I’m so excited to be part of World Book Night this year! For those who don’t know, World Book Night is an annual event to encourage people to read. Around the globe, readers are distributing free copies of recently published or well-established books to completely random strangers. The idea is to ignite a spark in those who don’t read or who read “lightly.”
This year, I will be distributing copies of Paulo Coelho’s modern classic, The Alchemist. This novel is loved by so many and currently holds the Guinness World Record for most translated.
Santiago is a shepherd boy who spends his days and nights caring for his flock of sheep in Andalusia. One night he has a dream, and when he asks for an interpretation a gypsy woman tells him about a treasure waiting for him at the Egyptian pyramids. What follows is a journey, both physical and emotional, as Santiago travels to Egypt to locate this mysterious treasure.
This book is perfect for people who are in a transition in life. I kept thinking of graduating seniors as I was reading it. For those who don’t read regularly, if at all, this book is short and written in a way that’s easy to understand.
But more than that, this book is about finding your purpose in life, which is a message we all need to face from time to time. The Alchemist, a character as well as the title, helps Santiago understand why he was chosen to travel to Egypt, and what true treasure waits for him.
If you’re in northwest Iowa tonight, stop by the Southpark Mall in Spencer to see me. I’ll be distributing copies of this delightful book. If you’re not in northwest Iowa, keep an eye out for a World Book Night Giver in your area.
I feel like I should talk about this book because everyone else seems to be talking about it. And rightly so.
Ursula Todd is born on February 11, 1910, several times throughout the book. In some instances she dies days later, “a helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky.” In some she experiences a few years, a small life cut quickly on an icy landing while in pursuit of a doll. In some experiences, she leads a rather extensive, seemingly fulfilling life, maybe marrying, maybe having children, maybe involving herself with the war effort in search of fallen citizens.
In each of Ursula’s lives, however, only a few things change. In one she receives her first kiss by her brother’s brashly American friend on her sixteenth birthday. Later, because she was kind enough to let him kiss her, he takes advantage of her upstairs.
As she continues to die and be reborn, however, she experiences deja vu over situations from past lives. On a separate sixteenth birthday, Ursula behaves much more chaste around her brother’s friend, thereby avoiding the upcoming tragic situation altogether.
Sometimes when I’m reading a book I try to imagine the author’s process or outline when organizing the plot lines, character charts, etc. (I’m in the process of outlining a novel now, so I often relate back to my own grueling experience). Atkinson weaves so many plot lines together, seamlessly, and even remembers to go back and tie up ends she left loose 300 pages back.
Life After Life was published only Tuesday in the U.S., though it was published about a month ago in the UK and was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in Fiction several weeks ago. This book is huge, people. I guarantee you’ll be seeing a lot more of it in the coming months.
Here I Go Again, by Jen Lancaster. New American Library, 320 pp. $25.95
Jen Lancaster may be the first author I’ve eagerly anticipated every book she’s released. [A benefit of reviewing is that I get them now for free, because I want to spread the Lancaster awesomeness. My husband calls this cheating but I don't care ]
Here I Go Again is Lancaster’s second novel, and reminds me of what would happen if Back to the Future had a baby with a John Hughes movie. Lissy Ryder was the mother of all mean girls back when she was in high school. She had it all, and she rode her hairspray-set wave all the way up until just before her 20th high school reunion.
In one swift motion, her husband leaves her, she loses her job and she is evicted from her apartment on the Gold Coast. With nowhere else to go, she moves back in with her parents.
In a series of time-traveling episodes (which I won’t go much further into because that would be sucking all the joy of you actually going out and reading the book, and I wouldn’t want to do that) she gets to see how her choices in high school affect her life well after the graduation cap is chucked in the air.
At first I was a little concerned that this was just you’re typical “Don’t bully, be nice and everyone will be happy” book, but rest assured, it’s not. Even being too nice can have its consequences, and she shows that. In part this is a book about being true to yourself, and in part it’s a book about releasing control, living your own life, and letting others do the same.
For more Jen Lancaster goodness, check her out on twitter (@altgeldshrugged) or visit her blog, Jennsylvania.
Some books just catch you off guard by way of a choke hold. And I mean this in the best possible way.
They’re gritty, they’re harsh, they exhibit a level of reality not known by many. Often, they take your breath away.
