Posts Tagged ‘literature’

Book Reviews: The MeetCutest, A Book NOT about Wolves, and Black Hair Love.

June 15, 2017

Morning, all! Just a few books to talk about this week, because I had some re-reads not worth re-hashing am thiiiiis close to finishing my daytime book and my nighttime book. (You know I have my reading groove back when I’m making excuses for a low number!)

So what do we got? Let’s look!

DimpleWhen Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Menon (2017, Simon Pulse, 380 pages, ebook). This book is the book to read this summer and believe me when I say Sandhya Menon is the new John Green – YA Whisperer Extraordinaire! I hope she’s half as prolific because I can’t wait to get my hands on her next story…and I just finished her first! The story is about two American teens whose (uh, somewhat) traditionalist Indian parents have arranged for them to be married – if all goes well when they meet. Dimple kicked herself for not realizing why her parents suddenly caved and allowed her to go to computer programming camp, and Rishi just about wants to kill himself for blurting out his intentions to spend the rest of his life with Dimple the second he meets her. Turns out Dimple wasn’t aware of the deal-io. And on it goes. It’s the meet-cutest, even if it does feel annoyingly teenagery at times, and a little heavy-handed on the foreshadowing. It all balances out, though, because Dimple and Rishi click from (almost) the first moment, and its in the funny, laugh-out-loud moments that Menon’s writing really shines. That, and she really knows how to write secondary characters – not a skill you really hear talked about, partly because not a lot of people really know how to excel at it. All in all, it’s wonderful debut novel and I will definitely be following Menon’s career with interest. 3 1/2 of 5 stars. (That cover, though! 5 of 5 stars for cover art!)

HistoryOfWolvesHistory of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund (2017, Grove Atlantic, 288 pages, used hardcover). Trigger warning for sketchy-as-hell student/teacher relationships, and child abuse. In small town Minnesota (the book flap describes it further as being part of the lakes region of Minnesota, but is there part of Minnesota that isn’t the lakes region? Seriously?), Linda/Maddie lives with questionable parents in a hut that is part of a counter-culture left over from her maybe-parents commune days. History was so hard to read because relationships were never clearly defined – between characters, places, causes, nothing! It wasn’t even clear whether this was by design. So I wasn’t sure if Linda’s blurry AF relationship with her parents and miserable home life was responsible for why she kissed her teacher, or was jealous when a fellow student started rumors that she had gone all the way with their history teacher – an awkward man who later fled because they found out he was fired from his last job in California for pedophilia. As that story line was falling apart, Linda is hired by the weirdo neighbors across the lake to babysit for their toddler, Paul. You know from the beginning that something horrible is going to happen to Paulie – and I thought from the teacher story line that it was going to be sexual abuse – but it wasn’t, and the No Good, Terrible, Horrible Thing was a bit of a let down when I finally found out what happened. I mean, it was awful, sure; it just wasn’t the shock it was built up to be. Yeah, this novel was a hot mess, through and through, in need of a much stronger editor. Solid ideas, they just all fell to the earth and fizzled. 2 of 5 stars.

YouCantTouchMyHairYou Can’t Touch my Hair, by Phoebe Robinson (2016, Plume Books, 285 pages, library paperback). This was nominated as a Goodreads Choice for Humor last year, and YOU GUYS! I am both bummed it didn’t win, and horrified it had to go up as humor! Yes, Robinson is a comedian, and yes, she glossed all her essays with humor, but I think that’s all mostly because there isn’t anything close to “I’m Laughing Because It’s All Funny Because It’s So True It Hurts” – in either an awards category or life profession. There were essays about hair and beauty as the title suggests, but also how Robinson is too black to be white, and too white to be black. She’s the post-Soul aesthetic defined, and I LOVE it. I love her! I can’t believe I hadn’t run across so much as her name before. Bottom line: you should all read her book, see her in person if you can, and help me track down any- every- thing else she has done. 4 of 5 stars.

InvisibleLifeOfIvanIsaenkoThe Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko, by Scott Stambach (2016, St. Martin’s Press, 326 pages). Lauded as the next coming of The Fault in Our Stars, I was so excited to sit down and read Ivan! I knew it was going to be sad, but Holy Moses. Ivan is beset by every mean trick the universe could bestow. He was born without both legs, without his right arm, and with only a thumb and the first two fingers on his left hand. He has a connective tissue disorder, making it hard to talk, and leaving his features flat, making him not only hard to look at, but like he’s even more handicapped than he is. Oh, and when another person at Mazyr’s Hospital for Gravely Ill Children (in the Ukraine that cares for 30 children crippled by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster) dares to fall in love with Ivan, SHE DIES TOO. We know this from the first page – a choice that rankled with me every step of the way. I wanted to hold out hope, no matter how foolish. I needed to believe. Without that bit, even with Nurse Natalya who is the only friggin ray of sunshine in a thousand mile radius, everything was so. unflinchingly. bleak. I’ve read a lot of bleak stories, you guys. I can handle a lot. If I have hope. This…it was interesting. I wanted to change the outcome. So even though it was bleak, there was an undeniable intrigue and sneakery and brilliance that crackled throughout and drew me to the story. I couldn’t put it down because of it, and, honestly, it’s what kept me turning page after page. Without it, I’d have ditched. So…I guess brilliance trumps hope. Who knew? 3 of 5 stars.

There you go! What are YOU reading this week? What do I need to add to my shelves this summer?

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Mini-Reviews: Paranoia, PTSD, and picky thrillers.

March 31, 2016

It’s Thursday! And while it’s not really official, Thursdays are when I usually bring you a round-up of what I’ve been reading this week, even weeks when I don’t feel like there’s much worth shouting about and waving above my head, screaming READ THIS! Some weeks are just gonna be like that.

But there are a few that you should definitely keep an eye open for, even if I’m not begging you to please go hunt them down right this minute, so let’s see what we have…

Book86Bright Lines, by Tanwi Nandini Islam (Penguin, 2015, 304 pages, paperback). This was one of the books I got in one of my Book Riot Quarterly Boxes, and I can see why they chose it. It’s smart, multi-culti, and a wicked debut. Who doesn’t want to feature all of those things? But you know when you’re just not feeling a book? And how you kinda kick yourself because you know if you had maybe read it at a different time, you might have had an entirely different experience? That was me. I could see how smartly written it was, how carefully constructed, but that was part of my problem. Everything felt on purpose. I never really lost the sense that I was reading a story. I never fell under its spell. The characters got bogged down under all of that intent, at times, and I wanted to just shake them loose and see what happened. It reminded me a bit of a stiff Khaled Hosseini, so keep an eye on it – just be prepared for heavy reading. 2 of 5 stars.

Book87Cutting Teeth, by Julia Fierro (St. Martin’s Press, 2014, 322, ebook). This has been on my TBR list since it debuted and I finally snagged a loaner. This is where the “paranoia” part of our lead comes in, in the guise of a young mom intent on raising the perfect suburban little white boy. That got old, fast. Every unhappy family is a new story, yes, but this was more like grinding teeth than it was about the unhappy toddler who’s cutting them. Or maybe society was gnawing on our mama Nicole. Or the media who cuts into everything, turning the most mild symptom or event into fodder. There was certainly a lot to think about, but who could hear any of it or be bothered to care over such a whiny protagonist? Ugh. 1 of 5 stars.

Book88The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness (Walker Books, 2015, 343 pages, library hardcover). A lot of people liked this book more than I did, and you might be one of them. More paranoia here, but turned up even higher was the meta. And I mean meta meta. The Rest of Us was shooting for something along the lines of The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next series) by Jasper Fforde and missed, slightly. It’s about a group of high schoolers who aren’t the Chosen Ones, fighting dragons, staving off vampires, or dying of cancer. They’re the other characters, ignoring the end of the world and minor characters who die in front of them. They’re the Rest of Them in the stories, who have to go on, very much in spite of themselves and the stories around them. If I liked shitty characters a little more, I would have been far more into this. Alas. I have enough an easy enough time making fun of the world around me with people I like. The writing was crisp and quick-moving and I have to note that it would be a good entry into the Magical Land of Meta for the YA set – or a grown-up who hasn’t visited. 2 of 5 stars.

