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A Different Kind of War Novel - Talking to Viet Thanh Nguyen, Author of "The Sympathizer"

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The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

SympathizerOne of our favorite books so far this year is Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel The Sympathizer, a book with one of the best first sentences of any you're bound to come across (more on that later).

T.C. Boyle, among many others, describes the book in loving terms. “Magisterial," Boyle writes. "A disturbing, fascinating and darkly comic take on the fall of Saigon and its aftermath and a powerful examination of guilt and betrayal. The Sympathizer is destined to become a classic and redefine the way we think about the Vietnam War and what it means to win and to lose.”

The Sympathizer, which is on our Best Books of the Year So Far list, begins in April of 1975 and is the story of an unnamed army captain, son of a French father and a Vietnamese mother, who lives in South Vietnam but is secretly spying for the Viet Cong. Having been college-educated in the United States, he escapes on one of the last flights out of Saigon. In Los Angeles, he makes a home, continues to spy on his Southern Vietnamese compatriots, and falls in love.

There's so much more to write about this novel, but the interview I did with Viet Thanh Nguyen touches on some of what you can expect to find within its pages. Oh, and the great first line I mentioned at the beginning of this post? I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. Ok, that was two lines. I'm tempted to include the entire first paragraph.

Here's my interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen:


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Top Authors Tell Us Why We Should Pick up These Thriller Writers' Debut Novels

What is the only thing better than a new book by one of your favorite authors? Discovering a brand-new writer to add to your list of favorite authors.

Every year the International Thriller Writers select a shortlist of works in several categories for their Thriller Awards. This year, top-notch authors have weighed in before the award winners are announced on why these First Novel Finalists are outstanding books.

Read on for insight from the best in the writing game on these talented newcomers' works.


Laura McHugh’s The Weight of Blood  

The Weight of Blood"A great deal of the suspense in the Weight of Blood centers around the issue of trust—who can Lucy rely on, who is working against her, who might be dangerous. To me, that cuts to the very nature of living in the Ozarks or any small town where you know everyone’s history if not their intent. McHugh gives the truth its own narrative angle. This is a fantastic novel rich in character and atmosphere. Definitely one that connoisseurs of crime fiction won’t want to miss."

Karin Slaughter, #1 Internationally bestselling author



Julia Dahl’s Invisible City

Invisible City“Julia Dahl's Invisible City is a wonderfully written and skillfully plotted story set deep inside a world few of us know, let alone venture into. The characters grab hold from the first pages, the plot is tabloid rich and the dialogue street-level real. This is much more than a crime novel and far beyond an impressive debut by a gifted young writer. This is a book that plain and simple demands to be read—for its graceful style; its multi-layered story and a lead character that all readers can't help but cheer on as she seeks out the truth behind a crime and the lies hidden in her past. Invisible City is nothing less than a must read. 

Lorenzo Carcaterra, author of Sleepers and The Wolf     



Allen Eskens' The Life We Bury 

The Life We Bury"Allen Eskens' The Life We Bury proves a suspenseful compelling thriller does not need flash-bangs or killer viruses. Eskens excels in portraying an ordinary person moved to extraordinary actions—and his beautifully written debut unfolds with drama, power, and a believable character's relentless search for the truth. Loyalty, redemption and justice—revealed by a wonderful new voice in crime fiction."

Hank Phillippi Ryan, Agatha, Anthony, and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author of Truth Be Told 



Andy Weir’s The Martian 

The Martian“You’re stranded over 30 million miles away, on Mars, with little to no supplies, and you’re going to have to stay alive for years on a planet devoid of oxygen. Talk about a problem. It’s just astronaut, Mark Watney, all alone, in the ultimate game of Survivor. I loved The Martian. It’s a perfect example of good old-fashioned, gimmick-free, storytelling. I was hooked from page one—and so will you.”

Steve Berry, New York Times bestselling author of The Patriot Threat 



Ray Celestin’s The Axeman’s Jazz

  The Axeman's JazzThe Axeman's Jazz is the best debut I read in 2014—hell, it was probably the best book I read, debut or not. It's beautifully written, wonderfully evocative of a period that felt both exciting and unfamiliar—no mean feat in modern fiction—and painted the world of post first World War New Orleans not through detached narrative description but through the eyes of three very different characters who see that world very differently. It's a technique that feels very real, each character seeing things filtered through their own personalities and missing things others spot, so the reader is ultimately engaged in making their own minds up about the killer they all seek—a killer based on a real, unsolved case. I couldn't recommend it highly enough and am not surprised it's winning so many awards and fans.”

