"It's a truth universally acknowledged that, although women read more than men, and books by female authors are published in roughly the same numbers, they are more easily overlooked." -- Joanna Walsh in The Guardian
There's more than a touch of irony in Joanna Walsh's social media call to arms for the Guardian -- #readwomenin2014 -- especially if you live in the Bay Area. Perhaps in the UK, women authors are more easily overlooked, but I'd be remiss not to mention that Jojo Moyes, arguably the world's top romance novelist, is married to Guardian editor and columnist, Charles Arthur. As an exercise for our readers, seek out her latest, The Girl You Left Behind, a gripping and engaging combination of World War II drama backstopping a modern search for the owner of a now-valuable painting.
In the Bay Area, the question becomes even more diffuse. After all, social media titan Facebook, where much of the book-sharing will unfold, is run by Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In, a bestselling executive bio and new feminist manifesto. It's hard to claim that bestsellers and literary prize nominees (which you'll find in the list below) are easily overlooked.
But book lists are fun to read, because they allow the readers to experience a proximity that might otherwise be missed. Yes, we're lucky enough to live amidst an embarrassment of riches. The variety you'll find here reflects our West Coast melting pot. Take any of these books home and paint your memory with vivid new colors. If you were able to overlook titles by women in bookstores before, you won't anymore.
Isabelle Allende, Ripper
Isabelle Allende is becoming more and more chameleonic, and her latest, Ripper, is a great example of her ability to fuse any genre she chooses to write in with her own themes, to the benefit of both. As the title suggests, Allende enters serial killer and ripping yarn territory here. Seventeen-year-old Amanda Martin is a master of the online game "Ripper," who decides to enlist her friends in an effort to solve a series of seemingly unconnected murders. The real connections here are those of family and friendship, woven through a nicely understated mystery. It's truly thrilling to read a thriller where realistically-drawn women use both mind and heart to confront the worst the world has to offer. Tension and attention are mixed with Allende's unique vision, with the result that readers will be in terrified suspense about what's going to happen -- because they will feel they know exactly those to whom it is happening.
Cara Black, Murder in Pigalle
In the 14th Aimée Leduc investigation from Cara Black, Murder in Pigalle, the 5-months pregnant detective is scaling back. She's trying to stick with cybercrime. But when her would-be protégé, 13-year-old Zazie Duclos, disappears while looking for a local rapist, Aimée's on the job. The 1998 World Cup final, a high-wire robbery, and an intense sense of place help ratchet up the tension, while Leduc's intimations of motherhood are tested by her involvement in the case. Cara Black has been at this for long enough to create stories that offer a superbly-crafted aspect of the mystery series that is often overlooked -- the character arcs and what might be called "soap operatic" elements. But make no mistake, she's a great mystery writer and there are twists here you'll not see coming before you read the book, but will be unable to forget after.
Kelly Corrigan, Glitter and Glue
After Kelly Corrigan wrote The Middle Place, the story of her relatioship with her father and the experience of both with cancer, the question was: "What about your mother?" She answers that question with eloquence and a craft so superb it's nearly invisible in Glitter and Glue. She tells the story of her youth, leaving for an adventure in Australia that turns into a job caring for the children of a widower. It's an unusual houseful; the quiet-man husband, a very young boy, a precocious pre-teen girl, the late wife's much older son by a previous marriage and the late wife's father. Corrigan navigates her own memories and her current day relationship with her mother, with whom she has little in common, with a sense of concise precision. "Your father's the glitter -- and I'm the glue," her mother tells her. "It takes both." Corrigan's sense of story is strong and subtle. Glitter and Glue offers readers an enticing vision of many complicated relationships, capturing the subtle nuance of life both inside and outside a family. Hear a conversation with the author at bookotron.com.
Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was recently nominated for a Best Novel Nebula Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Don't expect aliens, though; this is fiction about science, and how it is both used and abused to study what is human and what is not. At heart, Fowler's novel is about family, unfolding from the 1960s to the present. Rosemary Cooke has a story to tell, and she insists on doing so by starting in the middle. It's good advice, often given to writers -- just jump in, start with the action, let the explanations take care of themselves. In Rosemary's case, we do start with the action. She's a troubled young woman who gets herself needlessly tossed in jail. This presents her with problems, but nothing like those she encounters when she looks at herself in the mirror. She's the daughter of a scientist who works with animals, including humans. Differentiating between our species and the rest of the animal kingdom becomes problematic. Fowler's powerful story demonstrates just what is possible with an invention that is not even unique. But we're better at language than the other creatures of this planet, or so we'd like to believe. Hear a conversation with the author at bookotron.com.
Mollie Katzen, The Heart of the Plate
Cookbooks can be generational events. In 1977, The Moosewood Cookbook introduced mainstream America to the joy of vegetarian cooking. It was hand-lettered and illustrated by the author, and ushered in a new vision of what we could eat and how we craft our meals. With The Heart of the Plate, Katzen takes on a new generation of home cooking. Our meals have been informed by her vision for almost forty years now, and her new book is a lush celebration of what she has accomplished in the past and where we can go in the future. It's a complete and comprehensive collection of recipes that offers a range of tastes -- from soups and salads to stews and burgers, and yes, of course, desserts. There's a lot of material in here, so Katzen has taken to typesetting her recipes and photographing them, with illustrations as flourishes and grace notes. There's something here for every taste. The Heart of the Plate is the kind of book that gets handed down from one generation to the next. Think about buying two copies, so your children can have one of their own to start early.Hear a conversation with the author bookotron.com.
