Thursday, June 7, 2012


 "Top picks" are books recommended by a critical mass of our contributors.  This year's are divided by fiction and non-fiction.  We also include hundreds of additional selections in our fiction, non-fiction and old favorites lists below.

Fiction Top Picks:

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.  “Very tender story of several students (two of whom are on the college baseball team), a college president, and his daughter.  All have their own problems and concerns, and each is sympathetic in his/her own way.  Intelligent and well-written.”  And:  “May this author write more!  Prep school must-read.”  From my friend’s Goodreads review:  The characters are not perfectly written, but they are very engaging.  Harbach does a good job of giving us several different narrators who all have their own distinct voice, even if some are better fleshed out than others. The baseball is interwoven throughout the book but not hard to follow for those not well versed in the sport. There is a driving plot that keeps you turning the pages… There is a lot to enjoy here.”

Defending Jacob by William Landay.  “Very readable and fast paced.   A district attorney's son is accused of killing a classmate and his father is thrown into the case.  The author's description of life and the people in the upper middle class town ring true and so do the feelings and conflicts of the accused's and victim's parents.”  Another contributor writes, “This is a legal thriller in which a 14 year old boy is suspected of murdering a fellow student.  As the case wears on the parents’ belief systems are sorely tested. The fictional father is an established assistant D.A. and supportive of his son.  The book has been likened to Anna Quindlen’s ‘Every Last One’ in its connection with that tiny bit of uncertainty that parents may have about their children.  There are many twists in “Defending Jacob” which keep one reading right to the end.”

The Expats by Chris Pavone. “Great spy drama.  Exciting – it unfolds like a flower.  TOTAL page turner.”  And:  “I really liked the flashback structure.  Pavone has a unique way of using flashback that keeps you guessing about the characters and whether you can or cannot trust them.”  And: “Very gripping and hard to put down.  A spy story starring a wife and mother who in between intrigues goes shopping at European Costco and takes clandestine meetings while the kids are at school.  Loved it!”

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.  "A wonderfully creative premise - using flowers and what they stood for during victorian times as a means to express feelings for an orphan who grew up mostly in abusive foster homes - and a nicely woven together story, with some extreme moments. Overall an entertaining and at times heart wrenching read.”

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.  This book actually appeared on last year’s list. It was suggested by publishing industry friend and was published mid-summer.  Everyone who read it seems to have loved it:  “The writing was just beautiful. The plot reasonably straightforward, with some interesting twists, yet what made this book was the writing. A treat!”  And: “I was so surprised when I realized the author was a man.”  Another contributor:  “chronicle of the life of a young woman in New York in the 1930's.  The author writes the way we wish we all could - fabulous metaphors combined with graceful prose that tells the truth, even when it hurts.  You won't see the plot twist coming toward the end of the book, either.”

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.  Every sentence builds the story…The book becomes a mystery although for the first half it feels like a very straightforward narrative of Tony Weber remembering his school days, his boyhood friend, his first lover and then his marriage and fatherhood. There is much here about memory and the way we create and shape our own life story into something we can live with ourselves and present to others. In the second half of the book we are shown another side to this narrative and Tony and the reader has to reconsider what we thought of his version of the past.  I would recommend reading this book without knowing a lot about the plot so that you can try to piece the story together along with Tony (which is why I'm writing very little about the plot here). There is a lot to think about with this book and I'm still lingering on the after effects.” And:  “You will read this short compelling book twice in order to make ‘sense’ of it. A middle aged man looks back on what he thinks are his memories of a college romance, and sees things completely differently the second time around. Short, sweet, and thoughtful.”  And: “an interesting reflection on the character's life and some mistakes he made along the way.” 

Non-Fiction Top Picks:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.  "Reads like fiction, amazing story and characters." And:  "Unbelievable book - kept thinking it had to be fiction.  It was so brutal."

The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother's Hidden Life by Jasmin Darznik.  “After her father dies, the author discovers a photo of her Mom at age 13 in a wedding dress - with a man who is not her father.  The book is the story of her mother's forced marriage in Iran and her efforts to build a life - it certainly made me glad that my daughters are growing up in America.” Another contributor called it “Fascinating and well-written.” 


