This list from Publishers Weekly includes links to its reviews of many of the nominated works.
COLDWATER, Mich. — One October night in 2004, Curtis Dawkins smoked crack, dressed up for Halloween in a gangster costume and terrorized a household, killing one man and taking another hostage in a rampage that drew 24 patrol officers and a six-member SWAT team. He is serving a life sentence without parole in Michigan.
On Tuesday, he will also be a published author when his debut story collection is released by Scribner, a literary imprint at one of the country’s top publishing houses.
Here’s a thought-provoking story about a convicted murderer who had an MFA before he began a life sentence in prison for murder. Now he’s about to have a book of stories published by a major publishing house. The stories are about life in prison, but not about his specific crime. Proceeds from the book will go into a fund for his children’s education.
My husband and I are getting ready to leave on a one-month vacation. I’ve already decided what clothes and accessories to pack, but I’m stressing out about what reading to bring along. I’m talking about those big, frothy stories that you can dive into on a long plane trip or while sunning on a ship’s deck.
I don’t want anything too refined that will require taking copious notes so I won’t have to struggle with notebook, pens, sticky notes, and my book while confined to a coach airplane seat. Some people call the kind of books I’m talking about here airplane books or beach reads. In remarks about one of these books on Goodreads, one reader wrote, “I would put this book in the category of a soap opera.” Yep, that’s about it.
To give you some idea of the kind of recommendations I’m looking for, here are five frothy pleasure reads I’ve indulged in.
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
This book is my prototypical definition of this reading category. McCullough’s three-generational family saga has it all: illicit love, sex (both illicit and licit), marriage, motherhood, religion, secrets, family ties, money, fame, sweeping landscape vistas, and merino sheep.
The Thorn Birds tells the stories of three generations of the Cleary family, who at the beginning of the book leave a life as poor farmhands in New Zealand to travel to Australia, where they are destined to inherit Drogheda, the huge family estate. Most of the book centers on Meggie, one of the Cleary children; Ralph, the Catholic priest who falls in love with her; and Dane and Justine, Meggie’s children. Tragedies ensue, but what drives the story is McCullough’s deft and deep characterization that keeps readers involved in the lives of these people.
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
Goodreads describes this as “a huge, brash thunderstorm of a novel, stinging with honesty and resounding with drama.”
The story opens in New York City, where Tom Wingo has arrived after his twin sister Savannah’s latest suicide attempt. To help Savannah’s psychiatrist better understand her troubled patient, Tom narrates the story of their childhood in a dysfunctional family raised in the low country of South Carolina. Steeped in Southern tradition, the narrative includes family conflict, strict religious belief, infidelity, sibling relationships, and the effects of physical and emotional abuse. Pat Conroy’s outstanding writing turns the Wingo family story into a tale of tragic, mythic proportion that brings both suffering and catharsis to readers.
The movie starring Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand is a good rendering, but read the book first.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
According to Ken Follett himself, this is his favorite of his novels and readers often tell him it’s their favorite as well. This big novel, set in England at the beginning of the twelfth century, uses the building of a magnificent cathedral as the focal point for a look at history: at the corruption of the nobility, at the lack of political stability, at the corrupt church, and at the peasants, who are at the mercy of all three. The story focuses on a few representatives of each category, and Follett’s depth of character development kept me reading for more than 900 pages to find out the fate of each.
There is a sort-of sequel, World Without End, that tells the story of the building of a new bridge in the same fictional town. There are references to the characters of Pillars, but this second novel can be read on its own. It’s basically the same story set 200 years later, with a bridge substituted for the original cathedral.
The Immigrants by Howard Fast
This is the story of how Dan Lavette, son of an Italian fisherman, builds a shipping company into a financial empire. Featuring the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the novel explores the status of immigrants on the West Coast and the growth of industry in California over the first decades of the twentieth century. And of course there are love stories involved: a loveless marriage and some passionate love affairs. In the end, though, the story probes the relationship between wealth and happiness.
