Archives for category: books

Here are my top five books published in 2015 in alphabetical order according to author:

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Barack Obama cited this novel as his favourite book of the year, for one. Dip in and you’ll see why. Groff is at her best here, examining married life with deft insight.)

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Villa America by Liza Klaussmann (If you’re a fan of the Fitzgeralds, the Hemingways, Cole Porter, Picasso, or Sara and Gerald Murphy, this novel of the Twenties is waiting to dazzle you.)

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West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan (I’ll read anything O’Nan writes, but this one, about Scott Fitzgerald’s final years as a script doctor for MGM, is especially gorgeous in its telling.)

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Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker (This memoir in letters surprised me in its humour and tenderness. If you read it, you’ll understand why the cover art is pitch perfect.)

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Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (Welty and Macdonald (a.k.a. Kenneth Millar) met at The Algonquin in NYC and thereafter nurtured an enduring friendship through their letters that reveal as much about themselves as they do about their writing lives. It is a privilege to begin to know them this way.)

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May12LuckiestGirlAlive

Forthcoming in May from Simon & Schuster, this debut is violent, shocking and at times darkly funny. Featuring the inner workings of a glossy NYC magazine with flashbacks to the protagonist’s troubled past, Jessica Knoll’s LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE leaves room for a redemptive ending, even when telling the truth is the greatest risk of all.

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In FREEDOM’S CHILD by Jax Miller, Freedom Oliver is under witness protection in Oregon, working at a local biker bar and getting liquored up most nights to try to blunt the pain of having given up both of her children years ago when she was accused of killing her husband, a cop. When she discovers her young adult daughter has possibly been kidnapped, she heads to Kentucky to try to find her. Told with whiplash narrative drive, this debut thriller is a doozy. Watch for it in June from Crown Publishing.

 

Feb24HushHush

Scrappy, savvy Baltimore P.I. Tess Monaghan is back, this time hired to assess Melisandre Dawes’ security needs. Dawes is hoping to reconcile with her two teenage daughters, after having killed their baby sister when she was not in her right mind a decade before. Tess, a new mother herself, and emotionally taxed to her limits finds it especially challenging to deal with the steely Melisandre. And, then a corpse shows up to complicate matters further. Smart, twisty, and compassionate.

If you are not already a fan of Lippman’s storytelling, leap in here. You’ll be a convert.

Jan27WolfWinter

It’s 1717 and thirty-something Maija, her husband Paavo, and their daughters, Frederika (14) and Dorotea (6) move to Swedish Lapland when they switch homesteads with Paavo’s uncle Eronen, hoping to leave behind the traumas of their past and begin again.

Frederika asks one of the locals what a “wolf winter” is. He is silent for a long time and then replies, “It’s the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal. Mortal and alone.”

Although this is a debut novel, Cecilia Ekbäck is an enthralling storyteller and her thriller is as disturbing as it is compelling. The characters harbour secrets, plenty of them nasty ones, that inevitably become public as the central mystery, the murder of Eriksson, is solved.

At times the prose is poetic: “Grief ate away at people until they had a different shape from before.” And, Ekbäck knows all about the engine of narrative drive–how to keep you flipping pages well into the wee hours of the night.

WOLF WINTER is the perfect read for this dark, bleak time of the year.

Jan20VanessaAndHerSister

One summer in my twenties I read everything I could find by and about the members of the Bloomsbury Group, so I was delighted to read this dazzling novel about their early years in London from 1905-1912.

Parmar has framed her narrative with correspondence between sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf in which it’s clear that Virginia is seeking forgiveness for a transgression, a hope that Vanessa implies is nigh impossible: “There can be no beginning again. Love and forgiveness are not the same thing.”

Through Vanessa’s imagined diary (for she never kept one) threaded together with telegrams, postcards, and letters by other constituents including Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell and E.M. Forster, I was swept into their progressive world of literary and artistic salons and their many love affairs, plenty of them conducted in each others’ beds.

I enjoyed the diversions about les Fauves in Paris as well as the expat community there helmed by Gertrude Stein, who Clive notes “bought Matisse’s Woman with a Hat” and also spent a huge sum on Picasso’s work, who the previous winter had been so poor and “had no money to buy coal and so burnt his own drawings to keep warm.”

