Category Archives: The Book World

Books I Loved in 2017

I thought I’d mention some of the amazing books I read last year. Some I read in 2017 but will be out in 2018, One of best novels I read coming in just one week is Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. She’ll be at Harvard Book Store on 1/23. I won’t shut up about Danielle Lazarin’s story collection Back Talk coming in February. I don’t normally like short stories (I know) but I loved loved loved this book. And she’ll be at Harvard Book Store on 2/13 and I can’t wait.

Other novels I loved were Peter Heller’s Celine, Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory, Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett,  Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi, Nicole Dennis-Benn’s  Here Comes the Sun, Eka Kurnlawan’s very strange but absorbing Vengeance is Mine All Others Pay Cash, and the novel that people couldn’t stop talking about Jessmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing.

I’m currently on the last book in N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth series, The Stone Sky, and I’m loving it all.

Welcome 2018 – Musings on Reading & Writing

I haven’t disappeared I promise! I still read a ton (even when brushing my teeth) but found myself feeling less excited writing review after review. But after a year or more off, I’m going to start back up again. Some things might be short, some might be long. And I won’t pressure myself to write about a book if I don’t want to at all. Most of all I want it to be fun again.

I’m what I call a ‘completist’. I usually try to finish a book, even if I’m not enjoying it. I don’t do that 100% of the time but I will more likely finish a book that I’m not liking just to see where it goes. Occasionally the last 20 pages can turn a book around.  I’ve definitely hate-read a few books (looking at you Magpie Murders) if nothing else to  fend off those who might say, ‘well the ending makes it better, you should have read it to the end’. Sometimes you just have to suck it up, keep on reading that crap book, and just throw it against the wall  when done.

Part of my reluctance to review was because of my job. I’m a sales rep representing Penguin books hence I read a lot of Penguin books, many of which I really enjoy (everyone should read Danielle Lazarin’s wonderful Back Talk coming in February). But I don’t want to come across as some sort of cheerleader for Penguin books simply because it’s my job. It wouldn’t feel authentic if I did that, I felt. Then I realized that’s dumb. I read a ton and have been for years. No one is going to respect me less (I hope) for talking up a Penguin book that I love because I work for them.

From Mr. Bookdwarf: Two by M. J. Carter – The Strangler Vine and The Infidel Stain

I like a lot of historical novels but for a lot of them I have a similar objection: The narrator or protagonist has anachronistically modern views. This, of course, makes it easier to identify with and easier to enjoy, but it’s sort of a cop-out. For example, the otherwise excellent Imogen Robertson runs into this problem with her protagonists, Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther. They manage it because she’s a widow used to running her own household and he’s an eccentric, and the minor characters react with appropriate alarm at their breaches of decorum. But the people we empathize with most are people who think a lot like we do today.

M. J. Carter avoids this trap in The Strangler Vine with her narrator, William Avery, a young officer with the British East India Company in 1837. Avery truly believes he’s doing good work bringing order and Christ to the “Hindoos” and “Mohammedans” in Calcutta. He’s the youngest son of provincial gentry, brought up to be dismissive of the poor and awed by the aristocracy, and he follows through on it. Shown the worst of colonialism, he cannot believe that the system is rotten, but blames a handful of bad actors. Independence isn’t even a dream or a rumor: it’s completely inconceivable.

At first, his arrogance and confidence in his innate British superiority makes it harder to like Avery, but it also makes his portrayal more lifelike. On page 1 of The Strangler Vine, he’s a naïve young man trapped in his assumptions, but he grows and learns with realistic slowness that many of his assumptions are false. As he does so he takes shape as a genuinely interesting person. His tutor in this endeavor is an outcast former Company man, Jeremiah Blake, who gets roped into work as a “Special Inquiry Agent” from time to time.

Because Blake speaks the local languages, understands and sympathizes with the grievances of the natives, and is keenly aware of the downside of the Empire, the Company men don’t trust him. But for the same reasons, they need him. He and Avery are sent off on a quest to find a missing poet of significant political importance, meanwhile getting involved in the courts of semi-independent Indian states and persistent bands of dacoits… or are they sinister cultists?