Simon Toyne, International bestselling author



And keep your eyes here to find out who will be the Thriller Award winners. The Thriller Awards will be announced on July 11 at ThrillerFest X in New York City.



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Mia Alvar on Miracle Workers, Mothers & Being a Citizen of the World

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In the Country by Mia Alvar

Mia Alvar’s In the Country is one of the more compelling story collections I’ve read in years. While it’s In the Countryvery specific in its depictions of Filipinos of all ages, classes, genders, it also speaks to a more general human condition that involves family, gender, class, and other minor things...Debut author Alvar talked to us about one of our favorite books of fiction so far this year.  

Let’s start with the inevitable question, the one you’ve probably been asked 400 times already: of all the Filipina characters in these stories, which ones are the closest to your and your family’s experience?

I borrowed a lot from personal experience but also changed a lot on the page, so there isn’t one character that feels most true to life. But of all the real people I know, my mother is probably the one I borrowed from the most. Aspects of her personality and life experience appear in “The Miracle Worker,” “Shadow Families,” and “In the Country”—in the form of these brisk, educated, upwardly mobile immigrant women who appear to have it all together, in some cases to the point of carrying less fortunate relatives on their backs, but always with the past—girlhoods in poverty, ghosts of personal tragedy—nipping at their heels. And I think of the narrator in “A Contract Overseas” as a younger avatar of these same women.

Can you tell us a bit about your background, and your experience of being Filipina in America?

I was born in Manila, moved to Bahrain with my family at the age of six, and then to New York City at ten. My parents belonged to a generation of Filipinos who grew up under a strong American presence in the Philippines and revered American culture, so that even while still living there we spoke English almost exclusively at home. By the time we settled in the United States, my crappy Tagalog-speaking skills were a family joke. Outside the family, though, Filipinos were not exactly a prominent cultural presence in Manhattan. I remember feeling “category-less” in the sense that I looked different from many of the kids I was growing up with, without necessarily sounding different. And I never felt like I could do an adequate job of explaining my background to others, in casual conversation: I was always oversimplifying, always leaving things out. Fiction attracted me in part for that reason: both reading and writing it promised time and space to dig through these nuanced realities that don’t necessarily fit into tidy boxes. Of course real life will always remain bigger and messier than anything a writer can capture, so things get lost anyway. But over the years, writing has also woken me up to the joys and riches of being a “world citizen”: it’s not all confusion and displacement and longing and loneliness, all the time.

Your stories have been compared (by me, for one) to those of Jhumpa Lahiri, most of whose work chronicles the Indian diaspora. Who are the writers who have influenced you?

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Four writers who really shaped my sensibility when I was young and starting out are Sandra Cisneros, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Junot Díaz. Tolstoy and Chekhov and many of their Russian compatriots, of course. Carlos Bulosan and Nick Joaquin are two Filipino writers who worked on opposite shores and from completely different class perspectives but who both inspire me tremendously. I love Jhumpa Lahiri and sometimes like to read her alongside Mavis Gallant, also a favorite: they tell such perfect stories of characters in transit or otherwise far from where they expected to be. I read George Saunders and Steven Millhauser obsessively and—like many short-story hopefuls—worship Alice Munro.

Class and money, at least as much as ethnicity, are at the center of many of these stories.  (The rich Filipinas entertaining the poorer ones; the cleaning lady in the offices on 9/11.) How are class differences the same and how are they different in the “old country” vs. “the new”?

I’ve definitely seen how the foreignness of a new country can shrink gaps between people who might not have socialized together in the old. As you mentioned, the maids and nannies in “Shadow Families” would perhaps work for the engineers’ wives in Manila, but in Bahrain they bond as friends over shared customs, nostalgia, and a mutual awe and fear of the Bahrainis whom they regard as the true upper class. But even in the Philippines, there’s a certain intimacy and interdependence that happens between amo and katulong that I didn’t want to gloss over. It’s a dynamic that fascinates me in any boss/“help” relationship: the way the power structure blurs and flips all the time, the creative rebellions and aggressions that a servant might craft within his or her circumstances, simply because humans tend to be more complex than a job title or class category.

I’m also interested in the ways migration between old and new countries can create class distinctions within the same family. In “A Contract Overseas,” a girl depends on her older brother financially to fund an education that’s intended, in many ways, to transform her into his social superior. There’s just so much there that fascinates me.

