The Top Ten Novels of 2014 (So Far)

As we near the halfway point of 2014, Top Ten Tuesday has asked book bloggers to share their ten favorite/best novels so far this year. Here are my favorites (listed alphabetically by author’s last name); I can’t honestly say they’re the “best” because there are so many novels I haven’t read.

(The hot links will take you to my recent reviews. I have also done interviews with Molly Antopol, Cara Hoffman, Laline Paull, and Mary Vensel White. My interview with Laura McBride is coming this week.)

The UnAmericans

The UnAmericans — Molly Antopol (Feb. 3)

Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street* — Susan Jane Gilman (June 10)

Be Safe I Love You

Be Safe I Love You — Cara Hoffman (April 1)

We Are Called to Rise

We Are Called to Rise — Laura McBride (June 3)

Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You* — Celeste Ng (June 26)

Boy, Snow, Bird

Boy, Snow, Bird — Helen Oyeyemi (March 6)

The Bees

The Bees — Laline Paull (May 7)

Home Leave

Home Leave* — Brittani Sonnenberg (June 3)

Chasing the Sun

Chasing the Sun — Natalia Sylvester (June 3)

qualities-of-wood-pb-

The Qualities of Wood — Mary Vensel White (June 17)

* Discussed in my May 26 Summer Reading Preview (reviews to come).

 

Recent Releases on TBR List (some of which may make the revised Top Ten list on June 30 — watch for my upcoming reviews)

Ruby — Cynthia Bond

Abroad — Katie Crouch

The Chronicle of Secret Riven — Ronlyn Domingue

What is Visible — Kimberly Elkins

The Book of Unknown Americans — Cristina Henriquez

The Last Illusion — Porochista Khakpour

Euphoria — Lily King

The Frangipani Hotel — Violet Kupersmith

The Sixteenth of June — Maya Lang

The Other Language — Francesca Marciano

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste — Valerie Martin

 

This is also a good time to preview some of the books that will be published later this month and over the summer. I’ll be reviewing most or all of them in the next couple months.

Upcoming Releases on my TBR List (discussed in my May 26 Summer Reading Preview)

Life Drawing — Robin Black

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing — Mira Jacob

Mambo in Chinatown — Jean Kwok

Rainey Royal — Dylan Landis

The Home Place — Carrie La Seur

The Hundred-Year House — Rebecca Makkai

Land of Love and Drowning — Tiphanie Yanique

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My bookish bucket list: 10 literary longings

Today’s “Top Ten Tuesday” topic (wow, five t-words in a row!) for bloggers is to reveal your bookish bucket list. Thanks to Jamie at The Broke and the Bookish for the TTT idea and this particular topic, which was fun to think and write about while I’m home under the weather.

1. Visit the UK’s literary sites

I’m long overdue for my first visit to the UK. I need to make a pilgrimage to all the places I’ve read about that are so much a part of me (not just my reading history). Stratford-on-Avon, Gad’s Hill (Rochester), Oxford, Cambridge, Dorset, Hertfordshire, Watership Down :-), York, the Yorkshire Dales, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and, of course, Westminster Abbey; the list is nearly endless. I need to walk in the footsteps of the greats, writers and characters both.

2. Read the complete works of Charles Dickens.

I’ve read and loved a few of Dickens’ novels, but I’d really like to read them all, in chronological order, so I can observe his development from a comic picaresque writer to arguably the greatest social novelist ever. I need to read Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend.

3. Read the works of the Russian masters.

I’m sadly lacking in my knowledge of the Russian classics. I want to read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov (at the very least), and I am actually looking forward to reading the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Add Gogol (I loved the Penguin collection of stories and The Government Inspector), Turgenev, Pushkin, Solzhenitsyn, and the mighty Chekhov, and I’ve got quite an impressive reading list. I might need to make this a year-long project. 2015?

4. Read some of the notorious “difficult” books.

I’d like to be able to say I’ve read James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (at least Swann’s Way, the first of the seven volumes). I’d also really like to be able to say I understood and enjoyed these, and other similar, books.