This is the first novel in the Lavette Family series, with five more that continue the family saga:
- Second Generation
- The Establishment
- The Legacy
- The Immigrant’s Daughter
- An Independent Woman
I discovered this series not long after the first novel was published in 1977 in a neighborhood book-swap. I’d read them all again.
The Books of Rachel by Joel Gross
This novel encapsulates 500 years of Jewish history, from the Spanish Inquisition to the founding of Israel. The story focuses on the Cuheno family. From the fifteenth century on, the first daughter of each generation has been given the name Rachel and the family heritage of courage and faith, represented by the family diamond.
The story opens in the present time, just before the marriage of Rachel Kane as her father presents her with the diamond and its story. The book then flashes back to fifteenth century Spain with the story of the first Rachel, then presents the stories of four more generational Rachels. Some of these stories are painful to read, since they deal with antisemitism through time and the horrors it has produced. Overall, though, this narrative is uplifting with its continued emphasis of faith, perseverance, and hope.
There is a prequel, The Lives of Rachel, that goes back further into history, beginning in Judea in 168 B.C.E.
Now that you know what I mean by frothy pleasure reads, what books would you suggest that I take with me on vacation?
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Tips for Writers and Readers
Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.
—Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Read that sentence, one of the most famous first sentences in literature, aloud. Notice its cadence. The rhythm lulls you toward sleepiness—appropriate for a dream. And the rest of the book hinges on that final word, again. “Why again?” we wonder. “What happened during the other time or times at Manderley?” “Is Manderley only a dream now, and, if so, why?”
A good introduction piques readers’ interest and compels them to keep reading.
Charles Dickens was a master of grand openings:
A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.
A Christmas Carol:
Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
Most readers say that they evaluate whether to read a book by looking at the first sentence. Writers have maybe five seconds to capture potential readers’ attention. If the opening sentence doesn’t somehow do that, readers will put that book back on the shelf and pick up another one.
Good introductions grab readers immediately by involving them in the story. Effective introductions make readers ask questions and keep turning the pages to find out the answers. There is no formula for an irresistible introduction, but readers know one when they encounter it.
Here are five more examples of introductions that grabbed me and refused to let me go.
Emma by Jane Austen
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
Like the opening of Rebecca, the soothing poetic meter of the first part of this introduction draws readers in and underscores the harmony of Emma Woodhouse’s life. However, the second part suggests that changes are coming. I need to keep reading to see what will happen to distress or vex Emma.
The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.
A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows this.
In my heart I know that even the most honest person will lie under certain circumstances. But this opening turns upside down my expectation that justice involves a trial in which witnesses vow to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” I must see how how everyone in this case is going to lie and how a trial in which everybody lies will turn out.
Mind Prey by John Sandford
The storm blew up late in the afternoon, tight, gray clouds hustling over the lake like dirty, balled-up sweat socks spilling from a basket.
Here weather imagery sets the mood: threatening weather suggests ominous happenings coming up. And when the conditions smell like “dirty, balled-up sweat socks,” I know that nothing good can possibly happen.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
I EXIST! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.
A first-person narrator who observes her own conception can only take me to dizzying places. I want to continue reading to see what else she has in store for me.
The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton
What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts. I don’t know exactly how or why it gets inside us; that’s one of the mysteries I haven’t solved yet.
Not only do I want to learn about “the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts,” but I want to hear the story of how the narrator discovers this truth that he or she finally knows. Maybe what I learn here will teach me about human nature, or “exactly how or why [the kernel of meanness] gets inside us.”
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Studio co-founder and designer of Dialogue, Dustin Connor, added: “Conversation can be different depending on the context and participants, and we wanted to craft different visuals and mechanics for different conversations to reflect that. Some are timed and ‘in the moment’, while others are exploratory. Our game is a starting point – we want to see other developers experiment with their own conversation mechanics, and we want to lend our experience as consultants to make that process easier.”
