Rachel is co-owner of the store with her husband, Jason.
With the cut-through-the-bullshit way Allie Brosh wrote about depression on her blog of yore and again in her 2013 book, Hyperbole and a Half, many of us worried over what happened to her over the last 7 years, not just because we felt like we were missing a dear friend, but because her voice has been so desperately needed. If one good thing came out of 2020, it's that she's finally back with a new book at a time when her voice is even more necessary than ever. Her delightfully chaotic worldview, self-deprecating humor, absurdist drawing style, and hilarious anecdotes are all fully on display in this new collection. In the time of COVID, we could all use an extra friend, and that's exactly what reading Allie Brosh is like: a no-holds-barred, deep -- and deeply silly -- heart-to-heart with your bestie.
From academic satire, to fevered paranoia, to the dread-inducing realism of election night 2016, Hari Kunzru has written a novel--maybe THE novel--for these troubled times. Many of the choices Kunzru makes are unexpected, but they are never the easy or obvious choice, and under a lesser writer, the novel might have floundered. But Hari Kunzru is one of those writers I would follow anywhere, and I have, including into paranormal realms (see White Tears, 2017). But perhaps the most interesting point Kunzru seems to be making in this book is this: sometimes novels don't need a bogeyman; sometimes reality is far scarier.
Three words: Feminist. Serial Killer. Noir. (Okay, so that was four words.) In These Women, Ivy Pochoda gives voice to a grieving mom, current and former sex workers, and a female police detective. In one way or another, all of them are victims, but none of them are just victims. Unlike so many books in the genre, the women are fully-formed, complex characters, who are making difficult choices with their eyes open, even as they are constantly being cornered by their circumstances. This book is as powerful as any work of literary fiction, and as gripping as any mystery novel.
Luster is a hand grenade disguised as a coming of age novel. It's everything you want in a bildungsroman -- it's intimate, funny, and daring -- but in Raven Leilani's skilled hands it is also volatile and complex, a profound meditation on the intersection of race and loneliness, a thorny examination of sexuality and trauma, of power and privilege, and the subtle interplay between all of the above. It's also so absorbing and compelling that it's hard not to read it in one sitting. With 4 months to go, this is my favorite book published in 2020 so far.
When Lillian and Madison first meet at a fancy boarding school, one is the wealthy heir of a department store fortune, the other a white trash scholarship kid. After an incident at the school breaks them apart, they don't see each other for many years until the magnetic Madison, now the wife and strategist for a powerful Tennessee politician, unexpectedly asks Lillian for a favor and offers her a job: become a nanny for her ten-year-old twin stepchildren. Stepchildren who have the politically inconvenient habit of literally bursting into flames. Lillian immediately finds herself caught again under Madison's spell, but as she begins to grow closer to the children, she increasingly finds that she's the only one on the childrens' side. And she also finds something she's always craved: a sense of family and belonging. Nothing to See Here is a hilarious and poignant comedy of manners and spontaneous combustion, and you'll find yourself rooting for Lillian and the kids like they're your favorite team playing in the World Series. This book falls in that perfect little sweet spot: well-written, moving, funny, and most difficult of all: not depressing.
I am a long time fan of Tana French, but I have to admit that sometimes I find her books just a little too ponderous, the text a bit too dense, the plots a little too slow. Sometimes I want that dark, brooding Irishness with a plot that moves just wee bit faster. I have found the solution to that craving in Dervla McTiernan. This series, set in Galway, is every bit as atmospheric, well-written, and intricate as a Tana French novel, but they're a bit leaner on the page and don't stray so far from the main plot. Even if you love those characteristics of Tana French's novels, I think you'll still find McTiernan very much worth the read.
We have a habit of gendering mystery genres: Noir is masculine. Cozies are feminine. Hardboiled is masculine. Psychological thrillers are feminine. This last one is becoming so culturally ingrained (and the genre so popular) that male writers are increasingly writing novels with female protagonists under gender-neutral pseudonyms and avoiding pronouns in their bios in order to cash in. (Can you imagine what George Eliot would have to say about that?) Damsels in distress are par for the course in pretty much any of these genres, but the thing I'm finding lately as I expand more and more beyond my police procedural comfort zone and into the psychological thriller is that the genre's approach isn't so much feminine but feminist. Laura Lippman, once known more for her Baltimore-set police procedurals featuring Tess Monaghan, has become a master of the genre. Her psychological thrillers practice a sort of gritty, noir feminism with echoes of Margaret Millar, who, in middle of the 20th century wrote everything from noir to domestic suspense, ferociously and without an ounce of sentimentality. Lippman tends toward a chorus of alternating POVs, but the women are central: flawed but fierce. These "damsels" may be distressed, but they are also taking charge, taking their lives back, taking revenge. Laura Lippman is a must-read of the genre. Particularly recommended: Sunburn and Lady in the Lake.
This standalone Denise Mina novel is one of her very best, which is saying a lot for this massively talented crime writer. Not only is it gripping and page-turning and all of the other -ings that a thriller should be, it also has drop-dead fierce sentences: she describes someone's laugh as "so dark and wild you could drown bags of kittens in it." (Now say that again in your head with a thick Scottish brogue.) The characters are gloriously flawed and sympathetic. And on top of all of that, it also manages to explore in some depth the very art and impact of storytelling: whose stories get told to whom and how, and what that means for those who are too frequently silenced.