Book89Underwater, by Marisa Reichardt (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2016, 288 pages, hardcover). I broke my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks pledge to buy this – but I had a coupon and a $10 gift card! So it was like I hardly bought any of it. I assuaged my guilt by reading it in a few hours. It was very compulsive writing, and not very difficult to read, although it didn’t have much meat to it, despite the content. I didn’t even realize this book was about (yet another) school shooter until I was halfway through – I knew only it was a YA book about a high schooler who was so wrecked with anxiety and trauma that she couldn’t leave her crappy apartment, not even for the little brother who adored her. Oh, until a love interest moves in next door and maybe changes all of that. Because, of course. The bit of requisite campiness was forgivable, partly because of how very honestly and faithfully Reichardt handled Morgan’s anxiety and PTSD. As someone who knows more than I want to about anxiety, I can say there was a lot that was pitch-perfect. And that is important for teens. The trigger subject can get swapped out – it’s almost not important. But showing kids that it can maybe be treated and handled is something we need more of. 3 1/2 of 5 stars.

Book90Woman with a Secret, by Sophie Hannah (William Morrow, 2015, 384 pages, library hardcover) and The Edge of Normal, by Carla Norton (Minotaur Books, 2013, 308 pages, library hardcover). You guys. Okay, I’m thinking I have a problem. It might be me – I am too picky. I must be. Because these books? Were awful. I couldn’t even read them to make fun of them! The writing was campy, the female protagonists unbelievable, the situations the authors were setting up were preposterous – I just couldn’t do it! I don’t know why. I enjoy thrillers, I do. I let myself suspend belief just fine. I even lower my standards…just maybe not enough. Why is it so hard for me to find a thriller good enough to actually read? …And is that necessarily a bad thing? 1 of 5 stars.

Book91The Famished Road, by Ben Okri (Jonathan Cape, 1991, 519 pages, library ebook). You guys! (A different kind of “You guys.”) I can’t believe I waited so long to read this! A new classic about a Yoruba spirit child who journeys through fires, captivity, destitution, searching for family, redemption, and the elusive overlap between the land of his family and the spirits. I studied Nigeria and Yoruba culture quite a bit, so this story rang so many of my bells. I didn’t realize how much I missed this kind of storytelling until I was rolling in it, banging the book against the steering wheel of my car (at lunch), yelling “Yes!” Now, it is a bit of The Wizard of Oz meets A Hundred Years of Solitude, so there are points where the story sticks in the mud a bit and you just want to get it going again. But it’s worth the patience. (Or, um, skipping ahead a bit.) 3 1/2 of 5 stars.

Book92Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, 2015, 289 pages, library hardcover). Stead’s When You Reach Me, which plays heavily with A Wrinkle in Time, is one of my favorite books, so I was tempted to pre-order this new YA novel. I’m glad I didn’t. It was a good story, about three teenage girls who stumble their way through junior high, trying to figure out the rules of friendship and dating and life. Really, it’s a bit of a modern Judy Blume. And that’s high praise! It’s just not as lofty or as whip-smart as I had set it up in my head. Definitely borrow, though – it’s a solid YA read. 3 of 5 stars.

Book93My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout (Random House, 2016, 193 pages, library hardcover). Wow, I read a lot of library books this week. It’s rare that I read everything I borrow! This was a solid read and my god, it made me miss my mom. Fierce aching, you guys. Lucy Barton had an operation, a simple one, but is feverish and not recovering and so is stuck in the hospital. Her husband has sent for her estranged mother, all the way from the impoverished mid-west, and Lucy Barton unfolds as the two become reacquainted through small-talk and gossip and remember-whens. The writing is a bit stark and distanced, but absolutely true to Strout, so if you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy it. Or if you’re looking for a good character-driven book, because I’m not a Strout fan and I read every single page, digging for the next revelation. 4 of 5 stars. 

Mini-reviews: Dealing with grief, Jack Sparrow’s voice whispering in your ear, and trying to find the right voice.

March 23, 2016

It will surprise no one to learn that I did a fair bit of reading over Spring Break. Hey – there’s only so much bonding I can do with Netflix, dealing with bronchitis or nah. And the topics were flung far and wide…

Book85Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 2015, 400 pages, ebook). I am not a Lauren Groff fan. Yes, I know I’m going to dodge tomatoes for saying that. The woman’s got writing chops, they’re just not for me. And while I appreciated the premise of the book – the story of a marriage told from one perspective, and then surprise! the other spouse’s very different perspective – there’s just something about Groff’s voice that won’t let me connect. Fates was shortlisted for the Tournament of Books, though, so I had to give it a whirl. It was better than Arcadia and Monsters of Templeton, so I’ll at least peruse the next one. Maybe it’s just a matter of finding the right time to pair up. 2 of 5 stars.

Book84In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf, 2016, 233 pages, library hardcover). Lahiri is an author I really enjoy, one I will constantly pair with Khaled Hosseini in my mind because I’ve read their books in pairs since I discovered them. I read Interpreter of Maladies (my favorite) around the time I read Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Namesake right after I read The Kite Runner. I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried! I knew In Other Words was a love story of a different variety – still about family and the transcendental nature of generations, passion, and cultural pockets, but this time one rooted in words and writing. Lahiri fell deeply in love with the Italian language and moved her family to Italy to chase after her dreams and live fully immersed. In Other Words was her experimental mapping of her adventures and discoveries, one as intimate as any memoir though the doors into her feelings and musings looked a little less conventional. I enjoyed every page and envied the apparent ease with which she so easily shared how such a project unfolded. Definitely read if you enjoy Lahiri’s fiction or stories about the art of writing. 4 of 5 stars.

Book83Savvy, by Ingrid Law (Dial, 2008, 342 pages, borrowed). Corrie literally shoved this book into my hands and told me to read it because her reluctant reader had devoured this and the next in the series. It’s the story of a family who have all come into a secret special power when they turn 13. Just before Mibs turns 13 and is about to discover her “savvy”, her father has an accident and all seems lost. Okay, first – how do you read this book (disappointingly not about pirates) and not hear Jack Sparrow say the word “savvy” every time you read it? You can’t. Which is why you’re disappointed the book isn’t about pirates. The premise was cute enough, although I don’t think it’s the type that will capture my kiddos’ attention, and it wasn’t special enough for me to shout about from the rooftops. A decent read, just not anything that stands out. But if Captain Jack wants to rethink an appearance… 3 of 5 stars.

Book82The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King. (Scribner, 1999, 224 pages, paperback). This was next up on my Stephen King Re-Read Project and I was glad for it. I don’t think I’ve read it since it came out, which isn’t to say I didn’t like it. I like it just fine. It’s a good survivalist type book, a particular weakness of mine. The suspense and heartbreak and psychological wobbling of leaving a 9-year-old girl alone in the woods for days is a mighty fine pitch for King, and I applauded all over again how was able to keep it as straight-laced as he did. For a reader still afraid of the dark, it didn’t take special effects to make this story any scarier than it already was. It doesn’t hurt that the Red Sox are my happy place, too. 3 of 5 books.

Book81H Is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald (Jonathan Cape, 2014, 320 pages, ebook). I’m going to buy multiple copies of this book. I wish I had my own copy the first time through so I could highlight and dog-ear and jot notes in the margins. A friend from my bookish community recommended the book to me after we gushed about lyrical passages in another book and Care was right – MacDonald’s writing is lush and gorgeous and the kind you want to roll around in. What I found even more meaningful was MacDonald’s unflinching examination of her grief after unexpectedly losing her father. I’m still reeling from the loss of my uncle and I found MacDonald’s use of falconry as a tool to process her grief something I could latch onto. I’m not a falconer and I don’t even have a lot of interest in the subject, but MacDonald created a window that helped shine a light on things I didn’t know I needed in just this particular way. I’ll recommend this book to anyone processing deep, unmoveable grief, but I’ll also recommend it to anyone who appreciates powerful storytelling of being called to a particular journey at a particular time in your life. 5 of 5 stars. 

Book80We Are the Ants, by Shaun David Hutchinson. (Simon Pulse, 2016, 455 pages, hardcover). This book has been on my bookshelf for awhile. Not terribly long, not like since-two-Christmases-ago type of long, but enough. It was part of the BookRiot YA box and my problem was that I didn’t think I would like it. I don’t do fantasy. I don’t do science fiction. A teenage boy who is being abducted by aliens and told he has to choose whether to let the world end on January 29 or press a button to save it? So not my thing. But everyone was saying how good it was and then they were comparing the book to something by A.S. King, and King is my type of thing. And I already had the book whether I wanted it or not. So I read the first few pages. And couldn’t stop. You guys – this book. This book is POWERFUL. This book is heartbreaking. Aside from the three chapters I gulped down when I cracked it open – because right before bed – I read this book in one day as the girls Netflixed and painted and did any number of things I didn’t notice because I was reading. I don’t remember a book that captures the particular hell of high school bullying as well as this, or one that handles depression and suicide in a way that didn’t sound trite or cliched or so, so carefully showed (rather than told) how to get through this hour. And this one. And this one. That there were good things that looked crappy and crappy things that stayed (but some that got a sliver better) and how sometimes things just were. That those can be the toughest things of all. And you guys – this book. This book’s ending didn’t suck! I mean, kind of because I wanted something tidy, but the ending fit perfectly for the story it was attached to. READ IT, you guys. It’s compulsive writing and deep, meaningful thoughts and themes every person navigates at some point in their life. It is amazing. 5 of 5 stars.

Book79The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt (Knopf, 2002, 555 pages, hardcover). This is one of the books I’ve had for two Christmases and one of the ones that inspired my participation in the #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge. I had been holding off because Tartt makes me nervous – I loved the stuffing out of Goldfinch, but hated Secret History and I wasn’t sure which storyteller would show up. It was Goldfinch, mixed with Harper Lee, and okay, no it wasn’t warm, but it worked for me. Little Friend tells the story of a young boy who is found hanging from a tree on Mother’s Day and the secrets that are kept as years go by, only to be dug up by the boy’s sister years later when she decides to figure out who killed him. A southern-fried mystery that reads a lot faster than the heft suggests. 3 of 5 stars.

So there you go! If you’re not heading for your library or local bookstore to grab We Are the Ants, seriously – go. Do it. Report back. Because I needs to discuss it.

 

#ReadMyOwnDamnBooks: February Challenge Update

February 29, 2016

ReadMyOwnDamnBooksbutton

What what? Another month finished? The hell you say. I swear time is passing so quickly because my head is constantly buried in a book and I keep forgetting to look up. But since February is gone (well, in a few hours, thanks to today’s bonus day), it’s time to check in with my part in Andi’s #ReadMyOnwDamnBooks challenge and see how well I resisted the temptation to buy any new books.

(If you want to read reviews of what I read, you can find my thoughts here and here and here.)

22. The New World, by Chris Adrian – A library ebook
23. Bats of the Republic, by Zachary Thomas Dodson – Library ebook
24. The Invaders, by Karolina Waclawiak – Library ebook
25. Smaller and Smaller Circles – Library ebook
26. Rock Paper Scissors, by Naja Marie Aidt – Library ebook
27. Cherry Money Baby, by John Cusick – Previously owned (one of the five left over from two Christmases ago)
28. The Royal We, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan – Library hardcover
29. No More Heroes, by Stephen Thompson – Christmas gift
30. I Am Princess X, by Cherie Priest – Library book
31. The End of Alice, by A.M. Homes – Previously owned
32. The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy – Library ebook
33. Nimona – My daughter’s Christmas gift
34. The Memory of Light, by Francisco Stork – Pre-ordered before the book ban!
35. Stay Up with Me, by Tom Barbush – Library ebook
36. A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman – I bought it. I did! I broke all the rules.
37. The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, by Sarah Knight – Bought
38. Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens – Christmas gift
39. Columbine, by Dave Cullen – Previously owned; re-read
40. A Mother’s Reckoning, by Sue Klebold – Bought
41. Wizard and Glass, by Stephen King – Previously owned; re-read
42. Bag of Bones, by Stephen King – Previously owned; re-read
43. The Loudness, by Nick Courage – Library ebook
44. Inside the O’Briens, by Lisa Genova – Library ebook
45. The Truth Commission, by Susan Juby – Library ebook
46. Girl in the Dark, by Anna Lyndsey – Library ebook

So there you go. 24 books read. I broke down and bought three of them! For shame, Katie! I did well not buying more of them, but only 5 books of 24 came from my pool of books I have piled up in the queue. I know I borrow a lot of ebooks for reading on my phone while I’m waiting in line, at red lights, etc., but I need to be better about reading at night before bed and at lunch from the stack of books at home that isn’t getting much smaller.

Still. Even with all the rules and, you know, the giant point of the challenge, I don’t feel too bad. I read a lot of books this month. And that alone is enough to make me happy!

Five for Friday.

September 18, 2015

Oof. Wow, what a night. It wasn’t even that bad it’s just…a school night. A school night when the ladies of Casa de Katie were left on their own, and one minute I swear we were ready for bed at barely 8 o’clock…the next, there was wine and sugar and YouTube happened and then Cyndi Lauper and Taylor Swift and INSTANT DANCE PARTY! See what happens when we’re left to our own devices? Chaos!

But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about today. I’ve been on this amazing book kick lately, and I wanted to share some quick reviews. Let’s go:

  1. It started with The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton. (Candlewick Press, 2014, 301 pages. Library ebook, although I’ve picked up the paperback and put it down a hundred times.) It’s the generational story of Ava’s family after they immigrated, and how unlucky in love they’ve been. The writing is gorgeous, the characters unique, and the overall effect so haunting. Think Middlesex meets Night Circus. If you don’t like magical realism – even in light doses – this isn’t for you. But, oh, if it’s your cuppa, you definitely want to make room for this. 4 of 5 stars.
  2. My Sunshine Away, by M.O. Walsh. (Amy Einhorn Books, 2015, 306 pages. Library ebook.) I wouldn’t quite tag this as YA fiction, because it read very grown-uppish for me, but I know some reviewers have it pigeon-holed that way. Sunshine tells the story of the 15-year-old narrator as he looks back at what was both a picture-perfect and utterly miserable adolescence. He professes to have grown up in an idyllic neighborhood, although as he unravels what actually happened the summer his high school crush was raped, we learn that his father was a philanderer who left his mother, his neighborhood housed bullies (children and grown-ups), foster families abused their children, and husbands beat their wives. It’s a skilled balance between keeping the story moving while untangling the narrator’s understanding that his childhood didn’t have to be one or the other – it could be complicated and layered. I wish the author had done more with the idea of class that peeked in just at the end, but I absolutely loved what was there. It reminded me of Lovely Bones meets some of Stephen King’s early stories about growing up (a la The Body). 4 of 5 stars.
  3. The Last Flight of Poxl West, by Daniel Torday. (St. Martin’s Press, 2015, 304 pages. Library ebook.) You guys know I have a thing for World War stories – fiction, non-fiction, maps, movies, I want it all. Poxl is the story of a young boy who idolizes his Uncle Poxl, who grew up in Prague before becoming a medic during the blitz of London, and then flew bombers for the Royal Air Force. It was a moving coming of age story, in which Elijah learns that not all is ever as it seems in the world of grown-ups, and why, when you really love someone, not all is ever lost. It’s a great story, but you can get all the same themes somewhere else if you don’t enjoy stories of growing up in Europe or WWII. 4 of 5 stars.
  4. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. (Penguin, 1962, 146 pages. Paperback.) Can you believe I’d never read this one? I adore Shirley Jackson – she’s the queen of not being able to sleep because you’re scared to death, if you ask me. She knows just how to take innocent words, phrases of every day conversation, throw in a creepy childish chant, and then BOOM! Psychological thrills and pitfalls galore. I kept waiting for the story to turn out a bit different, but I still loved all the places it took me. (No spoilers from this girl.) I was afraid I had hyped the story too much in my mind, but I shouldn’t have worried – Jackson always delivers. A solid hour’s read. 4 of 5 stars.
  5. The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma. (Algonquin Young Readers, 2015, 336 pages. Library ebook.) This was most definitely a Young Adult novel, but it read well. Yes, sometimes the writing was trite and forced and definitely sounded geared towards a Young Adult attention span, but the story made up for it. Two young ballet prodigies are bullied by the other dancers. One of them ends up in jail. The story plays out as we read about the time after that girl was in prison, upstate, and what her life was like before when she was hanging out with her bestie. Oh, also: there was a bunch of trippy, creepy, ways time and space were messed with. In a good way. I was dying to figure out how the story was resolved and read the ending at breakneck speed. 3 1/2 of 5 stars. Definitely worth borrowing.

