Thursday, June 7, 2012


The American Heiress: A Novel by Daisy Goodwin.  “Great beach read -- 1890's era, aristocracy, Newport, England... Downton Abbey-esque.”  It falls apart a little at the end, but it’s sort of fun. 

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin.  “I loved it!”  From Amazon:  She was only two feet, eight inches tall, but more than a century later, her legend reaches out to us. As a child, Mercy Lavinia ‘Vinnie’ Warren Bump was encouraged to live a life hidden away from the public. Instead, she reached out to the immortal impresario P. T. Barnum, married the tiny superstar General Tom Thumb in the wedding of the century, and became the world’s most unexpected celebrity.”

The Book of Tomorrow: A Novel by Cecelia Ahern.  “A spoiled  city girl whose father commits suicide is forced to live with her strange aunt and uncle in the country.  While there, she finds a book that appears to be her diary, and all the entries are for tomorrow.  Once she knows what the next day will bring, she can try to change the future and learn from it.  She discovers that she has a mysterious past in the rural community that many are trying to keep from her.  Not great literature, but a fun read.”

Brooklyn by Colm Toìbìn.  [Ed:  Almost a top pick - got a lot of mentions.]  I loved the tone and the voice of the narrator, the way the story was sparsely told and yet so full of life. I loved how much I was rooting for Eilis to find her way in the new world of Brooklyn and how I conflicted I was once she was back in Ireland and falling into the comfortable life she had once dreamed of. Toibin shows us so much about the time and the experience of Irish immigrants in the years after world war two without telling us explicitly. We learn things through remarks and little details, often before Eilis really understands them herself.” Another contributor writes:  “Set in Ireland and Brooklyn about a young immigrant Irish woman finding her way in America and adulthood.  I thought it was a quiet book where nothing much seems to happen but a great deal is conveyed through small things. It stayed with me for a long time afterwards - longer than I thought it would as I was reading it.”

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka.  From Amazon:  “a tour de force of economy and precision, a novel that tells the story of a group of young women brought over from Japan to San Francisco as ‘picture brides’ nearly a century ago.”

Carry the One: A Novel by  “The story of three siblings after the oldest marries. The writing really picks up about mid-way and the complicated story of the 3 siblings is compelling, although the premise - that the death of a young girl the night of Carmen's wedding changed everyone's life - did not work for me. If just Nick and Olivia had been in the accident, the story would have made much more sense, particularly the much more extreme derailing of Nick's life. Even Alice's painting of the dead girl could have been made possible, but it did not seem like anyone else was as affected by the tragic accident as you would imagine they would be. Yet the story of the siblings, brought up by an overly severe and unsupportive father and a weak mother, got really interesting at about the 50% mark.  Lives filled with choices, consequences, and happiness found in unexpected routines.”

A Certain Chemistry by Mil Millington.  Funny, in a Jonathan Tropper kind of way – in other words, men behaving badly.  With British humor.  A ghostwriter has an affair with the actress whose memoir he is writing.  Page turner.  Beach book epitomized.

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje.  By the author of the English Patient.  From Amazon: chronicles a young boy's passage from Sri Lanka to London onboard the Oronsay, both as it unfolds and in hindsight.”

The Collectibles by James J. Kaufman.  In his award winning debut novel, James J. Kaufman delivers a gripping and unforgettable story of two strong men from separate worlds - one touched by tragedy, the other by greed - brought together with unexpected results. In chronicling how their lives and those they touch are dramatically changed by their encounter, Kaufman reveals the power of relationships, the nature of love, and ultimately the meaning of life.”  

The Darlings by Christina Alger.  “It’s a racy novel about the Wall Street financial scandal written from a young woman who knows her way around the rich and famous and Wall Street.  She paints an accurate description of NYC lifestyles and the Hamptons and an inside glimpse into the crash. It’s a page turner.” 

