Top Ten Tuesday: Underrated Authors in Literary Fiction

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is a freebie, so I decided to go back to a topic I didn’t get to post: the top ten underrated authors or books in a genre. I’ve chosen books by ten authors of literary fiction. Some of these authors are well-known (and some aren’t but should be), but I’ve primarily chosen books I love and wish had a wider audience.

Crooked Hearts, Robert Boswell. This is the simple story of a highly dysfunctional family, beautifully told. The Warrens are a clannish bunch, unable or unwilling to change things due to the compelling bond they feel toward one another.

The Bright Forever, Lee Martin. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 (March by Geraldine Brooks took the honor), this novel is part mystery, part family drama. Told from alternating points of view, it follows the events over the course of summer in a small town when a young girl goes missing.

The Jump-Off Creek, Molly Gloss. If, like me, you were obsessed by books like the Little House series or stories of pioneers, you will enjoy this wonderful tale a of a woman who goes to live alone in the Oregon wilderness in the late 19th century.

Two Girls, Fat and Thin, Mary Gaitskill. Outside MFA circles, Gaitskill is most well-known for writing the short story “Secretary” that was the basis for the indie film of the same name starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. This novel is about the lives of two women whose lives intersect at a point when they most need each other. Trust me, there’s nothing chick-lit about this darkly comic (and sometimes just dark) novel.

Heat, Joyce Carol Oates. It seems like most people know Oates primarily for her novels, but few people realize what a terrific short-story writer she is. I find her stories tighter than her novels, which ratchets up the psychological tension for which she’s so well known to terrific heights.

Ship Fever, Andrea Barrett. Okay, so this one won the National Book Award. The thing is—maybe because it’s a book of short stories?—people seem to have forgotten about it, and about her. Barrett’s background is mostly in science, which she marries beautifully with historical fiction to produce stories that should appeal to a wide audience. If you like historical fiction but are afraid of short stories, this book will allay all your fears.

The Dart League King, Keith Lee Morris. This book surprised me so much when I first read it—it completely knocked my socks off. Russell Harmon is a self-proclaimed dart-league king in a small town. We get his story and the story of people in his life over the course of one long evening when the league championship is at stake. It’s got mystery, suspense, and dark comedy all rolled up into a heartbreaking, entertaining narrative. (My full review.)

Preston Falls, David Gates. This novel about a man’s midlife meltdown should delight any fan of Richard Ford or Richard Russo. I’ve never understood why Gates isn’t as popular as some of his contemporaries, because he writes with such a keen eye, compassion, and humor about everyday life. this book was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (in 1999). Seems like so many award finalists (and winners) slip through the cracks, doesn’t it?

And a couple of authors whose works overall don’t seem to get as much respect as they should:

Larry McMurtry. Lonesome Dove gets attention, but then people tend to think of it as a Western. McMurtry has a wide canon that includes more “contemporary” literary fiction (Terms of Endearment, Texasville) and Westerns, among other less easily classified novels. He’s a first-rate storyteller who deserves more attention.

Lee Smith. I think Lee Smith gets the double whammy of being labeled a regional writer (Appalachia/Southern) and a writer of “women’s fiction.” Both labels are limiting and probably keep people away from her work more than they should, but also keep her from being considered “real” literary fiction. She has a lot in common with Kent Haruf in terms of themes, if not in style and location.

What about you? What works or authors of literary fiction do you think deserve more attention?

Reader’s Journal: We Disappear

We DisappearFor years I’ve been saying that I need to keep better track of how I find books. I thought about this again when I picked up Scott Heim’s We Disappear and almost immediately wished I could offer a personal thank you to whoever recommended it.

Scott is a freelance writer living in New York City. Well, “living” might be too broad a term; he’s a writer, yes, but he’s also a meth addict, hiding out in his apartment most days and devoting his time to his high. Scott’s mother Donna lives in Haven, Kansas, just outside Hutchinson. She calls Scott to tell him that a seventeen-year-old boy named Henry Barradale was found murdered. She sends him newspaper clippings about the story and calls him regularly with updates. She bids him to come home to they can investigate together what happened to Henry, perhaps find his murderer.

