Top Ten Tuesday: Best New-to-Me Authors in 2016

I feel terrible that I have been so bad at talking about what I am reading on the blog, because this really has been a terrific year in reading. I’ve been thinking about my favorite reads of the year, and many of them are by debut authors or authors whose works I hadn’t read before. Today’s Top Ten (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) topic, favorite new-to-me authors, gives me a chance to highlight some of the works that may (or may not) make my final 2016 top ten list, but that I loved and would highly recommend anyway.

The Throwback Special, Chris Bachelder. Nominated for a National Book Award, this novel comprised of a series of vignettes of a group of 22 men who meet every year to reenact a famous football play is both funny and melancholy.

The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson. This story of a North Korean orphan who goes to work (putting it mildly) for the state was completely haunting. Deservedly, it won the Pulitzer in 2013.

The Girls, Emma Cline. Every year there’s a much hyped debut release that splits audience opinions right down the middle. This novel, centered around a plot based on a series of killings similar to the Manson murders and the girls involved, worked for me on many levels. I think Cline will be a writer to watch.

All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews. I was all about solid family stories this year, and this one, about a writer trying to keep her sister from ending her life, was as solid, funny, and heartbreaking as they come.

The Fortunes, Peter Ho Davies. Focused on four different periods in American history, Ho tells the story of four Chinese Americans and their families, highlighting the immigrant experience. I happened to be reading this one (which was also nominated for the National Book Award, incidentally) during the election, and it made me sad and afraid all over again.

Our Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller. A chilling story of a girl abducted by her father, who tells her the world has ended and carries her away into the woods.

Crow Lake, Mary Lawson. This quiet novel about a group of siblings who lose their parents and try to keep the family together really surprised me. The narrator is unreliable in a completely unexpected, almost refreshing way, and what I expected to be a dark and depressing story is actually rather touching and funny.

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles. I’m a sucker for almost any story about WASPs in New York (sorry, not sorry), but this one is particularly well told. Katey Kontent is a first-generation American who hails from Brooklyn and gets swept up by high-society friends. Part F. Scott Fitzgerald, part Dominick Dunne, this one was difficult to put down.

Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay. This novel tells the story of a family with a daughter believed to be possessed by the devil who agree to have everything filmed by a reality television crew. The pop-culture references and the sharp style are both big hooks. Even people who don’t typically read horror would enjoy this.

The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Each member of The Plumb family (WASP: check; New York: check) expects to get a piece of “The Nest,” the family trust fund left behind by their eccentric father. But one sibling has an accident that requires all the money from The Nest to bail him out. This is the story of what happens when all the money’s gone.

Reader’s Journal: Skippy Dies

Skippy DiesWell, it looks like my entries for Reading Ireland Month will be a paltry two novels…but then again, with a book like Skippy Dies on that (very short) list, I feel less ashamed for only having two.

People, I don’t even know where to begin. In truth, I’m feeling very protective of this book and my feelings about it. I’m not sure why because when it was published in 2010, it received mostly highly favorable reviews (read Patrick Ness’s review here), and it was shortlisted for any number of literary prizes, so it’s not as though I am being called upon defend my love for a book everyone hates. The problem is, I just loved it that much, and I realize I may not even be able to explain why.

A plot summary won’t tell you much about why I loved it (and you can find summaries anywhere: in Ness’s review, or by clicking on the book image to go to Goodreads). I can tell you it’s a campus/boarding school novel (some of you love those as much as I do). I can tell you it’s funny and melancholy at the same time. I can tell you that every bit of Murray’s affection and empathy for these characters is evident on each and every page, and he has a keen ear and understanding for the language and dynamics of young people, without making them seem like caricatures or symbols of some societal problem or another. I can tell you that despite the fact that Murray uses very contemporary references to technology and pop culture, I seriously doubt they will date the book for future readers because the story at the heart of it is timeless. And I suppose one could quibble over its length (it’s about 660 pages, originally released as three volumes sold together), but something about the length immerses the reader and reminds us of how very slow time moves when we’re young, or when we are not as young but feel so very lost.

