Sunday, December 28, 2014

Not Another Top 10 Books of 2014, oh yes it is!

Okay, so I haven't done one of these since 2010. I have kept an internal list going in my journal, however I have not written a blog piece about my list, but this year is different. I felt like I read a wide selection of great books. I have not even read half of the books I wanted to, but who ever really does?

The books on this list were published in 2014, I left out the 2013 that I finally caught up to and I took out any 2015's that I was able to read early. So, here is the list:

10. The Lesser Dead by Christopher Buehlman
If you have not read Christopher Buehlman, and you like very well written horror novels, do yourself a favor and run, don't walk, to your local bookshop and purchase all of his novels.  They are all brilliant and he keeps getting better. If you only want to choose one, go with Those Across the River, his first novel. Creepy.

However, this is about The Lesser Dead, specifically Joey Peacock. Joey is a vampire living in New York's underground in the 1970's. He has been a vampire for 45 years, and Margaret has been taking him under her wing all these long years. She is the law. Joey's life, and the life of the other vampires he lives with, chugs along in a pretty routine manner. Until one day the children show up. Tiny child vampires that creep into their turf and shun all their rules. I know, you are thinking tiny child vampires, big deal...oh yes, very big deal. Buehlman's writing flows, the dialogue is meant to be read aloud as it has a rhythm that speeds up during times of great suspense and it slows down during contemplative moments. Did I mention this book is also funny and not just dark? Funny thing is, the humor enhances the darker elements. You'll know what I mean when you finish this one.

One last thing, if you ever have a chance to go to a Christopher Buhleman reading, do it. The man is a master performer and it shows.

 9. One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Not a book that was on my radar this year, however being in a book club really helps sometimes, and it became one of my favorite books as soon as cracked open the first page. Everything hinges on a scene in the beginning, where a group of teenagers form a club called the Fatal Romantics Club, and then there is a shooting in the middle of city. Two of the teenagers end up dead. Those two are part of families that are held up in very high regard, so the secret police are brought in to sift through the evidence and find the guilty parties. Though, the parties involved may not be guilty and they may have nothing to do with the shooting, they are scrutinized and questioned. To quote Simon himself, this is not "a novel about power, but about private life-above all, love." The lack of anything private in the Stalinist era is paramount to this novel.

8. The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore
Pocket of Dog Snogging is back along with his sidekick Drool (don't forget about his pet monkey Jeff!). Christopher Moore has now taken this Fool from Britain to 13th Century Italy, and the results could not be more hilarious. There is a lusty sea monster, a ghost, Marco Pollo, and characters from Shakespeare plays scattered throughout, rather quite liberally. Venice will never seem so fraught with peril and so humorous as a...well, a Christopher Moore novel.


7. The Martian by Andy Weir
I actually read this book in 2013, but the official publication date is that of 2014, so it seems like I have been rambling on about this book for quite sometime. It quite deserves it too! Mark Watney is part of six-man missions to Mars. There is an incident where they all need to get off world quick. Mark is left behind, believed to be dead, but, of course he is not. Left with potatoes and a quick wit, Mark decides to attempt to survive until NASA can send a rescue. First thing to do: figure out a way to let NASA know that he is still alive!

6. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North 
Harry August lives his life over and over again. When he dies of old age or jumps off a building at age 20, Harry ends up in back being born in the same place and time with all the knowledge of past lifetimes. He belongs to a subset of humans who have this ability, and are living throughout time over and over again. There are rules for these humans to follow, one of them is to not mess with the major events that happen in their lifetimes. As he lays dying at the end of one of his lifetimes, a young girl approaches him and tells him that the future is changing and some of their kind is dying, that he must find who is doing this in his next lifetime. I got chills reading this book, so
5. The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer 
Okay I think I have cheated a few times on this (the next one happens with my #1 favorite book(s) of the year), but FSG even put all three of these brilliant books into one volume called Area X. This is a book that has to experienced and then talk about at length. The basics of The Southern Reach Trilogy are: 1) a part of our world has been cut off by some barrier in which we have lost all control of; 2) there is a single known entry point into this land; 3) the Southern Reach was establish to study this phenomenon but has collapsed into chaos as progress stalled years ago; 4) expeditions that venture into the land are either never heard from again or are transformed when they come back. In Authority, we follow the twelfth expedition into the area, it is made up of all women. The psychological thriller aspect of this book kept me perched on the edge of the couch as I read these books, so good. So good.
4. The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones
A creature that can live for centuries is haunting a certain family down through the generations. The other problem this creature, who appears as human as we do, is his ability to shape change. It causes all kinds of problems for Hannah and her family. The book starts off with Hannah driving like a bat out of hell, with her husband bleeding from a knife wound in the seat next to her and daughter strapped into the back seat. The shape shifter has found them and they are on the run, it could take the shape of anything. Through this clever book, we find out the history of this haunting from the 1800's Hungary to 1970's Oxford to present day. With a sequel on the horizon for 2015, this was one amazing book and I can't wait for more.
3. In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
First thing not to do: Don't go on-line and look up what happened to this expedition. It is a breathtaking tale of the USS Jeanette, led by George De Long, as they attempt to find the North Pole. At the time of this adventure, the North Pole was another Manifest Destiny facet the U.S. wanted to get to first. And De Long had been struck by Arctic Fever and needed to make a valiant attempt. While the journey started out with extreme enthusiasm, it wasn't long before ice blocked their path and made life harrowing. Hampton Sides is unrelenting in his narrative approach, and I could not stop gripping this book during the last 100 pages!
2. Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimmage by Haruki Murakami




 
Tsukuru, now 36, is forced by a potential new love interest to reevaluate events from sixteen years ago, when a group of friends banished him from their circle. He is a self-proclaimed colorless, empty shell with nothing to offer. Can Tsukuru delve back into all the depressing events of his life, the missed opportunities and misconstrued circumstances, as he follows the trail of lost camaraderie? I loved the melancholic atmosphere that Tsukuru had to fight through on his journey--this is classic Murakami gold.
Okay, here is where I am going to do a bit of cheating. I could not decide which book to make my #1 book of  2014, so I split it between my top non-fiction book of the year and my top fiction book of the year. Don't look at me like that! This is my list and I will do what I want!
1B. Rebel Yell by S.C. Gwynne (top non-fiction)
I loved this book! Okay, that is out of the way. I do not consider myself much of a reader of the American Civil War, it has never really interested me in the least, whether it be fiction of non-fiction. But, I started this book and was hooked immediately. There is so much to like about Stonewall Jackson. He knew so much about what it would take to win the war, however nobody else wanted to take that bloody route. In the end, we know it would cost thousands and thousands of more lives than it would have in the beginning. Stonewall Jackson needed a war like the Civil War to leave his mark on the world. He was not just a General in the Confederate Army, he embodied the soul of the American spirit. He came from obscurity and ended as a legend.
1A. Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (top fiction)
I am going to cheat again...I am going to use my old quote for this book. Easily my favorite novel of 2014, by leaps and bounds. If you have no idea why, and the quote does not convince you below, just read any of Nick Harkaway's brilliant novels or just talk to ex-Boswellian Hannah about him. You'll be convinced!
 
