Best books I read in 2016

There were many books published this year that I was looking forward to eagerly, and which I devoured as soon as I could get them. Other books sneaked up on me (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child!), some were recommended by friends or librarian-friends, others discovered serendipitously (my toddler pulling them off the library shelf), some a combination of the above. Links go to my LibraryThing reviews.

Cover image of My Real ChildrenAdult Fiction

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, and J.K. Rowling

My Real Children by Jo Walton

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

“And we can’t know the lives of others. And we can’t know our own lives beyond the details we can manage. And the things that change us forever happen without us knowing they would happen. And the moment that looks like the rest is the one where hearts are broken or healed. And time that runs so steady and sure runs wild outside of the clocks. It takes so little time to change a lifetime and it takes a lifetime to understand the change.” -Jeanette Winterson, The Gap of Time

Adult Nonfiction

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

“Shame is a tool of oppression, not change….You know what’s shameful? A complete lack of empathy.” -Lindy West, Shrill

Teen/YA

The Leaving by Tara Altebrando

My True Love Gave to Me (short stories, edited by Stephanie Perkins)

Cover of I Am the Wolf...And Here I ComeChildren’s board books and picture books

Wow! Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood

There Is A Bird On Your Head by Mo Willems

I Am the Wolf…And Here I Come! by Benedicte Guettier

I Kissed the Baby by Mary Murphy

One Was Johnny by Maurice Sendak – I can’t believe I missed this one as a kid. It is the perfect counting book for introverts.

How to Cheer Up Dad by Fred Koehler

School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Children’s chapter books/series

Cover image of ClementineThe Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker – I listened to all seven of these audiobooks (narrated by Jessica Almasy) and loved every single one. Clementine reminds me of Ramona Quimby (especially when adults tell her to “pay attention” and she says that she was paying attention…to something else. Perfect kid logic). The parents are great characters too.

Coming soon…2017

I haven’t looked too far ahead into 2017, publishing-wise. The book I am most anticipating, of course, is the sequel to The Time Traveler’s Wife, but there is no new news about it, as far as I can tell, and the last I heard, it was looking like ballpark 2018. I’d be excited to read anything new by David Mitchell or Nick Hornby, but they each had books out in 2015 (Slade House and Funny Girl, respectively). I’d love to read whatever Erin Morgenstern (The Night Circus) is cooking up next, too. I’m sure plenty of wonderful new books will come along while I’m waiting for these…what are you excited to read this coming year?

Caitlin Moran discusses her Moranifesto

Cover image of MoranifestoOn November 30, journalist and author Caitlin Moran (pronounced CAT-lin mo-RAN) spoke in conversation with Boston Globe columnist Meredith Goldstein at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, hosted by the Harvard Bookstore. It was dark and rainy, but good to be in a room full of feminist librarian types. I haven’t yet read Moran’s newest book, Moranifesto, but I loved her book How to Be A Woman and her previous essay collection, Moranthology. I initially discovered her via her essay “Alma Mater” in The Library Book, and I still think of a passage from it often:

“The shelves were supposed to be loaded with books – but they were, of course, really doors….A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination….They are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead.”

-“Alma Mater,” Caitlin Moran

Like most of the audience, I was prepared for Moran to be her unselfconscious, energetic, hilariously uncensored self, and she launched in right away about having just gotten her period and being on codeine (which I’m pretty sure you cannot get over the counter in this country) and coffee. The coffee was winning, I think, because she was talking faster than Lauren Graham.

In shifting from writing about pop culture and feminism, Moran said that at first she had felt “ill-qualified” to write about politics, but gained confidence when she realized that many political figures were former journalists. She stated, “Politics does not work anymore,” and said that we need to form new political parties in the U.K. and U.S. Moran believes in action: “If you started complaining three minutes ago, you should’ve started doing something two minutes ago.”

