Is there anything better than a morning in bed with a cup of cocoa and a good book? Possibly, but I don’t think so. And as it gets chillier out there and we get less daylight than darkness and as I pile on the white comforters – reading in bed is truly one of life’s great pleasures.
What makes a great read? There are no rules. But as someone who reads a lot I can only say quality of writing and storytelling. Dialogue may not be great, but the characters must be developed and the story must flow. It must be believable – I don’t care if you are writing about lizard people from Saturn invading Middle Earth – I want to feel the book. The truly great ones, those stay with you maybe change you or your reading habits.
I read all types of books – memoirs, biographies, graphic stories, detective novels, legal thrillers, generational dramas, romance, and coming-of-age.
Here’s a list of titles I read recently and my thoughts.
Crossover by poet Kwame Alexander (2014)
2015 Newbery Medal Winner
Read this out loud and feel free to GROOVE and MOVE and SWOOP and Swooooooosh. The book is a young adult novel that follows 12-year-old basketball playing twins.
Check out this PBS video about the book here.
Mary Oliver’s exquisite poetry connects readers to the natural world in a way that is both beautiful and instructive.
American Primitive (1983), her fifth book, won the Pulitzer Prize. In her seventh book, House of Light (1990), won the Christopher Award.
After You by JoJo Moyes
The story picks up where the blockbuster Me Before You lets off.
Moyes’s heroine Lou works at an Irish-themed airport bar in a tacky emerald green uniform upselling bar snacks and cleaning up vomit in the toilets. Without giving away any spoilers the only other things I can tell you are – she is living through the consequences of the choices made in Me Before You and that the story has super funny moments and ones where you feel the despair and pure loss of hope Lou has accepted.
The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (2015)
When a young librarian comes into possession of the diary of a traveling circus from more than 200 years ago, he decides the book may hold clues to a family mystery he needs to solve to save his sister’s life.
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant (2014)
The story of a Jewish woman finding her place in Boston in the early twentieth century.
One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina (2011)
MAGNIFICENT (!) coming-of-age memoir by a brilliant Kenyan writer.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)
Eileen Dunlop, a lonely young woman working in a boys’ prison outside Boston in the early 60s, is pulled into a very strange crime. Beautifully written, and laced with dark humor, Eileen is much more than a twisty crime novel, it is literary and complex. Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. By far one of the best books I have read this year.
The Fishermen: A Novel by Chigozie Obioma (2016)
Debut novel by Nigerian writer about four brothers who disobey their elders and go fishing. At the river, they meet a dangerous local madman who persuades the oldest of the boys that he is destined to be killed by one of his siblings. A dark, but beautiful book. Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.
Faithful Place (2010), Broken Harbor (2012) The Secret Place (2014), and Trespasser (October 2016) by Tana French.
The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth installments in French’s acclaimed Dublin Murder Squad series. It is not essential you read the series in order (In the Woods #1, The Likeness #2), but I think it will be a far more gratifying experience if you do. The first two novels feature the same detective in the series, the third and fourth involve different investigators. All the detectives are connected, and you get to see that connection and see different aspects of their personalities (professional and otherwise).
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)
Sentenced to house arrest in a luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity. Through the windows of the hotel the aristocrat watches life change in Moscow from the Revolution to the Cold War — 30 years of tumultuous history taking place on the doorstep of the hotel. Excellent.
The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden (2016)
Beautiful!! The story begins in rural Georgia in 1917 where Harlan’s parents grow up. Then through Harlan Elliott’s young eyes we are taken to 1930s Harlem and with him as a young musician Paris which is shortly thereafter invaded by the Germans in 1940 and on to an ugly up close view of the Bitch of Buchenwald and back to Brooklyn.
An evocative and captivating narrative that presents a historical fiction of the African-American past and some of the contemporary dilemmas of the relatively present.
Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers (2016)
A troubled dentist pulls up stakes and moves herself and her two children to southern Alaska.
After enduring The Circle (2013) I found this a welcome return to the Eggers I love.
Night Music by John Connolly – I listened to on CD
13 magnificent tales of the supernatural. “The Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository” is now one of my all-time favorite stories.
