The breakout book of 2009 was Emma Donoghue's Room, a gripping exploration of the nature of freedom and the mother-son bond that completely captured readers' imaginations. Narrated by five-year-old Jack, who has never been outside the small room that he and his mother have been confined to by a nameless kidnapper, Room is a story that is at once very specific and completely universal. After all, what mother doesn't want the best for her child, even if it means risking herself? And what child doesn't have trouble realizing that his mother is not, in fact, his whole world?
If Room ranks among your favorite books, we have some recommendations for you! Read on—and please add to the list in the comments.
First up is My Abandonment by Peter Rock (HMH), which follows an unorthodox father-daughter duo living off the grid somewhere on the West coast. When they are discovered, Caroline is forced to enter public school, and struggles with a lifestyle she finds restrictive—much as Jack does when he must leave Room. Rock thoughtfully considers questions of parenthood and love, individualism vs. civilization and more in a thoughtful and suspenseful tale that deserves a wider readership.
If the drama of a mother fighting for her child is what you crave, try Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight (Harper). When the book opens, the worst has already happened for Kate Barton: Her daughter Amelia has apparently jumped to her death from the roof of her prep school. The grief-stricken Kate, a single mom, can't believe her daughter would do such a thing, and begins her own investigation, poring through Amelia's texts and Facebook posts to determine just what happened to her little girl.
As news stories continue to prove, stories like the one in Room exist outside of writers' imaginations. And they continue to fascinate. Koethi Zan's debut, The Never List (Pamela Dorman), is another thriller that centers on a woman held by a man against her will—and this time, it's four women, chained in the basement of an isolated house by a man they know only as The Professor. The novel opens 10 years after Sarah and the others have made their escape—but their tormenter is still out there, and he might have more plans for them.
OK, so the privileged Seattle lifestyle enjoyed by the mother-daughter duo in Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette (Little, Brown), is a far cry from the 12x12 prison that Ma and Jack share in Room. But if Donoghue's critical look at the media and the society that Ma and Jack re-enter appealed to you, you'll probably appreciate Semple's satire of America's modern upper-middle class. Better yet, you won't have any trouble sleeping after you turn the last page of this one.
An Atlanta family tries to put themselves back together after their abducted son is restored to them in Sheri Joseph's unsettling Where You Can Find Me (Thomas Dunne). Like Room, this is a novel that focuses on the ordinary in the extraordinary—though their situation is extreme, the Vincents had trouble in their marriage before Caleb's disappearance, and most of their struggles are those that any family would share. A heartfelt treatment of a difficult subject, Joseph's second novel is a closely observed tale of a fractured family.
Those who loved the complicated, perfectly drawn mother-son relationship in Room shouldn't miss The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (Free Press) by Teddy Wayne. Though 11-year-old Jonny and his "momager" Jane live their lives in luxury hotel rooms or stately mansions, the trappings of fame prove to be as much of a cage for Jonny as Room is for Jack. And, though the tone of this novel is completely different, Wayne also uses his child narrator's unusual circumstances to highlight the universal struggle of coming of age in a complicated and hostile world.
OK, your turn. What books do you suggest for fans of Room?
Related: More 'Read it Next' posts
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.
Our readers chose M.L. Stedman's August debut, The Light Between Oceans, as their #2 book of 2012. We understand why. Set just after World War I, it's the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife, Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, who, after several failed attempts to have a child of their own, claim a baby that washes up on the island's shore. Stedman combines a complicated moral dilemma and an exotic Australian setting to create a compelling narrative—a story that is more interested in exploring "why" and "who" than "right" and "wrong." It's the sort of novel to inspire debate in your heart—or in your book club!
If you're one of the readers who voted for The Light Between Oceans and are looking for something to read next, here are some ideas.
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan. Like Oceans, this is one of our favorite 2012 debuts, and like Oceans, it is a psychologically acute look at a very thorny moral dilemma. Dozens of survivors of a 1912 steamer sinking are adrift in one tiny boat. Who will survive—and what will they have to do to achieve that goal?