That was Thomas Maltman’s Little Wolves for me. From the very beginning, when young Seth Fallon is walking around in the middle of the summer sporting a trenchcoat and a sawed-off shotgun, I was hooked. Although, with a beginning like that, who isn’t?
Little Wolves is a mystery, from beginning to end. Not your traditional mystery, the whodunit type. We know exactly who killed the sheriff. What we don’t know, which is often the question asked about the most terrifying and captivating of mysteries, is why.
That is the question, however, that permeates every part of this story. Why did Seth Fallon shoot the sheriff? Why did Clara Warren really move to Lone Mountain, Minnesota? Why did Grizz Fallon let Seth “keep” the baby coyotes in the first place, the “little wolves” he loved so dear?
I imagine that few will finish Little Wolves with that sense of satisfaction that often comes with leaving a story, the certainty that all will be well. But it is often the books the leave us more troubled at the end than at the beginning that are the most worth their time in reading, the best answers to the question why.
My first introduction to Degas was through White Collar. Even with that in mind, I am always fascinated with authors who expand on moments in history. Degas was known for painting dancers, so it seems fitting that the main characters of Cathy Marie Buchanan’s latest, The Painted Girls, are three ballet-aspiring sisters.
Antoinette, Marie and Charlotte van Goethem come from a difficult home life. Whatever money they or their mother do put together is immediately squandered away on absinthe for their mother. In order to eat they must set money aside for bread. Meat is a luxury.
Antoinette has tarnished herself with the Paris Opera, and must audition constantly to dance in the chorus for individual theatre productions. She comes across Emile Abadie, a boy with an edge who shows interest in her. Even given his colorful past, and present, he offers her a hope that she will rise above her current situation, and she is determined to hold onto that.
The Painted Girls, as it relates to Marie, tells the story behind Degas’ statue, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.” Honestly, I wished there was more of this story. The rest of the book is good, good enough to earn a coveted Kirkus star, but I was drawn into Marie and her subtle romance with the artist Degas. He draws many girls, but he has shown a specific interest in her, and she becomes his little star.
There’s something intriguing about Paris, especially in literature, and The Painted Girls is no exception. It’s beautifully written, entertaining to read, and gives an imaginative depth into a moment of history, highlighting a story in time, and establishing it in our lives forever.
It’s been a while since I read a piece of international fiction, but this year (especially for the Reporter) I wanted to expand my horizon. This year, instead of going for my usual literary fiction with a side of memoir, I nibbled a bit in world fiction, science, pop psychology and business. I kept seeing all of these interesting-sounding nonfiction books, silently adding them to my “to read” list, then lamenting because I spend so much time reading for work.
Time to use my powers for good. Why not incorporate some of those titles into my work reading?
Hence, Ways of Going Home. I’m sure it’s beautiful in it’s original Spanish, but Megan McDowell’s translation was poetic. The story switches between the narrative of the unnamed character and the author’s thoughts while writing the book.
Ways of Going Home alludes to a love story, but in a way that never resolves itself. The narrator is entranced from the beginning by a woman named Claudia, a woman that in part parallels Zambra’s own romantic interest. Along the same thread is a love story between a son and his father, a quietly man who aligns, subtly at best, with the Pinochet regime.
The back-and-forth between character and author was unusual; something I’d never read before. But I loved it; I loved getting inside the author’s mind in a completely unique way. The effect was intimate, bordering on voyeurism, but the accompanying story offers a warmth that makes it seek ok.
I know they say not to judge books by covers, but I doubt I’m the only guilty one. Either way, I don’t feel bad. My reasoning is the publisher will put more effort into the books they feel are worth said effort.
I was so right with Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees.
Marnie and Nelly are children, sisters, whose parents die within days of each other. If they report their parents’ demise, they will be taken in by the state and, undoubtedly, separated. Their parents weren’t that great to begin with, as stated by the first line of the book:
Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am 15. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.
The beginning line reminded me of the first line from Emma Donoghue’s Room, another book I fell in love with right from the beginning.
The story is told from three perspectives: 15-year-old Marnie, her younger sister Nelly, and the mysterious neighbor Lennie, who begins to care for the girls after noticing their parents haven’t been around for a while. The separate perspectives bring such dynamic to the story. Each voice is unique. Often, the story is told through the reactions of the characters to the situations they’re in.