Of certain of our current political figures, Moran said, “These are not politicians, they are agents provocateurs.” She said that the tone of politics has been set by the Internet, which is  largely young, male, and lawless – “like California during the Gold Rush.”

“EVERYTHING is going to change in the next twenty years.”

Moran believes the left’s biggest enemy is itself. Whereas the goal of conservatism is to keep things as they are (the status quo), the left has two goals: to redistribute power and to invent a future. It is far harder to create something new than to preserve something, which leads to greater dissent, even among those who agree on a progressive agenda.

Moran read from one of the essays in Moranifesto, “Advice to Teenage Girls.” Some of her advice:

  • “‘Yet’ is a very useful word.”
  • “When in doubt, listen to David Bowie.”
  • “Go out there and change the world so it works for you.”

“I think everyone should write a manifesto,” Moran said. What will her next book be? How to Be Famous. “Celebrities are the Greek gods of our time.”

Q&A

The questions from the audience were mostly serious, but the answers ranged. In one case Moran’s answer skittered so far from the topic of the question so quickly that the only possible explanation is a tesseract. Suffice to say that Moran has clearly given the issue of Muppet sex some thought. Her answer offended an audience member; Moran listened to the complaint and responded that she was glad the person had spoken up: “I try to make everyone feel like they can say anything.”

Another audience member asked how we can encourage a cultural shift so that sexual violence and rape is taken seriously? Moran’s idea is to drop the word “sexual” in front of the word “assault”; “physical assault” sounds more serious.

Moran also talked about the online environment and social media. She said, “If you had a town planner, they’d never build the Internet the way it is. There are no safe public spaces….We need to find a new way [of designing and using social media]. This is a “problem of culture, not politics.” There is more money in argument and dissent than in agreement, thus “the world becomes angrier and more afraid.” The U.S., Moran pointed out, will never be invaded – our biggest danger is ourselves (internal dissent).

Ending on a serious note, Moran said that the Brexit vote and the Trump election are part of the same phenomenon, dating back to the 2008 crash. Neither approach of the current political systems – austerity or stimulus – brought anyone to justice for the events of 2008. Instead, the strategy of those in power to stop a revolution was to create a sub-class so people’s anger was directed down instead of up (to the elite).

And back out into the rainy night we went.

Books enjoyed and anticipated in 2016

In terms of politics and world events, 2016 has perhaps not been the best year. But in terms of books, it has been stellar. I’m going to combine two Top Ten Tuesday topics: favorite releases so far this year, and most anticipated releases for the rest of the year. As usual, Linda has beat me to it and we’re anticipating many of the same titles.

Once again, this has sat half-finished in the draft folder for so long that several of the titles I was anticipating I have now read. When I started this, the two categories were more evenly balanced. Well, now you know what I was doing while I wasn’t writing blog posts.

Looking at this list, it’s almost as if all my favorite authors got together and said, “We know she has a baby (now a toddler) and reading time is precious, so let’s each publish a book this year and see if she can still read them all.” Challenge accepted! (Just one question: Why wasn’t Audrey Niffenegger invited to the party? I am going to have the teaser section of “Alba, Continued” memorized by the time she publishes the rest of the novel. Come on, Audrey…)

The Pharos Gate by Nick Bantock: I thought my precious boxed set of Griffin & Sabine books was complete, but – surprise! – there is a new one. I received a copy through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program and am happy to say that it fits in perfectly with the other six books; the magic remains intact.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave: Chris Cleave is one of my favorite authors, and I love historical fiction. This is a good book, but there is so much WWII fiction that the bar is quite high, and I think Cleave’s contemporary fiction is stronger. This one didn’t stay with me the way that Gold did.

The WonderThe Wonder by Emma Donoghue: Donoghue switches fluidly between contemporary and historical novels, and she excels at both. The Wonder is the story of Nightingale-trained English nurse Lib Wright, who takes a two-week job watching Irish eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who claims not to have eaten in four months. Is it a miracle or a hoax? Lib is sure it’s a hoax and that Anna is a liar, but she quickly comes to care for the girl, and concern at her deteriorating condition compels her to ask not how Anna is maintaining her fast, but why she feels the need to fast at all. The answer is a tangle of religious beliefs and a dark family secret.