Lester Ferris, sergeant of the British Army, is in need of rest--in the worst way possible. They pack him off to an island called Mancreu that is doomed to be bombed into oblivion, due to an environmental disaster. So, he is the last British citizen left in the colony, and has been told to cast a blind eye on all the illegal activity going on. However, when a friend ends up getting murdered, Lester feels he needs to help out somehow to catch the killer. There is one person there, a comic-book-reading nerd of a boy who helps Lester find himself, and whom Lester wants to protect and perhaps adopt when the island goes off for the final time in a mushroom cloud. This book hits all the notes of a great novel; there are hilarious moments, followed by some somber tones, followed by a thrill ride action event, and then just keep repeating till the end. Now the hard part comes--waiting for another Nick Harkaway novel.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Best of the Rest of the Boswellian Holiday Selections

Heading into the home stretch of this holiday season, I have a grab-bag of books left from the Boswellians selections that could interest one two folks on your Holiday Shopping List. In this first group, I have put the books that have a bit fantastical invention scattered throughout their plots:

The String Diaries by  Stephen Lloyd Jones
 
"This haunting and thrilling book, set in late 1800s Hungary, 1970s Oxford, and the present day, starts with Hannah on the run; her husband is near death while their daughter lies asleep in the back seat of the car unawares. Just what or who exactly are they escaping from? The demon is a shape shifter who’s been haunting the women in Hannah’s family for generations. Now Hannah has to find a way to stop this creature before it’s too late. I don’t even know how to categorize this book. Thriller? Mystery? Historical fiction? Fantasy? No matter, I’ll just say it was great." --Jen Steele
This was also one of my top picks of the year, as well Jim Higgins at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel!

 The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

"I've been eagerly devouring The Book of Life, the final volume of The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. She is an historian like her protagonist, Diana Bishop, and weaves a spell that enthralls readers and never lets up. A wonderful blend of magic, history, and science combined with witches and vampires, this fantasy will keep you reading well into the night. I loved the all secondary characters which are well developed and the magical world built here appears realistic. I love this trilogy and hope you pick it up on your next trip to Boswell." --Pam Stilp
 

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness 
 
"A story about a beautiful, loving crane and a violent, greedy volcano. Or a story about George, the crane he saves and Kumiko, the mysterious woman George falls in love with. Or a story that starts at the beginning of another story's ending. In his storytelling, Patrick Ness has taken a Japanese myth, mixed it with The Decemberists song "The Crane Wife 1 & 2" and created a beautiful tapestry. It’s an ancient story magically woven into a modern setting full of primal human emotions, a story that does not truly end." --Jen Steele


The Queen of Tearling by Erika Johansen 
 
"19-year old Kelsea, raised in isolation, is on her way back home to ascend her throne, trailed by many who wish her killed. Her only protection is the loyal Queen’s guard, headed by stoic Lazarus, as well as the Tearling Sapphire, a powerful, magical jewel. Kelsea was educated during her exile, but kept in the dark about the state of her kingdom and the devil’s bargain her ineffectual mother, the Queen, made with the neighboring Mortmesne. Upon her arrival, a rash decision brings down the wrath of the powerful Sorceress, the Red Queen of Mortmesne. Set in world with discordant elements of a medieval past and dystopian future, I really enjoyed this novel featuring a young but determined female character who doesn’t know whom she can trust. It is filled with political intrigue, magic, adventure, and a very useful map." --Pam Stilp

If those didn't help cross off any names on your list, perhaps this next group of books will. These have a bit of the horrors we can find in the world and in the people around us: 

An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay
"While visiting her wealthy parents in Port-au-Prince, Mireille Jameson is kidnapped in front of her family. Her father, a prominent citizen, has a strict policy of not paying ransoms. The story moves back and forth between the horror that Mireille undergoes at the hands of her captors, and her personal history, both as a daughter of Haiti, and as a wife and mother. What happens to her while she is held prisoner is only part of the story. When she is released, she must regain her sense of person, and conquer the fear that engulfs her. An Untamed State is a bold and unvarnished novel that will open the reader’s eyes to a part of the world that they may not be familiar with. I highly recommend it." --Sharon Nagel
The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh
"An absolute page-turner of a mystery! Taking place in an eerie Ozarks small town, a grotesque murder is the hot topic, which jumpstarts the revisiting of a peculiar incident that happened years earlier in the same town; an odd disappearance of a young woman, and new mother. Both mysterious events challenge the trust and meaning of blood ties for a particular family. Twisted and chilling!" --Carly Lenz

