2016: Reading Year in Review

new year times square photo
Photo by Anthony Quintano

As I do each year, I like to reflect on my reading year in a blog post on December 31. For the second year in a row, Goodreads has compiled a handy infographic with reading statistics, but they haven’t yet created a way to embed the infographic on a blog. It’s not exactly a true image file, so it’s not as simple as saving a picture. It’s a whole webpage. While it is possible to embed HTML on a blog, in order to make it look good, it’s a bit of work. Here is a rundown of some of the interesting facts (if you don’t feel like clicking over to Goodreads):

  • I read 11,997 pages, according to Goodreads.
  • I read 38 books. One book is not counted in this total, so I suppose my actual page count is about 200 pages more than the figure above.
  • If I count just the Goodreads total, that’s an average of 324 pages per book.
  • It works out to about 33 pages per day. Not too bad.
  • My shortest book was The Importance of Being Earnest at 54 pages, and the longest was an audio book re-read of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at 734 pages.

Of the 38 books I read, the stats further break down like so:

  • 28 works of fiction
  • 10 works of nonfiction
  • 3 dramas
  • 1 collection of poetry
  • 5 audio books
  • 6 re-reads
  • 1 graphic novel/memoir
  • 11 YA/children’s books

My favorites from some of these categories with linked reviews (re-reads not counted):

YA/Children’s

Fiction

Nonfiction

I’m not going to pick audio book favorites this year because all but one of them were re-reads, and the one that wasn’t was not one of my favorite books. I had a better nonfiction year this year than I typically do, and my fiction year was not as good as usual, though I did read some outstanding fiction.

My least favorite reads of the year:

Reading Challenges

I did not meet my Goodreads goal of reading 55 books. I had every reason to think I could do it, having read 62 books last year, but this year was much more trying. My grandmother passed away, and it made it very hard for me to read. I was already behind at that point. I stopped worrying about trying to make the goal really early on, so I’m not upset about it or anything. It is what it is. I didn’t have the worst reading year, but it wasn’t the best either. I stuck with some books I wasn’t liking for too long.

I didn’t complete any of my other reading challenges either, sadly. I enjoy reading challenges tremendously, but I don’t have the best track record in the world when it comes to completing them, let alone participating any more than simply reading certain books.

Here is my reading map for the year. I did manage to read some more far-flung locales than I typically do. I am hoping to do even better next year.

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Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie

I read Sherman Alexie’s YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian several years ago, and I really enjoyed it. I’ve been meaning to read more of his work, but going to an English teacher’s conference and seeing The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven used in a session presented by one of my friends reminded me I needed to read this book. I finished it this afternoon, so it will be my final book of 2016.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of connected short stories set on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. Alexie admits the collection is semi-autobiographical. Several characters make appearances in multiple stories. The main protagonist, Victor Joseph, appears in several of the stories I enjoyed the most, including “What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” in which Victor travels with Thomas Builds-the-Fire to Phoenix to retrieve his father’s ashes and reconnects with Thomas, who had formerly been Victor’s friend. My favorite story in the collection, in fact, centered around Thomas Builds-the-Fire: “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” is a magical realist take on the absurd trial in which Thomas is convicted for a 200-year-old “crime.” One exchange in the trial caught my breath, and I had to read it out loud to Steve:

“My name was Qualchan and I had been fighting for our people, for our land. It was horrendous, hiding in the dirt at the very mouth of the Spokane River where my fellow warrior, Moses, found me after he escaped from Colonel’s Wright’s camp. Qualchan, he said to me. You must stay away from Wright’s camp. He means to hang you. But Wright had taken my father hostage and threatened to hang him if I did not come in. Wright promised he would treat me fairly. I believed him and went to the colonel’s camp and was immediately placed in chains. It was then I saw the hangman’s noose and made the fight to escape. My wife also fought beside me with a knife and wounded many soldiers before she was subdued. After I was beaten down, they dragged me to the noose and I was hanged with six other Indians, including Epseal, who had never raised a hand in anger to any white or Indian.”

“Mr. Builds-the Fire,” the judge asked and brought Thomas back to attention. “What point are you trying to make with this story?”

“Well,” Thomas said, “The City of Spokane is now building a golf course named after me, Qualchan, located in the valley where I was hanged.” (98-99)

Norma Many Horses also appears in several stories as a wise-beyond-her-years woman who is a skilled dancer, fry bread-maker, and compassionate friend. Junior Polatkin, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Arnold “Junior” Spirit of Absolutely True Diary is also the protagonist of several stories and a minor character in others. In fact, Junior’s story “Indian Education” includes many elements that Alexie also incorporated in to Absolutely True Diary.