Leave Me by Gayle Forman: A mother of four-year-old twins can’t get a break even when she is recovering from a heart attack, so she simply leaves town to find the rest and recovery she needs. Difficult to read at times, but Forman (If I Stay, Where She Went, Just One Day, Just One Year) has such compassionate for and empathy with her characters; she makes the transition from YA to adult seamlessly.

The TrespasserThe Trespasser by Tana French: I’ve been devoted to Tana French’s psychological suspense novels since In the Woods, and I’m always eager to read her new books, though I think The Likeness will always be my favorite. The Trespasser takes place largely in the police office and interview rooms rather than out on the scene; it was a touch long but never felt sluggish, as Conway and Moran dug into what was apparently a domestic murder but turned out to be more complicated than that.

The View from the Cheap SeatsThe View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman: This one sneaked up on me; it was not preceded by a lot of fanfare. I’d read a few of the pieces already but enjoyed them again, particularly “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013.” Nearly every piece in the collection is quite short, and I browsed rather than read straight through in order, so there are some pieces I missed.

Something New by Lucy Knisley: Relish is still my favorite book of hers, but this story of engagement and wedding planning is perfect for those who are in the same stage of life, particularly those with an artsy-craftsy hipster DIY style.

This Must Be the PlaceThis Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell: O’Farrell is another of my favorite authors and I read an e-galley of this novel in a few huge gulps, the result being that I don’t remember it as well as if I’d read it more slowly. It’s the story of Daniel Sullivan and his various family members, in various parts of the world (Donegal, Paris, California, New York, Chile), at various times (from the 1980s to 2016). O’Farrell has a genius for character; I would read this again and probably enjoy it just as much.

CommonwealthCommonwealth by Ann Patchett: On my admittedly long list of favorite authors, Patchett is firmly in the top five. Commonwealth is the story of two families who break apart and combine, leaving the children to cope with divorce, cross-country moves, and a singular tragedy. Various family members (but not all of them) narrate over a long time frame, during which their personal tragedy is made public in a famous author’s thinly fictionalized account.

On Bowie by Rob Sheffield: I was a Bowie fan without realizing it; when he died, I checked a greatest hits CD out from the library and discovered I knew plenty of Bowie songs, I just hadn’t known they were Bowie songs. Sheffield’s book is somewhere between a Bowie biography and a personal memoir – an fan’s extended paean to a cultural idol.

EligibleEligible by Curtis Sittenfeld: I had high expectations for this book (Curtis Sittenfeld! Pride & Prejudice!), and though some reviews were negative or mixed, I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did the other members of my book club. Sittenfeld brings the P&P story and characters into present-day Cincinnati, and she does it very well: with cleverness and wit and invention. She makes one or two significant changes from the original plot and characters, but remains true to the heart of the story.

Last Painting of Sara de VosThe Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith: I do love a good art history story, and this one didn’t disappoint. It takes place in three time periods: Holland in the 1630s, when the painting is created; Manhattan in the 1950s, when the painting is stolen and copied; and Sydney, Australia in 2000 when both the original and the forgery arrive at a museum show. Suspenseful and satisfying, a good choice for those who liked The Art Forger (B.A. Shapiro) or The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton).

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefavater: I have inhaled each of these four books, reading them so quickly it’s hard to remember the details. This was a satisfying conclusion to this uniquely magical quartet.

Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down by Anne Valente: The title snagged my attention, and the description and comp titles were enticing, so I requested and received the e-galley. For a story about a school shooting and a series of subsequent fatal house fires, I found it to be pretty slow-paced, and ended up skimming the last third just to find out who/what was causing the fires. On a political note, stories like this make our lack of national legislation on gun control even more frustrating.

