“I’d listen to her read a grocery list”: On Audiobooks

It doesn’t take that much endurance to read a picture book aloud. Reading for longer periods of time, however, can be taxing, which makes the work that audiobook narrators do even more impressive. I started listening to audiobooks when I started driving to and from work; I used to commute via subway, where I found that external noise drowned out anything coming through my headphones.

At first, not sure how much concentration I’d be able to spare, I started by re-reading books I’d already read, such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which is performed by the author and a full cast. (It’s excellent.) I moved on to the Hunger Games trilogy, which Carolyn McCormick narrates (she is also excellent). Then I listened to Life by Keith Richards, read by Johnny Depp, Joe Hurley, and “Keef” himself; the switching between narrators seemed random and was somewhat jarring, but each individual reader was very good.

eleanorandpark_audioEventually, I started reading books I hadn’t read before, and I’ve become hooked on audiobooks; as soon as I finish one, I start another. Because my commute is blessedly brief and I’m usually only in the car for half an hour each day, I read a lot of shorter books (7-9 hours), often young adult novels. I’ve started seeking out particular narrators, such as Rebecca Lowman (Eleanor & Park, Rules of Civility) and Morven Christie (Code Name Verity, Burial Rites).

Luckily for me, audiobooks are becoming more popular, and publishers are producing more of them (see “Actors Today Don’t Just Read for the Part. Reading IS the Part,” Leslie Kaufman, The New York Times, June 29, 2013). As for whether listening to an audiobook counts as reading, there is plenty of debate. I would venture to say that as long as one has mastered the ability to read in print, audiobooks are as legitimate a way to consume books as reading them on paper (or on a screen). “We tend to regard reading with our eyes as more serious, more highbrow, than hearing a book read out loud,” T.M. Luhrman wrote in a New York Times  piece called “Audiobooks and the return of storytelling” on February 22. She continued, “The ability to read has always been invested with more importance than mere speech….But for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud.”

TFIOS_audioOne experiences a story differently, and remembers it differently, when hearing it read aloud as opposed to reading the text visually. Partly, audiobooks are a different reading experience for me because I don’t skip over sentences or skim paragraphs; I hear every single word. And a truly talented narrator can bring a book to life: listen to Jim Dale perform the Harry Potter books or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, or Rebecca Lowman read Eleanor & Park or Rules of Civility. Kate Rudd reading The Fault in Our Stars brought me to tears, though I didn’t cry when I first read the book in print.

I think we are all hungry for stories, whether we read them to ourselves in print, listen to them as audiobooks, or read them out loud to ourselves or each other. If you aren’t an audiobook devotee already, I’d encourage you to give them a try. Libraries usually carry them on CD and sometimes on Playaways, and they are often downloadable in mp3 format too.

Characters, Gender, and Likability

Yesterday I followed a couple of links from Twitter and read these two pieces: “Why Talking About Girl Reading Matters” from Kelly Jensen at Stacked and “On Liking Characters” by Liz Burns at School Library Journal (SLJ). The Stacked post linked to Laurel Snyder’s post “Boys Will Be Boys, And Girls Will Be Accommodating.” Together, these pieces make the point that in focusing on “books for boys” (boys are generally more reluctant readers than girls) we do everyone an injustice.

If boys only ever read “books for boys,” they may never discover that they like other kinds of books as well. Those of us putting books into the hands of growing readers can’t underestimate them; we ought to encourage them to stretch and try something new. At the same time, “girl books” tend to be pushed to the sides, sending the message that they are less important. “The best solution,” writes Snyder, “would require us to push against the gender bias in the world, and in ourselves.”

If there’s one thing The Hunger GamesDivergent, and The Fault in Our Stars have proved, it’s that boys will read books that have girls as the main character. (As for the author’s gender, it’s not something I remember ever paying attention to much as I was growing up, and I don’t pay much attention now, either; this is borne out in my reading stats. But in the above examples, those incredibly successful trilogies are written by women.)

