Staff Picks: Recent Reads

BTLBC_StaffPicks

It’s been quiet on the blog, and much of the radio silence has been because Alex (AP) and I are both currently studying for the NY bar exam, which (oh no!) is at the end of this month. But if you think that finishing my last semester of law school and studying for the bar would keep me from reading anything, well friends, you would be dead wrong. So here are my thoughts on a few of the books that I’ve read (and enjoyed) in the last few months. Hope you find a good recommendation or two in here!

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

20565982I really enjoyed The Hundred-Year House. I must admit that I wasn’t sure how I felt about it at the halfway mark—the first half is a story told in the present time of a marriage, with family mysteries and secrets and ghosts. The house gets under people’s skins. This first section was interesting but I wasn’t satisfied with the way it wrapped up in the end. But once I started on the other sections, I got it. The second half of the book is divided into three sections—one set in the 1950s (when the Devohr family returns to the house), one set in 1929 (when the house was an artist colony), and a final prologue that is set in 1900 (when the house is first being built). In effect, the story is told backwards. When you reach the end of one section, part of the story wraps up but there’s a mystery or two left unresolved. The section that follows provides enough background to solve the mystery, or at least provide enough context to make the reader thinks it is solved, and then develops a new mystery, to be explained in the next section. I loved the way the story unfolded backwards through history, giving the reader a glimpse of the past and then developing each story. There isn’t a complete resolution, but by the end the reader has enough information to figure out what happened to (and in) the house over the last hundred years, and it’s a wonderful story.

The Hundred-Year House comes out on July 10.

 

Annihilation + Authority by Jeff Vandermeer

1793453018077769Annihilation is the first book in Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, and Authority is the second. These two books are absolutely fantastic and creep-tastic.

In Annihilation, we follow the twelfth expedition into Area X, an area that has been cut off by mysterious natural (?) forces and been essentially reclaimed by nature. The twelfth expedition is made up of four women, including a biologist who is the narrator of the story. The book is deliciously creepy, not in a scary monsters kind of way, but in a drawn-out suspenseful, unsettling kind of way. I could not put this book down.

Authority, is the story of John Rodriguez (aka “Control”), the newly appointed head of the Southern Reach, the secret agency that monitors the expeditions into Area X, like the expedition in Annihilation. From interrogations, hidden records, disturbing videos, and all kinds of other investigation, Control is forced to confront some incredibly disturbing realities about himself, his history, and the Southern Reach. Authority wasn’t quite as compelling as Annihilation at first, but the story picked up and got more and more unsettling, until I couldn’t put it down either.

I can hardly wait for the last book in the trilogy, Acceptance, coming out in September.

Terms & Conditions by Robert Glancy18594511

Loved this one, particularly the format—each chapter being the “Terms and Conditions” of something, with lots of footnotes and fine print. A fantastically funny book about a lawyer who specializes in fine print*, and discovers the terms and conditions to his own life when he wakes up with amnesia after a car accident.

 

*Yep, that really small type in the terms and conditions that you probably never read, where you may just be signing away your soul. Always read before you sign!

 

19540518Like No Other by Una LaMarche

Like No Other is essentially what you would get if you took Eleanor & Park and made one character a Hasidic Jew and the other character West Indian. For those who loved Eleanor & Park and want to devour more of the same, this is probably a great choice; I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. Devorah was an interesting character, and I enjoyed reading about her transformation and her struggles with her faith. On the other hand, I was not a fan of Jaxon, and his character didn’t feel as real or as deep as hers. All in all, an enjoyable read but nothing life-changing or mind-blowing. I imagine those who were bigger fans of Eleanor & Park than I was will love this more than I did though.

Like No Other comes out on July 24.

 

18656044The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Yes, The Girl With All the Gifts is a zombie novel. But it is an awesome one. Much of it is told from the point of view of Melanie, a “little genius” with an unexpected backstory. She waits to be collected for class every day in her cell, where she is strapped into a wheelchair at gunpoint and wheeled off to school. Melanie loves school and loves learning, but something is not quite right…

The ending. It’s fantastic.

18465605I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora

This was a wonderful quick read (a middle grade children’s book) about a group of friends that hatches a plot to get everyone to read To Kill a Mockingbird after it is assigned as summer reading for school—a purpose I can totally get behind, as To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books. Lucy, Elena, and Michael engage in some “literary terrorism” as they call it, hiding books and using social media to create a frenzy of interest in just who killed the mockingbird. The plot is also partly done to honor a recently deceased, beloved teacher. I thought this was a fun read, with a great premise, and I read the whole book in one sitting. A fun book for lovers of books about books.

