Last week, the National Book Critics Circle honored six authors for their excellent books published in 2014. The committee of book critics voted on the best books of the last year, and these are the results:
Fiction: Lila by Marilynne Robinson
General Nonfiction: The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis
Autobiography: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Biography: Tennessee Williams by John Lahr
Criticism: The Essential Ellen Willis by Ellen Willis
Poetry: Citizen by Claudia Rankine
Additionally, the John Leonard Prize for excellence in first books was received by Phil Klay for his debut, Redeployment, and Toni Morrison was honored with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for her significant contribution to the literary world. And, because this is a critics' award after all, Alexandra Schwartz won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
Here's something that's definitely not normal: a serial killer as a sort of bumbling hero. Maybe "hero" is too strong, but the unnamed protagonist in British author Cameron's debut is, outside of kidnapping and murdering girls, darkly funny and even likable. His lifelong killing spree kicked off when he took out his bad dad, and now he's moved on to prostitutes and other girls, sometimes killing them and burying them in the woods, sometimes keeping them in a cage on his property. Add in some real, non-sociopathic feelings about a few of his victims, plus cops circling about a disappeared hooker, and you've got one strange story on your hands.
Erica regarded her new cellmate with a mixture of elation and disdain. Whilst a problem shared is a problem halved, she clearly wasn't overjoyed at the prospect of sharing hers with a bleeding, screeching harridan.
The hooker had told me that her name was Kerry. Then again, she'd told me that she was clean in every respect, where both her profession and her trackmarks suggested otherwise.
I'd picked her up a mile from Jeremy's house on a foolish and immediately regrettable impulse fueled by raw adrenaline and the sheer bloody-minded need to catch something, so to speak. She'd directed me to a remote riverside picnic area on the south side of the city, and had been only too eager to jump into the back of the van, the false promise of mattresses and pillows offering a welcome relief from the repeated prod of a gearlever in the sternum.
Until that point, this, in a nutshell, was the reason I never interfere with ladies of the night: it's just too damn easy. It's a game for impotents and bed-wetters. These women queue up to get in the car with you, for Christ's sake. They actually expect you to take them somewhere dark. That they exercise free will in putting themselves in harm's way only makes obligingly slaughtering them all the more cowardly.
What are you reading?
Samantha Norman didn't plan to be a novelist, but when her mother, the best-selling writer Ariana Franklin, passed away in 2011 and left a half-finished manuscript, Norman felt called to carry on her mother's legacy. In a guest blog post, she reveals what it was like to finish The Siege Winter.
Guest post by Samantha Norman
When my mother, the best-selling historical novelist, Ariana Franklin, died suddenly and unexpectedly four years ago, she left a great big hole in my life and a half-finished novel.
Although she’d always nagged me to start writing novels of my own—convinced somehow that I’d inherited her talent—I never got round to it. I’d written features, lots in fact, for newspapers and magazines but never anything longer than about 1,500 words and had no particular desire to, either. Writing is hard—I’d done enough of it to know that much—and, what’s more, I’d seen my mother—both parents actually, my father is also a novelist—sweating blood over their work and I just didn’t feel that that sort of hard labour was for me. And yet all of a sudden my Mum was dead and there was a novel to complete and I was suddenly imbued with a zeal I’d never felt about anything before, absolutely determined that I was to be the one to finish it.
It was an enormous responsibility. My mother had a large and devoted fan base whose members were vociferous in their admiration of her beautiful prose and unrivalled attention to historical detail and accuracy. Therefore, to do her justice—I should point out here that mum was an absolute pedant when it came to research and getting things absolutely right—and to continue her remarkable legacy without public outcries of “Shame!” I had to do a crash course in the medieval history she so adored, and in a matter of mere weeks—I had a fairly punishing deadline—assume a knowledge of 12th-century English history which she had carefully garnered over more than 35 years.
Not only that, but I also had to assume her writing style. I had always loved, envied even, the way she wrote, the seemingly effortless almost mellifluous way in which she strung words together, but could I emulate it? Well, only you can be the judge of that. The book’s out now and I’m terribly proud of it and I hope, I really, really hope that my mum would be too.