A character’s gender also affects their likability, as Burns points out in her piece. Some readers are quick to label girl characters unlikable if the character acts in a nontraditional way. But a likable character isn’t the same as a good one (i.e., a well-written, realistic one). Here’s my response to Burns’ piece:

The most important thing about character is believability. Are the character’s actions believable? Is there an internal consistency? Does the reader understand the character’s motivation? If the answer to these questions is yes, then the author has probably created a good character: recognizably human, with some flaws and some talents.

Likability is a different issue entirely. Personally, I would be bored reading about likable characters all the time, or if all characters were binary, either likable or unlikable – protagonist/antagonist, hero/villain. Real people are more complicated than that.

As Claire Messud has pointed out, the likability issue does affect female characters (and female authors) disproportionately; it’s more common for readers to criticize female characters for being unlikable than male characters.

My friend Anna has also written about the “books for boys/books for girls” issue, both at YALSA’s The Hub and on her own blog. On The Hub, she wrote, “…it doesn’t matter if a book is ‘for’ a guy or a girl; the gender of the intended audience tends to get all mixed up when you factor in the power of a good story. Boys like stories; girls like stories. Readers in general like stories” (emphasis added). Anna added to this thought a few days later on her blog, asking, “What About Books for Girls?” She wrote,

“Readers are readers. If we could just take off the gendered lenses entirely, I think we could serve our readers better. Let’s focus on writing, reading, and recommending stories that are true (in the manner of Truth, not necessarily a nonfiction story), that matter, that touch the soul, that are real, that show the varieties of human emotion and experience, that are maybe even an inspiration. Let’s do that instead of focusing on the gender we think might like the book the best. Books for girls are books for boys, and books for boys are books for girls. It’s all just stories.”

A skilled author, male or female, can write excellent, believable, well-rounded characters of any gender. Let’s try to focus on getting great stories into the hands of all readers.

The Pleasure of Picture Books (and Reading Magic by Mem Fox)

readingmagicI’ve been on a picture book kick recently, starting with the indescribably adorable Oliver and His Alligator by Paul Schmid, which I read about in a review from Kirkus. The children’s librarians at my library were happy to provide me with more contemporary picture books, and then I started revisiting old favorites.

Along the way, I read Australian author Mem Fox’s book Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Children Will Change Their Lives Forever. As a librarian, and as someone whose parents read her stories every night, I’m already sold on the reading-to-kids idea, but Fox emphasizes how important it truly is.

Among all the anecdotes and tips for reading aloud, I came across this quote on page 142, which struck me as perfect for Banned Books week. But Banned Books Week is in September, and I didn’t want to wait to share:

“The whole point of books is to allow us to experience troubled realities that are different from our own, to feel the appropriate emotions, to empathize, to make judgments, and to have our interest held. If we sanitize everything children read, how much more shocking and confusing will the real world be when they finally have to face it?”

Books are a safe place to encounter new ideas and situations, and think (or talk) through them. Experiencing something vicariously or hypothetically is often safer than having that experience oneself. Though “difficult topics” may be uncomfortable for some, books are an excellent “vehicle for true learning and understanding.” (For more on this topic, see “Censorship and Invisibility,” one of my Banned Book Week blog posts from last fall.)

Picture books naturally lend themselves to discussion. For those of us who tend to focus on the text, they are also a good reminder that reading an image requires another type of literacy. In a good picture book, the text and the image complement each other; the pictures aren’t just a representation of the text, they can contain more information – and often jokes. It’s worth taking a bit of extra time to look at the pictures on each page closely, not just because they are colorful or cute, but because there is more going on. (Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann is an excellent example of this.)

oliveralligatorcoverHere are a few of my favorite picture books, old and new. I keep a current list, tagged “children’s” in LibraryThing.