Donna is suffering from terminal lung cancer. She’s a former prison tower guard at a maximum-security prison and True Detective (the magazine, not the television show) fanatic. Scott realizes her phone calls and sudden interest in Henry’s murder are really about something else, so he relents and agrees to visit. As it turns out, Henry’s murder is not the real mystery she wants to solve. We learn that the missing—the disappeared—have been an obsession of Donna’s since Scott and his sister Alice were children, when a Haven boy named Evan Carnaby vanished:

“The boy had disappeared during the time our mother was drinking, those weeks and months so long before her real disease, and soon she began staying up, quiet leaden midnights and beyond, to search for information on Evan and more missing souls. I remember hunkering downstairs to find her in the darkened kitchen, absorbed in her new undertaking. The staggering breathing, the rustle of newspapers, the sudden glint of scissors…In the mornings, Alice and I would wake to find all the faces watching us, Evan and his vanished companions, their photographs taped and pasted and pinned to our kitchen walls.”

Scott returns to find his mother similarly obsessed with Henry Barradale. The dashboard of Donna’s truck is covered in pictures of the missing, and when he arrives at the house she proudly shows him the kitchen walls she’s transformed with the same sort of clippings that she’d “taped and pasted and pinned” all those years ago. She also has an idea, a project for the two of them: a book about the missing in Kansas. She’s placed classified ads in newspapers in cities like Hutchinson and Emporia and Wichita, looking for families of the missing who want to talk, to tell their stories:

“Perhaps I hadn’t fully grasped my mother’s determination. I wasn’t certain she understood the gravity, the possible danger: could she actually exploit these despairing family members or friends with all her promises, her false guarantees? Would she still discuss our fictitious research and resulting work? Her detective work, Dolores had called it.”

When Scott arrives home and his mother’s best friend Dolores picks him up at the bus station (he’s had to take the bus because he’s carrying meth to see him through his visit), he realizes immediately that his other’s disease has progressed much more than he realized. They haven’t got much time, and so he agrees to go along with most of his mother’s schemes and wishes, even when he feels it’s against better judgment (although whose better judgment is questionable, since everyone in the story is afflicted in some way that affects their faculties).

As it does in Gillian Flynn’s work, Kansas itself also becomes a sort of character in the book: the small towns, the farms, the flat, cold landscape that Scott realizes he sought to escape but carries with him:

“Along the narrow avenues were houses with shattered windows, with gardens of car parts and sandburs and tumbleweeds. I watched her scribble street names on her notepads, names that might once have been functional but now were simply silly: Cowherder Street, Barley Boulevard, God’s Green Way.”

A way of life has disappeared, one that’s reflected in the antiques in Donna’s house:

“The bronze chandelier with its drops of glass…the old firkin sugar bucket, clumped with dried roses…the Dazey butter churn. Most of the antiques had remained in our family for years. Others I hadn’t seen before, her recent discoveries from junkyards and auctions. I stepped around the room, straightening the picture frames, examining the rows of dolls in the glass china cabinet.”

We Disappear is one of those books where it’s difficult to know what might be a spoiler, so as far as plot, I’ll leave it at that even though there’s so much more. The story is told in the first person, and Scott is a compelling narrator, and it’s difficult to not to empathize with him. Everyone in this book is disappearing or disappeared in some sense, whether through illness or memory or reality, but Scott in particular has always felt invisible in some ways—a gay teenager in small-town Kansas, escaped to the big city where instead of finding himself he found the drug that would cause him to disappear even further. He’s an addict, and he makes no bones about the fact, but neither does he glamorize it or use it to shame, blame, or confuse other people. Instead, Scott does everything in the book despite his addiction, and I think that’s one of the things that keeps the book from dragging the reader around in the hopelessness of it all.

Here’s something I can’t quite figure out: as dark as this book is, I enjoyed it thoroughly. We Disappear features a meth addict, a cancer victim, a lonely alcoholic, and countless missing or murdered men, women, and children. Yet something redeeming exists, and I think ultimately that thing is love. Scott loves his mother, even with all her eccentricities, even with all his frustration at her and at himself. He knows that she loves him. It isn’t that they aren’t flawed people, but more that Heim doesn’t really let the flaws and dysfunction get in the way of the love, and that’s as unusual in a novel as in life. Hope beats steadily beneath the narrative, which makes it easy for the reader to keep going, to keep hoping.