Parmar creates such an intimacy about the characters. Vanessa explains that Virginia “is using her travel desk from home. The wood is worn on the left top corner, where she pulls and paws when she cannot find the right word. Writing settles her. It gives her day a shape, a tempo.” Later, after discussing Forster’s A Room With A View, Vanessa suggests, “I had thought he had written himself as George Emerson, but it seems he is Lucy Honeychurch.” And, also, thinking about her conversation with him, recalls “the asymmetrical shapes of love…the inevitable destructive quality of secrets. Morgan’s ideal is to bring the muddle into the open. He does not try to solve the muddle, he just hopes not to hide it. What a small important thing he is doing.” Indeed, that is what Vanessa needs to do in her own life.

I loved everything about this book: the recounted hot bits, real and imagined, the insider’s perspective on the creative life and its costs, the use of a variety of writing forms true to the earliest years of the twentieth century to reveal the narrative. To me, everything seemed emotionally true. I’ll read anything Parmar writes now.

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Jan13GirlOnTheTrain

I read this gritty, twisty debut thriller in one sitting. Unreliable narrator Rachel, who takes the commuter train in and out of London every weekday even though she’s been fired for being drunk at work, had my heart thumping a paranoid tattoo.

The penultimate scene is equal parts terror and satisfaction and will have you looking at a corkscrew in an entirely new way.

The novel has already been optioned for the screen, and I suspect Hawkins is hard at work penning her next one. You’ll be hearing loads of buzz about The Girl on the Train and all of it is deserving.

Of the 215 books I read in 2014, here is a selection of my favourites in both nonfiction and fiction. I hope you’ll find a new-to-you title that intrigues you. All of these were published in 2014.

Nonfiction

Updike

UPDIKE by Adam Begley

A masterful literary biography that has me pledging to read as much of Updike’s oeuvre as I can. Each time I finished a book, I penned a hand-written missive to Adam Begley. So far, I’ve enjoyed Seek My Face, Always Looking: Essays on Art, and Self-Consciousness the most.

Careless

CARELESS PEOPLE by Sarah Churchwell

This book is perfect for a lit nerd like me. I underlined and scribbled in the margins to my heart’s content. It’s a fascinating, meticulously-researched account of 1922 and what was happening around him as Fitzgerald began to write what became his most famous novel.

Blood

BLOOD WILL OUT by Walter Kirn

This is a gobsmacking tale of a sociopath whom Kirn befriends in 1998 when he delivers a crippled dog to him by request. I could not put it down. You won’t be able to either. If you’re already a fan of Capote’s In Cold Blood, Kirn’s memoir is for you.

EchoSpring

THE TRIP TO ECHO SPRING: ON WRITERS AND DRINKING by Olivia Laing

A beautiful bold narrative about legendary alcoholics Berryman, Carver, Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Williams via a journey through the places they inhabited.

Republic

THE REPUBLIC OF IMAGINATION by Azar Nafisi

Loved, loved, love this book, dog-earing pages, scribbling in the margins. Something Nafisi admits about Raymond Chandler made me realize we could be immediate friends.

Fiction

AllTheLight

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr

One of the year’s best novels. Each sentence is its own reward in this unconventional narrative about WWII, featuring a young French girl and a young German boy. Beautiful and painful. I will be haunted by it for some time to come.

BeSafe

BE SAFE, I LOVE YOU by Cara Hoffman

Hoffman writes with such compassion about frangible characters. Lauren Clay has difficulty adjusting to life stateside after serving in Iraq. PTSD is explored with sensitivity. Music offers redemption.

Wake

WAKE by Anna Hope

London, November 1920. The tomb of the unknown soldier from the Great War is prepared at Westminister Abbey. Lives of several women, mothers, wives, lovers, daughters are linked in grief. Haunting debut stylistically reminiscent of Virginia Woolf.

Station11

STATION ELEVEN by Emily Mandel

This dystopic novel surprised me in its tenderness and its ability to make me feel wistful about my own time. Mandel is in top form here. The through line of playing King Lear is also very appealing to me.