Sometimes I Forget You’re A Robot by Sam Brown, 2013

Mr. Wuffles by David Wiesner, 2013

Oliver and His Alligator by Paul Schmid (also, A Pet for Petunia), 2011, 2013

A Kiss Like This by Mary Murphy, 2012

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (also, This Is Not My Hat), 2011, 2012

13 Words by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Maira Kalman, 2010

Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett, 2007

Martha Speaks by Susan Meddaugh, 1992

Julius, the Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes, 1990

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz, 1972

Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion, illustrations by Margaret Bloy Graham (also, Harry by the Sea and No Roses for Harry), 1956-1965

What are your favorite picture books from childhood? When was the last time you read a picture book, quietly to yourself or out loud?

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

landline

She had to call. You can’t just ignore a phone that calls into the past. You can’t know it’s there and not call.

In her three previous books, Attachments, Eleanor & Park, and Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell has demonstrated an ability to create characters that are as recognizable as real people. She has proven herself adept at writing all kinds of relationships – romantic and otherwise – for characters in high school, college, and early adulthood. In Landline, Rowell leaves the YA realm and returns to the adult world, delving into the marriage of Georgie McCool and Neal Grafton.

Georgie and Neal meet in college, marry at twenty-three, and have two children. Georgie works as a TV writer with her friend Seth, who has been her writing partner for longer than Georgie and Neal have been together. Georgie and Seth are on the verge of achieving their longtime dream of getting their own show, but there’s a catch: they have to have material ready in a matter of days. But it’s almost Christmas, and Georgie is supposed to go with her family to Omaha for the holiday.

Instead, Georgie stays in California to work on scripts with Seth while Neal takes their daughters to Omaha. Georgie’s mother and sister treat her as though Neal has left her, which is not what Georgie thinks has happened at all…or has it? Georgie begins to fall apart. She can’t get in touch with Neal on the phone, until she tries calling from the old landline phone at her mom’s house. Talking to Neal on the phone brings back old memories of their time in college, and the terrible week when they were broken up, before he drove twenty-seven hours back from Omaha to California and proposed to her on Christmas morning. Georgie can’t remember that week very well, but as she talks to Neal, pieces she didn’t know were missing begin to fall into place.

The plot hinges on two phones: Georgie’s dead cell phone, and the landline (a.k.a. the magicfuckingphone). I found the landline, where present-day Georgie talks to past Neal, much easier to go along with than the idea that a responsible adult with children would let her cell phone die as often as Georgie did. But that’s my one complaint.

Rowell has an incredible depth of understanding of her characters, and of marriage generally, but she also has a lovely light touch: there are plenty of funny, witty moments alongside (and sometimes during) the darker, bleaker ones. At one point, Georgie realizes that even though Neal is perfect for her, she might not be perfect for him; that “she wanted him more than she wanted him to be happy.” Throughout the novel, Georgie wrestles with big questions like these. She has always known what she wanted: a career in TV, Neal, and her kids. Neal has never really known what he wanted, except for Georgie. Seth adds another layer of tension to Georgie and Neal’s relationship: there’s no love lost between Seth and Neal, but they’ve maintained a tense truce all these years, for Georgie’s sake. Is Seth ready to break that truce? 

Readers may occasionally pause to dwell on issues of feminism. (Georgie wanted to take Neal’s last name, but he wouldn’t let her, because “You don’t come into this world with a name like Georgie McCool and throw it away on the first pretty face.”) In the McCool-Grafton marriage, Georgie is the careerist, the breadwinner, the busy one, while Neal is the stay-at-home dad; Georgie’s own sister points out that Neal would get custody in a divorce. But the novel doesn’t read like a book with an agenda; it only presents a scenario that is the reverse of the traditional one.

Rowell is as magical as her landline phone. Georgie and Neal’s marriage, with all its history and weight, comes through clearly: their good moments and bad moments, the joys and stresses, the selfishness and compromises. Georgie and Neal recognize that they may not be perfect for each other, that their lives might not “fit together,” but, as Neal says, “Nobody’s lives fit together. Fitting together is something you work at. It’s something you make happen – because you love each other.” Stranded half a country away from Neal and her kids, Georgie has to figure out how to make it happen.