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin. When the Sherbournes decide to adopt the child they find as their own, that one action drastically affects the residents of their small town. In Tom Franklin's atmospheric third novel, another missing girl sets the residents of a rural Mississippi town buzzing, bringing back memories of a similar case 20 years earlier and forcing two former friends to work together to uncover the culprit. It's a haunting story of secrets, regret and friendship.
The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville. If the vivid descriptions of Australia captured your imagination, this Booker Prize shortlisted novel about the country's colorful beginnings would be a good book to try next. Following the unlikely friendship between British explorer Daniel Rooke and a young aboriginal girl, it's based on a real-life story.
The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards. This debut novel was a word-of-mouth hit when it was published in the summer of 2005, and it also deals with a morally complicated situation: Dr. David Henry's decision to put one of his twin daughters in an asylum. After all, it's 1964, and children with Down syndrome are not considered able to be productive members of society. To spare his wife pain, he tells her that the child died at birth—but the wounds linger, haunting the family, even as the twins grow up unaware of each other's existence.
The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. Though this novel, Shriver's acclaimed follow-up to We Need to Talk About Kevin, is set in modern times, its thought-provoking structure should please fans of The Light Between Oceans. It's the story of Irina, who is presented with a choice on a night out in London: does she betray her partner of several years and kiss another man? From that moment, the novel is divided into two realities: one where Irina leaves staid Lawrence and embarks on a relationship with a charismatic snooker player, and one where she does not. Which is the better choice? It's up to the reader to decide.
Faith by Jennifer Haigh. Is there a more morally complex issue than the sexual abuse scandal that continues to rock the Catholic church? Haigh's sensitive, beautifully written fourth novel explores the fallout of this issue from a side not often seen: That of the accused abuser, Art, part of the close-knit McGann clan. Like Stedman, Haigh presents her characters without judgment, proving to the reader that nothing is black and white.
Readers, got any recs for fans of The Light Between Oceans? Find more "What to read next" posts here.
John Green's affecting The Fault in Our Stars has received almost non-stop attention since in publication in January of 2012—and even way before. It was a bestseller on Amazon and Barnes & Noble six months before publication, and its popularity has yet to lose momentum. It was a BookPage Best Children's Book of 2012, #5 on the Readers' Choice list of the Best Books of 2012 and called "damn near genius" by Time magazine.
Green's fourth book stars a 16-year-old girl named Hazel with stage-4 thyroid cancer and depression. At a support group, she meets a boy named Augustus, who has lost a leg to osteosarcoma. And so their love story begins as they explore the possibility of a relationship amid the unlucky world of the sick and dying. They dare to be witty, clever and courageous in the face of what could be insurmountable grief.
Loved The Fault in Our Stars? Check out these suggestions for what to read next.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
The sharp edge of The Fault in Our Stars comes from how tragically young Hazel and Augustus are, and the notion of facing death in adolescence. In Walker's debut, 11-year-old Julia's coming-of-age coincides with the cusp of catastrophe, as she bears witness to the terrifying deceleration of the Earth. What kind of "growing up" is there at the end of the world?
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
The YA genre often gets slammed for featuring topics that are deemed too raw and too real for young readers. But teen novels are at their best when sensitively exploring tough issues, such as in Thirteen Reasons Why, the unflinching story of a teen girl's suicide and the seven cassette tapes she leaves behind to explain her actions. The listener is a boy named Clay, who had a crush on Hannah, and whose odyssey through the tapes reveals bitter truths about ourselves and our actions' unintended consequences. Not an easy read, but undeniably powerful.
Gold by Chris Cleave
Gold received lots of attention when it came out last July—it was the much anticipated new novel from the author of Little Bee, and it was also the book to coincide with the 2012 Summer Olympics. And while the competition between friends and Olympic cyclists Kate and Zoe is fierce, the strand that binds them is Kate's 9-year-old daughter Sophie, who goes to great lengths to hide the toll that leukemia is taking on her little body. Gold is as much about cycling and competition as it is about the sacrifices made for family.