On the island, things regularly disappear en masse. Boats. Roses. Birds. Calendars. The people of the island are expected to gather and destroy any remaining evidence of these disappearances, and with it, their memories. The narrator refers to "killing two creatures with one stone" long after the island's birds are disappeared--even the word itself is gone from her consciousness. But a small minority of people are still able to remember, and it is the job of the Memory Police to track those people down. The fragile, spare prose haunts you with many questions: Can humanity survive without memories? Without nostalgia? Without a material culture? This elegiac glimpse into the heart of authoritarianism will linger in your own memory for a long time to come.
A disaffected young woman just scraping by in the big city. A rag-tag group of survivors on a journey through a post-apocalyptic landscape. These are familiar tropes in contemporary fiction (albeit not usually in the same novel). But with Ling Ma's steely-eyed, wry treatment, they grow into something far more complex. In an alternate 2011, Shen Fever, a global pandemic, causes "a fatal loss of consciousness" in those infected. "The Fevered" forget to eat or drink or sleep, but instead get caught in a seeming zombie-like loop of muscle memory: a housewife sets the table for dinner over and over again; a taxi driver drives around the city until he runs out of gas; a young woman tries on all of the clothes in her closet in an endless loop. This post-apocalyptic world is woven with flashbacks of pandemic-survivor Candace Chen's pre-apocalypse life in New York, where a job she doesn't even like becomes the anchor of her identity such that she will seemingly do anything in order to continue to do it, even after she's the last survivor at her company. The question that lingers: is the rote repetition of our lives the very essence of who we are? And how far will we go to preserve that facade of living? Severance is a beautifully spare and wryly funny novel, by a huge new talent.
Keiko loves rules. Having worked a part-time job in a Japanese convenience store for 18 years, she loves having a corporate script to recite, sales goals to reach, and a list of tasks to complete. What she doesn't love--or even understand--are the more complicated rules of society at large. She doesn't want a husband, or children, or a real job. What she does want is a satisfactory answer to the endless personal questions that will allow her to be left alone. Convenience Store Woman is a quirky and hilarious look at society and its misfits, and what happens when we try to bend ourselves to the needs of others.
With Milkman, Anna Burns achieves something of a remarkable feat. She turns historical fiction on its head by essentially re-writing it as a dystopian novel. In the mid-1970s in an unnamed town in an unnamed country, an unnamed narrator (18-year-old "middle sister") navigates the "political problems" by trying to stay oblivious. The blanks are easy enough to fill in: Belfast, Northern Ireland, The Troubles. But the aggressive anonymity that Burns' pulsating, stream-of-conscious text insists upon allows the novel to read like a dual history lesson and a warning. This happened. This is happening. This will happen again. It is the Troubles, but it is also Brexit and Trumpism and the Alt-right. It is both yesterday's and today's surveillance state. It is long-defunct paramilitary groups, but it is also mass shootings inspired by 8-chan. Even as the threat of violence--both political and sexual--looms over the novel, middle sister's unforgettable narration distills it through dark humor and an eye for absurdity. Milkman is as rewarding as it is challenging.
The fun thing about reading Ruth Ware is that she writes psychological thrillers that feel both pleasantly old fashioned and yet quite contemporary. How would Turn of the Screw have turned out if it took place in a 21st Century smart home? Try Turn of the Key. How about And Then There Were None but at a coke-hazed bachelorette weekend? In a Dark, Dark Wood is for you. The Lady Vanishes, but on a contemporary luxury cruise? The book to read is The Woman in Cabin Ten. Her novels give the delightful impression that Agatha Christie or Daphne Du Maurier woke up in the 21st century and decided they weren't done writing yet.
This hybrid memoir/true crime book is really the story of two crimes: one prosecuted and re-prosecuted over more than two decades, the other buried and re-buried within the author's family, over a similar span of time. As a law student, the author goes to Louisiana to intern for a law firm that specializes in overturning death penalty rulings. As a lifelong opponent to capital punishment, they are surprised by their initial reaction to the defendant when watching his taped confession: they want him to die. What follows is an exploration, through two parallel and yet entirely different narratives, of how trauma shapes us, how complicated and particular truth can be, and the mysterious interplay between forgiveness, hatred, and love. This is an utterly gorgeous and compelling work of nonfiction.
This book is a fantastic work of investigative journalism in which the very act of trying to tell the story put both the journalist's career and possibly even his life in danger. It's a startling look at the power structure of Hollywood, and a major news network that becomes either too enamored or too afraid of those wielding that power. Catch & Kill reads like a LeCarre novel, complete with massive conspiracies and Mossad-trained spies, with the added mind-boggling benefit of being true.