Thunderstruck

THUNDERSTRUCK by Elizabeth McCracken

Each story is full of light, but also gutting. This is a remarkable collection, shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award for fiction. The best collection of stories I’ve read in a long, long time.

Everything

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng

All of the characters are complicit in this compelling first thriller from Ng, that begins with the accidental death of a teenaged girl.

Reunion

REUNION by Hannah Pittard

Three adult siblings return to Atlanta to deal with the fallout from their oft-philandering father’s sudden death. Enthralling narrative voice. I’ll read anything Hannah Pittard writes.

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When I read Adam Begley’s recently published, masterful literary biography Updike, it lit a fire inside me. For the next few months, I’m planning to read my way through his extensive canon. And, although I’d prefer to read chronologically, I am mostly dependent on the availability of the books through the Toronto Public Library. Yet, I did splurge on a few, including this one.

In Begley’s book I discovered that Updike originally had plans to become a visual artist, an animator, actually. And, after he graduated from Harvard, he earned a scholarship to attend Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in 1954. There, he noted about a Life Class, “nothing like a sneering nude to set a man’s pencil trembling.”

Here are a few of my favourite things from Always Looking.

On Klimt:

Updike’s description of the portrait of “Adele Bloch Bauer I” (1907), bought by Roland Lauder for $135 million to add to his collection at Neue Galerie in NYC, made me laugh out loud, because he might have been writing about himself: “Horizontal eyes and vertical half-moons in the sitter’s garments both suggest vaginas, indicating another of the painter’s interests and doing nothing to discourage persistent but unproven rumors of a romantic connection between the artist and his subject.”  See for yourself.

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On Magritte:

Magritte’s bronze “Megalomania” (1967) Updike suggested, “stands as a monument to the female form, as worshipful as a Maillol or a Lachaise—a magnificent telescope of a rump giving birth to a smaller abdomen giving birth in turn to an armless, headless torso.” Updike adored women, as you can tell.

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On Miro:

Although I remembered from A Moveable Feast that Hemingway knew Miro in Paris, I did not know that he borrowed 5000 Francs in 1926 to purchase “The Farm” (1921-22) to give to Hadley for her 34th birthday, a painting that they hung above their bed. Through Updike I discovered that they were “incongruously, occasional boxing partners.”  Looking for the painting’s appeal to Hemingway, Updike wrote, “like Hemingway’s early prose, the painting is possessed by an ecstasy of simple naming, a seemingly innocent directness that is yet challenging and ominous.” Both of them were poor and hungry in Paris, “and hungry people see with a terrible clarity.”

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If the Updike writing that follows is as engaging as these essays, I have plenty of days ahead that will be rife with reading joy through his obvious respect and affection for expression.

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I’m always excited to find new-to-me writers that leave me gobsmacked by their storytelling and style. Masterman’s Edgar-nominated debut novel RAGE AGAINST THE DYING is my kind of thriller. It’s chilling, smart, and has a redemptive ending.

Retired FBI agent Brigid Quinn, who spent her career chasing sexual predators, has settled in Tucson with her husband Carlo (once a Roman Catholic priest, who has seen his share of dark humanity) and their pugs, who “are sort of a cross between Peter Lorre and a bratwurst.” (They ARE, aren’t they?) Quinn’s past returns in the form of Floyd Lynch, who confesses to the serial killings of young women, previously unsolved crime for which there is a very personal resonance for her. Yet, Quinn and her former associate David Weiss (a psychological profiler) and Laura Coleman, the new agent assigned to the case, are not so sure that Lynch is the killer he claims to be.

Masterman’s prose is taut, at times terrifying in its directness, and laced with wry humour that I expect is essential in a job that takes you face to face almost daily with man’s inhumanity to man.

If you’re a thriller fan, you must add RAGE AGAINST THE DYING to your TBR pile.

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Diaghilev’s demand of Cocteau to étonné moi–astonish me–is a perfect title for Shipstead’s sure-footed, dazzling novel about the ballet world in the late 1970s, the cost of defection, and the price of an artistic life. Rife with love, loss, and betrayal, this is my favourite novel of 2014 so far.