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.  “The first in a planned trilogy, the worst thing about this book is that you can’t immediately run out to read the next two.  Karou is a mysterious 17 year old girl with naturally blue hair who grew up in a dusty shop run by chimeric creatures who collect animal teeth, grant wishes, and give her languages as gifts.  She does not know what the teeth are for or where she came from, but she is forced to run errands across the world for the collection.  On one of these errands, she meets an angel who helps her unravel the mystery of her life.” 

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James.  “Set 6 years after the "Pride and Prejudice", this novel imagines life with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.  They have a wonderful marriage and two young sons, until a murder on the grounds the night before their annual ball wreaks havoc on their carefully built social lives.  The novel is written as if by Jane Austen, with modern mystery and plot twists.  A fun, quick read that has me going to my shelves to re-read Pride and Prejudice.”

Delicacy by David Foenkinos.  "Spare and quirky.  A woman whose husband dies suddenly finds unexpected romance in a clumsy colleague." Translated from French.  And now a major motion picture! (Okay, minor motion picture).

Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake Mysteries) by CJ Sansom.  “Historical fiction about King Henry VIII and the Reformation.  Similar to the Name of Rose by Eco.  A complex murder mystery set in a corrupt abbey.  First in the Matthew Shardlake series.”  There are more  

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton.  “Like Morton’s other books, this book centers on a generations-old mystery that takes place in an English estate.  This time a woman searches for clues about her mother’s life during WWII, when she lived with a family of elder twin sisters and their younger, vivacious sister.  The younger sister has been a Havisham-like recluse since her fiancé disappeared.  A thriller much like her Morton’s other books.”

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman.  “Historical fiction with four strong female characters whose lives intersect.”

The Fault in Our Stars by John Greene.  From Amazon:  Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.”

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. “Terrible writing, cliched up the wazoo and a basic insult to any woman with a strong, independent, and feminist mindset. HOWEVER, this sexually charged trilogy of ‘Mommy’ porn is positively addictive and part of pop culture now, so have a fun read, discuss it with friends (and your mate), become enthralled and be a part of the phenomenon. Absolutely crazy but awesome at the same time!” And: “An erotic romance…. great beach read for summer.” And: “Despite pedantic prose of the heaving bosom variety, this book has obviously struck a nerve. I gather it is beloved by husbands everywhere. If you catch my drift." [Ed: I refused to make this a “Top Pick,” even though everyone is mentioning it.“But wait!” you say, “Did this list not have the TWILIGHT series as a top pick?” Yes, well, there you have it. Somewhere in between 50 Shades and Twilight lies the standard.Such as it is.]

The First Husband by Laura Dave.  “Easy chick lit, but it won't make you stabby.  Actually pretty nicely written with a few little twists here and there.  One of my favorite authors, Jonathan Tropper, blurbed this book which is why I picked it up.  I'm glad I did.”  [Ed: I bought this.  If it was good enough for this particular contributor AND for Jonathan Tropper, it is a worthy beach read]

Food and Worry by Becky Wolsk.  DC area author and mom.  “Intelligent fictional story of a woman with OCD whose recovery is linked to her love of cooking. My book club is reading it and Becky is coming to discuss how she created each character - should yield a fascinating discussion.”

Girl Unmoored by Jennifer Gooch Hummer.  Debut by Hummer (a friend from Maine!).  From Amazon: Middle school is purgatory for Apron Bramhall.  Her mother is dead.  Her best friend Rennie has falled under the spell of the local Queen Bee.  Margie (aka "M") the Brazilian nurse who cared for her late parent has literally moved in on her depressed Latin professor father, all while trying to dispose of Apron's beloved guinea pig.  It's a classic case of things can't get worse, but they do quickly in this fast-paced bildungsroman set in 1980s coastal Maine.