The tension between Avery’s blind belief in the glories of Empire as he’s been raised to understand them and the reality he sees with Blake will take a lifetime to resolve, or at least several excellent novels. Midway through The Infidel Stain – several years later, London, radical Chartists demanding suffrage for all men – Avery is somewhat wiser. But he still hesitates when Blake hands him some unwashed second-hand clothing before taking him into a lower-class pub. “I’ll look like a laborer!” he objects. Then he catches himself: that’s the point, of course, if you’re going to be chatting up someone from a militant labor movement. It’s a tiny moment, but a brilliant one.

The Strangler Vine wasn’t a blockbuster sales hit when it came out in hardcover, but it got good critical buzz: lots of favorable reviews, the longlist on the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, a Washington Post Notable Book and an Edgar Award finalist. It’s now available in paper, and I’m willing to bet that plenty of people who read it this month will be more than willing to pick up The Infidel Stain in hardcover when it arrives on March 29th.

From Mr. Bookdwarf: The Widow by Fiona Barton

The exonerated suspect in a notorious kidnapping case is suddenly dead. Journalists and police descend upon Joanie, his widow, to try to get her to share the real story behind what went on when 2-year-old Bella disappeared.

Fiona Barton’s The Widow is hard enough to put down that I missed my stop while reading it on the train. The unreliable narrators and creepy sex crimes are sure to earn it recommendations to anyone who liked The Girl on The Train, although it’s certainly not one of those “me too” novels snapped up to try and ride on its coattails.

The psychologically damaged Joanie is captivating as she slowly reveals her escape from her manipulative husband, but we particularly liked the the portrait of the tabloid journalist, who truly loves her subjects, even as she’s monetizing their tawdry stories. Barton’s experience in journalism is evident in her feel for human interactions and the slow build and missed directions of an investigation. I imagine a newspaper editor would fault her for burying the lede, but the fact that she saves the truly earth-shattering details for the end works to great effect in her novel.


The Second Act: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

One of the first books I read this year was Helen Simonson’s forthcoming The Summer Before the War. Simonson wrote the extremely popular novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand which went on to spend weeks on the bestseller lists and ended up on many of the best books of the year list. I recall from my days at the bookstore it selling week after week and people urging me to read it. I just never got to it. I finished and while thinking about the book, checked its page on Goodreads. Some readers really seem disappointed, though now there are a lot more 5 star reviews on there. I’m always curious how a second novel from a favorite author will be received and am looking forward to reading the reviews when it arrives in March.

Set in the town of Rye in Essex, England right before the outbreak of WWI, Simonson focuses on the social mores and ideas on gender and class. After losing her beloved father who raised her to be a well-read and intelligent young woman, Beatrice Nash arrives to tutor 3 young boys in Latin before starting as a Latin instructor at the local school in the Fall. Immediately we learn that her hiring was controversial and the idea to do so was led by headstrong Agatha Kent who’s married to John, a senior official in the military. The  childless couple dote on their nephews Hugh Grange, finishing up medical school, and Daniel Bookham, a handsome poet about to start a literary journal.

I was quickly taken up with the inner workings of the town as nepotism threatens Beatrice’s job and other travails. The many pages flew by and the story inevitably takes a darker turn when the war begins and after Germany invades Belgium. It truly speaks well of a writer who can craft such memorable characters, even ones you might not like right off the bat but yet whose lives you worry about and you just hope they survive the horrors of trench warfare.

At the end, I loved reading it and was sorry to get to the end. Will I run and read Major Pettigrew? It’s on my list but I’m still savoring these characters for now.

Even the Dead, by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)

As we all know, John Banville is a masterful writer. And as Benjamin Black, he assumes the mantle of another masterful writer.  His latest noirish mystery is Even the Dead, which brings us Dublin pathologist Dr. Quirke and his foolhardy investigations into corruption among the holy and powerful in postwar Ireland.

In a slight deviation from the standard noir format, Quirke’s hard drinking isn’t romanticized at all. It’s catching up with him. That, and the severe beating from a previous novel, have left him with cognitive problems described as “absence seizures.”

The tale begins with Quirke on medical leave after “taking the cure” in hospital. He’s back in Dublin and mostly abstaining… meaning abstaining from liquor. Beer and wine don’t count, apparently. But his former assistant has a quick question for him about a suspicious death, and we’re back to the game again. The victim’s father is a controversial political figure… is this a clue or a coincidence?

This is everything I’d hoped it would be: excellent writing, gripping thrills, plus enough thoughtful insights into culture and society that I don’t feel that it’s literary junk food.

