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Best of 2014: Book Edition, Part 2

You guys, these books are so good. I hope you enjoy my top 5 books of the year, and when you’re done enjoying, maybe go check one out. (Or, you know, all of them. Whatever.)

5. Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins

Anna and the French Kiss

Anna and the French Kiss is the first in a series of related books, and I could easily have included any of them on my favorites list. However, there’s something special about Anna, the story of a high school senior sent to a boarding school for Americans in Paris. It has just the right balance of wish-fulfillment and relatable characters. I love Anna’s interest in cinema, not to mention her swoon-worthy Paris romance. Stephanie Perkins creates a world that I was all to happy to live in for two more books.

4. Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places

While reading Dark Places, I was constantly trying to solve the mystery, even when I wasn’t actually reading. Libby is the lone survivor of the night her brother killed her mother and sisters, a childhood trauma that has turned her into a less than functional adult. However, an unlikely alliance with real crime enthusiast/nerd Lyle leads her to rethink what she thinks she knows about the night that changed her life forever. The plot unfolds with fiendish tenacity between Libby in the present and her brother Ben on day of the murders. I defy you to stop turning the pages. (Click here for further discussion.)

3. The Other Typist, by Suzanne Rindell

The Other Typist

Friendship can be a transformative influence, as several of the books on this list attest, but The Other Typist deals with a darker transformation. Rose Baker is a by-the-book typist for the New York City police department, until a new typist joins her precinct. Odalie is a Roaring Twenties daydream worthy of Jay Gatsby. Beneath the trappings of speakeasies and flapper haircuts, this novel is an engrossing study of identity. Is it truly possible to change who we are? (I had plenty more to say in my full review here.)

2. Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell

Attachments

Reading Attachments is like watching a really good romantic comedy, one that’s genuinely romantic and funny. In the early days of office internet, Lincoln is hired to monitor employee emails for a newspaper. In the line of duty, he reads the messages between two women and falls in love with one of them. The premise may sound far-fetched, but Rainbow Rowell has a knack for bringing realism to any scenario. One of my bookstore coworkers asked which Rainbow Rowell character would be my ideal boyfriend, and I had to say Lincoln. He’s the perfect combination of sweet, awkward, and self-deprecating.

1. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity won the Printz Award for good reason. It opens with a British spy writing her confession in a French Gestapo prison. However, she uses the time and paper to tell about her best friend Maddie, the transport pilot who flew on this already-doomed mission. The story is absolutely gripping, made all the more so by the fierce bond of friendship that the reader can feel between the two friends. Code Name Verity has everything going for it: strong writing, characters, and plot. It’s also covers two of my favorite genres (young adult and historical fiction), making it an easy pick for my favorite book of the year.

Thanks for joining me on this year-end retrospective. Catch you in 2015!

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Best of 2014: Book Edition, Part 1

I followed my reading goal of two-books-per-month again this year, and it was difficult to narrow them down to ten favorites. That’s what I call a good problem to have. Enjoy numbers 10 through 6!

10. Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire is a companion novel to Code Name Verity. The protagonist changes, but some characters reoccur. During World War II, young American Rose Justice travels to Britain to volunteer as a transport pilot. However, bad luck in the air over France lands her in Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp. I’ve read a lot about World War II, but Wein does a fantastic job of showing the camaraderie that can arise between people in desperate situations. Rose and her fellow prisoners make a pact to “tell the world,” and by writing this book, Wein helps to fulfill her character’s promise.

9. Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green & David Levithan

Will Grayson x2

First and foremost, Will Grayson, Will Grayson is hilarious. John Green’s writing always has a dose of humor, but this novel made me laugh out loud more than any other. When two Chicago teens meet, and are both coincidentally named Will Grayson, the hilarity ensues. One Will Grayson is struggling with his sexuality; the other is struggling with his general apathy and a flamboyantly gay best friend named Tiny Cooper. Tiny alone is worth the price of admission, but the novel boasts a delightful cast of characters.

8. Longbourn, by Jo Baker

Longbourn

A novel about the servants from Pride and Prejudice could have been an epic failure, but not in the capable hands of Jo Baker. Longbourn only deepened my understanding of the world surrounding the classic story, while also providing compelling characters of its own. If you enjoy the “below stairs” aspect of Downton Abbey, consider this a more sophisticated version. And if you think that Jane Austen is all people sitting around in drawing rooms, then the uncertainty of a servant’s existence might better suit your fancy. (You can read my full review here.)