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris.  I envy all of you who have not yet read Gillespie and I because you are in for such a treat!! This is one of those books that really cannot be reviewed because the joy of reading it is in the way that your perceptions of events and your interpretation of the narration change over the course of the book. I was fortunate enough to go into this novel with very little knowledge of the plot and was immediately intrigued by the early foreshadowing of a trial and mentions of white slavery and the artist Gillespie's death. It's set in the 1930's and Harriet is writing her memoirs of her time with the Gillespie family in the late 1800's so the book is full of Victorian settings, attitudes, and atmosphere - all of it tinged with a psychological tension that builds steadily throughout the second half of the book. Meanwhile, relations with Harriet's assistant from the agency grow stranger and stranger... I'm already saying too much. Make sure you have plenty of free time because once you get to the second half you will not want to put this one down.”  Her debut novel The Observations has also gotten great reviews on Goodreads, though none of our contributors have recommended it.

A Good American by Alex George – “A book about generations of an immigrant family and how they make a home in rural Missouri. The story shows that the word ‘family’ can have many different meanings.”  

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver “It is about Freida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, a very well written and an intriguing story. The recoded book is especially good as the author herself is the reader and her Latino accent is so dramatic. I like all of her books.”

The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller.  From Amazon:  Four people are bound together by the 9/11 death of a man in Miller's insightful latest.”  Gotta love Sue Miller for beach reads!

The Last Kingdom (The Saxon Chronicles Series #1) by Bernard Cornwell.  Six books in this series of historical fiction, set in 870 A.D. in Britain. I did not know that the Vikings controlled much of England for hundreds of years, and this was an intriguing glimpse of that tumultuous time. 

Leaving Unknown by Kerry Reichs.  Another book by DC lawyer turned novelist, this one about a young woman on a cross-country trip, trying to put her life back together again.  Lots of humor, great characters (a cursing cockatiel!) and romance.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta. “Very interesting concept: how do the people that are left behind continue with their lives after suddenly one day, without explanation, a number of people disappear; the so-called ‘Sudden Departure.’”

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan.  “This one really had me trying to decide if I liked or hated the story teller and yet I wanted to see how it would all turn out for her.  Just a few years following the Titanic, Grace is stranded for 3 weeks on a lifeboat not meant for as many passengers as end up on it.  The human dynamics and politics on the boat while they wait for rescue are fascinating.  And, whether you can trust her recollections of events and what you imagine you might do in the same situation will keep you reading till the end.”

The Little Book by Seldon Edwards.  “I miss this book. Historic/European/crazy fun.” 

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  “A love triangle among three Brown graduates, set in the early 1980s. Eugenides really gets the pompous pseudo-intellectual talk of Ivy League grads, and also treats mental illness in a very compassionate and interesting way.” 

Messy by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan.  “Follows their YA debut last year (Spoiled) and carries forth a new storyline from most of the characters in the original book.  Clever writing, sharp pop culture bits.  Love it."

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger.  “Brand new solid fiction. Learn something about Bangladesh.”

New York by Edward Rutherford.  “History of new York fictionalized!! So great because you get NYC from its Dutch beginning.  Nice and long for a lengthy flight.”

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  “The best book I read this year!  The circus is a truly magical place that appears and disappears suddenly, filled with tents of mystery.  Behind the scenes, two magicians are dueling in a contest of which they do not know the rules, but they are forced by their mentors to compete.  Their competition results in the most amazing circus acts and beautiful imagery.  The book is almost impossible to explain, filled with mystery and illusion.”  (Ed:  I was surprised this didn’t get more votes.  I haven’t read it, but it’s really buzzy. Maybe it will be like Rules of Civility – on the list one year, a top pick the next?  I did hear this great NPR interview with the author:    

On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry  “The book traces the life of a woman who moves to the U.S. from Ireland.  She is betrayed by those around her but she continues to love and support them.  The story has great character development.”   

On the Island by Tracey Garvis-Graves.  “This is a fast read - great for the beach, especially since it is about two survivors of a plane crash who live on a deserted tropical island for two years before being rescued.  Most of the book chronicles the relationship between the man, who is 16 when they crash, and the woman, who is 27....hmmmm, two years on an island with no indication you'll be rescued.  What would you do?”  Another contributor writes:  “This is one for the beach, I was a bit concerned about it – you will see why – but it was an entertaining and easy read.”

