New Year, New Reads! Did anyone get any exciting books for Christmas? Or better yet, bookstore gift cards for which they’re seeking recommendations?? I am at your service. My first answer is, as always, anything from this fine imprint, because mama’s gotta pay the bills, but since you totally already knew that and read everything on our list anyway (right? just say right), here are a few books I’ve recently read and - with one very complex exception - loved.
Once again it’s a total hodgepodge, so hopefully something for everyone! We’ve got a big novel whose length is matched only by its hype, a series of sexy historical romances, a sweetly poignant tale with a risky narrative structure, a delightful rom-com and an oldie but goodie classic of a novel that completly defies classification.
Kicking off with my most recent read and oof, I hardly know where to begin with this one! For the NYC literary community (which is to say my community, a group I alternately love and loathe, depending on the mood) this book was impossible to miss last year, one of the most widely read and also most divisive new releases. Some people heralded it as a masterpiece, others found it overwrought and overhyped, but whichever side you came down on, it was a book that demanded discussion. I was on the fence for nearly a year. First of all, it’s a physical undertaking, a nearly 800 page hardcover doorstopper. Second of all, I had heard it was bleak with a capital B and as a rule, I don’t like bleak fiction. Life is too short to get depressed on purpose! I resisted as long as I could, but alas I could bear the literary FOMO, no mo’ and on New Year’s Day I gave in.
What followed was a complete and total literary immersion unlike anything I’ve experienced since… I honestly can’t even tell you when. I ate, drank, slept, dreamt this book. Every night I would race home from work and read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer and every morning I’d race back into the office where I’d spend the day dissecting what I’d just read with various colleagues who’d also been trapped under Yanagihara’s spell. It was a roller coaster ride. Some things I loved, others I hated. At times I wanted to throw the book out the window. More than once I literally screamed out loud “are you fucking kidding me with this???”. I spent an entire Saturday morning sitting on cross-legged on the couch, moving only for emergency pees, having Brian refill my water glass, bring me tissues when my tears became too much to handle. I finally finished a week ago and haven’t shaken it since.
A Little Life is ostensibly the story of four friends, beginning on the cusp of adulthood as they all seek their fortunes in New York City and ending years down the road, as their lives have taken many twists and turns. But really it’s the story of one of the friends, Jude, who bears the literal and figurative scars of a childhood screwed up beyond imagination, and the lives that orbit around him. It’s impossible to go into much more summary without giving anything away but I will say that IS bleak (his life is essentially an endless series of Criminal Minds episodes, with him as the victim) (I seriously wonder how the author came up with some of the plots and how she sleeps at night) but also quite beautiful at times. The structure can at times feel aimless, like a bunch of stories half related, half diverging off into their own world. It’s way too long. The last 150 pages are some of the most emotionally manipulative nonsense I’ve ever read. But the first 300 are some of the most magical. Though it can be, at times heavy handed, she asks huge questions that I might not otherwise consider, about friendship vs romantic love, about identity, about family, and forgiveness and end of life autonomy and whether or not one can really ever overcome their past.
It was all so big and tragic and itense and all consuming, it's hard to come down on the side of like or loathe. I don't know that there's a single word in the English language to fully encompass all the feels that this book made me feel.
I will say I’m glad I read it.
To that end, can I recommend it? I don’t know! I think if you are someone who likes to be in the know and read the buzziest books and think deep thoughts and can stand a LOT of dark, troubling, torturous stuff and are ready to feel yourself completely overtaken by a book to the point that it is all you can think about and you can barely breathe til you finish it and even then you can’t quite kick it out of your mind then yes, go for it. But otherwise, nah. Life is really short and there are a lot of books to read and buzzy does not always equal brilliant - AND this book truly is not for everyone - so if you’re not feeling the pull, don’t read it just so you can fit in with the hip literary kidz.
Recommended for: See above! If you do decide to dig in, promise me you’ll email me the moment you finish???
This book has been on my radar for years, but somehow just never made it to the top of the TBR. Then this fall, I was doing a bunch of travel for work and asked a pal to recommend something charming and quick that would keep me hooked on long plane rides but not take up too much of my sleepy brain. The Rosie Project was just the ticket!
Like the best of all rom-coms, two opposites are brought together despite the odds - he’s a fastidious professor who is, as they say “on the spectrum,” and she’s a loosey-goose, cigarette smoking bartender with daddy issues. It’s not a spoiler to say the end up falling in love (duh!). Simsion brings huge heart to the characters and save a few quibbles I had with the end, their hurdles feel real and earned, rather than goofy hijinks cooked up to keep the plot moving ahead.
I ended up devouring in one sitting on the very first leg of my week long cross-country book tour, flying from NYC to Portland. Admittedly, ‘twas a forced sitting as I was in a window seat and the two people to my outside were ASLEEP and we were nary halfway through our six hour flight and oh my lanta I had to pee SO BAD but I couldn’t wake them up because that would be weird so thank god I had this delicious novel to distract me , but I swear I would have loved it all the same had I not been trapped.
Recommended for: rom-com aficionados, those intrigued by the myriad ways in which a human mind works, suckers for a happy ending, people who would risk peeing themselves just a little bit rather than awkwardly interacting with strangers sleeping beside them on an airplane.