This memoir by black and gay poet Saeed Jones is a visceral coming of age and coming out story. Growing up as an only child to his single mother in Texas and spending summers with his evangelical grandmother in Memphis, Jones struggles to come to terms with his sexuality, to come out of the closet, and to love himself. He wrestles with his fractured identity, learning what it means to be gay in the black community, to be black in the gay community, and to realize that either one on its own is enough to get you killed in a straight, white world. There are passages that will bruise and choke you, but ultimately both Jones and the reader come out of the book all the better for it.
I struggle to write a review of Lindy West's work without resorting to simplistic three syllable sentences like "she's awesome," or, "she's the best." Maybe it's because she makes it look so very easy. She says everything I'm always thinking: about feminism, about politics, about our image-obsessed culture. And she does it with irrefutable logic, dazzling sentences, and an utterly fierce and funny sensibility. She's...(sigh) perfect.
Jamison's skills as a journalist and essayist, very much in the tradition of Didion and New Journalism, have earned her much praise, and I can only heap onto the pile. The essay, "Maximum Exposure," about the outsider photographer Annie Appel, is a masterpiece in particular. Layered like an onion, it explores the relationship between photographer and subject, and then between journalist and subject, and becomes a larger exploration of the whether impartiality is ever truly achievable, or even desirable. Jamison writes with the wisdom of someone twice her age and the wonder of someone half her age. She is a truly remarkable talent.
There is something sort of intentionally queasy-making about this book. More often than not, true crime books are all about the shameless voyeurism. Nelson, writing about her aunt who was murdered as a young woman, has no desire to make it that easy for the reader. Instead, the author's own unease with victimhood, survivorhood, and with the criminal justice system ripples though this memoir, forcing us to examine our obsession with the gendered violence, beautiful victims, and courageous survivors that are mass-produced for us on programs like 48 Hours and 20/20. The Red Parts is a confrontational and searing work that will sit with you for a long time.
To tell you too much about the plot of this book is to ruin it. In fact, even the jacket copy is somewhat misleading so as to not give away too much. So rather than talk about what this book is about, I'll tell you something about the experience. Reading The Need is not unlike watching a good knife throwing act. The tension is almost suffocating; each gorgeous sentence is as dazzling as it is chilling. I already loved Helen Phillips because of her stunning little literary dystopia, The Beautiful Bureaucrat; The Need shows a writer who has not only grown, but who perhaps has no limits. I can't wait to see what she does next.
I've been desperately waiting for a new novel from Elizabeth McCracken for 18 years, and I'm thrilled to report it was well worth the wait. I always hesitate to call her books charming--though this is always the first word that comes to mind--because they are also utterly lacking in the cloying sentimentality typical of so-called charming books. Some writers you read for plot, others for their characters, others for their beautifully crafted sentences. McCracken is astonishingly good at all three, but her sentences--oh, her sentences! She strikes me dead with her sentences. In this multi-generational tale, the character that looms over all others is a woman-before-her-time, (the turn of the 20th century) Bertha Truitt. When she goes into labor, she gets stuck in the passageway, via spiral staircase, between two floors of her house. McCracken writes: "The structure had fastened around her like an exosketeton. That was what happened when you had a baby, she told herself...You became part of the house." Bowlaway is jam-packed with sentences this good and better. Elizabeth McCracken's prose is always a joy to read, no matter whether she is writing about birth or death, love or grief. Now if only she would write faster...
Recommendation for Patti Smith’s Memoirs: Just Kids, 2010, M Train, 2015, Year of the Monkey, 2019.
I've been an enormous fan of Patti Smith's music since I was a teenager. And let's be honest, part of being a fan of her music is being a fan of her whole persona: the mystique of the woman who was the muse of artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Lynn Goldsmith, and Annie Liebovitz, as well as a blazing talent herself. As a result, her first, bestselling, and award-winning memoir, Just Kids, is an easy sell: who doesn't want to read about her days in the early 70s, hanging out in the Chelsea Hotel with legends like Mapplethorpe, Tom Verlaine, Janis Joplin, and Jim Carroll? But if you think this adds up to trashy rock star gossip, think again. Smith was a poet before she was a rock star, and that innate lyricism shows up here in spades.
Her second two memoirs are a little trickier to describe. If all you needed to know was "Patti Smith," I totally respect that. Me too. But for the rest of you: M Train and Year of the Monkey are both, in many ways, odes to the mundane. M Train opens with the line, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” But honestly, there’s nothing she makes look easier. Whether chronicling her surreal dreams, her favorite books (Bolaño and Murakami make frequent appearances) or even TV shows (she is as addicted to British mystery programs as I am, and spends a long layover in London bingeing ITV in a hotel) she manages to inspire wonder in all she describes. These two memoirs are both elegies to her youth and lost loves, as well as homages to her surprisingly anonymous existence in a world that she chooses to see as beautiful. Being able to see through Patti Smith's eyes is an absolute gift.
A former investigative journalist who once tracked an African warlord tries to piece her stale marriage back together during a summer in rural Vermont. When that fails, and her husband leaves unexpectedly for “work,” her investigative instincts turn to the owners of the house she’s renting, who seem to have disappeared. What she finds is the dark underbelly of a community savaged by opioid addiction and drug trafficking, and lives damaged by violence and trauma. As she digs deeper into the missing homeowners' lives, she begins to buckle under the responsibilities of motherhood, and grieves the loss of her career and her sense of self. This unflinching, taut literary thriller dares to expose the ways in which all forms of human violence--even the despotic violence of a distant regime--underscores who we are as a culture and as individuals.
