It’s a pretty spectacular month for book releases. Some of my favorites of the year are out this month and I’ve been waiting to tell you all about them for ages. In particular, what I love about these books is that almost all of them has the potential to appeal to all kinds of audiences. So now, in alphabetical order…
Maggie Shipstead made a splash on the literary scene with her debut novel Seating Arrangements. I loved it against my will, since it was a book about a WASP-y wedding that centered around the bride’s father and his midlife crisis. But Shipstead is just really good and you can’t help but be charmed by her writing and her characters. So everyone is pretty pumped about her second novel, Astonish Me. Just like Seating Arrangements, it’s worth the hype. It’s nice to see her try a totally different genre and style of storytelling.
Astonish Me is a ballet book, and it’s true I’m a sucker for ballet books (and movies and documentaries, etc.), but because I like them a lot I also get to be pretty picky about them. Astonish Me is about so many different parts of the life of a dancer that it has a particularly rich story to offer. Joan begins the book as a young dancer in a prestigious company, but like so many others, she leaves it to make a regular life and family. Later, as her son grows up and shows signs of being good enough to dance professionally, the story gets vastly more complicated. Moving forward and backward in time, Joan has to grapple with choices she made years ago as her son tries to decide if he wants to take on the perilous life of a dancer.
I sometimes find myself reading short story collections in bed because they let you read a whole story from start to finish and get a nice sense of closure before you close your eyes for the night. My favorite in a while is The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith. Kupersmith is very young, which is rather annoying as you read this collection of versatile, affecting stories that show she’s got real talent. (Yes, I’m jealous.) The Frangipani Hotel‘s stories are connected by theme and character. Set in Vietnam, or with Vietnamese-Americans in the US, the Vietnamese culture and traditions flow through each story. It is about the Vietnam War, of course, without really being about it at all. But it shows us the country, what it is now and what the US is now, and forgotten horrors linger through its pages. What I really love is that the stories are based on and inspired by Vietnamese folk tales and many of them involve surrealism and ghost stories while still feeling smart. They are pageturners without being fluff. I loved reading one or two stories then letting them settle over me. If you’re not getting enough international flavor in your reading, this is a great one to try.
Historical fiction also isn’t necessarily my genre. Noticing a theme? Like I said earlier, all these books are good enough that they should appeal to any reader regardless of what your favorite genre is. Love & Treasure is by Ayelet Waldman, who I’ve followed for years. Partly because she’s married to Michael Chabon and partly because I love her essays on motherhood and partly because her novel Daughter’s Keeper is one of the better ones I’ve read about being a public defender. I’ve read most of her books even though I don’t always connect to them. But I feel pretty confident saying Love & Treasure is the best thing she’s written. She’s upped her game in a big way and her passion for the material is evident without getting maudlin (which is often my main complaint about her books).
Another book that takes place in different time period and one that covers the aftermath of war (wow, it’s amazing the common threads you can find between books), Love & Treasure focuses mainly on Natalie in the present day and her grandfather Jack, who’s stationed in Austria just as WWII is ending. But really the novel is about one big thing: the Hungarian Gold Train. This real tragedy gets a novel that addresses it in all its sadness and complexity. Jews in Hungary had their belongings confiscated by the government with the promise they’d be returned, and Jack–a Jew himself, though many of his fellow soldiers don’t know it–is charged with guarding these treasures and heirlooms while Europe is putting itself back together. Decades later, Natalie finds a necklace among her late grandfather’s possessions and decides to return it to its rightful owner, suspecting it was looted during the war. Neither Natalie nor Jack faces an easy task or one that’s morally simple. But this isn’t a novel that hits you over the head with the ethical dilemmas its characters face. It also follows Jack and Natalie into romantic relationships that may be too difficult to ever work. Rooting those characters in their own search for love grounds the novel in reality and Waldman’s prose is lovely and real.
Hey, we’re finally in my genre! Natchez Burning by Greg Iles is a crime novel, and happily though it’s only the latest book to feature protagonist Penn Cage, you can pick it up without having read any of the others. (I did. This is my first Iles novel, though he’s written several.) Natchez Burning is one of many novels in the 1960′s-racial-crime-cold-case subgenre but it does a pretty nice job of going outside the usual connect-the-dots. The Mayor of a small Southern town, Penn Cage is embroiled in a search for the KKK-shootoff group the Double Eagles, a secret group that was never charged with any crime though they’re suspected of several murders. But in the midst of this dangerous task, his own father, the retired town doctor, is charged with murder for assisting in the suicide of one of his elderly patients. Not nearly as simple a case as it seems, Cage’s father has his own secrets, including a connection to the notorious Double Eagles. This is a long book, for those of you who like a mystery that’ll last you through most of your vacation. It’s also pretty violent, so just a heads up. I’m happy to add Iles to my list, since he has tons of books I’ve never read.
I’m finishing the list with a genre-mashup the likes of which I’ve never seen before: a thriller for language nerds. The Word Exchange is definitely a thriller. There’s a disappearance, a not-far-in-the-future setting, a secret society, a network of tunnels under New York City, a strange virus that’s spreading through the world, a company that may be plotting the destruction of the world… and yet it’s also a book about a simple and quiet woman named Anana and her father, Douglas, who’s the editor of a Dictionary that is one of the only remaining printed books. Just before the new edition comes out, Douglas disappears and all sorts of strange things are happening. Author Alena Graedon’s vision of the future is uncanny and feels completely and utterly real. A device called a meme has replaced the smartphone and is even more ubiquitous with the ability to work without pushing buttons or saying commands. Not only that, but it’s being replaced by the upgraded Nautilus, which can tap in even more deeply to our brains. Is it these devices that are behind the strange Word Flu that causes people to use nonsensical words in the middle of sentences without realizing it? And what part does Max, Anana’s recent ex-boyfriend whose startup is connected to the company that may be behind it all? The Word Exchange is about technology, about language, about reading, about devices, about how we live in the modern world. And yet it moves at a breathtaking pace and throws you down its rabbit hole with aplomb. I honestly can’t believe it’s a debut novel. Anyone who loves reading will find something to love in this book.