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Book Group Buzz

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Book group tips, reading lists, & lively talk of literary news from the experts at Booklist Online

Thursday, August 14, 2014 3:51 pm
You’ll Hum Along
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Hum and the ShiverWhen I was writing my first book, Read on Fantasy Fiction (Libraries Unlimited, 2007), I underestimated the impact that urban fantasy would have on the market. Although fantasy fiction in a contemporary setting had always been around, and a few trailblazers like Charles de Lint had already found success with it, the formula for urban fantasy was just taking shape. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer phenomena had primed the pump. Romance readers had already discovered writers like Laurell K. Hamilton in 2005. Urban fantasy authors like Charlaine Harris, Rachel Caine, and Kim Harrison had their first few books on the market. The seed for their success had been planted, but the growth spurt was yet to come.

Those who follow the fantasy genre know what happened, just how fast that growth spurt was. Tolkien-derived epic fantasy had ruled the roost for years, but these urban fantasies filled a niche. They were quick to read where the norm for traditional epic fantasy had stretched well beyond 500 pages, a length some readers found too ponderous. Urban fantasies featured lead characters with a style, a slang, an attitude that suited contemporary audiences. They had sexiness and humor and swagger that first brought female readers into the fold, then caught on with men too when authors like Jim Butcher joined the fray. In just a few years, urban fantasy went from a tiny portion of the fantasy market to fifty percent or more of it.

I recount all of this history because for all of urban fantasy’s draw for some readers, for another group of readers the books suffer from too much similarity. If you find it hard to suspend disbelief when you read about vampires, werewolves, and other mythical creatures secretly rubbing elbows with us in the modern world, then you might find the first book or two a diverting departure, but in the long run, the subgenre may wear thin quickly. The same qualities that made them a hit–brevity, plot focus, a connection to the mystery and thriller genres, and sexy, snarky heroes–are qualities that don’t lead to deep conversations in book groups, and so I’ve seldom written about urban fantasy in this space.

But it pleases me when I see an author bucking the trends. For something refreshingly different in contemporary fantasy, consider Alex Bledsoe’s series about the Tufa, people of Cloud County in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. In the first book, The Hum and the Shiver, Bronwyn Hyatt has returned home to a hero’s welcome after sustaining war injuries in the Middle East. She joined the Army to escape her wild past, her violent ex-boyfriend, and the pressures of family, so she’s more than a little agitated about her homecoming. The Tufa are a mysterious people: quick-tempered but circumspect, highly sexed but family focused, and musical to the extreme, tapping into mountain music as a kind of magical force. They avoid outsiders, and even the roads into Cloud County seem to disappear at times. When Bronwyn feels a romantic attraction to a young pastor who is not Tufa, refuses to take on family responsibilities, and can’t seem to find her music, it creates a crisis that drives the story to its climax.

The Hum and the Shiver has unusual, complex characters, plenty of rough-edged mountain charm and atmosphere, and incorporates the traditional seelie and unseelie court of the faerie world  into an American setting in a very new and effective way. There’s a depth of emotion and conflict here that a book group will appreciate, blended with cultural references that should also help stir the conversation.

Thursday, July 31, 2014 8:02 pm
Secrets, Lies, Forgetting
Posted by: MaryKate Perry

One college summer, in a 20th Century American Literature class, I was pleasantly surprised to find the reading list included Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. The professor said, “People enjoy reading her, so naturally, the critics are suspicious.”  It must be so awful to be a critic.  Think of all the reading material they are forced to consume on the sly. Their copy of Carl Hiaasen’s latest would have to be cloaked up in a misleading book jacket from another, less enjoyable work, in case their spouse should walk in and catch them in flagrante with a light read.  They must be dying for a break from books they have to grimly plow through and expound upon in erudite fashion.

Phew! Thank heavens I am not a critic!  If I enjoy a book, then it’s a good book.  Want a good book?  I will do you one better.  Here’s a whole author:  Liane Moriarty.  Besides having a degree in library science, I am an avid library user.  I never buy books (I need all my money to cover my library fines).  I am the reason bookstores continue to go out of business and I will continue to apologize for this.  But Liane Moriarty is one of a scant few authors whose books I will buy. I know I will read them fast, like them instantly and pass them on with unreserved recommendations.