If you’ve been thinking about reading Skippy Dies, trust your instinct on this one. Just do it. I hope you love it as much as I did.

There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll

There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll CoverThe minute I read about Lisa Robinson’s There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll, I knew I had to read it. Not only am I a lifelong music fan, but especially as a teen I was enthralled with rock journalists. (I had no idea, of course, that by the mid-1980s, when my aspirations were hot, that Rolling Stone was basically considered to have already seen its better days.) Robinson became a rock journalist almost by accident during a time in the early 1970s when that term could only be applied (and not altogether seriously) to a small handful of people. She eventually ended up writing for music publications including CREEM and NME (New Musical Express), and today is an editor at Vanity Fair. Her husband Richard Robinson (they are still married) was a radio DJ who also wrote several music columns. When he grew tired of writing one of those columns, Robinson took over. It was a casual decision that led to a fascinating career.

Although the book does follow a structure in terms of subject matter, Robinson’s writing style is sometimes conversational to the point of rambling. She’s fond of non-sequiturs:

When [The Rolling Stones were] in Los Angeles for a week in July for several shows at the L.A. Forum, Lorna Luft followed Bianca [Jagger] around the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Finally Bianca said, “I find it strange that all we ever talk about is me.” Annie [Liebovitz] said that Mick and Bianca seemed “madly in love,” adding, “That’s one of the best marriages I know,” and it might have been. Mick told me, “From what I’ve seen, your articles aren’t bitchy enough. Aren’t you going to put in my remarks about Robert Plant?”

The first few chapters are the most disjointed, but after that she settles in and you begin to realize what an opportunity it is to read about even the smallest bit of who and what she knows about the world of music. By no means does the book include stories about every band, every act, or every interview. Instead, she has arranged ten chapters around some of the most influential performers of the last 45 years. And of course, as a companion, I’ve provided playlists (with a link to the full one at the end) based on songs and bands mentioned in the book.

Chapter 1: The Rolling Stones

Robinson went on tour with The Rolling Stones for the first time in 1975 to promote their album Exile on Main Street. It’s strange to think that in 1975 the Stones were already considered “old” for rock and roll stars. She seems to respect Mick Jagger, whom she basically refers to as a chameleon adapting himself to each audience, but she clearly prefers Keith Richards. She tours with them several more times throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Robinson really sets up with this chapter how the music business was beginning to change, spending huge amounts of money on tours to keep the bands happy. It serves as an interesting juxtaposition, too, to some of the bands she discusses in the later chapters.

Chapter 2: Led Zeppelin

Robinson seems overall much more fond of Led Zeppelin than she does of the Stones. Led Zeppelin was much less of a business than the Stones, more of the typical rock band wrecking hotel rooms, collecting women, and causing a general ruckus (primarily due to John Bonham). As she points out, Mick and Keith were slick city boys, whereas Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and the rest were all basically farm boys who made it big in rock and roll.

Chapter 3: David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, New York Dolls, Television, The Ramones, Patti Smith, and CBGB

For what it’s worth, Robinson was friends with many of these people, but she was (and is) admittedly a tremendous gossip. As I read this chapter I sometimes felt that a better title for the book might have been Kill Your Idols. I could have done without some of the more personal and pointed things she has to say about some of these people, but she did a tremendous job of bringing CBGB to life. Essentially, for Robinson, CBGB was her neighborhood bar. When she wasn’t on tour with a big-name band, she was at CBGB hanging out with her husband and her friends, drinking beer, eating the frightening food cooked in the tiny kitchen, and watching the parade of major future musical influences. She gives Television and the New York Dolls (and David Johansen) some much needed, much deserved attention.

Chapter 4: John Lennon and Yoko Ono

I’m not a big Beatles fan. I like them, I own several of their albums, but I don’t revere them the way I do some other bands. This chapter focuses primarily on John Lennon after the Beatles. Robinson gained an audience with Lennon by first interviewing Yoko Ono. She talks about Yoko’s influence on John, and other influences as well. This chapter is tangentially about the other Beatles as well (especially George Harrison, whom she seems to like, and Paul McCartney, for whom she seems not to care much at all). She also talks about Phil Spector’s influence on Lennon and Harrison.

Chapter 5: Michael Jackson

This was probably my favorite chapter in the book, and I am not ashamed to say it made me cry. Robinson first interviewed Michael Jackson when he was a child, a part of the Jackson 5, being managed by Barry Gordy. She interviewed him again throughout his career, as he grew more wary of and finally completely estranged from much of his public. It’s an inside view that is not at all exploitative and reminded me again of what a tremendous talent was lost to the world.

Chapter 6: The Sex Pistols, The Clash

This chapter is primarily about The Sex Pistols and The Clash, but really also a general look at what was happening in London versus the New York CBGB scene. She toured with the Sex Pistols and was aware they were “of a moment,” but when she talks about The Clash, she basically gushes (I don’t blame her). She also talks briefly about the Buzzcocks, Chrissy Hynde and The Pretenders, and Elvis Costello (in fact, she claims that she is the person responsible for getting Elvis Costello signed to CBS Records), among others.

Chapter 7: U2

As with the Beatles, I like U2 but I am not a huge fan. Robinson also seems to like U2 but is not a huge fan. In fact, this chapter reads like something of a case study. U2 is apparently always very aware of trying to push certain boundaries, to never let itself get comfortable, so much so that it’s a strategy that’s almost become schtick. Like the Stones, they are entertainers but they are also very aware that they are a business, a money-making entity with a high level of influence. Unlike the Stones, they are straight arrows who are also very aware (or at least, Bono is) of how they fit that business to a particular social model.

Chapter 8: Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye West

I must really give Robinson a great deal of credit for not resting on her music laurels and being a journalist who always laments “when music was real.” With everything she has seen and everyone she’s known, she’s certainly kept her eyes open. I like Eminem, Jay-Z, and Kanye (although the Kim Kardashian thing…well) as entertainers, but I admit I came away with a new view of and more respect for the three of them. Her overall point is: They are the punk rock legacy, if not in sound, then in attitude. And they also make great music.

Chapter 9: Lady Gaga

Robinson genuinely likes and respects Lady Gaga. She spent a day with Lady Gaga and her parents, in addition to conducting several other interviews. She finds Gaga curious, intelligent, artful, talented, friendly, and self-aware in the way of a performance artist, which is the way Gaga has come across in every interview I’ve seen with her. No surprises here, really, except perhaps how much Robinson dislikes Madonna. You’ll see no comparisons of Gaga to the Material Girl here.

Chapter 10: Bob Dylan, Howlin’ Wolf, Chess Records, and Highway 61

As a native New Yorker, Robinson hated the American South. She had never been there and never saw any reason to go there (unless on tour with a band, being whisked in and out). Every image she had seen on the television and every story she had read in a newspaper or magazine convinced her that the South was full of racist, ignorant hicks. The problem: Robinson is a blues fan, ,and a rock and roll fan, and so many of the artists she admires the most were influenced by blues singers and songwriters coming out of the American South. In 1988, she paid someone to drive her down part of the legendary Highway 61 from Memphis to New Orleans. With this, she intersperses the story of producing Chess Records 50th Anniversary Collection of Howlin’ Wolf recordings.


And finally, here’s a link to my full There Goes Gravity Spotify playlist, all three-plus hours of it. Enjoy!

The Never-Ending Story (of Book Bloggers)

I went through a bit of a humbling exercise today. We’re having strange weather for May here in Atlanta—rain and highs only in the mid-50s—so the run I planned to do at the Chattahoochee today was simply not going to happen. Instead, I read some of The People in the Trees and ran some errands, and I finally decided to sit down and tackle a small project that has been nagging at me over the last few weeks: my to-be-read (TBR) list.