My favorite stories in the collection, in addition to “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire,” were “Indian Education,” “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock,” and “What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” but there wasn’t a story in the collection I didn’t like. I am a little confused about the names and in some cases, I can’t tell if characters are recurring or not. For instance, it’s not clear to me if James is the same person as Jimmy Many Horses (Frank Many Horses claimed to be James’s father). The stories are woven together and move back and forth in time and even between reality an alternate reality. They are well-written and work on their own, but in this case, the collection taken as a whole is more than the sum of its individual parts, almost like a series of vignettes, similar to The House on Mango Street. Alexie has been criticized for the motif of alcohol and alcohol abuse that threads through the stories, but he say in his introduction that he was not stereotyping so much as writing what he saw growing up on the reservation. It’s a very sad picture, and it makes me angry all over again at how America has treated (and continues to treat) Native Americans. It’s shameful. Alexie’s voice is so important, and I’m glad he has shared his stories. This is an excellent collection—one of the best short story collections I have read.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad was one of the most discussed books of 2016, so if you haven’t read it, chances are you know something about it. In any case, it is the story of runaway slave Cora who is making her way north from a Georgia plantation using the Underground Railroad, which in Colson’s novel is not a metaphorical name for the network sympathizers, abolitionists, former slaves, and others who helped escaping slaves on their way to freedom but an actual technological marvel—a railroad, under the ground. The book has been compared to Gulliver’s Travels, which earns a mention in the reading of Cora’s friend and fellow escapee, Caesar. At each station or stop in Cora’s journey, she is confronted with a different sort of evil that Americans have perpetrated against their fellow Americans, from bringing them to America in chains, to lynching, to terrorism, to more subtle means of subjugation and deception, such as medical experimentation.

My book club selected this to read, and I knew our meeting was coming up, but I wasn’t sure when until one of my friends reminded me. It’s this coming week! I wasn’t sure I could finish the book in time for our meeting, but I decided I had best pick it up and read at least some of it, especially because I was one of the members who suggested we read it.

I actually couldn’t put it down, and I read it in two big gulps over yesterday and today. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Whitehead plays with documented historical fact, entwining it with speculative fiction, imagining an antebellum America where South Carolina had skyscrapers and an actual railroad leading slaves north ran underground. These fantastic aspects of the novel allow Whitehead to explore the broader history of the African-American experience through the eyes of a single character. The only other way I think he could have done it would have been a sort of immense Roots-like multigenerational epic rather than this tight narrative that allows us into the life of one character. It also allows Whitehead to show the scope of the atrocity of slavery and racism in all its depth and breadth. It’s hard to put down—I wanted to see Cora to safety in the North so badly, that I sat and read for two days! I can’t give the ending away, but I will admit I needed more satisfaction after following Cora on her odyssey all that way. And as much as anything else, the ending has to be that way because it is the truth about the African-American experience.

This novel hit me like Beloved. I credit Beloved with finally helping me get it, as a white woman. After reading Beloved, I felt like for the first time, I had a small understanding of what the lingering and devastating effects of slavery on our country. Of course I can’t ever really understand what I haven’t experienced, but through books like Beloved and The Underground Railroad, I can gain empathy I didn’t have before I read them. This book is Beloved for the next generation. It’s a critical book for our times, just as Between the World and Me is critical. In fact, I recommend they be read back-to-back if you haven’t read either book yet. It’s a wonderful book, and it might be the best one I read all year. It’s certainly in the top five.

Ron Charles (as usual) has a great review in the WaPo. Michiko Kakutani liked it, too, and she is tough. Definitely read both reviews, which capture the power of this novel better than I have been able to do here. As Kakutani so astutely notes in her review, quoting Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of this book, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book ostensibly about slavery that also so accurately describes our own moment in history.

Rating: ★★★★★

Set in the antebellum South as Cora travels from Georgia to Indiana and that vague fantasyland known as “North,” though with some elements of speculative fiction, this book works for the Historical Fiction Challenge.

 

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Review: A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, Jerome Charyn

I believe I first saw Jerome Charyn’s book A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century at the Emily Dickinson House and Museum in Amherst. I put it on my wishlist, thinking I would get it some time, and my husband bought it for me for my birthday.