Design nerds rejoice! This lavish cloth-bound production will look great on anyone's coffee table, but it is also the definitive, and long-awaited only (!) book-length examination of Chicago's many contributions to the Art Deco movement, covering architecture, graphic design, and product design. This volume's beauty will be sure to please the aesthete, but it is also academically rigorous enough to satisfy the scholar--a serious work that was worth waiting for.
Don't let its tiny package fool you: though underwhelming in size, You Should Have Left packs a terrifying gut punch. This is an utterly chilling metaphysical ghost story worthy of a hot cider and a cold October night.
I have a tendency not to trust poets that came up on the performance scene, not because that art form doesn't have value--it does--but because too often a strong performer can hide the weakness in the writing. Nguyen's writing very much stands up on its own, and it doesn't fall prey to any of performance poetry's bad habits. Nguyen's poems cover themes of gender, sexuality, mental illness, grief, and complicated mothers. Some favorites of mine are "Changeling" (pg. 55), "Reunion" (pg. 66), and "Notes on Staying" (pg. 70), which ends with the stunning line, "& since there was no key, I guess I'll swallow the door."
A good ghost story haunts you, chills you with its dark atmospherics, fills you with the dread and horror of the unknown. In real life, our choices are what haunt us: past mistakes, fear of the unknown consequence. Failed relationships. Failed careers. In The Ghost Notebooks, Ben Golnick seamlessly weaves between the two to create a tale of horror of both the psychological and supernatural variety. The writing is gorgeous and perceptive, and the twists are gutting. It's the most riveting ghost story I have read since David Mitchell's Slade House.
Telling someone how great the new John Green book is feels a little like telling someone how great chocolate is, but telling people what to read is kind of part of the job description, so here goes: Read it. If you've read John Green and loved it, you'll love this one too. If you haven't, what the heck are you waiting for? I stayed up half the night reading this one--something I DO NOT DO--and I cried, I felt hope, I left the constant awfulness of 2017 for just long enough to feel human again. What more can you ask for?
Kehlmann’s writing is clever and darkly funny. (Keyword: DARK. There is a story in here that is so dread-inducing that Kafka himself would have curled up into the fetal position while reading it). But the puzzle pieces of this interconnected story collection will make you chortle with delight as they come together. I’m quickly learning that if Kehlmann wrote it, I must read it.
What we have here is a little-old-lady-who-swallowed-a-fly situation, but with getting things stuck in trees. It starts with a kite. So he thows a shoe to dislodge the kite. Now the shoe is stuck. So he throws his...cat? Now the poor cat* is stuck, so he throws a...well, let's not add any unnecessary spoilers, shall we? Let's just say, it gets awesomely ridiculous, and then even more so.
*No animals were harmed in the writing of this book.
"This fairy tale begins in 1968 during a garbage strike." With those words, Victor Lavalle launches into quite the fairy tale indeed--but a singularly modern one--complete with trolls of both the cave-dwelling and internet-lurking variety. Its morals, too, echo with the peculiar issues of the moment: men's rights activism, the alt-right, modern fatherhood, social media, and the technology of surveillance. As usual, Victor LaValle is able to seamlessly layer his story-telling genius with social issues to take you on an equally entertaining and thought-provoking journey.
So, I'm Totally Biased (see what I did there?) but this book is great. I'm biased because Kamau was the best man at my wedding. Seriously. The Jason that is my husband and co-owner of this bookstore is also the best friend mentioned in this book: on pages 65-69, pages 100-106, so many places.
I know, I know--enough bragging that I know the famous guy. But what I'm really bragging about is that I know this smart, funny, SWEET guy who has been a rock in my husband's life and vice versa. Two straight guys that aren't afraid to give each other big bear hugs and say "I love you" to each other. Their love for each other makes me love both of them more.
But this is a book review. And as I said--I'm biased. But really, I already know all these stories, right? So this should be the most boring book in the world to me. But it's not. I couldn't freaking put it down. I read it in a 24-hour period. It's funny. It's brutally self-aware in a no-bullshit kind of way. And it makes you want to be more self aware. It makes you want to excavate the bullshit. They're great stories, mostly stories I already know, but they're so well-told it was like hearing them for the first time. A great joke teller is a great story-teller: he has to sell you on the premise, keep you interested in the build-up, and drive you home for the punchline. Kamau is a great joke teller, and a great storyteller. And this is a great book, no bullshit.
This visceral, chilling novel is a sort of literary horror story centered around Seth and Carter, two young white audiophiles whose obsession with blues music and "authentic" black culture turns into a cautionary tale of racial appropriation and privilege. When they try to pass off a haunting recording they made of a street musician as a newly discovered 1920s masterpiece by an artist they invent, an eccentric old man hears the recording and insists that the artist was real and that he had heard the record many years before. They have little chance to dismiss his claims as delusional before their own lives begin to spiral out of control. What ensues is a terrifying journey into the deep south, the spectre of racism past and present, and the American heart of darkness. A page-turning, enthralling book, particularly for fans of Victor LaValle and Mat Johnson.