Sydney-based Moriarty writes plot-driven tales, yes, but she manages something that I almost never see in popular fiction:  her books ask big questions.  Idea-driven fiction can be dull and pedantic but if you can write a compelling tale about abook2love, loss, lies, attraction, secrets, disappointment, forgiveness, (let’s see, what else is there in life?…Oh wait, I know: sex and death!) and at the same time, make your readers ask themselves important questions, then critics take a holiday! Loosen your ties, kick off your constricting pumps and read Liane Moriarty right now.  What Alice Forgot will have you recalling what you were once passionate and earnest about before you became who you are now.  The Husband’s Secret (trust me, it’s a whopper) will have you wondering what you could and should forgive, and whether love and forgiveness are inseparable.  Her questions don’t feel forced, tacked on or extracted painstakingly from the narrative, but arise organically in the course of intriguing stories with likeable characters.

I don’t know about you, but I have a little vacation coming up and I am looking for something medium-light to devour. Moriarty’s latest, Big Little Lies, was just released in the U.S. this week.  I hope you have shed those tight shoes by now, because you are going to need to sprint to the bookstore.  On your marks…

P.S.  I know you might think this is women-only literature, but my friend Eric - who is very manly and likes to jump out of planes – reads her books.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014 5:41 pm
A French Kiss in the Woods
Posted by: Neil Hollands

In the WoodsI have a new writer crush on Tana French. Although other mystery writers have worked the angle of writing different books in a series from the perspective of different detectives in the same police department, her Dublin Murder Squad series uses the device to brilliant effect, creating unanswered questions that leave one dying to read the next book, even though the mystery of the first book is solved.

The first book of the series is In the Woodsand it’s lovely, dark, and deep indeed. The narrator is Rob Ryan, a young police detective. Years before, he and two of his childhood friends went into the woods near there Dublin suburb. The other two disappeared without a trace, while Rob was found clutching a tree in terror, unable to remember most of the events that occurred. Among Rob’s police colleagues, only his partner Cassie knows of his history (he has changed his name since, and doesn’t have much family to tie him to the past).

When the pair pick up a murder case, a young girl found on a rock altar at an archaeological site near the very same woods, Rob takes the case even though Cassie tries to warn him off, worried that his past will be exposed. But there are a couple of elements that tie the two crimes together, and Rob just can’t resist the chance to explore his past.

What really puts French’s story over the top for me, however, is not the case, although she handles that with great aplomb, providing a variety of suspects and motives to suss through. There’s even greater pleasure to be found in Rob and Cassie’s relationship, the kind that verges on romance, but is based on such a strong friendship that the two don’t entirely realize the deeper layer of attraction. This adds another taut string of suspense that readers wait for the author to pluck.

The second book The Likeness uses Cassie as the narrator, and further books in the series have each taken yet another viewpoint. If you like crime, contemporary Ireland, or complicated relationships, you won’t regret picking up this series. The fifth book, The Secret Place, is due in September. All five have received starred reviews here at Booklist, how’s that for consistency?

Sunday, July 27, 2014 11:06 pm
Satisfaction in One Year: Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy
Posted by: Misha Stone
BGB-AnnihilationIf you read trilogies, then you are used to waiting. Sometimes you only have to wait a year between books and other times it’s six or ten (not naming any authors here, I promise!). So it is with distinct pleasure and awe that I learned that Jeff Vandermeer planned to release all three of the books in The Southern Reach trilogy in 2014.
The first book, Annihilation, follows a group of four women, a biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a surveyor, who set out into Area X. We know each character only by their role and how they react as they venture into an area that had gone mysteriously strange 30 years before. They have been trained to survey Area X and to return with samples and journals so that the government organization they work for, Southern Reach, can learn more about the potentially dangerous developments in Area X. They know little, other than that they are the 12th expedition and that many before them did not return or did not return with their memories or even their personalities intact.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation gets the Southern Reach trilogy off to a suitably creepy, provocative start. The anthropological distance employed in the narration creates even more mystery and immersion in the landscape and story.

The second book, Authority, is from the perspective a new director at the Southern Reach facility where the survivors from the 12th expedition into Area X have just returned.

Vandermeer creates suspense and holds your attention and curiosity with a sly, clinical eye. Momentum builds slowly as a disturbing atmosphere builds around the fecund mysteries of Area X.

Entertainment Weekly recently used a whole page to glory over the cover art The Southern Reach has received in different countries. It’s worth looking at because the cover art treatment of the books is marvelous.

The third book, Acceptance, will be coming out in September, so you have plenty of time to catch up in the meantime. Or, for once, you can enjoy a trilogy in one fell swoop without feeling like you have discovered it late. That’s the gift that Jeff Vandermeer has given us in 2014: a trilogy to gulp or savor without the wait.

Thursday, July 24, 2014 5:46 pm
Next Life Might Be Kinder
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr

next life might be kinderEver have that experience where you read a “new” author and exclaim, “Who is this guy and why hasn’t anybody told me about him?”  Howard Norman’s Next Life Might Be Kinder is that kind of book.

