Just Giblets

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 1 & 2

8th January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 1 & 2

My top books read in 2013 is topped by an old favorite and a new debut.  Helen Wacker’s debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni is a powerfully gorgeous fantasy novel disguised as historical fiction.  Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is gorgeous, Gaiman-fantasy at its best.  A couple of really great books.

The Golem and the Jinni#2 – The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wacker

I find it interesting how wrapping a fantasy in historical fiction allows a novel to transcend genre and suddenly appeal to a wider audience. It’s a neat trick that worked for Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and if there’s any justice it will work for Helene Wecker’s lovely and highly original The Golem and the Jinni.

The setting is the oh-so appealing turn-of-the (20th) century New York City, and the protagonists are, surprisingly enough, a golem called Chava, and a Jinni called Ahmad. Both find themselves in a difficult situation with no one who truly understands their respective plights. Chava was created to serve as a wife for a Polish peasant. Despite admonitions to the contrary, the peasant awakens Chava on the journey from Europe to America, then promptly dies of a massive heart attack. The golem is suddenly alive, but without a master, and while she possesses nearly limitless strength and endurance in her body made of clay, her strange ability to sense the desires of those around her threatens to drive her mad.

In traditional jinni style, Ahmad finds himself in Arbeely’s shop after the young man begins work on a copper flask. Ahmad has been trapped in said flask for centuries, but his release only adds to his torment, for on his wrist is an iron cuff that traps him in human form, and prevents him from accessing the full range of his fiery powers. His memories of how he found himself trapped thus have been wiped clean.

Eventually, the woman of earth and the man of fire meet and form a grudging friendship. Wecker develops their relationship beautifully, and it is the interplay between Chava and Ahmad that scores the highest points with me. In fact, Chava is a fascinating character, and while archetypal, she is also refreshing and delightful to root for as the novel’s main heroine. Wecker also uses the Jewish and Syrian communities to strong effect, adding a rich cultural element to the fantastic story.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane#1 – The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is just the master of telling archetypal stories involving childhood, magic, evil, myth, and the world. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a middle-aged man returns to his childhood home in rural England and stumbles across a farmhouse at the end of the lane that sparks certain memories that he didn’t know he had. These memories spin back forty years to a terrifying time when something dark and menacing was almost turned loose on the world thanks to his fears.

Gaiman has such a talent for straddling the line between that type of fantasy the instills wonder and delight and a dark horror that works on all ages.  He taps into the terrifying things that scare both adults and children.  The monstrous caretaker in this novel taps into many of the fears we have both as isolated children and as worried parents.  Gaiman’s creativity and imagination is vivid and powerful, tapping into something we all feel from our youth, and he imbues real menace into his stories that somehow still manage to work for both kids and adults.

posted in 2013, Books, Fantasy, Year-end lists | at 7:21 am | 0 Comments
7th January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 3 & 4

Interestingly enough, the next two books on my list both employ humor to tell their stories.  I admittedly have a somewhat tough sense of humor.  I find a lot of humor to be forced and that always puts me off.  These two authors use humor so deftly, often intertwined beautifully with sadness or real heart.  Here are a couple of really great reads.

The Good Luck of Right Now#4 – The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick

Characters in novels are often flawed: they drink too much, they’re short-tempered; they flirt a little two much, but the characters in Matthew Quick’s (Q’s) novels suffer from slightly more serious cognitive challenges. What potential mental disorder Batholomew suffers from is never explicitly stated, but it certainly seems like slightly more than a socially-awkward 40-year-old who has never held a job and has lived with his mother all his life. In fact there’s a very angry man in Bartholomew’s belly who rages in frustration and belittles his host with such taunts as “retard,” when Bartholomew is faced with challenges.  As his mother succumbs to brain cancer, Bartholomew begins to channel her favorite actor, Richard Gere, in order to make her happy in her last days. After she dies, he decides to start up a correspondence with the actor, inspired by his mother’s stories about Gere’s kindess and need to help free Tibet.

The Good Luck of Right Now is a remarkable novel; each chapter structured as a letter written to Richard Gere. It’s the story of a damaged man who suddenly finds himself without the person who was his world, struggling to makes sense of what is supposed to happen next. His only help include a self-defrocked Catholic priest, a grad student therapist assigned to help Bartholomew even when she can’t help herself, a similarly troubled man named Max who can’t get over the death of his beloved Alice, and the Girlbrarian, who Bartholomew has watched shelve books at the library for months. Quick’s characters are funny and sad at the same time. They deal with challenges from within and without, and somehow seem truer and more authentic than 95% of the rest of the characters in fiction today. He writes moving prose without seems sentimental, and knows how to keep the pace quick and satisfying. I highly recommend this novel.