7. The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides

After years of good intentions, I finally read The Virgin Suicides. Now I understand what all the fuss is about when it comes to Jeffrey Eugenides. His writing style is a bit off-kilter, which is perfect for this story about a family of teenage girls cloistered by their parents. It’s a downright Hitchcockian example of the male gaze to female object, or as the wise John Green might say, “failing to imagine others complexly.” And aside from the English major speak, it’s just a beautifully written novel. (You can read my full review here.)

6. Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects

Just like the work that came after, Gillian Flynn’s first novel cuts to the bone. Camille Preaker is a reporter sent to her Missouri hometown to investigate the murders of two girls. The assignment forces her to rekindle a relationship with her mother and the teenage half-sister she never really knew. These women all demonstrate Flynn’s bravery when it comes to creating female characters with a healthy dose of menace about them. Sharp Objects is small town depravity as seen through Camille’s mind, which is as twisted as the rooms of her mother’s Victorian house. (Click here to read further discussion.)

Let’s do this one more time tomorrow!

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The Dream Team Gives Us Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn and David Fincher are a match made in book-to-film adaptation heaven. Fincher’s directing style perfectly communicates the domestic menace of Flynn’s psychological thriller. He presents Gone Girl in a blue-gray color palette with an insidiously droning score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Every detail hints at the danger that can lie beneath a calm facade. Rosamund Pike stars as Amy Dunne, the wife who disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary, and Ben Affleck is her troubled husband Nick.

Warning: This post is intended for people who have read the book or seen the movie. Gone Girl is just infinitely more fun to discuss when you don’t have to worry about spoilers.

Gone Girl Still

Can we take a moment to marvel at this casting? Admittedly, I’m biased when it comes to Ben Affleck, but even if he doesn’t fit your image of Nick, the aging golden boy is a character that he embodies with ease. The role of Amy could make or break the movie, and I think Fincher was wise to cast a low-profile actress. Hopefully the reveal of Amy’s true character is more effective when viewers have no preconceived notions about Rosamund Pike. An impeccable supporting cast helps to ground a story that could feel apart from reality. I’m absolutely obsessed with Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit as the local police officers, and Tyler Perry is refreshingly understated as defense attorney Tanner Bolt.

Rosamund Pike as Amy requires her own paragraph. Her ethereal beauty is a perfect fit, and she’s inscrutable enough to play Amy. I’ve seen the movie twice and been thrown by her voice both times. It’s low and posh, somehow making her feel British even though she’s using an American accent. Pike excels at portraying Amy’s dark side, but she performs the voiceovers in a way that creates less juxtaposition between Diary Amy and Real Amy than I feel when reading the book. To her credit, by the end she is a truly frightening creature. After my second viewing, I enjoyed hearing the teens in front of me discuss how creeped out they were.

Gone Girl - 2014

Some viewers complain that they miss Nick’s voice, the way the novel’s alternating chapters give equal weight to both points of view. Honestly, the thought didn’t even cross my mind when I first saw the movie. Gillian Flynn actually wrote the script, and she says it felt appropriate to have Amy acting as the “voice of God.” After all, it’s her orchestrations that set the plot in motion. In my opinion, the film still presents the dual perspectives in a way that works for the medium. As Flynn points out, too many voiceovers would start to feel like a book on tape.

Seeing the movie a second time, I found myself thinking about the Bechdel Test. Whether or not the film features female characters talking to each other about something besides a man, as the Bechdel Test requires, Gone Girl has a lot of female characters. And rather than the genders talking among themselves, the movie most often shows men and women talking to each other. This feels apt for a story that hinges on gender dynamics. Fans of the book will be happy to know that Amy’s “Cool Girl” monologue is preserved for the screen. While her acerbic speech (about women taking on characteristics based on what men will find attractive) is startling, it underlines the theme that identity is a performance. The film fixes on this crucial concept, which is enough for me to deem it a success.

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Sharper and Darker with Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn

After reading Gone Girl (twice) and blogging about it (twice), I finally moved on to Gillian Flynn’s two previous novels. When I mentioned reading Dark Places, several coworkers asked, “Do you like it better than Gone Girl?” While I was reading Sharp Objects, they asked, “Is it as good as the other two?” I love discussing books with my coworkers, but these questions didn’t inspire me. Sure, I like a good ranking as much as the next girl. But when reading multiple books by a talented writer, I’m more interested in how each book expands my understanding of her work. Comparing and contrasting, certainly, but on a deeper level than “this beats that.”

The easy answer is that I like different aspects of each book, but that’s hardly delving deep. As someone who rarely reads mysteries, I have to wonder what draws me to Flynn in the first place. For starters, her books are psychological thrillers, focused more on twisted character relationships than action and intrigue. As discussed in previous posts, the characterizations in Gone Girl are top-notch. Her earlier work displays the same talent, although the protagonists are more isolated, unlike the toxic married couple at the center of Gone Girl. The conflict is I-don’t-trust-anyone versus I-don’t-trust-you.