White Collar Girl by Renee Rosen

I read White Collar Girl for work, frankly not expecting to like it so much. It truly speaks to the difficulties women faced trying to break into the male dominated work force, in particular here Chicago newspapers. Jordan Walsh comes from a family of reporters and writers. Her mother is an acclaimed poet, her father a nationally recognized reporter now retired, and her brother, now dead from a hit and run, was an up and coming reporter. Jordan longs to break into the ranks of the news desk, but gets relegated to the society pages, covering weddings and what visiting celebrities wore. Even with her family connections, she struggles to be taken seriously. That doesn’t stop her from trying and when she gets a big break finding an inside source in Mayor Daley’s office, she finally gets some confidential information to write serious articles.

The author does a great job with the complexities of how breaking cultural rules, even if the rules are wrong, can often lead to isolation and disagreement. I found Jordan’s journey of self-discovery compelling and believable. Jordan struggled  not with just the men, but with some of the women in her life , as they don’t understand why she doesn’t just marry and settle down. Her focus on her career loses her a few male relationships, and I was particularly happy that in the end, the focus is still on Jordan’s blossoming career. I highly recommend this very compelling novel–especially because it has such a wonderful jacket!

A Little Life by Yana Hanagihara

Do you like to cry? Have you been feeling too good about your life? Well, do I have the book for you! Seriously though, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara will stick with you for a long time. It’s a massive, dark, and elegant novel that follows a four men who meet in a expensive college. Haitain artist J.B. spoiled by his family, mixed-race Malcolm on his way to being an architect, kind-hearted actor Willem, and beautiful Jude, a brilliant lawyer who is also a cutter. But as you get lulled into reading about their 20s and 30s, the book’s focus shifts to Jude, and the many horrible things that happened to him during his childhood  and who has kept all of it buried as deep as he can. Yanagihara reveals it all very slowly, nor does she do it gratuitously. Jude’s suffering feels real and it’s the love of those he lets in as close as he can that keeps him alive.

I struggled to write about A Little Life. It’s like I’m reporting on my friends. I suffered with them, I wept with them, and I felt the glimpses of happiness.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is a classic of true crime, covering the remarkable transformations of Chicago and the world with the 1893 World’s Fair … and also the appearance and capture of America’s first modern serial killer.
 The fair witnessed wide deployment of the floating-slab foundation that allowed skyscrapers to exist, a critical demonstration of the benefits of lighting with AC power, the invention of the Ferris Wheel, the novelty of the zipper, the prize-winning Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, development of a police force dedicated to prevention of crime… and also identity theft, fraud, and murder made easy by the increasing anonymity of the huge city. Without the close supervision of family and village, psychopaths could manipulate merchants and vendors, borrow without credit checks, buy without paying, and of course practice seduction, bigamy, and murder on an immense scale.
So, the book really covers both the wonders and horrors of the close of the 19th century. It’s incredibly engaging and clearly has an immense following for a reason.
With Boston’s Olympic bid in the spotlight, it is also interesting to note how the city of Chicago was almost unanimous in its desire for the fair, and how much of the argument was over which part of the city would be allowed to host more of it. In Boston, we’re fighting to keep it out, or at least keep parts of it away from our neighborhoods. A big event like this was a point of pride for Chicagoans in the 1890s. 2015 Boston seems to have a totally different attitude in mind.

Report from the Road (or Not)

As I mentioned in my last post some weeks ago, I’m now a sales rep for Penguin books selling to independent bookstores in New England. I’ve got a car, a laptop, a shitload of galleys, and I drive around visiting my accounts talking about the next season’s books. Or at least that’s the idea. Except I live in New England, more specifically in Cambridge, MA, across the river from Boston. We’ve gotten over 70 inches of snow in the last and are expecting more this coming week. We’ve run out of places to put that flaky menace and after a while, it just gets tiring (or maybe that’s just February). Suffice it to say, I’ve had to reschedule a lot of appointments and juggle my schedule. No big deal. (A photo of my street for perspective.)


So far when I am able to do sales calls, I have a great time. I love nothing more than talking about books with other book lovers. And Penguin publishes some great stuff. I’m reading more variety than I normally would so I can confidently talk about the titles to buyers. All in all I’m digging this new job, no pun intended.