I love the fact that this novel is summarized by the first line of the book: “After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alfonse Padgett in the Essex Hotel, she did not leave me.”

The narrator of the novel is Sam Lattimore, a novelist himself who narrates this story to us in two alternating time periods: the time leading up to the murder of his wife and the time after.

In the part that covers the time leading up to the murder, we learn how Sam and Elizabeth fell in love, got married, moved into the Essex Hotel, took lindy lessons and set the stage for Elizabeth’s murder.

In the part that covers the time after the murder we see Sam talk to his dead wife on the beach each night, talk in therapy, deal with unwanted attention and friendship and watch his disintegration into rage.  While you might assume the rage is about Elizabeth’s murder, you might be surprised to discover that it is also his guilt over having sold the film rights to their life and now having to watch actors play Elizabeth and him in front of the cameras.

Complex.  Very easy to discuss.  If I was saying to myself right now, “Who is this Howard Norman and why hasn’t anybody told me about him?” I would read this book and think about having a discussion on it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014 5:39 am
Fortunately, Neil Gaiman
Posted by: MaryKate Perry

This is not the first time I have posted about Neil Gaiman, an author much beloved by my household. I recently put forward my theories of therapeutic reading, and I had opportunity to do further research this week. I know, I work too hard.  Now then: are you world-weary?  Are you cynical? Would you be suffering from ennui if you even cared enough to suffer?  I suggest:  Fortunately, the Milk.  This 128 page gem is for children up to age 102, and guaranteed to perk up your attitude.

anielgaiman2Okay, I admit, we listened to the audio version because Gaiman is the reader, and he could not be a better one.  Not all writers shine when reading aloud, even when its their own work.  Gaiman does, and we were entertained during what would have been a tedious car ride. I hope you don’t mind glitches in the space-time continuum because Gaiman plays fast and loose with time, enough so that when the book was over we started again, just to make sure we had caught everything.

If your friends, rellies or book club members are taking road trips this summer, tell them about this title.  You can reconvene after your wanderings and share your impressions. And if you are going by way of floaty ball person carrier, (the original name of the hot air balloon!) be sure to pack some brown hairy wet white crunchers (you’ll have to read the book to find out what those are) for snacking.

Sunday, July 20, 2014 11:33 am
Essays on the Power of Story: Rebecca Solnit’s “The Faraway Nearby”
Posted by: Misha Stone
I picked up Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby when I saw it on a patron ‘s list of favorite books. I had been hearing Solnit’s name a lot anyway, mostly in reference to another book of hers, Men Explain Things To Me.

The Faraway Nearby is a collection of thirteen interconnected essays that range from the personal to the literary. Solnit includes intimate details of her life–her fraught relationship with her mother, her experience with cancer, her trip to Iceland–while weaving in the power of stories that range from the stories we construct for and about ourselves to The Thousand and One Nights to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Here is a quotation that captures some the essence of what Solnit explores in these essays:

We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or hate, to see or be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller. Those ex-virgins who died were inside the sultan’s story; Scheherazade, like a working-class hero, seized control of the means of production and talked her way out.

I found myself pausing and bookmarking passages in each essay to revisit later. Solnit’s observations are quietly profound, her layered of stories and images cumulative in their effects.

Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby would provoke thoughtful discussion about just how powerful stories truly are–from the folk and fairytales we grow up with, from the books that we read and that have impacted our cultural consciousness, to the stories our families tell that we incorporate into our sense of ourselves. Solnit weaves these themes with nuanced mastery. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Sunday, July 20, 2014 12:44 am
What Light in Yonder Saber Breaks? William Shakespeare’s Star Wars
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Shakespeare Star Wars coversLooking for a change of pace for an upcoming book group meeting? I’m a big advocate of playing with the formula at least once a year and trying something unusual. The contrast helps to keep the standard meeting format fresh. One of my favorite variations is to read something aloud. There’s a great deal of fine literature, particularly poetry and plays, that comes to life when one hears the words spoken, and it can be great fun for your group members to channel their inner ham.

To that end, Ian Doescher’s recent adaptations of the first three Star Wars films, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope; William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back; and this month’s William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return provide a great opportunity. Split up the parts and start reading! Almost everyone is familiar with these films, and Doescher’s adaptations are very clever, a cut far above the usual mashup, illuminating both the storytelling of the films (not a scene is left out) and the linguistic power of Shakespeare. The books include black and white, Elizabethan style illustrations of the familiar Star Wars characters and fine iambic pentameter throughout. Doescher adds a chorus to help fill gaps in the narrative (and to perform the famous screen scrolls). Even R2D2 and Chewbacca begin with appropriate iambic beeps and groans, but later open the fourth wall with funny asides about their devious manipulations of the other characters.Hamlet Skywalker

Doescher inserts a liberal dose of lines close to those found in other Shakespeare, so when C-3PO spouts Now is the summer of our happiness/Made winter by this sudden fierce, attack! or Han Solo vows The day when Jabba taketh my fair ship/Shall be the day you find me a grave man,your more astute readers can enjoy a game of name that play and identify the original reference.

