Best of the Rest? No, the Rest of the Best

Another year brings another set of Top Ten lists and another reminder that those lists are supposed to be about the quality of the books rather than the number of them. That is, we like compiling our Best of the Year lists in fiction and non-fiction (and for the first time this year, in children’s and tween/teens) because it gives us a chance to look back over the last twelve months and remind ourselves how great the books we read were. The ten titles we listed in each category are our collective favorites, but it’s not as if we can really argue that they’re measurably better than the eleventh- and twelfth-best ones. Different readers (or the same readers in different circumstances) will have other favorites, which is why we always like to talk about the books that almost made the cut.

For example, The Infatuations by Javier Marías and The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez were among the last titles knocked off our fiction list. The first is a slowly unspooling mystery set in Spain and written wiith great psychological acuity by an author we’ve previously trumpeted as a potential Nobel laureate; the second is a novel that deals with decades of drug trafficking, not by explicitly detailing it, but by showing the after-effects on the next generation of Colombians. Both are intelligent, even brilliant works, but there didn’t seem to be room for them alongside Daniel Alarcón’s At Night We Walk in Circles, which addresses political violence in Peru. Could we have included all this great Hispanophone fiction? Sure, but we felt like that would have unbalanced the list, so out those last two went.

That kind of horse-trading forces a great many excellent books off the winners page on our website, but fortunately, we have room on Message in a Bottle to give them their due....Read More

(Our store journal keeps you posted on books we're excited about, our literary musings, and other reading-related rambles. Remember, you can sign up to receive our posts by email.)

A History To Be Thankful For

The traditional Thanksgiving menu is the same every year: turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, pie. This year, instead of my usual apple pie, I tried to spice things up with a salted caramel apple pie. The recipe sounded amazing, but at the end of the day it didn’t taste all that different from my usual version (which is always good to begin with). Next year will be much of the same, whether I try a new recipe or not. When I think of that menu, I think of the store, which also remains a constant with only slight variations.

We’ve been guilty of putting a great deal of store nostalgia on the blog this fall, so I solemnly promise this will be the end of it for awhile. But as everyone poured out their hearts on social media this past weekend, waxing poetic about the things they’re thankful for, I couldn’t help but resist sharing three last pictures that sum up our gratitude at Island Books....Read More

A Dance to the Music of Time: Temporary Kings

A decade has passed since the events of the previous volume, and Jenkins has reestablished his writing career. He travels to Venice for a literary conference, there meeting an American, Russell Gwinnett, who is at work on a biography of X. Trapnel, and learning of the death in London of Ferrand-Sénéschal. Rumor connects him with Widmerpool, lately elevated to the House of Lords, the two allegedly sharing a taste for sexual depravities; press reports scandalously link Pamela Widmerpool with the death of the French philosopher. The attendees visit a palazzo where Pamela is a guest, along with Louis Glober, an American impresario, to view a painted ceiling by Tiepolo depicting the fable of Candaules and Gyges. Gwinnett, seeking information about her relationship with Trapnel, pursues an encounter and she becomes infatuated with him. Jenkins visits the studio of Tokenhouse, an old friend of his father’s, and sees a troubled Widmerpool there, involved in some kind of shady political dealing that may involve espionage across the Iron Curtain. Upon return to England, Jenkins attends a military reunion, discovering more details about Stringham’s death in a Japanese POW camp and listening as Sunny Farebrother relishes the possibility of Widmerpool’s arrest. Gwinnett is also in England, immersing himself in Trapnel’s milieu and alternately resisting and inviting Pamela’s advances, which include haunting his hallway in the nude in the middle of the night. Later, Odo Stevens and his wife, the former Rosie Manasch, host a charity concert. An ailing Moreland conducts the orchestra, and the audience is filled with faces from the past. Widmerpool, having somehow escaped indictment, is also in the crowd and one of the last to depart. In doing so, he is involved in a near-melee incited by shocking insults from Pamela and by her revelation that Ferrand-Sénéschal died in flagrante with her as Widmerpool watched. Months go by, and Jenkins engages in a few final conversations with the dying Moreland in his hospital room. We learn through this epilogue that Pamela has killed herself via overdose in Gwinnett’s hotel room, Gwinnett has fled to the Mediterranean, and Glober has died while racing vintage cars in France.