Father’s Day by Simon Van Booy: Yet another of my favorite authors, Van Booy never disappoints: his poetic language, beautiful settings, and gift for bringing characters together in unexpected ways is delicate and touching.

Anticipating

The Muse by Jessie Burton: The second novel by the author of The Miniaturist takes place in Spain in 1936 and England in 1967. I like historical fiction in general, and Jessie Burton’s writing, and Spain in the 1930s is particularly interesting. I’m hoping to pick this up in the next month or two.

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple: Plenty of buzz about the new novel by the author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? A library copy just came in so I’ll be giving it a try soon.

A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: I loved Rules of Civility so much that I was doubtful his next novel could be nearly as good, but my library colleague raved about it and it’s gotten very good reviews. I’ve just started reading and am enjoying it so far.

See also:

Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far in 2015 (7/1/15)

Best Books I’ve Read in the Second Half of 2016 (12/25/15)

And Little Louis: author-illustrator collaboration

Like most other picture book readers, I’m a big fan of Jon Klassen (I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat, etc.) and Mac Barnett (Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, Leo: A Ghost Story, etc.), so naturally when they collaborate I am excited. Their book Extra Yarn is a favorite, but I have been wondering about something.

I have been wondering about Little Louis.

littlelouis

Particularly, I am wondering if Mac Barnett handed (or more likely e-mailed) the manuscript to Jon Klassen and let him take it from there, or if they discussed how the illustrations and text would fit together. If it was the former, I wonder what Barnett had in mind for Little Louis, and how far that was from what Klassen came up with. Did it make him laugh? Or were they in on it together?

I used to work in publishing, but I don’t know much about picture book publishing, other than that some authors and illustrators work together more closely, others less closely. I asked Barnett and Klassen on Twitter but they haven’t replied. The question stands…

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 10.56.41 AM

 

Lynne Truss at the library

Late last year, I saw that Lynne Truss (author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves; cue grammatically justified string of exclamation points) was publishing a novel this spring. I requested the e-galley, and received not only the galley itself, but a note from an acquaintance asking if I’d be willing to write a blurb for it. (Claire and I met in 2007 at the Columbia Publishing Course; after a stint at Knopf, she’d landed at the excellent Melville House, whereas I had left publishing after a few years and gone into libraries instead.)

I wrote the blurb, and then I asked if, by any chance, Lynne would be doing a U.S. book tour, and if so, would she like to come speak at the library where I work? Indeed, as it happened, Lynne would be coming to the States, and incredibly, she did make a special trip to the library. And I have to say, Lynne is one of the loveliest authors I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, as well as one of the funniest. Below is a little summary of the event.

Cross-posted at the Robbins Library blog.

Lynne Truss read to an audience of more than twenty people at the Robbins Library this past Monday night, inspiring much laughter and a few book purchases. Lynne read from her new novel, Cat Out of Hell, and she read from two sections near the beginning, “So you don’t have to know quite so much.”

Cat Out of Hell 300dpi (2)Lynne told us that the novel was commissioned by Hammer, a publisher of horror in the U.K. “I only wrote it because someone wanted it….Anything I’m asked to [write], I’m more likely to [write]….I like to write for a person.” She had never written in the horror genre before, but knew right away she wanted to write a comic gothic novel exploring the origin of the common phrase “cats have nine lives.” (Originally, her idea was for a story called Nine Lives, about a cat who had killed nine people. That’s not quite what happens in Cat Out of Hell.)

She knew from the beginning she wanted to use a pastiche structure, as she has long been a fan of “the phony documentary element of gothic novels,” which are often represented as a collection of letters and other documents (or, in the case of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, typewritten – a new technology at the time).

One concerned potential reader asked Lynne, “Does the cat die?” to which Lynne replied, “You’ll be much more worried about the dog.” (The dog is called Watson, so that his owners, Alec and Mary, can use Lynne’s favorite Sherlock Holmes line: “Come at once, if convenient. If not convenient, come all the same.”)

