We asked our contributors to share the best book they read this month. We’ve got fiction, nonfiction, YA, memoir, and more. Some are old, some are new, and some aren’t even out yet. Enjoy, and please tell us about the highlight of your reading month in the comments.
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
I added this to my TBR after another Rioter mentioned it and I’m so glad I did. It took me a little while to get sucked in, but when I did I went head over heels. It’s slightly science fiction with a healthy dose of steampunk, plus gangsters worthy of any film noir mystery and a bit of a spy adventure thrown in for good measure. There are old school, fedora-wearing gangsters; beautiful, impeccably designed machines, intricate family history, and powerful, extraordinarily bad-ass women of varying age. And bees – very important bees. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I suspect you’ll either love it or hate it, but be sure to read at least half of it before you decide.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Orwell’s fable about abused farm animals who oust their human owners and create a utopian farm, only to find themselves in an even worse situation than before, is one of those very rare books that I’m tempted to call “perfect.” It’s extremely accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds, tells a great story with characters you can’t help but like and sympathize with (I seriously lost sleep over poor Boxer), and has complex ideas about politics, society, technology, and economics. The story itself is very simple, but that’s why it’s so effective: Animal Farm could be a parable about any uprising from the French Revolution to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. And the writing is terribly clever—even though it’s a tragedy, there’s humor and snarkiness and a weird sort of joie de cynisme that makes the story entertaining. Definitely a classic that I think everyone should read.
Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman
Yes, I am desperately globe-trotting for that holy grail, The Parenting Manual. The book that will teach me how to bring up happy, bright, successful, kind Nobel Laureates in the Sciences. Ce livre? Ce n’exist pas, as French intellectuals would say. What we have in Druckerman’s story is a layered croissant of insights of the (many) neuroses of American parents with our (or at any rate my) need to be constantly vigilant, stimulating, and empathetic. Take a breather and vive la France! Here’s a country more true to life, where storybooks for kids don’t reflexively end happily, where schools serve gratins, and where, when the pediatrician administers a flu shot she doesn’t try to joke or cajole the kid. She just says to the parent, “Don’t apologize. Sometimes we just have to do things.”
Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi, illustrated by Craig Phillips
This YA novel/graphic novel hybrid is the story of three teens who bond over their freerunning hobby. But the night this story opens, Corey and Holly, who are brother and sister, find themselves being attacked on their drive home. Corey doesn’t make it out alive, and Holly barely does. When she awakes from her coma, she’s far from the girl who she once was. Not only is Holly grieving the loss of her brother, but she’s fighting a serious case of mental illness. Savitri, now grieving the loss of her boyfriend, must not only wrestle with her future plans but also has to determine how far is too far to help best friend Holly recover. The use of graphic elements to tell the story work perfectly in Chasing Shadows, and the dual narratives show how differently two people grieve. Although this is a book does explore loss, it’s primarily a book about friendship and about how much an individual gives and gets in a relationship — at what point are you putting too much of yourself into a friendship and not getting anything back from it? Avasthi doesn’t let her characters have the easy way out, and she never hands over a simple explanation. This one gets bonus points for showcasing girls who live and breathe comic books and freerunning, as well as a main character of color.
by Jennifer Dubois
Lily Hayes goes to Buenos Aires for a semester abroad. Lily’s roommate Katy ends up dead, and Lily is arrested for murder. While being questioned by the po-lease, Lily does a cartwheel. She looks guilty. But is she? The world continues to be fascinated by the Foxy Knoxy case, which makes Cartwheel extra juicy. Dubois is such a gifted writer and she has the ability to inject subtle humor while crossing the line into rare moral nuances. I don’t think the “suspense” aspect is super high just because we’re all familiar with Amanda Knox’s story, but you’re going to guess the outcome until the last page. And then you’re going to have a little talk with your friends about it.