We’re ten years further into the story, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Powell took that much time between writing the last book and this one. But no, his clockwork-like regimen stayed on schedule, and Temporary Kings came out in 1973, just a couple years after Books Do Furnish a Room. It’s not as though his style had time to change in between, but it feels to me as if it did. He seems freer and more direct than before. (He’s certainly more expansive, this being the longest installment in the series.) Is this reflective of the narrator’s aging and maturity, or of the changing mores of the era? Or both?...Read More

A Conversation With Tom Nissley, Author of A Reader’s Book of Days

This Saturday is Small Business Saturday, and we have the good fortune of having local writer Tom Nissley, author of A Reader’s Book of Days and Jeopardy! champion) as our guest bookseller. We started the conversation with him here, but if you come by the store on Saturday between 2 and 4pm, you can pick it up yourself where we left off. He’ll be gracing the store with his amiable presence and all kinds of literary recommendations. Don’t miss it!

Island Books: A Reader’s Book of Days is essentially a literary calendar and merges two worlds: the history of great writers as well as fictional characters. Are there particular authors who used detailed dates in their novels, and do you think they based their fictional dates around events in their own life?

Tom: I had never really paid attention to how novelists used dates before, but once I started working on this book I suddenly started to care about that very much! Some of my favorite novelists (Marilynne Robinson, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf) rarely tell you what day it is in their stories—and you wouldn’t really want them to. But some novelists are maestros of the date, and use them to great effect. Nabokov has dates all over his books—Lolita was born on January 1, for instance—and so do Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and H.P. Lovecraft. I think part of what makes the Sherlock Holmes stories so effective are all the specific details: the London street names, the kinds of cabs Holmes and Watson take, and the exact dates when, say, the five orange pips arrive (January 4) and the Red-Headed League is disbanded (October 9, 1890).

As far as tying stories to their own lives, the classic example is James Joyce, who chose June 16, 1904, for Bloomsday, the day Ulysses is set, because it was the day he went on his first outing with his future wife Nora Barnacle. But I loved discovering some other connections between authors and their books, like the way Toni Morrison used her birthday for the opening scene in Song of Solomon and Maurice Sendak hid his in the background of In the Night Kitchen. And of course Harry Potter shares his birthday, July 31, with his creator, J.K. Rowling....Read More

More New Children's Titles

The children’s section is so full of goodness right now that we’re afraid it’s going to burst. Our only hope is to pipe the overflow onto the blog and hope the valves hold. One post from Miriam wasn’t nearly enough, so now I’m doing my part, and we may have to post more before the flood subsides. Stand back.

The Silver Button by Bob Graham: For my money, Bob Graham is the best in the business at depicting real life in print. Despite his relatively sparse, cartoonish drawing style, his characters come across as individuals and his settings seem like physical locations, not backdrops. Even when the subject is fanciful, as in April and Esme: Tooth Fairies, a sense of verisimiltude pervades. Those fairies may live in a tree stump, but you can see that there are chores required to keep the household running, and that their mission to collect a tooth isn’t a lark, but part of an ongoing career. In his most recent book, The Silver Button, Graham’s eye for detail is as sharp as it’s ever been...

Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszcka and Mac Barnett: Scieszcka has long been a champion for young male readers, realizing that a lot of boys aren’t too crazy about books. He has a real knack for finding subjects of interest to boys and shares their sense of humor. He and his co-author have done it again with this project, although the illustrator, Matthew Myers, should be considered at least their creative equal here. The concept may belong to the writers, but it’s the perfect execution of the art that makes Battle Bunny work...

Snowflakes Fall by Patricia MacLachlan: This is another joint production—illustrator Steven Kellogg worked closely with the author on the creation of this book, which makes the uniqueness of snowflakes a metaphor for childhood: “Each one a pattern / All its own— / No two the same— / All beautiful.” The pictures that accompany the text show kids delighting in wintry scenes, and in the realization that the melting of the snow will bring new growth as the season changes. To a child, Snowflakes Fall is an unclouded, joyful celebration of nature and youth, a pure pleasure to read aloud with a parent or grandparent...Read More

New Children's Titles

The Bookstore Twins are 14 months old now (don’t ask me where the time is going). Between the hours of 7am and 7pm, you won’t find me reading any of that delicious fiction and nonfiction I recommended over the last two weeks. I’m only allowed to touch those goodies right before bed, as long as I can stay awake.

If I’m not hauling the kiddos off to store or library story times, or letting them drive Roger and Co. crazy by dismantling bookshelves at Island Books, I’m encouraging their interest in reading right on our living room rug. With children’s books, illustrations are everything, especially as I’m trying to teach my toddlers a vocabulary. If kids aren’t captivated, they won’t focus.