The View from Penthouse B#3 – The View From Penthouse B  by Elinor Lipman

Is there a better contemporary novelist than Elinor Lipman when it comes to delivering a charming, witty, modern-day novel about adults? If so, I need to be reading their books. Elinor’s The View from Penthouse B chronicles the lives of two sisters stuck in a bit of social limbo; one widowed suddenly over a year ago, the other a divorcee and victim of a Ponzi scheme. The two sisters become roommates, and take in a boarder in the form of a young gay man, also unemployed, and in his own state of limbo. While the story eventually gets around to the two sisters trying to move forward in their lives, Elinor’s observations and writing are so delightfully witty and honest that it almost doesn’t matter whether or not Gwen and Margot regain their social lives. The journey is so entertaining, so much fun to read that it’s almost enough by itself. Then add a beautifully realized plot that sees a lovely ending that actually moved me enough that I got choked up, and you realize that with deceptive simplicity, Elinor has delivered a masterpiece of contemporary fiction. I adore Elinor’s novels, and look forward to each new one with giddy anticipation.

posted in 2013, Authors, Books, Year-end lists | at 6:56 am | 0 Comments
6th January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 5 & 6

It’s a testament to the quality of books at the top of this list, that such talents as Claire Messud and Karen Joy Fowler are coming in at #5 & 6 of my favorite books read in 2013.  Claire Messud’s book is so multi-layered and complex, and Karen Joy Fowler is one of my favorite writers, never doing the same thing twice, always incredibly original.  I also love how both of these books are not for everyone, in fact, some people might be quite put off by the stories they tell.

The Woman Upstairs#6 – The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Claire Messud’s latest novel is a complex examination of a woman who becomes swept up in a relationship with an exotic family from Europe. Nora is an elementary school teacher who had always expected to become an artist. She is solitary, capable, and a well-respected teacher. But when the Shahid family, Skandar, Sirena and Reza, their beautiful son who is in her class at school, enter her life, something inside her responds and unleashes long-controlled feelings and the artist buried deep within. Messud tackles a subject that few authors do, the anger of women.  We’re not talking the histrionic, violent, over-the-top anger that you might see in a revenge movie or a soap opera.  This is the anger that many people live with every day.  The anger born out of disappointment, or injustice.  It is an anger that is not debilitating.  It is the anger that is concealed.  An anger that might lay coiled deep within the woman who teaches elementary school and you chat with pleasantly at the coffee every morning.  This is the complex portrait that Claire Messud explores in The Woman Upstairs.  It’s as unsettling, as it’s engrossing.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves#5 – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler’s novels are a joy to read. Best known for The Jane Austen Book Club (certainly the most straight-forward of her books) Fowler got her start writing science fiction, and she first caught my eye with the complex, challenging novel, Sarah Canary. With We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Fowler tackles the challenges of a family torn apart by grief and lies, and a burgeoning animal rights movement in the 1970s. To say too much about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves would be to spoil its somewhat shocking moment revealed about one quarter of the way through. It’s enough to know that Rosemary is our narrator, one member of a family forever changed by the loss of her sister Fern. As Rosemary informs the reader, her story starts in the middle, while she is attending college at UC Davis, then leaps backwards and forwards to unspool a tale rooted in a part of our country’s recent history that was both sensationalistic and little known. But at its core, Fowler’s novel succeeds winningly as a family tale, and one young woman’s difficult difficult journey to adulthood. I love that Fowler’s novels always possess a sliver of unreality or otherworldliness even when rooted in realism. I look forward to each and every one of her books.

posted in 2013, Books, Year-end lists | at 7:30 am | 0 Comments
5th January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 7 & 8

Coming in at #’s 7 and 8 I’ve got a favorite author who has appeared on this list before in previous years, and a novelist new to me with an imaginative story that really captured my heart.  It’s so hard to rank these books in any kind of order because the best ones are all joys to read.

The Illusion of Separateness#8 – The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

With compact yet masterful prose, Simon Van Booy’s latest novel explores the connections between strangers, and how seemingly random interactions can have a profound effect on a life. Spanning decades and oceans, the varied characters in The Illusion of Separateness are all struggling with loss of a kind; loss of sight, loss of family, loss of wholeness, loss of innocence. There is love, war and family. They struggle, they feel, the move unerringly forward. And how they unknowingly help strangers whose paths they cross gives this novel its coherence and its joy. In the hands of a lesser writer, The Illusion of Separateness might have come across as gimmicky… let’s find out how this character relates to that character. Fortunately, Simon is leagues beyond that kind of convention, using words to paint images and to make the reader feel the emotions coursing through the characters. In past work, Simon’s focus has often been the love between two people, and while there is still that element in some of the individual tales in this book, he has broadened from love to life, and perhaps how one informs the other. If you’ve never read Mr. Van Booy, I highly recommend you give him a try. His short stories, Love Begins in Winter are essential, and his previous novel, Everything Beautiful Began After soars (it was my #8 book read in 2011).  . I look forward to each new work this talented author undertakes. 