*images and links from Goodreads and Wikipedia

Top Ten 2014 Releases I Meant to Read (But Didn’t)

Last year I found myself adding books to my wishlist like a crazy person. I think there must be a mathematical formula somewhere that shows how the desire to read a lot and the inability to do so results in a sort of virtual book hoarding behavior. The result is that I added plenty of 2014 releases to my wishlist (and I bought and read several of them, including Long Man, The Enchanted, The Secret Place, The Paying Guests, and Fourth of July Creek) but didn’t get around to reading most of them. So for today’s Top Ten (hosted by The Broke and The Bookish), I give you the top ten books from 2014 that I never got around to reading:

Bark, Lorrie Moore. Of all of last year’s releases, this is the one I am the most ashamed I haven’t read yet, not only because Lorrie Moore is one of my favorite authors, but because I actually own a hard copy of the book. In fact, I pre-ordered it in 2013 because I was so excited about it. Whoops.

Bark: Stories

After I’m Gone, Laura Lippman. I actually bought this on sale last week, but I can’t read it until April. Laura Lippman’s books always entertain me.

After I'm Gone

Friendswood, Rene Steinke. Because it’s set in Texas, and sounds like one of those terrific narratives about family and community and what it means to belong to both.

Friendswood: A Novel

Some Luck, Jane Smiley. The truth is, I’ve only read two of Jane Smiley’s novels, A Thousand Acres and Moo, but I enjoyed them both so much that I am constantly meaning to return to her work.

Some Luck

Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle. I’ve read a few excerpts from this novel, and I’m drawn by the writing in addition to the fact that as a former World of Warcraft player, I am compelled by the exploration of creating other worlds inside of games, and how the desire to escape or control affects the “real” world.

Wolf in White Van

We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas. A story about a family trying to achieve the American Dream. Sign me up for that one.

We Are Not Ourselves

The Ploughmen, Kim Zupan. Lately it feels like the most compelling words to me are”lonesome,” “thriller,” and “the Plains.” This novel checks all three of those boxes.

The Ploughmen

Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng. I actually received a free audiobook version of this novel. Question: when do you listen to audio books? I don’t have a commute, so the car is out. I tried listening while exercising, but my mind drifts. After listening to the first part, I know the writing is great, but I may have to get a “real” book to get through the whole thing.

Everything I Never Told You

Shotgun Lovesongs, Nickolas Butler. There are novels aplenty about four friends growing up and growing apart as the world intervenes, but it sounds like Butler has worked some magic on this timeless tale. And also, music.

Shotgun Lovesongs

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr. I’ve heard nothing but raves abut this book. Sometimes that makes me feel less compelled to read a novel, but in this case I get the feeling that it’s as good as everyone says.

All the Light We Cannot See

*Images and text from Goodreads

Reader’s Journal: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

Claire DeWitt and the City of the DeadI can’t remember how I came across Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. I think maybe I saw it on one of those “Recommended Reading” lists from someone like Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott, which makes sense because stylistically this novel, the first in a series (hopefully a long one), sits alongside works by those authors (and I’d include Laura Lippman’s books, both her Tess Monaghan series and her stand-alone works, here as well). Gran definitely has the grit of Flynn and Abbott, the page-turning story skills and character development of all three.

Claire DeWitt is a private investigator. For her, being a PI isn’t a job, but a calling, or even a burden. At the age of twelve, she and her two best friends, Kelly and Tracie, find a book called Détection in the crumbling Brooklyn mansion where Claire lives with her parents. Détection is a manual of sorts, written by a French PI names Jacques Silette. Silette’s work is less a “how to” than an existential philosopher’s text for the PI. For example:

“There are moments in life that are quicksand,” Silette wrote. “A gun goes off. A levee breaks. A girl goes missing. These moments of time are different from the others. Quicksand is a dangerous place to be. We will drown there if we can’t get out. But it tricks us. It tricks us into confusing us with safety. At first, it may seem like a solid place to stay. But slowly we’re sinking. You will never move forward. Never move back. In quicksand you will slowly sink until you drown. The deeper you let yourself sink, the harder it is to claw yourself out.”

As Claire explains it, Silette has a small, cult-like following, primarily because Détection is a book that finds its readers, not so much the other way around.

In the present day, Claire DeWitt is 35, and she has just returned to New Orleans, having left the city many years before when her mentor, Constance Darling, a former lover and student of Jacques Silette, was murdered. It is a couple of years after Hurricane Katrina, and Claire has been hired by a man named Leon Salvatore to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his uncle, a man named Vic Willing who was a prominent DA for the city. Leon believes his uncle is dead, but he wants to learn what happened to him before he vanished.

