Looking Back: June 2014 Books

June wasn't as big of a reading month for me as I had hoped for the start of my funemployent period, but that didn't mean there weren't a few gems in the stack:

The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey: The more time goes by, the more I really think this is one of the freshest post-apocalyptic novels out there. Perfect for anyone wasting away waiting for the third book in The Passage trilogy. Read my full review.

Someone Else's Skin, by Sarah Hilary: The first in a new detective series, this one is smart and clever and never quite what you expect from a police procedural. Read my full review.

Saga, Vol 3, by Brian Vaughan: I'm sort of head over heels in love with this series, and that's just about all I can come up with for that.

Dare Me, by Megan Abbott: Hot damn, Abbott knows the insides of teenage brains perhaps better than even a teenager might. I'm listening to this one on audio and it's incredibly well done; I have Abbott's newest, The Fever, packed to go with me on vacation and I'm looking forward to that one too.

What were the best books you read in June?

Sequestered Nooks / Serenity of Books

Getting It Wrong: When It Takes Time to Appreciate a Book

I am here to admit that I was wrong. Two years ago, when I reviewed The Leftovers, I found myself believing--believing strongly enough to write it down on the internet--that the book did not live up to its full potential. That while it had quiet moments of brilliance, those moments did not add up to something that, overall, was meaningful to me.

Two years later, I'm still thinking about that damn book. Unbidden, it pops into my head. Around the time when certain peoples kept predicting the rapture, I kept thinking about The Leftovers, and the insane, unconsidered consequences that disappearance can have. When three kidnapped girls emerged from Ariel Castor's basement after over a decade in captivity, I thought again of The Leftovers, of the struggle of the girls' families as they fought to cope with something that could never be explained. When I started reading Y: The Last Man, I again went back to The Leftovers, wondering how Perrotta's story might have differed if the disappearances had been consolidated to a specific trait: gender, as in Vaughn's series, or race, or religion, or belief, or geography, or any other characteristic.

I've long said that what I look for most in a book, any book, is its power to live on beyond the last page. Fiction or non, realism or fantasy, it doesn't matter: books make us think, make us reconsider our world and our lives, make us bigger than we were before we read them.

The Leftovers did just that. It just took two years for me to realize it, and the impetus of the upcoming HBO show to crystallize these thoughts. I was wrong, and I couldn't be happier about it. And I also can't wait for the series adaptation.

Have you ever gotten it wrong in your thoughts about a book? Which book?

Book Review: The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne

Originally published in the June 13, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

In her debut novel, The Girl in the Road, Monica Byrne introduces a near-futuristic Earth where global
power has consolidated in East Asia and political tensions are shockingly high. In India, a young woman named Meena wakes in her bed with snakebites on her chest. The orphaned daughter of Ethiopian parents, she assumes political antagonists are out to kill her and decides to flee. She heads for a manmade energy bridge known as "the Trail" that spans the sea between Mumbai and Djibouti, planning to brave the thousands of kilometers alone, on foot--a journey that no one has ever completed. At the same time, Miriama, a young slave girl in western Africa, runs away from her master and seeks refuge in a truck convoy carrying oil to Ethiopia.

The Girl in the Road alternates between Meena's and Miriama's stories, highlighting the significant differences between the two women, but also making their commonalities apparent. Given the first-person narrative, it is easy to confuse the two protagonists as their timelines become blurred, but it's hard to believe this was unintentional. While the stories of these two women are enticing in their own right, what is most impressive about Byrne's debut is the way she builds a story without ever telling readers outright what they are encountering. In this elusive way, she explores sexuality, memory, honesty and self-discovery. The Girl in the Road moves forward to a conclusion that offers as many questions as it does answers, but the one thing no reader will doubt is Byrne's place as a strong new voice in science fiction.


Thoughts from other bookworms:

"Girl in the Road is a Dizzying Journey," NPR Books
"Book Review: The Girl in the Road," Leswamme's Blog
"WORD Bookstores Books of the Week - May 21, 2014," Largehearted Boy


The Girl in the Road | Monica Byrne | Crown Books* | May 2014 | Hardcover | 336 pages

BEA Spotlight: Small Press Titles

One of my favorite parts of Book Expo is always the opportunity to talk with the editors and publicists and other booth staff at some smaller presses. Last year, I walked away with an armload of new galleys from Tin House, and none disappointed. This year, I was excited to hear what three small publishers (including Tin House, of course), have on offer:

Graywolf Press

Graywolf's catalog is small but charming, with literary fiction, non-fiction and poetry offerings that are always worth browsing. Some highlights for me included:

Duplex, by Kathryn Davis (October): Promising interconnected plot lines, a "traditional love story tucked inside an adult fairy tale" and stunning writing.