Now what’s sad – or insanely awesome? – that’s not even the entirety of my list! But it’s a good five books to get you started. Enjoy your weekend, everyone!

Read Harder: My 2015 Reading Challenge

February 3, 2015

Yes, I realize it’s February and a little late to be talking about goals and challenges for the year. (It’s really going to mess with your heads later this week when I talk about my running challenge on Declare It Day, isn’t it?) But even though I started this challenge at the beginning of the year, and I’m just now getting around to talking about it, I want to say that I think anytime is a good time to set a goal or begin a challenge! Who cares if it’s January, February, or November? Get yours! Forward is a pace!

Okay, now that I’ve rah-rahed you to a frothy crescendo of DO ALL THE THINGS!, let’s talk reading challenges!

This year I’ve decided to participate in Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge. I love the stuffing out of Book Riot for many, many reasons. One is that they’ve focused a lot recently on purposely filling our reading paths with stories writing by people of color. Even though it’s something I’m very much aware of (and support), I’ve found to my dismay that my reading list isn’t very varied when I look at what I’ve read for the year. I do really well at reading female authors – my reading total has been split 51%/49% men/women over the last three years without any effort from me. But authors of color? I only hit 15% last year. I think one of the reasons, even though my TBR is chock-a-block full of people of color, is that my reading choices are very organic. What I read next is what is loaned to me by friends, what I find on clearance at the used book store, or what the library has in-stock. Once in awhile, it’s a pre-order from a favorite author. Books by people of color, already a huge minority in the publishing world, very rarely stumble into my life. I need to do a better job of actively seeking them out. Reading them on purpose. Reading with purpose.

And that’s where the Read Harder challenge comes in. It’s like a scavenger hunt of mini-challenges: Read a book written by an author under the age of 25; Read a collection of short stories; Read a book that takes place in Asia; A microhistory; A book by a person who identifies as LGBTQ. Isn’t it fantastic? I love how all of these differences are identified and set up as smorgasbord to be sampled. Who knows what dish someone could fall in love with? Even better, if you click over to the actual challenge that I linked to above, the pretty, pretty Book Riot folks have linked to reading suggestions for each item on the list. So if you’re not sure where to start looking for books written by someone older than 65 – they’ve got ya covered! Aren’t they awesome?

Curious to see what I’m planning for my reading scavenger hunt? Here you go…

Read Harder Challenge 2015:

A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25: I’m planning to read either Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi or Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65: There’s a new Toni Morrison coming out this year. She’s so accommodating!

A collection of short stories (either by one person or an anthology by many people): Here’s where the challenge is already working, because I am not a fan of short stories. I say that, and I’ve already read one this year – Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which I HIGHLY recommend! – and I’m reading another right now.

A book published by an indie press: Tiny Hardcore Press has published Roxanne Gay, but I’ve read her already. (And I’m not counting re-reads for my own challenge, but you guys make your own rules.) Greywolf Press is another that I tend to read a lot of. Marie Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life? was published by an indie, so that’s a possibility…

A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ: I’ve read Ariel Schrag’s Adam, about a straight teenaged guy who moves to New York to spend time with his sister and gets caught up in her LGBTQ community. I’d also highly recommend Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine that I read last year, about a lesbian teen in Iran who considers sexual reassignment surgery to legally (and publicly) be with the girls she loves. It’s an amazing YA book that read well for me, as an adult reader. Farizan isn’t as well known as she should be.

A book by a person whose gender is different from your own: I crossed this one off with my first read of the year – The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, by Graham Joyce. Joyce is a British fantasist (although the book doesn’t read like fantasy – more like a hardboiled crime/noir story with creepy undertones) who is listed as one of Stephen King’s favorite writers. I can see why – Electric Blue Suit reminded me a lot of King’s Joyland.

A book that takes place in Asia: I have my eyes on Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball, which takes place in Tokyo. I read the chapter sample and adored it. Doesn’t hurt that it’s on the Tournament of Books short list and I’m frantically trying to finish that by March.

A book by an author from Africa: I bought Half a Yellow Sun by Adichie last week at the used book stores. I may have done a little dance right there in the aisle! I tore through Americanah…twice…and reading her backlist is definitely on my list of things to do this year.

A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans, Aboriginals, etc.): I’m reading a short story collection by Sherman Alexie right now called The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and let me just say it’s killing me! That first story… Oof. I read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and it was superb. I didn’t even realize it was a YA book until I’d finished it. Oh, and Louise Erdrich’s The Round House is one of my favorite books.

A microhistory: Anything by Mary Roach would make me happy, but I particularly have my eyes on Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

A YA novel: I read one of the books Gracie got for Christmas, Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan and OH MY GOD MY HEART. Read it, you guys, so you can be broken like me.

A sci-fi novel: Ugh. I am not looking forward to this. I wish 10:04 would count, but I don’t think it was sci-fi enough. I have no idea what I’m going to read.

A romance novel: Again, no idea. I have an idea I’ll have fun romping through, but the problem is finding something with writing that won’t make me roll my eyes. I don’t even care if it has plot – just not tripe-ish writing, please. Hit me with your best recs, mkay?

A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade: I just finished Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. I liked it…but maybe no as much as everyone else did. Is it just me, or do you guys wonder what in the world you missed when that happens. Hunh.

A book that is a retelling of a classic story (fairytale, Shakespearian play, classic novel, etc.): I have my eyes on Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns. It’s a memoir, but I have hopes. If it doesn’t fit, there are plenty others I have in mind! If you guys haven’t read Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, read that instead! It takes Snow White, turns it on its head, and makes you wonder how it ties in until BAM! you see it!

An audiobook: I’ll do it, but only cause I have to. I am NOT a fan.

A collection of poetry: Not something I usually pick up, so you guys hit me with your favorites!

A book that someone else has recommended to you: I finally read Bossypants by Tina Fey, that my little sister has been trying to get me to read forever. I like Tina Fey (I love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler collectively), but I was a lil leery of reading her memoir. Mostly because I hated the cover, though, so… And I found that it fell a little flat. It wasn’t as funny as I wanted it to be, although I really thoroughly enjoyed the chapter about her dad. That was funny enough to make me laugh out loud, and well written enough to make me want to talk Mr. Fey into adopting me. I much preferred Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please of the two. (Yes, I put a comma in Amy’s title that isn’t there. She did it wrong, what can I say?)

A book that was originally published in another language: There’s another novel in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series being published later this year, completed from a partial manuscript found after Stieg Larsson’s death. I am all over that!

A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics: Can you believe I haven’t yet read Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi? I’m thinking it’s time…

A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure (Read, and then realize that good entertainment is nothing to feel guilty over): First – how much do you love the little instruction they added? Right?! Second: all of my reading is guilty pleasure, without the guilt! This is gonna be easy! But mine for this year is extra guilty – The Best of Me, by Nicholas Sparks. NICHOLAS SPARKS, you guys! And seriously, don’t read it. The ending was AWFUL. Like, throw the book across the room kind of awful.