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.” 



Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales by Ali Wentworth.  “Ali's 'biography' of sorts -- snippets of her life - - growing up in her privileged DC backdrop but frequently 'shipped off', she details some of her funnier experiences and insights.  Entertaining in its brazen confessions, yet I found myself frequently annoyed with her attitude and when I finished the book I liked her less.” 

Angela's Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt.  Someone mentioned this as an all-time favorite, as I’m sure it is for many of us.  So in case you forgot to read it.  Or even if you did, it’s been out long enough now.  You can reread it!

Apron Anxiety: My Messy Affairs In and Out of the Kitchen by Alyssa Shelasky.  “Writer meets chef (Spike Mendelsohn, of Top Chef fame) and they fall in love.  Writer moves to DC.  Loathes it.  Has horrible time in relationship.  Confesses to outing herself while trying to email the WaPo with a blind item about herself and the chef.  Sex, food, a little self-loathing... I liked it a lot.”

Blue Nights by Joan Didion.   From Amazon:  From one of our most powerful writers, a work of stunning frankness about losing a daughter.”  Another reviewer says: “Although I loved her description of the blue nights, the book is about the death of her daughter and yet she never explains why her daughter died.  Didion struck me as a name dropping, self-centered person.  It was not nearly as moving as The Year of Magical Thinking - about her husband's sudden death.” 

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. From Amazon: "After discovering the fire of true faith in a Harlem church, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and became one of the first to speak out against Hitler.  As a double agent, he joined the plot to assassinate the Fuhrer and was hanged in Flossenberg concentration camp at age 39.  ince his death, Bonhoeffer has grown to be one of the most fascinating, complex figures of the 20th century."

Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman “An interesting perspective on raising children; as with all child-rearing theories, if it all was that easy ... yet the idea of not always jumping at the every need of our children, even when they are newborns trying to sleep, and of letting them be truly hungry when they sit down for a meal stuck a chord with me.”

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert Massie.  “Terrific storytelling about her early years as a German princess before coming one of Russias most powerful emperors.” And: “Fantastic biography of a born leader.”

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller.  “A continuation of her memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, 'Cocktail Hour' shares more hilarious and sad stories of her larger that life mother.  Nicola Fuller and her husband were British colonialists who endured the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the Rhodesian War, and losing three out of five children. Through all of this, she still found it important to take along her orange Le Creuset cookware as she reestablished the next homestead. Reminescent of Out of Africa and West with the Night. Nicola is still alive and well and living in Africa.”

Crashing Through: The Extraordinary True Story of the Man Who Dared to See by Robert Kurson.  “Loved this true story!” From Amazon: “Mike May spent his life crashing through. Blinded at age three, he defied expectations by breaking world records in downhill speed skiing, joining the CIA, and becoming a successful inventor, entrepreneur, and family man. He had never yearned for vision. Then, in 1999, a chance encounter brought startling news: a revolutionary stem cell transplant surgery could restore May’s vision.”

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan.  A contributor said she’d not yet read it, but it was getting raves.  From Amazon:  God is love. Crazy, relentless, all-powerful love. Have you ever wondered if we’re missing it? It’s crazy, if you think about it. The God of the universe--the Creator of nitrogen and pine needles, galaxies and E-minor--loves us with a radical, unconditional, self-sacrificing love. And what is our typical response? We go to church, sing songs, and try not to cuss. Whether you’ve verbalized it yet or not...we all know something’s wrong… "  [Ed: I should read this.  I gave up cursing for Lent]. Show More Show Less

Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir by Wendy Burden.  “A hilarious account of what it is like to grow up at the tail end of a once great fortune written by a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Lots of description of wretched clueless excess by people who have no idea that they are completely irrelevant.”

Do the Work by Stephen Pressfield.  This is a short book that packs a whallop.  Do you need motivation to complete a project (particularly a creative endeavor)?  This is the book for you.  Pressfield helps you understand what is holding you back and will motivate you to finish.  It is not your typical self-help book.  It's brilliant. 

