If you're looking for something to give the literature lover in your life—the reader in the family who likes nothing more than to get lost in a big story—look no further. A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book is a masterful look at the early years of the 20th century through the lens of a large, upper-class bohemian Edwardian family.
Byatt builds her world meticulously, and the reader feels fully enveloped in a world that is in some ways before its time: full of artists, feminists, anarchists, nudists and other idealists who thought they could create utopia. What came instead was the Great War, which provides a powerful coda to this memorable story.
Read the rest of our 12 books of Christmas series.
OK, so choosing a John Irving novel for our 12 books of Christmas series isn't exactly going out on a limb—the book was one of the most anticipated releases of the fall and got some serious attention back in November, including our interview. But when Alden Mudge (who has been conducting interviews with literary luminaries for BookPage since long before my tenure here) writes that Last Night in Twisted River contains "some of the most entertaining and intellectually playful storytelling of Irving’s career," I sit up and take notice. Though it didn't make our Top 10 list for 2009, this novel would make a great gift for the guy (especially a dad) in your life who likes to read.
Read more in our 12 books of Christmas series.
Read more about John Irving on BookPage.com.
So Much for That by Lionel Shriver
Harper, March 2010
Shep could feel it, that for Zach suddenly the whole happy-family playacting was too much. The boy didn't know that until a week ago his father was about to abscond to the east coast of Africa, and he didn't know that his mother had just been diagnosed with a rare and deadly cancer, much less did he know that as far as his mother was concered the disease was his father's fault. But these highly incidental unsaids emitted the equivalent of the high-frequency sound waves that convenience stores now broadcast outside their shops to keep loitering gangs from the door. What dulled adult ears could no longer detect was unbearable to adolescents, and the same might be said of emotional fraud. Zach popped his pizza pocket early from the taoster and took his half-frozen dinner in a paper towel upstairs without even bothering with "See ya."
Roast chicken, boiled potatoes and steamed green beans. Glynis commended his preparation, but only picked. "I feel fat," she admitted.
"You're underweight. It's only fluid. You have to stop thinking like that."
"Suddenly I'm supposed to become a different person?"
"You can be the same person who eats more."
"Your chicken," she said, "is probably not what I feel so little appetite for." This was surely true. Given the purpose of food, an appetite at meals implied an appetite for the future.
It took two rounds of voting and several discussions, but we've finally distilled the long list of wonderful novels published in 2009 into a list of 10. Unlike a certain book trade publication, we went overwhelmingly female with this list, which nonetheless includes a variety of genres and combines old favorites with new names.
[gallery link="file" columns="4" orderby="rand"]
A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein
A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Lark and Termite by Jayne Ann Phillips
The City & The City by China Mieville
The Girl Who Played with Fire by Steig Larsson
Today Random House announced the April 13 publication of Beatrice & Virgil, a new novel from Canadian author Yann Martel—his first since the surprise 2002 hit Life of Pi. The book was previously scheduled for a summer release.
Few details are available, though Amazon has this description:
A famous author receives a mysterious letter from a man who is a struggling writer but also turns out to be a taxidermist, an eccentric and fascinating character who does not kill animals but preserves them as they lived, with skill and dedication — among them a howler monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice.
Confession: I didn't read Life of Pi. Any fans want to tell me what I'm missing? Are you looking forward to the new book?
Related in BookPage: our review of Martel's story collection, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories by Kevin Wilson
March 2009, Harper Perennial
From “Grand Stand-In”
The key to this job is to always remember that you aren’t replacing anyone’s grandmother. You aren’t trying to be a better grandmother than the first one. For all intents and purposes, you are the grandmother, and always have been. And if you can do this, can provide the level of grandmotherliness with each family, every time, then you can make a good career out of this. Not to say that it isn’t weird sometimes. Because it is. More often than not, actually, it is incredibly, undeniably weird.
I never had a family of my own. I didn't get married, couldn't see the use of it. Most of my own family is gone now, and the ones that are still around, I don't see anymore. To most people, I probably look like an old maid, buying for one, and this is perfectly fine with me. I like my privacy . . . . I like the dimensions of the space I take up, and I am happy. But it's not hard to imagine what it would have been like: husband, children, grandchildren, pictures on the mantle, visits at Christmas, a big funeral, and people who would inherit my money. You can be happy with your life and yet still see the point of one lived differently. That's why it seemed so natural when I saw this ad in the paper: "Grandmothers Wanted—No Experience Necessary."
As the year draws to a close, we at BookPage are compiling our own "best of 2009" lists. First up, our top 10 picks for teen reading—in alphabetical order. This list of favorites ranges from the realistic to the futuristic, but only includes one vampire. What do you think of our selections? Tell us in the comments, or show us your own teen top 10.
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman (Holt)
Gateway by Sharon Shinn (Viking)
Fire by Kristin Cashore (Dial/Penguin)
Going Bovine by Libba Bray (Random House)
If I Stay by Gayle Forman (Dutton)
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (Simon & Schuster)
The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks (Houghton Mifflin)
This Full House by Virginia Euwer Wolff (HarperTeen)
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking)
Blackout by Connie Willis
February 2010, Spectra
Eileen, Polly and Mike are historians at Oxford in 2060, where a time-travel machine can send researchers into the past to study history as it happens. Eileen is observing the children evacuated to the British countryside during World War II, while Mike is studying the heroes of Dunkirk and Polly is sent to London during the Blitz. But back in 2060, the future of time travel grows increasingly uncertain, and the scheduled "drops" more erratic. What will happen to Eileen, Polly and Mike if they can't get home again?
