Throughout Private Eye July, the editors of BookPage share some of their favorite mysteries and thrillers.
Tana French has built up quite a reputation for her dense, literary mysteries, which are driven almost entirely by the needs, desires and obsessions of her characters. To my mind, The Likeness is her best and strangest story. It follows Detective Cassie Maddox as she is assigned to the case of a dead woman who looks exactly like her—and uses a name that Cassie herself once used as an alias. To discover who "Alexandra Madison" was, Cassie must go undercover as the dead girl herself, even moving into the house that Alexandra shares with her unusually close-knit group of friends.
French has said that Donna Tartt's claustrophobically creepy novel The Secret History was a major influence on her, and nowhere is this more evident than in The Likeness, as a growing sense of unease permeates the creaky old house where these fiercely devoted friends close themselves off from the outside world.
See what else is going on during Private Eye July!
Bernard Waber, the creator of many beloved picture books featuring Lyle the Crocodile and other gentle souls, passed away on May 16 at age 91. His books included The House on East 88th Street and Ira Sleeps Over, among many others. Though his most common milieu was New York City, children all over the world found comfort and humor in the stories he told. What could be more reassuring than to know that everybody, even Ira, gets homesick sometimes?
Waber's more recent books included Courage (2002), which he wrote partly in response to the 9/11 attacks. In a hand-drawn Q&A about the book, Waber exhorted children to hold onto their dreams, as he surely did. He leaves a legacy of more than 30 books, ensuring that generations of children to come can still meet Lyle the Crocodile and follow him on his adventures.
With Mother's Day coming up this weekend, we know that many of you are searching for a special gift to share with your mom. And since there are few better treats for a mom than the opportunity to read a few good books with their children, we've put together a list of our favorite new picture books that celebrate mothers of all kinds, from soldier moms to squirrel moms. Read about two of them here, and then check out the whole feature to read the rest.
Reviews by Robin Smith
Brayden Bunny loves his mom but bristles at some of her rules. When she lets him know it's time to get out of bed, he wishes aloud that he could go and live with his friends. His mother overhears, and soon Brayden tries living at a number of his friends’ houses. Missy Mouse’s house is fun—but messy. The Badger family smells of unwashed badgers. The Squirrel family lives so high up that Brayden instantly knows it will not work out. He loves being with Auntie Grace, but still . . . something is not right. What is missing?
More sophisticated, but no less loving, is Sean Qualls’ treatment of Langston Hughes’ poem Lullaby (For a Black Mother). Collage and watercolor play well together here, inviting little ones to sleep while introducing them to the poetry of Langston Hughes. Qualls’ palette is calm and filled with overlapping circles, mirroring the repeating nature of the poem itself. The mother is front and center, wearing her lace dress, collaged with words from books. She is always looking right at her beloved diaper-clad baby, which is just where children expect their mother's gaze to fall. I especially loved the winding musical notes with the chubby baby singing in delight. The repeating words, displayed in a pleasing, stylized large font, will invite older brothers and sisters to read right along with baby—always a plus!
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, about the challenges that women face in the workplace, has certainly struck a chord with many people. Though her critics say Sandberg is out of touch with working parents who don't have the same advantages (or salary) as she does, she also has plenty of supporters who find her advice very useful. As a working mother myself, I'm grateful that Sandberg is opening up a conversation about what women and working parents can do to improve their leadership skills and the quality of their lives, both at home and on the job. As our reviewer writes,
"A baker’s dozen years into the 21st century, despite all the strides women have made toward equality (and despite being half the population), the female gender remains starkly underrepresented in leadership roles. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is a rallying cry for both genders to continue the hard work of previous generations toward a more equitable division of voice, power and leadership."
Lean In goes on sale today. Will you pick it up?
Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after the death of her mother and the dissolution of her marriage, was one of 2012's biggest and best books. Even Oprah thought so—she made it her first pick when she relaunched her book club. With its clear-eyed portrayal of Strayed's all-consuming sorrow and loneliness, and the incredible story of her (some might say foolhardy) determination to seek answers in an unforgiving landscape, Wild was our readers' #4 book of the year (and #2 on the BookPage editors' own Best of 2012 list).
Strayed's memoir encompasses so many different themes—grief, adventure, the healing power of nature, the journey to forgiveness and growth, discovering a community of like-minded misfits—that each reader takes away something different. If you're longing for something in a similar vein, try one of the following:
Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Like Wild, Let's Take the Long Way Home is a heartbreaking but beautifully told memoir of living through loss. When Gail Caldwell met Caroline Knapp, the two formed a quick, deep bond over such shared experiences as the joys and frustrations of writing, long walks with their beloved dogs and their self-destructive, alcoholic pasts. Knapp was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002 and died a few short months later; Caldwell's grief over the loss of her friend knocked her flat. Her book is a powerful testament to a close friendship and the person she has become in its wake.