I had incredibly high expectations for this book, and though high expectations often lead to disappointment, that wasn’t the case here at all. Instead, I was wholly delighted, and I think Rowell’s fans will be too. In fact, moving seamlessly between YA and adult, she’s likely to bring her old fans with her and attract some new ones as well.

I received an e-galley of LANDLINE from publisher Macmillan via Edelweiss. The expected publication date is July 8, 2014. Quotes in the review above are from the galley, not the final copy.

Intro to Historical Fiction

Cross-posted, with a few changes, on the Robbins Library blog. Links go to past blog posts or LibraryThing reviews. 

Recently, a friend asked me for some recommendations of historical fiction books. She said she had read a lot of historical fiction when she was younger (think A Break With Charity by Ann Rinaldi and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry), and had recently enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. She has also enjoyed historical fiction by Geraldine Brooks (March, People of the Book) and Colm Toibin. She expressed a preference for books about wholly fictional characters rather than fictionalized real people from history.

Using the above information as a starting point, here’s what I came up with:

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein: CodeNameVerityMarketed as a young adult novel, this book has earned rave reviews almost universally. I loved it for its journal-style narration; the friendship of its two main characters, captured spy “Verity” and downed pilot Maddie; and the fantastic plot twist. It is WWII fiction, but unlike much of WWII fiction, it doesn’t take place in Germany and doesn’t center around Jewish characters: Verity was captured on a mission from England into France, with Maddie as the pilot. The narrators on the audiobook are absolutely wonderful; there’s a lot of added value there, but the voices come through in the text as well. A wrenching, incredible book.

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly: anorthernlightThis is another young adult book, a classic coming-of-age story set in the Adirondacks in 1906. I find it difficult to imagine the reader who could resist sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey, who loves school and dreams of being a writer, but may end up sacrificing that dream to take care of her family, as she promised her mother on her deathbed. As an additional complication, there is a murder at the hotel where Mattie works – the same murder that inspired Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.

Astray by Emma Donoghue: astray_donoghueDonoghue has written historical novels and short stories before, but Astray is a standout collection. Each story is based on some fragment of historical truth, and Donoghue builds on these facts to create fully realized characters. Each story is preceded by its setting (time and place) and followed by a note about its inspiration. The audio production is stellar; I highly recommend listening to this book, because it makes the stories last longer. My favorite in the collection is “The Gift.”

Honolulu by Alan BrennerthonoluluHonolulu is excellent historical fiction: it sheds light on a little-known time and place in history, it has a compelling main character, and it covers several years without ever dragging in pace. The Library Journal review sums it up perfectly: “This sweeping, epic novel follows Jin from her homeland of Korea to a new life on the blossoming Hawaiian Islands. The year is 1914, and Jin is a “picture bride,” a sort of mail-order bride to a Korean man living in Hawaii whom she has never met. Not the wealthy husband she was promised, he is a poor laborer who treats her cruelly. Escaping her abusive husband, Jin must make her way in Honolulu, eventually finding love and stability…Seeing life through Jin’s eyes is a pleasure as she changes from a farm-bound, repressed immigrant girl to an outgoing, educated member of Hawaiian society…” There are also strong female friendships in this book, which is nice to see.