The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon
The "impossible love" story is a song older than Romeo & Juliet, and there are millions of great ones to choose from. In this novel, a white woman and an African-American man are not only in love in 1968, but they both suffer from disabilities: Lynnie has developmental disabilities that leave her with limited speech, and Homan is deaf and mute. Lynnie is also pregnant with Homan's child, and together, they escape from the deplorable conditions of the Pennsylvania State School of the Incurable and Feebleminded. When Lynnie is caught, Homan flees, and an epic, emotional tale of longing and hope continues for the next 30 years.
The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier
Brockmeier's look at human suffering has a magical realism twist: One Friday night, every person's wounds begin to shine, emitting a strange, shimmering light. Six novella-length chapters starring six strangers, linked by a private journal of love notes written by a husband to his wife, explore the phenomenon. The result is a novel of immense beauty, as Brockmeier slowly reveals the quiet intimacies of a happy marriage, as well as the bonds and shared pain between the six strangers.
Every Day by David Levithan
Young love is love at its fiercest and blindest, and the story of A, the genderless teen consciousness who inhabits a different teenager's body every day, and the girl A falls for, is one of the most unique young loves I've ever read. Can a love between a bodiless soul and a real human possibly work? The reader will dare to hope.
Readers: What books would you recommend for fans of The Fault in Our Stars?
It's been nearly a year since Defending Jacob, William Landay's third novel, was published—but this chilling psychological thriller doesn't show any signs of slowing down. After months on the New York Times bestseller list, it recently came in at a whopping #3 on our Readers' Choice list of the Best Books of 2012. (There's also a movie in the works from Warner Brothers.)
Like John Grisham and Scott Turow, Landay is a former attorney who turned to writing crime fiction. Also like those superstars, he is adept at crafting an irresistibly suspenseful tale. Defending Jacob is about an assistant D.A. in an affluent suburban Massachusetts town whose life is completely turned upside down when his 14-year-old son is accused of murder. So what does he do next? The father sets out to defend his own son in court.
If you are one of the many readers who got hooked on Defending Jacob, I hope you'll enjoy these suggestions for what to read next.
Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton. Novels like Defending Jacob are so compelling, in part, because they make us think about how life can irrevocably change in a single moment. In Lupton's second novel (after 2011's Sister), that moment is the outbreak of a fire at an elementary school—where Grace's son is enrolled as a student and her teenage daughter works as a teaching assistant. Was it arson? And how are Grace's children involved? Like Defending Jacob, this is a family-centered thriller that focuses on the great lengths a parent will go to protect his or her child.
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. It may initially seem that a thriller and a massive nonfiction book have little in common—but in fact they address similar themes. How does a child grow up to commit criminal acts? How do parents react to major unforeseen life events? How do they move on after these events, if such a thing is even possible? For one chapter in his book, Solomon interviewed (and spent hundreds of hours with) the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre. This chapter is incredibly thought-provoking and sobering and would make an appropriate supplement to Defending Jacob—especially in light of the tragedy in Newtown, CT. (Solomon has written thoughtfully about that event, as well.)
Midwives by Chris Bohjalian. Bohjalian's 1997 book about a midwife accused of murder (by performing an emergency c-section) is one of my favorite courtroom novels of recent memory, pitting doctors against midwives and townspeople against one another—all the while raising plenty of ethical dilemmas. Like Defending Jacob, this novel takes place in a small community and shows what it's like for a family after a criminal accusation.
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Defending Jacob begs comparison to Shriver's 2003 Orange Prize-winning novel, in which a teenager commits a grotesque act of violence against his classmates. As you read descriptions of parental anguish and the violent actions of a disturbed boy, you will want to cover your eyes. For better or worse—this book may give you nightmares—you will be unable to stop reading thanks to Shriver's clever plotting.
