Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is a publishing phenomenon. Released mid-January, it debuted at number one on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list, where it remains. This poetic memoir of life and impending death has the feel of an important book, one that will be read and talked about for years to come. It shines a light on what it means to be human.
Kalanithi was about to complete his residency in neurosurgery at Stanford, when he began experiencing crippling back pain and weight loss. Initial X-rays looked fine, but the possibility of cancer was always in his mind. He chalked up his symptoms to long, grueling days in the operating room and his aging 36-year-old body. He admitted that while he was an authoritative surgeon, he was a meek patient.
Weeks later, when fierce chest pains began, he was forced to confront what he knew all along. A CT scan and subsequent tests revealed stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is a beautiful examination of a life cut short, a memoir rich in introspection and unsparing in emotion. When his health problems began, Kalanithi was under a tremendous amount of stress. The completion of his residency was all-consuming. His wife Lucy, an internist herself, had some doubts about their marriage and was planning some “alone time.” His diagnosis proved a game-changer.
Not only did his wife stay, but the couple decided to accelerate their plans to have a baby, continuing the circle of life. Kalanithi shared his most intimate hopes and fears with readers, as he witnessed his daughter’s birth from his own fragile, uncertain state of health.
He underwent various treatments, soldiering forward not knowing how much time he had remaining. He continued to work on the manuscript that became this book, all the while buoyed by faith and his large family. When he died in March 2015, Lucy completed the book, adding an epilogue of her own to fill in her husband’s last weeks. This section is both wrenching and cathartic for anyone who has sat with a loved one during their final hours. Kalanathi’s dying wish was to leave behind a legacy in print. A true polymath, Kalanithi held both a BA and MA in English literature; he was also a student of philosophy. All of this informs his writing. When Breath Becomes Air ensures he will live on, remembered not only for his story, but for his eloquent words.
Do you love a can’t-put-down thriller filled with lies, secrets and schemes galore? Yes? Then get your hands on a copy of Nicholas Searle’s The Good Liar. Clever, engrossing and shocking is this tale of an octogenarian lifelong liar working on his last con. A page-turner that will haunt your thoughts long after you read the last word.
We meet Roy as he is preparing to embark on his last con. His mark is Betty, a sweet, trusting widow with a sizeable nest egg. They meet via online dating, arranged by Roy and the con is set in motion. Gain her trust. Move in with her. Have her “invest” with him in a phony high-yielding venture, leaving him with her investment. Easy, right? After all, Roy has been doing this his entire life. But what made Roy a good liar? Working backwards from adulthood to childhood, Searle brilliantly doles out details of Roy’s life, continually building suspense. You will devour each page, wanting to know Roy’s innermost secrets. But you will also need to know if Roy gets his mark. And what happens to Betty? The twists will shock and awe you!
Fans of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice will enjoy Searle’s debut offering. The Good Liar also makes for an exceptional book club selection. Multidimensional characters, surprising twists and a good versus evil theme will definitely spark lively discussions. In fact, I was desperate to discuss this book with someone. So grab two copies of The Good Liar today, one for you and one for a friend, and get ready to be entertained and shocked! No lie!
If you like your homicides with a side of vegan cupcakes and old school mix tapes, Libby Cudmore’s The Big Rewind is just the book for you. Set in a perfectly realized Brooklyn neighborhood populated by artists, musicians and other assorted hipsters, this debut novel offers an eclectic mix of mystery, love, social commentary and angst.
While attempting to deliver mail to her neighbor KitKat, Jett finds her dead on the kitchen floor, beaten to death with her own rolling pin. When KitKat’s innocent boyfriend Bronco is arrested for the crime, Jett vows to find the true killer. She believes the answer to the killer’s identity is contained within a mix tape that had been sent to KitKat anonymously — it sounds an awful lot like a breakup letter, from someone who was NOT Bronco. While immersing herself in KitKat’s love life, nostalgia takes hold and Jett begins reconnecting with ex-boyfriends who had loved her, deceived her and left her.
If Jett continues to follow the trail, will she find KitKat’s killer? And will she find her own romance worthy of mix tape exaltation?
Readers who enjoy this music-laden murder mystery may also like Simmone Howell’s Girl Defective. For a similar romantic plotline without the bloodshed, try Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. If you’re interested in a real life romance that ends in tragedy, check out Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love Is a Mix Tape.