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson.  Thriller, set in Edinburgh.  “I thought the stream of consciousness writing would be hard to follow, but it worked well and was really entertaining.”   

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson.  “Hard to describe but a brilliant novel.  Set in North Korea (!), it is (as you would expect), very depressing and gives you a sense of what life must be life in that soul-destroying country (far better than the non-fiction books on the country I’ve read).  BUT it also a very good NOVEL – great characters, and they remain individuals despite the horrors around them. It is even very funny at times.  And the movie ‘Casablanca’ has a strong role.  When I say ‘it’s set in North Korea’ everyone immediately thinks that they aren’t in the mood for a downer, and it is a downer – but really worth it.”  Another contributor said:  “This book haunted me.  The realistic details of what it is like to live under the oppression of the North Korean regime mixed with fictional characters and events combined into a page-turner I couldn't put down.  Combine this with the non-fiction Escape from Prison 14 by Blaine Harden or The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Chol-hwan Kang (better written and more interesting, in my opinion) and you get a great insight into the insanity of life and survival under the rule of the Kim family.”

Out of It by Selma Dabbagh.  “The first novel by a friend and fellow Bahrain expat, a British Palestinian woman in her early 40's.  I am, of course, rather partial to the book as it was written by a friend, but I thought it read beautifully and touched on a subject that I find very interesting and terribly complicated.  It is one of those novels that has enough non-fiction in it to give you a very real and personal perspective on a place, its history and its people.  It is a very descriptive, sometimes humorous and often harrowing, account of the lives of three Palestinian siblings living in modern day Gaza - and follows two of those siblings as they move out of Gaza into the world (London and the Gulf).”

Park Lane by Frances Osborne.  “If you loved Downton Abbey, you will love Park Lane ... think Downton Abbey in the city.  Need I say more?  It is a delicious novel about two determined women (one from the ‘upstairs’ family and another from the ‘downstairs’ staff) whose lives collide in the halls of a pedigreed London town home.  When eighteen-year-old Grace Carlisle arrives in London in 1914, she’s unable to fulfill her family's ambitions and find a position as an office secretary. Lying to her parents and her brother, Michael, she takes a job as a housemaid at Number 35, Park Lane, where she is quickly caught up in lives of its inhabitants--in particular, those of its privileged son, Edward, and daughter, Beatrice, who has just returned from America after being unceremoniously jilted by her fiancé. Desperate to find a new purpose, Beatrice joins the radical suffragist movement and strikes up an intriguing romance with an impassioned young lawyer. But unbeknownst to both of the young women, the choices they make will connect their chances at future happiness in dramatic and inevitable ways.” This author also wrote The Bolter, which appeared on our list a couple of years ago.  [Ed:  She had me at “Downton.”  She didn’t even have to say “Abbey.”]

Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing: Stories by Lydia Peelle.  From Amazon:  With this first book of fiction, a gifted young writer brings together eight superbly crafted stories that peer deeply into the human heart, exploring lives derailed by the loss of a vital connection to the land and to the natural world of which they are a part.”

The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan.  From Amazon:  Four college roommates from Harvard’s class of 1989 head to their 20-year reunion with partners, spouses, children, and plenty of emotional baggage in tow. Coming from wildly diverse backgrounds, Clover, Addison, Jane, and Mia have continued on divergent postgraduate tracks. From one woman’s dreams of an independent art career stifled by her husband’s writing job to another’s acting ambitions overshadowed by the demands of motherhood, the women take this opportunity to realize how their college dreams have slowed, shifted, or disappeared entirely while new opportunities have opened up.”

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.  “Beautifully written, poignant story at approach of hurricane Katrina.”  And: “A completely unique perspective of hurricane Katrina. Knock you down with stark prose and Faulkneresque hurricane descriptions.” [Ed: Another one that was almost a top pick.]