5. Organize a dinner party with my favorite writers (the living ones, of course).

I think it would be great to organize a long evening of good food, wine, and conversation with 12 writers who are also good conversationalists and good company. Off the top of my head, my guest list would likely include Margaret Atwood, Rilla Askew, T.C. Boyle, Bill Bryson, Nathan Englander, Ben Fountain, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Munro, Ann Patchett, Ron Rash, Donna Tartt, and Tim Winton. Can you imagine? It would be even better than “My Dinner with Andre. (I know I’m forgetting several other writers I’d love to invite, but you get the drift.)

6. Visit Paris and have my own “Midnight in Paris” experience.

Like Owen Wilson’s character in “Midnight in Paris,” I’d love to explore literary Paris with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and the other American expats as my guides. If they’ve unavailable to me, I’ll read some of the great French writers while I enjoy the City of Lights.

7. Visit several Australian cities with Aussie writers as my literary and cultural tour guides.

Let’s see, who would best represent each city? Peter Carey or Thomas Keneally in Sydney, Kate Grenville for the central and northern New South Wales coast, Peter Temple in Melbourne and the southeast Victorian coast, Hannah Kent in Adelaide, Tim Winton in Perth and the southwest coast down to his home town of Albany, and either Keneally or Midnight Oil drummer and writer Rob Hirst for the Outback.

8. Rent a quiet cottage by the sea and read the complete works of William Shakespeare.

While I’ve read about a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays, they are the usual suspects. I’d like to read all 37 of his plays, his two long narrative poems, and all of his sonnets. The question is where I should go for this amazing experience in the life of the mind. Should it be the coast of England to make it more authentic, the coast of Italy (where several plays are set), or just anywhere quiet enough to eliminate distractions so I can immerse myself in the works of the Bard? What do YOU suggest?

9. Write a novel.

Like most avid readers, I dream of being a writer, too. I’ve written journalism and non-fiction since my high school days, but fiction has never come naturally to me (unlike to my 17-year-old son, who has stories pouring out of him and who can already write fiction well). Now that I’ve lived over half a century, perhaps my novel’s long gestation period is over and it will come to me in a vision. Speak to me, O Muse, of the long-suffering reader who wished to be a writer.

10. Have my book blog become a profitable enterprise so I can make a living from my blogging and portrait photography hobbies.

Well, it’s a bucket list. It doesn’t have to be realistic. Sometimes dreams do come true.

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 books at the top of my spring reading list

Boy, Snow, Bird  Chasing the Sun  Everything I Never Told You  We Are Called to Rise  The Bees  A Life in Men  Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street  Be Safe I Love You  Ghost of Mary Celeste  Eleven Days

For Top Ten Tuesday, bloggers are sharing their spring reading lists. These are ten of the books I am most looking forward to reading in the next couple months. While most will be published this spring, a few are already available (and one is a year old, but new to me).

Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi (March 6)

Nigerian-born, British-raised author Helen Oyeyemi has made a sort of specialty out of writing fractured fairy tales. Here she takes the story of Snow White and places it in rural Massachusetts in 1953. A young female runaway from New York City named Boy settles into a boardinghouse and soon marries an older widower. Her relationship with her stepdaughter, Snow, is fraught with conflicts. Things take a turn for the twisted when daughter Bird is born and her husband’s family secret is out: They are light-skinned blacks who have been passing as white for a long time.

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste – Valerie Martin (Jan. 28)

The Mary Celeste was an American merchant vessel found floating off the coast of Spain in 1872. The crew was gone, but there was no sign of a struggle, nothing missing, etc. Young writer Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, that ACD) is intrigued by this event and writes a short story about the ghost ship. An American journalist reads the story and decides to investigate further. The result is a highly literary and very atmospheric mystery.

A Life in Men – Gina Frangello (Feb. 4)

Two young women, Mary and Nix, decide to take a trip to Greece, in part because Nix has learned that her lifelong friend Mary is slowly dying and wants her to have a grand adventure. But Nix ends their friendship after the trip for reasons unknown to Mary. A few years later, it is Nix who is dead, and Mary is preoccupied with questions about her. She returns to Europe to get her questions answered and has the life-changing experience the initial trip was meant to be.