If you’ve watched the first two seasons of HBO’s True Detective, you’ll be interested in what Paul Owen has to say here:
on Monday news came that we needed to brace ourselves for a potential third season of True Detective, with Pizzolatto teaming up with David Milch, the co-creator of NYPD Blue and Deadwood. The new season has yet to be greenlit. But if it is coming back, here are three major problems it has to fix to be worth giving another chance
The inimitable Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times reviews Tom Nichols’s book on a “wave of anti-rationalism that has been accelerating for years — manifested in the growing ascendance of emotion over reason in public debates, the blurring of lines among fact and opinion and lies, and denialism in the face of scientific findings about climate change and vaccination.”
Read about these author-debut novels:
- Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett
- The Young Widower’s Handbook by Tom McAllister
- Himself by Jess Kidd
- Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Here are some of the recent articles that have caught my eye.
Literature can enthuse medicine, and medicine can inspire literature. They are complementary treatments for being human.
Following the persevering example of the writer and activist Grace Paley
A new book is the first to bring clinical expertise to the poet’s case. What does it reveal about his work?
The idea of time travel has fascinated artists, scientists, and historians for centuries. Authors have used the possibility of traveling through time to explore some of the big questions of human existence.
Here are five examples.
Time and Again by Jack Finney
When a secret government organization recruits advertising artist Si Morley for its time travel experiment, Morley jumps at the chance. His friend has the remnant of a partially burned letter dated January 1882, and Morley intends to see what he can find out about the letter writer and intended recipient. One temptation of time travel is that travelers will like some other time period better than their own. When Morley falls in love with a woman from the world of 1882, he must decide exactly who he is and where he belongs.
This 1970 novel is one of the most popular time-travel books, and its reputation is well deserved. Finney creates a compelling picture of life in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century and even makes time travel seem like a logical possibility. If you’re new to time travel literature, this novel is a good place to start.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
This novel uses time travel to present an unlikely love story. Clare and Henry are soul mates, but Henry suffers from a rare genetic condition that throws him into temporal free fall whenever he experiences a high-stress situation. Although Henry cannot control when he vanishes and to what time period he travels, he always lands at some point in his own life time—either his past, present, or future. And he almost always lands somewhere and somewhen near Clare.
Much of the novel focuses on how both Clare and Henry learn to live with his unusual condition. But its emotional center is their love story, which transcends all the complications of their lives.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
One of the most intriguing aspects of time travel literature is consideration of this question: What if someone could travel back in time and prevent some tragic disaster? This is the situation Jake Epping, a 35-year-old English teacher from Maine, encounters. Jake’s friend Al has discovered a portal back to 1958 in the rear of his diner. Al has been traveling back and forth, gathering information necessary to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
When Al’s failing health prevents him from finishing his mission, he recruits Jake to take up the cause. Using Al’s research, Jake settles into a life in 1958 Texas while planning to thwart Lee Harvey Oswald’s attack in Dallas. But like Si Morley in Time and Again, Jake discovers that life in another time period has potential complications. And even if Jake can stop the assassination, should he? What are the consequences of changing the past so drastically?
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
In 1976 in California, Dana, an African American woman, is suddenly pulled through time and plunked down in pre-Civil War Maryland. She saves a drowning white boy, only to find herself staring down the barrel of a shotgun. Just as her life is about to end, she is pulled through time once again and deposited back into her present life. Dana experiences several more of these time-wrenching experiences, always landing in the life of the same young man.
Octavia E. Butler was the first black woman to write science fiction, and this is her best known and most often studied novel. Butler won both Hugo and Nebula awards and in 1995 became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award. This novel uses time travel as a trope for exploring questions of cultural history and social justice.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
Focusing on the World War II fire-bombing of Dresden, Kurt Vonnegut examines the meaning of history and of human existence in what has become one of the most famous anti-war literary works of all time. This novel considers war not only as a broad, abstract concept of history but also as a human experience that affects all the people it touches.
No description can possibly do this novel justice. You must read it. It’s short, but you’ll continue to think about it for the rest of your life.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown