Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Books of the year from bookseller Liz Whaley

These are the favorite reads of the year from our beloved, venerable, veteran bookseller Liz Whaley. She basically reads for a living, and these were the ones she thought were the very best in 2013 (plus a few older ones, too).

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt   
My favorite read of the year, this is an old-fashioned novel in terms of plot and as exploration of morality, fate, love, and betrayal.  Theo Decker at 28 looks back on his life and the day he and his mother were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when an explosion rocked the building and killed his mother.  A devastated Theo survived and when he escaped, he took a Dutch painting, “The Goldfinch,” by Fabritius.  Theo, whose father had left some time ago, now an orphan struggles with his guilt over having the stolen  painting. Written with beautifully chosen sensory images, gorgeous prose, and a stunning lyricism, the novel also has suspense.  New York City, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam are richly described.  Tartt puts us not only in the places but in the hearts and minds of the fascinating, complex characters Theo meets along the way.

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt
Sarah Zuckerman is a shy, lonely10-year-old living in D.C. in the 1980s.  Her father has returned to his native England; her mother is agoraphobic.  When Jenny Jones moves into the house across the street, Sarah’s life takes on new meaning and brightness.  Cold war rhetoric is heating up, and one rainy day the two girls distract themselves by writing to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov seeking peace.   Jenny is invited to visit the USSR.  She becomes an international media sensation, and then she and her parents die in a plane crash.  Ten years later Sarah receives a mysterious later suggesting Jenny’s death may have been a hoax.  She sets off for Russia to learn the truth.  A gripping tale superbly told.
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin 
A highly original short novel told from the point of view and in the voice of Mary, mother of Jesus.  An old woman and a widow, she looks back over her life and that of her son.  The powers that be watch her, not wanting her feelings made known to the world.   She remembers Jesus as a rebellious boy and young man, and she worried when word of his miraculous powers became known.  When Pilate and the Romans were calling for his crucifixion, May recalls trying to get Jesus out of Jerusalem.  When people tell her that he died so that the rest of us could have eternal life, she says it wasn’t worth the sacrifice.  A truly fascinating read which became a big one-woman hit as a play on Broadway.

The Last First Day by Carrie Brown 
I was awed and thrilled by this quietly strong and pervasively beautiful interior novel.  Peter and Ruth, in their late seventies, have been at Derry, a private boarding school for boys in Maine, for 50 years.  Peter has been headmaster for the last 40.  Ruth tells this story from their marriage to this “last first day,” historically the first day of school each year in September.  Ruth loves Peter dearly, but she often regrets having done nothing with her Smith degree except serve, unpaid, as headmaster’s wife.  In Part I, she goes back and forth, but it is in Part II that we get a full account of her unhappy childhood.  Poetic, lyrical, but understated, this novel haunts me, and I look forward to re-reading it at some point.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini 
An epic novel spanning 61 years from 1949 to 2010 and ranging from Afghanistan to Greece, Paris, San Francisco, Pakistan, and London.  Weaving back and forth in time, the novel introduces a variety of characters and shows ultimately how they are related in some cases, how they disappear from one another’s lives and eventually re-appear.  The history of both the Russians and the Taliban in Afghanistan impinges on the characters’ lives, but there is violence too of a personal and familial type.  Betrayal, loss, love, and redemption all figure in this beautifully written novel.

Someone by Alice McDermott
Going back and forth in time, McDermott weaves the story of an ordinary woman, Marie Commeford, from adolescence until old age.  Using well-chosen sensory images to give us a real, palpable sense of Marie’s world, and that of all the people around her, McDermott writes in spare prose but with perfectly chosen details.  As this Irish American’s tale unfolds with its depiction of love, loss, marriage, birth, and death, it is not dramatic-- there are no huge events--but it’s so lovely, so human.

Ten White Geese by Gerbrand Bakker 
A woman academic has lost her job because of an affair with a young student.  She has disappeared, and her husband has no clue as to her whereabouts.  A mysterious novel which unfolds slowly, it begins in a house she has rented in Wales.  Ten white geese graze in a field next to the house.  Gradually they are picked off by a fox so they are eventually down to four.  The woman is an Emily Dickinson scholar who throughout the novel is focused on the poem beginning “Ample make this bed.” By the end we understand this focus.  Haunting, mesmerizing, unique. 