Eleven Days – Lea Carpenter (April 2013)

This novel was published in spring of 2013, but is receiving a lot of attention now after making the longlist of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK a few weeks ago. Jason is a gifted young man who joins the Navy after 9/11 and, after nine years, he is finishing his service. While on a top-secret mission with the Navy SEALs, he disappears. Eleven Days follows his mother Sara during the first 11 days of his disappearance, as she tries to make sense of her brilliant son’s decision to join the military, the ways it changed him, and how she will live without him if he does not return.

Be Safe, I Love You – Cara Hoffman (April 1)

The latest in a steady stream of novels about the Iraq War written by women, Be Safe, I Love You appears to be the partner to Roxanna Robinson’s Sparta. Both explore the return home of a soldier with PTSD, in Sparta a young man, and in Be Safe a young woman. Lauren Clay is clearly disturbed after her tour of duty in Iraq, but her father lets her take her younger brother Danny to upstate New York to visit their mother. Instead, Lauren drives them to Canada to visit the Jeanne d’Arc basin oil fields, with which she has become obsessed. They end up on what Lauren thinks is a survival training trip for Danny.

The Bees – Laline Paull (May 6)

This book has me buzzing with anticipation. 😉 It’s a dystopian thriller set in a beehive and the description reminds me of one of my favorite books, Watership Down. If it is as good as early readers say it is, you’ll forget you’re reading about bees. Flora 717 is a low-caste sanitation worker who eventually makes her way into the royal nursery and even to the ranks of foragers (pollen gatherers). When she gains access to the Queen’s inner circle, she discovers all is not as members of the hive have been led to believe. She is soon considered a threat to the Queen. Sounds like a vividly imagined, page-turning read.

Chasing the Sun – Natalia Sylvester (June 3)

A troubled marriage becomes even more tangled when the wife is kidnapped in this combination character study and suspense novel set in Lima, Peru. Sylvester’s debut novel is being published by New Harvest, Amazon’s joint venture with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It will be interesting to see how Chasing the Sun sells, as many independent bookstores have refused to stock anything on the New Harvest imprint.

We Are Called to Rise – Laura McBride (June 3)

Las Vegas resident McBride weaves together the tales of four vastly different characters struggling in the real Las Vegas, the one far from the Strip. Vegas is the city of dreams for millions of people, but those dreams do not easily become reality. An Iraq war veteran, a social worker, a housewife in a crumbling marriage, and an immigrant boy try to make sense of their circumstances and create lives they actually want to live. Gritty but compassionate and very memorable.

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street – Susan Jane Gilman (June 10)

Gilman’s book is the rags-to-riches story of Malka Treynovksy, who arrives in New York City from Russia with her parents in 1913. Before long, she is crippled and abandoned on the Lower East Side. She is taken in by an Italian ices peddler, and begins to help him and learn the business. Later, she and her husband Albert decide to travel across the country in an ice cream truck. Malka eventually transforms herself into Lilian Dunkle, the queen of an ice cream empire. Spanning 70 years and tracking the 20th century, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street should be a rejuvenating read over the summer.

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng (June 26)

When the beloved teenage daughter of a Chinese-American family living in 1970s Ohio is found murdered, the family falls into disarray as the parents grieve in their separate and obsessive ways and older brother Nathan suspects a local boy. But youngest daughter Hannah knows more than anyone suspects and may hold the key to solving the crime and saving the family. Celeste Ng’s debut novel is a probing examination of family dynamics, parents’ dreams for their children, immigrant acculturation, and generational conflict.

10 Women Writers You Should Know

In many ways, this is the golden era of publishing. More books are being published by a wider and more diverse range of authors than ever. Authors and publishers have new ways to reach readers via social media, websites, and even old-fashioned email. Word of mouth has never worked as fast or with as great an effect as today.

As a result, passionate readers are likely to be aware of more writers than ever before. In fact, I sense a low-grade form of “positive” stress among dedicated readers over the fact that there are “so many books, so little time.” Our “To Be Read” lists (or stacks, if we’re compulsive book buyers) are growing like vines that take over their territory.