On Immunity, by Eula Bliss (September): "A powerful examination of what vaccines mean for our children, our communities, and the world by the winner of the National  Book Critics Award."

See You in Paradise, by J. Robert Lennon (November): A short story collection from an author Ann Patchett calls "a writer with enough electricity to light up the country."

Recently released titles that also caught my eye: Song of the Shank by Jeffery Renard Allen; Karate Chop: Stories by Dorthe Nors (translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken); Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

Melville House

In addition to having an excellent blog, Melville House offers a quirky list of delightful titles, ranging from short story collections to the beautiful titles in the Neversink Library and Art of the Novella series.

Wittgenstein Jr, by Lars Iyer (September): A humorous coming-of-age story (I've got a soft spot for coming-of-age stories).

GB84, by David Peace (November): Peace's name graces no less than three pages in Melville House's 2014 catalog: two for his soccer football novels, The Damned Utd and Red or Dead, and one for GB84, a novel of the British coal miner's strike of 1984. Based on what I heard Peace reading at BEA, I have a feeling this man could write about anything and I'd be interested.

The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers, by Curtis White (August): The subtitle on this kind of says it all, but what's also worth noting is the blurb: "'Splendidly cranky.' --Molly Ivins" (The August edition is an updated paperback release of a 2013 hardcover.)

Recently released titles that also caught my eye: Red or Dead by David Peace (I heard him read from this for a bit, and it was outstanding); The Weirdness by Jeremy P. Bushnell; A Highly Unlikely Scenario by Rachel Cantor (I've read this one and highly recommend).

Tin House Books

Tin House was a favorite stop in 2013, thanks to a tip from Catherine at Gilmore Guide to Books, and this year's catalog did not disappoint. (It didn't hurt that they threw a birthday party for Walt Whitman in their booth, either, complete with cake.)

The Other Side: A Memoir, by Lacy M. Johnson (July): Lacy Johnson was held prisoner by her ex-boyfriend in a sound-proofed room in a basement. Her memoir "weaves together a richly personal narrative with police reports, psychological evaluations and neurobiological investigations." This looks intense, but if I learned anything from reading Roxane Gay's An Untamed State, it's that sometimes intense is necessary--and worth it.

The Wilds, by Julia Elliott (October): When I asked the editor at the Tin House booth what one book she'd recommend from the fall list, she handed me this without hesitation. That's enough for me, but even better is the catalog description, that Elliott's "language-driven fiction uses outlandish tropes to capture poignant moments in her humble characters' lives."

The World Split Open: Great Writers on How and Why We Write, A Literary Arts Reader (November): In celebration of the 30th anniversary of Literary Arts, Tin House has compiled highlights from the series into a single volume, including entries from Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson (!), E.L. Doctorow, and Ursula K. LeGuin, among many others.

Recently released titles that caught my eye: Who are we kidding, there were lots of great titles but the illustrated edition of Walt Whitman's Song of Myself was the most impressive:

Whitman IlluminatedSong of Myself, by Walt Whitman (illustrated by Allen Crawford), on sale now: Perhaps one of the absolute prettiest books I've ever seen, and an edition that should grace the shelves of any lovers of poetry, Whitman, and/or book design.

What small press titles are you looking forward to this year?

Book Review: The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey

Originally published in the June 13, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

It's tempting to believe that the post-apocalyptic zombie novel has been done to death, but M.R. Carey (The Naming of the Beasts, writing as Mike Carey) proves that the genre has life in it yet. Carey's The Girl with All the Gifts opens in "The After," which is what survivors call the new era after the outbreak of an unknown and uncontrollable virus that, yes, turns its victims into the walking dead. Here, 10-year-old Melanie wakes each morning in her cell, climbs into her wheelchair, and waits for soldiers to strap her in and wheel her off to school.

When a rival clan of survivors seeking food and resources attacks the cellblock in which Melanie lives, she finds herself launched out of her secluded life and into the dangerous world outside, full of abandoned towns, ransacked grocery stores and hundreds upon hundreds of the infected, known as "hungries." Luckily, she's not alone--she is with Miss Justineau, her favorite teacher, as well as two soldiers and a scientist. But as the small group ventures farther into the land formerly known as England, Melanie finds within herself a hunger she never knew existed, and her slow and steady approach toward self-awareness becomes as suspenseful as the small group's dangerous journey toward safer land.

The Girl with All the Gifts functions like a set of nesting dolls: Melanie's coming-of-age tale sits within her story of self-realization, resting inside a novel of scientific discovery, cradled by an impressive re-imagining of a post-apocalyptic world. All together, those pieces combine into one zombie novel impressively steeped in human emotion.