Claire is no ordinary PI. She reads Silette, consults the I Ching, and abuses a fair (larger than fair, really) amount of substances in pursuit of the solution to Leon’s mystery. Interwoven with the mystery of Vic’s disappearance, Claire also shares the story of how she met Constance Darling, in addition to another unsolved mystery that continues to haunt her: the disappearance of her best friend Tracie when they were seventeen years old.

This is one of those books where I feel like I need to walk the line. Of course I don’t want to give away what happened to Vic Willing, but more importantly, I don’t want to give away the smaller mysteries the book contains, because they are part of its charm. Claire uses instinct, dreams, and signs as her primary tools for working her mysteries (notice I didn’t say solving), and while that kind of thing could get hokey and annoying pretty quickly, in Gran’s capable hands they seem like natural tools for the private eye, probably because Claire herself is anti-social, smart, and gritty—the last person you would expect to believe that a roll of the dice could reveal anything other than a pair of numbers. She also gives quaint names to the mysteries she works on (Vic’s is “The Case of the Green Parrot”; another is “The Case of the Missing Miners” ), which seems like a sly and charming nod to golden-age mystery series

The other compelling character in this novel is the city of New Orleans. I don’t think I’ve seen a documentary or read a news story yet that quite captures what it must have been (must still be to some extent?) like post-Hurricane Katrina. Because Vic Willing disappeared days after the hurricane, Claire’s investigation leads her to places and people who are still devastated by the event nowhere near recovery, if they ever will be.

I’m looking forward to reading Gran’s second book in the series, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, and will be anxiously awaiting the third installment. I highly recommend it. And for the record, I own the first book, so it also counts for the TBR Double Dog Dare. (Too bad I don’t own the second one.)

*image and link from Goodreads

Top Ten Tuesday: What Looks Good in 2015?

Today’s Top Ten (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish)—Top Ten 2015 releases we anticipate most—was a tough one, because I am still thinking about all the great books I never got around to in 2014. Last year I probably read fewer books for leisure than since graduate school, when Eighteenth century British epistolary novels and literary criticism took up all.my.reading.time. The good thing is that even though I only completed 32 books last year, over half of them were favorites (even though I only listed ten), and that’s remarkable for any reading year.

So even though I’m struggling to catch up with last year’s releases, I decided to look ahead and see what’s coming in the new year. Some new releases, such as books from Kazuo Ishiguro, Toni Morrison, and Kate Atkinson, probably excite most readers of literary fiction, so I’m not going to include those here. Instead, I’ve picked some less obvious choices that look intriguing. I give you books I am anticipating in 2015 (but will probably read in in 2016):

The Girl on the Train CoverThe Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins.  Okay, so this one is getting talked about all over the place, but it is a debut and the description is so compelling (to me, at least). I can already confirm I’ll be buying this one as soon as my self-imposed book buying ban is lifted, probably as one of my (2016) summer reads:

“Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. Its only a minute until the train moves on, but its enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?”

Watch Me Go CoverWatch Me Go, Mark Wisniewski. Deesh is asked to move some barrels. He needs money. He doesn’t know or care what they contain, until he realizes just exactly what he’s moving, and who will take the blame. I’ve seen this compared to A Simple Plan, one of my favorite books of 2014. I tend to enjoy these “ordinary man pulled into a life of crime” stories:

“Jan, a young female jockey aspiring to win at horse racing and love, breaks her silence about organized crime to try to save the life of Deesh, an imprisoned black man she doesn’t know, whos been falsely accused of three murders. As Deesh and Jan recount the events that sent their lives spiraling out of control, they piece together the whole story and understand how they each fit into it. Suspenseful yet compassionate, Watch Me Go is a heart-stopping tour de force that examines how we love, leave, lose, redeem, and strive once more for love—and, ultimately, how regardless of how fast or how far we run, there is no escaping the daring impulses and human vulnerability in all of us.”

The Devil You Know: A NovelThe Devil You Know, Elizabeth de Mariaffi. This sounds like another fun read in the vein of Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman, or Megan Abbott. I suspect this will be another summer fun book:

“The year is 1993. Rookie crime beat reporter Evie Jones is haunted by the unsolved murder of her best friend Lianne Gagnon who was killed in 1982, back when both girls were eleven. The suspected killer, a repeat offender named Robert Cameron, was never arrested, leaving Lianne’s case cold.