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud 
The title suggests Bertha Mason, but as Nora Eldridge, the protagonist, says, “We’re not the madwomen in the attic,” but rather “the quiet woman “at the end of the third- floor hallway.”  At 37 Nora is a popular third grade teacher who has given up her dream of being an artist whose ambition was to create meticulous shoebox-sized dioramas of the living spaces of women heroines like Woolf, Dickinson, and Edie Sedgwick.  How Nora becomes attracted to a new Lebanese student, Reza, and his parents, and how initially they pull her back to her dream make for a wonderful, suspenseful read.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
On a cold and snowy night in February, 1910, a daughter, Ursula Todd, is born to a banker and his wife.  She dies before taking a breath.  In another chapter on that same night Ursula is born and does not die.  She grows up, appearing to die at various other times, but then reappearing. In 1930 she kills Adolph Hitler.  Does this alternate dying and surviving give her the power to change the world?  Imaginative, often funny, and poignant, this novel is stunningly original and is also a novel about storytelling.

Canada by Richard Ford – “First I’ll tell about the bank robbery our parents committed.   Then about the murders, which happened later.”  So begins this absorbing novel told by Dell Parsons, now 65, looking back on the time when he and his twin sister, Berner, were 15 and living in Great Falls, Montana.  Why and how the parents rob the bank is made credible as Dell recounts his life from the time they are arrested to his journey to Canada and the strange people he lived with there.  Ford constructs a riveting story.

Other noteworthy reads: Stoner by John Williams, a classic novel from 1965 that has been re-issued several times, written in the pure, plain, uncluttered style of Willa Cather and Kent Haruf, tells the life story of William Stoner; The Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman in which birds, art, a missing painting, love, and passion all play a part; The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, a long novel following the intricate lives, the joys, and sorrows of a group of people who meet one summer at a camp for artistic and creative adolescents; The Professor of Truth by James Robertson, an interesting novel that raises questions of truth, justice and morality based somewhat on the Lockerbee bombing in Scotland in the 1980s. 

Some good mysteries:  In The Dinner by Herman Koch, set in Holland, nothing is what it seems to be in this taut, ominous novel; Ghostman by Roger Hobbs – A terrific noir thriller in which every chapter ends with a cliffhanger; Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin – John Rebus, going against the rules and with his instincts, tries to find a girl gone missing since 1999; Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear finds Maisie Dobbs doing much soul searching as she investigates the murders of two Indian women; The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) a superb literary mystery with Cormoran Strike as the appealing 50ish protagonist, a down-and-out private investigator; How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny – the latest Armand Gamache mystery, terrific as always.

Three good nonfiction:  Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed; Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala – heartbreaking memoir of a woman caught up in the Tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2004, beautifully written; Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman – a fascinating window into the author’s time in prison years after getting involved with drug dealers.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Our Bestselling Books of the Year!

So our #1 bestselling book (and #2 too!) aren't exactly surprising, but that doesn't make this list any less awesome!

1. Inferno by Dan Brown
2. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill 
3. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jean Phillip Sendker
4. Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
5. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
6. The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen
7. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini 
8. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
9. Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro
10. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

1. Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander
2. Who Stole the American Dream? by Hedrick Smith
3. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
4. Quiet by Susan Cain 
5. My Beloved World by Sonya Sotomayor
6. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai 
7. The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer
8. Francona by Terry Francona
9. Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick
10. Orr by Bobby Orr

1. QB 1 by Mike Lupica
2. Llama Llama and the Bully Goat by Anna Dewdney
3. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
4. Divergent #1 by Veronica Roth
5. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid #8 Hard Luck by Jeff Kinney
6. The Maze Runner by James Dashner
7. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

8. Heroes of Olympus #4 The House of Hades by Rick Riordan
9. Allegiant by Veronica Roth
10. Looking for Alaska by John Green

Local Titles                      
1. Exeter, Historically Speaking by Barbara Rimkunas
2. 75 Habits for a Happy Marriage by Ashley Davis Bush and Daniel Arthur Bush
3. New Hampshire and the Revolutionary War by Bruce Heald
4. Throw a Nickel on the Grass by Norman Phillips
5. Outtastatahs: Newcomers Adventures in NH by Gary Patton

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Night Film: It lives up to the buzz people.