A book published before 1850: Oooh, I’m going to get in a classic! I could do Candide, by Voltaire, or Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, or Gustave Flaubert’s Memoirs of a Madman.

A book published this year: This was easy – I devoured Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, a YA book reminiscent of Eleanor and Park, except with the tears of Fault in Our Stars. Trust me – the warning is necessary.

A self-improvement book (can be traditionally or non-traditionally considered “self improvement”): I have my eyes on Dear Sugar, since it’s come so highly recommended by reader friends!

So there you go. I hope you play along with me and let me know how you’re doing along the way! And send me those recommendations!

The Best Books of 2014.

January 13, 2015

I’ve been promising this post for awhile now, and since the books of 2015 have started stacking up, I figure I better get cracking.

The Best Books of 2014

January:

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I would have loved this book for its discussion of hair alone, but Adichie really knocked it out of the park. Young love, really finding yourself once you grow up and get over your first love, and identity in groups, for yourself, and at large. It’s figuring out class politics in Nigeria, and race politics in America, and how race and class discussions never really separate anywhere. It’s a book I kicked myself for borrowing from the library, because I wanted to underline and write notes in the margins the entire time. Adichie is like a baby Toni Morrison and I can’t wait to devour her backlist.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I resisted reading this because I wasn’t a big fan of Tartt’s Secret History, but everyone was all ravey-ravey and the book was on super-sale, so I bought it for Christmas. And zomg. It was a slow start, but once the bomb went off in the museum, another one went off in my head, and I couldn’t put the book down. Serious, I think I read the rest of the 800+ pages in two days. Boris was a brilliant madcap character, and I wanted to crawl inside Hobie’s workshop and find all the hidden passageways, and I loathed Theo so much, but I couldn’t resist running along on all his crazyass adventures. It was brilliant, brilliant, brilliant – I didn’t even mind the bits that weren’t so believable, although I know that totally bugged some people. Accept that you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole and enjoy the ride, people.

Eleven Days, by Lea Carpenter. I hesitated when I originally starred this book. Was it the most mindblowing story? No. But the tale of a mother and son from when she first finds out her son has gone missing from his special ops mission in Iraq was so hypnotic and melodic that I couldn’t put it down. The writing was haunting and lovely and unflinching. I had to include it because it made me hope in the face of devastation.

February:

Marcello in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork. A YA selection that hit me in so many of the right places that I wondered how I had gone so long without hearing about it. It’s a great story to hand to tweenaged  boys looking for something other than Percy Jackson or Harry Potter. Marcello is different, like Sheldon from Big Bang different. His parents are pushing him to move out into the real world, and so he interns at his dad’s office and…all sorts of magical things happen. There was only one weird side storyline near the end that felt false and was totally unnecessary. Otherwise the story was a poignant reminder about following the truest parts of our heart, even in the face of ridicule.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. I love Ann Patchett so much that she’s become one of my pre-order authors. She’s had a few misses as I work through her backlist, but for the most part, she knows how to sing the songs I love to hear. My sister described this one as a horribly constructed poor man’s White Mary, as a research pharmacologist goes off into the Amazonian rain forest to find a missing colleague and stumbles across both her longtime forgotten, missing, and nutso mentor – and possibly the fountain of youth. State of Wonder broke my heart and put back the pieces, even if I had to forgive a few plotlines that were just bizarro. The language was still exquisite enough for me to give it 5 of 5 stars, even with its quirks. If you love Patchett, you’ll love this one. If she bugs, it’s not for you. (Ask Kim.)

Walk Across the Sun, by Corban Addison. Okay, this one was just about the opposite – I loved the premise of the story: a corporate lawyer hit some troubled times, takes time off, ends up in India instead of D.C. and decides to try to save two young Indian girls who were sold into forced prostitution after the Tsunami killed the rest of their family. But the writing read at best like a B-rated procedural, and at worst like crappy fanfic. But I couldn’t put it down until I found out what happened. So it sort of earns a qualified place here.

The Martian, by Andy Weir. Okay, if you are the one person who hasn’t heard me rave a zillion times about this book, let me just say this: I read it FOUR TIMES last year AND I threw an epic hissyfit when the Tournament of Books left it off its list. Oh, and I email Andy Weir daily to ask him if he’s written his second book yet.

April:

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. I was a little dubious about this; it riffs on Wrinkle in Time, which I had just read, and wasn’t sure whether my nerdiness would stand up. It did, and another classic YA-to-adult crossover favorite was born. Seriously – ask all of my friends how many times I shoved this book in their hands and told them to read it. It was like a nerdier, time-travellin’ Judy Blume – and you know how much I love my Judy Blume.

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi. This was a weird, weird book and I loved it. It was pitched as a book about race and skin politics and passing and, oh, hey, that was also designed as a fractured fairytale (a la Snow White), and who doesn’t want to read that? Only in this case, the Evil Queen rescues Snow White, then banishes her after her own (dark-skinned) child is born. And that ending…okay, someone’s going to have to explain that ending to me, because I was all whaaaa? Oh! And SURPRISE – it was set in my little-known hometown! Seriously. Perfectly. Weird.

May:

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo. Books about the oil slicks of identity and coming to America seem to be my bag this year. We Need New Names was one of the most strongly told stories I’ve read, even if Bulawayo’s voice got lost in the weeds here and there. When she was there, she was there and locked you into the scene so strongly, you felt like you were there. How someone could read this book of creating home and a sense of self in the middle of nothing and hopelessness and not come away with such a strong sense of gratitude and needing to do for others is beyond me.

June:

Jim Henson: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones. Oooh boy. Don’t read this biography if you need to keep your childhood mentor up there on a pedestal – I almost needed to wash my mind out with soap after getting through with some pieces. But if you really knew Henson’s work, you knew there were going to be skeletons and boogie men and all kinds of weird shit in his closet. If you can work around that, you’ll find out all kinds of wonderful little tidbits and so much about the person he was and the family he was surrounded by, and that knowledge has informed his art for me in so many interesting ways.

we were liars, by e. lockhart. Okay, this was one of the It Books of the year and you’ve probably read a hundred things about it. Yes, the ending was telegraphed a bit, and yes, when you’re told to expect a twist it sucks some of the fun out of it, but for me the book was written so lyrically, and was just different enough that I couldn’t walk away. The style is different and will bug some people, but it’s also short-short-short, so you can sneak in a lot of good storytelling in just an hour or two. An excellent beach read (for those of us who like to think on the beach).

July:

The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez. Ohhhh, this book broke my heart. Maybe not on a Tell the Wolves I’m Home level, but STILL. Heart breakage. It’s another book about displacement and trying to find a place where you can be you, a better you – whoever that is. In this one tenement building, a bunch of immigrants have found temporary shelter and chapter by chapter we find out who they are, as their stories begin entwining for better and for worse, straight through until the screaming finale. I knew something was going to happen, but not this and oh. Oh, my heart.

August:

A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout. How often does it work out that both vacation books end up being on your Best Of list? House is a memoir written by a photojournalist who travels to the most remote and dangerous corners of the world in an attempt to understand the world and live a life of meaning. During a trip to Somalia, she and her traveling companion are taken hostage and held for more than a year. There is no way I could have survived what Amanda went through. I’m a memoir addict – especially when the tales include danger and bravery and a high level of imagination – and this one recounts a tale few others can compete with.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joel Dicker. This was such a different story. It was like a mystery or a crime procedural, but it wasn’t. It was modern, but with hints of throwback. You’d think you had the story pegged or the characters pinned and then…not so much. It’s hefty – boy, did I hate taking up so much space in my carry-on – but it was worth it. After I finished, I couldn’t tell you where the story could be culled, and every bit kept me entertained. A smart, rollicking read that will make you bang the book against the nearest object and yell, “JUST TELL ME WHO DID IT ALREADY!” Ahem.

September:

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. I was so intimidated to read this. Space-traveling Jesuits? Life found on another planet? Religion and sci-fi? You’ve got to be kidding me. But ohmygod. The story was so intense, I have a hard time remembering the characters are not real, and the scars aren’t either. I will think about this book – and recommend it – for the rest of my life. Forget everything else, all the clutter and descriptives you’ll hear: it’s a book about family and what you would do for those you love. (In space.)(With Jesuits.)