Four months, Eileen thought, separating them. I only have to put up with them for four more months. "No one's going to invade," she said firmly, "tonight or any other night."
"'Ow do you know?" Alf demanded.
"You can't know something what ain't 'appened yet," Binnie said.
"Why ain't 'e going to?" Alf persisted.
Because the British Army will get away from him at Dunkirk, Eileen thought, and he'll lose the Battle of Britain and begin bombing London to bring the British to their knees. But it won't work. They'll stand up to him. It'll be their finest hour. And it will lose him the war.
"Because I have faith in the future," she said, and, getting a firmer grip on Alf and Binnie, set off with them into the darkness.
What are you reading today?
Earlier this month, I got around to reading Roald Dahl's My Uncle Oswald, which I'd picked up at the Salvation Army back in June. Dahl's work, especially The Witches, really captured my imagination as a child, and in high school and college I read most of his short stories. Though it is definitely an adult novel, Uncle Oswald contains all the madcap magic of Dahl's writing for children, and it was perfect beachside reading.
The action begins at a dinner party, in the year 1912. Oswald Cornelius, who at 17 is already a ladies' man whose one ambition is to become a wealthy sybarite, hears the story of a beetle whose crushed carapaces have a Viagra-like effect. Recognizing his ticket to fame and fortune, Oswald heads to Africa and collects some beetle powder, compounding a pill that has the world's most rich and famous men of a certain age willing to pay anything for a dose before his scheme is interrupted by service in World War I.
Fast forward a few years, and enter the adult themes: with the help of a scientist and a beautiful Girton student, Oswald decides to compile a sperm bank of geniuses (interestingly, the so-called "Nobel Sperm Bank" idea was being dreamed up right around the time the book was being written, in the late 1970s).
"Can't you see her," I said, "this rich, unhappy woman who is married to some incredibly ugly, coarse, ignorant, unpleasant industrialist from Birmingham, and all at once she has something to live for. As she goes strolling through the beautifully kept garden . . . she is humming the slow movement of Beethoven's Eroica and thinking to herself, 'my God! Isn't it wonderful! I am pregnant by the man who wrote this music a hundred years ago!' "
"We don't have Beethoven's sperm."
"There are plenty of others," I said.
What follows is a raunchy, hilarious caper around the globe as sexy co-ed Yasmin seduces royals, painters and writers in pursuit of the literal essence of genius. Dahl uses his imagination to great effect when portraying these encounters, characterizing the victims as "jokers" or "genuises" and not hesitating to skewer even the most famous of men, especially his fellow writers (Proust and George Bernard Shaw get the worst of it). The gleeful triumph Oswald and Yasmin express after a successful heist recalls the elation felt by Matilda after supergluing her father's hat to his head, which is almost enough to make the naughtiest bits seem like innocent fun.
My Uncle Oswald is marred by the occasional sexist or xenophobic remark (Roald Dahl was a man's man of his time for sure) and every so often it crosses the line from irreverent to crude—but finding a new Dahl book was a real treat for this fan.
One of the first big releases of January 2010 is Elizabeth Kostova's follow-up to her hit debut, The Historian, a literary vampire story that topped bestseller lists in the summer of 2005. Her new novel, The Swan Thieves, is a tale of love, obsession and art that, like The Historian, goes backward and forward in time to unravel a mystery. We asked Kostova a few questions about the book as a teaser for fans--and a preview of our full-length BookPage interview coming in January.
What elements in The Swan Thieves will most appeal to fans of The Historian?
I think readers who enjoyed The Historian will probably enjoy the mix of historical and contemporary settings in The Swan Thieves, as well as the travel to France and through time.
Impressionist art is frequently referenced in books (yours!) and films (Amelie), and probably adorns 8 out of 10 dorm room walls. What is it about these artists that continues to speak to people today?
I think we still look at and love the Impressionists because they capture something about nature that is both vivid and idealized. As we watch the destruction of natural beauty in our world, we probably value these images in a new and piercing way. I think it's also important to note that many people are understandably sick of Impressionist art from sheer over-exposure to it, and because in reproduction it radiates a certain prettiness. Looking closely at an original Impressionist masterwork is still a radical experience, and very different from looking at a notecard or tote bag.
The mystery of The Swan Thieves revolves around a 19th-century female artist, and the sacrifices women in particular must make to pursue art. Is there a real-life artist who inspired this character?
Beatrice de Clerval is not based on a single real artist, but in developing her I was inspired by the life of Berthe Morisot, one of the six original exhibiting Impressionists, a dedicated and very gifted painter who also protected the conventions of her social and family life.
Who is your favorite character in the new novel, and why?
I think I'm fondest of Andrew Marlow, because he changes the most over the course of the book. I feel very close to him in his struggles to figure out who he is, and I like the way he evolves from vanity to love--rather as Professor Rossi does in The Historian.
How was writing this book different from writing The Historian?
In writing The Swan Thieves, I had to move away from using the models of Victorian literature and into something more exactly fitting my story in terms of language and structure. I also wrote it in large swathes, as different episodes became vivid for me, and then rearranged these in the editing, rather than writing straight through from beginning to end as I did with The Historian. I learned a tremendous amount from writing The Swan Thieves and it is a deeply felt book, for me.