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld 
"Death Row isn’t exactly the place you might expect to find hope, but this book is all about small miracles in peculiar places. In the darkest of prison cells and the darkest of hearts, there is light. Denfield finds that light, coaxes it out, and encourages it to glow even brighter. This book is beautiful." --Greg Bruce

This next selection of titles all deal with the known & the unknown (and perhaps the known unknowns or unknown knowns, or whatever that was).  Characters in these books have something missing from their lives that they would love to have solved. Though, for the third title down, is about discovering a group of people who make some tough decisions for all of us 


"Tsukuru, now 36, is forced by a potential new love interest to reevaluate events from sixteen years ago, when a group of friends banished him from their circle. He is a self-proclaimed colorless, empty shell with nothing to offer. Can Tsukuru delve back into all the depressing events of his life, the missed opportunities and misconstrued circumstances, as he follows the trail of lost camaraderie? I loved the melancholic atmosphere that Tsukuru had to fight through on his journey--this is classic Murakami gold." --Jason Kennedy

 After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey

"After Michael Hainey's father dies, the then 6 year old is given no explanation. That lack of explanation leaves a gaping hole inside the author that leads him on a journey of self-discovery, no matter the pain it might cause his family. Part memoir, part detective story-this is a haunting, fascinating and elegiac story." --Jannis Mindel

The Tastemakers by David Sax
 
"From a chef trying to breakout Peruvian cuisine to the chia seeds’ attempt to be the next health savior, the author of Save the Deli captures the world of food fads. The narrative jumps from specialty food award shows to bacon festivals to the art of food forecasting. The Tastemakers looks at the how long-term trends (healthy eating cocooning, authenticity, convenience) combine with marketing (from turning chefs on to black rice to convincing supermarkets to stock a new branded apple) to create the next phenomenon, and how the internet and social media has speeded up trend lifecycles. I personally think the subtitle overemphasizes the cupcake narrative, whose slow rise (about ten years) is contrasted with the lightning speed mainstreaming of the croissant style donut. The more interesting question is why hasn’t completely flatlined, compared, say, with the quick rise and fall of the a├žai berry. Sax tries to be neutral on most issues: he likes chefs and local sourcing and environmental trends, but he also is fascinated by stage five of food trends, which is when corporative mass market initiatives swoop in for the kill, often killing the trend in the process, or at least returning it to niche status. Greek yogurt-flavored cereal, anyone? David Sax has written a fascinating cultural narrative that will appeal to foodies and business buffs alike." --Daniel Goldin

 
And if none of those above have crossed names out on your list, here are some of the stragglers. They are all great, I just did not have the right grouping for these, other than they are all fantastic! Happy Holidays and enjoy all the books you get this season!
 
A Long Way Home by Louise Penny

"I had been looking forward to returning to Three Pines and Inspector Gamache and company ever since I finished the last page of How the Light Gets In. Penny creates such a fantastic sense of place that the reader is fully prepared to pack his bags and book a flight to Quebec. Louise Penny’s tenth novel shows us a different side of Armand Gamache. He has retired from the Surete, and he and his wife have moved to Three Pines so he can recover both mentally and physically. Not one to be without a mystery to solve for long, Gamache agrees to investigate the disappearance of Peter Morrow, a neighbor and friend. Once again, the author provides an intriguing puzzle but more importantly, another installment in the lives of those characters that I and countless other readers have come to love so well."--Sharon Nagel

The Storied Life of A.J. Fickry by Gabrielle Zevin

"I was drawn in to this lovely book by the wonderful chapter headings and compelled to stay by the wonderful characters and world of books. Connection with life and other people is everything, and it is beautiful to watch A.J.Fikry learn the truth of that."--Anne McMahon

I think this book deserves a double blast:
 