Jerome Charyn recently gave a lecture at the Frost Library at Amherst College, which I attended and wrote about on this blog. I wanted to start reading the book right after the talk, but I believe I was in the middle of The Club Dumas, which took me forever to finish (because I didn’t like it and should have given up on it). I wanted to finish The Club Dumas before reading A Loaded Gun. After a while, I sort of used A Loaded Gun as a carrot to encourage myself to finish The Club Dumas.

A Loaded Gun is not a straight biography of Emily Dickinson. If you are looking for a chronological narrative of Dickinson’s life, this biography will likely not satisfy you. However, if you are interested in looking at Emily Dickinson with fresh eyes, casting away the stories you heard about her reclusive nature and her white dress, then this book is definitely the book for you. A Loaded Gun is really more the story of Dickinson’s genius. She is compared to and contrasted with other artists that we have struggled to understand—memorably, Joseph Cornell, who made shadow box art. This is his piece based on the work of Emily Dickinson, entitled Toward the Blue Peninsula:

Toward the Blue Peninsula
Toward the Blue Peninsula © Joseph Cornell, used according to Fair Use guidelines

The piece is inspired by the following poem (Fr. 535, Dickinson’s exact language and punctuation):

It might be lonelier

Without the Loneliness—

I’m so accustomed to my Fate—

Perhaps the Other—Peace—

 

Would interrupt the Dark—

And crowd the little Room—

Too scant—by Cubits—to contain

The Sacrament—of Him—

 

I am not used to Hope—

It might intrude opon—

It’s sweet parade—blaspheme the place

Ordained to Suffering—

 

It might be easier

To fail—with Land in Sight—

Than gain—my Blue Peninsula—

To perish—of Delight—

Charyn spends the bulk of one of his chapters discussing Cornell’s art and connecting it to Dickinson’s. Ultimately, however, Charyn finds Dickinson elusive. As he says in his introduction, “I know less and less the more I learned about her” (8). I snapped a photo of the following page, with discussion of one of the most “well-known” facets of Dickinson’s life:

One thing that is clear to me after reading this book is that we may never really know Emily Dickinson at all. Who was this genius who played with language in a way no other American poet has matched?

If you haven’t seen the way Emily Dickinson thought about variant word choices, you should definitely take a look at some of her poems. The Dickinson museum has one such poem posted as a display, and visitors can try out Dickinson’s different word choice ideas by moving levers (they don’t allow photography, so I can’t share a picture of it, but it’s really interesting). Dickinson marked her variant word choices with a + and wrote the variations in the margins and on the bottom of the page. Because Dickinson didn’t publish her work, it’s hard to say which variations she would ultimately have preferred, and in some ways, I absolutely love the freedom I have as a reader, if I see Dickinson’s original work, to construct my own favorite version of her poems. Ultimately, her editors have had to make the decisions that Dickinson did not make, and I’m not always sure I agree with their choices.

As he did in his lecture, Charyn discussed the possibly new daguerreotype discovered by “Sam Carlo” in a Great Barrington, MA junk shop. I had a chance to talk a little bit with Sam Carlo at Charyn’s talk, and he also let me take a picture of his replica of the daguerreotype. Charyn, like Sam Carlo, believes the other woman in the daguerreotype was Kate Scott, and Charyn advances the theory that Dickinson was in love with Scott, and also that she was in love with her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson (this theory is not new—Charyn said at his lecture that if you read Dickinson’s letters to her sister-in-law, there really isn’t another way to interpret them except as love letters; I plan to read them and see what I think). Was Emily Dickinson a lesbian? Bisexual? Charyn argues that partly, our picture of Emily Dickinson has been the virginal spinster in white who never left the house, and the image of her in the known daguerreotype supports this vision of Dickinson. She remains forever fifteen in our imaginations rather than the grown woman who wrote fierce poetry.

I enjoyed Charyn’s book very much. One aspect I particularly liked is that he didn’t remove himself from the subject matter. He is a part of the story he is telling as well. He describes visiting Vincent van Gogh’s room in Auvers-sur-Oise outside Paris.

And for the price of a few euros, collected by a ticket taker at a little kiosk in the rear yard, I climbed upstairs and visited van Gogh’s room. It was barren, with a tiny skylight and a cane-back chair; the walls were full of crust, the floor was made of barren boards, and I couldn’t stop crying. I imagined him alone in that room, his mind whirling with colors, his psychic space as primitive and forlorn as a lunatic’s world… he was always alone. (211)

Charyn doesn’t explicitly connect Dickinson’s room to van Gogh’s. Perhaps he wants the reader to make that connection if he/she so chooses. I don’t know if I will ever forget ascending the stairs the first time I visited Emily Dickinson’s house and seeing the sunlight illuminating the replica of Emily’s white dress on a dressmaker’s dummy. The docent told us a story about Dickinson pretending to lock her door and telling her niece, “Matty, here’s freedom.” What freedom did Dickinson find in that small room?