Now twenty-one and living alone for the first time, Evie is obsessively drawn to finding out what really happened to Lianne. She leans on another childhood friend, David Patton, for help—but every clue they uncover seems to lead to an unimaginable conclusion. As she gets closer and closer to the truth, Evie becomes convinced that the killer is still at large—and that he’s coming back for her.”

Find Me CoverFind Me, Laura van den Berg. Is it just me, or are dystopia/epidemic novels the new black? Many of the new releases seem to fit those descriptions. (Or else, Gone Girl—I’m waiting for the description that says, “This novel is Station Eleven meets Gone Girl.” It’s coming soon, I promise you.) Still, something about this description drew me, and I expect it might be a knockout:

“Joy has no one. She spends her days working the graveyard shift at a grocery store outside Boston and nursing an addiction to cough syrup, an attempt to suppress her troubled past. But when a sickness that begins with memory loss and ends with death sweeps the country, Joy, for the first time in her life, seems to have an advantage: she is immune. When Joy’s immunity gains her admittance to a hospital in rural Kansas, she sees a chance to escape her bleak existence. There she submits to peculiar treatments and follows seemingly arbitrary rules, forming cautious bonds with other patients;including her roommate, whom she turns to in the night for comfort, and twin boys who are digging a secret tunnel.

As winter descends, the hospitals fragile order breaks down and Joy breaks free, embarking on a journey from Kansas to Florida, where she believes she can find her birth mother, the woman who abandoned her as a child. On the road in a devastated America, she encounters mysterious companions, cities turned strange, and one very eerie house. As Joy closes in on Florida, she must confront her own damaged memory and the secrets she has been keeping from herself.”

Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas (Margellos World Republic of Letters) CoverSuspended Sentences, Patrick Modiano. Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Do I need more of a reason than that?

“Although originally published separately, Patrick Modiano’s three novellas form a single, compelling whole, haunted by the same gauzy sense of place and characters. Modiano draws on his own experiences, blended with the real or invented stories of others, to present a dreamlike autobiography that is also the biography of a place. Orphaned children, mysterious parents, forgotten friends, enigmatic strangers — each appears in this three-part love song to a Paris that no longer exists. In this superb English-language translation of Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin, Mark Polizzotti captures not only Modiano’s distinctive narrative voice but also the matchless grace and spare beauty of his prose.
Shadowed by the dark period of the Nazi Occupation, these novellas reveal Modiano’s fascination with the lost, obscure, or mysterious: a young person’s confusion over adult behavior; the repercussions of a chance encounter; the search for a missing father; the aftershock of a fatal affair. To read Modiano’s trilogy is to enter his world of uncertainties and the almost accidental way in which people find their fates.”

The Half Brother CoverThe Half Brother, Holly LeCraw. It’s a campus novel. Enough said.

“When Charlie Garrett arrives as a young teacher at the Abbott School, he finds a world steeped in privilege and tradition. The school’s green quads are lined by gothic stone halls, students dart across campus in blazers and bright plaid skirts. Fresh out of college and barely older than the students he teaches, Charlie longs to find his place in the rarefied world of Abbottsford. He is particularly drawn to the school chaplain, Preston Bankhead, and Preston’s beautiful daughter, May. Then, Charlie’s younger half brother, Nick, arrives on campus. Nick is, quite literally, the golden child, with sandy blond hair and a dazzling smile. Teachers welcome him warmly, students stay late to talk after class, and May Bankhead proves susceptible to his magnetic draw. As Charlie sees the unmistakable connection between his first love and his half brother, he struggles with emotions far more complicated than mere jealousy. A terrible secret threatens to surface, and Charlie’s peaceful campus life is shattered.”

The World Before Us CoverThe World Before Us, Aislinn Hunter. This just sounds like all kinds of dark, twisted fun. (Yes, I just described the idea of reading about Victorian asylums and museum archivists as “fun.”)

“Deep in the woods of northern England, somewhere between a dilapidated estate and an abandoned Victorian asylum, fifteen-year-old Jane Standen lived through a nightmare. She was babysitting a sweet young girl named Lily, and in one fleeting moment during their outdoor adventure, she lost her. The little girl was never found, leaving her family and Jane devastated.