Claiming Ground by Laura Bell
Laura Bell's life has taken many unexpected turns. After graduating college in the '70s, she had a hard time figuring out who, or what, she wanted to be. So she turned to what she knew to be real and true—her love of animals and the land—and moved to Wyoming to become a sheepherder. It was not an easy job, especially for a young woman, but she learned to face her failures and celebrate her strengths, all the while reveling in the harsh splendor of the Western landscape. Over the years, she turned to different jobs (forest ranger, masseuse) and different people for companionship, surviving divorce and agonizing loss along the way. Inspiring in the best way, Bell's memoir chronicles a lifetime of learning how to be herself.
Townie by Andre Dubus III
The working-class neighborhoods of Lowell, Massachusetts, are no place for a young boy to admit to any weakness. In such an environment, Andre Dubus III grew up poor and, by age 11, the child of an acrimonious divorce. After years of enduring taunts and violence against his family, he fought back, transforming himself into a strong, vicious boxer and brawler. Eventually, he turned to writing as a way to lift himself out of misery and the dead-end life he was living, and also to untangle his relationship with his father after a serious injury. Light reading it is not, but readers who loved Wild for its unflinching look at Strayed's sad and troubled family will appreciate the portrait of love and loneliness that Dubus paints in Townie.
Fire Season by Philip Connors
Philip Connors has spent many summers as a fire lookout in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, a job that allows him to attune himself deeply to the natural world around him. Though the work is not as physically demanding as hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, it requires long hours of solitude and the close, thorough observation of the forest. With nothing but the sights and sounds of the woods to distract him, Connors can achieve a sort of meditative peace that lends itself well to the daily practice of writing. When he observes that natural fires (caused by lightning strikes) are often beneficial, even necessary, to the survival of the forest's ecosystem, readers will realize that the truths he uncovers on the mountain may have meaning in their own lives as well.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
If you're looking for a lighter take on the experience of long-distance hiking, Bill Bryson's modern classic A Walk in the Woods is essential reading. Like Strayed, Bryson is not exactly prepared for the rigors of the journey when he sets out to hike the Appalachian Trail, and his bumbling efforts and dry humor make for an irresistible combination. Along the way, he learns about the history and allure of the AT and meets a number of curious characters—including his traveling companion, a cranky, monosyllabic and somewhat rundown friend from his high school days.
Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs by Heather Lende
Heather Lende, columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, has been compared to writers such as Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard for her gentle but deep-seated spirituality and her love of the natural world—in this case, the mountainous beauty of her Alaska home. In this collection of essays and observations, Lende writes with grace and humor about challenges and triumphs both personal and communal, and captures the spirit of community that infuses her small town. Like Strayed, Lende struggles with big questions, and finds inspiration in the beautiful but unforgiving landscape around her.
Looking for more great book suggestions? Check out the rest of our "what to read next" posts, or share your own recommendations in the comments.
guest post by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
It is somehow fitting that Harry Crews and Earl Scruggs died on the same day, March 28, 2012. While the pugnacious and audacious Southern novelist and the lightning-fast and inventive banjo player lived worlds apart, each had a deep affinity for looking at the world with all its blemishes, seeing through the masks behind which most people hide, and using humor, however sarcastic, to reveal the truth beneath the lies we tell ourselves. We'll miss each of these great artists, but Harry Crews' death brings almost to a standstill the Southern Gothic tradition that started gathering steam when the Dixie Limited, William Faulkner, started rolling down the tracks, picking up Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, Larry Brown, James Dickey, Barry Hannah and Cormac McCarthy along the way. Crews was one of the last of a tradition. Thankfully, there has been some talk of reprinting his novels and publishing the memoir on which he was working before he died.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote that when you have to assume your audience does not know what you’re talking about, “then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” Crews, the pugilist whose many novels feature characters trying to make their way in a South much changed from O’Connor’s, follows O’Connor’s dictum. He depicts freakishly grotesque men and women caught in a world where old values have been replaced by new ones, country replaced by city, and where the struggle to know and to hold onto the truth is a violent one. Midgets, deformed individuals and scarred men and women stand at the center of Crews' novels not only because Crews himself bore the scars of an early bout with polio, burns over two-thirds of his body after being scalded from falling into a vat of boiling water at age six, and broken bones from his many bouts in the boxing ring, but also because, as he wrote in his novel Scar Lover, "a scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and healed, done with."
Pick up any of Crews' novels, from his first, the widely acclaimed The Gospel Singer, to his later novels, such as his less widely praised Celebration, and you'll find a writer baring his soul and trying to get readers to search their own hearts. He once said that if he had done his job right when he was writing, he would "really get you turned back on yourself, and on your own code of ethics or morality or vision of the world or sense of self or whatever. If I get you turned back on yourself, then I done my job. I've done what I set out to do."
Crews always declared that no matter how hard writing was for him—writing 500 words a day was a successful day for him, he once wrote—it was a way of understanding himself. In his most famous piece of advice to writers, Crews delivered advice borne out of his own practice and declared, "If you're gonna write, for God in heaven's sake, try to get naked. Try to write the truth. Try to get underneath all the sham, all the excuses, all the lies that you've been told."