Everything I Never Told You, by Cynthia Ng. Why is it that every book I’m telling you to read, I’m also telling you how bad the book broke me?! Yes, I needed a box of tissues to make it through this one, too. But at least you know from Page One that the Lee’s favorite daughter (yes, seriously the “favorite”) has died, and the rest of the story is an unfolding of how and maybe why. I just wanted to shake every single character – in fact, I did shake the book more than once – and make them share what the knew. Because there were so many things that some people knew that others didn’t, and if they just pooled their resources, their daughter, sister, friend, girlfriend, person might not still be alive, but would finally be at peace. And then maybe so would they. Haunting and perfect.

October:

Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia. Okay! Change of pace! This was a fun, quirky, laugh out loud sort of book. (You’re welcome.) It’s shades of The Shining, in which a grizzly old murder went down at a sprawling, aging resort years ago, the same resort where a band competition is now going down. And the child who survived the wedding-day murder all those years ago has come back to put her ghosts to rest. Only there’s a giant snowstorm that has trapped all the guests! And one of the kids goes missing! Dun dun dunnnnnh! Seriously smart and seriously funny with just enough pop culture references (and The Shining references) to keep it humming along. Quite the antidote to all those tearjerkers I’ve been telling you to read.

City of Women, by David Gillham. I love, love, love World War II history, fiction, memoirs – anything I can get my hands on. Usually one or two pieces end up on my Best Of lists, and when they do, it’s because they stood out. I read so many, they’d have to. City of Women was one of those. It’s the story of German housewives left in Berlin during the war, one of whom has an affair (or two or three), gets caught up in scandals and clandestine affairs (not the sexy kind, the spy kind) and starts to wonder what the line is, exactly, between Good Guys and Bad Guys. Oof, this book was full of feels. But it’s okay – no tissues.

Bird Box, by Josh Mallerman. You know when you hear eighty-thousand different people talk about a book and how FABULOUS it was and how they couldn’t sleep for days because of it? I am one of those eighty-thousand when it comes to Bird Box. It wasn’t quite “hide the children in the closet for a few days so nothing sucks their souls” the way N0S4A2 was, but it still scared the shit out of me. Definitely a read-in-the-daytime kind of book. Seriously. Not kidding.

November:

The Book of My Lives, by Aleksander Hemon. I wasn’t sure how many books I’d fall in love with during Non-fic November, but this was one I practically shoved in my sister’s hands. It’s a memoir of boyhood in Sarajevo, of the freedom-fighter (with words, beautiful words) the boy grows into, and of the writer’s professional life in Chicago after he flees his homeland. I loved how Hemon played with language, with the construction of identity, with even the idea of Memoir. It’s a book filled with Deep Thinking, not just time-passing. You’ve been warned.

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay. Roxane Gay is my favorite find of 2014. I would read her grocery list because she’d probably use it to point out in funny and true ways the racial and classist oppression of grocery aisle structures and the privilege of even having grocery stores and the differences of produce offerings in L.A., Haiti, and suburbia. And she’d be right. Because Roxane Gay’s writing…there aren’t stray bullets when she pulls the trigger. Everything is on point and deadly accurate and somehow we all end up being more conscious, better subjects to one another. Seriously. Mandatory reading right here.

December:

Revival, by Stephen King. Was this King’s best book to date? No. It was better than Mr. Mercedes, but less so than Doctor Sleep. Was it still better than most everything else I read this year? Hell yes. King is the storytellin’ master.

Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson. I hadn’t really heard much about this one, but it ended up on everyone’s Best Of list, so I happily snatched it from the library bookshelves when I went book hunting. It was strangely addictive, the kind of story where you don’t like any of the characters, but they are so beautifully constructed that you’re addicted to knowing more, to finding out exactly how and why they tick, drawn furiously to the end to find out what happens. Good god dang, what a story this was. A social worker who can’t make his own family work. A missing teenager. A feral boy. An anarchist. And the beautiful barren landscape of nowhere Montana.

#NonFicNov

November 5, 2014

I think I’ve somewhat rather unintentionally fallen into a rabbit hole. An interesting rabbit hole, but a rabbit hole all the same. See, I’ve been participating in a few more online book clubs and discussions lately. It’s lovely to have another group of people with whom I can chat about books and characters and ideas and pester for recommendations. And wow are there a lot of recommendations! When you read between 15-20 books a month, all of these recommendations and books of the month and read-alongs come in handy.

This month, one of my friends mentioned that she was participating in #NonFicNov, which is pretty much just as it sounds: for the month of November, participants are focusing their reading on non-fiction. My non-resolution every year (for I don’t exactly believe in resolutions) is to read more non-fiction. So my ears perked up.

First, I made sure I could use a rather elastic definition: I could include memoirs, right? And essays? We were defining “non-fiction” as “everything not entirely made-up”, right? Right. That was the first hook. Then I noticed that the only book I’d finished this month was a memoir titled I’ll See You Again, written by a women whose three daughters, ages 4-10, were all killed in a tragic car accident. (I do not recommend reading it if you have children that age. Whoops.) So I’d been playing by the rules… Why not join in?

Which is how I ended up in the rabbit hole.

Then I dug the hole deeper: I ordered a few non-fic selections online to shore up my at-home selections. I already had Eats Shoots & Leaves, about punctuation run amok in the wild; and Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of my Lives, about growing up in Sarajevo, and then living as an adult in Chicago, unable to help his family back home when the war in Sarajevo unfolds. (Memoirs about living in central/eastern Europe? Yes, please!) I ordered Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please (it was on sale, shoosh); Michele Elam’s The Souls of Mixed-Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium, because it’s been on my to-read list forever; Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, because can you believe I haven’t read it? and because I love me some survival stories; and Darcy Lockman’s Brooklyn Zoo: The Education of a Psychotherapist, because me and mental illness books go together like peanut butter and jelly. I thought about getting Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, about four women who fought in the Civil War, but I put a hold on it at the library instead.

So there you go. It’s going to be a challenge reading only non-fic this month, especially when I scooped so many fantastic fiction books at the library last weekend. I decided my 24-in-48 can be a respite – though I’m only allowed to read Stephen King. (Hey, if you’re going to break the rules for fiction, go all out, I say.) The rest of the time, I’m going to be beefing up my non-fic section of my Books Read for this year.

So let me have it: what books should I add to my list for this month?

The Best of the Second Half of 2013.

November 19, 2013

Book, of course. Because what else do I eat, sleep, and breathe?

Yes, I know I’m a little early with the ‘Best of…’ lists. It’s the biblio-equivalent of blasting Christmas music. (And if that irritates you, don’t ask me what I’m listening to.) But the thing is, I did my “Best of the the First Half of 2013” back in May, when I hit the 100-books-read mark, and since I’m a scootch (or two) past the 200 book mark, I thought it was time. Don’t worry, though – if I read anything absolutely brilliant between now and the end of the year, I’ll make sure it gets mentioned. Although as my plans stand, until the long-list for the Tournament of Books is released, I plan on spending a lot of quality time re-reading some Stephen King. Holidays and comfort reads – here I come! But before I get too comfy…

1. And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini. It’s a gorgeously written book, exactly what you’d expect from Hosseini. It’s perhaps a little closer to The Kite Runner in its divided generational and locational approach, and my least favorite of the three. That being said, Hosseini’s least is better than most others’ best, and that is why I still picked it as my Goodreads Fiction Book of the Year. (Though that was because my fave, Constellations of Vital Phenomena was ousted after the semi-finals.) Need another rec? I pre-ordered this book as hard-cover, and don’t begrudge a single penny…or inch of shelf-space. So there.