And yet, many writers remain criminally unknown or, at the very least, under-appreciated. Today’s post is one humble blogger’s attempt to rectify that situation by recommending 10 women writers every discerning reader should know (by which I mean “read,” not “know of”).

1. Molly Antopol

As I read The UnAmericans, it soon became clear why Antopol was selected by the National Book Foundation as a “5 Under 35 Author” last November. Antopol’s stories display an impressive insight into the psyches of the various damaged characters, all of whom are trying to find their place in their own family, culture, or time. The stories take place against a backdrop of significant events, whether World War II, the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, or the tectonic social and economic shifts in the former Communist bloc countries. Though the stories vary widely in terms of characters and settings, they share the ability to pull the reader in like a riptide and carry you away before you realize it. The title of the book refers to the fact that the characters in Antopol’s stories are Communists from the first half of the 20th century, dissidents from Russia or Eastern Europe, or non-Americans like the Israeli characters in “A Difficult Phase” and the heartbreaking closing story, “Retrospective.” More broadly, it refers to people who are, in fact, Americans, but are viewed as “un-American” in their beliefs, behavior, or sub-culture by the mainstream culture.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6X

2. Rilla Askew

Askew is an Oklahoma writer in fact and in subject matter. Her novels Kind of Kin, Harpsong, Fire in Beulah, and The Mercy Seat, and a story collection, Strange Business, constitute as strong a body of work as any writer has created in the last 20 years. She has an eagle eye for both the overview of a town and the individual lives of those who live there. While Askew tells hard truths about people, places, and events, her writing is distinguished by great empathy as she reveals her characters’ damaged hearts like a skilled surgeon. In her latest book, Kind of Kin, she explores the lives of those on both sides of the immigration issue without turning it into a one-sided screed. While Askew’s position is clear, Kind of Kin uses multiple narratives to put us inside the kaleidoscope of immigration politics at the national, state, and local levels.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-80

3. Vanessa Blakeslee

Blakeslee is a new talent on the scene. Her debut story collection, Train Shots, was released in early March and made a very positive first impression. She writes about characters who are trying to figure out why their lives, and life in general, are hard to control. They are beaten down by bad breaks, selfish strangers, and the inevitable suffering that comes with being human. Yet they struggle to make sense of themselves and others, to find a purpose despite their loneliness, grief, broken heart, or lost opportunities. While Blakeslee’s stories are dark, they are not unremittingly so, and the reader will find it difficult not to root for these characters to sort things out, just as one does when one’s friends are having a rough time crossing from the past-haunted present to the waiting future.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-7g

4. Karissa Chen

Karissa Chen is a magician with words, a poet who turns prose into astonishing images and emotions, from the surreal to the sublime. Her chapbook of five stories, Of Birds and Lovers, will captivate you and hold you spellbound. Reading her short, delicate, yet powerful stories is like floating in a translucent bubble that, rather than being ephemeral, floats long distances, allowing you to view the world as if you are part of it and yet removed into a silent sphere. Of Birds and Lovers features three stories with the tone and voice of fables or parables, bookended by two stories depicting the progress of modern relationships. A major publisher would do well to grab Chen while she’s still flying below the radar and publish a collection of all her stories.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6T

5. Elliott Holt

Elliott Holt pulled off a clever hat trick of a novel with her debut, You Are One of Them. First, it’s the story of a friendship between two young girls coming of age. Second, it’s a time capsule that contains the mid-80s sociopolitical tension between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. And third, it’s a quasi-thriller with a missing persons case at its center.  And through it all, Holt’s writing is nearly flawless. She delicately opens up the heart of a close friendship between 10-year-olds Sarah Zuckerman, the narrator, and Jenny Jones, while powerfully recreating the mood in the last years of the Cold War, when strong rhetoric from President Reagan had many Americans fearing the nuclear end was near. Highly recommended.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-3D

6. Anne Korkeakivi

Korkeakivi’s first novel, An Unexpected Guest, is a thought-provoking, cleverly-structured, and well-written examination of one woman’s privileged but very complicated life, with all its entanglements in the past and the present. Clare Moorhouse, the wife of a British diplomat based in Paris, is as multi-faceted as a diamond. Guest is both a closely observed character study and a stately suspense novel. Korkeakivi brilliantly explores the various ways the past continues to live inside us — and occasionally outside us, to be imposed upon the innocent people around us.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-4j