Thoughts from other bookworms:

Liberty Hardy (at Book Riot): 5 Books to Watch for in June
Niall Alexander (at Tor.com): Subject Number One: The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
Clare McBride (at the Literary Omnivore): Review: The Girl with All the Gifts


The Girl with All the Gifts | M.R. Carey | Orbit | June 2014 | Hardcover | 416 pages

BEA Buzz Books

I posted last week about some newly discovered titles I brought home from BEA, but that was only half of my (admittedly relatively small) stack of galley grabs at the show. The rest of my list consisted of books I'd already been eyeing--and, though I went into the show with little to no agenda, hoped to score while there. I didn't manage to snag a copy of the new Marilynne Robinson book, Lila, from FSG (seriously, people, what do I need to do to get an ARC of this book? I will give you my firstborn if that's what it takes).

So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, by Maureen Corrigan (Little, Brown, September 9th): I read (and loved) Maureen Corrigan's earlier book, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading (how could you not with a title like that?), and I'm a huge Gatsby fan. So a book about the power of Gatsby and why it has lasted as long as it has in our imaginations? No way I'm missing that one.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters (Riverhead, Sept 16th): Sarah Waters! Sarah Waters! And a big, chunky work of historical fiction set in 1920s London, at that.

The Magician's Land, by Lev Grossman (Viking, August 5th): The third in the Magicians trilogy, after The Magicians and The Magician King. My only concern is that I'll have to go back and re-read the first two to refresh my memory... and there's a long waiting list for them at the library (my copies are in storage).

Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer (Dutton, September 30th): The only book of Wolitzer's I've read to date is The Interestings--and while I wasn't quite as enamored of this book as so many others, I did fall in love with Wolitzer's writing. She's quickly becoming one of those I'll-read-anything-you-write authors (a la Mary Roach), so while I don't know much about this book, I'm still super-excited.

Men We Reaped, Jesmyn War (Thorndike, available now): The only non-ARC I brought home, after having the chance to meet Ward at the show. I may be the last person in the world to read this book, but I've heard SO many good things, I couldn't pass it up.

Which 2014 buzz books are you most excited to read?

Thoughts: An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

I read Roxane Gay's An Untamed State last month with little to no idea what I was getting into. I only knew the basic premise: a woman is kidnapped in Nigeria and held for ransom. Turns out, An Untamed State is so much more than that--it is the story of this woman's gruesome, terrifying, horrific 13 days in captivity, followed by an equally relentless and cruelly honest account of her attempts to rebuild her life upon release.

Gay shies away from nothing: beating, rape, torture, grief, depression, survival. She reveals with beauty and honesty the depths of human cruelty, but also our ability to overcome the most unimaginable of situations. She explores what happens when we are pushed beyond the limits of our emotional and physical boundaries, and what lengths we will go to to retain our sense of self.

An Untamed State is horrible. It is beautiful. It is one of the most powerful books I've read in years. It graces the list of the best books I read in May, as well as the best books I've read so far this year. It's a book I think everyone should read, though I wish we lived in a world in which no one should have to.

If you've read this, I'd love to hear what you thought. If not, is it something you think you'll pick up?


An Untamed State | Roxane Gay | Grove Press, Black Cat | May 2014 | 368 pages

Waiting for Outlander

Originally published in the June 10, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Since 1992, Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series has been building the unlikely romance of Jamie, an 18th-century Scot, and Claire, a World War II-era British nurse. Those who haven't yet read the time-traveling romance will want to start the first volume, Outlander, now, as the Starz adaptation premieres this summer. For those caught up with the books, below are some suggestions to tide you over until the series airs--once you finish the next Outlander volume, Written in My Own Heart's Blood, which hit bookstores this week.

For more Scottish history: Like Outlander, Susanna Kearsley's The Winter Sea mixes two time periods, early 18th century and present day. Writer Carrie McClelland has moved from France to Scotland to write a novel about a 1708 Jacobite invasion of French and Scottish soldiers attempting to restore the exiled James Stuart to his crown. But as she writes, she finds her ties to her Scottish ancestry stronger than ever before--stronger even than one might think possible. The resulting story is part romance, part mystery, all steeped in historical detail.

For more time travel: Some of the questions raised in the Outlander series explore time travel's implications for changing the course of history and how it affects the people involved. Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife explores the same questions, but through a very different lens, as Henry DeTamble involuntarily travels back through the timeline of his wife, Clare Abshire, first meeting her in her childhood and embroiling them both in a romance neither can escape--or control.