The Good Father by Noah Hawley. This is another natural pick for readers who enjoyed Defending Jacob. In both novels, the narrator is a father who is unable to believe that his son committed murder—though in this case, the son is an adult, and the victim is a prominent presidential candidate. Why did the son do what he did? Could his parents have prevented the act of violence? A harrowing (and heart-breaking) story.
Readers: What books would you recommend for fans of Defending Jacob?
Did you miss Defending Jacob? The mass market paperback ($7.99!) comes out on February 26.
ALSO ON THE BOOK CASE: See what to read after Gone Girl.
Readers of our December issue know that we've dubbed Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl the breakout book of 2012. A word-of-mouth sensation, this novel is guaranteed to keep you on your toes—and have you talking about it to your friends.
If Gone Girl whetted your appetite for unpredictable plotlines, dark and twisted characters or jaw-dropping finales, here are a few suggestions on what to read next.
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. One of the themes of Gone Girl was the fascination that missing women and girls hold in today's society. Atkinson takes on a similar topic in her first Jackson Brodie mystery, which links the recent murder of a young woman to a child's disappearance decades before.
Hanging Hill by Mo Hayder. If you thought the ending of Gone Girl was messed up—well, the last page of this story will have your head spinning. Really, all of Hayder's dark, well-written tales should appeal to the Flynn aficionado.
Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross. A husband who fantasizes about his wife's death sees his guilty nightmare come true. Those who enjoyed Flynn's exposé of the ugly underbelly of marriage shouldn't miss Ross' debut, which features three couples bound by love, hate and, possibly, murder.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Today's detective fiction is a descendant of Victorian "sensation" fiction—and The Woman in White, arguably the very first in that genre, is still one of the best. Like Flynn's, Collins' tale is told through the written statements of different protagonists, each with their own biases that the reader must consider. (Amy's diary has nothing on Count Fosco's!)
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. One of the pleasures of Gone Girl is its exploration of male-female dynamics and the power of creating a "story." McEwan deals with some of the same issues in his latest novel, which also contains one of those brilliant (and exceedingly rare) surprise endings that casts everything that came before in a different light.
Perfume by Patrick Suskind. You'd have a hard time finding a more dark and twisted main character than Jean-
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi. A male writer is taken to task by his female muse for his unfortunate penchant for killing off the women he writes about in Oyeyemi's imaginative fourth novel, which shares Gone Girl's interest in violence against women and the dark side of marriage.
What books would you recommend for Gone Girl fans?
RELATED ON THE BOOK CASE: Previous posts on Gone Girl.
The Wall Street Journal reported this weekend that E.L. James' Fifty Shades trilogy is on track to hit 20 million copies sold in the United States, after just three months on bookstore shelves (it has been available digitally for about four months).
Here are some stats to make your jaw drop even more: It took three years for Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy to sell that many copies. And according to Nielsen BookScan, one out of five "adult-fiction physical books" sold in the United States were part of the trilogy.
Given these massive numbers, there's a good chance that if you're reading this blog post, you've already fallen under the spell of James' unlikely couple, college grad Anastasia Steele and billionaire Christian Grey.
Did you read the trilogy, love it and are looking for something new? We recommend Bared to You by Sylvia Day, which is also about a 20-something woman who falls for a billionaire entrepreneur. (I've read both Fifty Shades of Grey and Bared to You, and would venture to say that the latter is actually a better read, with more realistic dialogue and equally steamy sex scenes.) By the way, Bared to You may not have sold 20 million copies, but it's not doing too shabby, either. It's currently #4 on the New York Times trade paperback bestseller list.
I interviewed Day about her novel and the popularity of erotic romance. You can read her answers here.