Crews wrote to understand himself and the world, and he had little patience for the business of publishing. In a remark that all book publishers should have framed on their doorposts, he once announced, "If the shoe business were handled like the publishing business, we'd all be barefoot."
Harry Crews' novels might sometimes be hard to read because they're filled with violence, blood sport and grotesque characters, but they shout out, "Pick me up and read me," for they drive us to confront our often grotesque sense of self, the lies we tell ourselves to protect ourselves from harsh truths and the destruction of our society and the world around us under the banner of illusory values. And, man, do we need Harry Crews and his novels more now than ever.
Henry L. Carrigan Jr. is a regular reviewer for BookPage.
Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik
Del Rey • $25 • ISBN 9780345522863
published March 6, 2012
Since the 2006 publication of her first novel in the Temeraire series, His Majesty's Dragon, Naomi Novik's star has risen quickly in the world of science fiction and fantasy. The Temeraire books (named for the dragon whose exploits they follow) have earned praise from such luminaries as Stephen King and director Peter Jackson, who has optioned the series for a possible film adaptation. There's no doubt they would make terrific movies, with their vivid characters (both human and dragon), their exciting battle scenes and their lush and varied historical settings.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Temeraire and his captain, Will Laurence, have traveled across the globe in the service of Britain's Royal Aerial Corps, from England to China to Turkey to the southern tip of Africa to, most recently, Australia (for reasons that I will refrain from revealing, so as not to spoil readers new to the series). Now, in Crucible of Gold, they are being sent to South America to negotiate with the Portuguese royal family in Brazil.
In this excerpt, the dragons Temeraire and Iskierka display their very dragonish love of treasure and fine things:
"I cannot say much for a pavilion without a roof," Iskierka said, with quite unbearable superiority, "and anyway you cannot bring it along, so even if it were finished, it would not be of any use. I do not think anyone can disagree I have used my time better."
Temeraire could disagree, very vehemently, but when Iskierka had chivvied a few of her crew—newly brought on in Madras—into bringing up the sea-chests from below, and throwing open the lids to let the sunlight in upon the heaped golden vessels, and even one small casket of beautifully cut gemstones, he found his arguments did ring a little hollow. It seemed the Allegiance had in her lumbering way still managed to get into flying distance of not one but three lawful prizes, on the way to Madras, and another one on the way back, when Hammond's urgent need of a transport to carry Temeraire to Rio had necessitated her abrupt about-face and return.
"It does not seem very fair," Temeraire said to Laurence, "when one considers how much sea-journeying we have done, without even one French merchantman coming anywhere in reach; and I do not find that Riley expects we should meet others on the way to Brazil, either."
"No, but we may meet a whaler or two, if you like," Laurence said absently. Temeraire was not mollified; whales were perfectly tolerable creatures, very good eating when not excessively large, but no-one could compare them to cartloads of gems and gold; and as for ambergris, he did not care for the scent.
I don't have a particular dog in the print-vs-eBook fight; I like print books and haven't yet felt the need to buy an eReader, but I see the appeal of eBooks and am generally just glad that people are reading, no matter the format. However, I admit that a beautifully bound and illustrated book gets me excited in a way that an eBook, even with all the bells and whistles, can't do.
So I was especially thrilled to find out that Madras Press, which is known for putting out small, quirky, high-quality books, is publishing a book by one of my favorite authors: an edition of Kelly Link's short story "Stone Animals," from her 2005 collection Magic For Beginners. The books are individually bound with letterpressed covers ("Stone Animals" is available in brown or blue), but the real treat is between the covers.
"Stone Animals" features illustrations by a host of authors and artists, like children's book illustrators Tao Nyeu and Lane Smith (who won a Caldecott Honor this year for Grandpa Green). Some are unexpected: Did you know that legendary sci-fi/fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuin could also draw? The illustrations run the gamut from gorgeously odd (Audrey Niffenegger's rabbit crouched, nose quivering, over a toothbrush) to, well, decidedly amateur (Arthur Phillips' sad-faced toaster), but all of them add to the story's off-kilter, unsettling mood. For fans of either Link's stories, unusual artwork or literary treasures, "Stone Animals" is a rare treat.
At last, our editors have made their choices for the best children's books of the year, from picture books to middle grade to young adult titles. It wasn't easy to decide, but after we roared our terrible roars, and gnashed our terrible teeth, we settled down long enough to agree on 30 excellent books.
What are your favorite children's books of the year? Let us know in the comments below. You can also click here to enter a contest for a selection of winter/holiday books and, as a bonus, a few titles from the list above. Happy reading!
As part of our Best Books of 2011 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
To travel in Africa with Alexandra Fuller is to see the continent and its recent history through a very personal lens. In her first memoir, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, she explored her childhood in the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Zambia and Malawi. In her latest, she looks at her parents' lives, their eccentricities, their accomplishments and their unimaginable tragedies, from her mother's childhood in Kenya to their current home on the fish and banana farm they own in Zambia. They are fascinating characters in their own right (particularly Fuller's mother), but what is most compelling about their story is the way in which they have finally come to embrace, rather than fight against, the Africa they live in today.