I love our sales reps. I truly do. They work really hard for us and are all so enthusiastic about books and indie bookstores and the publishing industry. Part of their job is to get their accounts excited about their company's upcoming titles, so we'll buy more copies and help them create buzz. Publishers love buzz. It might be their favorite word. Buzzzzzz. Buzz is the goal because it creates sales and can send a title into the pop culture stratosphere. The type of book your neighbor, mother-in-law, dental hygienist, and the random guy on the bus all tell you that you simply must read.  Gone Girl started with buzz. So did The Girl with Dragon Tattoo. So did The Hunger Games (a very quiet little buzz that grew to a deafening decibel). Sometimes the books deserve the hype, sometimes they really don't. (I won't name names...frankly, it would take too long.) 

When a sales rep presses a book into my hands and tells me to READ IT IMMEDIATELY, I honestly don't always take them up on it. Or I do and the book just doesn't grab me. But let me just tell you about a book that I was given by one of our lovely Random House reps 5 or so months ago. This book was Night Film and boy, was that lovely sales rep right. For once, I took the book home and started it immediately. It may have been the New York Times website screenshots with photos of the arrestingly beautiful girl floating around the the center of the story, Ashley Cordova, that started off the book. It may have been the goosebumps I got as I paged through the Time magazine website screenshots telling the story of Stanislas Cordova, the father of Ashley and the dark heart beating at the center of Night Film. It may have been the mythology of Cordova himself: a famed filmmaker whose movies have inspired madness and violence, and which have driven him into hiding on a huge, Gothic estate in upstate New York. Whatever it is, it grabbed me by the shirt collar and didn't let go for 600 pages or so. I loved it so much I gave my copy away to this guy (BTW I'm still waiting for my signed copy as thanks, Random House). 

I think Night Film will be one of the big books of the fall, one of those books that grabs all different kinds of people, (you know, your neighbor, your mother-in-law, your dental hygienist, the random guy on the bus) and I hope it grabs you too. Careful, it might not let go.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Three amazing new books for June

Presenting my three favorite books for June (and possibly the whole summer...)! Here's the thing though. Most of the books I read are by women, about women. It's just my style. So the fact that these three books are by women about women isn't so much a theme as business as usual with me. I should probably break out of the cycle, but I don't want to. And you can't make me!

You Are One of Them by Elliot Holt

This is a fantastic novel. It's about that peculiar brand of childhood friendship between girls, the kind that is fast and furious in elementary school, then fizzles out in middle school when it turns out that one of the girls isn't quite as cool as the other girl (raise your hand if that was you). It's devastating and confusing and sad. This particular friendship, between mousy Sarah and brilliantly blond Jenny, is complicated when Sarah writes a letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov (this is during the 1980's when the whole world was complicated by Cold War tension) and Jenny, thinking it sounds like fun, decides to write her own letter. When Jenny is chosen to visit Russia, because of the letter she wrote, Sarah feels betrayed and heartbroken with that acute sense of unfairness that hits so hard at that age.  When Jenny returns from Russia, she's different. She's cool. The girls' relationship never really repairs, and Jenny later dies in a plane crash with her family. Ten years later, Sarah gets a message from a Russian woman about Jenny-- could she still be alive? Fresh writing, memorable characters (especially Sarah's mother, an activist turned agoraphobe obsessed with the idea of nuclear winter) and a unique take on the Cold War make this a great debut novel.