Happy St. Patrick's Day! When you raise a (green) beer to honor an Irish saint for his brave 5th-century snake-banishing (via Riverdance, perhaps?) take a moment to consider Ireland's rich literary legacy. Here are a few of our favorites from today's best Irish authors:
A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black
Black's atmopheric mysteries are as full of twists as they are elegantly written (Black is a pseudonym for prize-winning author John Banville). We love his take on 1950s Ireland and his savvy amateur detective Garret Quirke.
Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín
This quiet story of the life of an everywoman in 1970s Ireland turns into a wider exploration of the country's past, present and future in the capable hands of Tóibín, one of today's most accomplished Irish writers.
Faithful Place by Tana French
No list of Irish writers would be complete without Tana French, whose textured mysteries have taken the suspense world by storm since she made her debut in 2007. In Faithful Place, she brings the Liberties—a housing project in Dublin—into the spotlight, uncovering the truth behind a decades-old disappearance.
An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray
Murray is best known for his excellent second novel, Skippy Dies, but his charming, Wodehous-ian debut, set in a crumbling Irish mansion, is a social satire for the ages.
At the Edge of Ireland by David Yeadon
In the tradition of classics like Under the Tuscan Sun, big-city reportor David Yeadon recounts his adventures and attempts to fit in with the locals after moving to the most isolated outpost in Ireland he could find—the Beara Peninsula.
My Dream of You by Nuala O'Faolain
This novel blends past and present in a time-tested formula. It's the story of modern-day Irishwoman Kathleen de Burca, who becomes obsessed with the story of an ancestor who escaped Ireland during the potato famine.
A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle
Roddy Doyle is best known for his novels for adults, but in this magical middle-grade novel has an Irish setting that shines, a tough heroine and, best of all, a ghost.
History buffs and thrill seekers will both find something to like in this week's paperback releases:
By Hilary Mantel
Picador • $16 • ISBN 9781250077585
This new tie-in edition of Mantel’s award-winning Tudor novel marks the April 5 debut of a six-part TV adaptation on PBS.
When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-44
By Ronald C. Rosbottom
Back Bay • $18 • ISBN 9780316217439
What was it really like to live in Paris while German forces occupied the city? Rosbottom, a professor of French at Amherst, gives a riveting portrait of the occupied and the occupiers in this meticulously researched account.
The Burning Room
By Michael Connelly
Grand Central • $16 • ISBN 978145552419
The latest entry in the acclaimed Harry Bosch series follows the LAPD detective and his rookie partner as they investigate a perplexing murder case in which the victim died nine years after being shot.
By Daniel H. Wilson
Vintage • $15.95 • 97803458043891
The sequel to the best-selling sci-fi thriller Robopocalyse asks the important question: Can the human race overcome a robot uprising?
Last month, I had the pleasure of talking with Andrew Smith, author of the recently released The Alex Crow, the 2015 Printz Honor book Grasshopper Jungle, the National Book Award semifinalist 100 Sideways Miles and other mind-bending, norm-challenging books for young adult (YA) readers. Our conversation was so packed with terrific stuff that some of the best parts didn't fit in the March issue of BookPage. So here are a few more highlights.
Even though the Printz announcement was yet to come at the time we talked, Smith and I spoke at length about Grasshopper Jungle. This book, he said, has acquired a unique following among adult readers, many of whom express the same sentiment. "One of the most common email subjects that I ever get from readers is, 'I really wish that a book like Grasshopper Jungle had been written when I was 15 or 16 years old. It would have really changed my life.'"
This effect is even more meaningful in light of Grasshopper Jungle's own backstory. The novel, Smith told me, wasn't originally meant for publication—instead, it started out as an exercise to prove a point. After being accused in a 2011 Wall Street Journal article of writing books that were too violent and scary for teen readers, Smith decided that he wanted to respond in a unique way. "In the summer of 2011, what could possibly be darker than what was really going on in middle America?" he asked. "Towns were being closed down because of the recession, and people were losing their homes." If he was going to be accused of dark subject matter, Smith figured, he might as well write about something really dark.
