Monday, July 23, 2007

Searching For a Few Good Books

by Marcus Sakey

I used to go book shopping by wandering into a store, running my hands along the shelves, inhaling deeply, and grabbing books at random. This was fun, sensual even, but the results were scattershot. Sometimes I stumbled on gems. Sometimes I bought losers. The truth is that it's pretty easy for a publishing company to make a jacket look enticing. And though you can read the first pages, I've grabbed plenty of books with dynamite initial chapters and lousy everything else.

In the last years, the Internet has changed the way I read. Oftentimes I'm getting titles from blogs or columns, people whose taste I trust. Before I buy a book, I can scan reviews from both readers and the media. I can still read the first few pages, but I can also check out the author's website. As a result, I've been fortunate to have consistently good books for the past few years.

This is a wonderful thing. But it spoils you, too. Because when the standard is generally high, you're always searching for the exceptional.

Which is where y'all come in. I've read a lot of excellent books recently. But it's been a while since one truly startled me. I'm not talking about being a heck of a read, or fun, or smart. I'm talking about absolutely blowing the doors off. A book that is a serious and sudden contender for the prized Number One slot.

I'm hoping you can suggest more.

I'll give you an example to kick it off. CLOUD ATLAS, by David Mitchell. I picked it up on a friend's rec, and didn't get to it for more than a year. Then, once I did, I walked around in a daze throughout reading it. Sheer and pulsing genius on every damn page. A story--a series of stories, really, but all connected--that wouldn't let go. Virtuosic command of the language. Lines and images that haunt me still. If you haven't read it, I urge you to pick up a copy.

So, the rules: No rules. I'll take recs in any category. I read litfic and fantasy and science fiction and crime and graphic novels and the sides of cereal boxes. They can be old or new, acclaimed or unheard of, native English or translations.

They just have to have really shaken you to your core.

How about it? What blew you away?


John said...

Marcus, I can't recommend STONE CITY highly enough. This 1990 novel from Mitchell Smith has all of the plot desired by crime fiction fans and more character development than is on offer in an recent work of so-called literary fiction I have read in recent memory. The story of a college professor who lands in prison on a drunk driving/vehicular manslaughter charge and the ways he finds to survive and thrive -- all against the backdrop of a murder mystery -- is one of the most compelling things I've read in a long time. Busted Flush Press is reissuing it this fall.

Adam Hurtubise said...


Here's two. One, you've already read: Kevin Guilfoile's Cast of Shadows blew me away. But of course you knew that because Kevin is part of The Outfit. I guess I can't recommend a book you've already read.

The most recent title that blew me away was Stephen Hunter's Pale Horse Coming. Beautifully written, hard-boiled, with a fabulous protagonist. Yes, I'm late to the game when it comes to Stephen Hunter, but it was a very refreshing discovery.

Victor Gischler said...


At the risk of pimping a pal, Sean Doolittle's THE CLEANUP was just nominated for a Barry Award. A great read.

And in the category of authors I don't know personally: Joe Meno's THE BOY DETECTIVE FAILS. A great quirky novel.

Victor Gischler

Bob said...

Beer: A History of Brewing in Chicago by Bob Skilnik

Chicago Tribune

"Bob Skilnik thinks most historians have overlooked what a thirsty job it was being hog butcher to the world."

Illinois Heritage Magazine

"Skilnik's book, quite skillfully, brings focus to the history of Chicago's beer production, distribution, retail sale, and consumption patterns."

About the Author
Bob Skilnik is an alumnus of Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology - the oldest school of brewing technology in the U.S. - where he earned a degree in brewing technology. He is the former associate editor for the American Breweriana Journal, a contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Good Eating food section, trade journals, magazines and newspapers. He has appeared on ABC’s "The View," the Fox News Channel, ESPN2, and Chicago’s WTTW. BEER: A History of Brewing in Chicago is his fifth book.

Alison said...

I agree emphatically with Victor about The Boy Detective Fails.

Also, The Courage Consort by Michel Faber. It's three novellas, and they're all incredible.

Bryon Quertermous said...

Two Words: Scott. Wolven.

His short story collection CONTROLLED BURN absolutely blew me away. Also anything from Tom Franklin, but particularly his new one, SMONK.

Sarah Weinman said...

Marianne Wiggins' EVIDENCE OF THINGS UNSEEN. It was recommended to me highly, and I finished it on a train feeling transported to new heights. An amazing achievement.