These stories are not officially “linked” but they have a certain kind of cohesiveness: they’re like vignettes of a group of characters you might meet in one gathering. Did you write them sequentially, over a long or short period of time? Do you think of them as “related”?

I love that idea of implied connections between these characters, who don’t appear in each other’s stories but could potentially cross paths elsewhere. It reminds me of the name game I’d hear adults playing throughout my childhood at parties and gatherings, the six-degrees conversations between Filipinos convinced that so-and-so’s uncle was her student or that he knew so-and-so’s cousin in college. In a newly adopted country, there’s this understandable grasping for old connections.

I adore linked collections—seeing a character at different stages in her life, as in Alice Munro’s work; or getting to know a character you dismissed as a minor player in an earlier story, as in Joan Silber’s. I chose not to link these stories explicitly, but now and then I couldn’t resist making a small gesture—dropping the name Minnie from “The Miracle Worker” into the story “Shadow Families,” for instance. And very recently, long after final edits were in, I realized that Esteban Sandoval, in the collection’s very first story, shares a last name with Milagros, in the last story (at least before she marries Jim and becomes a Reyes). I’d forgotten that they were once siblings in old, very early drafts of both stories, and perhaps they still are. So in this tiny, vestigial way, the final story in the collection does loop back to the first.

I wrote the stories over a decade, more or less, and not in exactly the order they appear in the book now. But I did focus on one at a time, finishing each story before I could move on to the next.

And the other inevitable: when do we get to see a novel? And will it be about the Philippines and the diaspora again?

I’m working on a novel now, due out in 2017 (though obviously I just jinxed it). It will follow Milagros (from the title story) and her life after the events of In the Country. So, yes: more Philippines, more diaspora.

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Women Bring Home the Gold in Locus Awards for Best in Sci-Fi and Fantasy


The Locus Awards for the best in science fiction and fantasy were announced on June 27th during a strikingly warm Saturday in Seattle. By tradition, Hawaiian shirts are worn during the awards luncheon, and the shirts were especially appropriate this year.

The winners in the four main categories -- best sci-fi novel, best fantasy novel, best new novel, and best young adult novel -- were dominated by women. I hesitate to make sweeping generalizations about gender as related to writing books or writing specific genres -- or really, as related to just about anything, if I can help it -- so I'll just leave it there as an intriguing bit of statistics. Perhaps next year the headline will be something like "Especially old (or young) bring home the gold" or "Especially tall (or short) bring home the gold."

Congratulations to the winners and the nominees, and thanks to the authors in all categories for writing these intriguing works that transport us to new, exciting worlds.

Best Science Fiction Novel - Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword


Best Fantasy Novel - The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor


Best First Novel - The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert

The Memory Garden


Best Young Adult Novel - Half a King, by Joe Ambercrombie

  Half a King


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Graphic Novel Friday: Interview with Daniel Clowes

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The Complete Eightball by Daniel Clowes

Daniel_ClowesCartoonist Daniel Clowes has won every major comics award several times over, including the Eisner, Ignatz, and Harvey, and his career earned a PEN Literary Award for Outstanding Body of Work in Graphic Lit in 2011. Oh, and he was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of Ghost World.  Interview opportunities like this are rare, but Mr. Clowes is currently making the media rounds in celebration of The Complete Eightball: 1-18, an incredible two-volume 25th anniversary hardcover collection from publisher Fantagraphics. Collecting the first 18 issues of the acclaimed (and difficult to find) indie series, the project is comprised of over 500 pages of subversive comics that made Clowes such a force in the comics scene and beyond. Mr. Clowes nicely took time to chat about the new collection, what has and has not changed in his process since Eightball, superheroes, and the book that changed his life.

Alex Carr: For the 25th anniversary of Eightball, you and Fantagraphics are bringing back into print the original, serialized approach you took to stories such as Ghost World, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, David Boring—all of these narratives that would later be collected into their own, separate “graphic novels.” But what about some of the lesser-known works? Is there any Eightball esoterica that you are looking forward to reaching a larger audience?

Daniel Clowes: To see the whole package together is what I wanted out of this project. When it originally published, I had this idea that every line on the page should be drawn by hand and by me without any outside participation at all. I wanted, for better or worse, for it to reflect what I could do, who I was and who I was trying to be as an artist. So, all the little things, like the letters pages and even the ads for other comics I would draw myself and layout and do the lettering. Having all of that together in a cohesive package is a very different experience than reading the only the individual stories themselves—just Ghost World, for example, or only the Dan Pussey stories. You’re experiencing it all and all at once, and the stories affect each other that way.