Laurie R. King, The Bones of Paris
Beware readers -- in the second Harris Stuyvesant/Bennett Grey novel by Laurie R. King, the writing is so fine that you will be able to taste the scent of death in the air beneath the streets of Paris. The sequel to 2008's Touchstone explores Paris in 1929, where Stuyvesant seems to be living the dream. On bad terms with Hoover, he's been sent to Paris to find a pretty young girl, one he's had intimate relations with. But Paris is not all glittering cafés and nightlife. Underneath the streets, the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol is creating unimaginable images of horror, and artists are creating new work with the bones of human beings. King has found her strongest and most durable creation here; the world of Stuyvesant and Grey is dark and richly textured. King knows her history and is able to craft a story as compelling as the world in which it transpires. She has a grand arc planned for these stories, and each builds nicely on the last. You can hear her discuss the importance of religion in her book in this interview.
Sophie Littlefield, House of Glass
We prefer our terrors to be unrealistic. Vampires, zombies, giant monsters, and all the flavors of the apocalypse are in large supply. And while the externalizing exhilaration these horrors offer is welcome, sometimes we need to bring the fear closer to home -- or even inside it. Sophie Littlefield's House of Glass begins in deceptively familiar territory; Jen Glass is living a pretty good life, even though her husband Ted lost his job six months ago. They can still afford their nice house, but Ted is acting a bit dodgy, and the marriage is getting creaky. Her fifteen-year-old daughter Livvy, is going after the new girlfriend of her ex-boyfriend. Her four-year-old boy Teddy suffers from selective mutism. When two men invade their home and lock them in the basement, she thinks they'll take what money the family has and run. But the men know more than about the Glass family than they should, and their intentions are becoming disturbingly unclear. Littlefield works her way into our hearts and then brings our own worst nightmares to life. House of Glass is intense and as unfortunately believable as the real events it's based on. You may be married to the monster, or be one yourself.
Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In
The cure for pallet-loads of chest-thumping capitalist executive biographies is this life-affirming, intelligent and engaging look at women, business, family and Sandberg herself. Based on a TED talk, Sandberg's book expands the range and power of her message, quite simply, to "lean in" and lead. But the power of this book, as opposed to the TED and other presentations, is that in written form, Sandberg can flesh out her message and use language to make her themes more memorable, to equate the stories in and of her life into the readers' lives. This is a book to be read with a highlighter and sticky tabs, because there are points you will want to remember and places you will want to return to for advice. Sandberg is as rich, powerful and successful as any silverback entrepreneur, but in spite of this, she manages to make herself likable and down-to-earth. And her thoughts are not just useful to those of her own sex. We can all learn from somebody as smart and articulate as Sheryl Sandberg; just lean in and listen.
Amy Tan, The Valley of Amazement
Looking for your historical epic to be gripping, intense, emotional and immersive? Let Amy Tan sweep you away into The Valley of Amazement. In Shanghai, 1905, seven-year-old Violet, an American child, lives with her mother at a first-class courtesan house called Hidden Jade Path. She's not an easy child, but neither is her life, nor are the lives of any of the women in this richly-imagined novel. If anything, Tan takes a page from world-building manuals of science fiction writers, crafting a one so complete that her characters naturally come to life within that world. This is a huge, multi-generational epic, but Tan has a style of writing that feels very intimate and detailed. She also manages to keep a brisk pace with crisp prose that allows her to seamlessly weave the stories of mothers and daughters into the kind of tapestry that readers can revisit long after they finish the book.
Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni
In The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker offers an enchantment similar to that of Amy Tan, but with elements of the fantastic that have earned her a Best Novel Nebula Award nomination by the Science Fiction Writers of America. In 1899 New York, two very different supernatural creatures cross paths. A golem, created as a bride for an immigrant, comes ashore alone, where she eventually meets a Jinni, freed from captivity by a Syrian immigrant, polishing of course, an old brass bottle. Recognizing their supernatural similarity, they are more outcast than other immigrants and become friends. But their natures are not unknown to at least some around them, and danger lurks everywhere. By turns gritty, imaginative, joyous and always entertaining, The Golem and the Jinni imagines the supernatural very carefully. Wecker's penchant for relevant details grounds the fantasy so as to let the narrative soar. Working at the edges of our world, she creates it anew. She's a unique voice, so assured it's hard to believe this is her first novel. Hear a conversation with the author at bookotron.com.
What's important to remember about these books -- and the Bay Area as a hotbed of great writing -- is that by the time you finish these titles, ten more of equal quality will have appeared. Fortunately, a number of equally great bookstores are still standing. Where you find these, you're certain to find more.