Things have simply been getting out of hand. In no way am I unusual in having an out-of-control TBR. That, indeed, is the never-ending story of most book bloggers. I have yet to meet even one who does not have at least a small pile of unread books waiting to be tackled. Last year I even decided not to renew my library card so that I could tackle the TBR. Instead, I am pretty sure I had a record-breaking year for book buying. I also could not seem to stop myself from requesting things from NetGalley. I was so out of control that I simply could not keep up with reviews, even though I had a really terrific list of books at my disposal. I would start one only to put it down and start another, and when I grew completely frustrated I would simply go shopping (something that’s way too easy to do on a Kindle—a definite con).

Today I decided to face the music and make a TBR list and post it here on the blog. The Kindle list is comprehensive, but the physical book list only includes books I can see from my desk or that are piled on my nightstand. I have more stored on shelves. Some of the books on the list have been loaned to me, some of them over a year ago. *cringes*

I certainly don’t expect the list to keep me from buying books, or from putting them on hold at the library (right now I am thirty-something in line for both Boy, Snow, Bird and The Signature of All Things, for example). For sure I will buy the new Sarah Waters and the new Tana French. I recently bought myself a subscription to the New York Review of Books Classics. My wishlist has about 300 books on it, and I doubt I’ll stop adding to it. But really, something has to be done.

With so many good books at my fingertips—something for every mood, really—I have no excuse not to read my own stuff. I’ve been thinking about what an effort Cathy is making at 746 Books to stop buying books and read what she’s accumulated, and I think it’s definitely time to make a dent. Some books I haven’t picked up on purpose. Even when I want to read some of the non-fiction titles, they take me much longer to read and I worry about slowing down and losing momentum. I am not a person who can read several titles at once. Also, I travel for work, so lugging a big book through airports with everything else isn’t easy. (Why, why did I buy all those non-fiction books in physical form? What was I thinking?)

And so, without further ado, I hereby announce that I will do everything I can to ensure that I read at least two books from my existing library every month. (You might think that’s low, but I don’t get much time to read these days, so three to four books a month is about all I can manage.) Hopefully in December I’ll see some strike-through marks on that list of titles…just in time for Christmas shopping! (I kid. Or do I?)

Checking Out

I’ve decided to let my library card expire. On Sunday I turned in the last couple of books I’d checked out and cleared my hold list. My library system is actually quite good, so my decision is not based on any problems I’ve had concerning holding, checking out, or re-checking books. The problem is me. Libraries are wonderful for people with self control, for people who read 200 pages a day, or for people who don’t have a book blog that requires that they finish a book occasionally.

Certainly for the next three months as I participate in the TBR Double Dog Dare, I need no temptation. That “challenge” does allow taking out books that were on hold before January 1. The problem is that if a book from my hold list comes up, being the slow reader that I am, I’m more likely to set aside something I am already reading so I can read the library book (especially if it’s a “new” book with a two-week checkout period and no re-check available). And it also means that when I’ve finished the library book, I am more likely to ignore the book I was reading before and pick up something else. I’m moody that way.

This year, I would like to be a bit more disciplined about reading from my own books, so I’ve decided that for at least the first half of the year, I will stay away from the library. I think many of you can sympathize: when I’m reading reviews, if something sounds intriguing, it’s just a bit too easy to open up the library site and see if they have the book, and if they have it, to put it on hold. By letting my card expire, I cannot add anything to my hold list should I get a whim. (The Atlanta/Fulton County library system does not allow users to acquire or renew library cards online. For once I am actually thankful for backasswards thinking, because I can’t decide to renew from the cozy comfort of home.)

