Do you realize that I haven’t recommended any books since The Casual Vacancy? That was last October. Now, if you’re only going to read one book every seven or eight months, Vacancy would be a good choice, but still. I have read many many many books since then, and some of them are even worth recommending to you. So, since Summer Reading Season is practically on top of us (the time when everyone makes ambitious plans about all the pleasure reading they’re going to do, when in reality we all know netflix is going to suck away what free time we expected to have anyway), here are a few of my favorites that I’ve read since October of last year. Maybe you’ll find something you want to read. I’m listing them in no particular order, though maybe they will be vaguely chronological, in the order I read them.
1. Persuasion by Jane Austen
I love this book so much. Persuasion doesn’t get a lot of love the way Emma or Sense and Sensibility etc. have, but it just might be my favorite. Maybe because I’m older than I used to be, and I see the value in second chances. In this novel, Anne Elliot is twenty-seven and facing reduced circumstances and plainness, and, more importantly, neglect and loneliness. Frederick Wentworth, a former suitor, finds himself back in her neighborhood. Over the course of the novel, they get to know each other again, and see how each has changed (for the better, even!) over time. They learn to value each other, and, to me, their love seems more real than, say, what we see in Pride and Prejudice, because they are a wiser pair who have known some unhappiness in the world. I love it more every time I reread it. (PS Yes, astute readers who care enough to search will find that I mentioned this book back in 2011. It’s good enough to get mentioned–and read– more than once.)
2. The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
I didn’t think I would enjoy this, but then I REALLY did. I read this as part of Maryland’s “One Maryland, One Book” campaign, and it is superb. There’s so much to appreciate about this novel, but the sentiment that I’ll carry with me is the idea that if your enemies can tell you who to hate (i.e., them), then they’ve won. A person can maintain her independence simply by refusing to hate the people trying to kill her. There are so many ways of being defeated by war, but an equal number of ways to claim an authentic, personal victory. The novel’s almost impersonal tone makes it a little difficult to get into, but that passes pretty quickly. Really wonderful, edifying reading.
3. Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
I like this book so much it makes me practically incoherent. I read this on the recommendation of Laura Carroll, who told me the cover glows in the dark. I bought it for that reason alone. It’s a good thing there’s so much excellent CONTENT in this novel, because, in fact, the cover does NOT glow in the dark (liar, liar, pants on fire). Clay Jannon, the main character, is an out-of-work web designer who gets a job as a bookstore grunt in the type of mysterious, indie bookstore every reader wishes really existed. Except this bookstore is also a front for a secret society based around… stuff… Anyway, as you might guess, our protagonist gets involved along with a hot Google girl and a guy who writes code for celebrity breasts (it makes sense in the novel). I was expecting comedic hijinks to ensue, but this novel takes a surprisingly serious turn, and turns out to be an extended meditation on information, how we use it, why we have it, how we share it, and all sorts of other things along those lines. A quick read that will leave you thinking for a long time afterwards.
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
I think we can all agree that I should have read this a long time ago. I think we can also agree that Jonathan Safran Foer gets enough praise as it is. So I’ll be brief. If you haven’t read it yet, go read it. It’s one of the best 9/11 novels that isn’t just about 9/11 that I’ve ever read. 9-year-old Oskar Schell is overwhelmed by life and grief, and goes on a quest to know his father better that takes him all over New York (as far as I can tell). By turns heartwarming and tragic, Oskar’s healing journey blesses his whole family.
5. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
This book is hilarious and utterly inappropriate. F-bombs aaaaalllll over the place. But I love it. I was literally laughing out loud as I read this book. I laughed so hard I cried. In fact, I laughed so hard I had an asthma attack. Normally, I would characterize myself as a demure reader. Not so with this book, though. Lawson’s approach to life (I’m messed up, and so are you, so let’s all just laugh about it and collect taxidermied animals) is such a refreshing switch from most of the portentious navel-gazing that goes on in memoir. She addresses heavy themes– miscarriage, troubled relationships, etc.– with the perfect mix of candor, humor, and love. If you feel like crying, pick up this book. You’ll probably still cry, but you’ll be able to laugh at the same time. (Keep your inhaler handy!)
6. Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken by Kate DiCamillo
I read a LOT of picture books. My little one didn’t much care for this (too many words for his age), but I loved it. Louise is a chicken who longs for adventure. She finds it, and then comes home again. A charming story about life as an adventure, about our families, and about how we can be whoever we want to be– even adventurous chickens.
7. The Glass Demon by Helen Grant
Such a fantastic book. Lin Fox and her family find themselves in a rural, unfriendly part of Germany for her father’s research. They encounter the first murder before they even reach their destination, and the body count rises. Not just a murder mystery, this story incorporates folk tale to give it an added creep factor, and the burgeoning maybe-romance between Lin and her neighbor is sweet and tender and all the more precious for the tragic circumstances surrounding their families. A bloody, hair-raising climax is the icing on the cake. Though the villain is predictable, especially for regular mystery readers, this book is still worth reading. After all, we all know how Jane Austen’s books are going to end, but we love those anyway. Sometimes the craft is not in the surprise, but in the skill with which an author meets readers’ expectations. I may have enjoyed her previous novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, more, but this was still really great.
8. Looking for Alaska by John Green
I’ve been a huge John Green fan ever since I read The Fault in Our Stars (more on that next time), so it’s now my quest to read everything else he’s written. I guess he is criticized for writing the same novel over and over– geeky guy meets awesome girl– but I think that’s unfair. That same descriptor applies to many books. I think this book is amazing (not as amazing as TFIOS, but that’s ok). It offers a really close look at what it means to be alive and young, and wonders alongside its readers at life. There are sexual situations, profanity, drinking, and possible suicide in this book, so parents and teenagers should read this one together and talk about it– but these are conversations parents should want to have with their teenager anyway. Why do we exist? How do we handle suffering? Is love worth it? What does love even look like? And if my friend shows up distraught and drunk in the middle of the night after we’ve been making out, WHAT DO I DO? This practically perfect book is a gift to parents looking for a way to connect with their teenagers over the major issues of life, and this book is a gift to anyone feeling alone with his or her grief and heartbreak.
9. Wonder by R. J. Palacio
I recommended this to a friend immediately after reading it, saying, “Have you read this book? IT WILL WRECK YOU.” I was right. Ditto for all of you. I will say that it’s geared towards middle grade-ish readers, and, thematically, might be better to read with a parent (assuming, of course, you are a middle grade-ish reader).
10. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
Apparently I’m a fan of heartbreak at all reading levels. Totally heartbreaking, the hardest part (emotionally) of this novel was the first half. I mean, you know from the title things aren’t going to go well, romance-wise, but that’s the least of our protagonist’s problems. Innovative structure, nicely complicated and true-to-life characters. Diaz’s writing never disappoints.