For me, just having the letters pages back in print lets you see what the world was like before the internet, where everyone was not in constant communication with each other; where people would sit down and write you 15-page letters. From a complete stranger—I still find that astonishing.

AC: You’ve jumped to my next question, which is about publishing comics before social media. What was it like to create without an immediate response? Did you ever wish you could hear more from your readers?

DC: You know, it had its pluses and minuses back then. The only response you would get would be: a) from the type of person who could find an issue of Eightball, which itself required a bit of sleuthing—it’s not like you could just walk into any store and simply find it with the rest. There were maybe 20 stores in the county that carried it. You’d have to really know what you were looking for.

That was the first hurdle, and then you had: b) [someone] who would actually sit down and care enough to write to the author. So, you’d hear that response, from someone who’s very dedicated. There’s something that’s beautiful about that, not a tweet immediately after someone reads it. It was someone really considering it, and I would try to write back to everyone who wrote to me. I felt like I needed to reciprocate—you felt a kinship to your readers, which is something you kind of lose in the digital era. I felt like I knew everyone who wrote to me, and I still remember all their names.

AC: Wow.

DC: Some of them would come to a signing and introduce themselves. “Oh yeah, I remember you. A letter from 1989!” [Laughs]

AC: You’ve said that re-reading the individual issues for this project was similar to opening an old journal. Given how much time has passed, was there anything in Eightball that you considered “fixing” or altering at all?

DC: Not for this project. When I would do the individual collections for Ghost World or Like a Velvet Glove, there were things I would change—mostly drawings I wasn’t happy with. Very rarely, I would change a little line of dialogue. But with this, I wanted it to reflect the exact look of the issues as they first came out. I even kept in all the printing mistakes: in the collection, I mention some of the things that happened by pure accident [during the original printings], often due to the fly-by-night printers we had to use back in the day. [Laughs]

Ghost World is sort of famously in a blue tone of color, but there is one issue where they just printed it in orange by accident. I don’t know why. So, I kept the orange version in this collection. I really wanted it to have that feel, where everything that is happening is beyond your control, like a force of nature.

AC: In Eightball, you wrote a great satire of working in the superhero comics business, Pussey! Given the current trend of the superhero film, what would Dan have to say about the current state of superheroes? Have your opinions changed, now 25 years removed?

DC: No, mine are about the same [laughs]. At the time, I felt like to had to live in the context of the superhero by being in comics. Most people, when you said “comic books,” thought of that. And I felt like the stuff I was into wasn’t that—it was something else. It was weird that I felt like I had to justify the types of comics that I did—which were just about real life; the types of things television, movies, or novels could be about—whereas if I just did a superhero comic that would just be accepted, you know? Nowadays, the entire culture is all about superheroes. It’s gotten magnified to such a degree that it’s become part of the landscape. I don’t even have an opinion on it anymore [because] it’s just become so oppressive in a way.

I feel like Dan Pussey was the winner of all that. Now, he would be on top of the world. It was made for him—and by him.

AC: While the original Eightball is behind you, when you now approach a new project, do any of the old creative rituals remain? Or, is the better question what has not changed since in your process since Eightball?

DC: I’ve never been comfortable with my own process [laughs], at least in terms of starting with ideas and turning them into stories. I’ve always wanted to find the way to do it that works the most efficiently and is the most energizing and fun. I know enough about myself now to know I have to change it for every project. The actual process of sitting down at the board and drawing and the tools that I use—that’s exactly the same as when I was a teenager in 1975 and sitting at my drawing board. I’d finally gotten the book that changed my life, How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way of all things [laughs]. That was the first book that I’d ever seen that said what kinds of tools cartoonists used, where I learned that most comics artists would ink with a brush. I’d always inked with a pen, and when I found out it was a brush I think I almost cried. “That’s impossible. That will take actual skill.” I had to take 15 years to figure it out, to make it look the way I wanted.

AC: Do you ever venture into digital production?

DC: I use digital for coloring. I think it’s great for that. I scan the black and white art and I color it in, and the ease of changing colors and getting that flat comic book color I want—back in the old days, we had to try to replicate that color and it would never turn out right.

AC: You do continue to introduce new elements into your stories. I’m thinking of Mister Wonderful, where the main character’s dialogue is obscured by narration boxes, reflecting the inner monologue we all have with ourselves when we speak. At what point in your process does innovation like this reveal itself to you?