Marcus Sakey said...

Knew I could count on you guys.

John, I actually just read STONE CITY and couldn't agree more. A really fantastic book. I gave a glowing blurb to Busted Flush, and I'll be giddy if they end up using it.

Kevin's book? That old thing? ;) Kidding, of course. COS is terrific, and I highly recommend it to all--a serious exploration of identity and destiny masquerading as a thriller.

I've not read Meno's latest. He's a Columbia College guy, so we've actually run into each other, and I've read some of his shorts--with two recs, I'll definitely pick this one up.

CONTROLLED BURN was terrific--wonderfully understated, but haunting as hell.

I've never tried Tom Franklin or Michael Faber, but I'll grab both of them. And Sarah, you know your recs are solid-gold to me.

Thank you all! Keep 'em coming. What's the point of living if your bookshelves aren't on the edge of collapse?

Mark Combes said...


"Far Tortuga" by Peter Matthiessen. Matthiessen is known more for his non-fiction work, but this novel is hypnotic in how it tells the story - both in language and style. Not an easy book to read - but if you can get into the rhythm you will be rewarded.

Karen Olson said...

I was blown away by Gillian Flynn's SHARP OBJECTS and Peter Spiegelman's RED CAT.

And even though he's come to my blog and made snide remarks on occasion (although fortunately usually aimed at Shelby), I will say that Gischler's SHOTGUN OPERA is not to be missed. I also ditto his recommendation of Doolittle's THE CLEANUP.

Maryann Mercer said...

I have two, both mysteries of a sort although neither is in the mystery section of your favorite bookstore:
1) The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Zafon- as a birthday gift a young boy may choose a book to protect,to make sure it never disappears,only to find out the book he chooses is sought after by a mysterious source who wants to destroy all evidence the book ever existed.
2) The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova-a vampire story, but much more than that. I read it in three days

Ooops. One more. The Archivist by Martha Cooley:Matthias Lane works as the keeper of an unnamed university library's special collection, which includes the letters T.S. Eliot wrote to Emily Hale. When a young poet requests access to the papers, Matt must face a personal history he's been avoiding--a mystery that recalls the terrible pain between Eliot and his wife, Vivienne. The characters are so well drawn here that I could see them in my mind as I read.

Marcus Sakey said...

Man, some great suggestions. Forgot to comment on Doolittle's, which is on my TBR pile now, and just got bumped up, what with double recs.

Gischler? He's a hack. ;)

Mark, Karen, Maryann, thanks for the picks! Some I know of but haven't read, some I'd never heard of, all sound great.

Keep 'em coming, folks. Keep 'em coming.

Kate said...


I recommend The Tenderness of Wolves, a debut novel by Stef Penney. Original storyline and beautifully written. It's an amazing read. Stef Penney is somehow able to write in such a way that certain phrases just blow me away.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Thanks for the kind words, Adam and Marcus. I'll throw in a third aye for THE BOY DETECTIVE FAILS. And I don't know why, but there is probably no other book I have had recommended to me more in the past six months than STONE CITY (not even counting the two times now I've heard Marcus rave about it).

Also, CLOUD ATLAS was the winner of the first Morning News/Powell's Tournament of Books, a competition that was won this year by THE ROAD. I was one of the judges that first year and although I loved it in my initial (hasty) reading I appreciated it much more the second time. My recommendation would be even more emphatic now than it was then.

To add another title to the pile--TROPIC OF NIGHT by Michael Gruber.

Steve Z. said...

Two that knocked me on my butt many years ago, and that I should read again: A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley, and Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Celine's Death on the Installment Plan (his second novel) is also pretty amazing.

V.I. said...

Artur Perez-Reverte - "Flamand Chesstable"(about a murder from a painting-title is my translation-it's can be something different)
second- Carol O'connell- Mallory's books-it's good, that I was growin' with VI Warszawski, not Kathy Mallory, but still, this creature is great and I'm enjoying style, by reading it in english (yes, I now, i make mistakes, but reading is easier than writing:)

Michael Dymmoch said...

Not mysteries but terriffic:

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly,

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, and

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Marcus Sakey said...

Yeah, I loved THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS. Smart, bittersweet, and engrossing. 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE actually didn't do it for me, though. Marquez is a beautiful stylist, but I just wasn't engaged.