For more historical romance: For those looking for romance, Sarah MacLean's Rules for Scoundrels series is a good place to start. The first, A Rogue by Any Other Name, presents a disgraced Marquess who attempts to marry his way back into the good graces of society by wedding a proper Lady--until he finds out she bring her own sense of sin to the marriage. Witty and seductive, and more books to follow... what's not to love?

Who else is excited for the Starz adaptation? And what will you be reading while you wait for the show to premiere in August (as soon as you finish Written in My Own Heart's Blood, of course)?

The Best Books of 2014 (So Far)

Stop. Hold on. Is it seriously far enough into 2014 to start talking about the best books of the year (so far)? When did that happen?

I suppose since it is June already, we're just about halfway through the year. So for this week's Top Ten Tuesday post, may I present my favorite books of 2014... so far.

Note: These are books read in 2014. Not all were necessarily published in 2014.

Department of Speculation, by Jenny Offill: This short book absolutely slew me--in a good way. I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks after finishing it. Actually, no, I'm still thinking about it. My full review of Dept. of Speculation.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin: I picked this up because it promised a story the melt the hearts of booklovers everywhere... and melt my heart it did. On finishing, I turned to my husband and managed to mutter, "I need a tissue," before dissolving into downright happy-go-sadly tears.

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay: I haven't found the words to write about this book yet, which was one of the most challenging and yet most rewarding books I've read in a long time. Read this. But know that it won't be an easy thing to do.

Hotel on the Place Vendome, by Tilar Mazzeo: Here, here! for some non-fiction on the list. Mazzeo's history of the Hotel Ritz presents the lesser-known history of one of the world's most well-known hotels, from famous novelists to Nazi occupation and beyond. This is one of those books that filled me with "Did you know...?" facts while reading and long after, and it's becoming a go-to recommendation for anyone looking for narrative, fun non-fiction with a historical bent. My full review of Hotel on the Place Vendome.

Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig: Stellar, stunning cover. Stellar, stunning writing. Violent and heartfelt and emotional and thoughtful and why the hell did I not read this one sooner?

Redeployment, by Phil Klay: Like Dept. of Speculation, another book that stayed with me long past the last page--but for entirely different reasons. Klay's collection of short stories focuses on the modern veteran and the ongoing struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq and the long-lasting, often unseen impacts of war on those we ask to fight for us. Powerful, emotional, and downright unforgettable: this should really be required reading for all Americans. My full review of Redeployment.

The Enchanted, by Rene Denfield: This was not on my list of favorites after I finished it, but as time goes on and I continue to ruminate on the magic of Denfield's language, and her ability to craft a story that is so emotionally specific without ever dealing the details of her characters' crimes... really impressive, this one is. My full review of The Enchanted.

Thunderstruck: And Other Stories, by Elizabeth McCracken: Like The Enchanted, another that would not have fallen on my list of favorites immediately after finishing it... but that wormed its way in when I found I could not stop thinking about McCracken's stories. Add to that the fact that McCracken writes one hell of a sentence, and here we go: on my top ten of 2014 (so far) list.

Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala: It's nearly impossible to review a book so centered on someone else's grief. Deraniyagala's story of loss and family and rebuilding her life after the devastation of the tsunami in Sri Lanka is a testament to the lasting power of grief--and our ability to overcome the worst situations, even when we may doubt our abilities to do so. My thoughts on Wave.

The Heaven of Animals, by David James Poissant: It's apparently the year of short stories for me, with this the third collection in my top-ten-so-far list. Poissant's stories are emotional and wonderful and ever-so-slightly unreal, which makes them all-the-more perfect.

This post is part of Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

What are some of the best books you've read so far in 2014?

Book Review: My Real Children, by Jo Walton

Originally published in the May 27, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Patricia Cowan is very old, and, according to her medical charts, very confused. As she lies in her nursing home, uncertain of the day or the week or even the year, she recalls distinctly two lives: one in which she married her college boyfriend and had four children, and one in which she never married and raised three children with a woman named Bee instead. She remembers a world torn apart by nuclear warfare, and a world at peace. She remembers a wedding on the moon; she remembers Russia, the U.S. and Europe fighting over proprietary space technology.

My Real Children is an exploration of both of Patricia Cowan's lives, or rather, an exploration of what happens when one life splits in two possible but completely distinct versions. Jo Walton (Among Others) uses the two lives of Patricia Cowan to explore the consequences of decision-making: What would have happened had you chosen another option? Though it can feel heavy-handed at times, Walton's exploration of not only the what-ifs but the what-could-have-beens is brought to life by the multilayered lives of Patricia Cowan, whose experiences as a woman, a mother and a partner are at once incredibly different and yet strikingly similar. Both lives unfold at a rapid pace, but the nuance of the characters, family dynamics and political situations in each keep the two story lines distinct--at least until Patricia's own memories collapse into one, leaving readers and Patricia to ponder the question: What if?