Goodnight Moon is the standby and they can’t get enough of it, but honestly, I’m tired. Pat the Bunny has been chewed to pieces. For my own sake if not for the munchkins, it’s time for something new. Fortunately, Hanukkah and Christmas are on the way. Here’s what my kids will be unwrapping....Read More

Barnes and Bender

Barnes and Bender—sounds like a cut-rate law firm or an old-time vaudeville team. In fact, those are the names of two completely different writers, one an American woman just starting to make a name for herself and the other a British man in his late sixties who’s winding up an acclaimed career. They’re connected here only because they’ve both recently published books that push productively against the restraints of form and function.

Julian Barnes is a Booker Prize-winning novelist, the author of Flaubert’s Parrot, Arthur & George, and The Sense of an Ending. His latest work isn’t really fictional, though. It combines history, observation, speculation, and reflection to produce something intensely personal, which makes Levels of Life a long essay, I suppose. Whatever it is, it makes for remarkable reading....Read More

(Our store journal keeps you posted on books we're excited about, our literary musings, and other reading-related rambles. Remember, you can sign up to receive our posts by email.)

Amy Tan, Anita Shreve, and Adriana Trigiani For Fall Reading


Last week we talked about nonfiction, but if that category isn’t your thing, don’t worry. Today I’ll point you towards some new fiction I think you’ll enjoy, which reaches all the way from China to England to Italy. Before I spread out the wares, however, one side comment about fiction as a holiday gift. Sometimes we hesitate to give novels for fear of gifting something the recipient won’t like. It can seem easier to present a cookbook to someone we know likes to cook. Let me encourage you to take the leap this season and take your friends and family somewhere they wouldn’t otherwise visit. Sometimes the pure escapism of an enthralling novel is just the respite from real life that people need, and the push of a gift can encourage them to take a journey they wouldn’t otherwise pursue on their own. I assure you that stretching someone’s imagination is a wonderful gift.

Now, without further ado, have a look at these new titles....Read More

Amsterdam: Honkbal, Rembrandt, and the Meaning of Liberalism

It’s easy to get excited about the Sounders and the Seahawks, but of late baseball fans around here haven’t had much to care about. Sorry, Mariners, but it’s true. I haven’t given up on the M’s forever, but the past few fallow years have made it necessary for me to adopt a second rooting interest, one that doesn’t threaten my longterm allegiance to the local nine. My substitute team obviously couldn’t come from the American League, and even the National League was too close to home, so I looked further afield. Overseas, in fact, where the sport is played at a high level in the Netherlands. You’re a sane, normal person, so you probably had no idea that they’d even heard of baseball over there, but they have. They call it “honkbal.” Seriously. And they’re good at it—they finished fourth in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, two spots ahead of a US team stocked with major leaguers. My fannish feelings for Team Orange have grown into affection for the entire nation, and though I’ve never been there, I feel like an honorary citizen. I was therefore duty-bound to sample a new book by Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. In doing so, I discovered that it has something to say to everyone, not just us honkbal fans. It’s really a fascinating story....Read More

Yes to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tom Nissley, and Ann Patchett

In the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing a few hand-picked new books in three different categories: nonfiction, fiction, and children’s. It’s gift-giving season, after all, and there are plenty of choices. Each bookseller at Island Books has their favorite new releases, and you can browse a broader selection of our current staff picks here. Before you arrive at the store, however, let me introduce you to some of my favorite new arrivals. We’ll kick off today’s post with some notable nonfiction.

The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin: Yes, it’s 928 pages. But if you’re familiar with Goodwin’s work, you know that she’s going to give the complexity and scope of her subject its due. In this case, for the first decade of the 20th century, a short book just won’t cut it. Goodwin’s books are known for covering momentous events in American history through the eyes of great leaders. In The Bully Pulpit, Teddy Roosevelt and his chosen successor, William Taft, take center stage. The rupture of their relationship (culminating in the election of 1912, which Roosevelt won in a landslide after deciding to run against his protégé) had a tremendous ripple effect, both on the press—who stopped glossing over the news and became muckrakers during that time—and the public—who received their first glimpse into the behind-the-scenes politics, thanks to the press.

The surprise here is Taft, who Americans know little of beyond the fact that he was so fat he once got stuck in a White House bathtub. Readers will almost feel sorry for him....Read More


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