Duplex by Kathryn Davis
Full disclosure: This is a Graywolf Press book, and I work for Graywolf Press. That being said, I truly loved this book. Davis has crafted a novel of love and loss, a tale at once strikingly familiar to our own lives, but at the same time nothing like anything we’ve ever experienced. Follow Davis down the rabbit hole, and you’ll discover a suburban street populated by unhappy families, little girls, robots, and a soul-bargaining sorcerer (you read that correctly). This novel is a love story, wrapped in a horror story, set inside of a science fiction box. At the novel’s heart are Mary and Eddie, two love struck teens. Their lives are intertwined until Eddie sells his soul to become a prodigious baseball player, and Mary finds herself married to a man she doesn’t love. Hovering choruslike outside of Mary and Eddie’s story is a group of nameless girls who tell cautionary tales, like girls exploding from too much love, and girls who swim out to sea and never return. Duplex is a fairy tale. It is an allegory. It is completely sincere. Taken at a sentence level, this book is gorgeous. Taken in paragraphs and pages, this book is an amazing feat. Duplex is the sort of book that has clues buried deep within its sentences. Blink, and you’ll miss them. Davis shows us the keys for each narrative door, but there’s no way to know which we’ll need, or when. While I have no doubt that this book will reward a second reading, and a third, I’m envious of everyone who gets to enter this funhouse for the first time.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I started East of Eden back in May, I think. It is a great book, one of the world’s greatest works of literature but takes a little getting used to. I would read a few chapters and then set it aside for a while. But it is so very worth it. East of Eden tells the story of the Trask and Hamilton families in and around Salinas, California at the beginning of the twentieth century. We watch the heads of the family grow old and die and watch their children grow up. In East of Eden we are presented with a host of characters, most of which we fall in love with. I’ll admit however, that some of the girls in the book are not as memorable as the boys, and felt blurry to me, apart from the family mothers, Cathy and Liza. Cathy Trask, the vilest character I’ve read in a good long while, stands head and shoulders above other characters in the book in terms of memorability. Manipulating and cold, she only knows how to hurt, and after reading one is left with a foul taste. Steinbeck’s writing is magical, though the Cain/Abel allegory gets a little tired towards the end, but that is really my only criticism of this book. It is simply one of those books you have to read before you die. Seriously.
The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan
A novel of intertwined narratives (for which I am a sucker) following various characters and their, well, engagements (or lack thereof). There’s also a fascinating historical fiction element that explains the history of the concept of the engagement ring- be prepared to be pissed off at how much money you’ve spent on yours, if you have one. Each character is amazingly human and relatable, even if you have absolutely nothing in common with, say, a middle-aged male ambulance driver from Boston or a 40-something Parisian woman in the midst of an extra-marital affair. This is Sullivan’s major one-two sucker punch: her ability to write deliciously normal people in all their individual abnormality. Because normal people aren’t boring, their problems and issues and concerns aren’t boring, and it’s a rarely gifted writer who can nail that so well.
The Facades by Eric Lundgren
I don’t know whether “existential noir” is the best name for a subgenre I have become a fan of, but it seems descriptive of The Facades, in which a middle-aged dad with a mediocre job searches for his missing wife, the prima donna at the inexplicably important opera house in their fictional Midwestern Anycity. The narrator’s amateur detective activities discover plenty about his wife, but even more about the strange place they inhabit, a planned city where a troubled German architect seems to have locked millions in a decades-long crisis of confidence based around a literally maze-like shopping mall and a rest home that might do more to drive you mad than cure what ails you. If there’s a cross between Wittgenstein and a beach read, this is it–and yes, it’s as fun and strange as that sounds.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
I loved this book so much I wanted to kiss my ereader when I finished it, then promptly go and get involved in a loving fanfiction community. Cath and Wren are twins who drift apart when they start college. Cath clings to their Simon Snow fandom and continuing to work on her own version of the final novel in the series. (Side note: I want to read the Simon Snow series.) Wren makes new friends and starts drinking heavily. Also there’s a love story, but it’s not shoehorned in or contrived. Cath is smart and funny and excruciatingly self-conscious; I related wholly to her internal monologue and admonishments of herself in her awkward moments. LOVED this book.
High-Status Characters is a brief (137 pages) but surprisingly in-depth oral history of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the comedy troupe that took over New York City in the late 90s. Raftery interviewed many of today’s top names in comedy for this ebook-only release, including Amy Poehler, Conan O’Brien, Ed Helms, Seth Meyers, Andy Richter, and Aziz Ansari. For comedy fans, the book is a steal at $1.99.
