Thursday, December 18, 2014

Five Great 2014 Novels You May Have Missed

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.)

One of my favorite annual year-end articles is Slate’s “Overlooked Books” of the year. As is usually the case, this year’s list of 27 novels includes some terrific picks, such as Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters and Ben Marcus’ Leaving The Sea.

But even the venerable Slate list can’t capture everything. So it’s always fun to supplement this list with one of my own. So here are five terrific 2014 novels you may have missed.

5. O, Democracy by Kathleen Rooney
If you don’t laugh about our broken political system, you’ll probably cry. This small-press novel about a young woman named Colleen who works as an aide to the Senior Senator from Illinois during the summer of 2008 will actually have you doing a lot of both. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel about Rooney’s own experiences, which is good to know, because at times it seems so absurd, it’s almost unbelievable. But then you remember how goofed up politics is these days, and so when you read about a candidate who tries get people to believe that dumping pollution into the lake is actually good for marine life, because they can eat it, you think, “yep, that actually seems about right.” If you have an interest in politics, or Chicago, you’ll really dig this novel.

4. Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
It’s debatable whether this debut novel is actually overlooked – this novel got a lot of looks due to word-of-mouth that spread quickly after its mid-summer release. But if you haven’t looked yet, I’d highly recommend you do. It’s a story about a social worker (a vastly under-represented profession in fiction) named Pete Snow in early 1980s Montana. Pete encounters a kid who appears to live in the woods with his anti-government, ultra-religious father, and so Pete has to decide how much he really can (or should, or be permitted to) help this kid. All the while, Pete’s dealing with his own disaster — his ex-wife (a drunk) has moved to Texas, and now his teenage daughter has run away. Henderson writes with pinpoint accuracy, making complex issues actually enjoyable to read about and consider. Purposefully set during the time Henderson seems to be saying is the dawn of the current culture wars, many of the issues are similar to those driving the national conversations these days. This is truly a great American novel.

3. The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing by Mira Jacob
This is the best-titled novel of the year, in my view — so it’s a good thing the story itself, which took Jacob more than 10 years to write, is great, as well. Amina, late 20s, a freelance Seattle photographer, and the daughter of Indian immigrants, rushes to her parents’ home in Albuquerque to try to determine why her father, Thomas, is having day-long conversations with his dead mother. We zoom back to 1970s India to examine Thomas and his mother’s rocky relationship, and then to early 1980s Albuquerque to learn about Amina’s and her brother’s childhoods. You’ll think “Jhumpa Lahiri” right away because it’s an Indian immigrant story, but whereas Lahiri is mostly straightforward and earnest, Jacob is often playful, witty, and funny — even as she’s telling us about some rather weighty issues. It’s a strangely fluid story for as much as it jumps in time and place.

2. The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol
This is easily the best short story collection I’ve read since George Saunders’ Tenth of December. It’s all killer, no filler — a rarity for story collections. But what makes these stories truly memorable are the characters in each — either foreigners (literally un-Americans), as in my favorite story “Minor Heroics,” about Jewish brothers in Israel, or immigrants to America who struggle for one reason or another, as in the heartbreaking stories “The Unknown Soldier” and “The Quietest Man.” In total, these stories are about imagining a world beyond our front door and identifying with and understanding people who live in that world — it’s an idea we’d all do well to take more to heart.

1. Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
If you read and enjoyed Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, you’ll love this novel of four mid-30s friends who grew up in Little Wing, a tiny town in rural Wisconsin. One has become a famous rock star. One is a Chicago business bonehead who convinces his new wife to move back to Little Wing. And two have gotten married to each other and stayed in Little Wing to tend the family farm. How these friends react to revealed secrets from the past, new problems with love and loss, and their new and different stations in life will affect their friendships now and into the future. This is just a massively great novel — one that seemed to just hit me at the right time of my life, and therefore has had a lasting effect. I cannot get it out of my head. Hopefully that’ll be the case for you, too.