Together, Marnie, Nelly and Lennie become a secretive family of sorts. Lennie leans on the girls for the companionship he lost with the death of his partner, and Marnie and Nelly lean on him for the structure and devotion they never had with their biological parents.
Well, it’s that time of year. Everyone’s got their list, and this year I thought I’d write mine as well!
There were so many great books published this year, it was hard to choose 10, much less place them in order. So this is just a compilation: the 10 books published this year that had the greatest impact on me as a reader, a writer, and a reviewer. Enjoy!
In case you’re interested, this list was also published in today’s Spencer Daily Reporter.
City of Women, by David R Gilham
To state it plainly: I loved this book. David Gilham’s debut isn’t just a World War II novel. There are plenty of those novels already, and while they each have their merit, City of Women does not focus on the war. Gilham chose to frame World War II around the women on the hone front in Germany, specifically through a German soldier’s wife, haunted by her love affair with a Jewish man. City of Women is an extraordinary novel.
Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens
Few authors speak as honestly as Christopher Hitchens. Mortality, published posthumously, shows a vulnerable Hitchens, one who is searching for answers to life’s most impossible questions. Mortality is most powerful perhaps because it is published after his death, and the afterword by his wife offers a quiet and appropriate conclusion to a very intimate book.
Mrs. Kennedy and Me, by Clint Hill
Many books are driven from their suspense: the reader does not know how the book will end, therefore they keep turning pages. Clint Hill’s Mrs. Kennedy and Me creates suspense from contrary means. The reader knows exactly what happens to the Kennedy family when they begin the book. What Mrs. Kennedy and Me offers instead is a uniquely personal connection to the iconic family. Hill served as primary Secret Service agent to Jacquelyn Kennedy, and cared for her from the moment her husband was elected president to one year after his tragic death. His chapter recounting the assassination of President Kennedy is one of the most heart-wrenching moments I’ve read.
One Last Thing Before I Go, by Jonathan Tropper
This is a story of redemption, of a man looking back on his life and realizing he has little time left to fix the mistakes he made. Silver, upon deciding to refuse an operation that will save his life, decides to spend his remaining days to become the man he hoped to be. After a stint as a drummer for a one-hit-wonder rock band, he’s lived the past decade in the limelight of his fame, and now wants to reunite the family he let disintegrate years before. One Last Thing Before I Go is exciting and moving and drives to answer the question: “What does it mean to save a life?”
The Taliban Cricket Club, by Timeri N Murari
This book reminded me of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, which I enjoyed very much. Not only is it an entertaining story, Murari created The Taliban Cricket Club from very real events. The Taliban did actually boost cricket in 2000, hoping to use the sport to promote their relations in the global community. Add an identity ruse akin to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night — or, for that matter, the Amanda Bynes movie She’s the Man — and you’ve got a winner.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt
There are so many coming-of-age novels out there, it’s hard to wade through the ones worth reading. Here’s a hint: Tell the Wolves I’m Home is one worth reading. Brunt’s debut novel tells a love story quite of its own merit, between two people who share the love of each of their lives, and the secrets that undoubtedly threaten the relationship they’ve built, and the relationship they had with the one they share.
Waiting for Sunrise, by William Boyd
Written in the same style as Boyd’s previous novel, Any Human Heart, Waiting for Sunrise is beautifully written, and the adventures and misadventures of Lysander Reif will linger with you long after the final cover is turned.
Where’d you Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple
Watching Maria Semple (via social network) work to promote this novel was inspiring. Prior to fiction, Semple wrote for Mad About You, Ellen, and Arrested Development. The cleverness featured in these television shows is present here as well, specifically in Bernadette, the completely neurotic protagonist who disappears from her life in Seattle to avoid a family trip to Antarctica, on request of her daughter, Bee. Bernadette is so speculative of true human interaction that she hires a virtual personal assistant from India to run her life. The story is told through the emails sent between her and her assistant, and through the notices between her, her overzealous neighbor, and the prep school her daughter attends.
A Working Theory of Love, by Scott Hutchins
On the surface, this novel offers a fictional scenario around the Turing test, in which a man uses the diaries of his father to help a computer technology company create a computer that can fool judges into thinking that it’s human. Read a little deeper and you’ll discover a juxtaposition between our increasingly virtual-based society and the emotional connections that have defined our humanity for centuries.