"Most people think that the life of a bookseller involves sitting around and reading all day. This could not be farther from the truth. A.J. Fikry runs Island Books on Alice Island, a ferry ride away from the rest of the world. He is a curmudgeonly man, who has recently lost his wife, and doesn’t see much happiness in his future. His valuable manuscript of Tamerlane has been stolen and he’s drinking a little too much. Things begin to turn around for A.J. when he meets Amelia, a publishing rep, and when a baby is abandoned in the bookstore. This story is a testament to the power of literature and bookstores; how they can bring people together and change their lives. Gabrielle Zevin has created a celebration of books and readers, where the bookstore in a community is almost a character itself." --Sharon Nagel

The Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay
 
"I picked up Roxane Gay’s fantastic novel, An Untamed State, on a whim a few months ago. Having just finished her new book of essays, I have now progressed to being a full-fledged fan, and will yammer about her to anyone who will stand still long enough. Her funny and discerning collection of essays runs the gamut from playing Scrabble competitively, to watching Girls, to discussing current issues like abortion and women’s reproductive rights. She has the uncanny ability to state things in both an articulate and relatable way that will cause the reader to shake her head and say, ‘Yes, that is exactly how I feel too.’ I look forward to reading whatever this talented author produces in the future."--Sharon Nagel

 Lila by Marilynne Robinson

"Lila’s early life was terribly hard, her upbringing almost feral, but she knew she was loved by Doll, the woman who rescued her from the nightmare of her natural home. Years later, grown and alone, she seeks shelter from a storm in a church in Gilead. She meets John Ames; their discussions cause her to re-evaluate and struggle to reconcile the disparate stages of her life. A very moving story, told in a fascinating voice, one that challenges the reader to the same honesty."--Anne K. McMahon

Last, but not least, one of the hottest selliing books of the season. A brillant look at becoming organized. I am sure Mel would tell you that my desk needs this book, but it would just get lost on it.


"I LOVE this book. Marie Kondo is in the tidying business. She's paid to help people learn how to organize their stuff. Her appointment waiting list is three months long! But Marie Kondo is really a magician whose vocation is guiding people to the happiness in their lives. Thanks to this glorious little book, you don't have to fly to Japan and wait for a private lessons to discover her secrets. The how-to is very simple: you are to sort through your possessions one by one, asking (and answering!) for each item ‘does this bring me joy?’ And you must start with your socks! It seems very hocus-pocus and new-age-y, but I found Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up inspirational and motivational. Her voice is gracious and firm, kind and resolute. The results are instantaneous (try her unique folding technique and vertical storage methods); the change is permanent. But don't take it from me--take it from the tiny drawer that I fit every single one of my heavy wool sweaters into!!" --Mel Morrow

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Far, Far From Home

Installment number three, takes books that feature the main character(s) and puts them in foreign environments, whether being deployed on a mission to Iraq, or getting R&R from being in Afghanistan at an imaginary Island that is not so plesant, or going to Mallorca on vacation, or going back home to Nigeria after a long absence, or even being left behind on the red dust planet of Mars. All these books feature environments that haunt them or bring out buried secrets causing rifts between characters.