The Last Summer of the Camperdowns by Elizabeth Kelly

This novel is a crazy mix of super nostalgic, golden-tinged, 1970s-era coming of age story with a dark, spooky Gothic mystery haunting the background, plus larger-than-life characters (wait till you meet Riddle's mother, oh my Lord), hilarious dialogue, and yearning, oh so much yearning. Riddle is 12 years old, and prepared for one of those candy-sweet summers of childhood where lounging around her Cape Cod home is her only MO, while her father runs for Congress and her mother chain smokes cigarettes and gossips with her best friend Gin Whiffet. All that changes however when Riddle stumbles on a terrible crime being committed in Gin's horse barn across the street, a crime that Riddle chooses to keep a secret. As the summer progresses, holding on to her secret becomes more and more serious for Riddle, for her family, and for the older boy down the street she's impossibly in love with. Camperdowns is great story to get lost in for the summer.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I beg you: don't read any summaries or reviews of this book. Just open it up and start reading. There's a twist that's not given away for the first 75 pages or so, and the twist really makes the book work. So that's my advice. But on to what I can tell you. This is a perfectly plotted, crisply written coming of age story (my favorite kind, clearly) about a girl and her dysfunctional family. Sure, most families are dysfunctional. Rosemary's family is different though. Trust me. Something terrible happened when she was young and the whole family refuses to talk about it. It's like it never happened. Except that it did, and it tore the family apart. Rosemary's brother ran away and hasn't been heard from in years (well, they do know he's on the run and the FBI is looking for him). Rosemary herself is a changed person-- when she was a kid, she was open and talkative. Now, in college, she's quiet and turned inward, protective of her past. When a free spirited girl arrives in her life and shakes her up, she begins to realize the part of her she has been hiding. This is the story of the damaging power of innocent mistakes, the way we paper over our identities to protect our tender parts, and the understanding and redemption that can come from time and forgiveness. It's a wonderful story. Karen Joy Fowler has a true gift.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Rebecca Lee's Bobcat and Other Stories...plus some of my other favorite short story collections.

These are some of my favorite short stories collections from recent years.  If I say that each one is a "great collection" and that the stories are "jewels," it's because they are great collections and stories can be quite jewel-like if you think about it, plus sometimes I just give up on thinking of new ways of saying things (But then, don't we all? I'm looking at you, book reviewer who says every book is "luminous.")

Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee
This collection of stories is absolutely stunning and the author Rebecca Lee is one to watch. I love discovering new writers who amaze me-- with each story, each new glimmer of writerly talent, there is a delicious anticipation of the long, wonderful writing career ahead of her (and the reading career ahead of me).

Many of her stories take place in and around college campuses-- from college students to professors to a young child taken to see a professor of child psychology at the local university who teaches her to go to "Slatland" when troubles face her, that is, float about herself and see her experience as a dot on the line of her life. (Not bad advice!)

The stories are excellent--nuanced without being New Yorker-style opaque. The story "Min" is the strongest among a strong collection. When I finished reading it, I felt like a had witnessed something almost magical.

If I Loved You I Would Tell You This by Robin Black
This story collection truly impressed me with its depth and breadth—Black writes with equal clarity and heart of a blind teenaged girl, an aging portrait artist, estranged parents, widowers, and lonely-hearts. She gives the small things in life the same weight and depth other writers would reserve for monumental events, knowing that every life is different and valuable.

Each story is deeply personal and authentic. The title story is excellent and very moving (though each story left me quite breathless).

Death is Not an Option by Suzanna Rivecca
So this is how I feel about short story collections: it is not easy for an author to sell a short story collection to a publisher. To me that means the ones that squeak through have got to be good. Death is Not An Option is one of those good ones. Rivecca writes with honesty and depth about victims and saviors, about how nothing is as simple as it seems, about how religion and the moral high ground can't always fix everything.

Compelling, memorable stories about women and girls, our struggles, joys, and idiosyncrasies.   

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman 
This is a lovely collection of short stories by a bright new Vermont writer. Many of her stories are about intersections in the lives of women—what would you do if _____ happened? You discover your husband had an affair and then realize you might not actually love him after all? You find yourself pregnant with a man whose life goal is to preach the selfishness of breeding? Bergman’s characters are women who find themselves uncomfortably perched on the boundary between two different lives. The next choice they make will define everything for them. Her writing is simply exquisite. Each story is a jewel. Get in on the ground floor with Ms. Bergman. Her future first novel will be just stunning, I guarantee it!

Boys and Girls Like You and Me by Aryn Kyle 
Great collection of stories from the author of The God of Animals. Kyle creates fully-formed worlds in her stories—you’ll feel connected to her characters and immersed in their lives, and you’ll keep thinking about them after they’re gone.