Sharp Objects

Dark Places and Sharp Objects also scared me on a level that Gone Girl never did. It probably didn’t help that I was usually reading them alone in my apartment, but there must be something else at work. Both earlier novels involve crimes against children, which is bound to be creepier than crimes against adults. And because the protagonists aren’t a golden couple, but rather damaged and isolated women, their vulnerability is keenly felt by the reader. I have to admire Flynn for creating these women, tossing aside feminine delicacy and discussing their flaws without flinching.

Maybe that’s why I read her books: to practice the art of not flinching. Interviewers often ask Flynn about her unflattering portraits of women, to which she responds that it’s time to acknowledge that women aren’t all softness. Women engage in different types of violence and cruelty than men, but they have the potential to be equally damaging. (Any girl who’s lived through middle school should know that.) Sharp Objects particularly explores this theme by focusing on toxic mother-daughter relationships, but Dark Places also contains a wide range of flawed women. Would this even be a topic of conversation with a primarily male cast of characters? Probably not, because we’re accustomed to seeing men as both villains and heroes.

Dark Places

Another appealing facet of Flynn’s novels is the Midwestern setting. There are countless mysteries and thrillers set in forbidding cities, but Flynn sees the potential for menace in small-town bars and decrepit farmsteads. Although Missouri is not Minnesota, her images often feel eerily familiar. More and more, I appreciate writers with a strong sense of place. All three of her novels have ambience up the wazoo. The Shadow of the Wind, one of my all-time favorite books, transports me to Barcelona, and Flynn’s act of literary teleportation feels no less miraculous.

I would like to discuss each book more specifically, but the word count is already creeping up. I also hesitate to reveal too many plot points because uncertainty is crucial to the roller coaster reading experience of these books. Not everyone who liked Gone Girl will like Sharp Objects and Dark Places. But if you have the stomach for it—if you want to practice not flinching—they are gripping reads.

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Gone Girl, Revisited

Gone Girl

What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

Gone Girl was all the rage in 2012 and continued to be a bestseller well into this year. I wrote my original review back in August of 2012, in which I was very careful not to spoil plot points for potential readers. Since it’s a book with many surprise twists, it’s also a book that you want to reread, just to look for clues you may have missed the first time. Or at least that’s what you want to do if you have a slightly obsessive personality (cough cough). Over a year past my first encounter with Gone Girl, it felt like the perfect time to reread. I will be discussing the entire novel this time around, so if it’s still on your to-read list, go no further!

The greatest advantage of rereading is that you aren’t so focused on plot. If you’re an English nerd like me, you can think about narrative structure and themes. Gone Girl is all about identity. More specifically, the way our identities are shaped with other people’s perceptions in mind. The reader’s opinion of Nick and Amy, the married couple at the center of this thriller, is likely to change drastically from the beginning to the end of the novel. The seismic shift comes when Diary Amy is revealed to be a fraud, but meeting the real Amy also alters our perception of Nick. Although he is a deeply flawed man, he has also spent the last five years married to a sociopath, which should garner some sympathy.

An obvious game to play is looking for moments when Diary Amy tells the truth. When is she voicing an opinion that Real Amy shares? Early on in the diary entries, she says, “Isn’t that the point of every relationship: to be known by someone else, to be understood?” This is certainly what Real Amy wants when she drops her Cool Girl persona and shows Nick her true self. Although the real Amy is a wildly unsympathetic character most of the time, she makes this unnerving statement: “Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you?” It’s moments like this that make Gone Girl a powerful character study.

A novel with not one but two unreliable narrators! Two narrators who lie or omit information until the second half of the novel. I often overhear customers’ comments in the bookstore, and unlikable characters is the number one complaint about this book. In my opinion, if you require all your protagonists to be likable, you’re severely limiting your reading experiences. I subscribe to the school of thought that main characters need to be either likable or interesting, but not necessarily both. When I read Gone Girl, I like Diary Amy, and Nick becomes significantly more interesting when Real Amy is revealed. That’s more than enough to keep me reading.

My only complaint about Gone Girl was the ending. A coworker asked what could have possibly been a satisfactory ending, and I quickly responded that I wanted to see Amy get busted. Upon rereading, I was curious to see if the ending would affect me differently. The answer is a little. There are moments throughout the novel when Nick and Amy describe people and situations in remarkably similar ways. As they go through their internal monologues, they also like to imagine how the other one would react to a particular thought. That opinion is sometimes echoed by the other character in later chapters. I can see how Gillian Flynn sets up the idea that they are perversely perfect for each other, but I don’t have to like it.