The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers
I mentioned in my review of this novel that The Yellow Birds is the All Quiet on the Western Front and The Things They Carried for this generation’s war. It’s destined to be a classic; a haunting debut novel from a man who served in the Army in 2004 and 2005 and who was deployed to Iraq as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar. The Yellow Birds is a deeply important novel for our time.
Nick Tosches. Me and the Devil. Little, Brown. 387 pp. $26.99
If E.L. James had written Fifty Shades of Grey from Christian’s perspective and with a measure of literary intelligence, I imagine it would read something like Nick Tosches latest, Me and the Devil.
Nick, the main character who coincidentally — or not — shares at least a first name with the author, is an aging writer who cannot seem to find inspiration in any part of his life.
That is, until he spends a night with Sandrine, a woman whose single sexual experience seems to “awaken” him to senses he never before knew existed.
From here, Nick begins to experience life through a perspective between elevated human being and vampire. He begins to eat well, both in quantity and in quality, and he starts to crave the blood of the women he picks up in bars, though he notes frequently to the reader of his triumph against alcoholism.
Though Me and the Devil is written quite well, the plot struggles to go anywhere after this first encounter. Even after waking the next morning and reveling in his almost euphoric breakfast and coffee, he doesn’t seem to notice much change. At the very least, he doesn’t seem plagued by it. There is no internal struggle to speak of, though the story is told in the first person and the reader spends much of it within Nick’s head. There is no external struggle, either, though Nick seems to fall in love with a woman while still sleeping around. His lover seems to have no qualms about their revolving-door relationship. In addition, every girl Nick picks up is ready and willing for the sadomasochistic torture he has in store for her. They all have dungeons of their own, and they invite his fetishes.
Additionally, although Nick grasps each sense with acute awareness, the only things he truly indulges in are food and sex. On those matters, Tosches goes into great detail, though he never mentions so much as the sounds of a lowly, talented street performer. Nick, the character, lives in New York, surrounded by enough culture to appease every sense available, and he manages to avert his gaze, ears, and nose from everything that will not fill his stomach or satisfaction.
Me and the Devil appears almost as an expression of Tosches himself, as if his own Freudian id has struggled until now for release. Perhaps the title is to suggest the devil alongside Nick, though perhaps the demonic hold goes much deeper.
Charlotte Street, by Danny Wallace. William Morrow, 408 pp. $14.99
Jason Priestley — definitely not the actor from the original 90210 — is perfectly fine with his life. He lives above a video game store, run by his flatmate, Dev, and he write appeasing reviews for a free newspaper more often picked up than actually read.
He is comfortable in his mundane existence.
That is, until he looks at his ex-girlfriend’s Facebook status: “Sarah is … having the time of her life,” changed quickly to “Sarah is … engaged.”
Looking at his own Facebook status, updated no less than a week ago, “Jason Priestley is … eating some soup.”
Not long before, Jason saw a woman, heavily laden with packages, unsuccessfully trying to get into a cab without dropping anything. When he helps her, she looks up at him and gives him a smile that makes him feel “all manly and confident, like a handyman who knows just which nail to buy.” Only when the cab begins to drive away does he notice she’s left a small disposable camera in his hand.
This disposable camera is the driving force of Danny Wallace’s latest novel, Charlotte Street. Jason will stop at nothing to find this girl back, to see that that smile again. And the disposable camera she leaves behind is his source for the clues he hopes will lead her back to him.
In the process, Jason and Dev embark on a wild adventure, searching for meaning in the photos. They travel to the town of Whitby, to see an abbey hidden in the background of one of the photos. He meets Damien Anders Laskin, a powerful man in PR who invites Jason to parties he only dreamed of attending.
But, the disposable camera also holds a powerful symbolic meaning in the novel, and in Jason’s journey. Unlike the now-popular digital cameras, which can capture every moment to be filtered through later, a disposable camera only has 12 frames. Twelve moments to savor. This means two things: a moment has to be chosen carefully, and a moment has to mean something.
Charlotte Street is a joy to read. At first, the style and initial plot may seem simple, better suited for an afternoon by the fire or a poolside. But, the further you read, the more you understand the nuances behind the story that make Wallace such a powerful author.
Danny Wallace is also the author of Friends like These, Join Me, and Yes Man, which was made into a movie starring Jim Carrey.