elephant, you’ll be ensorcelled by a young man whose loyalty to his poacher brother knows no bounds, or troubled by the passive-aggressive filmmaking shooting a documentary on an elephant rehabilitation clinic.
She may have also won her way into the top five with this tweet:
3. My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh
One of the hallmarks of a great novel is how badly you want to get it into the hands of everyone you know. I’m pretty sure my copy of M.O. Walsh’s My Sunshine Away has made its way into the hands of just about every member of my family at this point.
Walsh’s crisp style and thought-provoking prose combines both literary fiction and a pulse-quickening thriller. Set in Baton Rouge, La., the novel explores the nature of “violent crime, unraveling families, and consuming adolescent love.” Fair warning, if you pick up this book in the store and read the first chapter, you’re going to end up buying it and throwing out the rest of your reading queue immediately.
I truly loved this novel and couldn’t be happier that Gary Almeter brought it up during our recent Friday Morning Coffee conversation. It made me remember the great experience I had reading the book and interviewing the author (podcast below).
2. God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Legér
In our first interview, Dimitry Elias Legér told me, “I put my heart and soul into God Loves Haiti.” As I said in my February review, Léger’s heart and soul is evident on every page, every line of dialogue, and in every character.
Maybe I’m biased because Legér is a St. John’s alum, like myself, but his exploration of Haiti during the 2010 earthquake made my heart goudou-goudou. There’s also a scene in the middle of the novel that involves a woman locking her naked lover in a closet. The nude escape that ensues struck such a human note in the midst of a tragedy that I was laughing and crying at the same time (you’ll also be weeping at the ending, which still gets to me all these months later). If the resiliency, love, and, yes, humor, of Léger’s characters doesn’t make your heart goudou-goudou, then you should seek medical attention immediately.
He also gets bonus points for recording Writer’s Bone’s first Skype interview!
1. The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
I read most of Chigozie Obioma’s pitch perfect debut The Fishermen while on a bus headed back home to visit my parents for Easter. Perhaps it was the interaction with my own brothers that made this book stick with me so much. Maybe I saw my mother and father in the two parents trying to hold a family together in the face of suffering. Maybe it was making every local stop known to man between Hartford and Boston that made me savor every sentence, character, and theme.
The novel is set in 1990s Nigeria and tells the heart-wrenching and bloody tale of four brothers whose lives are changed on the banks of a haunted river. Benjamin, the story’s 9-year-old narrator, attempts to makes sense of the changing world around him as his family is torn apart by a madman’s prophecy. The Fishermen begins so lightheartedly—the reader is led to believe that this is another coming-of-age story set in a foreign location—that later events crush you even more. It’s a book that should inspire you to craft your own great art. The best authors light a fire under you, and I can assure you, Obioma will be lighting fires for years to come.
It’s quite simply the best book I read all year. Obioma may not have won the Man Booker Prize, but I hope he can take solace in topping our humble list (and he better be working on his next book!).
By Daniel Ford
My mother made me a reader.
Family legend has it that I used to carry my board books (likely The Twiddlebugs’ Dream House or The Monster at the End of This Book) to her (or my father) and start blabbering nonsense. It was my signal that I was ready to read. I’m pretty sure if I brought them every book I read this year they would have told me to invest in a better cable television package!
At the end of 2014, Stephanie Schaefer asked me how many books I thought I read in a year. I had never really considered keeping track before, but with the amount of Advanced Reader Copies Writer’s Bone received this year, in addition to my personal reading list, it was a good time to start!
To date, I’ve read 83 books. There’s a good mix of fiction and nonfiction, but I’m limiting this list to my top 10 favorite novels of 2015 (look for Part 2 tomorrow). I suspect a nonfiction list isn’t far behind! I’ve included some of my original reviews, as well as new insights. Feel free to share your own favorites in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.
10. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Paula Hawkins sold a few copies after she interviewed with us in January. Oh, what’s that you say? She sold more than three million copies! Not bad for a debut thriller (which will also be hitting the silver screen sometime in the future).
The novel, which centers around an alcoholic woman voyeuristically inserting herself into a grim love triangle (more accurately, a pentagon), is much better structured than Gone Girl and provides the reader with an ending infinitely more satisfying than the majority of popular thrillers. It’s the perfect popcorn read that has real depth to it. I was fully invested in all of the characters’ backstories, motives, and suspicions. Read this immediately (and plan on losing a few nights sleep while doing so).
9. Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman
Along with Ross Ritchell’s The Knife and Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue was one of the most original, and haunting, novels written about the War on Terror.
Here’s what Dave Pezza had to say in his review earlier this year:
Green on Blue, Eliot Ackerman’s debut novel, follows a young Afghan by the name of Aziz. Aziz and his older brother are orphaned by Afghan militants. Soon Ali, Aziz’s brother, is maimed by the same men, and Aziz is recruited by a freedom fighting group funded by the CIA, who offer to pay for his brother’s medical expenses in return for his service. Green on Blue offers a rare perspective of the War in Afghanistan: the perspective of the Afghans who found themselves caught between violent, religious extremists and American sentiments of freedom and self-preservation. The result is a captivating narrative of a young teenage boy who wishes only to do right by his family and honor. Ackerman perfectly balances on the line of critiquing American ideals in a Middle Eastern society and the illuminating the struggle of the honest Afghan men and women who try only to survive in this contested land they call home. As America tries to put behind its recent wars in the Middle East, Green on Blue gives us an understanding of the country and its people that we wish we could have had 14 years ago.