Elephant Girl: A Human Story by Jane Devin.  A memoir.  From Amazon:  Born unwanted and raised without love, the child-author invents a rich inner life to see her through years of trauma. Leaving home at 16, the teen-author struggles to find happiness and a sense of place in a world that feels confusing and unfamiliar. Then, years after stumbling into an adulthood mired in tragedy and broken dreams, the woman-author finds herself at a crossroads. The choice she ultimately makes is as stunning as it is brave. Told in unflinching and often lyrical prose, Elephant Girl goes beyond a singular life story to speak of powerful, universal truths and the ability of the human spirit to redeem itself.”

Emptying the Nest: Launching Your Young Adult toward Success and Self-Reliance by Brad Sachs.   The title seems pretty descriptive!   

Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story by Amanda Vaill.  “Biography of the couple that embodies the Fitzgerald era. A sad story, but also beautiful and intelligent.” 

The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine.  “Sounds a little heavy--but is actually fun and very cool.”  From Amazon:  Why are women more verbal than men? Why do women remember details of fights that men can’t remember at all? Why do women tend to form deeper bonds with their female friends than men do with their male counterparts? These and other questions have stumped both sexes throughout the ages.”    

Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson.  “A short, fun read.  Who doesn't love Audrey, Truman, Tiffany's,  and NYC?  Taken from one of Truman Capote's stories about one of his 'swans,' this is the tale of how all of the elements came together to create one of the most popular movies of all time.  From all of this, we got 'the little black dress,' "Moon River,"  Holly Golightly and so much more.” 

Fly Fishing with Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys by Matt Labash.  “Readers of the Weekly Standard will have no doubt already laughed their heads off at Matt Labash’s witty essays. If you are new to Matt, pick up this hilarious volume and start with his essay on Marion Barry, who he got to spout hilariously, and his heartbreaking essay on the ground in New Orleans after Katrina. One of the funniest young writers on current events and characters.”

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough “about Americans in Paris at the turn of the century.”

Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls.  “In her grandmothers voice the author or The Glass Castle (also one of my favorites) explores what it was like growing up in poverty the southwest in the first part of the 20th century and the impact of this life on her grandmother. Jeannette Walls is an amazing story teller.”

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. "This is a truly inspiring topic that needs our attention.  A page turning, eye opening, non-fiction  book about human trafficking.   I learned a great deal and have been inspired to get involved.   A PBS documentary based on this book has just been produced and will air on Oct 1 and 2.   I went to a pre-view of the trailer in NYC last week with the film’s Producer and CEO of Women’s World Banking.”

Hamlet's BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers.  A couple of people mentioned this as a great book about our brave new world.  [Ed:  I heard about this on an NPR "On Books" podcast.  I listen to them while running, though sometimes they are so interesting that I start walking, then sort of standing with old ladies passing me.  So, I recommend them, but they aren’t healthy. Anyway, the author talked about his family's digital-free weekends.  Or maybe it's just one day. Either way, it sounds wonderful.  And impossible.]

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss  “A beautiful book - It's not a beach read, but it's a wonderful story.”

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Geniusby David Eggers. From Amazon: “The moving memoir of a college senior who, in the space of five weeks, loses both of his parents to cancer and inherits his eight-year-old brother. Here is an exhilarating debut that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and wildly inventive as well as a deeply heartfelt story of the love that holds a family together.”

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown.  “If you loved Richard Feynman's book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) then this is the beach read for you this summer.   All the science you have long since forgotten along with a healthy dose of humor.  Even better you will be up to date with the local elementary kids.” 

How Remarkable Women Lead: The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life by Johanna Barsh.  “Former McKinsey partner Johanna Barsh uses examples to delve into the different strategies and qualities of 'successful' women leaders.  An interesting read, albeit very 'corner office' focused in the examples and context.”