2. The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesay. My sister Kim wasn’t as enamored with this as I was, though I thought she’d love it. It’s a modernization of Jane Eyre, with a few twists and turns. Kim thought it was too faithful to have been worth her precious allotment of reading time, I found enough new life to be worth mine. Of course, the fact that Jane Eyre is one of Kim’s all time favorites and I found it too drab and dull might have had something to do with our differing opinions.

3. Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. This will always be the year that I “discovered” one of my new favorite authors, Ms. Rainbow Rowell. No one writes like Rowell. People who loved John Green, but found him a bit pretentious are going to love her. (I didn’t find Green all that overblown, his dialogue is just fine, thanks; but Rowell is still the cat’s pajamas.) E&P is about mixtapes, high school, and falling for that first, glorious time. It’s about learning to have faith in who you are (whoever the hell that is – and yeah, it’s okay if you don’t know) and how finding one person who really gets you can make or break you. Just like this book made and broke my heart. Good god, RR.

4. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. This is a story about a man who falls through a well of grief into the summer when he was ten or eleven, a summer of magic, a summer when there was an ocean at the end of his lane. In a book marketed as written for grown-ups, Gaiman’s voice is so evocative and intimate, so lyrical and dreamlike, you’ll have trouble believing it’s the same master author who penned American Gods and Neverwhere. The story of love, friendship, and surreality and time-and-space myths is haunting from the first word to the last. Expect to be moved. Expect, too, to get a little teary-eyed when it is over.

5. Joyland, by Stephen King. This, I’m going to say right now, was The Perfect Summer Read. A short, gritty crime story set in the middle of a carnival scene made realer-than-real with King’s carney talk and familiar characters brought to life. Yet, for all of King’s familiar dazzle and craftsmanship, this didn’t feel like classic King. Well, aside from the fact that it was a better three-hour ride than you could find elsewhere. But the classic King voice wasn’t there, the classic King tropes – doors, clowns, zombies, other worlds, other whens, mind-reading… Oh. Wait. There was mind-reading for half a minute there at the end. But it’s not really central to the story. Okay, fine, read it and then argue with me, but you tell me the heft of the novel wasn’t an out-of-King’s-body-of-work experience. And it was still fantastic. Better than that even.

6. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes. I kept checking the cover as I read this to make sure it wasn’t Stephen King. Because really. It could be. It could be a giant cover story. It’s a bit grittier, but then Joyland showed us King does know how to step out of his own lingo. And it is filled with magic doors, grisly murders, a serial killer who likes objects…that seem to glow with the girl’s vitality, a magic house, and doors. DOORS, people! Doors that open on different whens. I’m not even kidding: I crushed on this book so hard.

7. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. I read this on the plane ride back from Boston – and we all know plane books are either the best or the worst of the lot. (My read on the way up, Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments barely missed the cut.) I loved this historical mystery/spy thriller set in World War II. I loved the unreliable narrator. I loved trying to figure out who was lying, about what, and what the damn code was. I even loved bawling my eyes out at the end. Because damnit, I’m such a plot wimp. When? When will this be made into a movie? It’s only a matter of time.

8. The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. Yes, I was the last person on the face of the earth to have read this. Or so it feels. All I can say is that I’m glad I knew how the dang war turned out because I would have been biting my nails on the edge of my seat reading this. I have never, never seen such characterization! No wonder this book gets all the nods it does.

9. The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman. I’ve seen the movie made from this play. I’ve seen countless specials. I remember the news coverage when Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered. And still. Still I was so moved that I could barely make it through this book. How? How could anyone feel that this was okay? Sometimes I have no faith in humanity. None at all.

10. The Never List, by Koethi Zan. I bought this book on the strength of so many reviews I read the week it came out. Reader reviews. Readers who were gasping, readers who were raving, readers who recommended it as the one book to buy. So I bought it. And then read it in a single sitting. The story of sisters who almost die on their way home from elementary school, and shaken by the truth that statistics happen to people, the girls swear to never go to strangers’ parties. Never walk home alone. Never…never…never. You get it. And then they break the rules once and are kidnapped into a house of horrors. And then… well. Go. Read it. It’s not as original as Shining Girls, but still worth hardcover price.

11. Visitation Street, by Ivy Pochoda. I happened into this because it was an ebook available from my library – which means a book I can read in drips and drops on my phone as I’m waiting on so many things. That was the plan, at least. But this book, this was so alive, so pulsing with vivid language, and characters you actually gave a flip about, so reminiscent of hanging outside in the neighborhoods where I grew up, I couldn’t put the book down! This is definitely one I’ll go out and buy when it hits paperback because I know I’ll read it several more times.

12. Girlchild, by Tupelo Hassman. This is a quick read, a story told in short excerpts from cursed Rory Hendrix’s case file from the state, letters from her grandma, entries from an outdated, worn-down copy of a Girl Scouts Handbook that acts as Rory’s bible in all things. The sections are short, sometimes only two pages, but the jabs of Rory’s one-two punches hit home and make you ache for this little girl. If you’re down for some open-ended heartache, move along. I don’t use the word cursed very lightly.

13. The Dangerous Animals Club, by Stephen Tobolowsky. I have a thing for memoirs. Everyone who knows my reading style knows this. I have a thing, too, for personal essays. And no one tells them like Stephen Tobolowsky. The title essay which opens the book had me laughing out loud so hard, that I found myself re-reading it three times before I could move on to the next. Not every section had the same impact, but all in all, it was a collection well selected and well told.

14. Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer. I couldn’t put the book down. And I’m picky about epistolary style narratives. But it just worked for Frances and Bernard. She’s a bit stuffy when they meet, Bernard is a bit of a cad, both meet at a writer’s commune of sorts. As their stories weave in and out, you can’t help but root for the star-crossed lovers, just as you can’t help but beat the dang book against the table when the inevitable ending arrives. God I hate when the journey is worth it, because you so much want to apply the brakes beforehand. BUT YOU CAN’T.

15. Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King. That’s right – TWO stories on my Best Of list. I was so very nervous heading into the sequel to one of my very favorite King’s, The Shining. Especially when you know right off the bat that our beloved Danny Torrance is an alcoholic, just like his dear deranged daddy, and near about as good at keeping things under wraps. But then…the story happened. King’s magic started weaving its spell…and gods blast it – I fell in love with the characters. Again. I wouldn’t say it was one of King’s best – certainly it isn’t in my King Top 10 – but it was still a fantastic ride that made me bubble up with all of the best anticipation. No one does it like Stephen King can.

16. Claire of the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat. I’ve read a lot of Danticat, and thoroughly enjoyed most of it. There have been a few misses. And here lately where I’ve been reading a lot of mainstream writing, I was feeling a bit of pressure. Would I like Claire? Would island life, Haitian myths and family life, folk lore and storytelling… would it still appeal to me? Yes. Yes, it did. Danticat still has the magic to pull you under, to make you pay attention through dangling, meandering story lines, through backstories and lineages that seem almost not to matter. Except with Danticat, everything matters. In the best ways. Nothing and no one is forgotten. Especially not Claire.

17. Tenth of December, by George Saunders. I was surprised when this collection of short stories came out in January that everyone was already declaring it one of the year’s best. It was maybe why I put off reading it… maybe too because I’m not a huge fan of short stories (I prefer to give my stories time to develop) and I hadn’t read any Saunders before. Wow, was I wrong on all accounts. Short stories from George Saunders are like tiny little gifts. Yes, I wanted the first story to develop into its very own novel, but the beauty and concise way Saunders had of making everything just fit, just seem right… to put it plainly, it just worked. If everyone else wrote their short stories like this, I might like them more.

18. When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan. Everyone was calling it a modernization of The Scarlet Letter, and with touches of The Handmaid’s Tale for reasons. And yet…it’s more than that. Jordan’s novel stands so brilliantly on its own. I loved the strong female characters, the twisty (but firm) ending, the lack of wishy-washyness… My only complaint is that one strong male character wouldn’t have weakened a single thing, fer crying out loud. But other than that…brilliant.