DC: It’s all very organic. It’s not like I’m ever walking down the street and think, “Wow, that would be a great technique to put into one of my comics!” I have a lot of friends who, when you talk to them, you can tell they are a little distracted. They are thinking about very complicated scenarios in their heads while they’re just barely paying attention to you and coming up with robotic answers that sound like plausible answers [laughs]. I wanted to capture that, because I like that kind of character. [This technique] was a way to depict what’s going on inside that type of head.

AC: I also note an increase in double-page spreads recently from you, particularly in Mister Wonderful when Marshall walks in a black space with colorful shapes around him. Is this a technique you will continue to explore in your next work?

DC: Yeah, I actually got every interested in that while working on the book. That story originally published in serialized form in the New York Magazine, where I had to publish episodes in strips one week apart. So, I had to use those spreads to cover the space between each strip in book form, like a punctuation effect, but I then I really liked the way that looked. I also noticed that when my son was young, I would read certain children’s books to him, where they would do the same thing: there would be multiple images on one page and then a big, double-page spread followed. I thought it was a cool thing to put into comics.


Many thanks to Mr. Clowes and Fantagraphics for making this happen.


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First Chance for Jill Shalvis Fans to Hear about "Second Chance Summer"

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Second Chance Summer by Jill Shalvis

Author Jill Shalvis has wowed legions of readers with her sassy, small-town contemporary romances. Coming on June 30 is Second Chance Summer, the first book of Shalvis' intriguing new series set in Colorado, where men and women tackle life and love among the rugged mountains of Cedar Ridge.

Shalvis sat down with us at BookExpo to talk about her writing, what themes she comes back to in her works, and why she's excited about starting her new series.


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Neal Stephenson: On "Seveneves," His Writing, and More

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Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

SevenevesWe spoke with Neal Stephenson in person at BookExpo America shortly after the release of his space/science epic, Seveneves, which the Amazon editors selected as one of the Best Books of the Month.

I think I went a bit fangirl on him ("OMG, I loved the part when..."), but he maintained his self-deprecating attitude even in the face of my wide-eyed excitement at speaking with him. My only regret is that I didn't ask him about his sword-fighting skills. Next time!



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Sara Says: Pack Your Beachbag with Books

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Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Summer has officially begun, and if the humidity hasn’t proven that to you yet, the clogged roads to Circling the Sunanyplace slightly less citified surely will.  At this time of year, I tend to take less care with the clothes I pack than with the books, which (no matter the form) have to be plentiful. I also like a list that’s a  mix of important and fun, though what’s best are the books (like these) that can qualify as both. Here’s Summer 2015’s Fiction Five, to pack now or preorder for later:  

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain: Mark my words: This follow-up by the author of The Paris Wife will be *the* book we’ll all be talking about later this summer. A novel about Beryl Markham, British expat aviator/horse trainer/friend-and-lover of Out of Africa’s Isaak Dinesen and Denys Finch Hatton, it is both a sudsy romance and a forceful portrayal of a woman way ahead of her time.

In the Unlikely EventJudy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event:  No surprise that this novel about a season of plane crashes in one New Jersey town is a best seller;  Blume knows how to tell a story. Read it for its deep understanding of teenagers and parents and the mid 20th century suburban world in which they lived.

Go Set a Watchman. Maybe you heard: Harper (To Kill A Mockingbird) Lee wrote a Go Set a Watchmansecond novel, recently discovered.  You can’t get it until mid July – and, no, I haven’t read it yet either--but you can preorder it. (Many already have; it’s our top preorder of the year)

Gods of TangoThe Gods of Tango by Carolina De Robertis: Atmospheric and fascinating, this novel about a woman who cross dresses as a man to make it in dance-and-music obsessed  1920s Argentina couldn’t be more topical; a great story of passion and gender. 

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates: A completely A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me different kind of book from the others listed here, this novella-plus-stories is  by turns tragic and hilarious and has a deadpan quality that makes me think of masters like Updike and Cheever. 

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An Excerpt from Judy Blume's "In the Unlikely Event"

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In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

Anytime a Judy Blume book is released, it's cause for celebration. The beloved author of kids and young adult In the Unlikely Eventclassics like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. has returned with her first adult novel since Summer Sisters, In the Unlikely Event. It's a multigenerational tale that examines how a community copes with a series of mysterious plane crashes, events that actually occurred in Blume's hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey in the early 1950s.

Enjoy this excerpt from In the Unlikely Event, an selection for the Best Books of the Month for June, which introduces mother and daughter, Rusty and Miri.