What would be on your list of underrated or overlooked novels of 2014?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Bone Clocks: Brilliant, Hypnotic, Best Novel of 2014

This novel is amazingly brilliant. And I loved it. Absolutely, intensely loved it. It's a great companion piece to Mitchell's most famous novel Cloud Atlas, but it's also a nod to Mitchell's other novels (characters from Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet pop up again), as well as ground-breaking films like The Matrix and Inception. In total, The Bone Clocks is just about the bravest, smartest, most entertaining, most inventive, and most fun to read novel I've put into my brain in a very long time.

So the novel is actually six interconnected stories with one central character — Holly Sykes — as the anchor.  She herself (in first person) tells us the first (in 1984, she's a 16-year-old girl running away from home in a small town in England) and the last (in 2043, as a 75-year-old living in the Irish countryside as the world collapses). The four stories in between, all as fascinating and entertaining as Holly's first-person story, expand on the overall narrative — which, and this is going to sound crazy, is about two factions of immortal beings whose souls can occupy human forms, but who are at war with each other, a classic good vs. evil story.

The real genius of the novel is how Mitchell grounds this fantastical, metaphysical, centuries-long war in very human stories. And furthermore, it's amazing how Mitchell positions Holly at the center of all these stories, even when she's not overtly the protagonist. Stories Nos. 2-4, about a douchey college kid in the early 1990s, a war-zone journalist in 2004 Iraq, and an aging boozy English novelist (Martin Amis, perhaps?) traveling the world in the last half of the 2010s are all fascinating and terribly fun to read as set pieces. There's humor, there's tragedy, there are love stories, and there's treachery.

But again the true genius of this novel is how details from each story begin to fulfill the promise of the clues Mitchell gives us in the first 100 pages (in Holly's first story) for what he's really up to. And then it's the fifth story where things get weird, and Mitchell brings it all together — and there's a battle, and a labyrinth, and a golden apple, and it's just so breathtakingly original and imaginative, you're in true, utter amazement. I was, anyway. It's one of those cases where you read a few pages, have to put the book down for a minute, go "wow," and then continue reading.

This is my favorite novel of the year, and I need some time to decide yet, but it's not out of the realm of possibilities that it winds up as one of my favorites of all time. It'll be hard to tell, though, as it's clear Mitchell is sort of building an entire fictional world piece by piece with each of his novels, spinning off characters, reappearing characters, and furthering themes. I don't know of any writer working now or in the past as ambitious as Mitchell seems to be. I was on the edge before, but now I'm officially an incorrigible Mitchell fanboy. Man, this was good. And I'm jealous of you if you're going to soon pick it up for the first time.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Three Mini-Reviews: Station Eleven, An Untamed State, The Laughing Monsters

It's so much fun to write about novels you're enthusiastic about and can recommend highly. Here are three:

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel — Novels like this one that are so carefully constructed, so meticulously crafted, and so freakin' engrossing just absolutely astound me. How did she do this? How did she pull it all together? And how did she make it so much fun to read? All I know for sure is that she did, and this is one of the best novels of 2014. It'd be too easy to pigeonhole this novel as a post-apocalypse book — though, it is that. A band of survivors who call themselves the Traveling Symphony caravan around what had been Michigan 20 years after a deadly flu has wiped out 99 percent of Earth's population. They play music and perform Shakespeare, because, as one of our protagonists, Kirsten fervently believes, "Survival is insufficient." But the novel is also the pre-flu story of an actor named Arthur, his first wife Miranda, his friend Clark, and a guy named Jeevan who pops up in various roles throughout. So we jump back and forth in time to before the flu, to right after the flu, and then to 20 years after when the Traveling Symphony encounters a prophet — a religious fanatic who means them harm. Each piece of the puzzle falls into place, furthering both our understanding of these characters' connections to each other and also the themes of the novel as a whole — loyalty and friendship, the value and necessity of art, and, of course, the uncompromisable importance of empathy. I can't recommend this more highly — it's a book you won't soon forget. 