19. Reality Boy, by A.S. King. I would have read this novel in one sitting if I didn’t get so flippin nervous for the main character in parts that I had to put it down to let my heart rate settle. (Yes, I get over-attached to characters – deal.) The story had so many chances to go off the rails, so reach too far, to overdramaticize itself, and it resisted at just the last moment, when I was sure all would come crashing off the rails. When I finished, I laid the book down and said to myself that I might have just read the best book of the year.

20. Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell. That Rowell lady – she did it again. Two books out in a year. Two times she made and broke my heart with every 50 pages it seemed. A book about finding your own identity…about leaning on others but mostly yourself…and being okay with less-than-popular things as long as that’s who you are. It’s…oh, I’m still simmering in all of my Fangirl thoughts. I would say the one drawback is that I didn’t need all of the fanfic sections, but, because Rowell is so amazing, I found that you could skip those sections and not lose a single measure of the story. Told you – she rules.

So now that I’ve given you my long list, how am I ever going to narrow it down to my Top 10?! I’ll give it a shot…

1. Doctor Sleep
2. Reality Boy
3. The Ocean at the End of the Lane
4. The Laramie Project
5. And the Mountains Echoed
6. The Shining Girls
7. Eleanor & Park
8. Joyland
9. Visitation Street
10. Girlchild

The Books of 2012: The classics.

January 14, 2013

Often I am reading two, three, sometimes even four books at a time, and so I try from time to time to sneak in a classic that I feel I should have read, but somehow have never gotten around to. I don’t think I did nearly as good a job this year in making that happen as I did last year, but here’s what I did manage to read by way of the classics:

1. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. (Jan 2012) Why didn’t you guys tell me that some of those boring-sounding classics were actually terrifically creepy (if a trifle sad) novels that I’d want to read?! No, I haven’t seen Cold Mountain (though I’ve read it), but I couldn’t help picturing Nicole Kidman as Zeera and Renee Zelwegger as Mattie. And if you know the book and how I feel about those two actresses, you knew why I was chuckling at the end. Heh. 3 1/2 of 5 stars.

2. Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut. (Jan 2012) War stories fascinate me. Travellin’ stories (like when a character is unstuck in time) fascinate me. But being kidnapped by aliens? Unless it’s because you’ve gone a little looney-toons…sorry, no – that’s going to turn me away. I did enjoy the war flashbacks (flash-forwards? sideways?) and the fact that it was semi-autobiographical added interest, but overall I wanted to like this book far more than I did. 2 of 5 stars.

3. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. (Jan 2012) Can you believe I hadn’t read this book before this year? Me either, after I finished it. It was delightful! Action-packed police chases, agonizing soul-searching over The Right Thing To Do, and lots and lots of talk about books. But, really? REALLY? The one book you’re going to memorize is THAT ONE?! (Shhh – I’m not spoiling the ending. Go read it for yo’self.) 3 of 5 stars.

4. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. (Feb 2012) Mehhhh. Completely underwhelming, although much more readable than many classics have a reputation for being. 2 of 5 stars.

5. Native Son, by Richard Wright. (Feb 2012) I remember reading this in high school so long ago. This is a classic that still has just as much punch no matter how many times you read it. Who can sit unmoved after reading the tale of Bigger Thomas? Who doesn’t want to do more, to make a change, to fix what is so obviously broken? STILL broken. 4 of 5 stars.

6. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. (Mar 2012). This was a re-read, and still not my favorite of Morrison’s novels. I was interested to see if my feelings had changed towards it like they did with some of her other works. But not so. 2 of 5 stars.

7. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. (Mar 2012) This was a re-read with BookRiot as we counted down to the release of Home. (What’s funny is that I read a lot of her backlist and still haven’t gotten to her new release! Doh!) I have friends who treat Song as a bible of daily wisdom. I enjoy the tale, I enjoy working for everything – and there’s a lot – that’s in it. But for me it never rose above Beloved or even Sula. For all that, though, I’d still say this is a novel every American should read. And like every great novel, Song gets better with each re-read. 4 of 5 stars.

8. Sula, by Toni Morrison. (Mar 2012) I re-read (nearly) all of Morrison’s backlist leading up to the release of Home…and then didn’t read Home for many months. Sula used to be my favorite Morrison. Then it had to share the honors as Beloved endeared itself to my heart after spending so much time analyzing and writing about it. With this year’s reread, poor Sula fell another spot behind Song of Solomon – a book I enjoy more each time I read it. Which isn’t to say Sula isn’t in Morrison’s top echelon – it is! It’s just that the great has so many best books from which to choose. 4 of 5 stars.

9. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence. (Mar 2012) Dude, this novel is twisted. It is family drama exploded all over a tiny little house and the pobrecito stuck in the middle of it all. Not my cuppa, but I can see what all most of the fuss is about. 1 of 5 stars.

10. Beloved, by Toni Morrison. (Apr 2012) I have read this book too many times to count, and each time I find out something new, find new points to argue over with fellow readers, and am always, always, always rendered in awe of Ms. Morrison’s genius. Why this isn’t mentioned more often as the Greatest American Novel is beyond me. 5 of 5 stars. Always.

11. Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler. (Apr 2012) I went from finishing the feel-good buzz from Princess Diaries straight into a classic I had avoided: Darkness at Noon. So it’s not surprising that I found it brilliant, but also soul suckingingly doom-filling. 3 of 5 stars.

12. Schindler’s List, by Thomas Keneally. (Apr 2012) Did you know this unforgettable movie started its life as a book? Me either until recently. While the nonfic piece wasn’t nearly as tightly executed as its film twinner, it’s still worth checking out. 3 1/2 of 5 stars.

13. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Jun 2012) I remembered how blown away I was by the story, the characters, the sweeping grandness of…well, everything. What I had forgotten since the last time I read Gatsby was how perfect each of Fitzgerald’s sentences were. I spent the entire first part of the book gaping slack-jawed at each sentence I read. Several times I resolved never to write again because how could I ever write one sentence in such a manner? 5 of 5 stars.

14. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. (Jul 2012) This was such a slow, slow read for me, but I think that was because I was really thinking about the words, their meaning, and really unpacking the glorious story as it unfolded. I honestly don’t know why more high schools don’t assign this, unless the length and time needed to really invest is a bit of a turn off? Still. I’ve read Irving before and knew he was good, but this is the novel that made me understand why he is a master. The fact that Owen Meany is probably one of the most clearly author-constructed characters and yet still one of the greatest characters I’ve read is evidence of why. Usually when you see the author pulling the strings, it bugs to no end. This time I was all, “How?! How do you DO that so well? And how can I?” Pure magic, folks. 4 of 5 stars.

10. Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron. (Oct 2012) Yes, it made me cry. No, I didn’t like it nearly as much as I liked. I found the prose as prodding, though I liked the story behind it. I just couldn’t ever lose myself to the scene in front of me. 2 1/2 of 5 stars.

11. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. (Oct 2012) True story: I was finishing up Handmaid’s Tale just as Romney made his binders full of women comment. Coincidences are lovely, at times. I know I’m drawn to dystopias, but this was really vividly constructed, with clear a moral that stopped just short of shoving itself down my throat. I had it in my mind, for some reason, that this was set in medieval times, but was able to adjust quickly to the new (to me) setting and enjoy it for what it was. It’s a great bridge book for your teenaged girls looking for something like Hunger Games or Divergent, but a little more grown-up. 3 1/2 of 5 stars.

12. Home, by Toni Morrison. (Oct 2012) I know I will go back in about a year and reread to see if I still feel the same. Maybe it’s because I just read (again) Sula, Beloved, and Song of Solomon, but I just didn’t feel it measured up. I didn’t think the story was as cutting, the language as precise as some of her other work. Then again, I tend to build up my expectations for an event such as this until they couldn’t possibly be met, so maybe the reread will reveal all of the literary magic was I was hoping to find the first time around. 2 of 5 stars.

13. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. (Oct 2012) Hill House scared the everliving daylights out of me. In daylight. It’s been eons since a book scared me so completely, especially one that I purposely read during daytime hours. When you read a book at lunch, and you still need to leave a light on when you go to bed? That’s a winner. 5 of 5 stars.