8. The Martian by Andy Weir
The Martian debuted in 2014, but I didn’t get around to reading it until this year. In our recent Friday Morning Coffee chat, Gary Almeter named a book to his top five largely based on the experience he had while reading it. I feel the same way about The Martian. Don’t get me wrong, the book is wonderful and made me think about science in a new and exciting way, but interviewing Andy Weir and hearing how thrilled he was that the movie was being made is something that I’ll never forget. He also earned bonus points by telling Sean Tuohy that he had a zero percent chance of surviving on Mars. Revisit our podcast interview before getting to the rest of the list!
7. The Boatmaker by John Benditt
From a "Bruce, Bourbon, and Books" review:
I can’t say enough good things about John Benditt’s The Boatmaker. I’ve been reading at a pretty rapid pace the past few months, but I really sat down and took my time devouring this debut. Benditt does some expert world-building, breathing life into the parable style of storytelling. Most of his characters don’t just live in his world; they weather and survive it. The boatmaker begins as a simple man on Small Island, near death from a fever. He believes he’s given a directive to build a boat and sail to Big Island and the Mainland. His naivety nearly kills him throughout his journey, but his curiosity and determination to make sense of these strange lands don’t allow him to turn back. Readers see the world largely through his eyes so I still don’t have a deeper understanding about the power and cultural dynamics at play in this troubled kingdom. I guess it’s a lesson for all of us that not all countries are completely knowable, even if you’ve inhabited it forever. You might have more questions about the boatmaker’s reality (as well as our own), but, trust me, they will be questions worth asking and debating over a glass of brown liquor.
There's a good chance this book is too low on my list. I really loved it. Benditt is also a good guy and a writer worth following.
6. Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican
Not only does Anthony Breznican have the best beat in the galaxy (he’s Entertainment Weekly’s “Star Wars” guru), but he published an incredible book with a distinct style and earthly, tortured characters.
Inspired by the author’s adolescence spent in Western Pennsylvania, the novel follows the lives of three freshmen at St. Michael’s, a troubled Catholic school (is there any other kind?) known for “religious zealots fearful of public schools,” “violent delinquents,” a “declining reputation,” and “plunging enrollment.”
It’s a good story well told and I look forward to see what Breznican produces in the future (a “Star Wars” novel, perhaps?).
Editor’s Note: With Thanksgiving two days away, I asked the Writer’s Bone crew what books they were thankful for. Here’s what they came up with. Feel free to add the books you’re the most thankful for in the comments section or tweets us @WritersBone.—Daniel Ford
Stephanie Schaefer: Who didn’t love Dr. Seuss as a kid? I remember always reaching for his poetic books with colorful covers when it came time for my mom to read me and my brother a bedtime story. Little did I know that I would appreciate Oh, The Places You’ll Go even more as an adult. My mother gifted me with a shiny new copy of the book after high school graduation. There have been numerous instances in my life when I’ve gone back to read some of the lyrical lines as a pick me up through ups and downs in both my personal and professional lives. After all, when you’re at a crossroads or feeling lonely in a big city, sometimes you just need to hear the words, “Kid, You’ll Move Mountains.”
Alex Tzelnic: I am immensely thankful for Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I read it while living in Saigon as an English teacher. Every afternoon before teaching I'd walk over to my favorite coffee stand, sit in the tropical heat under a green umbrella, suck down Vietnamese iced coffees, and read a book that re-calibrated what I thought literature could be. I am also immensely thankful for George Saunders' essay on Slaughterhouse Five that says everything I could possibly want to say about it way better than I could possibly say it: “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra.”
Gary Almeter: I had just finished another year teaching English at a high school in New York City and wanted to give myself an end-of-the-year treat. So on the last day of school I stopped at the Barnes and Noble on East 86th Street and, seduced by the simple watercolor cover evocative of the era in which the story is set, bought this book from the New Releases shelf. The story is a simple coming-of-age story set in rural post-Depression era North Carolina about a boy named Jim. Ironically, the story is so simple that it was jarring to realize how rare such simplicity had become. It's simple and spectacular. The writing and the tone are both so pure and heartfelt without being sappy. I loved every word. Then, eager to explore more of Earley's work, I later bought a book of short stories wherein we meet Jim again. Those short stories came first and in an interview I read someplace, Mr. Earley suggested that he just wasn't finished with this character named Jim so felt compelled to write a novel about him. And subsequently write another one called The Blue Star.
