Best Books of the Month: Literature & Fiction Edition – November 2015

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These books are from the “Best Books of the Month” category, under “Books”, on Amazon.com.

1. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams: Stories by Stephen King

A master storyteller at his best—the O. Henry Prize winner Stephen King delivers a generous collection of stories, several of them brand-new, featuring revelatory autobiographical comments on when, why, and how he came to write (or rewrite) each story.

Since his first collection, Nightshift, published thirty-five years ago, Stephen King has dazzled readers with his genius as a writer of short fiction. In this new collection he assembles, for the first time, recent stories that have never been published in a book. He introduces each with a passage about its origins or his motivations for writing it.

There are thrilling connections between stories; themes of morality, the afterlife, guilt, what we would do differently if we could see into the future or correct the mistakes of the past. “Afterlife” is about a man who died of colon cancer and keeps reliving the same life, repeating his mistakes over and over again. Several stories feature characters at the end of life, revisiting their crimes and misdemeanors. Other stories address what happens when someone discovers that he has supernatural powers—the columnist who kills people by writing their obituaries in “Obits;” the old judge in “The Dune” who, as a boy, canoed to a deserted island and saw names written in the sand, the names of people who then died in freak accidents. In “Morality,” King looks at how a marriage and two lives fall apart after the wife and husband enter into what seems, at first, a devil’s pact they can win.

Magnificent, eerie, utterly compelling, these stories comprise one of King’s finest gifts to his constant reader—“I made them especially for you,” says King. “Feel free to examine them, but please be careful. The best of them have teeth.”

2. The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto: A Novel by Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom creates a magical world through his love of music in this remarkable new novel about the power of talent to change our lives

This is the epic story of Frankie Presto—the greatest guitar player who ever lived—and the six lives he changed with his six magical blue strings

Frankie, born in a burning church, abandoned as an infant, and raised by a music teacher in a small Spanish town, until war rips his life apart. At nine years old, he is sent to America in the bottom of a boat. His only possession is an old guitar and six precious strings. His amazing journey weaves him through the musical landscape of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, with his stunning playing and singing talent affecting numerous stars (Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley) until, as if predestined, he becomes a pop star himself.

He makes records. He is adored. But Frankie Presto’s gift is also his burden, as he realizes the power of the strings his teacher gave him, and how, through his music, he can actually affect people’s lives. At the height of his popularity, tortured by his biggest mistake, he vanishes. His legend grows. Only decades later, having finally healed his heart, does Frankie reappearjust before his spectacular death—to change one last life. With the Spirit of Music as our guide, we glimpse into the lives that were changed by one man whose strings could touch the music—and the magic—in each of us.

A lifelong musician, Mitch Albom’s passion shines through on every page. Written with an ear for rhythm and cadence, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto is a classic in the making. Heartrending and inventive, Albom’s latest is infused with the message that “everyone joins a band in this life”—and that music, like love, has the power to affect us all.

3. Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving

John Irving returns to the themes that established him as one of our most admired and beloved authors in this absorbing novel of fate and memory.
As we grow older—most of all, in what we remember and what we dream—we live in the past. Sometimes, we live more vividly in the past than in the present.

As an older man, Juan Diego will take a trip to the Philippines, but what travels with him are his dreams and memories; he is most alive in his childhood and early adolescence in Mexico. “An aura of fate had marked him,” John Irving writes, of Juan Diego. “The chain of events, the links in our lives—what leads us where we’re going, the courses we follow to our ends, what we don’t see coming, and what we do—all this can be mysterious, or simply unseen, or even obvious.”

Avenue of Mysteries is the story of what happens to Juan Diego in the Philippines, where what happened to him in the past—in Mexico—collides with his future.

4. Slade House: A Novel by  David Mitchell

Keep your eyes peeled for a small black iron door.

Down the road from a working-class British pub, along the brick wall of a narrow alley, if the conditions are exactly right, you’ll find the entrance toSlade House. A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. Every nine years, the house’s residents—an odd brother and sister—extend a unique invitation to someone who’s different or lonely: a precocious teenager, a recently divorced policeman, a shy college student. But what really goes on inside Slade House? For those who find out, it’s already too late. . . .

Spanning five decades, from the last days of the 1970s to the present, leaping genres, and barreling toward an astonishing conclusion, this intricately woven novel will pull you into a reality-warping new vision of the haunted house story—as only David Mitchell could imagine it.

5. The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

A canny young woman is struggling to survive by perpetrating various levels of mostly harmless fraud. On a rainy April morning, she is reading auras at Spiritual Palms when Susan Burke walks in. A keen observer of human behavior, our unnamed narrator immediately diagnoses beautiful, rich Susan as an unhappy woman eager to give her lovely life a drama injection. However, when the “psychic” visits the eerie Victorian home that has been the source of Susan’s terror and grief, she realizes she may not have to pretend to believe in ghosts anymore. Miles, Susan’s teenage stepson, doesn’t help matters with his disturbing manner and grisly imagination. The three are soon locked in a chilling battle to discover where the evil truly lurks and what, if anything, can be done to escape it.

6. The Mare: A Novel by Mary Gaitskill

The story of a Dominican girl, the white woman who introduces her to riding, and the horse who changes everything for her

Velveteen Vargas is eleven years old, a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn. Her host family is a couple in upstate New York: Ginger, a failed artist on the fringe of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Paul, an academic who wonders what it will mean to “make a difference” in such a contrived situation. The Mare illuminates the couple’s changing relationship with Velvet over the course of several years, as well as Velvet’s powerful encounter with the horses at the stable down the road, as Gaitskill weaves together Velvet’s vital inner-city community and the privileged country world of Ginger and Paul.