7. Jessica Lott

Jessica Lott’s first novel (she previously published a novella, Osin), The Rest of Us, reads like the work of a much more experienced writer. She displays two traits in particular that I found to be convincing evidence of her true talent: she digs very deeply into her main character’s inner life and she never writes an awkward, clunky, or unclear sentence. The Rest of Us captures the lives of two people who are very different, and yet both are struggling with their art and their personal life. It’s the story of 34-year-old photographer Terry, whose life has been derailed into an emotional and professional ditch since the relationship she began as a 19-year-old college student with her poetry professor ended nearly 15 years earlier. I enjoyed The Rest of Us largely for its depiction of a complex intimate relationship and the way people think and feel when they are falling in and out of love.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-5A

8. Katey Schultz

In the last few years, several women writers have addressed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the unspoken one on the home front). One author stands out from the others with her stylistic choice: Katey Schultz has written a collection of “flash fiction,” very short stories that are the equivalent of a snapshot of a character, a place, or a moment in time. Her recent collection, Flashes of War, features 31 selections, most of which range in length from two to five pages, although there are a handful of stories in the 12 to 17-page range that anchor the collection. While each story has its own compact power, in part precisely because of its brevity, the cumulative effect of reading these 31 stories over 164 pages is like watching one of those gut-wrenching videos of dozens of people affected by the war. Schultz breaks the reader’s heart a hundred different ways in these stories. But she leaves your mind and your conscience intact, pondering the hidden costs of war. Flashes of War was published by a small university press and has not garnered anywhere near the attention it so strongly deserves. At the very least, now that you know about it, you can read it.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6E

9. Leora Skolkin-Smith

It’s no secret that the publishing world is so crowded with books that outstanding, even important, books sometimes get lost in that crowd. Leora Skolkin-Smith’s Hystera is one of those books. It is a short but powerful depiction of a young woman’s emotional breakdown following the accidental death of her father, for which she blames herself. Hystera follows Lilly’s journey through madness, from her initial examination at the hospital to her stay in a New York City psychiatric hospital to her eventual discharge. Hystera captures Lilly’s state of mind brilliantly, as she struggles with challenges and threats both internal and external. Skolkin-Smith’s penetrating insight into mental illness and emotional breakdowns is so accurate, it appears to have been gained through either the crucible of psychiatric work or personal experience as a patient.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-4P

10. Alexis Smith

Smith’s debut novella, Glaciers, published by Tin House, at first seems coolly beautiful. But as the story of a day in the life of young librarian Isabel progresses, Glaciers steadily warms up until, ultimately, like the title object, it calves, revealing its blue heart and making an indelible impression on the reader. Alexis Smith’s writing is lean prose-poetry with a quiet narrative current below the surface. There is not a wasted or misplaced word anywhere. And there are countless sentences and even paragraphs that demand to be flagged for their sharp insight into the foibles of human nature or Smith’s felicitous use of language.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-2I

Other Writers Worth Your Time

Ramona Ausubel

Helen Benedict

Suzanne Berne

Nichole Bernier

Robin Black

Jessica Anya Blau

Lea Carpenter

Amanda Coplin

Jennifer duBois

Siobhan Fallon

Julia Fierro

Gina Frangello

Ru Freeman

Amity Gaige

Lisa Gornick

Elizabeth Graver

Kate Grenville

Lauren Groff

Jennifer Haigh

Cara Hoffman

Kristiana Kahakauwila

Hannah Kent

Rebecca Lee

Joan London

Jessica Helen Lopez

Charlotte Mendelson

Celeste Ng

Chinelo Okparanta

Marisha Pessl

Virginia Pye

Vaddey Ratner

Peggy Riley

Roxana Robinson

Charlotte Rogan

Karen Shepard

Joan Silber

Marisa Silver

Jessica Sofer

Martha Southgate

M.L. Stedman

Natalia Sylvester

Valerie Trueblood

Ayelet Waldman

Claire Vaye Watkins

Joan Wickersham

Mary Kay Zuravleff