Thursday, May 30, 2013


Top Picks are books recommended by a critical mass of our list's contributors.  There are hundreds of additional selections in regular fiction, non-fiction and "old favorites" lists below.  We've been at this since 2006, so browse old lists for more ideas.  You can navigate by scrolling, but it's easier to use the menu at the side. 

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2013 Fiction Top Picks:
Beautiful Ruinsby Jess Walter.  Contributor comments:  “A lovely novel set alternately in the Italian coast in the 1960s and Hollywood today ... transitions between a beautiful young cast member of the Cleopatra movie who was involved with Richard Burton, a young hotelier in Italy, an American writer who summers in Italy and an American film producer and his assistant.”   

"The book takes you from 1960s Italy in (during filming of the Burton/Taylor Cleopatra) to present day Hollywood and American heartland in the present.”    And, "This book is well-written, at times very funny, cynical, and sweeping. It apparently ties together the Italian sea coast of the 1960s to Hollywood today and has been very well reviewed. Well written, and will make you chuckle."  

Romantic, historical fiction that will take you away. Very enjoyable read. It comes together beautifully in the end.”

Brooklynby Coim Toibin.  This was on the 2012 New Fiction list. It was bumped up this year on the strength of additional enthusiastic reviews.  Eilis Lacey grew up in a small town in Ireland after World War II.  When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor her in America, she decides she must go, leaving behind her fragile mother and vivacious sister. 

“I loved the tone and the voice of the narrator, the way the story was sparsely told and yet so full of life.  Toibin shows us so much about the time and experience of Irish immigrants in the years after World War II without telling us explicitly."  (Great interview with author here: BBC)  

“I can’t possibly explain why I loved this book so much.  But it says something about the state of literary fiction that it took me until halfway through this book to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Just because she’s putting her suitcase in a shed while she spends the day with her brother before her ship sails, does NOT mean it will be stolen.  There are actually people who can be trusted.  You can have a whole novel populated with decent human beings and have it still be so compelling that readers fly through it and are left wanting more.”

Faithful Place by Tana French.  “How had I not heard of Tana French before last summer?  In this, her third novel, an undercover Dublin cop is called back to his old neighborhood by his sister.  He’s avoided the place since his girlfriend disappeared twenty-two years earlier, just before just when they were about to elope.  And now her suitcase has been found in an abandoned house, turning all his old assumptions on their heads.  He investigates (failing to mention to his higher-ups his personal involvement in the case).  It’s a dark, compelling page-turner.  French is a master of story and character and an exquisite writer. (NB: If you like Faithful Place, do not be tempted to think her earlier works must be even better. Unlike many contemporary writers who get lazy after one success, French’s work has only improved.  It’s best to move on to the sequel, Broken Harbor).”     

The Round Houseby Louise Erdrich. Lots of positive comments:  “Riveting and suspenseful, arguably the most accessible novel to date from the creator of Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, and The Bingo Palace, Erdrich’s The Round House is a page-turning masterpiece of literary fiction—at once a powerful coming-of-age story, a mystery, and a tender, moving novel of family, history, and culture.” 

“Modern day version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Very interesting story about life on an Indian reservation in the Southwest.”  

The Twelve Tribes of Hattieby Ayana Smith. This book, like many these days, hovers between short story and novel, with stories eventually woven together to form a whole, growing richer as it progresses. Readers learn about a mother, Hattie Shepherd, through the stories of her many children.  “Yes, it felt like an Oprah book but still very good.”   

“It's a novel in which each chapter tells the story of one the main character's children. So it's a bit like short stories that are woven together. It is easy to get into and it follows a large family from the segregated south who struggle to find their way out amid poverty and racism. It is compelling and well written and on Oprah's book list.”

Where'd You Go, Bernadetteby Maria Semple.  The author, among other accomplishments, wrote for Arrested Development, which might give you some notion of what you’re in for.  The book is about a Seattle mother who disappears just as the family is about to go on a trip to Antarctica.  Her 15-year-old daughter takes on the task of finding her.  It’s an epistolary novel, but entire chapters consist of medical reports and faxes and police reports.  It’s satirical – lots of humor about Seattle (I don’t know that much about Seattle, but that’s not necessary to appreciate it). 
“So funny and wacky, Seattle humor.”
“Great beach book about an eighth grade girl whose mother has disappeared.  Well written and funny with an interesting (but not off-putting) structure.  I read it in three days.” 
“Very funny, clever writing with several LOL moments. Will appeal to Moms in our ‘over achieving’ [DC] area.”

2013 Non-Fiction Top Picks:

Mike Isabella's Crazy Good Italian: Big Flavors, Small Platesby Carol Blymire.  We’ve never had a cookbook as a top pick, but this one is special.  Not only was it co-written by our clever and devoted contributor, it also includes great summery recipes.  (Carol, among many accomplishments, also cooked her way through the Alinea Cookbook. See here).

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good LifeBy Rod Dreher.  “It's a wonderful book--just released and debuted on the NYT bestseller list. A story of family, community, small town America, illness, and a meaningful life. Ruthie Leming – the author's sister and a non-smoker – is diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer in her early 40s. Little Way tells the tale of what happens in the wake of her diagnosis. The ways in which a community rallies around the Leming family and the ways in which it profoundly changes her brother Rod, the author. It's a beautiful book and I highly recommend it to you readers. I couldn't put it down and--despite crying several times during the book.  I felt happy and uplifted after reading it. Little Way is a rare book and I hope you and the beach books list will give it a whirl.”

Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife by Dr. Eben Alexander.  Many of you mentioned this book, about a brain surgeon’s near death experience.   “This book had tremendous impact on me.  Of course, Scientific American is discounting everything in it. I read it after a good friend died and shortly after the terrible tragedy in Connecticut occurred. As I watched the Rabbi, Priests, Ministers, etc., give their eulogies, it just was so clear to me that they were all praying to the same ‘person.’  Alexander's writing simplifies things in a way that gave me a language to explain these two events to myself and to my children.  Highly recommend for anyone who is struggling or suffering from a loss.” 

“This book doesn't constitute ‘proof,’ but it's an interesting addition to the literature on this topic. The author makes his case from his perspective as a neurosurgeon who underwent a critical illness and had a near death experience.”

(pssst...  you're not done!  top picks are just the beginning - see our other lists for 2013: newer fiction, non-fiction and older fiction! Navigate from the "blog archive" to the left.)

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