Joyland by Stephen King
It had been a while since I’d gotten my Stephen King fix, and it was great to get back to him. Joyland has it all: murder, ghosts, a little boy with psychic powers, and a whole lotta carny lingo. King really did his homework- he drops you into a theme-park in the 1970s that’s so convincing, you can smell the burnt popcorn and day-old chili dogs. Ultimately, it’s up to narrator-and newly-minted-carny-employee Devin Jones to solve a murder and thereby release a poor ghostie girl from Joyland purgatory. Devin is assisted by a psychic, dying boy, and when he realizes that the murderer has been nearby all along…well…go read Joyland. It’s short, it’s sweet, and if the ending isn’t overwhelmingly amazing, it’s still a fun read.
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Lean In was everywhere when it came out in March, but I didn’t get around to reading it until this month. In the book, Sandberg looks at some of the reasons why fewer women than men rise to leadership positions in government, private companies and nonprofits. She also offers advice for women trying to excel at work, and share some personal anecdotes about her challenges as a female COO. I thought the book was inspiring and challenging, and it made me think more about how I behave at my job. I didn’t agree with the whole book, but it was great because of the questions it raised.
Levels of the Game by John McPhee
Starting with the opening serve, McPhee details a single match between a young Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, brilliantly using the ebb and flow of the game as a framework for his narrative. Volleying back and forth between back stories, McPhee covers race, class, and politics to paint rich portraits of the two players. A study in contrasts, the talented Graebner is powerful and conservative, while Ashe combines strength and grace with a willingness to risk going for the truly great shot. That extra bit of daring is why Ashe is a transcendent player and why few of us have even heard of Clark Graebner. The other transcendent talent in play here is McPhee, who like Ashe has the uncommon ability to raise the level of his game. Whether it’s an impossible volley or an unexpected story angle, both have the technical wizardry and chutzpah to pull things off that leave the rest of us shaking our heads in admiration.
LIfe Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum
As a person who is currently in the midst of her own housing search, this book could not have come at a better time for me. Daum perfectly captures the highs and lows of navigating the real estate market–the feverish refreshing of Craigslist, the exhilaration of finding a promising listing, the anxiety of waiting to hear back on your offer, the anxious dance of room-mating, the trials and tribulations of fixer-uppers, and the lengths to which we’re willing to go to not only find four walls and a roof, but to find a home that perfectly defines us and expresses our very essence to the outside world. Along the way, we’re also treated to tidbits about Daum’s family and upbringing, where we discover the root of her obsession with the housing market, all told in her signature wit and tell-it-like-it-is style. I may as well have been flipping through the classifieds with her over coffee. I’m now midway through Daum’s book of essays, My Misspent Youth, and loving every word. I can’t believe I didn’t find Meghan Daum earlier!
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
There are certain things that I have come to expect from Jhumpa Lahiri. I expect characters who are silently struggling to figure out who they are and how they fit into the grand scheme of things. I expect to learn something about Indian culture, and how one’s attitudes toward that culture are changed by coming to live in the United States. I expect to learn about life in academia. The Lowland includes all of that, and it does so in typical Lahiri fashion. Except….except that she does it better than she ever has. This is more personal than anything else of her’s that I’ve read. It has more depth, more heart. And it is so worth your time.
A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik
I had no idea what I was in for when I picked up this novel, which dropped me into the calm blue of the Greek isles, with a woman, homeless, camping on a touristy beach. Jacqueline is soon revealed to be a displaced Liberian who fled the country after its political collapse. She’s bewildered and scarred, and most of the narrative centers on her trying to move forward, while continually flashing back to her privileged, then horrific, past. This is not a novel you can read quickly: Maksik eeks out tiny bits of the simple but poignant backstory, culminating with the whereabouts and fate of the rest of Jacqueline’s family, leaving you feeling anxious and urgent at the same time. I haven’t come across any other books taking an inside look at the recent history of this West African country, but I’m now officially on the hunt for more.