Smith is on a roll; he's published three books in a little over a year, always finishing one before starting another. "I think my style is evolving," he told me. "I think you can definitely see a maturation in the style and the structure and the tools that I've used compared to my earlier work." Changes in his personal life also "thread through all three of those books," including his son leaving for college while he wrote 100 Sideways Miles and being away at college while he wrote Grasshopper Jungle.
Smith also expanded on his point about gender in YA lit, specifically in The Alex Crow. All but one of the book's half-dozen settings is all-male, and the one setting that includes a woman portrays her as not much more than a highly caricatured plot device. So at first, The Alex Crow looks almost explicitly anti-female . . . until readers think more about how deeply flawed the gender-imbalanced settings truly are. "All of the narratives point out the failures of male societies . . . the [summer] camp, the survivors on the ship, the military, the refugee camp—all of these keep pointing out how misguided male-dominated societies have been," Smith explained.
Smith cautioned readers not to confuse his opinions as an adult writer with the sometimes "sexist, misogynous . . . immature . . . impulsive" voices of his teenage characters, especially when these voices are talking about girls and women. Specifically, when a teenage boy narrator (like Ariel in The Alex Crow or Austin in Grasshopper Jungle) views a female character as one-dimensional, uninteresting or seemingly existing only to move his own story along, it's the character talking, not Smith himself. This subtle distinction—or rather, its lack—comes up repeatedly in the criticism against Smith, including a recent controversy sparked by an interview with journalist Hugh Ryan.
Despite this distinction, Smith said that he often finds himself becoming absorbed in his characters' identities. "When I'm working on [my books], they become so intense—almost like there's no line between myself and the people I'm writing about. When I'm writing something, I start to talk like my protagonist, and I might be wearing the same t-shirt that the person is talking about wearing. I need to make the words on the page ring so true, they need to sound like a real person—and so during that time, I need to be that person."
Finally, Smith touched on an area of which many teachers—and promoters of social media—will be glad to hear. "I hope that readers always have the opportunity to critically examine their reading by talking to somebody else about it, and asking questions to open up their interpretation of what's actually being put in front of them on the page."
Smith disabled his Twitter account following the recent controversy, but considering that reluctant teen readers like to connect with Smith on social media—and he always writes back—I hope he's back online soon. And I think I join the rest of Smith's fans in itching to know what he's going to write next.
Locker Combinations is a Book Case feature by BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan. Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, Jill guest blogs about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field. Read more BookPage reviews, interviews and posts by Jill here.
Lili Anolik's Dark Rooms is an impressive, taut debut following Grace, a young woman with an unsettling suspicion that her sister's murder has not truly been solved. Our reviewer writes, "With complex characters and a multilayered narrative, it can be hard at times to know whom to root for; thankfully it’s equally difficult to put this stunning debut down." (Read the full review here.)
We asked Anolik to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately, and she graciously agreed to share.
I love a mystery more than I love just about anything. I find the genre irresistible, just totally seductive and compelling and can’t-get-enough. For me, when something is unknown or unresolved, it has a tremendous pull to it. And finding out can become this fanatical thing, this impulse that you have no control over, that controls you. One of the best mysteries I’ve read recently is Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source. It’s about a young guy, Ike Tucker, who leaves his hick town in the desert to move to Surfing, USA: Huntington Beach, California. His older sister vanished the year before, and he’s trying to find out what happened to her. In the process, he’s getting mixed up with all kinds of seedy type individuals: beach bums and dope fiends and bikers and runaways and rich guys who traffic in snuff films. Plus, the prose is great—unfussy yet lyrical. And this shouldn’t matter but it does: Kem Nunn also did a polish on the script of Wild Things (1998), one of the great trash movies of all time.