Twenty years later, Jane is an archivist at a small London museum that is about to close for lack of funding. As a final research project—an endeavor inspired in part by her painful past—Jane surveys the archives for information related to another missing person: a woman who disappeared some 125 years ago in the same woods where Lily was lost. As Jane pieces moments in history together, a compelling portrait of a fascinating group of people starts to unfurl. Inexplicably tied to the mysterious disappearance of long ago, Jane finds tender details of their lives at the country estate and in the asylum that are linked to her own presently heartbroken world, and their story from all those years ago may now help Jane find a way to move on.”

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories and a novellaA Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, David Gates. Because David Gates. You don’t need to wait for this book to read his work. Check out his short story collection The Wonders of the Invisible World or his novel Preston Falls. If you like Richard Russo or Richard Ford (“The Richards”), then you’ll like David Gates.

“Gates’s characters, young or old or neither, are well educated, broadly knowledgeable, often creative and variously accomplished, whether as a doctor or a composer, an academic or a journalist. And every one of them carries a full supply of the human condition: parents in assisted-living–or assisted-dying–facilities, too many or too few people in their families and marriages, the ties that bind a sometimes messy knot, age an implacable foe, impulses pulling them away from comfort into distraction or catastrophe. Terrifyingly self-aware, they refuse to go gently–even when they’re going nowhere fast, in settings that range across the metropolitan and suburban Northeast to the countryside upstate and in New England.”

There's Something I Want You to Do: Stories CoverThere’s Something I Want You to Do, Charles Baxter. I have a soft spot for Charles Baxter because his collection A Relative Stranger was an early favorite of mine. If you like Tobias Wolff (or again, The Richards—or David Gates!), then put Charles Baxter on your list as well. Read the story collections first, because that’s where he really shines.

“These interrelated stories are arranged in two sections, one devoted to virtues and the other to vices. They are cast with characters who appear and reappear throughout the collection, their actions equally divided between the praiseworthy and the loathsome. They take place in settings as various as Tuscany, San Francisco, Ethiopia, and New York, but their central stage is the North Loop of Minneapolis, alongside the Mississippi River, which flows through most of the tales. Each story has at its center a request or a demand, but each one plays out differently: in a hit-and-run, an assault or murder, a rescue, a startling love affair, or, of all things, a gesture of kindness and charity. Altogether incomparably crafted, consistently surprising, remarkably beautiful stories.”

Our Souls at Night: A novelOur Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. Favorite author, final book. RIP, Mr. Haruf.

 

 

 

 

*Images, links, and synopses from Powell’s and Goodreads. All links are unaffiliated; I receive no compensation.

Reader’s Journal: We Were Liars

We Were Liars CoverBack in 2011 I picked up E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks and loved it. In fact, it made my list of top books for 2011, so when I saw the news about We Were Liars, I immediately put it on hold when it became available at the library. And then I waited. And I waited. And then I forgot about it and the hold expired so I put it back on the list again and I waited. And waited. Finally, last month it came available so I checked it out and then it sat untouched on my desk. And it sat. And it sat. And then, with only a few days to spare (it’s due back today), I decided I would make it my last book of 2014.

The bad news is, this book is difficult to discuss without giving away some important plot elements. The good news is, it was absolutely worth the wait, and I’m so happy I was able to end the reading year on a high note.

Cadence Sinclair Eastman (Cady) is part of a venerable, blue-blooded New England family, the Sinclairs of Boston. For all of her life, during summers she has visited her grandparents on their private island, Beechwood, near Martha’s Vineyard. Her grandfather built houses for each of his three daughters, and summer after summer, regardless of marital turmoil or other life events, the sisters have visited the island with the children in tow. Cady spent every summer of her life with her cousins Johnny and Mirren, and then when she was eight years old, her Aunt Carrie (Johnny’s mother) brings her partner Ed, who is Indian, and Ed’s nephew Gat, to the island with her, and Cady’s life is forever changed, as the four of them form an enduring bond. They call themselves The Liars.

The book opens during what Cady calls Summer Seventeen (the summer she and the Liars are 17 years old). Cady has not been to the island since Summer Fifteen, when she suffered a head injury after a diving accident. She did not return to the island during Summer Sixteen, and she has mysteriously heard nothing from the other Liars over the two years she has not seen them. She has pockets of time she cannot remember. She endures debilitating migraine headaches. She hopes that the Liars can help her recover her memory of events and help her regain a sense of normalcy.