Annie Proulx is a legend who I’ve never gotten around to reading for one reason or another (so many legends! So little time!) but have always wanted to. The Shipping News is among a small handful of novels which have won both the National Book Award AND the Pulitzer Prize and how do you say no to that? I was in Chicago this summer visiting my bestie and spotted an old used, paperback edition at the utopian dream Myopic Books and knew it was to be mine.
The issue with me naming this a HottRead is I fear I’m batting way out of my league, I’m not sure I possess the vocabulary, the technical prowess, to properly review a book such as this. Her prose is dark and funny and strange and sad and beautiful and wholly unlike anything I’ve read before. By no means is it an easy read, nor is it a particularly exciting one (very little happens by way of plot, now that I’m thinking about it) but oh, it’s an absolute treasure of a book. It’s the story of Quoyle, a man with a bad chin and worse luck who finds himself widowed at 36 when his - I’m just going to say it, complete hot mess hussy of a wife - dies, leaving him to raise their two young daughters. He and the girls retreat to his family’s ancestral home on the brutal coast of Newfoundland where they live in a ramshackle house by the sea with his maiden Aunt (always just referred to as “The Aunt”). Quoyle gets a job on the local paper and wild and wooly cast of locals help him to learn the nature of home, family and love.
It’s one of those stories where you feel like you could just burrow into the pages and live there forever. The townspeople are so real with their quirky local dialect and odd traditions and fish stews and Proulx masterfully writes about nature and landscape, you can practically feel the icy winds blowing off the sea.
I adored this book and can see why Proulx is so revered.
Recommended for: anyone who’s ever been like “oh yeah! Annie Proulx, I heard she’s amazing” but weirdly never read a lick of her work, Pulitzer Prize die-hards, readers with plenty o’time on their hands (it’s not an easy read!), Canadians.
I’ve spoken here about my pal Niki who works at Parnassus Books, a most glorious independent book retailer in Nashville, TN. She was up in New York like, spring 2015 and we went out for a long “work lunch” where we mostly gossiped about boys and mutual acquaintances but also books, of course, and she was going on and on about this new novel she’d just read called Fishbowl. I made her a promise that when I visited Nashville in the fall, I’d buy a hardcover from her at Parnassus.
So I did.
And it was a delight! The central conceit admittedly sounds bonkers: a goldfish named Ian falls from the top floor of a high rise apartment building and as he falls he glimpses into the private lives of the building's residents and therein lies our tale. I was skeptical, so I understand if you are, but trust me, it works.
Do you ever find yourself walking past an apartment building and peering up at the windows, thinking “I wonder who lives there. I wonder what they do? What they eat? How they spend their time?” And then your husband is like “OH MY GOD, are you seriously pressing your face agains that stranger's living room window?? Be cool before someone calls the cops!”
No, just me? I KNOW it’s not just me and that’s why you will love this book. It’s a glimpse into the ordinary and extraordinary everyday lives of a diverse cast of humanity brought together by the simple happenstance of a street address. It’s funny, sweet, and deeply, deeply human. You’ll never peer into an apartment window the same way again.
Recommended for: peeping Toms, goldfish owners, anyone who remembers obsessing over The Westing Game in their youth, apartment dwellers, most anyone.
I'll end today's reviews with a roundup of what a more pretentious individual might call “guilty pleasures” but I call just “pleasures” because I refuse to feel bad about my entertainment. I have enough guilt about everything else in my life! And if reading frothy, sensual, suspenseful romances with kicky heroines and gorgeous seaside settings and mysterious, dashing suitors and genuinely hot sex scenes and occasional Nazis and lots of intrigue and sibling rivalry and surprisingly deep looks into the private lives of bold bitches throughout history is wrong than oh, I don’t want to be right.
These three are a loosely connected trilogy about three sisters: Vivian, Christina (aka Tiny) and Pepper Schuyler. I’ve listed them in order of publication but really, you could read mixed up however you like. In order of my favorites I’d say Infinite Sea, Violet Grant then Tiny but really that's just picking hairs they’re all divine. Each novel weaves two storylines - present (well, 1960’s) and past, in two of the books telling the story of an intriguing older woman with whom one of the Schuyler sisters becomes entangled, and in the third, flashbacks to one of the gal’s own lives a few years earlier. Williams pulls off a very rare feat of keeping both storylines equally engaging. I don’t know about you, but I often find that when I’m reading a novel with alternating perspectives, I’m 100% hooked on one and meh, at best, on the other and end up skipping through most of the boring half just to get to the good one. Not here! Every thread is as engaging as its partner.
I get that romance is not everyone’s cup of tea - it’s rarely mine, to be honest - but these are far more than grocery store bodice rippers. I’d maybe dub them fluffy feminist historical fiction. Smart beach reads. Delicious escapism! The writing is strong, the plots are stellar, and these are the kinds of books that are just a joy to get lost in. I loved them. LOVED.
Recommended for: reluctant romance fans, readers of women’s fiction, anyone looking for a delicious escape, essentially anyone who likes anything in the long list of tropes I rolled out in the first paragraph.
And there you have it! Your next hot(t) read.
I’d love to hear suggestions from YOU!! I showed you mine - now you show me yours!
I honestly have no clue what I’ll pick up next...I might finish up the Neapolitan Novels (talk about literary FOMO!) or I’d love a really fast-paced, engaging thriller to kind of dissolve my brain into after all the intensity of A Little Life.
Happy reading, friends!
xx Liz Hott