 

 

 

Me The People by Kevin Bleyer13147828

I’m a bit of a con law junkie and love reading about American history, so this book was completely up my alley. Kevin Bleyer does a great job of marshaling both the important and the quirky parts of the Founding Fathers mythology and history to show just how ridiculous some aspects of the Constitution are, and why some changes might be in order. And then he makes those changes, in a fashion that turned out to be pretty funny. Bleyer is a writer for the Daily Show, and it’s obvious—the book reads like something Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart would write/endorse. It was fun to read and not too heavy, but still informative and interesting.

 

18667917The Untold by Courtney Collins

A compelling tale inspired by the real-life story of early 20th-century Australian bushranger Jessie Hickman. This book took me quite by surprise, and turned out to be a book that I simply did not want to put down until I was finished with it. The writing was beautiful, and while the oddity of having the story narrated by the main character’s dead (and buried) baby could have been way too weird, it somehow just worked and turned out really well. I especially loved how the plot came together at the end, with a few subtle twists that tied the whole story together. The Untold was an incredible but somehow still believable story, and I found myself just having to know what would happen to Jessie next.

 

18693833Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

I really enjoyed Shirley, so much so that I read the whole book in one day. I do have to admit that I’ve never actually read anything by Shirley Jackson—I have some of her works on my shelves but have just never gotten around to reading them. Now I will definitely be picking them up soon though! This was a compelling and enjoyable work of psychological suspense.  (I don’t think it’s really much of a thriller as advertised; not enough action for that. But definitely suspenseful.) The characters came to life off the page for me, and I just had a constant urge to keep turning the page to find out what was going to happen next.

Reading Shirley Jackson’s work is not a prerequisite for this book; I definitely still enjoyed it even without having the background/context that would come from reading her books. But I imagine that for someone who has read her work and is a fan, this book could be even more interesting and enjoyable. I could pick out that there were elements of the story that were alluding to her work, paying homage to it in a way that I just wasn’t able to fully appreciate, having not read her books before.

Another thing that I especially loved about the book is that it’s a literary lovefest in many ways for book nerds. Literary references fill the pages of the book and pepper the conversations of its characters, Bernard Malamud makes an appearance for dinner, and discussions over drinks include debates over the literary merit of JD Salinger and Saul Bellow, and the influence of folktales is prominent. I couldn’t help but love the treasure trove of literary tidbits that I found strewn throughout the pages of Shirley.

 

18297472Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

I can’t stop thinking about Boy, Snow, Bird. It was unsettling in many ways, and even though I expected the first major relationship-complicating occurrences, the twist in the third section of the book took me by complete surprise, in a good way. Even though there are some twists, the emphasis of the novel is not on action but on the characters. And I loved this about it. Boy is not a particularly likable woman, but she was an interesting and complex character, and I felt that the other characters shared that as well. There’s nobody I wanted to befriend here, but I don’t look for that in a book; I look for complexity and real humanity, and I found both in Oyeyemi’s story. I thought this was a clever, loose take on the Snow White tale, and a fascinating look at race issues in 1950s New England. As I read, I found that I simply didn’t want to put the book down and I haven’t stopped mulling it over in my mind since I finished it.

 

13611318Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith is quickly becoming a favorite author of mine. His books take everything I love about YA and infuse them into creative, quirky stories with characters you can’t help but relate to. My love for Grasshopper Jungle wasn’t quite as deep as my love for Winger, but I still adored this book. Austin, the main character, finds himself in the middle of a love triangle, but not the typical one you find in YA—Austin is in love with his girlfriend Shann, but he’s also in love with his best friend Robby. And he has no idea what that means. Austin is a typical teen, dealing with hormones and coming of age and all the things that go along with that, but it also just so happens to be the end of the world. At the hand of giant praying mantis-looking bug things. The premise of Grasshopper Jungle drew me in, and Andrew Smith did not fail me with his book. I love complicated and messy coming-of-age stories, and Austin’s is a wonderful one. Throw in a sci-fi twist and you have an incredibly weird but also incredibly compelling story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fine print disclaimer: I received advance ebook copies of The Hundred-Year House, Like No Other, The Untold, Shirley, Boy Snow Bird, and Grasshopper Jungle through Penguin’s First to Read program.

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One thought on “Staff Picks: Recent Reads

  1. Pingback: Sunday Links, July 13, 2014 | Like Fire

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