Some strange things happen in these stories (sex in the break room of a chain bookstore, sisters who impersonate each other to get out of therapy, pirate dinner theater), but each story is genuine. Even the ones that end without firm conclusions are satisfying. 

Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elisa Schappell
This is a totally awesome collection of connected short stories by Vanity Fair columnist (she writes the Hot Type column!) and Tin House magazine co-founder Elisa Schappell.

Most likely, if you are a girl you will get these stories. Were you unsure of who you were in high school? Did you date the wrong person? Did you go to college? Did you maybe make a few mistakes? Are all your friends having babies? Do you have a weird relationship with your mom?

The writing is lovely and sharp and clever and sad and beautiful. Give short stories a shot. They are difficult to write, so if they get published, you know they're good. That's my theory anyway.

Wild Punch by Creston Lea

These are gritty and honest stories about the back roads and small towns of rural New Hampshire. Lea’s characters are lonely, desperate, and restless. They’ve stayed behind when others have left, and that fact has left an indelible mark. Though these characters are desperate, they are not alone. Friendship and loyalty are themes that run throughout.

“Indian Summer Sunday” is one of the best stories. The character is remarkably thoughtful and introspective as he drives dirt roads the morning after a late night bender. Only at the end of the story do we realize who he is and the  significance of his early morning drive. These subtle, quiet stories are powerfully concentrated, intense but not overwhelming.

Don't Cry by Mary Gaitskill
This is a beautiful collection of short stories from a gifted writer. From dispossessed young women to victims of war to the broken-hearted, this collection covers the landscape of modern life. Gaitskill varies her stories in a way that is unique and satisfying—some are realistic, some resemble fairy tales or myths. All are subtle and sophisticated.

Take special note of the title story—a lonely woman’s attempt to adopt a child from Ethiopia. It is honest and heartbreaking. “The Little Boy” is also fantastic, about an older woman and the connection she makes with a little boy in an airport and the memories it brings back to her.

Alone With You by Marisa Silver
This is an excellent, elegant collection of short stories from an award-winning author. Her stories are subtle yet powerful, taking on parenthood, childhood, and the transience and loneliness of modern life.

Silver has a knack for taking a story we’ve heard before, a daughter takes her mother to a clinic to treat an illness that is slowly erasing her, and shifts them just slightly, into something not quite right, something tragic and inexplicable. In the mother-daughter story “Night Train to Frankfurt” the mother and daughter are going to a clinic which will boil the mother’s blood, promising to heal her. Silver’s characters are trying desperately to not be lost. These stories will stay with you.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Abi Maxwell answers our Top Five

Abi Maxwell is the author of the debut novel Lake People (Knopf). Library Journal writes:  "Maxwell's writing has a whispery, brooding, atmospheric feel that conveys Alice's fragility while capturing both the lushness of the region and its claustrophobic effect on Alice. Literary fiction readers will be moved by this quiet yet compelling work." Maxwell is reading and signing at the bookstore on Tuesday, March 5th at 7pm. To get a signed copy, click here.

Q: What's on your nightstand right now?
A: Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell. I just love it--and all of her fiction--so much.

Q: How do you write? 
A: I write pretty much full time--I begin in the morning, and go for as long as I can. I like silence, and I always write the first draft with paper and pen in order to get the story out. After that I move to the computer and start looking at structure and sound and all of that other stuff. 

Q: Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.
A: That was the first time I wrote a short story--instead of a children's storybook. I was fourteen, and I could not stop. I worked on it on the school bus, in my bed at night-- everywhere, for every moment I could until it was finished. I was enthralled by every part of the process--I wrote it on lined notebook paper with a cheap Bic pen that I had to press really hard into the paper, and I remember that I just loved the feel of all those indented pages. 

Q: What are you working on now?
A: Another book set in a small NH town--this one about two sisters, a barn, old secrets ... we'll see where it goes!

Q: Favorite recent find?
A: I think that would be snowshoes. Winter is my favorite season, and I have finally realized that snowshoeing is such an easy way to just be in the woods in winter.