Usually when people say "literary suspense," that's "literary" with a lower case "l," shorthand for a novel that won't make you lose all your brain cells while you read about salacious subjects. That's not the case here. Dan Chaon is the master of Literary Suspense: capital L, capital S, neither element sacrificing the quality of the other. His novel Await Your Reply easily makes my top 5 list of favorite novels of all time. Ill Will isn't quite so perfect, but it's still brilliant by most metrics. Here Chaon weaves another darkly insightful tale of past and present crimes, of splintered families, and splintering selves. A novel that is worth clearing your schedule for.
I imagine most book people like me have that one book that they think of more as an old friend than a book: that wiser, creative, outgoing friend who taught you how to live life and become you. This is that book for me. Zami is a moving and intensely powerful coming of age memoir that I promise, no matter how old you are, still has plenty to teach you. Audre Lorde would come to describe herself as "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet." The strength and beauty of this book will certainly emphasize the "warrior" and "poet" in equal measure.
I firmly believe that the answer to becoming a better citizen of the world is to read Audre Lorde. Start here, and when your brain is finished expanding by 1000%, take a deep breath, and then read her amazing memoir--or "biomythography" as she calls it--Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. She is my hero. She will be your hero too.
It may seem like cheating, calling the collected poems of Adrienne Rich--who passed away in 2012--the best book of 2016. But I would argue that you would be cheating yourself to overlook it, that in fact we need Adrienne Rich more urgently now than ever. One of the first poets to truly embody the concept that the personal is political, Rich's poetry--and essays--have always been a solace and a guidepost to me ever since I first began to develop a political consciousness. Since the election, I have found myself to be ravenous for her work like never before. Her words will console you, they will rally you, they will feed you, and they will haunt you.
I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled, this isn't a Russian poem,
this is not somewhere else but here, our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
-from "What Kind of Times Are These" (p.755)
A book about deadly poison and decorative arts? This avid mystery reader and design buff must be in heaven. The packaging of this high-concept book is pretty high-concept itself. Interspersed between full-bleed pages of wallpaper reproductions are bound-in pamphlet-sized essays on everything from historical scientific debate on the effects of arsenic to murder and madness. The wallpapers reprinted herein are high-quality reproductions of actual historical wallpaper samples that have tested positive for arsenic, including patterns by Christopher Dresser and William Morris. This book is a truly delightful oddity.
Shrill is a must read for all women, and maybe an even more urgent read for men. Lindy West's writing is the very picture of why Social Justice Warrior should be the highest compliment you can give rather than a lazy hashtagged insult. Through intensely personal anecdotes, Lindy smashes taboos as surely as beer bottles in a bar brawl. Her career started under Dan Savage's wing at The Stranger, and like Savage, her writing is funny, fierce, and utterly fearless.
If Malcolm X were to write a horror story, it might turn out something like The Ballad of Black Tom. Not the diplomatic, post-Mecca Malcolm X, but rather the "chickens coming home to roost" Malcolm X. Or, more to the point, Cthulhu coming home to roost, because in fact, Victor LaValle wrote this novella in direct response to H.P. Lovecraft: specifically the short story, "The Horror at Red Hook." LaValle was a fan of Lovecraft's work in his teens, but gradually became conscious of the overt racism and xenophobia in his work. This novella is a masterful and gratifying response to an insidious flaw in the work of horror's crowned master.
VOTED THE BEST BOOK OF 2015 BY THE STAFF OF THE BOOK TABLE! You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is the most fun you'll ever have reading about the alienation of contemporary culture. Set in a much weirder version of our world of aggressive marketing, chemically created food, talk show freak shows, and reality TV, you'll go back and forth between thinking, "this is so weird!" and thinking, "but is it really any weirder than the way we live now?" Simultaneously creepy, hilarious, and mindblowingly brilliant, this book is the weirdest, wildest, best thing you'll read this year.
Picking up this taut novella is not unlike asking to borrow a magician's handkerchief. My expectations--which were high, frankly, given that several of my favorite authors blurbed it--were exceeded many times over. At its core, The Beautiful Bureaucrat may simply be the story of a young couple trying to build a life together against the odds, but this sometimes sobering, often charming romance has been fed through the prismatic lens of a Kafka story. It is at once a gripping mystery and an existential meditation on a dystopian future. It is funny, it is elegiac, and it is unforgettable. Though this slim volume could easily be read in one sitting, it will continue to haunt you for a long time to come.
Mat Johnson books should come with a warning label, something to the effect of: "Wickedly sharp and caustically funny. Reading this book may lead to shattering your worldview." At some point in most writers' careers, for better or worse, something known as the semi-autobiographical novel rears its head. But no one other than Mat Johnson could write one quite like this: the story of a passing-for-white, overcompensating-as-black, mixed-race man mourning the death of his white dad while learning he has a teenage daughter who has never known she might be anything other than white and Jewish. More to the point, no one other than Mat Johnson would turn a semi-autobiographical novel into a ghost story centered around a utopian mixed-race cult, ending in arson and riots. All of this, filtered through Johnson's acerbic wit and tack-sharp prose makes for a novel that tells the truth about the construct of race in ways few others dare.
