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Best of 2016: Book Edition, Part 2

This year I’m in the unusual position of having already written posts about almost every book in my top 5. Sometimes it’s harder to write about books that I really love because I just want to say, “It’s sooooo good,” but I’m happy to have longer musings to offer. Here are my favorite books of 2016!

5. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Dead Wake Cover

I feel like I’ve read a great deal about World War II and very little about World War I. Thankfully Erik Larson, the wizard of history writing, turned his attention to that era. Dead Wake follows the events leading up to the sinking of the Lusitania, one of the catalysts for the U.S. entering the war in Europe. This being Eric Larson, he gives the full scope of the event, from the ship’s passengers to military intelligence to the soldiers aboard the German submarine. I consider it one of his most fascinating works. (You can read my full review here.)

4. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

the-girl-on-the-train

As Gillian Flynn did in Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins plays with timelines and perspectives. The Girl on the Train follows Rachel, an alcoholic woman who becomes interested in a couple she sees from the train every day. Although this thriller is mainly focused on plot, I keenly felt Rachel’s loneliness and desperation. Other perspectives come from Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s ex, and Megan, the girl she watches from the train. I relished looking into these flawed women’s psyches. (You can read my book-to-film comparison here.)

3. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

to-the-bright-edge-of-the-world

Eowyn Ivey made us wait four years for her second novel, but this was worth the wait. To the Bright Edge of the World is another piece of exquisite historical fiction set in Alaska. While her first novel focused on quiet moments, this one has plenty of action as Colonel Allen Forrester leads an expedition up the Wolverine River. Yet their journey also contains simple moments of human connection. Back at the military barracks, his wife Sophie pursues an interest in photography that raises eyebrows with the other wives. A beautifully written, beautifully human novel with a hint of the uncanny. (You can read my full review here.)

2. Room by Emma Donoghue

room-cover

Room is a triumph of character voice. The story of a woman held captive in a single room is narrated by her five-year-old son Jack, who has never known the outside world. Even though I committed the cardinal sin of watching the movie first, I could appreciate what Emma Donoghue achieved with this novel. Jack has a distinctive way of speaking that reflects his age and bizarre upbringing. I wanted to jump through the page and hug him, but that’s not to say that the story is saccharine. As was mirrored in the film, Ma and Jack are perfectly imperfect.

1. Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

three-martini-lunch

Suzanne Rindell is my favorite new author on the literary fiction scene. Three-Martini Lunch deals with three characters searching for literary success in 1958 New York City. As in her first novel The Other Typist, Rindell explores the ways that we present ourselves to others and how small decisions shape our lives. The narrators range from Cliff, a deluded Greenwich Village hipster, to Miles, a black man coming to terms with his identity. Even as they made mistakes, I cared so much for these characters and hated to leave their world. I suspect this isn’t the last time Suzanne Rindell makes my list. (You can read my full review here.)

Thanks for joining me on this year-end review!

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Three Martinis, Three Narrators

three-martini-lunch

It was bizarre the way time was like an accordion, and distinct moments that felt so disparate sometimes folded together with a callous symmetry.

Three-Martini Lunch was largely the inspiration for my rewatching Mad Men. The novel is set in Greenwich Village in 1958, two years before the start of the show. Although Mad Men mostly inhabits a different social sphere, Don has a few run-ins with hipsters in the Village. Reading the book and watching the show at the same time enriched both experiences for me.

Suzanne Rindell is the author of The Other Typist, one of my favorite books in recent years. In her second novel, she turns her attention to a different era of New York City. Three-Martini Lunch intertwines the lives of a Greenwich Village hipster, an aspiring editor fresh off the bus from Indiana, and a talented writer from Harlem. While her first novel showed a gift for character voice, Rindell takes this a step further by creating three distinct voices in her latest work. She makes me absolutely feel the characters through their way of thinking and speaking. With Three-Martini Lunch, she brings together individuals from very different backgrounds to create a surprising and meaningful story.