Miri was not happy when Rusty showed up at the Osners' party. And even less happy to see she was wearing her good black dress, her dress shoes and stockings with seams. Then there was the hair. Rita Hayworth hair. To her shoulders. Heads turned when Rusty came into the living room. She waved at Miri but Miri turned away. "What is my mother doing here?" she asked Natalie.

"My mother wants to introduce her to Cousin Tewky from Birmingham."

"Tewky? What kind of a name is Tewky?"

"Some family nickname. He's my mother's first cousin, from the banking side of the family. You know, Purvis Brothers Bank."

Miri didn't know.

"My mother's from the department store side."

Miri didn't know that, either. "You should have warned me," she told Natalie.

"How was I supposed to know your mother didn't tell you she was coming?"

Corinne greeted Rusty and led her straight to a man, a man who must have been Tewky Purvis, balding, not especially handsome, but not ugly, either, with a mustache. Well, half the men in the room had mustaches, including Dr. O. She couldn't hold that against him. They were talking now, her mother and Tewky Purvis, and laughing, maybe even flirting. Miri didn't like it. She didn't know how grown-ups judged each other, especially how women judged men. It never made sense to her. It's about character, Rusty once told her. Strength, goodness. A sense of humor doesn't hurt, either.

She didn't ask how men judged women because she already knew. It was obvious, and Rusty looked glamorous tonight. "That's not all of it," Rusty had once argued. "But you're right--looks are certainly a starting point. Chemistry, too." Miri understood chemistry now. Chemistry turned your legs to jelly and made your insides roll over.

If Mason hadn't had to work tonight Miri might not be at the Osners' party. She hoped she'd never have to choose between her best friend and the boy she loved. Since seventh grade, New Year's Eve had been for just the two of them, Natalie and Miri. She didn't think Natalie would have invited Mason. Maybe someday when Natalie was also in love, they'd invite dates to the Osners' party, but not now. Rusty must have thought that Miri would be out with Mason when she accepted Corinne's invitation. Now she'd have to deal with her daughter keeping an eye on her.

She decided to go to the party at the last minute when Irene urged her to get out and enjoy herself. Seeing the worry on Miri's face now, she began to regret her decision. Maybe it had been a mistake to keep the men in her life a secret. Not that there had been many. But she'd never brought a date home. Not one man in fifteen years. She hadn't done a thing to get Miri used to the idea, to the possibility. In all these years, there had been just two serious boyfriends. One of them had been married. She certainly wasn't going to introduce him to her family. She knew from the start he would never leave his wife and children. She knew she wasn't his first affair. Yet she kept seeing him. For five years she saw him every week. If you asked her about him today she wouldn't be able to explain it. Just that she'd been young and she'd enjoyed the attention, the thrill, the sex.

The second man was decent and available. He'd proposed after a few months, with a diamond as big as her thumbnail. For a minute she thought she could learn to love him, could be happy with his promise of a big house in the suburbs, a maid to clean and cook, summer camp for Miri. But when it came time to introduce him to the family she couldn't do it. They would see right through her. They would see the truth--she didn't love him, wasn't the least attracted to him and didn't want to marry him, not even for an easier life.

Sometimes she wondered about her first love, but not often. A girl gets in trouble, she marries the boy. They wind up hating each other, resenting each other and finally they get a divorce. By then it's taken its toll on both of them and their children. No, she never wanted that, which is why she'd refused to allow her mother to call the Monskys and force Mike to marry her. Maybe she would fall in love again. If and when that happened she would introduce him to Miri. But until then, what was the point?


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The Best Books of the Year So Far

HisforhawkWe like Best Of lists. We like Best Of lists so much that it's too much to ask of us to hold off on Best of 2015 selections until the end of 2015, so this morning we're happy to announce our choices for the Best Books of the Year So Far. As usual we each take stock of our favorites published from January through June, convene in windowless, dimly lit basements, and kick and bite each other until we agree to a list of 20 books that we love. (The strife escalates for our year-end list.)

As usual, there were many great books to consider. Our number one pick, Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk, is described by Amazon Editorial Director Sara Nelson as "a very unusual rumination on grief;  it’s poetic, it’s accessible and it will resonate even with those who know nothing about birds, hawk or otherwise.” We're no less excited about the rest of the list, which features the latest from popular historians Erik Larson and David McCullough, several outstanding debuts, and a remarkable feat of journalism that examines violence in South Central L.A.

In all, we chose our favorite books across 17 categories, including kids and teens. Browse our top 10 selections below, and see them all in our Best Books of the Year So Far store.

