Stephanie Danler’s impressive debut Sweetbitter is that rare literary novel that’s a perfect poolside read. It’s the sticky summer of 2006, and 22-year-old Tess has $166 to her name and the promise of a room to rent in pre-gentrification Brooklyn. Naïve ambition and a need to pay the bills lead her to apply for a job at what her roommate tells her is the best restaurant in New York. Despite her lack of fine dining experience (she has a stint as a barista under her belt) and her utter ignorance when it comes to wine, the restaurant manager sees something in this bright young English major. As a back-waiter, she’ll ferry bottles from the wine cellar, deliver plates to the tables, prepare coffee drinks and support the servers.
Danler immerses Tess (and the reader) in the culture of fine dining, a world in which her coworkers are emotionally and intellectually invested. Everyone has a story, and most never expected they’d stay in the job as long as they have. She’s tutored by career server Simone, smart and driven with a personal life rife with secrets. Tess is immediately drawn to Jake, the enigmatic bartender with impossibly pale blue eyes and bad-boy charisma. But just what is Simone’s connection to Jake? The interpersonal politics at the restaurant are far more complicated than Tess realizes. Long hours at the restaurant are fueled by a passion for excellence, sexual tension and drugs, which stave off exhaustion. The staff works hard, and parties harder. As the story progresses, Tess gains confidence as an integral part of the restaurant team, even as she makes questionable relationship choices.
Readers will revel in the culinary details, from the hearty fare served at preservice family meal to the plates inspired by the seasonal ingredients collected at the Union Square Farmers Market. Tess expands her palate with the delight of a child and the seriousness of a scholar, savoring creamy, briny raw oysters even as she learns to identify myriad varieties by sight. She finds a personal preference for a rare, authentic dry sherry.
Sweetbitter is smart, compelling and compulsively readable. Danler’s characters are memorable and her writing cinematic, with the restaurant, food, wine and New York City itself in supporting roles. Danler’s debut is a succulent coming-of-age novel rich with descriptive prose and plot. Expect to be consumed by Sweetbitter from its opening pages.
Speculating about the possibilities and ethics of new technologies has long been the domain of science fiction. As we stand on the cusp of virtual realities and cloud computing, two new books revisit these contemplations with fresh voices and compelling tales.
Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal is Katya Gould’s vernacular recounting of a mysterious abduction that left her cut off from other people and, more direly, from Internet access for one week. An antiques dealer with a recently acquired typewriter, she was on her way to a client meeting when a chance encounter in a forest disrupts her plans, and the plans of her mysterious abductor. Through Katya’s recounting, Kowal contemplates the pros and cons that come with our gradual externalization of memory through technology. Her future society envisions a culture that values wabi-sabi (a Japanese aesthetic that values the imperfections that come with objects being handmade and well-used) above all else and prizes the authenticity of experiences when its members are unwilling (or unable) to seek them out for themselves. With the thrilling elements of Gillian Flynn and an engaging tone reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, this novella doesn’t lack in substance despite being a mere 85 pages long.
Sometime in the early 21st century, “the Cloud” burst and everyone’s online secrets rained down upon them, ruining relationships and destroying lives. So the Internet was abolished. The police force merged with the press corps, new inventions like dreamcoats and flatex were created so that anyone can look like anything (for the right price) and people’s identities are carefully guarded secrets. It is in this version of the year 2075 that Brian K. Vaughan (of Saga fame) and Marcos Martin stage The Private Eye, a classic noir mystery told first as a webcomic and now in print. A vigilante PI begins a double-blind background check when his client is killed and he is framed as the prime suspect. To prove his innocence, he begins to dig deeper with the assistance of his sassy sidekicks and uncovers a megalomaniac’s sinister plans. Reminiscent of Blade Runner, this graphic novel doesn’t just pose the obvious questions about identity but also critiques how much the Internet has actually helped the modern age.
If you were like me as a kid and read a lot of fantasy, you probably had no trouble believing that magic mirrors, wardrobes and tollbooths were everyday objects. That Narnia or Wonderland were one right-wrong turn away at any given moment. But the part of those stories I could never understand was the part where the kids go home at the end. If you really found a door to a world where magic was real why would you ever leave? Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway asks a darker question: What would you do to get back?
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a school for children coping with realness. Children who returned from magical worlds and desperately want to go back again. But their reasons for wanting to go back are more compelling than just wanting to fight dragons or whatever. These worlds offered them acceptance that they couldn’t find at home, a safe place to express their gender, sexuality, their personality. Plus dragons. Who wouldn’t want to go back?
But now someone’s threatening the safety of everyone on campus. Someone who would do anything to return to their world, and everyone’s a suspect.
With this book, McGuire has crafted not just one world but multiple worlds of compelling characters and situations, all nested inside one slim novella. Fans of the novel and TV series The Magicians will appreciate this clever deconstruction and homage to the fantasy genre.
Looking for the next buzzworthy title or the perfect beach read? BCPL librarians are sharing and discussing the must-have books for summer at Book Buzz sessions at various library branches. Join us and you’ll have an instant summer reading list!
We’re talking about so many great summer reads, but here’s a quick look at our favorites. Nonfiction readers should not miss Mary Roach’s newest, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, in which she applies her childlike sense of wonder and curiosity to war by asking all the questions that pop into her head when visiting military research facilities from Natick Soldier Systems Center to the nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Fiction readers will devour these favorites which include Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a debut novel which Ta-Nehisi Coates called an “inspiration.” Told in 14 chapters spanning 250 years, each chapter tells the story of a descendant of two sisters from Ghana. Another debut getting considerable attention is Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley, a charming study of loneliness, the limits of one’s sanity and the powerful bond between a man and his dog.