Cliff Nelson has chosen the Village lifestyle, but he was raised in wealth with a successful book editor for a father. Eden Katz pursues a publishing career amid hints that her Jewish last name, not to mention being female, could be barriers. Miles Tillman was raised in Harlem, but his intellectualism and natural writing ability draw him into the Village crowd. The Other Typist was deliciously unnerving because of its unreliable narrator. Although Rindell explores similar ground with Cliff, his delusions of grandeur are more along the lines of hilarious or pathetic. The reader is invited to question the biases of all three narrators, which I think is one of the most valuable effects literature can have.

Suzanne Rindell is a literature nerd’s novelist. While all writing is in conversation with the work that came before it, Rindell is unusually candid about her literary inspirations. And I love that about her! Three-Martini Lunch has echoes of Jack Kerouac, Sylvia Plath, and James Baldwin—all of these cited by Rindell in the acknowledgments. Having read The Bell Jar earlier this year, I enjoyed seeing the parallels between Eden and Esther Greenwood’s experiences as young women trying to enter the elite world of writers and editors. Not to mention, Eden lives at the Barbizon Hotel for Women, just as Plath did when she stayed in New York for a summer internship. (Esther lived in a fictionalized version of the Barbizon.)

Although I was more familiar with the cultural reference points for Cliff and Eden’s stories, Miles was the emotional heart of the story. As he attempts to learn more about his late father, he is forced to confront the complexities of his own identity. Miles and Cliff are excellent foils. At first glance Miles certainly seems like a more reliable narrator, but his restrained manner extends to the way he tells the story. I may want to work backwards to the source material and read some James Baldwin. Probably a sign that I didn’t want this book to end.

One great book makes a new favorite book. Two great books makes a new favorite author. Pairing history with fascinatingly flawed characters and all things identity-themed, Suzanne Rindell is right in my sweet spot.

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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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Who is the Other Typist?

The Other Typist

When it became clear the staring match was destined for a stalemate, I shook myself free from my twin image standing on the other side of the glass.

Where to begin with The Other Typist? In recent memory no book has messed with my mind this much that wasn’t written by Gillian Flynn. It’s the kind of book that leaves you with the immediate urge to discuss it with someone. The narrator is Rose Baker, a straight-laced orphan working as a police department typist in Prohibition-era New York City. When Odalie is hired as an additional typist for her precinct, Rose’s life changes irrevocably. Odalie is a modern girl, and although Rose disapproves of the flapper lifestyle, the promise of friendship draws her into Odalie’s world.

Throughout the novel I was making note of elements that reminded me of The Great Gatsby, and my English major tendencies were rewarded. Rindell’s acknowledgments contain this statement: “I should mention there are one or two moments in this book wherein I humbly aspired—in my own small way—to pay deliberate homage to the first true love of my teenage years: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.” I would go one step further and say that Rindell riffs on some of the larger themes of Gatsby as well. Beyond the similarities of bootleggers and speakeasies, the stories have in common an observant narrator with a dynamic but mysterious friend. Both Odalie and Gatsby come from uncertain origins, and contradictory stories circulate about them.

Reinvention must have been a bit easier in the ’20s. I mean, your new acquaintances couldn’t just Google you. In her rather unorthodox way, Odalie represents of the American Dream—that you can truly make whatever life you want. (Gatsby also believes this, which contributes to his demise, but this post isn’t really about him.) The idea of reinvention extends to Rose herself. She thinks that others see her as plain and rather old-fashioned, but Odalie’s friendship gives her an opportunity to change her image. Whether this change is a corruption of Rose or Rose becoming her true self, I will leave to other readers to consider.

Reminiscent as it is of The Great Gatsby, this story could easily feel stale. But quite the contrary! Rindell’s in-depth exploration of female friendship and psychology already marks her as different. One of the novel’s strongest points is the narrative voice. Despite her intense admiration of Odalie, Rose never fades into the background. Her wry humor and moments of self-righteousness make it easy to envision her character. This may sound strange, but she actually thinks like a typist—that is, someone whose job it is to keep a precise record of the facts. On the other hand, she may not be the most reliable narrator.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I really like this book. It’s that magical combination of entertaining and thought-provoking. There’s a movie in the works, produced by and potentially starring Keira Knightley. The only thing that could make me happier is if Joe Wright was directing. (Hush, all you Keira haters.) Since the movie isn’t in production yet, there’s plenty of time to read the book first.

Hint, hint.

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