I am thankful for this book for a host of reasons. First, a reminder that books—hardcover, expensive, shiny, new smell books—make the best treats and that it's okay to treat yourself. Next, simple stories with contented characters, if they are told well, can still be compelling. Lastly, Mr. Earley's commitment to Jim is a reminder that, as a writer, it’s acceptable to capitulate to compulsion.
Lindsey Wojcik: I am thankful for The AP Stylebook. It was the best investment I made during journalism school—although my copy is nearly a decade old (hint: holiday gift idea). It has been my saving grace during many production cycles, including during my tenure as my college newspaper's editor in chief through my post-collegiate career as a magazine editor. It has been my ace during disagreements about hyphens and capitalizations with colleagues. I'm often referred to as the AP Style nerd in the office.
I am thankful that a former colleague gave me his old copy of the guide, which was published the year I was born. It's a treasured reminder that I grew up wanting so badly to be a journalist, and for better or worse, today I am one. Thank you, AP Stylebook.
Sean Tuohy: The book that launched me into the world of hard-boiled detectives and murder mystery. I, The Jury, the first novel in the long running Mike Hammer detective series, is made up of everything that makes pulp novels great; tough guy dialogue, bullets flying, sexy femme fatales, and bloodthirsty bad guys. I am thankful that I stumbled upon this book in the eighth grade. It set me on a journey through pulp fiction that has taken over my life.
Daniel Ford: This was a harder exercise than I thought it was going to be. Part of me wanted to choose Mark Childress’ Crazy in Alabama because it was the first book my senior English teacher dropped in my hands when she forced me into the AP class. Another wanted to pick Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding because of its elegant depiction of the national pastime and its earthy, earnest characters.
However, I kept coming back to Sully in Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool. What a perfect curmudgeon. While Sully taught me the proper way to cuss and eek through a bad luck-plagued existence, Russo proved to me that plot wasn’t necessarily important when you have the right mix of characters. Sure, the events in Sully’s life make for fine literature, but it’s Russo’s study of the characters inhabiting the world in Nobody’s Fool that makes it art.
Thanks to a personal blog post from a million years ago, I can even remember my favorite line: “Clive Jr.’s fear of Sully was always rewarding. But Sully wanted to be fully awake and not hungover to appreciate it.”
There’s a Writer’s Bone mission statement in there somewhere.
By Sean Tuohy
Crime fiction master Michael Connelly brings back hardboiled, jazz-loving detective Harry Bosch in his newest novel The Crossing. This time around we find Bosch is no longer with the LAPD and is now working for defense attorney half-brother Mickey Haller.
With the newest book in the long running detective series published yesterday and the second season of the highly rated Amazon television show in the works, we decided to sit down and comb through the Bosch world and picked the top five Bosch stories. Get ready for some smooth jazz and murder in the City of Angels.
5. The Burning Room (#21)
Sensing his time with the LAPD maybe coming to an end, Harry races against the clock trying to solve two famous cold cases while trying to mentor his young new partner.
What makes it great?
Harry has mentored younger detectives before but never with the same urgency that is found in this novel. Harry tries to imprint his code on his partner, teaching her that homicide is a mission. We also catch moments of trendiness with Bosch, most dealing with his own daughter. A great moment is when Bosch gets a lump in his throat thinking about his daughter and his own failing as a father. The ending is bittersweet and reminds us that not everything can be tied up neatly at the end.
What to listen to?
“Black Coffee” by Duke Pearson Trio
4. The Black Ice (#2)
When a cop kills himself on Christmas Eve the department is ready to call it an open and shut case but Harry Bosch sees something else. Quickly, Bosch himself chases down clues through seedy back alleys that lead into Mexico.
What makes it great?
Fast-paced with more action then the first novel, The Black Ice hits the ground running and never lets up. While in Mexico, Bosch takes in bull fighting and along the way falls in love with the widow of the dead police officer. The ending to the novel is a sudden twist that no one saw coming.
What to listen to?
“Mr. Syms” by John Coltrane
3. The Drop (#17)
Bosch investigates a 20-year-old murder while also trying to determine if his enemy’s son killed himself or was killed.
What makes it great?
Many of Connelly’s best characters are the people who live at the bottom of society, the ones who scrape by and do what they can to live. In The Drop, Connelly presents us with a character completely broken by life. We watch as Bosch goes from hating the man to understanding who he is.
What to listen to?
“Green Haze” by Miles Davis
2. Nine Dragons (#15)
A chance account on the one of the worse nights of his life Bosch meets a shopkeeper who helped him out. Years later, Bosch must solve the man’s murder and also deal with the personal issues of having a daughter who lives in China.
What makes it great?
A bittersweet ending Bosch’s life changes completely. We get to see two sides of Bosch, the cop and the father, intersect.
What to listen to?
“Night Hawk” by Coleman Hawkins
1. The Last Coyote (#4)
Bosch’s life is a mess. He’s suspended from his job, he’s about to lose his house, and he’s lost his girlfriend. During this crisis, Bosch decides to look into the murder of his mother, killed when he was a child. He is determined to solve it.
What makes it great?