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend#7 – Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Matthew Dicks has created something marvelous and original, the story of the life of an imaginary friend. Imaginary friends are limited only by… you guessed it, the imagination. Budo is lucky; he looks and acts like a real little boy. His friend Max, imagined him with a level of detail that most imaginary friends lack. Sometimes it’s just ears that they are missing, but other times they are just a hair bow with eyes, so they can’t speak, not even to other imaginary friends. Budo is special in other ways as well. He is old for an imaginary friend. Some imaginary friends only live a few minutes or hours. Some last a year or even two. Budo has been alive for five years. And he’s smart too. Max imagined him as very smart.

It’s possible that Budo has been alive for so long because Max is autistic. He has trouble interacting with people; even people he loves like his parents, and his favorite teacher, Mrs. Gosk. Whatever the reason, Budo has learned a great deal and is concerned because he has watched imaginary friends fade away when their human friends stop believing in them. He is afraid of the moment when he fades away as well. But when Max is placed in danger and there is little Budo can do to help him, he learns that there are worse things than fading away. With heart-felt creativity, Dicks tells the story of love and loss, sacrifice and heroism, all through the lens of an imaginary friend. His tale is funny. It is sad. It is suspenseful. It is exciting. It is the story of a life. It is the story of the lessons we learn and the lengths we will go to to help someone we love.

posted in 2013, Books, Year-end lists | at 9:54 am | 0 Comments
3rd January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 11 & 12

The next two books from my list were from very early in 2013.  Jennifer Haigh released a collection of short stories based on characters and locations from one of her earlier novels.  Laura Harrington’s debut was popular with libraries, and I read it because she was going to be on an author panel I put together at the Massachusetts Library Association.  They turned up at #’s 11 & 12 on my Top 15.

News from Heaven#12 – News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories by Jennifer Haigh

Not having read Haigh’s Baker Towers, the novel in which the small Pennsylvania town of Bakerton debuted, I wasn’t sure if I’d be missing something when reading this collection of stories about people tired to that tiny, former mining-community. I needn’t have worried, Jennifer Haigh is a writer of consummate skill, drawing me in and giving me just enough information to understand the context while spinning a series of tales that show how important our upbringings and our community roots affect our lives. With stories spanning the 40’s era of war to present day, all the characters in News from Heaven have ties to Bakerton, PA, and each story has subtle ties to the others, truly making the reader a feeling of community among these characters: community across generations.  The Baker Family, founders of the once prosperous Bakerton mines, are ever-present in these stories, looming over characters’ shared histories. I was concerned, at first, that most of the stories were going to revolve around timid young women who are taken advantage of in a variety of ways, but I shouldn’t have worried, Haigh would never resort to such a limiting palette. Instead she creates a variety of experiences that exhibit strength, weakness, love, bitterness and a whole host of experience. I was particularly struck by ne’er-do-well Sandy’s story; a man with a gambling problem, racing to escape his roots who comes to a possible turning-point on his 33rd birthday. We later find out what becomes of Sandy in a subsequent story, and both stories add up to something powerful and moving. One final bit of praise, I just loved the meaning of the book’s title: a lovely, poetic image.

Alice Bliss#11 – Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington

With Alice Bliss, Laura Harrington takes a fairly basic theme, the loss of a loved one, and creates a powerful coming-of-age story in a fully-realized community. When Alice’s father, Matt, enlists in the armed services and is stationed in Iraq, she is bereft. Her father is the one family member who knows her and understands her the best. Fully immersed in adolescence, Alice’s relationship with her mother, Agnes, is complicated, besides with Agnes is dealing with her own fears about her husband. Then there’s her younger sister, Ellie, who’s just too young to really understand what’s going on.

Harrington’s novel focuses on Alice, turning the loss of her father into a powerful transition to adulthood, but what is truly remarkable is the way she effortlessly slips into the minds of the many other important characters in the book who are profoundly affected by Matt’s absence. Matt leaves his family right at the beginning of the book, but his presence is overwhelming throughout. Through reminiscences Harrington brings Matt fully to life, showing how strong his ties to each of the females in his life, and how different.