Even her poetry on the subject is elusive:

Sweet hours have perished here,

This is a timid room—

Within its precincts hopes have played

Now fallow in the tomb. (Fr. 1785)

R. W. Franklin’s edition of her poems differs from Thomas H. Johnson’s edition:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now shadows in the tomb. (1767)

Which was it? If I had my way, it would go like this:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now fallow in the tomb.

I suppose part of the beauty of Emily Dickinson in the 21st century is that now we know more about what she actually wrote, including all her variant word choices. All the layers of changes made by editors over the years have been stripped bare. We can look at Dickinson’s original manuscripts and examine her poems in Franklin’s Variorum Edition. As a result, the poet we thought we knew and understood is more elusive than before. Still, she remains as intriguing a subject of study as she ever was—perhaps even more than she was when we assumed she was a waifish, homebound spinster in white.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories is the story of Haroun Khalifa, the son of storyteller Rashid. Rashid has lost his “gift of gab” after his wife, Haroun’s mother, leaves him for the boring, clerkish Mr. Sengupta, their neighbor. The Khalifas live in the country of Alifbay in a sad city that has forgotten its name. When Rashid attempts and fails to tell a story at a political rally (he makes something of a career telling stories at such rallies), he is quite literally run out of town and must go to the Valley of K and redeem himself at a rally for Mr. Snooty Buttoo. Or else. Mr. Snooty Buttoo takes Rashid and Haroun out on the Dull Lake in a ship, and Haroun wakes in the night to find a Water Genie disconnecting his father’s invisible tap, from which all his stories spring. Haroun is whisked away by the genie to speak to the Walrus, leader of the Eggheads who control the Processes to Complicated to Explain on the moon of Kahani, or Story, where the societies of Gup and Chup are about to go to war over the pollution of the Sea of Stories and the kidnapping of Guppee princess Batcheat.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is ostensibly a children’s or young adult book, but the philosophical underpinnings and questions it raises are definitely meant for people of all ages to ponder. It was the first book Rushdie wrote after the fatwa dictated by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini put Rushdie’s life in danger in an attempt to silence Rushdie’s own stories. It’s a fantastic novel that explores the complexities of where stories come from and what happens when they are “polluted” by those who would attempt to use them for their own ends or to silence them altogether. Motifs such as freedom of speech, the truth or reality of stories, creating meaning from stories in a modern world, and the purpose of stories and storytelling are at the center of what looks, at first blush, like a fantasy children’s tale. It’s a thoughtful meditation on the importance of stories. Rushdie apparently began telling the story orally to his son at bathtime, and it later evolved into this book.

I will start teaching it tomorrow to students in my ninth grade World Literature course. I should have finished the novel a long time ago, but it’s not been an easy year for me in a lot of ways, and perhaps it’s for the best that I waited to read it so that it is quite fresh for me. It means I wasn’t able to help as much as I wanted to with the initial planning of the novel, but I am blessed to have wonderful colleagues who stepped in when I wasn’t ready, and I feel I can contribute now. I’m so glad we picked this book, not just because it has a hero’s journey motif, which is one focus for the year, and not just because we were able to introduce an Indian author where previously we had a white British author, but also because it’s an excellent book that speaks to our schoolwide essential question: How do we honor and harness the power of our stories?

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Club Dumas, Arturo Pérez-Reverte

The front of the jacket blurb on this book describes it as “A cross between Umberto Eco and Anne Rice… Think of The Club Dumas as a beach book for intellectuals.” The source for this description is The New York Daily News. I don’t know that I agree with the description.

The Club Dumas is the story of Lucas Corso, a book detective who searches for rare editions for wealthy clients who don’t mind if Corso bends the law to obtain what they’re looking for. Corso becomes embroiled in the story of The Club Dumas when the owner of part of the original manuscript of The Three Musketeers, is found hanged, the victim of an apparent suicide. Corso is hired to authenticate the fragment, but soon finds himself enmeshed in a search for copies of Of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows, a book purported to contain instructions for summoning the devil. Only three copies of this book survived, according to Corso’s client, Varo Borja. The book’s author was burned at the stake in the Inquisition, and most of the book’s copies were destroyed. This book was apparently made into a film, The Ninth Gate, which I haven’t seen, starring Johnny Depp as “Dean” Corso.