Normally in series the hero is always put together and able to handle the task at hand. Connelly stacked everything against Bosch and at one point we see Bosch fall apart. The pressure of everything mixed with opening deep emotion wounds comes pouring out of Bosch.
What to listen to?
“Silk ‘n’ Satin” by Sonny Rollins
By Daniel Ford
I’ve read Richard Russo, Joyce Carol Oates (okay, at least I tried), Jonathan Franzen, and Wally Lamb throughout my life, so I know a thing or two about dysfunctional literary families. However, the family in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres might be the most screwed up one I’ve ever encountered in fiction. The book starts innocently enough: A father nearing the end of his working days decides to split up his Midwestern farm among his three daughters. What a nice guy! Well, in true Shakespearean fashion, things go horribly wrong. The father loses his grip on reality, his daughters reveal all manner of dark family secrets, and there’s not a man in the book that isn’t a complete asshole or grossly incompetent. There were moments I put the book down and couldn’t believe what I had just read. And Smiley doesn’t hit you over the head with each revelation. No, her style borders on nonchalant, so you constantly feel like your caught in the middle of the storm without any advanced warning. Smiley also gives the reader somewhat of an unreliable narrator, which makes the book’s plot all the more harrowing and surprising. I guarantee you’ll be done with this tale in a matter of days because the sick individual inside you will want to find out what happens next.
Tate Cowlishaw may be legally blind, incredibly snarky, and unlucky in love, but hot damn he’s a pretty good investigator. So what if he’s an incompetent, indifferent academic employed at a school in such dire straits that it has to house its teacher’s offices in a drained swimming pool? When the dean of Parshall College dies suspiciously, Cowlishaw follows a dangerous (and often hilarious) trail of clues to find out the truth. As I said in the introduction to my recent interview with the author, fans of noir and dark comedy will find something to devour within every page of this debut. Hill told me that future Cowlishaw adventures would depend on readers’ reactions to his witty hero. Well, don’t just suggest he write more, demand it by buying the book and spreading the word.
The Granite Moth, Erica Wright’s sequel to her debut novel The Red Chameleon, has an explosive beginning. A bomb goes off at a Halloween parade in New York City, upending the lives of the The Pink Parrot’s performers. Good thing the nightclub has a guardian private investor in Kathleen Stone. The emotionally damaged PI, along with her drag queen friends Dolly and Big Momma, tracks down the perpetrators of the crime while trying to stay on the good sides of her two police officer love interests. The Red Chameleon set the tone of Stone’s world, but The Granite Moth digs deeper into her character and why she’s hell bent on bringing mob boss Salvatore Magrelli to justice. As with all good noir, the plot matters much less than what’s going on in Stone’s head and how her job interferes with every relationship she has in her life. There’s plenty of Wright’s trademark wit and sharp dialogue in this sequel, but the book is at its best when exploring Stone’s dark inner demons. The book comes out Nov. 16, so plan your late fall reading accordingly.
Oh, and if you’re thinking that Tate Cowlishaw and Kathleen Stone would make the perfect crime-fighting duo, you’re not alone. I’ve already told Wright and Hill that if there isn’t a crossover at some point in the future, I will no longer speak to either of them.
Every time I finish an Elmore Leonard tale I think, “That’s my favorite Elmore Leonard novel.” It happened with Pronto, Rum Punch, and Riding the Rap. I read Out of Sight at the end of September and thought no other Leonard could possibly surpass it. Well, shit, Swag did and it just might be the best crime fiction novel ever written. Car thief Ernest “Stick” Stickley Jr. and oily car salesman Frank Ryan start a lucrative armed robbery trade and hilarity ensues. The sweet spot of the novel comes in the middle when the guys are enjoying a massive party at their hotel that eventually comes back to haunt them. Their characters are revealed in stark black and white and both begin to accept the fate they are headed for. There are twists and turns as the novel reaches its climax, but you feel like you already know how these two idiot criminals end up. The dialogue is pitch perfect (including the novel’s brilliant final line), and the 1970s Detroit setting casts a gray urban pale to the thievery and debauchery. This novel is screaming out to be made into a three-act play and I’d pay top dollar to see it. I’m sure I’ll love the next Elmore Leonard yarn just as much, but for now Swag is at the top of my list.
During a recent podcast with Sean Tuohy, I stupidly said Kevin Keating’s The Captive Condition wasn’t capturing my attention like I thought it would. Like a dopey, over-critical writer, I whined that the novel showcased some of the grating traits inherent to novels written by an academic. Well, throw all that criticism out the window because he expertly ties everything together in the second half. Every character receives a fate that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. The haunted town of Normandy Falls, where Edmund Campion chooses to earn his degree, is right below the Hellmouth in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on the list of places I’d never want to visit. At least other horror tales feature a monster or zombie the main character can slaughter. The Captive Condition contains a deeper, primordial evil that isn’t easy to shake, even after you finish the novel. I recommend finding out for certain that noise you hear outside isn’t someone pounding the final nail into your doorframe, trapping you inside with Keating’s demons forever.