I’m looking forward to the Gone Girl movie next fall. Ben Affleck doesn’t fit my mental image of Nick, but I don’t mind because I think it’s a good role for him. Who else has read Gone Girl? Did the ending frustrate you as much as me?

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Best of 2012: Book Edition, Part 2

These five books are so wonderful that most of them have already been mentioned on the blog. Still, they each deserve another moment in the sun. Here are my favorite books of 2012!

5. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is not a thriller that you can enjoy and then forget about the next day. More likely you’ll to want to reread it searching for clues and tell all your friends. This story of a disappearing wife and her suspicious husband moves beyond the thriller genre to be an all-around stellar book. As I said in my original review, it’s part mystery, part thriller, part relationship drama. You may think you know where it’s going, but you’re probably wrong. There’s more to Gone Girl than meets the eye.

4. The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

This is Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, and I can only hope it’s the first of many. (A synopsis can hardly do it justice, but I tried.) I have rarely seen such intricate, beautiful writing in contemporary fiction. It is a novel of juxtaposition: darkness and light, sweltering heat and bitter cold. From Mabel’s first description of the unsettling silence of the Alaskan wilderness, I felt immersed in her claustrophobic world. The Russian fairy tale influence infuses the story with magic. The Snow Child is lovely from start to finish, and I was sad to see it end.

3. Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

If I were to write an English paper about Sweet Tooth, it would be challenging just to pick a topic. Should I write about its exploration of the relationship between reader and writer? Should I analyze the complex narrator Serena Frome? I got to do that a bit in my original review, but there’s so much more I could say. Ian McEwan lays his characters bare in a style that keeps me fascinated. In terms of quality, Sweet Tooth is right on par with Atonement. A few spy-versus-spy plot twists and a surprise ending are just icing on the cake.

2. The Prisoner of Heaven, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

When I compliment the beauty of Eowyn Ivey’s writing, the only rival on this list is Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The Prisoner of Heaven is a continuation of both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game. I was a little nervous to read it since The Shadow of the Wind is one of my all-time favorites. As it turns out, I should have had more faith in this incredible writer. He wisely focuses The Prisoner of Heaven on Fermin, a colorful secondary character whose story is not fully revealed in Shadow. Barely scratched the surface might be a more accurate description. As Fermin tells his story with characteristic wit and wisdom, the reader learns how the characters of all three novels are connected. If you’ll pardon me the pun, I was in heaven.

1. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

John Green has become one of my heroes. I’m revealing my bias when I say that it brings me so much joy to see him succeed as he has with The Fault in Our Stars. This book is proof that young adult novels can be both respected and beloved by more than just teenagers. Hazel is the truest of narrators — she just happens to be sixteen and have cancer. I often tell customers that this book has everything to offer:  laughter and tears, romance and tragedy. We don’t always want our fiction to savor so strongly of real life, but I think the best fiction usual does. If you haven’t already, please read my blog post about it. The Fault in Our Stars is worth your time, I promise.

The Fault in Our Stars

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What the Booksellers Are Reading

When people ask me if I like horror movies, my answer is this:  “Not really, but it’s the psychological thrillers that scare me more than anything.” To a certain extent, though, I’m attracted to them. A psychological thriller appeals to my love for character-driven stories, but I also find myself taking them a little too personally. If a movie really gives me the creeps, it might stay on my mind for days after viewing.

Then came Gone Girl, a psychological thriller that’s all the rage in the publishing world. Many of my coworkers at the bookstore read it and gave it rave reviews. When I was poking around last week for a new hardcover to borrow, everyone’s advice was “Just read Gone Girl.” I was skeptical, but I read the first few chapters on one of our e-readers. As soon as I drank the Kool-Aid, I wanted more.

It’s hard to talk about the plot because it would be very easy to spoil. On the surface, Nick and Amy Dunne seem like the perfect couple. When layoffs force them to move from New York City to Nick’s Missouri hometown, their relationship starts to show some cracks. Then, on the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears.

I was hooked within the first few chapters by the vivid, funny characters. The story alternates between Nick in the present, who narrates Amy’s disappearance, and Amy’s diary entries from the past. Entertainment Weekly sums it up nicely in their review:  “Flynn does something here that many ‘literary’ novelists have failed at: She writes from the perspectives of two different people who actually sound like two different people.” Gillian Flynn used to be a TV critic for their magazine, but don’t accuse them of being biased. I didn’t know about her affiliation until I was almost done reading, and I whole-heartedly agree.

Part mystery, part thriller, part relationship drama. You couldn’t ask for much more in an entertaining summer read.

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