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer.  “A comprehensive exploration of the 'science' of creativity, with the goal of shattering the common right-brain or left-brain perception and showing that truly anyone can be creative.  Lehrer provides interesting examples of 'non traditional' creativity and practical suggestions for thinking creatively (daydreaming is productive, so is thinking like a child).” 

Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir by Doron Weber. "a memoir in which the author tells the story of his son who is born with a serious form of congenital heart disease.  The son is gifted and attends Brooklyn Technical High School.  He ultimately receives a heart transplant at age 16 at Columbia Hospital in NY.   The father/author, a former Rhodes Scholar and current VP of the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, writes movingly of the family’s journey."

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  This has been on the list before but continues to get rave reviews, so I’m putting it on again.   “A fascinating story of genetic research - its reality and ethics - and of its impact on the entire world of cancer research and one, very poor and religious, family in Baltimore - the relatives of Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer cells are still used in medical research today.”  And:  “I may be late to the Henrietta party but I loved this story of how one woman's cancer cells revolutionized medicine and how her family was affected by the research and then left out of the medical advances made possible by their mother's cells.”

Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy with Caroline Kennedy and Michael Beschloss.  "Great book, complete with the audios.  Fascinating."  And:  “I am a political junkie. And Jackie mentioned crises and incidents THAT I HAD NEVER HEARD OF. Which only led me to believe more firmly that the ‘crises’ of today will be the head scratchers of tomorrow.”   And “added pleasure here is it comes with CDs for road trips!”

Just Kids by Patti Smith. A memoir. “The story of her entry into the art scene with Robert Mapplethorpe (her boyfriend) is really interesting.”

Just One Thing: Developing A Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time by Rick Hanson.  Daily practices to develop a "Buddha Brain" i.e., challenge limiting beliefs, re-wire neurons and be happier.

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever by Bill O’Reilly. (yes, that Bill O’Reilly). Being enjoyed even by people who aren’t otherwise wild about the author.  “Thoroughly enjoying it!”

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by Fiona Carnarvon. “The title would lead you to believe that this is a dry history book.  Believe me, it is not!  Those of you who are followers of the PBS Downton Abbey series will be able to picture the true story as it unfolds at Highclere (Downton.)  Lady Almina was the illigitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild (one of the richest men in the world at the time) and his long time mistress.  A child of privilege, she brings her generous dowry to preserve the Carnarvon ancestral home.  It is hard for us to imagine today the splendour in which these privileged Edwardians lived.  And yet, the spoiled countess rose to the task of nursing WWI soldiers in her home with tenderness and true concern. The castle's current countess shares the family's colorful history, including Lord Carnarvon's discovery of King Tut's tomb.  By the way, anyone visiting in the London/Oxford area today may tour the castle, where the series is filmed.” 

Another contributor writes: “A record of the manor home where Downton Abbey is filmed, written (ghost written more likely!) by the current owner the Duchess of Carnarvon; great fun to read about the real occupants of the just as grand home.”  [Ed:  Once again, they had me at “Downton.”] 

This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family's Heartbreak by Melissa Coleman.  "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight meets Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  The story of a young family who become homesteaders in Maine during the 1970s.  It is fascinating to read about the roots of the organic, eat local movement; yet this book is more about the brutal consequences the lifestyle choices took on this family. The author and protagonist never addresses how she was able to recoup from her very hard childhood, but the story is compelling in the context of where we are today with respect to the understanding of industrial farming."

Life, on the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas.  "This book is one of the best auto-biographies I’ve ever read, and definitely the best cooking biography.  Grant Achatz, a James Beard award winning chef is the uber-creative force behind Alinea, named the best restaurant in North America by Gourmet.  The book covers his childhood working in his parents’ restaurant, his work through the ranks at The French Laundry in his 20s and his close relationship with Thomas Keller, through his creation of his ultra modern and ground-breaking Alinea.   Soon after opening Alinea and winning accolades, Achatz was diagnosed with Stage 4 tongue cancer at age 33 and subsequently lost the ability to taste, eat and swallow.  Chef Achatz writes so honestly about his life, dreams and his fight against the cancer that I really felt like I knew him while reading.  I cried and laughed throughout.  Interspersed with Achatz’s writing are chapters and bits from Nick Kokonas, who began as a regular customer and became Achatz’s business partner and support system." 

Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr. From Amazon:  Reviewers agreed that while Karr's memoir could have succumbed to the pitfalls of the addiction-recovery memoir, it rises above the genre. Juicy, evocative, confessional, poetic, and often darkly humorous, Lit recounts Karr's dark past in an intimate, easy style.”

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen.  “Loved every page because it's like having a conversation with a friend who is wise beyond her years.”

Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine by Eric Weiner.  “Very fun read.”   From Amazon:  When a health scare puts him in the hospital, Eric Weiner-an agnostic by default-finds himself tangling with an unexpected question, posed to him by a well-meaning nurse. 'Have you found your God yet?' The thought of it nags him, and prods him-and ultimately launches him on a far-flung journey to do just that.”

The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma.  “A fable about fulfilling your dreams and reaching your destiny.  Although published in 1997, it is a current read which inspires thought and inspiration about how we live our lives each day.  I really enjoyed the journey of reading this book.  It’s a very easy read.” 

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. “The little brother of Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated) delves into the quirky world of memory champions and winds up one himself.”  The little brother of Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated) delves into the quirky world of memory champions and winds up one himself. Networking For People Who Hate Networking by Devora Zack. Great ideas for introverts who need a stronger personal or professional network.

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder.  “This book on Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health in Haiti is a fabulously compelling story of a struggling country and a man committed to its people that reads like a beautiful novel. The book stayed with me long after I put it down.”  

The Night of the Gun: A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His own by David Carr.  “I'd forgotten this book existed until I saw the NYT documentary on Netflix, which featured Carr pretty prominently.  This is a memoir of sorts, and is so well written and journalistic in its nature, you almost forget he's writing about himself.  I loved it."

A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life by Jack Kornfield.  Beloved Western Buddhist master Kornfield makes known his personal, practical wisdom, garnered from 25 years of practicing and teaching the path of awakening, as he guides self-searchers to a simplicity of perception that brings alive spiritual practice, peace, and truth in their daily lives.”

The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.  The inside story of the world's most exclusive fraternity; how presidents from Hoover through Obama worked with--and sometimes, against--each other when they were in and out of power.”

Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith “Perfect timing for this one with the Jubilee”

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  “I really loved this book about the power of introversion and why it is important to be solitary in a world that celebrates being loud and extroverted.  Especially wonderful if you are an extroverted parent or spouse and have an introverted child/partner etc.  A great read for teachers or anyone in education as well.

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.  From Amazon: After his humiliating election defeat in 1912, Teddy Roosevelt set his sights on the most punishing physical challenge he could find, the first descent of an unmapped, rapids-choked tributary of the Amazon. Together with his son Kermit and Brazil’s most famous explorer, Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, Roosevelt accomplished a feat so great that many at the time refused to believe it. In the process, he changed the map of the western hemisphere forever. Along the way, Roosevelt and his men faced an unbelievable series of hardships, losing their canoes and supplies to punishing whitewater rapids, and enduring starvation, Indian attack, disease, drowning, and a murder within their own ranks. Three men died, and Roosevelt was brought to the brink of suicide. The River of Doubt brings alive these extraordinary events in a powerful nonfiction narrative thriller that happens to feature one of the most famous Americans who ever lived.

The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes to Stay Married by Iris Krasnow.  “A bestselling, groundbreaking author investigates successful long term marriages, interviewing wives and their uncensored strategies for staying married… In raw, candid, titillating stories, Krasnow's cast of wise women give voice to the truth about marriage and the importance of maintaining a strong sense of self apart from the relationship. Some spend summers separately from their partners. Some make time for wine with the girls. One septuagenarian has a recurring date with an old flame from high school. In every case, the marriage operates on many tracks, giving both spouses license to pursue the question "Who am I apart from my marriage?" Krasnow's goal is to give women permission to create their own marriages at any age. Marital bliss is possible, she says, if each partner is blissful apart from the other.”