Mr. Berger spent 34 years as a closed accounts registrar, keeping his life as quiet and empty as possible. He prefers the company of books to that of people, and when the opportunity for early retirement presents itself, he is happy to spend the rest of his years in the countryside, with only books for company.
Mr. Berger’s quiet life is interrupted one evening when he sees a woman fling herself before a train, in the manner of Anna Karenina. When he rushes to help, however, the woman is gone—and thus Mr. Berger is even more shocked when he sees the same woman do exactly the same thing again, a few nights later. His investigation leads him to the Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository, a place beyond all his imaginings.
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King (1975)
Author Ben Mears returns to ‘Salem’s Lot to write a book about a house that has haunted him since childhood only to find his isolated hometown infested with vampires. While the vampires claim more victims, Mears convinces a small group of believers to combat the undead. From SK site.
Smile by Raina Telgemeier (2010)
Eisner Award-winning graphic memoir based on her childhood. Or more specifically, what it was like to be teased by other children face after losing two front teeth in sixth grade and wearing “embarrassing headgear,” braces. Middle school would have been SO much easier with this woman and her graphic novels about what it is like to be a normal pre-teen.
Ghosts also by Raina Telgemeier (September, 2016)
Graphic novel for children (or adults!). Middle-schooler Catrina narrates the story of her mixed-race (Latino/white) family’s move from Southern California to Bahía de la Luna on the Northern California coast.
Dad has a new job, but it’s little sister Maya who has incurable lung disease cystic fibrosis that is dictates the move. Turns out, in addition to the nice cool sea air that helps Maya breathe easier, the town is full of friendly ghosts.
Surrender, New York: A Novel by Caleb Carr (2016)
From Penguin Random House – In the small town of Surrender in upstate New York, Dr. Jones, a psychological profiler, and Dr. Michael Li, a trace evidence expert, teach online courses in profiling and forensic science from Jones’s family farm. Once famed advisors to the New York City Police Department, Trajan and Li now work in exile, having made enemies of those in power. Protected only by farmhands and Jones’s unusual “pet,” the outcast pair is unexpectedly called in to consult on a disturbing case.
My personal opinion – it could have been at least 50 pages shorter with a LOT less run around. I felt dizzy with all the plot turns and twists!
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (2016)
I feel about this book the way I do about The Princess Bride and mac and cheese. That I am the only person I know who does not like it (note all the glowing reviews and features). I really did not enjoy this book after the first 15 or so pages. Pick up Blood, Bones, and Butter by her fan Gabrielle Hamilton or Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Those books go beyond the superficial world of Danler’s average small-town gal in the big city all a gaga about the bright lights and urban streets. Hamilton and Bourdain are not wimps and neither are their stories.
Danler’s debut novel. Told from the perspective of Tess, a 22-year-old who leaves a mundane past in flyover country for a fuller life in New York City as a server in one of Manhattan’s hottest eateries. The book closely mirrors the experience of the author.
The Trees by Ali Shaw (2016)
I really enjoyed this book.
From Bloomsbury – There is no warning. No chance to prepare. The trees arrive in the night: thundering up through the ground, transforming streets and towns into shadowy forest.
Adrien Thomas has never been much of a hero. But when he realises that no help is coming, he ventures into this unrecognisable world. Alongside green-fingered Hannah and her teenage son Seb, Adrien sets out to find his wife and to discover just how deep the forest goes. Their journey will take them to a place of terrible beauty and violence, to the dark heart of nature and the darkness inside themselves.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (2013)
A fantastical collection of stories. My favorites: a community of girls held captive in a Japanese silk factory slowly transmute into human silkworms and plot revolution AND two vampires in a sun-drenched lemon grove try to slake their thirst for blood try helplessly to quench their thirst for blood. Russell is one of my favorite writers. I loved Swamplandia (2012 finalist for the Pulitzer). Her short stories regularly appear in the annual collections of Best American Short Stories (available at the library).
The Vacationers by Emma Straub (2014)
Realistic contemporary fiction.