Losing Julia by Jonathan Hull: losingjuliaHonestly, it’s been over a decade since I’ve read this, but I remember really liking it; partly I found it refreshing (if that’s the word) to read a war book that wasn’t about WWII, though nowadays with the Downton Abbey craze we’re seeing more WWI fiction. Patrick Delaney narrates, focusing on three time periods in his life: his time as a soldier in WWI, ten years post-war, and his present situation in an old folks’ home. Hull’s description of war is graphic and immediate, and the love story is poignant and romantic without being sappy. I may have just talked myself into re-reading this.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. StedmanlightbetweenoceansSet in Australia after the Great War (WWI), The Light Between Oceans has few characters but a big impact. Soldier Tom Sherbourne takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on a lonely island. On a trip back to the mainland, he meets and then marries Isabel Graysmark; they live together on the island, alone and happy, until Isabel has a miscarriage, then another, then another. At the center of this beautiful book is a moral dilemma, and a love story. It’s thought-provoking, discussion-worthy, and its setting in a remote part of Australia is unique.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles:rulesofcivility I love this book for two reasons: narrator Katey Kontent, and the way 1937-1938 New York comes to life. I find it hard to believe this (first!) novel was written by an investment banker (with an M.A. in English from Stanford, but still), but obviously I shouldn’t judge; Rules of Civility (the title is from a pamphlet by the young George Washington) is a remarkable book. Katey is independent, well-read, serious, fun, and moral without being prissy. New York in the late thirties is a character all its own; if ever you were going to read a book for the setting alone, it could be this one.

Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara:cascade If Mattie Gokey was ten years older and was an artist instead of a writer, she’d be Desdemona Spaulding, nee Hart. Set primarily in Massachusetts in the 1930s, with a few scenes in New York, this is the perfect book for fans of A Northern Light. Dez faces the family-or-career choice that many women still face today. In O’Hara’s own words, “life is full of tough choices between less-than-perfect alternatives.” Readers may sympathize or disagree with Dez’s decisions, but no one could say they were easy ones to make.

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum: thosewhosaveusThis is another WWII novel, one that alternates between WWII-era Germany and present-day Minnesota. I enjoy split narratives, and this one is easy to follow, but some readers prefer chronological narratives. The character in the present is Trudy, a history professor, and the character in the past is her mother Anna, who had an affair with a Nazi officer during the war. Anna has never talked to her daughter about her past, but Trudy is determined to find out what happened. This compelling book stands out among the glut of WWII fiction.

Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres: corellismandolinIt is rare to find a book that has moments of such humor (it begins with a doctor curing a man’s deafness by removing a pea from his ear) and scenes of such overwhelming horror, cruelty, and sadness; in fact, one of the most powerful scenes I have ever read is in this book, which takes place on the Greek island of Cephallonia before, during, and after WWII. Captain Corelli is a member of the occupying Italian army who falls in love with the daughter of the deafness-curing doctor. Yes, Corelli’s Mandolin is also a movie, but – as is nearly always the case – the book is better.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky: suitefrancaiseAs if we did not already have enough reasons to hate Nazis, here’s another: they have deprived us of volumes 3-5 of this book. Suite Francaise contains two parts, “Storm in June” and “Dolce,” but the author intended to write five parts; unfortunately, she was arrested, deported to Auschwitz, and killed before she completed them. However, Nemirovsky – who was born in Russia, but moved to France with her family when she was a teenager – accomplished a great deal in the first two parts of Suite Francaise. She captures the atmosphere of France during the early part of WWII: in “Storm in June,” people flee Paris as the Germans invade, and in “Dolce” German officers are quartered in French homes in a small village. Moral complexities abound, as difficulties bring out the best and worst in people.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society guernseyby Annie Barrows and Mary Anne Shaffer: Don’t let this long, tongue-twister title put you off; Guernsey is a delightful epistolary novel (a novel in letters), and at its center is Juliet Ashton, an English author looking for a subject for a new book. Set in England in 1946, Guernsey has a WWII story embedded in it, but primarily the reader sees the aftereffects of the war, both in London and on the island of Guernsey. If I were forced to muster up a complaint about this book, it would be that the characters, especially Elizabeth, are too perfect; but I’ve read it three times now (once on audio, which I recommend) so it’s not really a complaint at all.

And here are some historical fiction novels that do take real historical figures as their main characters:

Fever by Mary Beth Keane (“Typhoid” Mary Mallon)

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (Zelda Fitzgerald)

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin (Anne Morrow Lindbergh)

The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields (Edith Wharton)

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Thomas Cromwell)

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Hadley Hemingway)

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright)

Above All Things by Tanis Rideout (George Mallory)

First Sale doctrine in the age of licenses

One of the ways I keep up to date with news pertaining to the library world is through Library Link of the Day, which is exactly what it sounds like. The link is usually to an article or blog post, sometimes a video or a longer document. On February 5, the link was to an article from the February 2014 edition of College & Research Libraries News, “Last sale? Libraries’ rights in the digital age,” by Jennifer Jenkins.