Beyond the rich characterization of Alice and her family, Harrington does the same for the community they live in. Henry is the awkward boy next door, who has been Alice’s best friend practically from birth, and whose relationship with Alice is suddenly changing. Uncle Eddie is Agnes’ charismatic, devil-may-care brother who finds his role in Alice’s extended family evolving. Alice’s Gram who owns the local coffee shop must suffer her own loss while bolstering the floundering family. Even minor characters, like Mrs. Piantowski who bakes the bread for Gram’s coffee shop, or Mrs. Minty who has suffered tragedies of her own become startlingly real under Harrington’s skillful guidance. Rarely have characters in a novel come so alive for me. Harrington’s story follows a lovely arc, with the ending in particular, hitting a series of beautifully drawn notes. A truly successful debut from a talented writer.

posted in 2013, Authors, Books, Libraries, Year-end lists | at 10:51 am | 0 Comments
2nd January 2014
by Michael

Favorite Books Read in 2013 – #’s 13 & 14

A book with a twist ending, and a surprise entry from a beloved celebrity trying her hand at writing make the list.  You know, about the latter, chick lit can really be a lot of fun.  I can see why it’s a popular genre.

Help for the Haunted#14 – Help for the Haunted by John Searles

I’ve read a lot of coming of age novels this year, and they’ve all been on the positive side of good. Help for the Haunted is no exception. Sylvie and Rose Mason have grown up dealing with parents who help people who are experiencing what they believe are hauntings or possession. When they are murdered on night during a blizzard, and an arrest is made, it is primarily due to Sylvie’s testimony. However, Sylvie has lied, and she is also not really sure what happened that night. By jumping between the past and the present, Searles slowly unspools the story until explaining things with a last minute reveal that is almost out of nowhere. That said, it worked well, and there were just enough obscure hints as to have it make sense. This one was a September  Library Reads pick.



The Star Attraction#13 – The Star Attraction by Alison Sweeney

As a huge ‘Days of our Lives’ fan, and of Sami Brady’s in particular, how could I resist Sami’s portrayer, Allison Sweeney’s first novel, the effervescent and good-hearted The Star Attraction. Hollywood publicist extraordinaire, Sophie Atwater, lands a major client for her agency, in the form of Billy Fox, the next Brad Pitt, on the cusp of superstardom. How could she predict that one of her biggest career coups would do thoroughly disrupt her life in a soap opera scenario reminiscent of her author’s alter ego. Thoroughly entertaining, but with real heart, and a delightfully relatable heroine in Sophie, The Star Attraction is a behind-the-scenes look at the antics of the Hollywood elite as seen through the eyes of a publicist to the stars. Allison Sweeney has created a quick and enjoyable summer read, that makes you cringe at its heroines missteps, and cheer when she surmounts the obstacles around her.

posted in 2013, Books, Soaps, Year-end lists | at 7:52 am | 0 Comments
1st January 2014
by Michael

2013 in Books. Let’s Start with #15

As has become an annual tradition, I will be counting down my top books read in 2013.  I didn’t do quite as well as last year in the number of books read:  only 24 in 2013.  I am particularly appalled because a couple of my friends have reported reading over 200 books in 2013.  What?  How does that even happen?  That’s an average of a book every day and 3/4!  I suspect there’s some skimming going on.  Anyway, despite only having read 24 books in 2013, I’ve still got a very health Top 15 to report on.  That’s right, fifteen books I would definitely recommend.

My Beautiful FailureOf the also rans, I will mention The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld, which is definitely worth checking out when it is released in early 2014, and is beautifully written, but didn’t quite make the cut.  My Beautiful Failure, Janet Ruth Young’s third novel for teens is a terrific sequel of sorts to her outstanding debut novel, The Opposite of Music.  (Janet’s previous novel, The Babysitter Murders, was my #12 book read in 2011.)  Marta Acosta’s The She-Hulk Diaries was lots of fun for a novel based on a comic book character.  Sadly, despite a couple of great stories, overall I didn’t really enjoy Tom Perotta’s latest collection, Nine Inches.  And my biggest disappointment of the year was Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, which I enjoyed, but not as much as I was hoping I would.  And now for #15…

The Death of Bees#15 – The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

Marnie and Nelly are sisters whose parents are neglectful drug addicts. But that’s all over now. As the book begins, Marnie and Nelly are burying their parents whose self-destructive tendencies have brought them to the end of their lives. The girls face nearly insurmountable odds just to grow up, but with the help of next-door neighbor Lennie, and a couple of other surprising sources, they will struggle to endure with surprising results. Lisa O’Donnell has crafted a dark coming-of-age story that shows the strength of siblings beaten down by the harsh cruelties of life and created a couple of unique voices in fiction.

posted in 2013, Books, Year-end lists | at 5:58 pm | 0 Comments
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