Friday Book Chats: “Middle Child” Books (Easily Overlooked)

I’ve been thinking lately about how very hard it must be to be a novelist. Not only is there so much work that goes into writing, and then the pressure of trying to get published and then hoping people buy it and then hoping it gets good reviews, etc. And even if you manage to achieve all of that, the buzz around a particular book only lasts for so long and then you have to do it all over again.

For today’s book chat I wanted to write about some really good books that you may not have heard of, or at least may not have heard about in a while. These aren’t exactly obscure books, but they are what I’d call “Middle Child” books.They are too old to still be hyped up and popular but they aren’t old enough to be classics and most have authors that are  better-known for other works. While none of these books are all-time favorites, they are all books that I rate highly and would recommend.

DeerskinDeerskin by Robin McKinley (1993). McKinley was one of my favorite authors growing up. She was writing young adult fantasy before that genre really existed. While I read and loved every one of her books (highly, highly recommend The Hero and the Crown), I remember being awestruck by this one, perhaps in part because it was one of my first forays out of true children’s books and into something weightier. Princess Lissla Lissar is on the cusp of womanhood, a beauty only equal to her dead mother, but she is forced to flee her kingdom when that likeness sparks her father’s lust and madness. She flees with her loyal dog, Ash, eventually finding a job working in the kennels for another king where the prince becomes captivated by the kennel maid and tells her stories until one day he tells her the story of Lissla Lissar.

Lake of DreamsThe Lake of Dreams by Kim Edwards (2011). Edwards is best known for The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, but The Lake of Dreams is worth a read. This beautifully atmospheric book tells the story of Lucy Jarrett who has returned home to a small town in upstate New York after years of living abroad. When Lucy finds a collection of objects inside a window seat, she realizes she has stumbled onto some family secrets. Lucy begins a quest for answers about the objects she’s found and about the unresolved death of her father a decade earlier.

People of the BookPeople of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (2008). Brooks is a Pulitzer-prize winning author (for March in 2006, also a great book) whose books are heavily rooted in real historical events. Inspired by a true story, this book traces the story of a rare illuminated manuscript and the people who loved it and preserved it through centuries of war and exile. When the Sarajevo Haggadah is rescued from Bosnia, Hanna Heath, a rare-book expert, is given a once-in-a-lifetime  chance to study it. This book takes Hanna and the reader on a journey that is both historically fascinating and emotionally evocative. I’ve read reviews of this book from people who didn’t connect with it at all, but I thought it was fascinating.

American WifeAmerican Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (2008). Sittenfeld is probably best known for her debut novel, Prep, which I didn’t love. I was intrigued by this novel because it’s a complete work of fiction whose main character, Alice Blackwell, is heavily modeled after Laura Bush. One of the most interesting elements of this book to me was the exploration of a character who doesn’t hold all of the same political or social views as her husband and is put in position where she has to decide what it looks like to support someone she doesn’t always agree with.

History of LoveThe History of Love by Nicole Krauss (2006). Krauss’ more recent book, Great House, is also well worth reading, but this was the first book of hers I read and I’m attached to it. Until recently she was married to writer Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and I can see some similarities in their work. Leo Gursky is a tired old Polish immigrant who lives a quiet, lonely life, but once upon a time he was young and in love and he wrote a book. 14-year-old Alma was named after a character in that book and she is determined to find her namesake, even though it’s been 60 years since the book was written.

Yiddish Policeman's UnionThe Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon (2007). Chabon is the author of one of my all-time favorite books, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (which won the Pulitzer in 2000). The thing I love about Chabon is that he strongly believes that a book can be both literary and entertaining. He often experiments with classic genre fiction, and this book is a prime example. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a police detective story mixed with a dose of 1940’s noir. A small community of Jewish refugees have made their home in Sitka, Alaska where they were offered temporary asylum after WWII, but now their little world is about to change as their district reverts to Alaskan control. For homicide detective Meyer Landsman, this is just one more part of his life that is falling apart. When Landsman begins to investigate the murder of his neighbor, he receives instructions to drop the case from his supervisor – who is also his estranged wife. Landsman pursues the case anyway with startling results.

Do you have any books you wish more people knew about? Or books you love that don’t seem to get enough credit? Please share in the comments. I’m always looking for new suggestions!

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13 comments

  1. I read American Wife years ago in one big gulp and totally loved it. (I never read Prep!) I tried The Adventures of… awhile back and I should give it another shot!

    Love these lists!

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  2. They all look really good. I read People of the Book and enjoyed it, hadn’t realized that the same author wrote March (which i also really enjoyed). There are so many good books/authors that are overlooked, it’s hard to pick just one. I have quite enjoyed Dan Simmons, his The Terror was a great historical/magical realism book about what REALLY happened to the Franklin expedition, but my favourite of his so far is Drood, about the last few years of Charles Dickens’ life and the writing of his unfinished book, the Mystery of Edwin Drood. It’s in the POV of Wilkie Collins, Dickens’ friend and fellow writer. I will admit that it drags a bit in the middle, but if you push through that part the last third of so it turns into an absolutely fascinating and mesmerizing tale where you are not entirely certain if what is happening is real or a product of Collins’ heroin use. Really compelling and hard to explain but a masterful bit of writing, atmospheric and spooky.

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  3. I really enjoyed Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves. Her book, The Historian, is more well known, but I actually like The Swan Thieves better. A children’s book that absolutely blew me away was Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick, the author of the Curious Invention of Hugo Cabret- they made the movie Hugo based on this book.

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    1. I actually really didn’t like The Historian so I never read Swan Thieves. And I’ve never read Wonderstruck either, but I love Hugo – haven’t seen the movie, but the book is great. Thanks for the suggestions!

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