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay — Unflinching. Devastating. Gay's debut novel is about a woman named Mireille who is kidnapped in Haiti. She is raped, beaten, and stripped of her humanity — indeed, she begins thinking of herself as "no one," both as a survival mechanism (she has to separate the person she is in captivity from from the woman she was prior to the kidnapping) and as a way to try to rationalize how these men, her tormenters, could be so cruel to another human. Eventually, when she's released, she and her husband must figure out how to be with each other after such an unspeakably horrible ordeal. It's not all smooth sailing. This is a book that, as much as you want to "look away," you can't. It doesn't exactly reinforce your faith in humanity, but it does reinforce your faith in a writer's ability to tell a horrific story with grace. I won't say this was a good time with a book, necessarily (indeed, it can even be insulting to men at times: "Girl children are not safe in the world where there are men," Gay writes) but it was one that was hard to put down. And I'm very glad I read it. Reading to try to understand something foreign isn't always easy, but it is essential.

The Laughing Monsters, by Denis Johnson — You may know Denis Johnson from his highly acclaimed short story collection or his National Book Award-winning novel, Tree of Smoke. This short novel is a zany spy story about a guy named Roland Nair who is working, ostensibly, for NATO Intelligence — he's sent to Sierre Leone to find out what his former friend and long-time schemer, Michael Adriko, is up to. It's presumed the answer is "no good," and Nair soon finds out how right that is — but he has a few schemes up his sleeve as well. Will he join forces with Michael on one last get-rich-quick caper, or will he rat him out? This is just a good romp of a novel — you spend most of your time with it trying to figure out who will be loyal to whom, or who might be betrayed. Is there actually honor among thieves? And it's all set against the chaos and strange customs (to an American audience) of modern Africa, as the two (along with Michael's fiancee) travel from Sierre Leone to Uganda and then to Congo. This is a quick, one- or two-sitting read, and a good introduction to Johnson, if you've never read him before.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Some Exciting New Dork News...and a Few Reviews

I don't have an actual bookish bucket list, but if I did "working at a bookstore" would be near the top. And now I can (pretend to) cross it off! A new indie called RoscoeBooks is opening just a few blocks from where I live here in Chicago, and despite the fact that this is damn near akin to hiring an alcoholic to bar tend, the owner is graciously allowing me to work there a few hours a week. I couldn't be more excited! The store opens this Saturday, Nov. 22 — if you're in Chicago, come say 'hello.' I'll be the one with ridiculous perma-grin-goofy-happy smile on my face. 

And but, one of the reasons I'm super excited to be a bookseller is, yes, to be able to recommend books I love to other people, but also to learn more about what other people are reading that fall outside my immediate comfort zone. Another reason I'm excited is working at a bookstore will only make it more apparent that there's always something to learn about books. So in some ways, this is selfish excitement, because I'll get to discover books I may have otherwise missed. And that's already happened just in the last week as a result of talking with the other booksellers (see below) and helping to shelve (I assume it's natural to talk to the authors as you shelve their books, right?). So anyway, yeah — I'm stoked. This...will be fun.

And so, here, have some reviews:

Submergence, by J.M. Ledgard — If you've never heard of this book, don't worry — I hadn't either until a few weeks ago. But the new owner of RoscoeBooks recommended this, and I read it in about two sittings. It's a short novel about a guy named James who is a British spy and gets kidnapped by Islamic extremists in Somalia. It's also about a woman named Danny who is a biomathematician — she studies microbial life in the deepest depths of the ocean. And finally, it's about how the two met, and how they discuss life, and why we're all here ("We're nature's brief experiment with self-awareness," Ledgard writes — a mind-blowing idea, when you really think about it.), and chance and luck, and art and literature, and it's just fantastic. The story's told in brief snippets, alternating perspectives between Danny and James, and between the present day, and when the two met at a French hotel on the Atlantic coast. If you've read and enjoyed Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See, I think you'll love this, too.