The Secret History is also a mystery, but it’s a completely different kind of mystery than Tapping the Source. (You know whodunit in the first couple of pages.) What’s so knockout about this book is the mood it creates, the atmosphere: so gripping, so obsessive, so unrelenting. The Secret History is one of those books that I reject in certain ways—it’s borderline pretentious, and it’s totally devoid of a sense of humor—and yet respond to very powerfully on an emotional level. I love this book. It gets under your skin and haunts you the way a fairy tale does. It’s not just a compulsive read, it’s a compulsive re-read—the ultimate compliment.
I’m a Bret Easton Ellis freak, and this is my favorite of his books. (Ellis and Tartt were at Bennington at the same time. I read somewhere that the two went on a date as undergrads. It’s probably totally a made up, baseless rumor, but I so want it to be true. Did they go to dinner and a movie? Who paid? What did they talk about?) Lunar Park is a mash-up of fake memoir, schlocky horror splatter-fest and straight-ahead traditional novel about fathers and sons. The protagonist is Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho and the brattiest member of the literary Brat Pack. The first 50 pages had me in hysterics—Ellis makes brutal fun of himself, he is absolutely without mercy—and the last 50 had me in tears. It’s an oddball novel—totally weird and wild, it’s like no other book I know.
Thank you, Lili! See any books you'd like to pick up, readers?
Big news for Fall 2015: Jojo Moyes will publish a sequel to her blockbuster 2013 hit, Me Before You, on September 29. After You (Pamela Dorman) continues the story of Lou Clarke, a working-class girl whose unlikely romance with wealthy, wheelchair-bound Will Traynor changed her life forever.
Moyes credits her work on the script for the film adaptation of Me Before You (due in 2016) for her continued interest in the characters' lives, adding, "It has been such a pleasure revisiting Lou and her family, and the Traynors, and confronting them with a whole new set of issues. As ever, they have made me laugh, and cry. I hope readers feel the same way at meeting them again."
Moyes' British publisher has posted a brief trailer here, complete with a specially commissioned song. Are you looking forward to this one?
Crispy, breaded chicken tenders are one of the ultimate comfort foods, but unfortunately the fried varieties are packed with fat and calories. British celebrity chef Lorraine Pascale understands this conundrum all too well, and her new cookbook Everyday Easy makes healthy recipes a priority, while offering creative ways to slash calories on just a few cheat meals. Try these oven-baked Crispy, Crunchy Chicken Strips with Honey Mustard Dip the next time you get a craving.
Crispy, Crunchy Chicken Strips with Honey Mustard Dip
Being a tactile person at heart, eating food with my fingers is pure luxury for me. I have a favorite surf-and-turf restaurant I frequent with the family and I regularly order their crispy chicken tenders for a starter. The piquant honey mustard dip has me getting right on in there with a spoon and eating up every last morsel.
Time from start to finish:
Equipment: Baking tray, 2 wide, shallow bowls, small bowl
Honey mustard dip
++Preheat the oven to 400°F. Lightly grease a baking tray with oil and set aside. I like to do this quickly with a spray oil.
++Crack the eggs into a wide, shallow bowl and beat lightly to bring together. Put the breadcrumbs (or polenta) and mustard powder into another wide, shallow bowl. Pick the leaves from the parsley or thyme and then finely chop them before tossing with the breadcrumbs and some salt and pepper.
++Cut each chicken breast lengthwise into three strips. Dip each piece into the egg, shaking off the excess, and then into the breadcrumbs to coat evenly. Arrange on the baking tray as you go. I tend to get in a sticky mess with this as the egg on my hands becomes coated with breadcrumbs, but the end result is so worth it.
++Bake in the oven for around 12 minutes, turning each piece of chicken over halfway through.
++Meanwhile, to make the dip, put the mayonnaise into a small bowl with the whole grain mustard and honey and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
++Cut the limes into quarters and add the juice of one piece to the dip, squeeze by squeeze, tasting as you go until you are happy. The lime lifts the dip’s flavors a little and gives a nice balance. Spoon the dip into a small serving bowl and place in the center of a large plate.
++Remove the chicken from the oven. When cooked, it should be piping hot in the center and crispy and golden brown on the outside.
++Arrange the chicken around the dip on a plate and serve with the remaining lime wedges.