That’s it. That’s all I can tell you. Just know that you are in the hands of a skilled storyteller. Pay no attention to the fact that this book is marketed as Young Adult if you tend to avoid that sort of thing, because this is a book about family, and about pain and loss and friendship and love. Lockhart also does such a wonderful job at showing us the insular, privileged world of the Sinclair family, of making the island such a vivid place that we can smell the salt air, see the waves, and imagine the soft summer breezes. I’m happy to join the chorus of other bloggers and readers who highly recommend this book, and I can’t wait to read what E. Lockhart writes next.

*image and link from powells.com; links are unaffiliated and I receive no compensation

Top Ten Tuesday: 2015 Resolutions

For today’s Tuesday Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, we are asked to share our 2015 resolutions, bookish, blogging, or otherwise. This year I feel like I am in a resolution rut, because my resolutions are pretty much the same this year as they were last year and the year before. Instead of being discouraged by this, I am just going to promise myself that this year, I’ll make sure at least half of these stick!

1. Read more books. 2014 was a good year as far as quality, but very poor as far as quantity: I only managed to finish 32 books, although I started and put down at least a dozen more after making substantial progress. I really let my (bad) mood drive my reading choices. My target isn’t huge, just to average one book a week. If I read some chunksters this year, I may give myself a small pass on hitting 52 books. (I currently have have my eye on Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.)

2. Tackle the TBR. This is an ongoing resolution for so many book bloggers. We try and try to whittle down those piles. I’ll be doing the TBR Double Dog Dare hosted by James, which is becoming something of a yearly tradition for book bloggers who want to diminish those piles. The Dare is to read only from the TBR pile from January 1 through April 1. Participants can buy new books but cannot read them until after March 31. I participated in 2012 and 2013, and was fairly successful (although in 2013, I didn’t make it all the way to April without reading a new book).

3. Keep track of my thoughts. This year I would definitely like to keep better track of what I thought of what I read. I need to get back to using flags or highlighting (ebooks) and taking notes as I read. Over the past couple of years I started to realize I probably would never get around to writing a review for the blog, so I gave up even taking notes. I’m sorry that I did, because I know I read some terrific books this year but I have no notes to remind me of what I loved. Also, I find that if I am keeping up my reading journal, I am more likely to write reviews here, which leads me to number 4…

4. Write more reviews. I may not review everything I read, but I’d certainly like to write more reviews than I did this year. I read so many terrific books—like Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress—that went unsung (well, on this blog, at least).

5. Comment more on other people’s blogs. The chance to discuss books was the whole reason I got into book blogging. Commenting was a hot topic this year, because many people have simply stopped for various reasons. Sometimes it feels too time-consuming to try and keep up with so many great bloggers; other times we have nothing to say because we haven’t read or are not interested in the book being reviewed. For my part, I’d just like to do a better job at letting the bloggers who I read regularly know that I appreciate their time, effort, and recommendations.

6. Write. In the last quarter of 2014 I got very disciplined about scheduling in some writing time and sticking to it. I don’t have a goal here other than to pick up and keep that momentum going in 2015. For now, it’s all about getting back into the habit.

7. Read more short stories. I used read more short story collections than novels in any given year. Last year I read one, the aforementioned Stone Mattress. Late in 2013 I pre-ordered Lorrie Moore’s latest collection, Bark. It’s still sitting on the shelf, untouched. **Cringe** I bought several other collections in 2013 and 2014 and haven’t read any of them either. Any of you who have followed this blog over the years know I am an advocate of the short story, so I think in 2015 I’d better walk the walk.

8. Find a read-along or another challenge to join. I gave up on challenges a long time ago, but I think joining one (just one!) again might help me get back into the swing of things.

9. Use the library. A couple of years ago I decided to give up my library card in hope that I would defer to my own shelves. That didn’t entirely work, so this year, I renewed my library membership. I am hoping that will help me stop buying ebooks on sale, but I am also happy to be supporting my local branch once again.

10. Finish what I start. I’ve gotten really bad about not finishing some perfectly good books. I am all for putting down a book if it truly is bad or making you suffer in some way, but I put down some great books this year just because. I had several book tantrums where I spent a period of weeks just grazing through books and being mad at any number of them for not holding my attention, when really it wasn’t their fault. I need to get back some of the discipline that has rewarded me as a reader in the past.

What are your resolutions, bookish or not, this year?