Been years since I read JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT, but I remember enjoying it immensely.

Another couple I have to throw out are SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL and NIGHT DOGS, both by Kent Anderson. Amazing pieces of work. The guy isn't afraid to go into his dark places, and what he comes back with is brilliant.

Katie Bell Moore said...

Marcus, my favorite recommendation for the past few years now has been "My Sister's Keeper" by Jodi Picoult. Amazing story that haunted me for weeks after I read it, and a killer ending.

Jude Hardin said...

I thought Drive by James Sallis was extraordinary. At 30K words, you can finish it in one sitting.

Also, I just recently read Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane. Stout chops, that guy.

Marcus Sakey said...

Hey Katie! Thanks for the rec--just ordered it. I've never actually read Picoult.

And Jude, I'm with you on both. DRIVE was exceptional, and I really admire Lehane for going where people didn't expect him to with SHUTTER ISLAND.

Cameron Hughes said...

Sakey, did you ever read Block's 8 Million Ways To Die?

Pat said...

• 1984 still grabs the attention of my sophomore students. Imagine teaching that novel while the school was installing cameras in the classroom--one on the best teaching experiences.

• Then there are the phone calls I have been getting this summer. My last year’s freshmen read Lord of the Flies and I have spent hours on the phone discussing the new network show Kid Nation. WE have several hypotheses as to how it will and will not measure up to the classis. But most important kids are excited about the books they read.

• Teaching literature is such a thrill. More male students are outraged by Color Purple than the female students.

• For the true sci-fri is The Color of Magic by Terry Prachett. It is really out there and funny. The challenge comes in getting the students to discuss what Prachett is saying about our society or it is all just for fun. I vote for the fun but is it nice to see the students seriously dissecting the novel.

• The Things They Carried by O’Brien really reached the kids hears and souls and give a perspective on the Vietnam was that is lost in the more typical war book. This book is read in a quiet classroom, with very little discussion but the papers are magnificent—some of the best work my students do.

• There are so many more but as I discussed in an e-mail to Sara Paresky I am a dying bread. If Socrates were alive, he suggest the hemlock. I took early retirement. A cannot give up the joys I mentioned before in favor of teaching only to the 8 items on the test. Any job suggestion welcome –I am passionate about the no child left behind, leaving more students behind. But the Pubic school are being forces to focus to test results not understand, analysis, and enjoyment of literature. Sad story

Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

In the graphic novel category I can not strongly enough recommend FABLES from Vertigo/DC. Written by Bill Wilingham, 9 volumes so far.
The first stroy arc is the murder of Rose Red, sister of Snow White.The sheriff in charge? Bigby Wolf (BigB Wolf: Big Bad Wolf)

Any one who know fairy tales and legends will love this series. Ruth and Jennifer both read the whole run in one sitting each as well.

Matt said...

If you dug Stone City and are willing to try some sci-fi, check out Mitchell Smith's Snowfall Trilogy. The premise is a shift in a neighbouring planet's orbit has brought on a new ice age. 700 years later, North America is divided into tribes and kingdoms, and a new Khan is coming from Asia. Smith is not a sci-fi writer by trade; mostly mystery/suspense, a la Stone City - but here he attacks the futuristic story as he does his other novels, putting people in hazardous environments and seeing how they react to stress. Snowfall, Kingdom River, and Moonrise - all excellent reads, even - or perhaps especially - if you don't read sci-fi normally.

For graphic novels, I suggest a current one, Scalped (just out in trade paperback, check out Dark Tower Comics) - the story of a tribal cop on a Rez with a new $90 million casino opening, and all the attendant trouble. Think Casino meets Thunderheart. Realistic and heartbreaking.

And Kent Anderson has a new novel coming out soon!

Marcus Sakey said...

THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. God, what an amazing book. I love all his stuff, but that

LORD OF THE FLIES is another. Read it in a night and hated taking bathroom breaks.

Jon, thanks for the rec of FABLES! I'll pick up the first at my local comics shop.

Cameron--yes, I did. Sorry I haven't email you. Awesome read. Definitely have to explore his stuff further.

Matt: I had no idea Mitchell had done SF! How cool. I love good sci-fi, but find it hard to come by. I'll pick up the first ASAP.

And really? A new Kent Anderson? Any scoop you can share? I absolutely fucking loved his first two, and I'll be first in line for the new one.