If you enjoy erotic romance, you probably don't need anyone to explain the genre's popularity. (Perhaps you'll nod your head at Vintage's new marketing slogan for the Fifty Shades trilogy: "Reading for pleasure has a whole new meaning.") If you don't get the appeal, however, perhaps this excerpt from my Q&A with Sylvia Day will help you understand the phenomenon:
How do you sustain such explosive chemistry between Gideon and Eva for hundreds of pages? Is there a secret to writing sex scenes that continue to excite (rather than bore) readers over the span of a novel?
Emotional resonance—it’s absolutely necessary to writing erotic romance. Sex for sex’s sake is porn. Reading “Tab-A into Slot-B” scenes would be boring and repetitive. Each sexual scene has to further the story and character arcs. There has to be a goal to the interaction and a resolution (aside from physical climax!). For many of my characters, they lack the ability to communicate effectively verbally, so they show how they feel through sexual interaction. There’s a story in the way they communicate with their bodies and that’s what makes the sex hot. [Continue reading . . .]
Series 2 of the popular TV drama "Downton Abbey" has just two more weeks to go on PBS. What's a fan to do when the upstairs/downstairs intrigue ends (other than wait for the Christmas special, of course)?
Books hold the answer. As I've said before, World War I has been a hot topic in publishing lately, and the runaway ratings for "Downton" have made it an even hotter commodity. The following books should help tide fans over until the premiere of Series 3 (filming now, with Shirley MacLaine added to the cast).
If you enjoy . . .
the exploration of the effects of WWI on society
then you should read . . .
The Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear (Harper). Winspear's series is set in the 1920s and '30s, but its heroine—once a maid in a great house, now a private investigator—personifies the changing times, and takes on cases that are rooted in the damage done by the war.
The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller (HMH). This sensitive debut novel tells the story of a young WWI veteran investigating the apparent suicide of one of his fellow soldiers. Look for a sequel this summer.
Life Class by Pat Barker (Doubleday). No one has explored the legacy of World War I quite like Barker. Though her Regeneration trilogy (beginning with 1991's Regeneration) is perhaps better known, Life Class details the pioneering days of plastic surgery, first developed to help disfigured veterans.
Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor by Rosina Harrison (Penguin). This spirited account of one young Yorkshire woman's 35 years as a maid to the infamous Lady Nancy Astor was first published in 1975 and has been reprinted to capitalize on the "Downton" craze.
The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons (Penguin). Though set just before and during World War II, this novel puts an interesting twist on the upstairs/downstairs dilemma when a young, upper-class Jewish woman escapes Austria to work as a maid in an English manor house.
Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery. One of the few novels about World War I to be written almost while it was happening—the book was published in 1921—Montgomery's final installment of the Anne of Green Gables series follows Anne's youngest, Rilla, who must grow up, and fall in love, in the shadow of the war.
Losing Julia by Jonathan Hull (Delacorte). This 2000 debut tells the story of a World War I soldier who comes to know his friend Daniel's fiancée through her letters to him. When they meet 10 years after the war (and Daniel's death), there's a connection between Patrick and Julia that can't be denied.
An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray (Random House). This Wodehousian novel, which follows shiftless Bertie, a member of the Irish aristocracy in its waning days, is full of hilarity and heart—just like everyone's favorite Countess.
The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund (Knopf), which will take you right into the trenches with letters and diaries from 20 soldiers who fought at the front.
To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild (HMH), which gives an in-depth look at the political mood in Britain as the war broke out—particularly the pacifist movement. Portraits of aristocrats at war should also appeal to the "Downton" devotée.
The Titled Americans by Elizabeth Kehoe (Atlantic Monthly). This nonfiction account of the lives of the three Jerome sisters—rich Americans who married British aristos, and one of whom became the mother of Winston Churchill—is a "beguiling chronicle" of the Edwardian era, replete with descriptions of homes, dresses and extramarital affairs with royals.
The Luxe by Anna Godberson (Harper). OK, it's a YA novel, and it's set in 1890s New York City, but it's a "Downton" companion in spirit! Just consider it the background story on Lady Cora Grantham.