Listen to our podcast interview with Kevin Keating after he scares the bejesus out of you:
By Sean Tuohy
Stephen King has called Jack Reacher “the coolest character” and the public agrees. For nearly 20 books, the former military cop turned drifter has woven himself into the American literary fabric. Hardboiled and witty, Lee Child’s character is one of the funniest good guys to follow. Tom Cruise also brought the character to the big screen in the recent action film “Jack Reacher.”
Child’s new book, Make Me, hits stands on Sept. 8, so we decided to help those unfamiliar with the Reacher legend by counting down the top five Reacher novels.
As an added bonus, listen to my interview with Lee Child!
5. Die Trying (Jack Reacher #2)
Not surprisingly, this novel starts with Reacher finding himself as the right guy at the wrong time and place. Kidnapped off a city street, he must figure out the identity of his captors and why they took a young FBI agent along with him. One crazed, but smart, villain, some hand guns, and Reacher’s brawn all adds up to a fun read.
4. Without Fail (Jack Reacher # 6)
Someone is trying to kill the second most powerful man in the United States and Reacher must stop him. Again, filled with twist and turns, this book keeps readers on the edge of their seat. Reacher teams up with the Secret Service to track down a group of well-trained assassins before they can strike again.
3. Bad Luck and Trouble (Jack Reacher #11)
When Reacher receives a distress call from his former army unit he goes west to solve a mystery and stop an attack on the country. Reacher teams up with his former unit and explores what could have been had he not left the army.
2. Tripwire (Jack Reacher #3)
Jack Reacher travels from Key West, Fla., to New York City when the past reaches out to him. Reacher finds himself in front of a lot of bad guys and too many bullets in this taut thriller. Child brings to life one of his best villains; a hook-handed, high-end bookie with a taste for blood.
1. Killing Floor (Jack Reacher #1)
The first Jack Reacher novel has one of the best first chapters in all of modern history. Tight and thrilling, the opening lines smack the reader in the face hard and the rest of the novel keeps on punching.
Death With Interruptions by José Saramago
Daniel Ford: Dimitry Elias Léger mentioned José Saramago’s Death With Interruptions during our podcast interview this past March and I finally rediscovered it in my hidden pile of books. Saramago begins his novel simply, much like he did with his masterpiece Blindness, stating, "The following day, no one died." Great news, right? Once the phenomenon is confirmed, Saramago's characters do rejoice, but only for so long. Important questions are raised that don't find easy answers. What is the government’s role in helping care for people who remain between life and death? What becomes of the undertaker, whose business depends on people expiring? How would family dynamics change in an event as peculiar as this? Saramago explores all of these themes poignantly and, at times, humorously, but it's his portrayal of death that makes this novel a true marvel. She—yes, she—is locked away in a stuffy office doing her job well until she decides to conduct an experiment halting human death. Her reappearance on the scene and subsequent actions turn the last third of the novel into a thrilling character study. The last three chapters are exquisite literature and will force your mind to ponder this question: What if death fell in love?
99 Percent Kill by Doug Richardson
Sean Tuohy: Look, we all know that I am a Doug Richardson fan. He’s a solid writer that always delivers. The first page of the “True Believers” script has more tension than most 90-minute movies. Blood Money is a slam-bang book that hits the ground running and does not let up. But 99 Percent Kill brings Richardson to a new level. Sometimes Sheriff Deputy Lucky Day, brought over from Blood Money, is hired to track down the missing daughter of a wealthy Midwesterner. Easy and straight forward. Suddenly, readers find themselves traveling head long down an always twisting and turning maze where nothing is what it seems. The characters pop off the page in this tight and well thought out thriller. But Richardson is able to bring Los Angeles to life in the same rich style as Michael Connelly or James Ellroy, but in his own very distinct voice. Like always, Richardson crafts a solid story that readers will not be able to put down, but he brings so much more to the table this time.
Stephanie Schaefer: Aliza Licht (aka the former Twitter celeb DKNY PR Girl) has the wit of Carrie Bradshaw and the drive of Samantha Jones. Her debut book, Leave Your Mark, is a must read for young professionals who dream of climbing the corporate ladder in designer heels—even if all they can afford right now is knockoffs. Licht touches upon everything from building your own brand to switching careers and turning happy hour into a networking opportunity. Even though the book is geared to those in the media industry, everyone can profit from its lessons. Check out my recent interview with Licht to learn more about the secrets of success.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
DF: I don’t know the America in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ stirring and honest letter/essay to his teenage son. I know it exists and I’ve always been aware of the duality that exists in the American experience. All of the progress and good that’s come out of the United States has been matched by intolerance, oppression, and hatred. I don’t know about the fear Coates felt growing up with armed kids his age or from white police officers with the power to “break” his black body. My struggle in America has been economic, but I know that my skin color and suburban upbringing has softened the weight of “the boot” on my neck. However, there were moments when I identified strongly with Coates’ experience such as:
“I wish I had known more, and I wished I had known it sooner.”
“It was like falling in love—the things that get you are so small, the things that keep you up at night are so particular to you that when you try to explain, the only reward anyone can give you is a dumb polite nod.”