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt.  I hesitated when this book started getting real buzz because I'm not prone to westerns but this was a delight. Kind of a funny word to use about a pair of killers so well known for their ruthlessness that just their names stops adversaries in their tracks. I was sorry to close the book on Eli Sister … “

Sisterhood Everlasting (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Book 6) by Ann Brashares.  “I am a sucker for these dumb books and movies.  I can feel my brain rotting as I read them, but I don't care.  Confession: I burst into tears twice.  Because I clearly need to get a life.”

Skippy Diesby Paul Murray.  “It's about a boy at a Dublin boarding school who dies in a donut eating contest - and the months leading up to his death.  Some of the characters are pretty funny.”   

Snowdrops by AD Miller.  “A gripping, relatively short and ever so edible mystery set in Moscow.  ‘Snowdrops’ is Moscow slang for a corpse that lies buried through the winter and emerges in the thaw.  The main character is Nick Platt,  a rather straight normal almost boring English lawyer working for an English law firm in Moscow at the height of the wild Russian oil boom - the wild east.  He falls for a young Russian woman and events begin to unfold at a fast pace. I was absolutely gripped.”

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett Recommended “Although I did not like it as much as Bel Canto, one of my favorite books, it’s about a woman whose employer sends her to the Amazon to deal with the death of a colleague and to monitor the development of an experimental drug.  Having only spent a few days in the Amazon myself, I thought the descriptions of the jungle and its inhabitants were interesting.” And:  “The characters and setting of this novel were haunting,compelling and beautiful. A completely engrossing novel.”

The Stonecutter by Camilla Lackberg. This is the third mystery written by this Swedish author who has exceeded Stieg Larsson (“Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, etc.) in sales. It is also the third mystery (after “The Ice Princess” and “The Preacher”) that the author has set in Fjallbacka, Sweden. Some critics have hailed it as the best of all three. It is a page turner and a great diversion from more serious subjects.

They Eat Puppies, Don't They? by Christopher Buckley.  “Hilarious and outrageous, another tale of lobbyists in DC who go to outrageous lengths for their PR causes.”

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.  “A young teen commits suicide and then mails audio tapes posthumously to people who must listen to her tell the reasons and why they were responsible for her death.  Harrowing and heartbreaking teen lit that has been assigned as required reading in many schools.” [Ed:  My 13-year-old liked, this, too – maybe we need a GFT – Good For Teens – rating on some of these books].

The Tiger's Wife: A Novel by Tea Obrecht.  “It's the story of a young female doctor who grows up in a Balkan country, the impact of war, and her relationship with her grandfather.  Parts of the book are allegorical.  Not the easiest read, but very well written.”

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D by Nichole Bernier.  Brand spanking new fiction by a friend of one of our contributors.  From Amazon: “Summer vacation on Great Rock Island was supposed to be a restorative time for Kate, who’d lost her close friend Elizabeth in a sudden accident. But when she inherits a trunk of Elizabeth's journals, they reveal a woman far different than the cheerful wife and mother Kate thought she knew.”  Sounds like a great summer read.

We the Animals by Justin Torres.  “Beautifully and poetically written.” 

What It Was George Pelacanos. Excellent crime fiction by DC writer, set in the 70s (with realistic, local touches like Thom McAnn and Hot Shoppes).

What They Do in the Dark by Amanda Coe.  “Interesting English story. See 'We Have to Talk about Kevin' for genre.”

When She Woke by Hilary Jordan “A very intriguing futuristic novel that explores hot issues like separation of church and state, technology  vs. privacy, criminal justice, and abortion through the eyes of a young woman.  Makes you wonder what our world could be like in the not so distant future.  I don't usually like futuristic books but this one is well worth the time.”

When the Killing's Done by T.C. Boyle.  “Set in the Channel Islands off California, the protagonist is a biologist with the Parks Service whose job is to save the native birds by eradicating rats from the islands.   Her antagonist is an animal-rights activist who believes that she is playing god by saving one animal and not another, and will go to any lengths to ruin her plans.”

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey.  “Set in Trinidad over a 50 year period from pre independence to today - the story of their turbulent marriage and the turbulent political situation in Trinidad run together/ linked - I loved the flashbacks and play with time - character descriptions are fantastic.” 


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