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

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When naturalist and falconer Helen Macdonald lost her beloved father, she “thought [her] world was ending.” Seems apropos, then, that her journey from crippling grief to something resembling grace is on the wings of another deadly bird of prey--the notoriously prickly, and murderous, goshawk. In H Is for Hawk, you will meet Mabel, not your typical bloodthirsty specimen, as she is trained to hunt like the goshawks of yore. It is this brash, slightly mad undertaking that wrenches Macdonald free from despair, and brings her to a place where she can begin again. Doesn’t sound like your kind of thing? You’d be surprised. Macdonald’s gorgeously wrought prose holds you in thrall from the first page, and provides something akin to the escape, and salvation, that nature provides her. In Hawk you will also learn about the famed Arthurian novelist T.H. White, a kindred soul to Macdonald in certain ways. One of the things that endeared him to her was his “childish delight” with all things wild, something you’ll be hard-pressed not to experience as soon as you tap into this tome.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

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If the test of a good novel is how badly you want to drop everything to finish it, then Sabaa Tahir’s debut An Ember in the Ashes gets an A+. The world she creates is rich in fantasy, coupled with echoes of a historical saga, all vividly rendered on the page. Tyrannical leaders and a building rebellion set the stage for dual narrators, Elias, one of the elite, trained from a young age to become a skilled assassin for the Commandant at Blackcliff Military Academy, and Laia, one of the oppressed, forced into the role of spy and saboteur in order to save her only remaining family member. Though diametrically opposed within their society, both Laia and Elias are wracked by internal conflict and driven to great lengths by shame and a desire to escape the bonds of their present lives. A complex relationship between them ensues, and while there is a romantic thread to the story, it is ancillary to the larger forces of political power, crippling deceit, and an undistinguished hope that endures in even the darkest corners of their brutal world.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

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On May 1st, 1915 the Lusitania set sail on its final voyage. That it was sunk by a German U-boat will be news to few—and Larson’s challenge is to craft a historical narrative leading up to the thrilling, if known, conclusion, building anticipation in his readers along the way. To his credit, he makes the task look easy. Focusing on the politics of WWI, on nautical craftsmanship and strategy, and on key players in the eventual attack and sinking of the “fast, comfortable, and beloved” Lusitania, Larson once again illustrates his gift for seducing us with history and giving it a human face. Dead Wake puts readers right aboard the famous Cunard liner and keeps them turning the pages until the book’s final, breathless encounter.

Ghettoside: The True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

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There’s a statistic that surfaces early in Jill Leovy’s fundamentally important book Ghettoside that should catch your attention: black men compose about 6% of the country’s population, yet they are the victim in nearly 40% of homicides. And who’s killing those black men? The answer is most often other black men. Leovy, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, explores the culture of black violence, specifically in South Central LA, describing a world that seems to exist hermetically sealed off from the rest of the city. With nearly zero mobility and little policing, the people of South Central are left to fend for themselves—further amplifying the devastating drumbeat of gangs and violence. Leovy builds her book around one family’s story: Wally Tennelle, an LA cop, has refused to move his wife and kids out of his Watts neighborhood. Then his youngest son is murdered (unlike most murders in the area, this one was covered by the local media). Through the gathering of evidence, the roundup of suspects, and the trial that ultimately comes to be—all spearheaded by John Skaggs, a very dedicated and capable LA homicide detective—Leovy makes the argument that what places like South Central need is more policing, not less. They need more attention—not debate, finger pointing, and inaction.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer brilliantly draws you in with the opening line: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” It’s thrilling, rhythmic, and astonishing, as is the rest of Nguyen’s enthralling portrayal of the Vietnam War. The narrator is an undercover communist agent posing as a captain in the Southern Vietnamese Army. Set during the fall of Saigon and the years after in America, the captain spies on the general and the men he escaped with, sharing his information with his communist blood brothers in coded letters. But when his allegiance is called into question, he must act in a way that will haunt him forever. Political, historical, romantic and comic, The Sympathizer is a rich and hugely gratifying story that captures the complexity of the war and what it means to be of two minds.

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

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All the Old Knives has a disarmingly quiet start, but good spy novels are like good spies: they draw you in, earn your trust, and then grab hold with both hands. In Vienna during the mid-2000s Henry and Celia were intelligence agents and lovers who witnessed a terrorist hijacking as it took a shocking turn. Five years later, the two meet over dinner at a restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea where Celia now lives as a civilian, to recall the events of the past. As the remembrances overlap with the present moment, tension mounts and questions of who did what to whom, and why, become increasingly urgent. By the last 100 pages Steinhauer’s hook is firmly embedded and it’s hard not to race to the finish. And the ending? I can sum it up in one word: brilliant.