Going forward, if I really want to read a book that isn’t in my library, I’ll have to buy it (after the TBR Double Dare is over, of course). Not for one second shall I pretend that I don’t buy books and not read them. However, holidays aside, I generally can talk myself out of spending money, even for books. I cannot talk myself out of books that are FREE! And that’s how I end up with a bunch of DNFs and a pile of my own neglected books.

I hear all the time about people giving up buying books or quitting the book swapping sites (I had to do that, too, years ago), but no so much the library. Have you ever been tempted to turn in your library card?

Cleaning up the Lists

I had a tidy pile of Christmas money to spend this year, so I decided to take a long look at my wishlist and determine what to buy. Given that part of my commitment to the TBR Double Dog Dare challenge means no new books until April 1, I wanted to be sure that anything I might really want to read in the coming months was one of my purchases.

For reading, I keep two separate lists: my wishlist, which consists of books I do not own but would like to read, and my TBR (to-be-read, for those not familiar with bookish jargon), which consists of books I own but have yet to read. Both of these lists are long and slightly baffling. A lot of books are getting dusty on my shelves. Some were gifts. Some I failed to finish. On others, I’ve never even cracked the spine. This alone should serve as a warning.

While I know I’ll always have a running wishlist (it’s a good reference), I need to do a better job of cleaning it out from time to time. So that’s what I did this week. As I went through everything and decided what to purchase, I deleted items I have passed over again and again. And I admit, most of my purchases were from the top of my list, recent items I’ve added over the last year. It seems I’m more likely to read something if I can still remember whatever drove me to add it to the list in the first place.

The harder part for me is tackling the TBR: I know I won’t read all the books on my shelf, but once I own a book, I’m generally reluctant to part with it. I guess I believe there’s always a chance the mood will strike. Maybe it’s time to give up that belief.

2012 End of Year Survey

I participated in The Perpetual Page-Turner‘s end-of-year survey last year, so I thought I’d try it again this year. Even trying to pick favorites for this list was difficult!

1. Best Book You Read In 2012? (You can break it down by genre if you want)

Fiction: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. (I loved the story and I thought the writing was terrific. I gather there was some hype about the author, but I never followed any of it.)
Mystery: Stone’s Fall by Iain Banks and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. (Apples and oranges. That’s why I picked two!)
Memoir: Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Non-fiction: The People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo– and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up, Richard Lloyd Parry (also gets prize for Longest Title Ever)

2. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?

The End of Everything, by Megan Abbott. I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by her (Queenpin (review), Bury Me Deep (review), and Dare Me.)

3. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2012?

I read Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith because my mother loves it. She sent it to me and kept asking if I had a chance to read it. I kept resisting because, to be honest, I hated the title. I expected cliched, sentimental Southern drivel. Instead I got a life story told by an interesting character with a strong voice.

4. Book you recommended to people most in 2012?

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn– I also push her other books, Dark Places and Sharp Objects, whenever I can.

5. Best series you discovered in 2012?

I didn’t start any series this year, but I did buy The Passage by Justin Cronin and intend to read it soon(ish). I have intentionally avoided series because I tend to read the first book and then fail to read the following books. For example, I’ve had Catching Fire on my Kindle for two years, and I still haven’t read it. But I will! Before the movie! I will!

6. Favorite new authors you discovered in 2012?

Some new, some just new to me: Cheryl Strayed (Wild), Iain Banks (Stone’s Fall), Alexis Smith (Glaciers), Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding), Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk)

7. Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre for you?

I didn’t really read any new genres, but I read more nonfiction this year than usual.

8. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2012?

Stone’s Fall, Gone Girl, People Who Eat Darkness, and Wild. I read them all very quickly and they all gripped me for different reasons.

9. Book You Read In 2012 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year:

Next year? Probably none of them that soon! Too many new books to read, too many older ones to re-read already in line ahead of them. But I am sure I’ll read The Art of Fielding again.

10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2012?

People Who Eat Darkness. It looks sinister.

