Monday, September 5, 2016

Fall 2016 Book Recommendations

I started this post back in April and got a bit overwhelmed by how many summaries I had to write (not having written a Book Nook post since December 2015). I've also been a bit discouraged by the lack of feedback I have received about these posts, which take a lot of time to write. (Are those tiny violins I hear?)

Then yesterday two people told me that they found one of their favorite books reading one of my Book Nook posts. So I decided to sit back down and tackle the list again. Of course, being a voracious reader, I have read dozens more books since I first started composing this list. So it's a bit longer than usual (though contains only a fraction of the books I've read since the end of last year). The good news, though, is there are lots of good books for you to choose from -- spanning several genres.

Enjoy! And please share the title and author of any notable books you've read recently via the Comments.

(NB: As per usual, books are listed alphabetically by author.)

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende. Fiction. I am a longtime fan of Isabel Allende's books, though I hadn't read one in a while. And if you are looking for magical realism, you will (probably) be disappointed. That said, The Japanese Lover is a lovely little book, ostensibly the story of Alma Belasco, a Jewish World War II refugee, who, as a child, was sent to America to live with her wealthy relatives in San Francisco, falls in love with the son of the family's Japanese gardener, but winds up marrying her cousin. But this isn't just a story about forbidden love. (Well, it sort of is.) It is a story about -- and excuse the cliches -- love and loss, friendship and understanding, and learning to trust. (If you read the book you will understand.) Also, the writing is beautiful.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald. Fiction. The title of this book is a bit misleading as there are not many readers in the small Iowa town of Broken Wheel, at least when the shy bookworm from Sweden, Sara, the protagonist, first gets there to visit her pen pal, Amy, an elderly fellow book lover whom, we quickly find out, has died while Sara was en route to visit her. Despite her shyness, and not knowing anyone else in town, Sara decides to stick around Broken Wheel and open a nonprofit bookshop with Amy's books, which leads to all sorts of complications, amusing scenes... and love. To use yet more cliches, this is a heartwarming, charming first novel (from a Swedish writer) that bookworms (and others) will relate to.

Making of Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle by Mark Braude. Nonfiction. The fascinating early history of the famous resort town and casino, featuring many notorious characters of the early part of the Twentieth Century. Alas, the book does not go much beyond World War II, but for those who have visited Monte Carlo and/or were curious to know how this fairy tale casino-resort-kingdom came to be, Making of Monte Carlo is a good read.

The Immortals by Jordanna Max Brodsky. Fantasy/Fiction. What if the Greek gods we all read about in school were not myths but here walking among us, in New York, albeit deprived of their godly powers? And what if someone was trying to restore their powers, by sacrificing virgins? This is the premise of Jordanna Max Brodsky's The Immortals, the first book in her Olympus Bound series. Having practically memorized D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths as a child, and being a fan of fantasy novels, I thoroughly enjoyed this modern-day Greek myth murder mystery set in New York City (where I was born and raised) and I believe other fans of Greek myths, fantasy, and mystery will, too.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner. Fiction. I first read Hotel du Lac many years ago, in the 1980s, long before I met and married my husband, and I didn't really get or appreciate it then. Reading it now, however, after many years of marriage and with a great deal more life experience, I was better able to understand and empathize with (and felt sorry for) Edith Hope and the other women she meets at the small Swiss hotel. These women are described as "casualties of love," living in a time when women were supposedly not fulfilled, or not really anything, unless they were successfully married. While the book would not or could not be written now -- times and attitudes towards women and marriage have changed -- it is worth reading, especially for women who have, at one time, felt poorly used by a man or society.

Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To by Dean Burnett. Nonfiction. To quote the Amazon summary, "A neuroscientist's delightful tour of our mysterious, mischievous, entirely fallible gray matter." That pretty much sums it up (better than I could). So if you, like me, are curious about why we do, or think, the things we do, pick up a copy of Idiot Brain -- a fascinating, fun read.

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee. Historical Fiction. The tale of famed (fictional) "French" opera singer, Lilliet Berne, toast of the Continent, whose past remains a mystery -- until someone threatens to expose it. The story takes readers from mid-1800s Paris back to the American frontier, unraveling or recalling Lilliet's rise from sharpshooter to circus performer to Empress's maid to opera star. Fans of historical fiction, especially francophiles, will enjoy this page turner. (I know I did.)

Something Missing by Matthew Dicks. Fiction. I loved this amusing tale of a slightly (?) OCD petty thief who steals toilet paper, detergent, and other everyday items from people's homes -- and winds developing protective feelings for his marks, whom he repeatedly (albeit very carefully) steals from. In fact, he winds up becoming so mentally involved in these strangers lives (though he doesn't feel like they are strangers) that he winds up becoming physically involved in one couple's life, risking his career and his heart to protect them. Funny, heartwarming, one of my favorite reads of the past year. Highly recommend. 

Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. Nonfiction. In the same category or genre as Freakonomics and The Tipping Point (both of which I greatly enjoyed). Filled with interesting anecdotes that help illustrate eight productivity concepts, including Motivation, Goal Setting, Decision Making, as well as some advice on how to be more productive (and not just in business).  

Fool Me Once (A Tarot Mystery) by Steve Hockensmith with Lisa Falco. Mystery/Fiction. The followup to The White Magic Five and Dime. An entertaining mystery set in a run-down occult/tarot shop near Sedona, Arizona, filled with quirky characters. The perfect light read for mystery lovers.