My Real Children | Jo Walton | Tor | May 2014 | Hardcover | 320 pages

Looking Ahead: June Books

It's a bit late in the month for this post, but since I got so excited with all the BEA books I picked up, I got distracted and forgot it was the start of a new month. I'm diving full-steam-ahead into summer reading (a week of funemployment before I start a new job won't hurt in that department), and there are some incredible June books on my radar:

Euphoria, by Lily King (Atlantic, June 3): The publisher's blurb states that this is inspired by the life of the "revolutionary anthropologist," Margaret Meade, and promises "an enthralling story of passion, possession, exploration, and sacrifice."

I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, by Courtney Munn (Touchstone, June 10): A reverse love story of a married man trying to win back his wife, against a backdrop of Paris and London (love!).

Mambo in Chinatown, by Jean Kwok (Riverhead, June 24): I read and loved Kwok's debut, Girl in Translation, and am excited to see what her next novel brings.

Proof: The Science of Alcohol, by Adam Rogers (HMH, May 27): I didn't realize this was a late-May release or I'd have listed it in last month's round-up. Since I missed it last month and there's no way I could pass up a book on the science of alcohol (how cool!), I'm pretending it's a June release. Go with me on this one.

Someone Else's Skin, by Sarah Hilary (Penguin, June 24): A debut mystery writer introduces a new detective series--and since I've already read this one, I can tell you it won't disappoint.

The Appetites of Girls, by Pamela Moses (Amy Einhorn, June 26): A novel focused on a group of women making their way in the world... yes please.

The Girl with All the Gifts, by M. R. Carey (Orbit, June 24): I've read this one as well, and I find it difficult to blurb, review or explain without giving too much away. If you like creative, incredibly inventive post-apocalyptic fiction, this is for you--and trust me when I say it's better to go in to it not knowing what to expect.

What are you most looking forward to in June?

Re-reading as Foundation

It's been a whirlwind couple of weeks for this particular bookworm: I didn't spend a single weekend at home during the month of May, travelling for work and for family, and then I ventured to New York for a hectic, chaotic, wonderful trip to Book Expo. On returning from that trip, I gave my current employer two weeks' notice; this coming Friday will be my last day in advertising, followed by several weeks of funemployment and a new gig in the non-profit space. And a lot of travel mixed in with the rest of it.

This weekend provided an unexpected lull in the adventures of the last several weeks. I sat down to read yesterday and looked up to realize four hours had passed and it was well past my (and the dog's) dinnertime. I caught the newest episode of Orphan Black. I went to bed at 10 and slept for 11 hours. I'm sitting outside now, enjoying coffee, mangoes, and Tiny Beautiful Things, which I've been re-reading at random this week to give myself some kind of foundation as so many things I thought I had on lock-down shift around me. The shifting is that of my own creation, of course, which makes it wonderful; unlike some of those seeking Sugar's help, I did not lose a child or a parent, I do not have a life-threatening disease, I am not living without knowing where my next meal will come from.

But the beauty of Sugar's advice, as anyone who has read this book will know, is that it is so much larger than the subject matter at hand. In "A Shimmering Slice of Your Mysterious Destiny," Sugar talks someone through the pain and difficulty and sheer mass of detail involved in planning a wedding:
"We all get lost in the minutiae, but don't lose this day. Make a list of everything that needs to be seen to and decided and worried about between now and your wedding day and then circle the things that matter most to you and do them right. Delegate or decide on the other stuff and refuse to worry anymore."
Underneath this passage, I wrote:
"This is so applicable to so much more than weddings. This is all of life."
In "We Are Here to Build the House," a young woman writes to Sugar that she is broke, unemployed, and considering entering into an "arrangement" with a man to "rendezvous" once or twice a week in exchange for an allowance of $1,000/month. Sugar writes,
"It made me think about what's at stake when we ponder a gig. About what work means. About the fine balance of money and reason and instinct and the ideas we have about ourselves when we imagine we can be "meta" about our bodies and lives and the ways we spend our days. About what's at work when we attempt to talk ourselves into things we don't want to do and out of things we do. When we think a payoff comes from being paid and a price exacted from doing things for free. About what morality is. And who gets to say. What relation it has to making money. And what relation it has to desperation."
I am not desperate. I am not considering a form of prostitution, as the young letter writer was. I am not on the brink of poverty. I am not even unemployed. But Sugar's words on work and the power that work and our need to make money in life can have over how we spend our time and what decisions we make? Those words are meaningful to anyone who has ever put life on hold, even in some small, insignificant way, because work got in the way.