The Martian by Andy Weir (Crown, February 11, 2014)
I know February is a long way off, but this book (which you should totally go pre-order now) will be worth the wait. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I stumbled upon the The Martian on my e-reader a couple of weeks ago—it is so full of books I lose track of what’s on there from time to time—and decided to give it a shot. And…it was peculiar, in a totally awesome way. It’s about Mark Watney, an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars. Told largely in log entries written in Watney’s funny, geeky voice, the book managed to make chemistry and algebra interesting (a feat in itself, for this reader) in the course of a carefully-wrought, suspenseful, and surprisingly satisfying story.
The Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis
It is rare that I re-read a book, but I recently revisited all of Portis’s works for a piece I was writing, and good golly, Miss Molly! He really is the effing greatest. And Masters of Atlantis was my favorite (this time around.) It’s the crazy-weird tale of Lamar Jimmerson, leader of the Gnomon fraternal order and his trials and tribulations as he works to spread the word of the book of Lost City of Atlantis — which he happens to have. The book was “given” to him by a shady character in World War I, and since then, Lamar has founded international chapters and taken on loony members to his order. Most notable is Austin Popper, a weasely self-interested ne’er-do-well who causes more harm than good. This is Portis’s funniest, zaniest, smartest novel. Tip: Have a Vonnegut itch that needs scratching? Apply Masters of Atlantis in copious amounts.
Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy
This was my first time reading an author I should have discovered ages ago, but at least I’ve got a reason to go through the backlist now. The plot’s main thread follows hapless Noel, who suddenly has to deal with adulthood when he’s made responsible for raising his newborn daughter. But the book is really more about how a community fits together — a sort of Irish equivalent of Jan Karon’s Mitford books.
Minecraft: The Unlikely Tale of Markus Notch Persson and the Game that Changes Everything by Linus Larsson and Daniel Goldberg
An incredible read that details the rise of Minecraft, Notch, and his amazing team. Interesting and intense, it’s a must for any gamer or fan of riveting non-fiction.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
This is not at all a recent book, but audiobook of it, read by John Chancer, trickled down the review pipelines and I was eager to give it a go. This is my first Murakami work of fiction (my first Murakami book would be What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). Norwegian Wood is the story of a young, somewhat grim man named Toru and his love for a peculiar young woman named Naoko. It’s a wandering recollection of one man’s life, full of amazing characters and the most powerful depiction of loneliness and regret I’ve ever encountered. Haruki Murakami became a cultural icon with this book and it’s easy to see why. John Chancer does an amazing job reading it. He moves easily through a range of character voices, his Japanese inflection is excellent when he uses it, and you know, I think he’s the first audiobook narrator I’ve ever heard sing a song when it appears in the story? A brilliant book and reading.
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
Anais Hendricks is a 15 year old drug fiend who pulls other girls’ hair and beats them to within an inch of their lives. She juggles girlfriends and boyfriends and wears a treasured Indian headdress while prancing around in her undies on acid. She’s Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Panopticon, kids! When Anais lands herself in a group home for problem teens with a spooky watchtower and a strict open-door policy, the novel’s dystopic vibe kicks into high gear and we watch as her layers are peeled back and reality dissolves around her. It’s Scottish poet Jenni Fagan’s first novel, and she makes dirty-mouthed teenagers sound more profound than Homeric bards. With Anais she serves up my favorite kind of heroine — a bad girl in a worse place who claws her way out by her own off-kilter code of honor.
-Rachel Smalter Hall
Proxy by Alex London
There are so many things I loved about this book it’ll be hard to wrap it into one paragraph. But here we go: this is the best YA dystopian I’ve read this year. If you are all, “Oy, enough with the YA dystopians already,” let me also say that this is a YA dystopian with almost a complete lack of love triangles, or love dyads, or really any love storylines at all–with the exception of the love of friendship, which may I point out, is a very important kind of love. There is the lightest sprinkling of romance, maybe, but for most of the book there just ain’t time for that, as there is never ending action and twists and turns until the very last page. Seriously, this is fast paced and suspenseful and just fun fun fun, as fun as soul-crushing and corrupt hyper-capitalism can be! The other remarkable thing about this book is that the protagonist is both queer and a person of color, and both of these things are just simply acknowledged, without taking time away from the plot to focus on these “issues.” It’s just who he is. See, rest of the world? It isn’t that hard to write diversity into your books.
Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways by Evelyn McDonnell
All the fiction I’ve read lately has been a total bummer. I don’t know what the problem is, but I can’t seem to pick a novel that merits more than a meh to save my life. So what’s a reader to do? Turn to her go-to literary junk food of choice: the rock and roll memoir. Now, this isn’t a memoir so much as a biography, but it still counts and it’s utterly delicious. McDonnell researched the hell out of the Runaways and presents us with a multi-faceted, pretty pragmatic view of the ground-breaking 1970s band. In case you aren’t familiar the Runaways were a band of teenage girls featuring Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Sandy West, Lita Ford, and a rotating cast of bass players. They kicked serious ass and were contemporaries of bands like Cheap Trick and the Ramones. In fact, one night in Detroit Cheap Trick and a little band called Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers opened up for the Runaways. This is just one of the bajillion little fun facts you’ll pick up from this book. Also, it’s filled with the kind of sexist bullshit, teen drama you expect when you put five teenagers in a recording studio with a megalomaniacal older man. It’s wonderful. While this one lacks the charm of my much-beloved Heart memoir (Kicking & Dreaming), it’s still a fascinating look into what it’s like to be a female rock and roller in a business dominated by men.
The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston
This just launched and it’s so so so ludicrously good. Imagine if Portnoy’s Complaint was set in the oddly exotic world of St. John’s, Newfoundland in the 1950s. It’s staggeringly funny, surprisingly charming, and downright shocking. And you’re going to fall in love a little with the disfigured protagonist Percy Joyce, even as he’s falling in love (and not just a little) with his exquisitely beautiful mother. I can’t shove you hard enough in the direction of this gem. Go on — have a Freudian field day.
-Brenna Clarke Gray
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
McCann writes like an impressionist paints. His sentences are small dabs of shade and color that by themselves may not impress, but when he throws them all together, the effect is something special. TransAtlantic, like NBA winner Let the Great World Spin before it, spans generations and exposes the threads that tie family and history together. The novel starts with the story of a two Irishmen who make a transatlantic flight in a gutted warplane, bouncing back and forth, both through time and from America to Ireland. Frederick Douglass’ tour of Ireland and Senator George Mitchell’s role in the Belfast peace talks offer a historical anchor, but the novel’s most affecting sections focus on four generations of women and their complex relationships with each other and with their own histories.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
As this funny, quirky novel begins, Rosemary Cooke admits she’s always been a “great talker.” As a child she chatters like an ape in a zoo and really gets under the skin of her parents–a father who’s “a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, fly-fishing atheist from Indianapolis” and a mother who has retreated into near catatonic madness. As she grows older, Rosemary retreats into silence after her family experiences a traumatic upheaval. Two of her siblings go missing (at separate times) and the majority of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is about Rosemary’s quest to find out what happened to them. I won’t say much more because surprises abound in these pages and I don’t want to have angry readers come throw rocks at my house because I’ve spoiled things. Let’s just say, things aren’t always what they appear to be. At one point, Rosemary says, “There are moments when history and memory seem like a mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened.” There’s a lot of mist in this book–and Rosemary is a very unreliable narrator guiding us on our journey. But unreliable narrators are fun, right? None were ever as fun as Rosemary Cooke. What’s most delightful and addictive about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is what we like to call the “voice” of the novel. It’s clever, funny and pretty damned poignant in places. And it never stops chattering in our ear.
Why I Write by George Orwell
When one of the greats unpacks his philosophy, it would be rude not to listen, right? As well as having a knack for crafting novels that are referenced by folks who’ve never come close to sniffing them, let alone reading them (Animal Farm, 1984), he was a fantastic, urgent essayist. This collection brings together four of his finest: his titular treatease; The Lion and the Unicorn; A Hanging; and Politics and the English Language. At every turn he is remarkably prescient and admirably refuses to sit in neat political pigeon holes. He has plenty of hot lead for both the left and the right. And it turns out there’s not one, but four reasons why Orwell writes. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that they are: sheer eogism; aesthetic enthusiasm; historical impulse; and political purpose. Four reasons why he writes, yet countless more why you should read this.
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