A new way to find great new books
by Rob Neufeld
I keep searching for ways to be as open as possible to great books as they come out. It’s not easy because: 1) our guides—publishers and reviewers—follow certain channels, comparable to radio playlists, to stay smart; and 2) a random approach is impractical.
Readers’ online reviews help, but there’s too much; I need a filter, based partly on authority. I could ask people in person—and that’s pretty interesting. Rarely do bestsellers come up as true favorites.
Of course, I’ll use all of the above methods to find something fresh, timely, timeless, genuine, and maybe even brilliant. Recently, I’ve been trying out a new process.
Here’s how it works. I go to the websites of selected bookstores, click staff picks, cull the prospects, and then go to Kindle to read sample pages. If I like what I see, I go back to reviews to see what rings true.
I’ve already reviewed—and I loved—this novel about a precocious girl whose time with a simple-hearted guardian (Flora) revolutionizes her world view in 1940s Asheville, affected by Oak Ridge and polio.
There’s a point to be made.
Alsace at Malaprop’s has put “Flora,” now out in paperback, on her staff picks list, perhaps reviving it after the book world dropped the ball. Though the novel had gotten starred reviews in all four pre-pub journals—a rare feat—the novel hardly made a dent in the public mind because its publicist had left the firm just as it was coming out, and the raves went for naught.
Here’s the opposite kind of lesson.
“The Bone Clocks” is one of the most talked about books of the moment. Bill Ott, editor and publisher of “Booklist”—the American Library Association’s pre-pub journal—said the novel is “the quintessential example of translit fiction.”
Is translit fiction an exciting expression of our times? It refers to a kind of hyperlinked reality, with the narration jumping from one time period and location to another as characters try to figure out what the heck is going on in a world gone haywire.
In “The Bone Clocks,” the narrator, Holly Sykes, a 1980s British teenager as the story opens, sounds like a mixture of “Clockwork Orange” and Holden Caulfield. It seems too confected to me.
Holly eventually reaches the year 2045, having become a point of contention between two atemporal power groups.
I am not the only reviewer who points out that, previously, novels have crossed time periods without losing what should be their main thrust—that is, realistic immersions into characters’ souls. William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The House of the Seven Gables” come to mind.
Still, I can’t dismiss Mitchell (author of “Cloud Atlas”) yet. He’s not responsible for the hype. His invention may be a good way to tell a string of good tales. And post-apocalyptic virtual reality is a force to be reckoned with. It’s just that I generally don’t find such prophetic revelation intimate enough to move me.
Talk about intimate. “Outline” follows a woman from London to Greece, where she’s to teach a writing class; and the tale is composed of her conversations with various people (including her airplane seat mate) who unburden themselves in response to her excellent listening skills.
I got this recommendation from the receiving and returns guy at Skylight Books in L.A.—Arlo Klahr, and you can see what he looks like because the bookstore posts pen-and-ink caricatures of their staff members on their “Staff Picks” page.
Reading the book sample, I was struck by the assured wit. The narrator notices that her fellow passenger’s speech is a little too refined, and asks him his nationality.
“I was sent to an English boarding school at the age of seven," the now aged son of a shipping magnate says. “You might say I have the manners of an Englishman but the heart of a Greek. I am told it would be much worse the other way around.”
Julie Myerson, writing in “The Guardian,” asserted, “This is no wry comedy of conversations but a cool-headed meditation on the doomed nature of relationships, on the perennial and devastating distance that exists between people” which, as one character says, “you are always trying to purge with what you call frankness.”
I visited The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City to lift this book pick, unusual for its respectful, deep, and unflinching view of hard times people: an injured Iraq War veteran, beset by nightmares; the veteran’s group home caregiver; and the night orderly, who also works as a paint store clerk to support two daughters.
It’s one of those books in which the circumstances depress you; and the characters’ spirit lifts you up.
Here’s the thing. The author’s so knowing, the prose is not the least bit showy, and the reading’s very smooth. When Freddie, the orderly, greets the owner of the paint store—the late owner’s business-ruining son to whom the owner’s wife had made him bequeath it instead of to Freddie—small talk takes on weight.
The son stops by the shop in the middle of the day, asks about sales, goes into the office for a frozen dinner while listening to a radio preacher, and then leaves for the day. “Well, it looks like it’s going to snow now,” he says. “January and snowing,” Freddie replies.
Beah’s first book, “A Long Way Gone,” his account of being a child soldier in the Civil War in Sierra Leone, was a sensation. He has now written a novel—about two refugees who return to their country to see how it can be rebuilt from ruin and horror.
The language struck me. Beah speaks several Africa dialects, mainly Lente, which he says is very figurative. He turns it into English, as in this sentence: “The sky was preparing to roll over and change its side.”
Jan at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City reached back a few years to highlight this book of essays about endemic racism and overcoming racism in communities. Her three samples are places in New York, California, and Kansas.