“In New York, everyone wanted to know your occupation. I told people that I was ‘trying to be a writer.’”
“But this girl with the long dreads revealed something else—that love could be soft and understanding; that, soft or hard, love was an act of heroism.”
Between the World and Me is visceral and poetic in its brutality. It raises necessary, hard questions that I wish this Presidential election would try to wrestle with. Author Toni Morrison called this work “required reading” and I couldn’t agree more. Also, President Obama included it in his summer reading list and I suggest you do the same regardless of your political, racial, or economic place in this country.
The Suicide of Claire Bishop by Carmiel Banasky
Steph Post: Carmiel Banasky's psychological whirlwind of a novel The Suicide of Claire Bishop hits shelves on Sept. 15 and I have a sneaking suspicion that it's going to be one of those novels everyone is talking about this fall. The premise is a little complicated: Claire, a 1950s Greenwich Village housewife, convinced for most of her life that she will die of hereditary madness, is drowning in the knowledge that insanity actually doesn't run in her family and so she is doomed to continue in her oppressive and stagnate marriage and life, without the heralding of an early death on the horizon. As the novel opens, Claire is sitting for a portrait that ultimately depicts her fragmented suicide and will drive her to freeing, if irrational, actions. Flash forward to 2004 and West Butler takes the stage. Truly schizophrenic, and the very definition of an unreliable narrator, West becomes obsessed with Claire's portrait and the past and present become intertwined in a twisted tale of art and perception.
Complicated? Yes. Mesmerizing? Yes. Gorgeous, powerful, unsettling and replete with all of the hallmarks of modern risk-taking fiction? Absolutely. Banasky's characters are reckless, but her language is crafted with diamond-edged precision and her style immerses the reader fully into a New York state of mind. Even if that mind might be rife with madness...
By Daniel Ford and Sean Tuohy
Daniel: We’ve met Frances and Yasha, the two main characters in Rebecca Dinerstein’s charming, quirky debut The Sunlit Night, in literature before. They are two young people who find comfort and passion in each other while avoiding something else—Frances escapes her parents’ separation and a douchey boyfriend in New York City, while Yasha has come to Norway to bury his beloved father at the “top of the world.” With a supporting cast that includes a neglectful mother, an artist who paints only in yellow, and a Norwegian desperate to be lovestruck, The Sunlit Night makes your heart swell one moment and then shatters it the next. Dinerstein is smart though, she sews the pieces back just enough to make your ticker work again, but not so tightly that you feel whole. Most importantly, the novel is littered with beautifully crafted sentences surrounded by exuberant, honest dialogue. Plus, thanks to the Gregoriov Bakery, the novel features plenty of yummy baked goods!
Sean: The second book in Charles Willeford's unfortunately short-lived Hoke Moseley series is the possibly the best South Florida crime prose ever written. The novel follows a depressed and money-strapped Miami detective who finds himself in the middle of a homicide investigation with a partner going through a life crisis, his estranged daughters entering his life, and no way to pay for anything. Willeford is a true master who blends together pitch-black dark humor, hard-boiled crime, and moody characters to make the perfect crime novel cocktail.
Daniel Ford: Ross Ritchell’s The Knife has all of the hallmarks of a military novel: firefights, desert maneuvers, and solider hijinks. What makes it stand apart from many of the recent books about Afghanipakiraqistan is it’s clean, inspired prose and the quiet moments before and after each Special Ops mission (Oh yeah, did I mention that Ritchell is a former soldier in a United States Special Operations Command direct-action team that conducted classified operations in the Middle East? No big deal.).
The opening chapter set in a diner before the main character heads off to war and a chapter midway through the novel featuring a young Muslim by the name of Ahmed blew me away. I knew I’d enjoy all the military scenes and the brotherly banter, but those two scenes are maybe the best I've read all year.
Ritchell also writes about the desert conflict in a way that makes it more haunting and visceral than any newspaper feature or recent novel. An example: "As they flew on, the earth looked like the chalked bones of pale skeletons." That’s good stuff.
I emailed Ritchell back and forth while I was reading the book (he’s become a literary Obi-Wan Kenobi to me) and he said that he “tried to just write stuff that didn't feel like bullshit” to him. He added, “You shouldn't feel awkward or fake with any of your stuff.”
I can assure readers that there is not one ounce of BS in The Knife, and it has an ending that will leave you swearing through your tears.
Daniel: I told myself I wasn’t going to read another post-apocalyptic novel. I devoured books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, and felt like I had consumed enough literature of that ilk to last me until the actual end of days. However, I picked up Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven while perusing the stacks at Barnes and Noble on a coffee run one afternoon and fell in love.
The story weaves in and out of the past and present, and mostly follows The Traveling Symphony—a band of survivors who perform Shakespeare and music throughout a landscape violently altered by a flu epidemic. The prose is lyrical, packed with heart, and infused with a passion for the arts. There are harrowing moments for sure, but if humanity follows main character Kirsten Raymonde’s lead after all hell breaks loose, we might be okay.