Boy, Snow, Bird is a far more straightforward novel than the dazzling Mr. Fox, but that makes it no less daring. Taking the framework of the classic Snow White story--and then dismantling it piece by piece--Oyeyemi tells the story of a black family who passes for white in the middle of the 20th century, until Boy--a white woman--marries into the family and gives birth to a dark-skinned child named Bird. What follows is a constantly surprising story that examines the various ways in which we internalize race and gender in our culture.
What makes Bellweather Rhapsody a spectacularly charming summer read? First, there are the sly nods to popular fiction, from The Shining, to The Westing Game, to a cast of characters straight out of a modern day Agatha Christie novel (all of whom have something to hide, of course.) But Racculia has written a novel with far more depth than the average mystery novel or horror story. The pleasure in this book is not just in how the pieces of the mystery come together, but in watching how this cast of colorful strangers come together in ways that are constantly surprising--to themselves as much as to the reader.
We all know that the central question to every mystery novel is, quite simply, "whodunit?" But Alex is anything but simple. In fact, this is possibly the least interesting question here. First there are the crimes: gruesome, unthinkable crimes--but each time you think that you understand the central investigation, the novel tilts the mirror ever so slightly until you realize the core is really something else entirely. These layers of funhouse mirrors subtly shift the narrative from one direction to the next, until you finally realize that the more interesting question is not "whodunit" but who is the victim? No, not even that--what makes a victim? This is a gripping, disturbing, and surprising book that constantly reinvents itself.
Before John Green, before Rainbow Rowell, there was a writer named Paul Zindel, and thank heavens for that. As a result, I survived my teenage years despite having grown up in the dark ages.
Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half is full of humor and heart. Where else can you find yourself laughing yourself to tears over the trials and tribulations of traveling cross-country with dogs one moment, and the next moment nodding along at one of the most profound and accurate portrayals of clinical depression you've ever read?
Have you ever read a book where your connection to it is so deeply personal, so emotional, that to recommend it to anyone feels like oversharing? Luckily, I have little compunction when it comes to TMI. When I say a book made me cry, what I mean is: tears silently fell down my cheeks for a moment or two. When I say Eleanor & Park made me cry, I mean that I had one of the most prolonged, sobbing, full-bodied, carthartic cries of the last decade. Eleanor is a perfect composite of me and my friends at that age. She's also a perfect portrayal of what it is to be young and poor, young and different, young and afraid—afraid to feel, to love, to deserve something good.
Also, Eleanor & Park is the sweetest, most adorable love story ever, set to the soundtrack of my youth—The Smiths, The Cure, Joy Divison, and all of the rest of the wonderful-awful 80s.
Even though the answer to "whodunit" comes in the first 20 pages of The Devotion of Suspect X, what keeps you reading is what happens next. When an argument with her abusive ex-husband goes horribly wrong, Yasuko's neighbor-come-stalker embraces the chance to insert himself into her life, taking it upon himself to cover up the crime. The new questions become: How does he do it? Why? Will they be caught? Will his devotion remain steadfast, even as it becomes clear that his love is not reciprocated? The game of cat and mouse that ensues between a mathematician, a physics professor, a single mother, and a police detective is constantly witty and surprising, with a twist ending that will all but blindside you. The Devotion of Suspect X is a thoroughly modern twist on the classic puzzle mystery.
1. This is not the book that you think it is.
2. It is exactly the book you think it is.
3. You--yes you--should read it for exactly those reasons.
It's a teen novel written at a level adults will understand; it's a coming of age story about dying young; it's a laugh-out-loud funny book about cancer; it's a self-aware romance novel; it's a tragedy without voyeurism; it's quite possibly the most life-affirming book about dying ever written.
That's why you should read this book—why you should listen to this book (even if you already read it) is because of Kate Rudd's amazing performance. Her sentences turn on a dime from sarcasm to sadness with a heartbreaking ease. It is a stunning high-wire act of a performance of a stunning high-wire act of a book.
It's no secret among those who know me that if "groupie" were a viable career choice, I would drop this whole bookselling gig in a heartbeat to follow Will Oldham around for the rest of my life. Instead, this book may be the closest I'll ever get to the elusive and brilliant singer-songwriter who mostly performs under the moniker, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy.
Part slave narrative, part Gulliver's Travels, this strange book is an important new addition to the literary contextualization of race in America, not to mention a funny page-turning adventure. The novel is largely structured in the slave narrative tradition, but add to that the fact that it is also partly a fictional academic study by a scholar (footnotes and all), and what you have is a an ingeniously self-aware book that performs a high-wire act between the bounds of fiction and literary criticism. A cerebral, fantastical, and thoroughly clever book that had me nodding my head, laughing, and gasping along the way.
This is a great wear-your-pjs-and-read-all-day book. Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times Book Review sums it up best: "Here's something you don't often see in Nordic noir fiction--a novel written by two women about the criminal mistreatment of women and children, compassionately told from a feminist perspective and featuring female characters you can believe in."