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

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Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie couldn’t be more different from her popular The Middlesteins, in that it is a) historical not contemporary, b) loosely based on a real woman who lived in early 20th century New York City instead of on an all-too-real fictional character in suburban Chicago and c) told as an oral history instead of as a traditional narrative. Still, this novel exhibits the same kind of wit and depth and heart of the earlier one. Mazie Phillips was a depression-era movie-theater-owner in New York during the Depression; she was big-hearted and bawdy, enough of a neighborhood figure that she became the subject of a 1940 New Yorker profile by the journalist Joseph Mitchell. Starting with his observations—"Mazie has a genuine fondness for bums and undoubtedly knows more bums than any other person in the city"—Attenberg weaves an astonishingly heartfelt story of poverty and loss (one of Mazie’s beloved, orphaned sisters moves to California to become a dancer and is essentially lost to her forever), unconventionality (there’s a lot of socially “inappropriate” sex and love in this book) and, to use a word from that era, “moxie.” With all her tough talk and bootstrap-pulling, Mazie could grow into a cliché – the loose woman with a heart of gold – but Attenberg never lets her, preferring instead to take Mitchell’s sketch and draw all over it with fictional interviews and diaries until Mazie becomes a complex and irresistible real-life woman. She may have lived in a very specific era, but thanks to Attenberg, she has become a character for the ages.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

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Most people recognize the famous black-and-white photo of the Wright brothers on a winter day in 1903, in a remote spot called Kitty Hawk, when they secured their place in history as the first to fly a motor-powered airplane. That brilliant moment is the cornerstone of the new masterful book by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, who brings his deft touch with language and his eye for humanizing details to the unusually close relationship between a pair of brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who changed aviation history. Bicycle shop owners by day, Wilbur and Orville taught themselves flight theory through correspondence with the Smithsonian and other experts. But the brothers soon realized that theory was no match for practical testing, and they repeatedly risked life and limb in pursuit of their goal—including when Orville fractured a leg and four ribs in a 75-foot plunge to the ground. McCullough’s narration of ventures such as this—their famous first flight at Kitty Hawk; the flight in Le Mans, France that propelled the brothers to international fame; the protracted patent battles back at home; and the early death of elder brother Wilbur—will immerse readers in the lives of the Wright family. Like other great biographies before it, The Wright Brothers tells the story about the individuals behind the great moments in history, while never sacrificing beauty in language and reverence in tone.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

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Water shrouds the fascinating, often doomed characters of The Book of Speculation. Featuring mermaids, swarms of horseshoe crabs, deadly floods, and the silent secrets of an ancient tarot deck, the book is split like a savory peach between the odd ventures of a traveling carnival in the late 1700s and the modern-day discovery by librarian Simon Watson of an old, handwritten volume containing his grandmother’s name. The water-damaged book may reveal the root of certain mysteries in his family, such as why the women can hold their breath far, far longer than normal, and the inexplicable reason they have all drowned while young women on the exact same date—a date that is only a few days away as the book begins. When Simon’s sister, Enola, unexpectedly returns home, vibrating with an angry sadness Simon has never seen before, Simon dives deeper into the book and the dark waters of their family history, hoping to change what he fears is her destiny. Erika Swyler has written an engrossing literary tale-spinner with an assurance rarely mastered in debut novels, allowing a well-placed detail or a lyrical phrase to paint a character or sketch even as she builds tension like a pro. As Simon grows obsessed with unraveling the secrets in his book, so will you become bewitched by The Book of Speculation.

Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman

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Green on Blue unravels the complexities of the Afghan war, then dissolves it all into the brutal heartache of reality – where home is a battlefield, fighting is a job, vengeance is a moral right, and war is “a racket…it had no sides. Each was the same as the other.” Aziz, an Afghan boy at the beginning of the novel, has lost nearly everything: Taliban forces killed his parents, and his older brother is left crippled when U.S. forces clash with militant ones. Alone, in need of money and seeking revenge, he enlists in the Special Lashkar, a militia funded by Americans to fight local insurgents. Aziz rises through the ranks, learns to kill, and discovers the nefarious profiteering, oppression and cultural beliefs that contrive this never ending war. A decorated Afghan and Iraq war veteran, Elliot Ackerman’s empathetic portrayal of individuals, factions, and the reasons they fight is fierce and haunting.

See all of the Best Books of the Year So Far.

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