I purchased this book at a used bookstore in Northampton on my birthday. It looked promising. In the end, I really had to force myself to finish it because I just wasn’t into it, but I had passed the point of no return. You know what I mean. You’ve invested too much time in a book to stop reading it, and there is also this bit of curiosity about the ending and how it will all tie together. Perhaps if I had read The Three Musketeers, I might have enjoyed it more. I do actually think that familiarity with that book is a prerequisite for enjoying The Club Dumas.

I really despised the cardboard cutout women characters, standard-issue blond femmes fatales. Ugh. No personality and only described so far as the sexual desire they provoke in the male characters. So tired. So boring. So sexist. I think it was the depiction of the two women characters (I only counted two) that soured me on the book. Otherwise, it has a lot of what I like—books at the center of a mysterious plot. The ending I was hoping would pay off wound up being weird and confusing. I don’t know that I really get it. I don’t want to re-read it to figure it out either because I just don’t care about any of the characters enough to try to figure out what happened.

It seems like a lot of readers like this book, so your mileage may vary, but it didn’t do much for me, and I’m so glad I’m done with it so I can read something good. Please Lord, let the next book I read be good. I need a palate cleanser. I keep saying life is too short to read bad books. I wasted a lot of time on this book. I need to take my own advice and forget about how much time I’ve invested in a book. Even if I’ve passed the “point of no return,” I need to put the book down and walk away. I think I need to give up on this genre, too. Too many turkeys in the bunch. I think Matthew Pearl does it well, and perhaps a few other folks out there, but by and large, it’s resulted in quite a few of my worst reads in the last ten-fifteen years (cf. Interred with Their Bones, The Book of Air and Shadows, The Rule of Four, Codex, and The Geographer’s Library—for which I apparently never wrote a review).

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

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TLC Book Tour: The Opposite of Everything, Joshilyn Jackson

tlc1I have had the pleasure of reading and of meeting Joshilyn Jackson before, so when TLC Book Tours offered her latest novel, The Opposite of Everything, I was excited to be included. Jackson is a fresh Southern voice, and I have enjoyed her previous work very much.

This novel is the story of Paula Vauss, a gutsy divorce lawyer living in Atlanta. Paula grew up nearly homeless, constantly moving and changing her name, with her hippie mother Kai, an admirer of Indian religious philosophy who called Paula Kali, after the Indian goddess. Paula carries a great deal of guilt over her broken relationship with her mother and blames herself for her mother’s stint in prison because it was Paula who called 911 and summoned the police the day Kai was taken to jail. However, when some unexpected and unknown elements of Kai’s past drop into Paula’s life, she has to decide what to do and whether to let Kai—and those relics of her troubled past—into her life and reconcile with her mother’s ghost.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It’s a mix of Southern humor and Southern gothic, as most great Southern literature is. Jackson is very funny in person, and this humor spills over into her books, even when she’s dealing with the dark subject matter of unwanted children, foster care, and ugly divorces. Paula is a wounded character who has built up a tough exterior so she can face the world, but she is completely discombobulated by what she discovers about her mother. I loved the end—it was perfect. I used to live in Atlanta, and Jackson is on familiar territory here, too. She clearly knows the city well and captures it without making it a necessary part of the narrative. Her characters are well-drawn and true-to-life. Paula conjures the memory of her mother with perfect clarity. The reader has no doubt how much feeling has passed between Paula and her mother, as much as Paula herself tries to distance herself from that past. It winds up very much a part of her present, and she discovers that owning it and dealing with it will finally make her whole.

Rating: ★★★★½

tlc2Tour Schedule

Tuesday, October 11th: I’d Rather Be At The Beach
Wednesday, October 12th: G. Jacks Writes
Friday, October 14th: Art @ Home
Monday, October 17th: Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesday, October 18th: The Book Bag
Tuesday, October 18th: Wall-to-Wall Books
Thursday, October 20th: Literary Quicksand
Tuesday, October 25th: The Reading Date
Wednesday, October 26th: Luxury Reading
Thursday, October 27th: Mom’s Small Victories
Friday, October 28th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense

Read on to learn more about the book from TLC Book Tours and the publisher.

the-opposite-of-everyone-pb-coverAbout The Opposite of Everyone

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (October 11, 2016)

A fiercely independent divorce lawyer learns the power of family and connection when she receives a cryptic message from her estranged mother in this bittersweet, witty novel from the nationally bestselling author of Someone Else’s Love Story and gods in Alabama—an emotionally resonant tale about the endurance of love and the power of stories to shape and transform our lives.