Helen Oyeyemi is the jazz soloist of storytelling. Each chapter is a surprising, original new riff on the same motifs: men and women, love and violence, creativity and creation, all told through the somewhat distorted lens of the fairy tale. At turns funny, disturbing, and heartbreaking, Mr. Fox is so good that as I read it, I simultaneously wanted to race to the end, pause to savor every word, and flip back to reread from the beginning.
Turn of Mind is that rare literary gem that also happens to be a gripping, compulsive, page-turning read. Like Room by Emma Donoghue, it is a remarkable feat of point-of-view, in this case chronicling the inner workings of a once-brilliant orthopedic surgeon whose mind is slowly--and then rapidly--faltering in the grip of Alzheimer's. Central is the question of whether or not she might have murdered her best friend and neighbor, but the murder-mystery premise is housed in a thoroughly original framework, and just as compelling--and heartbreaking--are the gymnastic leaps and turns of the narrator's thought processes as she degenerates further into illness.
Though each chapter of this brilliant novel is written from a different point of view, it's impossible not to become instantly absorbed in each character's story. Indeed, this is a story about storytelling, and Reiken is clearly a master of it. Near the end of the novel, one of our narrators writes, "Perhaps the meaning of the story is that you must look deep rather than far if you want to unlock any of the secrets of the universe, that once unlocked a secret loses its power unless a part of it is withheld." So goes the storytelling in Day for Night, the secrets slowly being unveiled as each narrator contributes his or her small, inward-looking piece of it, some willfully withholding parts, others incapable of looking deep enough to see all of the parts. Eventually, most of the parts of this story about trauma, family, and rebirth do fall into place, though not without ambiguities. But according to another narrator, "You must learn to trust these ambiguities. This is perhaps the most important thing I know."
This gorgeous spider-web of a book has one of the most powerful, complex, and bittersweet endings I have ever read. I still don't really know how to describe what it is that Téa Obreht does in this book, just that at the end, I was bursting with energy and amazement at her breathtaking creation. One of the most truly dazzling novels I have ever read.
The sweetest, strangest, and saddest love story ever written. Quirky, funny, and filled with brilliant observations--the sort that make you elbow your nearest neighbor every five minutes to read out loud to them. It's one of the only books I've ever read that gave me the urge to turn back to the beginning and read it again as soon as I finished it. This is quite possibly my favorite book of all time.
This book had me laughing unreasonably just minutes before making me sob, just minutes before suffocating me with the weight of grief, before slowly lifting me back on my feet again, and finally even laughing again. And that was just in the last 50 pages. Aside from the mood swings at the end, this book contains the most delightfully astute, clever, gorgeous writing I think I have ever seen. You can feel a playfulness in the language, through Moore's character's quips and linguistic foibles and gorgeously detailed descriptions. This book feels so real, its characters so accurate, you're sure you've not only met them before, but have known them all along.
Ishiguro is a rare magician of a writer, whose prose is so deceptively simple and yet haunting. This book broke me and made me sob at the end. In a good way.
Forget that this is a graphic novel if that's not your thing. This is some of the best writing period that you'll ever read.
Dan Chaon is pure evil genius. Await Your Reply is an intense, gorgeously written novel about becoming unmoored from one's identity in the modern age--but as if that weren't enough--it has possibly the most mind-bending and twisty plotline I have ever encountered. I dare you not to be consumed, and ultimately bowled over by this book.
In just over 300 pages, Joshua Ferris manages to write a story both epic in scope and microscopic in detail. A marvelously executed, heartbreaking love story.
To preface this review, I'll just say that I'm not good with the supernatural. I never read fantasy, sci-fi or horror novels, and I'm also an atheist. However, the fact that I still wanted to pick up this book after reading the description, and the fact that I can't stop thinking about it now that I've read it says a lot in my book. LaValle is doing a lot of different things here, from urban realism to allegory, from philosophical novel to mystical fantasy, and I would say that LaValle is about 95% successful. And those parts he's successful at?--he's 200% successful. I've mostly broken my college habit of marking up my books, but it was very hard to resist the urge with this one. There's so much to chew on here, and if I were a college English professor, I would go out of my way to build a course around this book. I particularly love the way the book looks at faith and doubt, not as opposites, but as a system of checks and balances to keep religious fanaticism at bay.
You know that feeling when, in the middle of the day, you remember something that recently happened, only to realize that it was just a dream you had the night before? That's how reading this book feels. It's rife with moments when you are overcome with deja vu, like going in and out of a dream state. I was blown away by the subtle, clever craftsmanship of this novel and its raw emotional impact. By a mile the best book I've read so far this year.
The narrator of these two novellas is by turns funny, vulnerable, frustrating, charming, haughty, brilliant, and pathetic. In other words, he may be the most lovable, authentic character ever to appear in American literature. This book continues to jangle around in your head for weeks after reading it, much the way a particularly catchy metered stanza might.
Berryman occupies a special place in my brain. He is quite simply one of the most startlingly original poets of the 20th century, and the fact that he isn't taught right up front in literature classes alongside T. S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath makes me terribly sad.
