Friday, January 13, 2012

Three of the best books I read in 2011

by April Henry

The older I get and the more I’ve written, the harder it is for me to get engrossed in a book. Instead, I find myself editing the book as I read it, or even delivering an imaginary lecture to the author (“Show, don’t tell!”)  For most of my life, my favorite thing has been getting lost in a book, so this a huge loss.

However, I still occasionally find books that enthrall me from start to finish.  Here are three of my favorites from 2011. They’re all fiction, but that’s about all they have in common. That, and for some reason they all start with the letter A.

A Visit from the Goon Squad 
A Visit from the Goon Squad is a marvel, written not only in first and third, but also in second person. It also bounces back and forth in time a lot - characters might be 40 in one chapter and 14 on the next. Part of it is even set in the future.  A chapter is even presented in Power Point.

The publisher’s description does a better job of describing it than I could: “Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding interlocking narratives circle the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.”

If you ever get a chance to see the author in person, go! Jennifer Egan is an articulate and interesting speaker.  She also gives good interview, and she’s been interviewed plenty about this book. And I understand that she used to date Steve Jobs in college.  Even then, Steve had good taste.

After I finished the book, I wrote Jennifer a note. I told her that each time I started a chapter, I would try to orient myself and ask “Which now is it?” because each of the nows was equally valid, whether a chapter was set in the 1980s or even twenty years from our current now. I found that concept comforting, because my friend [Lisa Madigan] was dying, and it was reassuring, somehow, to think that all the various times of her life, including so many when she was healthy and happy, were equally valid.

Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick
About the only thing Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick has in common with A Visit from the Goon Squad is that they both start with the letter A.  This is a funny, fast-paced, and high-concept young adult novel. I loved the concept so much that when I first saw the deal in Publisher's Lunch I found a way to send a note to author, Joe Schreiber, telling him what a great idea it was.

When Perry’s parents host a foreign-exchange student for a year, he pictures a sexy French girl. What he gets is Gobi, a shy, glasses-wearing Lithuanian girl who wears shapeless clothes and covers her greasy hair with a scarf. Then Perry’s mom insists he take Gobi to the prom - even though it’s the same night that his band had a real live gig in Manhattan.

Gobi turns out to have been hiding a number of secrets. For one, there’s a beautiful girl underneath all those acres of fabric. And for another, she’s a trained assassin.  She needs Perry to help her complete a deadly mission the night of the prom - and she’s won’t take no for an answer.

You’d think a book this good would have sold to the first editor who saw it. But take heart: the book actually got rejected by eight publishers before it found a home - and a two-book deal - at Houghton Mifflin. The movie rights were auctioned off a week later, and it got starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist.

Each chapter begins with a question from an actual college admissions form, which serves as a sort of sardonic commentary about what’s coming up.

Hm, is there a pattern here?  My third favorite book of 2011 also begins with an A: Ashes, by Ilsa Bick. It is dark book that combines a post apocalyptic world with zombies.  I picked it up after a week of slogging through and/or abandoning many so-so books. It was a Friday night and I intended to read for only an hour.

Four hours later, I was still reading. And on Saturday, instead of writing, I just gave in and finished the book. And then I feel sad and empty, because the next one (it’s a trilogy) isn’t due out until September of 2012. I am not joking: I was honestly depressed that it was over!

Ashes begins when an electromagnetic pulse wipes out all electronic devices and also kills most adults. Only a few people under the age of 25 and over the age of 65 are left, and most of the younger ones have been turned into flesh-eating monsters (like zombies, only the bite of one doesn't create a new monster). The main character is 17-year-old Alex, who was hiking when the pulse hit. She had just met an eight year old named Ellie as well as her grandfather. The grandfather drops dead during the pulse, and Alex and Ellie reluctantly team up. Later they meet Tom, a young solider on leave, and the three of them are left to figure out if it’s possible to stay alive in this new world.

One of the best things the author does is fantastic cliff-hanger chapter endings, ie:

- No, she thought. No, please, Go, I’m not seeing this.

- Much later, she would think all that talk of food was to blame for what happened next. 

- Something slammed against her back as a bright orange flash erupted out of the dark, and a shotgun boomed.

- “Promise me that if I change,” Tom said, “you’ll kill me.” 

- The woman was sallow and pinched with a frizz of gray hair. Maybe in another life and before this nightmare, she’d baked chocolate chip cookies for the grandkids, but not now.

She sighted her rifle on Alex’s chest. “Don’t.” 

So that's it.  Three great books I read in 2011. What did you read that you loved?  I need more great books.


  1. Great suggestions! It's also hard for me to get into books these days as well. The Jennifer Eagen was one of those but maybe I'll give it another whirl.

  2. I loved Goon Squad and seeing Egan read. Though I was slightly disappointed by some of her later comments regarding chick lit. I will check out the other books

  3. The Keep is also great - a story within a story.

  4. Hey, April!

    Favorite Adult Novel in 2011: The Old Romantic, by Louise Dean

    Favorite YA novel: Divergent, by Valerie Roth

    Favorite E-book: WhatCame After, by Sam Winston

  5. Thanks for these recommendations, April. I find myself mentally editing, too as I read. It's harder for me to get "swept away." Maybe because I've looked behind the curtain?? Looking forward to reading these books.

  6. April, The only one of these I've read, or tried to, was Visit from the Goon Squad. I know it's a masterpiece because everyone I know loved it but I couldn't get through it. Right now I'm slogging my way through THE MARRIAGE PLOT and am just hoping there will be a pay-off. Which reminds me that sometimes the book might be great but the reader has to be ready for it. Happy New Year!

  7. April, I'm sold. I'm going to download two of these right now! I love your descriptions and am incredibly impressed you took the time to write notes to the authors. Not many folks do that, and I'm sure it was greatly appreciated.

  8. Although I didn't mention it, I also got in touch with Ilsa Bick to tell her how much I loved her book. I guess I figure most authors are to be found someplace these days - Facebook, Twitter, a website - and I want to share the love.

  9. I LOVED Goon Squad. And yes, I saw Jenny Egan read, and she's totally amazing. I really do think those comments about chick lit were out of context.

    If you really want to lose yourself in a book, you MUST check out the Hunger Games books. My husband was actually mad at me because I couldn't put them down! Read each one in a day and thoroughly ignored him.

  10. Brenda, I cried when one of the characters died in the Hunger Games. Flat out cried. Can't wait until the movie, which opens March 23.