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber — This big, sprawling novel has one of the more inventive premises of any novel I've read in awhile. It's about a Christian missionary named Peter who is hired by a mysterious corporation called USIC to travel to a distant planet (which humans have dubbed Oasis) to preach the Bible to the native population (which Peter calls Oasans). Peter must leave his beloved wife Bea— who was his savior when he was a drug and alcohol addict, and who was his reason for his being "born again."  Life on Earth in general, and his wife Bea's life specifically (as he learns by communicating with her via a rudimentary emails machine — and Faber includes these missives at great length), begin to deteriorate and Peter feels helpless, but has success with the Oasans. Peter is the second minister to visit Oasis, and the Oasans, who refer to themselves as Jesus Lover Five, Jesus Lover Thirty, etc, are eager to learn more about Jesus. The novel, though often a bit too deliberate, is an interesting reflection on the egoism inherent in particular religious doctrine (being so sure you're right and everyone else is wrong) specifically, but humanity in general. When you finally see the whole picture —why the Oasans want a Christian minister and to learn about "The Book of Strange New Things" (the Bible) — you'll realize it's a conclusion that matches the ingenuity of the whole plot itself. But it's just a really long walk to get there.

A Map of Betrayal, by Ha Jin — I loved Ha Jin's novel War Trash, but I was only so-so on this one. It's the story of a Chinese spy who spends the last half of the 20th century in the U.S. taking an American wife and working at the CIA. It's also the story of his daughter, who in present day, is trying to learn the truth about her father and the rest of his family — her father had a whole other family back in China before he came to the U.S. It's a short, brisk novel that I thought actually read more like an outline for a novel than a novel itself. What's here is intriguing, but it just felt too slight.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How To Build a Girl: Assault on Cynicism

You don't pick up a novel about a teenage girl who attempts or reinvent herself and expect it to be a cautionary tale about how cynicism is exhausting. But here we are — and it's the main reason I really dug Caitlin Moran's filthy, funny coming-of-age novel, How to Build a Girl.

Johanna Morrigan is a 14-year-old girl living in small town in England. When she makes a terrible gaffe on live TV after winning a poetry contest — she does a regrettable Scooby Doo impression, which doesn't sound that bad at first, but in the scorching cauldron of the teenage world, it's all but a death sentence — she's forced to reinvent herself in such a way that she thinks will protect her from the emotional gauntlet to which teenagers are subject. So she decides to become Dolly Wilde, a slutty goth cynical music critic.

It goes well for awhile, but then, predictably, it all goes horribly wrong. It's often said that the measure of good novel is that its characters learn something, are able to change, and therefore readers learn along with them, this novel has that in spades.

Dolly/Johanna sleeps her way through the early-1990s indie rock scene, while using her poison pen to totally eviscerate all the silly new bands she's actually relyingson for her next sexual escapade. All the while, she cultivates a crush on a singer/songwriter named John Kite, who sort of becomes her spiritual guide through her burgeoning adulthood.

But then, the predictable comeuppance. And soon after, Moran gives us a page-and-a-half rail against cynicism that is absolutely shiver-inducing for its insightfulness. It's something EVERY teenage should be forced to read. Here's a taste:
“For when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas…Cynicism is, ultimately, fear...And of course the deepest irony about the young being cynical is that they are the ones that need to move, and dance, and trust the most. They need to cartwheel through a freshly burst galaxy of still-forming but glowing ideas, never sacred to say ‘Yes! Why not!’”
Man, I love that. And I really dug this novel — it's another novel that's rather waaaaaay outside my comfort zone. But it's worth the trip.

(Side note: There's a scene in the novel where Dolly/Johanna goes to review a Smashing Pumpkins concert. It's mid-1992, about a year Pumpkins had released their debut album, Gish. And she actually goes backstage, and briefly talks to D'Arcy (the bassist) about how she thought the show went. And Moran tells us that Johanna finds out later that D'Arcy and guitarist James Iha were in the midst of a breakup, and drummer Jimmy was starting his heroin habit, and singer/guitarist Billy was deeply depressed. And if you've read this blog for any measure of time, you know that Smashing Pumpkins is my favorite band of all time, and seeing them as characters in a novel damn near blew my mind.)