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter & Tears in Paris at the Worlds Most Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn. Memoir. Yet another memoir from a thirtysomething woman who dreams of moving to Paris (and studying cooking) -- and winds up enrolling at Le Cordon Bleu (after she is let go from her middle management job), where she encounters a cast of quirky characters (including the stereotypical harsh/demanding French chef who turns out to be soft-hearted) and suffers the slings and arrows... eventually triumphing (graduating) and finding true happiness... back in the States. (Can you see my eyes rolling?) Despite the cliche nature of this book (seriously, how many books about thirtysomething women finding themselves in Paris does the world need?), I actually found myself liking The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry. Maybe it was the descriptions of food. Bon appetit!

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt. Nonfiction. Again, I am just going to quote the one sentence Amazon summary: "The riveting true story of the women who launched America into space." That pretty much sums up Rise of the Rocket Girls, one of the best, most interesting books I've read this year. Holt is a talented (science) writer who brings the personal and work stories of these "human computers" to life in a way that reads like the best fiction. Highly recommend, especially for fans of the space race.

Girl on the Golden Coin: A Novel of Frances Stuart by Marci Jefferson. Historical Fiction. The fascinating, mostly (somewhat?) true story of Frances Stuart, whose beauty, charm, and innocence seduced both Louis XIV of France and Charles II of England and was the model for Britannia on England's golden coins.

How About Never? Is Never Good for You? My Life in Cartoons by Robert Mankoff. Memoir. For everyone who has ever wondered how those cartoons get into The New Yorker (are chosen) or wanted to be a New Yorker cartoonist. And did I mention there are lots of great New Yorker cartoons?

My Mrs. Brown by William Norwich. Fiction. A gem of a book about an introverted, mild-mannered older woman in small-town Rhode Island whose imagination and heart is captured by the classic black Oscar de la Renta suit she discovers while inventorying a recently deceased famous socialite's things -- and decides on the spot to somehow save up enough money to go to New York and buy one for herself. A beautifully written story about love (and loss), friendship, perseverance -- and taking chances. Loved this book.

Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World by Aja Raden. Nonfiction. Less a story about jewelry than about what jewelry symbolizes (beauty, desire, wealth, greed). A bit verbose and off-topic at times (I wanted more about jewelry), but still an engaging read, filled with interesting anecdotes that tie jewelry into historical events and people.

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild. Fiction. Chick lit meets the London art world with a dash of art history and food and a cast of quirky characters (including a talking painting). I am pretty much a sucker for books about art and/or food (this has both), especially ones with a touch (or more than a touch) of romance and a mystery to solve. A fun, quick read (and you don't have to be a chick to enjoy it, though I'm guessing women will enjoy the book more than most men will).

The Winter Palace: A novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak. Historical Fiction. The fictionalized story of the rise of Catherine the Great of Russia, a German princess named Sophie who marries Peter III of Russia, as seen and told by a young Polish woman who becomes Catherine's servant (and is used as a spy by Russia's nefarious Chancellor, Count Bestuzhev). A swiftly moving tale of intrigue set in 18th Century Russia.

52 McGs: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Writer Robert McG. Thomas Jr. Nonfiction. Pretty self explanatory. A fun, fascinating look into the lives and deaths of 52 people you probably never heard of (or didn't know their names) that will make you want to read the Obituary section of The New York Times more regularly.

Books that I didn't love but many of you would probably like (or enjoy)...

The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson. Memoir. A follow-up to Bryson's Notes from a Small Island. I used to be a big Bill Bryson fan -- I loved In a Sunburned Country (probably my favorite Bryson book) and enjoyed A Walk in the Woods and I'm a Stranger Here Myself. But I haven't really enjoyed one of his books since (and I've read or attempted to read nearly all of them). I find him too whiny and curmudgeonly and dark of late -- and while reading this book, I often wondered if he was suffering from the early stages of dementia. That said, I did find parts of this book amusing and no doubt diehard Bryson fans will enjoy it more than I did.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler. While I did laugh (often out loud) at parts of comedian Amy Poehler's memoir, I often found myself rolling my eyes and gnashing my teeth at other parts. As those of you who know me, or read my book posts, know, I am not a fan of memoirs. I find most of them to be self-indulgent -- a literary therapy session, for the author, not the reader. (Seriously, some of these people should pay their editors and us readers for putting up with their BS.) And Yes Please definitely fit into that category. That said, I think fans of Amy Poehler's and people who like reading memoirs by semi-neurotic, successful working moms who are kind of humble bragging while kvetching about their pretty amazing lives (Poehler does a lot of name dropping) will enjoy this book.(My 18-year-old daughter, who is a big-time Parks and Recreation, fan loved it.)

For more great reads, click on the BOOK NOOK label below.


Paula said...

Thanks for the list Jennifer. While I am so far behind on my reading list I fear I'll never catch up I always enjoy reading your picks. One of your past recommendations (the 100 year old man..) turned out to be a favorite fun read.

Did you read The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick? Yes a memoir but I found it engaging for its honesty. As a dedicated city wanderer myself, I could relate to her.

J. said...

Thanks for the comment, @Paula! Would you believe, the book the two people I mentioned said they had found via one of my book posts that was their favorites was The 100 Year Old Man...? Pretty funny! And I have read about and looked at Gornick's memoir, but I haven't been able to bring myself to check it out of the library as I have sworn off reading memoirs by neurotic women in some big city. But maybe I will take another look since you recommended it. :-)