My copy of Tiny Beautiful Things still smells like the glue they use to bind trade paperbacks, and the spine has not yet broken. There are only a handful of dog-eared pages thus far, and a few dozen underlines through the entire book. But as I take this risk, and decide that I will move from the secure, comfortable world I have built so far and into something that carries more risk and promises a lower salary, but that offers the possibility of more reward, something tells me that this red cover will grace my nightstand more than it even did previously, that the pages will wear, that more underlines will appear.
"What's important is that you make the leap. Jump high and hard with intention and heart. Pay no mind to the vision the commission made up. It's up to you to make your life. Take what you have and stack it up like a tower of teetering blocks. Build your dream around that."
Or, put more succintly:
"The fuck is your life. Answer it."

Do you have a book you turn to over and over when things start changing? Or, more selfishly, I wonder if there are other books I should be picking up over the next few weeks of funemployment?

Julia Dahl: The Power of Journalism

Originally published in the May 13, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

photo: Chasi Annexy
Julia Dahl is a journalist and author specializing in crime and crime fiction. She has written for the New York Post and CBSNews.com, and her articles have appeared in Mental Floss, Salon and The Crime Report. Invisible City, her first novel, is the story of a young journalist in New York City reporting on the murder of a Hasidic woman in an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn (read my full review).

Invisible City is your debut novel, but you have written extensively about crime as a journalist. How was writing fiction about a crime different from writing a news piece about a crime?

I think one of the things I enjoy most about writing is writing dialogue, and you don't get to do a ton of that in crime journalism. You can quote people, obviously, but when writing a piece about a crime, you weren't there. I swoop in after the crime happened and try to piece together the story from a number of sources--but I'm never really on the inside. I only know somebody from what they show me. In fiction, I get to know people from the inside, because I'm the one creating them.

What most surprised you about the novel-writing process?

How difficult it was to make the plot work. I write a lot of day stories--this is the murder, this is the charge, this is the detail we have. The length between start and finish is very short. But here, I wanted to create a plot that would keep people turning the pages, but also feel authentic. I didn't want readers to stop and think, "What? How did we get here?"

So at the beginning of the book, I knew "whodunit," and I had sense of why, but I didn't know how I would get there at all. A lot of that came in the re-writing.

Rebekah Roberts, the main character in Invisible City, works as a stringer for the New York Tribune; she is sent to various scenes across the city to collect details and call them in for another writer. Why did you decide to make Rebekah a stringer rather than a journalist?

That's just how it was, and still is as far as I know, in New York City tabloids. They're called different things--stringer, runner, reporter--but all are sent somewhere to call in information, which was really shocking to me when I first started. My first day at the New York Post, I was sent to an accident scene. I went and I interviewed people, and then I typed up a story and e-mailed it in, which shocked my editors. That was not how it worked. There were people in the office that did the writing; I did the fact-gathering. That got me thinking about ethics in journalism and how things might get printed that aren't quite accurate, because there is this chain of people involved.

So partly Rebekah works as a stringer because that's how it would happen and it felt authentic. I also hope that it pushes readers to ask questions: Is that how it really goes? Is that the right way to do this? The best way to honor the truth?

As Rebekah pushes to uncover more information about a murder that others--including the police--seem to be inclined to let alone, she seems shocked at the power she has to keep a story alive.

One of the other things that was important to me in Invisible City were the perils of being a young journalist without any guidance, especially in the tabloid world. Rebekah's only experience before this job is with the school paper. Now she is writing for a paper with a million readers every day, even if they do take the stories with a grain of salt or read them for entertainment. And there is a tremendous amount of power in that. Journalists and editors have a responsibility to think about the impact of what they are printing has on the people reading it. In this case, Rebekah is forced to start taking her job seriously.

How did your own religious background influence the character of Rebekah, who, like you, comes from parents from two different religions?

You write what you know, a little bit. I've spent a lot of my life actively thinking about religion and where I fit. As a child, I went to church and I went to synagogue, and I got to choose which religion was for me. So some of things I'm working out in my head as I write are about what it's like to live between two religions.

Though you are Jewish, you are not ultra-Orthodox. Why did you explore the ultra-Orthodox?
There are probably close to 200,000 ultra-Orthodox in New York City, and an even larger community outside of New York, upstate and in New Jersey. The average family size is four to five kids. And it was, especially before I moved to New York, a community I knew very little about.

Right when I had just started working for the Post, I moved into an apartment whose previous occupant had committed suicide. I found out that he was an ultra-Orthodox man who had had a family and worked as a teacher, but had been shunned because it turned out he was gay. I would get his mail, and though I never opened it, I started to build an idea of this person in my mind. And right on top of that, I was assigned to a story of an ultra-Orthodox groom who had killed himself right after his wedding.