Born in Alabama, Paula Vauss spent the first decade of her life on the road with her free-spirited young mother, Kai, an itinerant storyteller who blended Hindu mythology with southern oral tradition to re-invent their history as they roved. But everything, including Paula’s birth name Kali Jai, changed when she told a story of her own—one that landed Kai in prison and Paula in foster care. Separated, each holding secrets of her own, the intense bond they once shared was fractured.

These days, Paula has reincarnated herself as a tough-as-nails divorce attorney with a successful practice in Atlanta. While she hasn’t seen Kai in fifteen years, she’s still making payments on that Karmic debt—until the day her last check is returned in the mail, along with a mysterious note: “I am going on a journey, Kali. I am going back to my beginning; death is not the end. You will be the end. We will meet again, and there will be new stories. You know how Karma works.”

Then Kai’s most treasured secret literally lands on Paula’s doorstep, throwing her life into chaos and transforming her from only child to older sister. Desperate to find her mother before it’s too late, Paula sets off on a journey of discovery that will take her back to the past and into the deepest recesses of her heart. With the help of her ex-lover Birdwine, an intrepid and emotionally volatile private eye who still carries a torch for her, this brilliant woman, an expert at wrecking families, now has to figure out how to put one back together—her own.

The Opposite of Everyone is a story about story itself, how the tales we tell connect us, break us, and define us, and how the endings and beginnings we choose can destroy us… and make us whole. Laced with sharp humor and poignant insight, it is beloved New York Times bestselling author Joshilyn Jackson at her very best.

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Joshilyn JacksonAbout Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson is the New York Times bestselling author of six previous novels, including gods in Alabama, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, and Someone Else’s Love Story. Her books have been translated into a dozen languages. A former actor, she is also an award-winning audiobook narrator. She lives in Decatur, Georgia, with her husband and their two children.

Connect with her through her website, Facebook, or Twitter.

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TLC Book Tour: Commonwealth, Ann Patchett

tlc1I’ve been seeing Ann Patchett’s newest novel Commonwealth on all the “best of the fall” lists and displays in bookstores, so I was really excited to be among the first to read it, courtesy of the TLC Book Tours. I was also excited to read it because I really enjoyed State of Wonder. I haven’t read her book Bel Canto, but I understand it’s amazing.

Commonwealth begins at Franny Keating’s christening party in Southern California, when Bert Cousins, attorney at the DA office, shows up uninvited with a bottle of gin that never seems to run out and the idea to make screwdrivers with oranges, abundant in the trees of suburban LA. Before long, Bert is Franny’s stepfather. She and her older sister spend most of the year in Virginia, where Bert and Beverly, Franny’s mother, move after their marriage. Meanwhile, Fix Keating, Franny’s father, stays in California, close to where the Cousins children spend most of their year with their mother. However, during the summer, the families combine when the Cousins children fly out to Virginia to spend time with their father. Bert and Beverly, clearly worn out by caring for all six children at once, don’t pay quite as much attention to the wild adventures the children undertake—an oversight that will prove disastrous and ripple through the family for decades. Years later, Franny meets renowned author Leon Posen, and her family story finds its way into his first novel in years.

This book flashes around in time and takes on different points of view, but for the most part, it is told by Franny. I am not sure if the revelations about Franny’s family or the aftermath when they become the subject of Leon’s book would have been as effective without time jumps, but all the same, it makes it more challenging to follow the plot. However, this book is much more about the characters and how they relate than it is about the plot. Some readers might want to return to other parts, and it’s easy to miss a small but important detail. I did feel the plot meandered too much, and I kept looking for a great revelation or some major event that would tie the ends together in a grand theme, which I did see in State of Wonder. The writing at the sentence level was great—Patchett on form. Patchett pulls some sleight of hand with the pivotal event (I can’t reveal too much) that seems unfair à la Chekov’s gun. Honestly, that particular choice somehow made the universe feel especially cruel. I’d be interested to see if other readers felt the same way. The novel takes a while to get into, but once it grabbed me, it was hard to put down. I wanted to find out how everything would end. The result didn’t feel like a novel story—it felt more like a real family story, passed down over the years, with all the flaws, gaps, and drawbacks as well as all the great realism and importance that a family story is.