Daniel: I hate to damn Dean Bakopoulos’ Summerlong by saying it’s the perfect beach read, but damn if it’s not best enjoyed near a body of water—or in my case, the Atlantic Ocean—with copious amounts of ice-cold alcoholic beverages to cool you off. You’re going to need them because everything in this novel is on fire: the Midwestern weather, marriages, potential, sexual urges. The characters are so intertwined that they particularly have to say, “Excuse me,” to each other as the scene shifts perspectives. A couple’s marriage falls apart owing to neglect, lies, and boredom (but not sexual passions, my god), a young woman named ABC longs to join her dead lover while enjoying as much pot as possible, and a disillusioned actor comes home to deal with his sick father (the old guy may have failed at being a writer, but he was hell of a creepy ladies man). This book is eight kinds of hilarious, and I guarantee that you’ll be cackling in public places the whole time you're reading it (and possibly blushing when you get to the really juicy parts).
Also, Bakopoulos has one of his main characters utter this spectacular line of dialogue: “I’m living in a Bruce Springsteen song.”
Reader for life!
Sean Tuohy: Joshua Mohr is a writer with a unique voice. He stands out against a sea crowded with similar story lines and bland characters. All This Life, due out July 14, is the author's fifth novel and is about the digital age and the effects one event can have on many people.
All This Life opens with a mass suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge and then doesn’t let up. Featuring a cast of interesting and damaged characters, All This Life showcases a writer with a true talent.
Daniel Ford: Author Anne Leigh Parrish has contributed to Writer’s Bone (including a short story, an essay, and an interview), so I was certain I’d like her latest novel What is Found, What is Lost despite the fact I’m not exactly the target demographic.
In this novel, Parrish explores the themes of motherhood, identity, and religion through the eyes of main character Freddie, as well her mother, grandmother, and daughter. Freddie is one of the most delightful female characters I’ve read in some time, despite the fact she is surrounded by some pretty terrible people (including her late husband Ken, though he earns major points with his one liners from beyond). You’ll find there is no circle of hell low enough for her mother Lorraine. She reminded me of an uber-religious version of Catherine in East of Eden. And then you have Anna, Freddie’s grandmother, who makes 1920s Chicago come alive in a fresh way with the help of her partner Olaf (who is also a shady character, but one with redeemable characteristics).
All of these characters are what make Parrish’s novel really sing. There’s snappy, heartfelt (and occasionally nasty) dialogue that will make you feel as if you’ve known these people your whole life. There’s a genuine lived in quality that weds seamlessly to the prose and plot. I don’t want to give too much away, but the book ends with certain things revealed and resolved, but leaves so much more simmering beneath the surface. It’s an excellent reflection on how real life is messy with no easy answers or solutions. If you’re looking for something meatier than a beach read, put What is Found, What is Lost on your reading docket.
DF: Michael Connelly calls Ace Atkins “one of the best crime writers at work today,” and after reading his most recent novel The Redeemers, I can see why. Atkins’ hero, Quinn Colson, finds himself out of a job as sheriff of Tibbehah County, Miss., and surrounded by a villainous crime lord, a sister crippled by drugs, and a lover that further stains his reputation. On top of all that, he’s drawn into investigating a crime perpetrated by three idiots armed with a bulldozer. The plot moves along at a brisk pace and the criminals are as entertaining as any you’ll find in an Elmore Leonard novel, but Atkins is at his best exploring characters on both sides of the law. I haven’t read any of the other Quinn Colson novels, but he strides into this novel more fully formed than must of the serial heroes I’ve come across recently. His military past, his volatile love life, and temperamental family are all explored deeply and honestly.
DF: Stephanie Schaefer grabbed this book out of my hands as soon as she saw the cover. The neon woman arching her back didn’t do me any favors. I told her at some point a guy needs to read some Bukowski. And then I did.
Bukowski can write the hell out of a broken character. He shows flashes of how this guy might change, and then another women slithers into the picture. I think my favorite Henry Chinaski reaction throughout the book was, "All right." Summed it all up in two words.
If you read nothing else, read this paragraph:
“I was sentimental about many things: a woman’s shoes under the bed; one hairpin left behind on the dresser; the way they said, 'I’m going to pee.' hair ribbons; walking down the boulevard with them at 1:30 in the afternoon, just two people walking together; the long nights of drinking and smoking; talking; the arguments; thinking of suicide; eating together and feeling good; the jokes; the laughter out of nowhere; feeling miracles in the air; being in a parked car together; comparing past loves at 3am; being told you snore; hearing her snore; mothers, daughters, sons, cats, dogs; sometimes death and sometimes divorce; but always carrying on, always seeing it through; reading a newspaper alone in a sandwich joint and feeling nausea because she’s now married to a dentist with an I.Q. of 95; racetracks, parks, park picnics; even jails; her dull friends; your dull friends; your drinking, her dancing; your flirting, her flirting; her pills, your fucking on the side and her doing the same; sleeping together.”
DF: This debut short story collection just landed in Writer’s Bone mailbox and it shot to the top of my reading list based on the opening line of the first story:
“John ran through the high desert, away from his grave.”