Richard Lloyd Parry People Who Eat Darkness

11. Most memorable character in 2012?

Ivy Rowe in Fair and Tender Ladies, and Billy Lynn in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. I cannot see a guy in uniform now without thinking of that book.

12. Most beautifully written book read in 2012?

The Art of Fielding and Fair and Tender Ladies

13. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2012?

I hate to answer this way, but it depends on what is meant by “impact.” In terms of writing, Alice Munro (Dear Life: Stories; The View from Castle Rock), Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), and Tana French (Broken Harbor) always have an impact on me. In terms of subject matter, Methland by Nick Reding and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.

14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2012 to finally read?

The View from Castle Rock was on my bookshelf for about four years. Alice Munro is one of my favorite writers, but it took me forever to get to that book. Also Stone’s Fall, which I got for Christmas in 2009.

15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2012?

From The Art of Fielding: “Literature could turn you into an asshole; he’d learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.”

16.Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2012?

Glaciers by Alexis Smith and The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett. The longest was probably Stone’s Fall.

17. Book That Had A Scene In It That Had You Reeling And Dying To Talk To Somebody About It? (a WTF moment, an epic revelation, a steamy kiss, etc. etc.) Be careful of spoilers!

The Devotion of Suspect X, Keigo Higashino. It’s so cleverly plotted and interesting. I also read parts of Wild, Methland, and People Who Eat Darkness out loud to my husband.

18. Favorite Relationship From A Book You Read In 2012 (be it romantic, friendship, etc).

Haruki Murakami and his relationship with running, in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

19. Favorite Book You Read in 2012 From An Author You Read Previously

The View from Castle Rock and Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro; Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

20. Best Book You Read That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else:

Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith (recommended by my mom) and Stone’s Fall by Iain Banks (recommended by countless book bloggers)

Book Blogging/Reading Life in 2012 (optional)

1. New favorite book blog you discovered in 2012?

Running off the Reeses. Not a book blog per se, but she does occasionally review books (a lot of history/biography) and I’ve added a fair number of titles to my wishlist based on some of her reviews. Also, she’s smart and funny and a fellow introvert, so I look forward to her posts.

2. Favorite review that you wrote in 2012?

I sadly didn’t review many of the books I read in 2012, but my favorite review is probably the one I wrote for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

3. Best discussion you had on your blog?

It was short, but the discussion around Running, Reading, and Blogging was a good one about setting one’s own goals and not competing against others.

4. Most thought-provoking review or discussion you read on somebody else’s blog?

Probably anything on Ana’s blog Things Mean a Lot. She puts so much into every post, and the comments and discussions are always interesting as a result.

5. Best event that you participated in (author signings, festivals, virtual events, memes, etc.)?

I had some fun chatting with Megan Abbott and Gillian Flynn on Goodreads. I tried very hard not to be a major dork. I am not sure I succeeded.

6. Best moment of book blogging in 2012?

Anytime I actually post. It’s been difficult getting back into it and staying with it, but when I do post something and I get even one comment, it makes me feel like part of something bigger.

7. Most Popular Post This Year On Your Blog (whether it be by comments or views)?

I don’t know! The ones overall that tend to get the most hits are my reviews of The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan and The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell. Pretty sure all the visitors are students trolling for information, but I’ll take what I can get.

8. Post You Wished Got A Little More Love?

My review of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

9. Best bookish discovery (book related sites, book stores, etc.)?

The Days of Yore, interviews with creative types about the time before they were famous.

10. Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year?

Yes! For the TBR Double Dare, I set out to read eight books from my TBR stack, and I did it!

Looking Ahead…

1. One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2012 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2013?

I am too flighty in my reading choices to pick one book as a priority, but I will commit to reading Wolf Hall, finally, in 2013.

2. Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2013?

Benediction by Kent Haruf. (I already ordered it, and it doesn’t come out until March 2013.)

3. One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging In 2013?

To post on the blog on a more regular basis. I miss being part of the book blogging community.

If you participated in the survey, please feel free to leave your link in the comments!