Rarely is a book so entertaining and hilarious, and yet dense and sprawling enough that you could write your dissertation on it. This book is simply brilliant.
I hate to say it, but Inspector Van Veeteren kind of leaves my beloved Kurt Wallander in the dust. This book is plotted to within an inch of its life, dense with clues to puzzle over. And Nesser doesn't sacrifice character development or good writing to move the plot forward. The characters are vividly painted without adding too many overwrought side plots the way so many mystery writers do. Nesser puts the mystery front and center, but manages with very little padding to develop a cast of funny, likeable, and wholly believable characters. Hakan Nesser has, with this book, put himself front and center in my lineup of favorite mystery writers.
Ostensibly, this is a police procedural, but it's unlike any other procedural or mystery novel that you will ever read. For one thing, the writing. The writing is incredible. This book has all of the depth and breadth that you would demand of a literary novel--indeed, Walter has gone on to write many critically acclaimed works of literary fiction since. This just so happens to also be a mystery novel. He avoids all of the trappings of the genre while still writing a fully absorbing and suspenseful story. I am completely stunned. This is the second of a series, but it doesn't feel like a series book. I read them out of order, and the first one, Over Tumbled Graves, is a more traditionally structured mystery, but also excellent.
Peter Lovesey is my favorite living British mystery writer. The series featuring Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond of the Bath Police Department has the wit and style of the great Golden Age writers, and they are also perfectly crafted puzzle mysteries. Though they are set in contemporary Bath, England, Lovesey uses to great effect elements from the city's deep historical roots. One book (The Last Detective, which is the first in the series) involves missing Jane Austen letters; another (The Vault) centers around skeletal remains found in what was once Mary Shelley's cellar. My personal favorite, and a particular treat for avid mystery readers, is The Bloodhounds, which centers around an oddball group of crime fiction aficionados who, while caught in the middle of a real locked room mystery, are busy arguing over who wrote the best locked room mystery.
This magnificent Norwegian series is full of dark atmospherics, vivid characters, and complex mysteries that develop at just the right pace. I tend to gobble Fossum's books up in a day or two. They leave you guessing right up to the last page . . . sometimes even beyond.
If you're a fan of Alfred Hitchcock or Patricia Highsmith, you must read this book. The dark, twisty storyline and cynical depiction of a marriage gone very, very wrong, is guaranteed to send a chill or two down your spine.
This is, by far, the most beautifully written suspense novel I have ever read. Generation Loss is less genre fiction than it is a novel about artistic vision, creative block, and redemption. The references to the 70s punk scene are pitch-perfect; the descriptions of photography--both real-world and fictionalized--are vivid and haunting. A chilling, page-turning book.
If you like mysteries with nice and tidy solutions, skip these. But if you like great writing, and books populated with characters and mysteries as messy as real life, these are the books for you. This is stay-up-all-night reading, and the people and places of these books will stick with you.
The most difficult, rewarding, and funny book I have ever read. A surreal history of the birth of modern India.
This is a dazzling little puzzle of a book. Wonderfully written, clever, and intellectually stimulating. Emotionally, this book keeps you somewhat at arm's length, but the concept is intriguing, the characters beguiling, and the philosophical puzzle kept me completely enthralled.
This deeply absorbing novel alternates between several fascinating premises: a woman on a corporate-funded expedition to Antarctica finds herself stranded; a holding-city for the dead where they reside as long as they are remembered by someone on earth; and a global pandemic that threatens to wipe out the earth's population. Brockmeier artfully pieces these stories together through alternating points of view. This is a book of big ideas, but Brockmeier doesn't let that get in the way of telling a good story, and telling it well. If this all sounds to sci-fi to you, I urge you to reconsider, as I am not at all a science fiction reader. This is a bit of a literary genre-bender, and it is exceptionally well done.
The Commissaire Adamsberg series by Fred Vargas is delightfully odd. The characters are magnificent and quirky by their own rights, but the plots are where things truly get weird. Vargas is an academic and an archaeologist by trade, and despite the contemporary Paris setting, she manages to apply medieval elements to most of her books -- town criers, the Black Plague, headless horsemen -- to offbeat and almost surreal results. One of the few mystery series that I will drop everything to read each time a new one is translated from the French.
This is the moving memoir of a man and the dogs he has rescued, how he has looked after them, and how they in turn looked out for him. Starting with his first dog who got him through 9/11 in Lower Manhattan, to the various strays that one at a time wandered into his life, all the way through to how he and his three dogs survived Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Some of the dogs were his to keep, some he just helped along the way to new homes, but all of the dogs' stories will make you laugh, cry, or both.
Frank O'Hara's poems have a sort of an urgent easiness to them. Is that a contradiction? Perfect. O'Hara's poetry is full of contradictions: it's a constant collision of comedy and tragedy in every absurd and earnest (earnestly absurd? absurdly earnest?) stanza.
Never have office supplies been so melancholy, so lyrical. "I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils..." Roethke is one of those magical poets that makes you see everything as if for the first time, that makes you hear every word as if you never knew what it meant until that moment.