Rating: ★★★★☆

tlc2Tour Schedule

Tuesday, September 13th: BookNAround
Wednesday, September 14th: Books and Bindings
Thursday, September 15th: Vox Libris
Friday, September 16th: Art @ Home
Friday, September 16th: 5 Minutes For Books
Monday, September 19th: A Bookish Way of Life
Wednesday, September 21st: A Chick Who Reads
Thursday, September 22nd: Tina Says…
Monday, September 26th: bookchickdi
Tuesday, September 27th: Books on the Table
Wednesday, September 28th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Thursday, September 29th: West Metro Mommy
Monday, October 3rd: Fictionophile
Tuesday, October 4th: Literary Quicksand
Tuesday, October 4th: Luxury Reading
Wednesday, October 5th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense
Thursday, October 6th: Lit and Life
Friday, October 7th: The Well-Read Redhead

Read on to learn more about the book from TLC Book Tours and the publisher.

commonwealth-coverAbout Commonwealth

Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Harper (September 13, 2016)

The acclaimed, bestselling author—winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize—tells the enthralling story of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families’ lives.

One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.

Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.

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HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Photo by Melissa Ann Pinney
Photo by Melissa Ann Pinney

About Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is the author of six novels and three books of nonfiction. She has won many prizes, including Britain’s Orange Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Prize, and the Book Sense Book of the Year. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is the co-owner of Parnassus Books.

Find out more about Ann on her website and follow her bookstore, Parnassus Books, on Twitter.

Harper Collins was kind enough to send me an advance reader copy of the book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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Review: Library of Souls, Ransom Riggs

Library of Souls is the third novel in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series. At the end of the previous novel, Hollow City, Jacob Portman has discovered that he not only has the power to see and fight hollowgasts, but he can also control them. He is going to need this power as he travels to the Devil’s Acre, a corrupted loop in the cesspool of Victorian London controlled by wights, to rescue all his peculiar friends and their guardian, Miss Peregrine, along with other ymbrynes.

Emma and Jacob encounter Sharon, who says he can take them to Devil’s Acre, near the docks in London. They set off with Addison the dog for the most dangerous adventure they will yet experience—right into the fortress of the wights itself. The fate of all peculiardom rests on their shoulders.

Library of Souls introduces what I think is probably one of the best secondary characters in the series—the boatman Sharon (think Charon). His dark sense of humor is fun, and he’s interesting to watch—can he be trusted? Jacob and Emma also learn a lot more about the seedier side of peculiardom, including the horrible accident in Siberia (we know it as the Tunguska event) that created hollowgasts, and therefore, also created wights—a scourge peculiars have been hiding from for about 100 years.

As Jacob and Emma learn more, the mythos of peculiardom is fleshed out, and there are ample opportunities for Riggs to continue the series, focusing on new adventures. This particular volume of the series was hard to put down. I think it had perhaps a little bit less of the humor (thought it still retains plenty of funny moments), which makes sense due to the seriousness of the situation in which Jacob and Emma find themselves. I read nearly all of the last half of the book in one big gulp today. It’s been a while since I’ve picked up a book so good I didn’t want to put it down.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book made for a great creepy read for the R. I. P. Challenge, and I’m counting it also for the Reading England Challenge, as Devil’s Acre is the worst of Victorian London. However, I am not counting for other challenges. I just bought the book in September, and it hasn’t been on my TBR list long. It’s not exactly historical fiction either—more of a fantasy.

RIP Eleven

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TLC Book Tour: The Bitch is Back, ed. Cathi Hanauer

tlc1I’m glad I had the opportunity to read The Bitch is Back, edited by Cathi Hanauer for TLC Book Tours. First, I wanted to share my own thoughts about the book, and what follows is more information provided by the publishers.

I have not read The Bitch is in the House, to which The Bitch is Back is a sequel, but my understanding is that it, like The Bitch is Back, is a collection of essays written by women about “the face of womanhood at the beginning of a new millennium.” Some of the original writers returned for The Bitch is Back, and a few of these returned to their original essays and reflected on the women they once were and the changes over the last 15 years.

If I had to guess, I’d say the audience for this book is women in their late thirties through their late sixties, and I fall in that bracket. As such, I felt like this book spoke to me in a way it might not speak to younger millennial women or older women. The essays in this book treat on subjects as diverse as marriage and parenting, divorce and adultery, transsexualism, homosexuality, domestic abuse, child abuse, arranged marriage, romance, aging, and sex. I found myself underlining lines and dogearing pages that spoke to me, both of which I rarely do when reading for pleasure. These bitches have a lot to say! They have many of the same fears and questions I do:

  • What, exactly, is menopause going to do to my body? And what about sex?
  • How do you keep a marriage going past its twentieth year?
  • What about aging? What can I expect?

