Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Underrated or Underappreciated Books.
Top Ten Tuesday is the weekly meme hosted by the gals at THE BROKE AND THE BOOKISH. Each week there's a new topic and because we all love lists, here's this week's entry by yours truly. Don't forget to check at the above link to see who else is participating. in this fun booky meme.
Today, it's TOP TEN UNDERRATED or UNDERAPPRECIATED BOOKS. (Kind of like Friday's Forgotten or Overlooked Books, but not.)
As usual in no particular order, here's my list:
1) THE GRASSHOPPER KING by Jordan Ellenberg
One of of my favorite books of all time and yet, nobody I know has ever read it. Therefore I can't discuss it with anyone. Very frustrating.
Even more frustrating, the author told me in an email that he's concentrating on his mathematics (he's a college professor) and won't be writing any more books any time soon.
I mean, what's a reader to do?
I recommend this book once again to those among you who enjoy brilliant wit, silliness, absurdity, satire, the rituals of academic life, marriage, the enigma of the heart and truly horrible poetry.
2) THE HILLS AT HOME by Nancy Clark
The absorbing story of an irrepressible New England clan spending several months living together for various and sundry reasons, in an old Victorian ramshackle house under the patient (if somewhat strained) eye of the family matriarch. The Hills are a typical sort of family in which little things happen but never anything of major dramatic importance - just the usual everyday strains of life in general. That's what I love about this book. It's more a comedy of manners than anything else. The sort of thing you can pick up, read a few pages, put it down go on to read something else, then come back and pick up where you left off. 481 pages later, you'll wish there were 481 more pages to read.
Nancy Clark's style of writing is elegant, calm and even well mannered, yet when you least expect it, she manages to twist the skewer. I found myself charmed and smiling in recognition. Reading THE HILLS AT HOME was as refreshing as a long, cool glass of minty tea on a hot afternoon or as comforting as a cup of hot apple cider in the middle of a cold winter afternoon before a roaring fire. Your choice. I loved this book.
3) GARBO LAUGHS by Elizabeth Hay
Set in Ottawa in the 1990's, this is the story of Harriet Browning, a woman who loves the movies she was denied as a child. A woman for whom real life must take a back seat to the make believe of the films she adores and watches repeatedly. A woman for whom marriage and children is almost too much reality.
"Equally addicted [to movie watching] are her three companions-of-the-screen: a boy who loves Frank Sinatra, a girl with Bette Davis eyes, and an earthy sidekick named after Dinah Shore. Breaking in upon this this quiet backwater, in time with the devastating ice storm of 1998, come two refugees from Hollywood, the jaded widow of a famous screenwriter and her movie-expert stepson. They are Harsh Reality, who bring blackouts, arguments, accidents, illness and sudden death. But what chance does real life stand when we can watch movies instead?"
GARBO LAUGHS also has an ending you will not see coming.
4) WHILE DROWNING IN THE DESERT by Don Winslow
I've often said this is probably the funniest book I've ever read but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's the second funniest. It all depends on my mood.
Don Winslow is gaining fame and reputation as the writer of very noir crime stories lately, but back in 1996, he was writing a series featuring an enigmatic guy named Neal Carey who took his job orders from a mysterious character known as 'Dad'. Carey is a kind of undercover operative - not a detective - more of a jack of all trades sort of thing. I always felt that Carey and his adventures would have made an excellent graphic novel or even, a movie.
In this book, Carey's wedding plans are interrupted as 'Dad' sends him to Las Vegas to pick up a 'confused old man' and take him home to Palm Springs.
When the old man turns out to be a stubborn old geezer, a Vegas comedian whose libido is still in hyper-drive, Carey realizes his trip is not going to be a simple pick-up and delivery. Then he is forced to deal with the fact that the geezer was witness to a murder and has enemies who want him dead. On the run, Carey drives while forced to listen repeatedly to the old man's old jokes.
I have to admit it, I laughed until I howled. I must have been in a mood.
5) THE LINNET'S TALE by Dale Willard
A charming, beautifully crafted tale of a village of mice - Tottensea Burrows - and the disaster that forces them to move on. Told very much from the point of view of the rescued linnet in the title - a linnet is a kind of house finch - Dale Willard's story is so enchanting I can't imagine why it isn't more widely known and appreciated. Maybe readers today are too jaded to stand much for enchantment. Luckily for me, I'm not there yet.