For those who aren’t clear on what “first sale” means, or those who are familiar with it but haven’t kept up with some of the more recent cases (Capitol Records v. ReDigi, for example), this article gives an excellent explanation of the history of first sale, the problems with applying it to the digital realm (where much content is licensed rather than sold/owned), and the possibilities for the future.

Jenkins covers all the points I’ve seen in other articles and blog posts thus far (Copyfight is one good source to follow, if this is an issue that interests you, and it should). The only piece I have to add is a response to the Copyright Office’s statement that “[p]hysical copies degrade with time and use; digital information does not…” While this is true in some sense, it’s false in another: digital formats change so quickly that it takes a significant investment to keep digital information accessible. (Word Perfect, anyone? Floppy disks?)

Technology changes quickly; content creators (e.g. publishers, the music industry, etc.) will adopt new formats and abandon* old ones, and those who “own” (or license) information in those formats will be up a creek unless they have the ability (and time, and money) to upgrade or migrate old formats to new ones.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) throws an additional monkey wrench into the mix. DRM, Jenkins writes, “adds a layer of technological controls that further restrain libraries’ freedoms.” Currently, the first sale doctrine applies only to physical items; digital items aren’t covered by first sale (yet). Libraries, like consumers, pay to license these items (e-books, digital audiobooks) instead of buying and owning them. Jenkins explains, “These licenses restrict libraries’ uses of e-books. If a library has a physical book, it can loan it out as many times as it is requested. It can send the book to another institution via interlibrary loan. Licenses often limit these activities.”

Digital first sale is important to libraries. Demand for e-books is growing, yet restrictive licenses mean that libraries are not always allowed to purchase e-books and lend them out in the same way as physical books. Publishers are experimenting with different models: higher prices for libraries, or prices comparable to consumer prices but with some kind of catch (a 26-loan limit, or a one-year expiration date), or simultaneous use (in rare cases). Right now, the publishers have more power than the libraries (or the consumers, who click “I Agree” to any Terms of Service to get content). Jenkins writes, “Many librarians are concerned that digital technology has upset the balance between users’ and owners’ rights.”

In writing about the ReDigi case, Jenkins stated, “Studies have shown that the effective way to drive down rates of illicit copying is to provide cheap and legal alternatives. Digital first sale could lead would-be downloaders to turn to a legal second-hand market.” Libraries, too, should be able to offer a legal alternative. Jenkins suggests that Congress could grant libraries specific rights “allowing them to lend, preserve, and archive electronic materials.” Makes sense to me.

*As Adobe is about to do by introducing new EPUB DRM this summer.

Best of 2011: Fiction (continued)

“I’ll be posting more soon,” I wrote (February 28, 2012). If we are going by geological time, I suppose nearly two years later qualifies as “soon,” but by normal human calendar time, I missed the mark a bit. Here is the final batch of read-in-2011 favorites, a continuation of this “best of 2011″ post.

Many of these books have gotten a fair amount of attention in the last couple years (Cloud Atlas was made into a movie), and some authors have published additional books since these: Hilary Mantel followed up Wolf Hall with Bring Up the Bodies, Patrick Somerville published This Bright River in 2012, Emma Donoghue published Astray the same year, and Simon Van Booy came out with the slender and luminous The Illusion of Separateness last year. Here, though, are my brief and belated roundups of some favorite novels I read in 2011.

everythingbeautifulEverything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy (2011): Having read Simon Van Booy’s short stories (The Secret Lives of People in Love; Love Begins in Winter), I was looking forward to his first novel, and it didn’t disappoint, although I think his style is best suited to short stories and novellas. Characters take precedence over plot in this story (except for one main event): the relationships between Rebecca, Henry, and George are the central aspect of the story. The setting – Athens, Greece – is also a character of sorts. Van Booy’s writing is poetic, and creates a mood that lingers even when you’ve put the book down.

goonsquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010): This novel spans a few decades, stretching into the near future; sections are linked through loosely connected characters. Each section serves as a snapshot or cross-section of a time in a life, and the character’s interaction with others during that time. I enjoyed these sections on their own (many parts appeared in The New Yorker in advance of the novel’s publication) and would have gladly spent more time with the characters. However, I remember not liking the sections set in the future as much as the ones set in the past or present, and now that it has been a few years, I don’t remember the overall arc of the book.

cloud_atlasCloud Atlas by David Mitchell (1999): As impressed as I was with Goon SquadCloud Atlas blew me away. Structurally, the book is unlike any other I’ve ever read: like the eponymous “sextet for overlapping soloists” described in the novel (“In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order”), the book is made up of six sections, five of which are divided in half, with the sixth in its entirety in the middle of the book. The six narratives are so wildly different in setting, character, voice, and style that they could have been written by different authors, but a single theme emerges. Most readers will prefer certain narratives over others, but overall, the book is masterful, and David Mitchell’s genius is apparent.

wolfhallWolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009): Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII are two of the most popular characters for historical fiction authors, but Thomas Cromwell, who lurks in the shadows in most books, takes center stage (center page?) in Mantel’s. She describes his miserable childhood, his travels as a young man, and his rise to power with superb and engaging thoroughness, so the reader empathizes with the character completely. Wolf Hall has a strange grammatical quirk – every “he” or “him” refers to Cromwell, regardless of subject/object conventions – but this quirk was ironed out in the subsequent Bring Up the Bodies. I can’t wait for the third and final book, The Mirror and the Light, expected sometime in 2015. (Will it, too, win the Booker Prize?)

widowerstaleThe Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass (2010): Set in the Boston area, The Widower’s Tale may be Glass’ saddest book to date, but it is also one of her best. She weaves a web of interconnected characters, creates a beautiful and believable setting, and writes with emotional truth about the people she has brought to life – in this case, the Darling family, including retired librarian and grandfather Percy; his daughters, high-achieving Trudy and floundering Clover; and his grandson, Harvard student Robert.

room_donoghueRoom by Emma Donoghue (2010): A distinctive departure for Donoghue (Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: Stories, The Sealed Letter), Room centers closely on two characters, mother and child, in a tightly circumscribed environment – the single, eponymous room. The reader gleans that the mother has been kidnapped, imprisoned, and raped, but her five-year-old son Jack knows none of this; the room is his whole world. When they manage to escape, the real world is a shock to both of them, for different reasons and in different ways. A novel premise, thoughtfully carried out.

cradle_somervilleThe Cradle by Patrick Somerville (2009): For better or worse, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of buzz about this book when it came out, so reading it felt like a wonderful and secret discovery. It is about the marriage of Matt and Marissa, who, facing impending parenthood, are reflecting on their own family histories. On the back of the book, Benjamin Percy wrote, “Like a magic trick, The Cradle will make you blink, chew your lip, try to figure out how he did it, how in the world Patrick Somerville managed to sneak this big, beautiful story of familial love into such a slender novel – a saga writ small, swiftly paced, intricately structured, precisely told.” Well put.

chroniclesharrisburdickThe Chronicles of Harris Burdick: fourteen amazing authors tell the tales (2011): I have long been entranced by Chris Van Allsburg’s illustrations, especially The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. Each illustration in this collection has a title and a caption that tantalizes the imagination. As the subtitle of this edition suggests, fourteen authors have taken on the challenge here, with one story per illustration (how did they decide who got which?). Each tale is magical and inventive; some are funny, some are dark. My favorites are “Oscar and Alphonse,” written by Van Allsburg himself, and “The House on Maple Street” by Stephen King. Great for most ages (10 and up?).