Some books take a little while to get going, but that’s not the case with the Ruth Wariner’s memoir The Sound of Gravel. It’s hard to stop reading after the first stunning sentence: “I am my mother’s fourth child and my father’s thirty-ninth.” Wariner grew up in what was supposed to be a utopian Mormon colony, founded by her grandfather. The rural farming community Colonia LeBaron was established in Mexico as a haven for those who believed in Joseph Smith’s original teachings — including polygamy.
Wariner never knew her father, once the prophet of the community. He was murdered by a member of a rival church — headed by his own brother — when she was just three months old. Her mother Kathy’s remarriage as the second wife to a colony member three years later defined her chaotic, hard-scrabble childhood. Short-tempered and selfish, Lane showed little fatherly attention to his stepchildren and children, eventually becoming predatory. He was a poor provider despite his strong work ethic, housing Kathy and her children in a rodent-infested, two-bedroom house with one unfinished bathroom, an outhouse for the meanwhile, and no electricity.
Wariner’s unique coming-of-age story is marked by poverty as much as it is by belonging to a religious cult. While Lane worked on their farm, it was up to Kathy to travel with the kids by bus to pick up government assistance checks over the border in El Paso like other colony wives as part of a complex, necessary scam.
Complicating life was a “difficult” older sister who was prone to fits of violence, a developmentally delayed older brother and a constant stream of new half-siblings to help take care of. Although her mother was loving and devoted, she always chose her husband over her children when it came time to take sides, defending Lane time and again for repeated abuses.
The Sound of Gravel is as engrossing as it is horrific. Wariner’s honest, revealing prose transports the reader to a world few would choose to visit, let alone live in. Wariner’s grit and rejection of a god that would will such horrible things gave her the strength to leave the community at the age of 15. Readers who enjoyed Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle or Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club will want to pick up The Sound of Gravel.
Robert Jordan spent more than two decades of his life writing his Wheel of Time series. What started as a proposed three-book series ended up a 14 book epic, and The Wheel of Time Companion is an absolute must for any fan of the series. Fourteen volumes involves a lot of world-building. So many characters! So many plot threads dangling all over the place! Who killed Asmodean? Why is Aran’gar such a nut? Readers need to know.
Jordan’s wife Harriet McDougal and longtime editors Romanczuk and Simons assembled this detailed compendium and dedicated it to “all the readers who love the Wheel of Time.” Readers certainly do love the Wheel of Time, and this book reflects the love that the Wheel’s curators feel for the readers, too.
For anyone who has ever wondered about the difference between Sea Folk and Seanchan, or how the male power level differs from the female powers, or how in the world the rank system in Cairhien works (and what is the Great Game, anyway?), pick up this book. Every named character, every named location, every creature Jordan ever mentioned, every permutation in name of every Forsaken is included. It even has a dictionary and grammar guide for the Old Tongue. Because, really: What was Mat Cauthon saying half the time?
Fans of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, fans of Brandon Sanderson’s book Elantris and his Mistborn series, and any fans of complex world-building need to read this book. It is, in essence, a manual on how to create a rich fantasy world that will keep on attracting readers for decades.
Life would be rock star awesome if we had super powers, right? Well, not really. Take a look at Jessica Jones, a depressed private detective self-employed at Alias Investigations. Before that, though, she was a mediocre, costumed superhero with unimpressive super power abilities, at least when compared to big names like Storm and Invisible Woman. Follow me as I give you a sneak peek inside Jessica Jones: Alias, volume 1, a graphic novel penned by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Michael Gaydos.
In Volume 1, Jessica works as a private detective at Alias Investigations to solve superhuman- related cases for her overly concerned clients. She takes on a job that turns out to be iffy. For instance, while she is out conducting surveillance for a case, she captures a man on video changing into his superhero costume. His name is Captain America, and his identity is a secret. The same case lands her in an interrogation room with the cops for suspicion of murder. Jessica realizes she was set up to film the secret identity of Captain America and to be the fall guy for a murder. Her plan is to find the mastermind behind this dirty scheme. Although Jessica Jones’ superhero days are possibly over, her future as private eye is looking mighty bright.
I totally admire the illustrations by Michael Gaydos. I love the panel layouts and the way he draws the characters’ facial expressions. The coloring by Matt Hollingsworth has a film noir-ish vibe, which is a plus because I love classic Hollywood films. The dialogue is engaging. The protagonist is mysterious and intriguing. I look forward to reading more about Jessica Jones. If you relish film noir, crime, mystery, private detectives and superheroes, read Jessica Jones: Alias, volume 1. If you find yourself liking this graphic novel, then check out Marvel's Jessica Jones television series, which is available now on Netflix. When you're finished reading Jessica Jones: Alias, volume 1, and you find yourself wanting more, be sure to pick up a copy of volumes 2, 3 and 4 at your nearest BCPL branch.
Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is one of the most intriguing new novels of the year, partially because it defies definition. It’s fantasy, speculative, sci-fi, humor, coming-of-age and awkward epic romance, with the hipster references of a not-so-distant future. Think of it as magical realism for the digital age.
Patricia and Laurence are the quintessential outcasts at school, left out and bullied to varying degrees. Both suffer from clueless, inane parents who fail to recognize and appreciate what their children are capable of — and Patricia is burdened with a sociopathic older sister to boot.
Laurence is a super-tech geek, possessing a brilliant mind capable of easily cobbling together a wristwatch-sized, two-second time machine, which jumps the wearer two seconds in time. He has built a becoming-sentient supercomputer, which he keeps in his bedroom closet. Patricia happens to be a witch, whose powers first manifest as an ability to speak with birds and one particular tree. She’ll later hone these skills at a school for magic, where she finds she doesn’t fit in either — it’s no Hogwarts. Laurence’s parents pack him up and out to a military school, where the bullying intensifies. And while these outcasts don’t immediately embrace friendship (they are really very different), it seems inevitable. The two circle in and out of each other’s social orbits, and their coincidental meetups intensify once Patricia buys a Caddy, a guitar pick-shaped social media super tablet that enhances the user’s life in inexplicable ways.
The story gains momentum when the Earth is suddenly wracked with erupting superstorms. Is Patricia’s band of avenging-angel witches the key to saving the world, or will Laurence’s hacker-inventor cohort succeed in opening a wormhole to a new, better planet? Anders’ clever pre-apocalyptic novel never loses sight of the running themes of being understood, of being valued for who you are and the difficulty of making meaningful connections when you’re out on the fringe.
Lauren Redniss’ latest book is an odd duckling among graphic novels. Rather than following any kind of paneled format, it contains passages of text interspersed with vibrantly-colored photogravure etchings and atmospheric pastel drawings that take up the entire surface of the page, resulting in an effect that is more like a book of hours than Peanuts. Those who enjoyed Cynthia Barnett’s book Rain will find an evocative companion in Thunder & Lightning.
In Thunder & Lightning, Redniss seeks to depict how weather has shaped our world and how we have adapted in a constant attempt to better predict and manipulate the weather. She has gathered the research of a wide variety of historians, scientists and environmental activists, and heavily peppers the text with their quotations, always opting for clear, plain-spoken statements from the mouths of experts rather than a summary of their findings. From this, fantastic stories emerge — of how the US military experimented in making their own rain during the Vietnam War, of hidden utopias in an Icelandic archipelago covered in permafrost year round, of the outdoor air conditioning engineered to cool the Kaaba in Mecca — along with poignant anecdotes of the natural disasters that are still fresh in our memories — Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Irene, the Chilean mine collapse, the summer wildfires in California. Through these tales, one becomes infected with Reniss’ wonder towards the sky and what it might bring, for even as we deepen our understanding of the climate and learn to create clouds, the forecast remains mysterious.
The cover of Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals leaves little doubt that this is a novel about partying. In fact, most of the book involves drinking and debauchery in engrossing detail. But what isn’t readily apparent from the cover is that this novel is a moving love letter to our best friends and their lasting impact on our lives. It also begs the question: Can our best friends and our significant others peacefully co-exist in the biggest spaces of our hearts?
Laura is engaged to Jim, a concert pianist. When Jim drops the bombshell on Laura that he’s stopping drinking forever, Laura tries to temper her partying ways. She is largely unsuccessful thanks to Tyler, her roommate and best friend. Tyler is a one-woman tornado of hilarious in-jokes, jaw-dropping nerve and quite a recreational drug habit. Laura finds it difficult to resist Tyler’s siren song of endless good times and, although her upcoming wedding hangs in the balance, she finds her late-night capers with her best friend a hard habit to break.
Animals explores the definition of what it means to emerge into one’s 30s and more solid adulthood. Laura’s choices about her career as a struggling writer, her relationship with Jim and her friendship with Tyler are in a state of flux; instead of moving forward, she refuses to move anywhere. This is not a novel for the squeamish, but one for those who can relate to Laura’s struggle in realizing that in her desperation to keep the party going, she may be erasing her best times ahead. Once we get on with the societal expectations of marriage and family, is the party truly over?
At the same time brash and literary, Unsworth’s writing style is an exciting treat for those looking for something a little different in 2016.