Lynne's American publisher, Melville House, made a video for the book's release. What do the cats think of all this?

Lynne’s American publisher, Melville House, made a video for the book’s release. What do the cats think of all this?

As for humor – Cat Out of Hell is quite funny – one audience member asked if Lynne laughed at her own jokes as she is writing. “Yes!” But humor is “high-risk: if people don’t find it funny then you’ve failed completely. And humor is very subjective.”

Structure aside, Lynne didn’t have the content of the story plotted out before she began writing. “If I don’t know where it’s going, the reader can’t possibly be ahead of me!” I’ve read a fair few mysteries in my time, and I’d agree with the author here – it would be rather difficult to guess where the story is going. You’ll just have to read it for yourself!

Other Lynne Truss books:

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the zero-tolerance approach to punctuation

Talk to the Hand: the utter bloody rudeness of the world today, or, six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door

Making the Cat Laugh: one woman’s journal of life on the margins

The Lynne Truss Treasury: columns and three gothic novels

The passing of Terry Pratchett

Yesterday, the prolific and beloved fantasy author Terry Pratchett passed away. I found out late in the afternoon, and scrambled to put up a display of his bio and books before I left the library. Despite the fact that I’ve never read a whole Terry Pratchett book, I felt the loss, in that distant but no less real way one feels the loss of people one knows of but doesn’t know.

Except, with authors, we do know them: we know the output of their minds, their imaginations, their thoughts and ideas and convictions and feelings. Pratchett wrote some 40 Discworld books, as well as about 30 others, for adults and for teens. Readers will be discovering and re-visiting Pratchett’s writing for years to come, and even though he will not be writing any more, there is still a significant wealth of material to read and re-read. The existence of Pratchett’s books may or may not console his family and friends in their grief, but for readers, he still exists in thousands upon thousands of pages.

I am trying to think of writers that I have loved who have passed away, but, fortunately for me, many of them are still alive and writing (or were dead long before I came to their books). I remember hearing that Barbara Robinson (author of The Best School Year Ever) passed away in 2013, and of course there was Maya Angelou last spring. Musicians come to mind more readily: George Harrison in 2001, DeeDee Ramone in 2002 (I remember this only because I was supposed to see him in concert two days later), Levon Helm in 2012.

But like authors, musicians leave a legacy behind. The mind and talent that created a book or an album may be gone, but the words and the music remain.

goodomensSo although, when a friend lent me a copy of a Discworld novel* during my second year of college, I didn’t get into it, I’m going to try again: perhaps with Good Omens, perhaps with Dodger. If you have a favorite Terry Pratchett book to recommend, let me know in the comments.

*The same friend lent me Neil Gaiman’s American Gods right around the same time, setting me on course to enjoy many more of Gaiman’s books since then: Neverwhere; Stardust; Fragile Things; Coraline; The Graveyard Book; The Ocean at the End of the Lane; Fortunately, the Milk; Instructions, and, currently, Trigger Warnings.

3/14/15, edited to add these additional tributes:

What to Do When Authors Die,” Swiss Army Librarian (Brian Herzog)

On the Passing of Terry Pratchett,” Gavia Libraria, the Library Loon

Terry Pratchett,” xkcd (Randall Munroe)

4/13/15, edited to add: I have now read Good Omens and enjoyed its blend of fantasy and British humor immensely. Not sure what the next Terry Pratchett book will be but I’m open to suggestions.

Julia Glass at the Weston Public Library

On a night that introduced me to the concept of “ice mist” (I think that’s what it was), there was a packed house at the Weston Public Library to see Julia Glass read from her newest novel, And the Dark Sacred Night. I’d seen Glass speak once before, in conversation with her editor at the McNally Jackson bookstore in Soho in 2009, and thanks to a major tidying effort, I turned up my notes from that event just a few weeks ago. At the time, Glass said:

“All serious fiction is emotionally autobiographical.”