Yup, that’ll do. Harper has had a variety of writing jobs, including a writer-producer for “Gotham,” but I have a feeling before his career is over he’s going to be best known as a short story artist. This collection comes out July 7 (look for an interview with the author next month!).
Daniel Ford: Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen is set in 1990s Nigeria and tells the heart-wrenching and bloody tale of four brothers whose lives are changed on the banks of a haunted river. Benjamin, the story’s 9-year-old narrator, attempts to makes sense of the changing world around him as his family is torn apart by a madman’s prophecy. The Fishermen begins so lightheartedly—the reader is led to believe that this is another coming-of-age story set in a foreign location—that later events crush you even more. It’s a book that should inspire you to craft your own great art. The best authors light a fire under you, and I can assure you, Obioma will be lighting fires for years to come.
Also, if you don’t stand up and cheer when the boys’ father delivers a rousing speech encouraging them to be “fishermen” that “will dip their hands in rivers, seas, and oceans of this life and become successful: doctors, pilots, professors, lawyers” then I don’t want to know you.
Robert Hilferty: Wetlands has an honesty and humor that reminds me a lot of Charles Bukowski but without the more problematic shit attached to it. It's full of raw emotion and reckless abandon that reminds me of the poor decisions I made growing up.
DF: Any story that involves a S.W.A.T. sniper is going to have a thrilling plot, however, not all of them are going to have the big ole thumping heart beating on every page of Done in One (the novel was inspired by Jan Thomas’ real-life experiences). We first meet Jake Denton (“Fuckin’Denton”) on the hunt with his father. The lessons he learns are put to the test throughout the book, particularly when it comes to his equally badass wife Jill, a former medic (and aspiring author!) who is her husband’s first-response support team. But Jill isn’t some weepy female caricature. She’s whip smart, tough, demanding, compassionate, and honest. Jill has her tender moments for sure, but she proves over and over again that she’s very much Jake’s equal. Done in One is actually one of those novels that’s a character study wrapped in a thriller, which makes it so much more than a good beach read. Important questions are raised and dealt with and the authors humanize and reveal fresh insights into a world that is currently grossly misunderstood in today’s culture.
DF: I recently read James Swanson’s excellent Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse, so I was primed for another good Civil War read. Author Jeff Shaara (who I interviewed last June and will be speaking to again next week) didn’t disappoint with The Fateful Lightning, the final book in his series about the Civil War’s western front. The novel begins in November 1864 following William Tecumseh Sherman’s victory in Atlanta and covers the red-headed, cigar-smoking General’s famed “March to the Sea.” Shaara tells the tale from multiple perspectives on both sides of the conflict, humanizing these legendary figures with such skill that I’m convinced the author was close friends with them in another life. The Fateful Lightning is available for sale June 2, 2015 and would make the perfect Father's Day gift.
Alex Tzelnic: In February 2015, The New Yorker published an article on the tragic death of Eric Harroun—a U.S. Army veteran turned mercenary and informant. The piece mentioned the 1999 book My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd. "That is a hell of a title," I thought. I largely forgot about the book until April, when I was perusing the shelves of a friend and came across a weathered and torn copy. "That is one of my favorite books," he told me. "Borrow it. Read it. Pass it around." Sometimes the literary gods drop subtle hints, and sometimes they drop a book in your lap and give you clear instructions. I read it.
My War Gone By, I Miss It So is a visceral and gruesome travelogue. Travelogue might be a confusing categorization—it is technically war journalism, as the book covers the conflicts in Bosnia and Chechnya during the 1990s. But war books are full of reportage, and though they ask why, it is usually a practical why: why did this conflict begin, what happened, and what does it mean? Loyd's why is more existential. As in a travelogue, he considers the question Kerouac wrote in his journals before flinging himself on the journey that became On the Road: "The night before travel is like the night before death. Why must I always travel from here to there, as it mattered where one is?"
Indeed, many of Loyd's nights are the night before death (though not his own), and the answer is complicated; his military heritage, his strained relationship with his father, and his addiction to heroin all play a part in his attraction to war. In taking this more personal tack, Loyd not only provides a compelling narrative about the horrors that unfolded in these wars, but examines why it is that people seek out darkness and brutality, and what can be learned from plumbing the depths.
Lloyd's lessons aren't easy—they are haunting, conveyed with prose that is savage and scintillating. And his book doesn't just stay with you, it tears a hole and climbs in. Borrow it. Read it. Pass it around. But don't say I didn't warn you.
Sean Tuohy: The Right Hand is slim, but it packs a punch! It’s a spy thriller that doesn’t slow down until the last page. The novel features Austin Clay, the CIA’s secret weapon, as he tries to locate a missing deep cover agent in Russia. Author and screenwriter Derek Haas shoves in as much action as he can in between twist and turns that keep you on the edge of your seat. My biggest compliment is that in contrast to the current literary world’s overabundance of dark and brooding characters and edgy storylines, this book is fun, enjoyable, and hard to put down.