The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It by Valerie Young. Help for understanding The Imposter Syndrome and why so many women feel not quite good enough.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost.  “This is a light and funny read.  I loved this hilarious account of Troost's experiences living on the tiny Tarawa atoll in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati with his (then) girlfriend who was sent there for a two year assignment by an NGO.  What sounded like paradise to the desperate-for-adventure couple sitting in Washington, D.C. most decidedly turns out not to be.  It is well written, laugh-out-loud funny, full of fabulous colorful characters and incredibly bizarre experiences that you couldn't possibly make up if you tried.  A great read.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.  [Ed: Almost a top pick, but I doubted you all needed this list to know  that this book existed.]  “Unsurprisingly, Jobs managed to channel the communication about his life even after his death. The man was brilliant and unapologetically mean at the same time. Undoubtedly he and some of his designers have changed the world --- I would agree for the better! Yet I cannot like the man.  The story of Apple is fascinating, also from the business management perspective.” And: “deeper themes about beauty and taste and the idea that great products can create their own demand.”  And: “A compelling story of our generation's genius, who is undeniably brilliant but who is also cruel, quirky and insecure.  The backdrop of coming of age in Silicon Valley, his deep scars from being given up for adoption, his devotion to his adoptive parents, and the story of Jobs and Gates complex relationship made this a page turner for me :)  I also loved learning about the evolution of Apple's products and Jobs impact on the music, computer, and movie industries.” 

Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate by Stephanie Lucianovic.  “Are you a picky eater?  Are your kids picky eaters?  Wanna read funny stories about Hypomomdriacs?  You'll like this book, then.  A little science, but mostly just great stories about the lengths we go to in avoiding the foods we hate (die, raisins... die!)”

The Surprising Life of Constance Spry: From Social Reformer to Society Florist by Sue Shephard.  “A biography of the highly unconventional, brazen sharp business woman Constance Spry.  Best known as 'the’ British society florist of the 1930's (in the way that Cecil Beaton was the 'it' photographer of the era), Constance's life was filled with drama -- from her impoverished beginnings to a violent marriage, lesbian love affair and ultimately her rise as a very successful entrepeneur.  Her floral designs still inspire today.  It's an interesting read about quite an independent, ambitious woman.”

The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda by Andrew Rice.  “One of those great non-fiction books that reads like fiction.  The unraveling of the mysterious disappearance of a man in the midst of the Amin purges in the early 70's.  The jacket says it best:  "A detective story, a tale of fathers and sons, and a political history, this is above all an illumination of the wounded societies of modern Africa and an exploration of how - and whether - the past can ever be laid to rest."  Full disclosure: I was born in Kampala in 1970, so I found this book incredibly fascinating/ chilling imagining all these horrific events unfolding in the city where my parents were living during that awful time of Idi Amin.” 

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillebrand. This was a top pick last year that continues to get mentions.  “Amazing story of human resilience and survival!  Also, learned quite a bit about WWII in the Pacific and the sacrifice of so many of American families.”  And:  “Great author writing about an inspiring man leading an amazing life…what more could you want?  When you’re done you’ll want to drive to Hollywood to hug Louis Zamperini and have a long conversation with this hero and Olympian who survived WWII, a plane crash, being stranded at sea, a string of POW camps and his own demons after the war.  The most amazing part of his life is probably what he did after all of that.”   

A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison.  “A beautiful story.”

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey.  From Amazon:  “Casey, O magazine editor-in-chief, travels across the world and into the past to confront the largest waves the oceans have to offer.”   A contributor called it “Fascinating and scary.” 

When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays by Marilynne Robinson.  A collection of essays, beautifully written by an award-winning author.

Wild (Oprah's Book Club 2.0 Digital Edition): From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.  “It is fantastic. It’s a memoir about her 1100 mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, grieving her mother's death and her own divorce. It goes through her breaking down and building herself back up again on the trail. It is gritty and raw and you feel like you are walking the trail with her. Love it!”