“If you choose fiction, you distort.”

“There are always mysteries and things we will never know [about the people we’re closest to]….You cannot know everything about the people you love the most.”

Her words, and especially the concept of emotional truth in fiction, stayed with me, enough to get me out of the house on an ice-misty night. (What is that, Massachusetts? Seriously.)

Hardcover book jacket

Hardcover book jacket

In Weston, Glass started by observing the difference between a hardcover tour and a paperback tour: during a hardcover tour, the material is fresher in the author’s mind, but most audience members haven’t had a chance to read the book yet. With a paperback tour, on the other hand, the author may have forgotten details about the book, but the audience is more likely to have read it.

She spoke about her local connection, having grown up in Lincoln, MA and worked in the library there: “I really regard that library as my third parent.” Glass also talked about how she begins her books. Writers approach stories in different ways, but Glass comes to her stories through character. Malachy Burns’s mother Lucinda, a secondary character in Three Junes, was inspired in a unique way: Glass and her partner were stuck in traffic*, and the bumper sticker on the car in front of them read “Life: What a Beautiful Choice.”  That, Glass realized, encapsulated Lucinda’s Catholic outlook.

*Glass’s advice for couples stuck in traffic is: Don’t talk! It will only lead to fighting over whose fault it is that you’re stuck in traffic. She believes that the declining divorce rate is due at least in part to the rise of GPS devices.

Unlike some authors with ideas spilling out of their heads and onto scraps of paper everywhere, Glass says she doesn’t have lots of ideas for books. “Every time I’m coming to the end of one book, I’m terrified it’s the last one.”

“All of my books stand alone…but I do seem to be in the habit of bringing characters back.”

Paperback cover

Paperback cover

Glass’s books are all set in the semi-recent past. Does she rely on her memory to fill in details appropriate to the decade or year? She laughed at the idea of relying entirely on memory, but said that “personal stories that people tell me make their way into fiction,” and her books are usually set on “familiar turf” (New York, New England). But “research is important for every book…I always want to give myself a challenge…What’s something I really want to know about?” Fiction writers, Glass said, “are the people who want to be everything,” and researching for books is a great way to learn more about other topics and vocations. “There are so many ways of being and living in this world. The ‘what-if’ questions drive us.” Glass is particularly interested not just in what people choose to do, but in how that vocation in turn shapes them.

But research, for Glass, comes after writing. “I bluff my way through writing first, and research later.” For her books, she has interviewed oncologists; doctors familiar with HIV/AIDS treatment in the early days of the disease; classical cellists; and professional bakers of wedding cakes. She has also explored YouTube, especially when seeking particular pieces of music, and has learned to look at the number of page views to find the best quality videos. “YouTube is very dangerous.”

She writes her books from beginning to end, not allowing herself to skip over difficult scenes. Her manuscripts tend to be much longer than the final published versions of her books. Glass’ editor Deb Garrison told her, “You have a wonderful sense of responsibility to your readers…[but] they don’t have to know everything.” This revelation led Glass to cut an entire section from Daphne’s point of view from And the Dark Sacred Night.

After Glass read two scenes from the novel (one from Kit Noonan’s perspective, one from Walter’s), an audience member asked if she could talk more about her third book, I See You Everywhere. “You could see it as a novel, perhaps,” Glass said, but it’s really a collection of linked stories, all of which stand on their own; in fact, one of the stories won the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren award, which was, Glass said, one of the best moments of her life. I See You Everywhere is her most autobiographical novel, which she published once she decided she did not want to write a memoir; “I just wanted to write about a certain kind of sibling relationship.”

I haven’t read And the Dark Sacred Night yet, but I plan to read it soon, and I can definitely recommend Three Junes, The Whole World Over, I See You Everywhere, and The Widower’s Tale. Thanks to the Weston Public Library for hosting, and to Julia Glass for a lovely and inspiring evening.

Incidentally, the ice mist has now turned to snow.