If the Coen Brothers are more your thing than Star Wars, try Adam Bertocci’s Two Gentlemen of Lebowski instead, but just as zombies overran all matter of classics a few years ago, these Shakespearean mashups may follow suit. As with that earlier trend, the first examples (like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) are likely to prove more successful. My recommendation is to jump in now, grin and bard it with your book group, before the proverbial horse is flogg’d to the death.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 1:05 am
A Life in Film
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Life ItselfI didn’t always appreciate Roger Ebert. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when he and Gene Siskel were America’s most ubiquitous critical presence, I didn’t give either the thumbs-up as a reviewer. But over time, and through illness, Ebert’s steady presence grew on me. Whether you agreed with his verdict on a particular film or not, if you were a film lover you had to respect his dedication to the craft, the cause, of movies.

But you don’t have to be a cinephile to enjoy Ebert’s Life Itself, a memoir that encompasses American childhood in the 40s and 50s, the adventures of a budding journalist, rousing encounters with Chicago writers, film stars of many ages, his long-time television partner Siskel and other celebrities, fascinating travelogues of London, Cannes, and other locations, a battle with alcoholism, and a lovely paeon to the wife he married at 50, Chaz Hammelsmith. If you experienced the 20th century, there’s probably more than one section in this book to which you will relate.

Now that he’s gone, Ebert’s memoir takes on special meaning, as it depicts his various struggles with the throat cancer that would ultimately take his life. Ebert faced his disfiguring illness with an earthiness, an optimism and humor that are inspirational. Ultimately, it’s these qualities, and Ebert’s quirky and gently opinionated outlook on Life Itself that make this a memoir for the ages.

As a pairing, look for the wonderful 2014 documentary biographical film by the same title, directed by Steve James (who also directed one of my all-time favorite documentaries Hoop Dreams).

Thursday, July 10, 2014 12:42 am
Go Straight to Hell’s Kitchen: North River by Pete Hamill
Posted by: Neil Hollands

North RiverThis summer seems to have been a season for trying authors who have long been on my bookshelf, but never quite made it into my hands.

Pete Hamill’s North River mixes atmospheric historical novel with thoughtful middle-age romance, family tragedy with a dash of criminal suspense. The setting is the waning days of the Tammany Hall machine in the Manhattan neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. Doctor Jim Delaney went to WWI out of a sense of duty. He suffered a career threatening injury and saw a lot of rough things, then returned home to find that his parents had died in the great flu epidemic and his wife had lost patience with their marriage while he was away. As the novel opens, middle age has landed squarely on Delaney’s tired back. It is 1934, and his wife has disappeared, maybe a suicide, maybe just a runaway. Delaney is shocked from his long-term mourning and wondering when his troubled daughter leaves a three-year-old grandson who doesn’t speak English on Delaney’s doorstep while she searches for herself and for her revolutionary husband in Spain.

Also early in the novel, Delaney makes two more fateful decisions. To help him take care of the boy, he brings a 30-something Italian woman, Rose Verga, into his household. She’s attractive in a solid way, but brings the baggage of a troubled past. Delaney also helps an old war friend, now a gangster, survive an attack, thus invoking the enmity of a rival gang.

Delaney is a likeable character, the kind of dependable but world-weary man on whom a neighborhood depends, especially in an era where dangers are plentiful and doctors making housecalls are the best defense for down-on-their-luck people. The novel is full of mild suspense. Will Delaney’s wife or daughter come home? Should he pursue Rose instead? Could such a romance survive differences of age, ethnicity, and class? What will be best for the boy? And will everyone make it safely through the violence of mobsters, the machinations of local politics? While those questions drive the story at a steady pace, the real focus here is on believable characters in a setting that Hamill clearly loves, and brings vividly to life. I’ve read many books set in New York City in this era, but none has brought the time and place so clearly back into being.

If you should have access to the audiobook, read by Henry Strozier, I recommend it highly. Strozier finds the perfect tone for the tale.

Hamill himself is a fascinating character, a man who has worked in steel yards, the Navy, and graphic design, then turned relatively late in life to journalism and then fiction. Any of his novels or nonfiction pieces look to be worthy material for book groups. I know after finally picking up North River, I’ll be back for more.


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