7. The Muralist: A Novel by B. A. Shapiro

From the author of the New York Times bestseller The Art Forger comes a thrilling new novel of art, history, love, and politics that traces the life and mysterious disappearance of a brilliant young artist on the eve of World War II.

Alizée Benoit, an American painter working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), vanishes in New York City in 1940 amid personal and political turmoil. No one knows what happened to her. Not her Jewish family living in German-occupied France. Not her artistic patron and political compatriot, Eleanor Roosevelt. Not her close-knit group of friends, including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner. And, some seventy years later, not her great-niece, Danielle Abrams, who while working at Christie’s auction house uncovers enigmatic paintings hidden behind recently found works by those now famous Abstract Expressionist artists. Do they hold answers to the questions surrounding her missing aunt?

Entwining the lives of both historical and fictional characters, and moving between the past and the present, The Muralist plunges readers into the divisiveness of prewar politics and the largely forgotten plight of European refugees refused entrance to the United States. It captures both the inner workings of today’s New York art scene and the beginnings of the vibrant and quintessentially American school of Abstract Expressionism.

B.A. Shapiro is a master at telling a gripping story while exploring provocative themes. In Alizée and Danielle she has created two unforgettable women, artists both, who compel us to ask, What happens when luminous talent collides with inexorable historical forces? Does great art have the power to change the world? And to what lengths should a person go to thwart evil?

8. Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos

TWAIN & STANLEY ENTER PARADISE, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Oscar Hijuelos, is a luminous work of fiction inspired by the real-life, 37-year friendship between two towering figures of the late nineteenth century, famed writer and humorist Mark Twain and legendary explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley.

Hijuelos was fascinated by the Twain-Stanley connection and eventually began researching and writing a novel that used the scant historical record of their relationship as a starting point for a more detailed fictional account. It was a labor of love for Hijuelos, who worked on the project for more than ten years, publishing other novels along the way but always returning to Twain and Stanley; indeed, he was still revising the manuscript the day before his sudden passing in 2013.

The resulting novel is a richly woven tapestry of people and events that is unique among the author’s works, both in theme and structure. Hijuelos ingeniously blends correspondence, memoir, and third-person omniscience to explore the intersection of these Victorian giants in a long vanished world.

From their early days as journalists in the American West, to their admiration and support of each other’s writing, their mutual hatred of slavery, their social life together in the dazzling literary circles of the period, and even a mysterious journey to Cuba to search for Stanley’s adoptive father, TWAIN & STANLEY ENTER PARADISE superbly channels two vibrant but very different figures. It is also a study of Twain’s complex bond with Mrs. Stanley, the bohemian portrait artist Dorothy Tennant, who introduces Twain and his wife to the world of séances and mediums after the tragic death of their daughter.

9. Tightrope (Marian Sutro #2) by Simon Mawer

An historical thriller that brings back Marian Sutro, ex-Special Operations agent, and traces her romantic and political exploits in post-World War II London, where the Cold War is about to reshape old loyalties
 
As Allied forces close in on Berlin in spring 1945, a solitary figure emerges from the wreckage that is Germany. It is Marian Sutro, whose existence was last known to her British controllers in autumn 1943 in Paris. One of a handful of surviving agents of the Special Operations Executive, she has withstood arrest, interrogation, incarceration, and the horrors of Ravensbrück concentration camp, but at what cost? Returned to an England she barely knows and a postwar world she doesn’t understand, Marian searches for something on which to ground the rest of her life. Family and friends surround her, but she is haunted by her experiences and by the guilt of knowing that her contribution to the war effort helped lead to the monstrosities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When the mysterious Major Fawley, the man who hijacked her wartime mission to Paris, emerges from the shadows to draw her into the ambiguities and uncertainties of the Cold War, she sees a way to make amends for the past and at the same time to find the identity that has never been hers.

A novel of divided loyalties and mixed motives, Tightrope is the complex and enigmatic story of a woman whose search for personal identity and fulfillment leads her to shocking choices.

10. Dream House: A Novel by Catherine Armsden

Lush with sensory detail and emotional complexity, Dream House is about family, home, and an architect’s journey to understand the crippling hold one house has on her.

In the months following her parents’ fatal car accident in Maine, architect Gina Gilbert is coming apart: anxious with her two young children, alienated by her clients’ grand house dreams, and no longer certain she feels at home in San Francisco. While she and her sister Cassie are cleaning out their childhood home on the coast of Maine, they stir up painful memories and resentments over family possessions. A legendary collection of historically significant letters is missing from the artifacts they unearth, supporting a decades-old suspicion that their aunt or estranged cousin has stolen them.

Threatened by the loss of the old house and its extraordinary seaside landscape, Gina finds her heart swinging wildly between Maine and California, creating conflict with her husband, Paul. To learn what the Maine house means to her, she approaches it objectively, as an architect, bringing it to life on paper. Her family’s story unfolds room by room: the darkroom from which her gentle but passive father, Ron, ran his photography business, the kitchen where her volatile mother, Eleanor, toiled under the weight of dashed dreams. As children, Gina and Cassie warily navigated rooms permeated with toxic secrets hobbling Eleanor and Ron’s marriage.

As Gina deconstructs the house, startling truths are revealed, changing family history and allowing Gina and Cassie to begin healing family wounds. Gina has the chance to search the recesses of her heart, too, discovering within her a vitalizing compassion and an awakened understanding of what makes a house a home.

Catherine Armsden’s fascination with architecture was ignited during her childhood growing up among the weather-beaten houses of coastal Maine. Educated in New England, she moved to San Francisco in 1983 with her husband, Lewis Butler, where they co-founded Butler Armsden Architects.
Dream House is her debut novel.

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