A field mouse burrow is a very odd place for a linnet to be. Mr. Baggs thought so, too, though he was very kind to me and made the best of it. I sat in the corner of the kitchen and watched them eat their supper. I head things being said like "May I have the the jam pot, please," and "Is there more tea, then?" and "Stop staring at him. Opportune was staring at the linnet, Mother," and "Lower your voice, Arabella. Opportune, don't stare," and "But he stares at us, Mother. That's all he does is stare," and "That will be quite enough, young mouse. You are not to talk back to your mother."
Mrs. Baggs was very concerned that I wouldn't eat and fussed over me, terribly, throughout the meal. I was, in fact, quite hungry, but not interested in anything they were eating and too shy to ask for something else. Failing to persuade me to join them at table she, several times, brought bits of food to me in the corner. I watched her but ate nothing. Finally after trying several things, she looked at me and said, "You must be starving, dear. Isn't there something I can get you?"
I said, "I should like an insect, please."
6) MEDICUS by Ruth Downey
A historical mystery novel - the first in a series - set in ancient Roman-occupied Britain and introducing Gaius Petrius Ruso, a military medicus (or doctor) as the likable protagonist.
After a ruinous divorce and his father's death, Gaius is transferred to the remote and vermin ridden outpost of Deva (now Chester) and things only get worse after that. When several women from the local bordello turn up dead, no one is interested in investigating so Gaius turn reluctant detective to try and find out who is responsible. But his sleuthing is not only likely to get him killed, it puts a temporary halt on his plans to write a 'first aid' guide to try and replenish his sagging finances
I liked Downey's evocation of a port city of Britannia and its people - very much like you and me - who inhabit it. This is an intereesting look at an area of the ancient world not regularly used as a setting for crime fiction and Gaius, the medicus, is an intriguing, pragmatic guide.
7) CROFTON'S FIRE by Keith Coplin
You might on occasion have seen me recommend this title before. I feel like I am this book's chief champion. It and THE GRASSHOPPER KING are two books I would love more readers to discover.
CROFTON'S FIRE begins with a jolt in 1876; at the death of Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn (killed by his own enraged men), then follows a young second lieutenant named Crofton as he barely escapes only to discover that this would not be the first surprise life has in store for him.
Over the next three years, curiosity, fate, and the schemes of others will take him halfway around the world, from a "whore's war" in Kansas, to a rebellion in Cuba to the horrors of the Zulu war in East Africa. Along the way he will encounter such figures as Grant, Sherman, and Hayes; get shot, find love; endure betrayal - and somehow, through the crucible of blood and fire, arrive at something that might be called wisdom.
In my view, this is one of the more brilliant first novels I've ever read. Coplin's writing is wry, spare, deceptively simple and totally lacking in sentimentality. He has that special knack of being able to grab the reader immediately. I cannot recommend this book enough.
8) THE FORGER by Paul Watkins
During WWII, when Hitler and his ugly minions were busy looting art from private as well as public hands (i.e. museums and such), a young American artist is part of a dangerous plan to forge several famous paintings so that the real works of art can be spirited away by the good guys (i.e. the Allies). A brilliant plan that has its drawbacks: while making sure the Nazis don't discover the substitutions, the forger must also avoid the vengeance of the French Resistance which thinks he and his art dealer pals are consorting with the enemy.
Besides being a danger-laced thrill of a read, THE FORGER is also, in many ways, a compelling look at the meaning of 'art' and the artistic process.
9) MURDER IN THE HEARSE DEGREE by Tim Cockey
An undertaker who is also a detective. What more could you want? First Hitchcock (Hitch) Sewell solves your murder and then he buries you. Sounds like plan. A terrific (and often very funny) series which captures the free-wheeling feel and style of NYC life.
10) The Leo Waterman books and the Frank Corso books, by G.M. Ford.
The politically astute and hilariously cynical Leo Waterman books are set in Portland, Oregon. LAST DITCH is a particularly funny one. Ford is also the author of a compelling noir series set in Seattle, which feature the renegade journalist, Frank Corso. Corso is a disgraced New York reporter now unsettled by the rhythm of life in the Pacific Northwest. Ford should be a household name. It always amazes me that he isn't.
I have a feeling he is considered - for whatever reason - a regional writer and this may limit his publicity potential on the east coast. Anything is possible, I suppose. It's too bad.
Ford is a helluva good writer.