The Martian describes a manned mission to Mars, in the very best of Hollywood sense, as catastrophe happens on page two and one of the crew is left behind. Oh the horrors (oh wait, that is a future post)! It is so Hollywood that the movie version is slated to come out next November. Read the novel first, and here’s Greg’s rec to convince you that it's a must read:
"Mark Watney, a member of a six-man mission to Mars, is struck by debris in a freak accident on the surface of the red planet and is assumed dead by his team. Grieving for their lost comrade, the remaining astronauts reluctantly depart for home, leaving the unconscious-but-very-much-alive Watney behind to fend for himself. Left with only his wits, some potatoes, and the remaining tools and machinery from the mission, Watney resolves to survive being marooned. Andy Weir manages to bridge the gap between NASA-grade technobabble and conventional language, portraying Watney's stark plight with both humor and warmth, giving life to a story about a man trapped on a lifeless world." --Greg Bruce 
In The Vacationers by Emma Straub, a family goes on vacation to Mallorca to celebrate their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. Things go well, until they don’t, and families hold many, many secrets. Sharon is a big fan of this novel and perhaps it will help you warm up during this last polar vortex:
"There is nothing quite like a family vacation. Trapped in a hotel or a rented house with the same people you usually go out of your way to avoid. Everyone can relate to this, whether you are vacationing down the shore, or on the exotic island of Mallorca, like the Post family in Emma Straub's witty and fun new novel. Franny and Jim Post are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. They are spending two weeks in Mallorca with Sylvia, their daughter, who is soon to be leaving for Brown, Bobby, their 28 year old son, Carmen, his 40 year old girlfriend, and Lawrence and Charles, a married gay couple who are trying to adopt a baby. Add to this mix the fact that Jim has had an affair with a 23 year old intern, and has lost his job and his wife's trust in one fell swoop. I read this book at the beginning of February in a vain attempt to feel warmer in the frozen snow globe that is Milwaukee at this time of year. I did, however, spend enjoyable hours with Emma Straub's extremely knowable characters, and enjoyed a story of family, love, and loss that we can all connect with."--Sharon Nagel
 
Teju Cole is quickly emerging as one of the great African writers that have taken America by storm. His last book, Open City, won the PEN/Hemingway award; and now, this book, which was published in Nigeria back 2007, has been released outside of Africa. Mixed with photography the story revolves around a young Nigerian, who is back from being in New York City for the last fifteen years.  The changes to himself and to his country are at the heart of this. This was one of Terrail’s favorite books of the year:
EveryDay Is For The Thief is an ethnographic narrative that delves into the unique Nigerian experience with both poignancy and candid social commentary. Enjoy!—Terrail Easley
I could talk about how war is horrible and mind-numbing to the soldiers as related to our next book, but Mel’s rec below is says it all:
"Brian Turner's singular war memoir takes place in a fragmented dreamscape narrated by a man whose soul keens from the brink of sanity. Turner shares the unshakeable images of his life before, during, and after his combat service with deft, poetic prose, channeling veterans from centuries of war and linking their stories to his experiences in battles abroad and at home. My Life as a Foreign Country proves that "leave" is a misnomer and shows how combat zones become liminal, haunted crypts for deployed soldiers. In his capable hands, readers march through an emotionally charged landscape that reflects Turner's intense introspection. If you or someone you love has served: read this book." --Mel Morrow
This next book, Tigerman, is a nice bridge from the last one. And, I found my quote I sent in all those months ago, so here it is:
"Lester Ferris, sergeant of the British Army, is in need of rest--in the worst way possible. They pack him off to an island called Mancreu that is doomed to be bombed into oblivion, due to an environmental disaster. So, he is the last British citizen left in the colony, and has been told to cast a blind eye on all the illegal activity going on. However, when a friend ends up getting murdered, Lester feels he needs to help out somehow to catch the killer. There is one person there, a comic-book-reading nerd of a boy who helps Lester find himself, and whom Lester wants to protect and perhaps adopt when the island goes off for the final time in a mushroom cloud. This book hits all the notes of a great novel; there are hilarious moments, followed by some somber tones, followed by a thrill ride action event, and then just keep repeating till the end. Now the hard part comes--waiting for another Nick Harkaway novel." --Jason Kennedy
Last but not least, a second offering from Boswellian Greg. It is The Troop by Nick Cutter. It follows a group of Boy Scouts off on a trip:
"Five kids and the Scoutmaster camp out on an isolated island. A gaunt, ravenous stranger lands upon the same island. Just like that, the scene is set for one of the most horrifying novels I’ve ever read. This is old school, vintage Stephen King-style scary. Come with iron will and a strong stomach." --Greg Bruce