From Penguin Random House – For the Posts, a two-week trip to the Balearic island of Mallorca with their extended family and friends is a celebration: Franny and Jim are observing their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, and their daughter, Sylvia, has graduated from high school. The sunlit island, its mountains and beaches, its tapas and tennis courts, also promise an escape from the tensions simmering at home in Manhattan. But all does not go according to plan: over the course of the vacation, secrets come to light, old and new humiliations are experienced, childhood rivalries resurface, and ancient wounds are exacerbated.
Note, I just checked her book Modern Lovers out of the library.
In the Bleak Midwinter (2003)
A Fountain Filled with Blood by Julia Spencer-Fleming (2004)
Books 1 and 2 in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries series, of which I am a big fan.
The series in a nutshell: Clare Fergusson is the priest at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Miller’s Kill, New York (based on a church in Portland, Maine!). Untraditional in every sense, she’s not just a “lady,” she’s a tough ex-Army chopper pilot, and nobody’s fool. When a mystery appears at her church door, she meets the town’s police chief, Russ Van Alstyne, who’s also ex-Army and a cynical good shepherd for the stray sheep of his hometown. As they start investigating, they discover a world of trouble, an attraction to each other…
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (September, 2016)
I’ve been on a tear reading dark novels. This isn’t like me. I love biographies (ok those can get dark) and historic and modern romances…but here I go again reading and falling for a psychological thriller.
Donoghue’s last novel was Room, which became an Academy Award-nominated film in 2015.
Set in the 1850s in central Ireland, in the wake of the Potato Famine, Lib Wright, an English nurse trained by THE Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, is called upon to observe an 11-year-old girl who say’s she has been fasting for four months and living off nothing but her belief in God. Ultimately, Lib finds herself at the heart of a religious conspiracy.
The Whistler by John Grisham (October, 2016)
Good solid legal thriller. Granted, the first thirty pages are a bit wooden, but stick with it! By page forty the story is moving steadily along.
We get that great Grisham working class protagonist that Grisham develops so well – only this time it’s a female! Lacy Stoltz – a lawyer who investigates judicial misconduct for the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct. She’s the real deal!
Greg Myers – our whistleblower – is a lawyer with a shady past. He approaches Lacy and tells her about a corrupt judge who has secretly been in business with the mob. Early on in their relationship, the wiseguys framed a man for murder who had stolen money from them and had her send him to jail to rot for the rest of his life (he’s old and sick and Myers wants to set him free). All the while she has been steadily growing an impeccable reputation – she wins her reelections by landslides. What will Lacy do?
The Lair of the White Worm by Bram Stoker (Classic)
Like Dracula the tale was loosely based on folklore, a fable from north-east of England featuring a serpentine dragon named the Lambton Worm. Stoker’s monster lives in a lair and terrorizes the characters in the novel, and the plot is ultimately a classic tale of good versus evil.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani (2013)
I would have liked Disclafani’s debut novel a lot more if not for the marketing campaign. Whatever you do try to ignore any and all quotes and descriptions of the book and just dig into the story.
I loved her second oh so fun The After Party so much. This woman knows how to tell a story involving secrets, scandal, troubled women (who happen to come from wealthy families), and female friendships.
After the Tall Timber by Renata Adler (2015)
A collection of essays addressing some of the major American events of recent decades, such as the Watergate scandal, the “preposterous” Kenneth Starr report on Bill Clinton, the Supreme Court ruling in Bush v Gore, and the decline of serious journalism. I did not read them all, but thoroughly appreciated her coverage of peace march in Selma, Alabama.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan (2015)
Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography
An old-school adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting, little understood art. Brilliantly written for those who surf and those who have not.
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (September, 2016)
In his memoir, Springsteen tells the story of his life with the same honesty, humor, and originality found in his songs. Loved it.
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne (2010)
The book tells the tragic and very bloody forty-year story of one of the ugliest parts of American history – the control of the American West. The sheer arrogance and ignorance of white settlers is matched only by the extraordinary violent tactics of the Comanche Indians.
I subsequently read Gwynne’s
The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football (September, 2016) Not so great even for a football lover like me.
Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (2014)
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the epic account of how Civil War general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson became a great and tragic national hero. I knew little about Jackson going into the book and came away understanding why he was one of the most famous men in America’s history.
Everyone Behaves Badly by Lesley M. M. Blume (2016)
The Lost Generation – in all its depression and excess – was immortalized in The Sun Also Rises. Now, cultural critic Blue pens the true story of that infamous 1925 trip to Pamploma from which Hemingway drew his inspiration, delving into the salacious travails of the group that would define an era of modern literature.
The Future of Ice: A Journey Into the Cold by Gretel Ehrlich (2004)
Ehrlich was living in a tent in Wyoming when her publisher suggested that she write a book about winter, climate change, and global warming. For a year, she travels to extreme points (from Tierra del Fuego to the top of the world) in her quest to understand the complex, primal nature of cold; the forces that are destroying the season of winter; and why the chaotic rhythms of weather are becoming even more disruptive.
Jackson 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting Race in America by Calvin Trillin
From bestselling author and beloved New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, a deeply resonant, career-spanning collection of articles on race and racism, from the 1960s to the present. MUST READ.
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (2015)
This book was just a bummer.
I consider myself a huge Alexandra Fuller fan – two of my favorite books are Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (2002) and her second memoir Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness (2011). I had stayed away from this – her third memoir – about the disintegration of her marriage – having heard not so great reviews and just not being as interested on the focus. The book just didn’t hold me the way her other two did.
Mayor of Mogadishu: A Story of Chaos and Redemption in the Ruins of Somalia by Andrew Harding (releases in US November 29, 2016)
From the UK publisher – An unsparing and revealing portrayal of Somalia, from the Siad Barre decades to Al-Shabaab, seen through the eyes of ‘Tarzan’, a formidable Mogadishu politician.
Harding has worked as a foreign correspondent for the past twenty-five years in Russia, Asia and Africa. He has been visiting Somalia since 2000.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (2004)
From the publisher – An oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers—some willingly, some unwittingly—have been involved in science’s boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them. Fascinating. Next I want to read some less morose more oddball stuff of Roach’s.
Under a Lucky Star by Roy Chapman Andrews
Covers his early years at the American Museum of Natural History (later on he was the director) and the expeditions he led to the Gobi of Mongolia between 1922 to 1930. There he and his fellow scientists discovered the first nests of dinosaur eggs, new species of dinosaurs, and the fossils of early mammals that co-existed with dinosaurs.
I much prefer his book An Explorer Comes Home where he writes about his wife Billy and their farmhouse in New England.
Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (2016)
From the publisher – Valiant Ambition is a complex, controversial, and dramatic portrait of a people in crisis and the war that gave birth to a nation. The focus is on loyalty and personal integrity, evoking a Shakespearean tragedy that unfolds in the key relationship of Washington and Arnold, who is an impulsive but sympathetic hero whose misfortunes at the hands of self-serving politicians fatally destroy his faith in the legitimacy of the rebellion. As a country wary of tyrants suddenly must figure out how it should be led, Washington’s unmatched ability to rise above the petty politics of his time enables him to win the war that really matters. Definitely going to have to read a lot more Philbrick.
We are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation by Justine van der Leun (2016)
For those who have never heard of beautiful naïve well-meaning 26-year-old Amy Biehl and her truly tragic gruesome death on August 25, 1993 – eight months before South Africa’s first fully democratic elections – well I suppose you could read this book. It’s not bad at all, it just doesn’t bring much to the story – certainly there is no research present that leads to gasps of surprise. Months after finishing the book I’m not sure which troubled me more – Bly, who didn’t live through the tumultuous 90s through the apartheid era and has little investigative experience, or Biehl’s mother who seemed to get a lot of first-class airline seats from some nefarious folks likely involved if not in her daughter’s death in the cover-up.
When Breath Becomes Air by by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
A beautiful moving memoir by a neurosurgeon at the start of his career who learned he had terminal cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. This is his – and to some degree – certainly their story.
I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’”
What are you reading these days? Any recommendations?