All of that together just made me want to know more, especially because I thought how like me they are--they're Jews! But then, the thing that I value the most in my life is freedom, and it occurred to me that these are people who grow up with no freedom. I wanted to explore that.

Do you have any recommendations for other books about the ultra-Orthodox community?
The first book I read, and the one that was the most revealing for me, was called Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston. It is nonfiction, centering on a handful of people who grew up ultra-Orthodox and are attempting to leave in some way.

Speaking of further reading, I understand this won't be the last we see of Rebekah Roberts.
Soon after I finished Invisible City, I knew I had to write more about Rebekah. I've just finished the draft of second book, which is scheduled to come out next year. It takes place soon after the end of Invisible City, and Rebekah is still a reporter in New York. Rebekah's mother is a big part of the second book. I'm so happy that I get to write this character again.

Looking Back: May Highlights

With all the whirlwind of Book Expo and travel and some big life changes coming my way, it's nice to take a moment to look back on what was a lovely month and remember how many good books came my way. The Bout of Books provided just the push I needed to get my reading self back in gear, and a lot of time on planes and trains meant even more reading than usual. Which is not at all a bad thing.

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay: This may have been one of the most difficult books I've read all year, if not in all my reading life, and also one of the best. As such, I've struggled to write about it--how do you review something that is so brutal and yet so honest, that reveals the depths of human cruelty and also our capacity to withstand the worst life can throw at us? You don't, I've decided. But still, you should read this. Just be prepared for an author who refuses to shy away from pretty much anything.

Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley: This little gem showed up in the second Book Riot Quarterly box, and I devoured it in just a few days. A charming story of a woman who takes her destiny into her own hands--by buying a travelling bookstore, no less. Who doesn't want that life?

Invisible City, by Julia Dahl: An awesome mystery-meets-journalist-intrigue story of a young woman investigating the death of a murdered Ultra-Orthodox woman. Read my full review of Invisible City, and stay tuned for my interview with Julia later this week.

My Real Children, by Jo Walton: Jo Walton is my homegirl, I think. Among Others was one of my absolute favorite books of 2011 (is it really that old!?), and while My Real Children is very, very different, it's also very, very good--especially if you enjoy books that push the boundaries of what is possible to ask the "What if?" question again and again.

Y: The Last Man, by Brian K. Vaughn (Volumes 1 & 2): Someone recommended this series to me after I lamented the wait for the next volume of Saga, and I don't regret it. It's funky, it's weird, and it's got a balance of girlpower and girlcrazy that just... works.

Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig: DUDES. HOW DID I WAIT SO LONG TO READ THIS!? Wendig is an awesome writer--I knew that from reading Blue Blazes--but Blackbirds is so amazingly kick-ass that I cannot believe it took me so long to pick it up. Violent and thoughtful and generally amazeballs, this is. Read it. Read it now.

What were the best books you read in May?

Discovered: New Titles Found at BEA

I left Book Expo this year with just 10 galleys, for which my shoulders and back (and feet, for that matter) are eternally grateful. Even with that limited supply, I still found some new gems and discovered some authors I'd never heard of...

The Wilds: Stories, by Julia Elliott (Tin House, October 14th): Tin House never fails to disappoint with new, interesting titles (they were one of my favorite booths of 2013), and this year was no different. When I spoke to the editor in the booth, she picked this collection out as one to look forward to... and the cover alone has me drooling with anticipation.

The Happiest People in the World, by Brock Clarke (Algonquin, November 4th): I read (and loved) Clarke's novel Exley, and may be one of the only people in the world to not have read An Arsonist's Guide to Homes in New England (yet). But regardless, I'm stoked for his newest (even though I have no idea what it's about).

The Accidental Highwayman, by Ben Tripp (Tor Teen, October 14th): I didn't realize this was YA when I first picked it up; I was just drawn to the cover and the artwork. The publisher billed it as the perfect read for fans of The Princess Bride, a book I haven't read but a movie I've seen so many times that I can recite almost the entire thing word-for-word. So. Sign me up, Mr. Tripp, and let's hope it's an awesome ride.

The Cold Song, by Linn Ullmann (Other Press, on sale now): When I worked in publishing and exhibited at BEA, I often found my booth close to the Other Press booth--which means I know it's one of my must-visit spots at the show each year. The Cold Song is a work in translation, which I always find interesting, and promises "an unconventional narrative." Yes, please.

Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix (Quirk Books, September 23rd, not pictured above): Leave it to Quirk to come up with one of the--ahem--quirkiest titles at Book Expo. Horrorstor looks like an Ikea catalog, through and through. That's no accident: it's a horror story set in an Ikea-like palace of furniture, complete with umlauts and unpronounceable words. I had the opportunity to meet Grady at the show, and based on that meeting and the book's cover, I'm already sure this will be an absolute ride.

Celebrate the TFiOS Movie with a Giveaway!

We're only a few short days away from the theatrical release of the movie adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars, and can I just say I am so excited? It's been an emotional roller coaster of a week for me, so I know I'll be in the theater this weekend with lots of tissues having a good ol' cathartic cry.

In case you haven't seen the trailer yet, please indulge me:

Courtesty of 20th Century Fox, I can offer one lucky reader a movie tie-in edition of the novel (in case you somehow haven't read it yet?) and a TFiOS tote bag:

Enter using the Rafflecopter form below. US entrants only, please. Winner information will be shared with Big Honcho Media, who will supply the prize. I'll select a winner on Monday, June 9th.

And for more info on the movie, check out the official website.

Best of luck!

Out Into the World: Graduation Season Reading

Originally published in the May 27, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Graduation season is upon us, and with it, commencement speeches. With any luck, every graduate will be moved by his or her commencement speaker to look at the big, daunting world and go forth with confidence; for those not so lucky, a few favored speeches of recent years are available in print.

Neil Gaiman's speech from Philadelphia's University of the Arts, Make Good Art, is perfect for any grad pursuing a creative career, be it writing or sculpture or film; the message speaks to the creative process, but the book itself is downright beautiful, with highly stylized fonts and layouts presenting Gaiman's already highly creative ideas. George Saunders's moving speech from Syracuse University is also available for this year's grads to read and cherish in Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness.

Lean In offers insight and wisdom for women entering the workforce for the first time, and Sheryl Sandberg's updated edition, Lean In for Graduates, provides even more. The new edition features expanded sections on résumé writing and building, interviewing and negotiating, and making the most of one's first job. Continuing the theme of Gaiman's Make Good Art, Sandberg's graduate advice also centers on being true to one's self.

For those still pondering what "true to one's self" really means, Picador's School of Life series offers a wealth of practical tips for making the most of the one precious life we have. For grads who want to make a difference in the world, there's How to Change the World by John-Paul Flintoff; those uncertain of their next step might appreciate Roman Krznaric's How to Find Fulfilling Work. Either volume, along with Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, would make the perfect graduation gift, encouraging those embarking on new adventures to do so with courage and self-assurance, even when the world can seem a scary place.

What's missing from above? What's your favorite book to give as a graduation gift?

#BEA14: A Book Expo Recap

You guys, it has been one hell of a week (and then some). I started last weekend in Alabama, returned home via Nashville, and less than twelve hours later, turned around to get on a train up to New York City for Book Expo. Suffice it to say I am exhausted, though the travel was all more than worth it.

I arrived in New York on Tuesday but did not attend the Blogger Con on Wednesday; I've heard so many mixed things about this conference in years past that I decided I'd prefer a day of wandering New York and visiting old haunts to a day of blogging panels. From the Blogger Con recaps now up from Shannon at River City Reading, Leah at Books Speak Volumes, and Rory at 4th Street Review, I think I made the right choice.
Some of my favorite New York City haunts
Thursday and Friday I spent at Javits, an over-airconditioned glass box of a conference center that looks sort of like an alien spaceship that tried to visit Manhattan but landed closer to New Jersey than it had intended. The lines were long and the aisles crowded, but say what you will, BEA boasted an amazing energy of readers and booklovers. No matter how many people toll the death of the book and the end of reading, it is impossible to attend a show like this and doubt for one second that books are still a big deal. People stood in line for hours to meet a certain author or nab a certain galley (or, in some cases, a Big Red McGraw Hill bag in which to tote said certain galleys).

Crowds, crowds, crowds.

Lev Grossman signs The Magician's Land

Oyster showed up with free iced coffee and cookies.
Penguin Book Truck!

I'll be posting in more detail about the books from the show I'm most looking forward to, the catalogs that carry the most promise (I left with more catalogs than galleys, for which my shoulders and back are eternally grateful...), and the best bookish goodies I saw on the floor. There are lots of those, and that's what exhibitors are there for. But more than the stuff, what is most exciting about Book Expo to me is the chance to meet a community of readers, writers, publishers, editors, and other booklovers who are just as excited about reading as I am. That and watching my Twitter feed come to life, as I met person after person in the real life that I've previously known only online.

The Book Stack
The Frying Pan Boat Basin, which may be the coolest spot for post-BEA cocktails and sunshine.
And you can climb inside a previously sunken ship and walk around, so that's awesome.