They discuss these and other issues candidly in the essays. Some standouts for me included “Vagina Notwithstanding” by Jennifer Finney Boylan, in which Boylan discusses her transition from male to female and its impact on her marriage to a woman; “Coming of Age: Sex 102” by Sarah Crichton (and Sarah, if you see this, THANK YOU for the shopping recommendation—she, and anyone else who reads the essay, will get it), in which Crichton discusses sex after menopause and a long dry spell; “Living Alone: A Fantasy” by Sandra Tsing Loh, in which Loh discusses the end of her marriage and living with her boyfriend Charlie; and “Second Time Around” by Kate Christensen, in which Christensen discusses advocating for what you need out of marriage. I found nuggets of wisdom in most of the essays, however.

One criticism I have read of The Bitch in the House is that all of the writers were white women who wrote for a living and as such, the collective experience of womanhood wasn’t represented. In The Bitch is Back, Cathi Hanauer appears to have attempted to answer that criticism with the inclusion of more women of color (though the bulk of the women seem to be white) and women in lower classes. As a result, the essays feel a bit uneven, but I think trying for diversity, even if it results in a bit of unevenness, is a worthy goal. It struck me that most of the women seemed to live in the northeast, and in New York and New England in particular, but I also live in New England—another area in which I related with the writers. I found the book to be enlightening and enjoyable. And I definitely wanted to go out for drinks with some of these ladies.

Read on to learn more about the book from TLC Book Tours and the publisher.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Tour Schedule

tlc2Tuesday, September 27th: Dwell in Possibility
Wednesday, September 28th: G. Jacks Writes
Thursday, September 29th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense
Friday, September 30th: Doing Dewey
Monday, October 3rd: Thoughts On This ‘n That
Tuesday, October 4th: Bibliotica
Wednesday, October 5th: Book Hooked Blog
Thursday, October 6th: In Bed with Books
Monday, October 10th: A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
Tuesday, October 11th: Stranded in Chaos
Thursday, October 13th: West Metro Mommy

the-bitch-is-back-coverAbout The Bitch is Back

Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (September 27, 2016)

More than a decade after the New York Times bestselling anthology The Bitch in the House spoke up loud and clear for a generation of young women, nine of the original contributors are back—along with sixteen captivating new voices—sharing their ruminations from an older, stronger, and wiser perspective about love, sex, work, family, independence, body-image, health, and aging: the critical flash points of women’s lives today.

“Born out of anger,” the essays in The Bitch in the House chronicled the face of womanhood at the beginning of a new millennium. Now those funny, smart, passionate contributors—today less bitter and resentful, and more confident, competent, and content—capture the spirit of post-feminism in this equally provocative, illuminating, and compelling companion anthology.

Having aged into their forties, fifties, and sixties, these “bitches”—bestselling authors, renowned journalists, and critically acclaimed novelists—are back . . . and better than ever. In The Bitch Is Back, Cathi Hanauer, Kate Christensen, Sarah Crichton, Debora Spar, Ann Hood, Veronica Chambers, and nineteen other women offer unique views on womanhood and feminism today. Some of the “original bitches” (OBs) revisit their earlier essays to reflect on their previous selves. All reveal how their lives have changed in the intervening years—whether they stayed coupled, left marriages, or had affairs; developed cancer or other physical challenges; coped with partners who strayed, died, or remained faithful; became full-time wage earners or homemakers; opened up their marriages; remained childless or became parents; or experienced other meaningful life transitions.

As a “new wave” of feminists begins to take center stage, this powerful, timely collection sheds a much-needed light on both past and present, offering understanding, compassion, and wisdom for modern women’s lives, all the while pointing toward the exciting possibilities of tomorrow.

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Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

cathi-hanauer-apAbout Cathi Hanauer

Cathi Hanauer is the author of three novels—My Sister’s Bones, Sweet Ruin, and Gone—and is the editor of the New York Times bestselling essay collection The Bitch in the House. A former columnist for Glamour, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen, she has written for The New York Times, Elle, Self, Real Simple, and other magazines. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband, New York Times “Modern Love” editor Daniel Jones, and their daughter and son.

Find out more about Cathi and her books at her website, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @cathihanauer.

Harper Collins was kind enough to send me an advance reader copy of the book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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