In the mood for a thriller? Be sure to check out City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong set in Rockton, a secret town in the far north of Canada where the hunted go to hide. Casey and her best friend each have reasons to disappear, but upon arriving in Rockton they realize they may be in even more danger. Wendy Walker’s All Is Not Forgotten follows teen Jenny Kramer’s brutal rape and the repercussions when her parents opt to try a new drug offered by doctors that will eradicate the memory of the rape.
My favorite is Leigh Himes’ The One That Got Away, which centers on Abbey Lahey, an overworked mom whose life is in a rut when she spies a former suitor, Alexander van Holt, in the pages of Town & Country. She immediately wonders “what if” and can’t stop thinking about how her life would have been different. When she wakes in the hospital from an accidental fall, she is Mrs. Alexander van Holt with money, privilege and status. But is it all she dreamed it would be? Be sure to join us to hear about more hot titles at a Book Buzz near you.
After 30 years of legal troubles kept it from seeing print, Miracleman: The Golden Age by Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham is a lost classic that is well worth the wait. For those unfamiliar, Miracleman was the first “serious” superhero, who began the “grim ‘n gritty” style of comics in the 1980’s.This was a time when writers started asking what would happen if superheroes existed in the real world. The answer was usually violent. But for a comic that came from the same era as cynical classics like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman is surprisingly optimistic.
The story of Miracleman is basically about a Superman knockoff who discovers that he’s actually the product of government experiments and brainwashing. He decides to break the cycle of superhero antics by abolishing all governments and setting up a global utopia over which he rules as a god. It’s a pretty shocking concept, but when Neil Gaiman took over writing the book he did something even more audacious: he took the idea of a world without crime and ran with it. Instead of focusing on Miracleman, the book suddenly became a series of vignettes exploring how average people react to finding themselves in a utopia.
This was Gaiman’s first comics work and so it’s surprising that it’s some of his best. The stories in this volume are both wildly imaginative and emotionally grounded. We’re introduced to various people — a father making a pilgrimage to Miracleman to ask him to save his daughter’s life, a spy learning to live in a world without espionage and even a resurrected Andy Warhol questioning existence and getting back into silk screening — each of them trying to understand what it means to be human in a world that is suddenly (more or less) perfect. Fans of Gaiman’s Sandman series will find plenty to enjoy, and even non comic book fans will discover a book that proves comics don’t have to be violent to explore adult ideas.
Ever the faithful friend and family fixer, Miss Julia is plunged into a disaster not of her own making in Miss Julia Inherits a Mess by Ann B. Ross. Julia is dismayed to learn that Mattie Freemantle, a spinster with no family, has fallen and broken her hip. As any good neighbors would, Julia and her friends gather to visit, comfort and organize. Mattie can hardly be called a close friend, but it’s the right thing to do. So you can just imagine Julia’s reaction when she receives a call from Mattie’s lawyer informing her she entrusted Julia with power of attorney, and that decisions must be made promptly. When Mattie dies, Julia learns to her horror that she is the executor of the will.
Mattie’s home is loaded with furniture, bric-a-brac and junk mail that will take weeks to sort. Mattie has remembered half the town in her will, from the mechanic who repaired her ancient car to the grocery boy who carried her parcels. Mattie’s promises went a lot farther than her wealth; that $840 in her bank account isn’t going to go far.
Realizing that the task will only fall to less capable shoulders, Julia pitches in and gets to work. Employing some local experts to assist with valuation, a possible nugget is discovered under all that dust. Things are looking up, until a young man claiming to be Mattie’s long lost nephew asks to live in her apartment and take some of her things — for sentimental value, of course.
Fans of lighthearted southern fiction will delight in the town’s eccentric characters and Miss Julia’s efforts to fulfill a lonely old spinster's final wishes. Fans of Fanny Flagg, Mignon Ballard and Jan Karon will find a treat in this satisfying romp.
In early 1938, the intrepid Maisie Dobbs returns to England and her former profession in Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear. As Maisie walks the streets of London, she meanders through her memories. Dealing with her grief and the irresponsible actions that lead to her husband’s death, Maisie is approached by MI-5 for a treacherous mission. Leon Donat, a British subject visiting Germany to publish books, has been taken prisoner and sent to the notorious prison at Dachau. After complex negotiations, the German government has agreed to release Donat, but only if his daughter personally escorts her father home. Bearing a striking resemblance to Donat’s gravely ill daughter, as well as possessing certain valuable skills, MI-5 considers Maisie to be Donat’s only chance at escape.
Donat is no ordinary book publisher. He loves to tinker, and with his pen and paper he creates amazing inventions. Donat’s engineering skills and creative energy could mean the difference between winning and losing a war. While war has not yet been declared, it is obvious that the great nations of Europe are marching down an inexorable path. Germany has become a powder keg of simmering tensions, traitorous neighbors and underground defiance. Into this maelstrom, Maisie must convince Nazi officials she is Donat’s daughter and spirit him safely away before the Gestapo discovers his value.
Winspear has created a tale of emotional depth and moral conflict as Maisie struggles to reconcile her own experiences with what she has been called upon to perform. For while she is trying to free Donat, she has also been asked to assist the one person she holds accountable for her husband’s death.
Jacqueline Winspear has won the Agatha, Alex and Macavity awards for best first novel. If you like your mysteries with lots of historical atmosphere, a touch of spiritualism and a lot of spunk, Journey to Munich will surely deliver.