Best of the Year

Taking a few minutes out of being a busy entrepreneurial executive at the hubby’s consulting biz to share my reading stats for 2018.  I finished 84 books — I read more than that, but I’ve made a separate list on Goodreads for “DNFs” (that means “did not finish,” for the uninitiated). I don’t rate those and I don’t include them on my list of what I’ve actually read.

I’m an avid audiobook fan and that led to my favorite discovery of 2018, Percival Everett. First I heard “The Appropriation of Culture” on Selected Shorts. Then, soon after, Levar Burton read “Graham Greene” on his wonderful podcast. After that, I went to the library and picked up a couple of Everett’s short story collections. I love his unique ability to combine a world-weary realism with an underlying sense of serenity. His stories feel kind of Buddhist in their world view.

Also “The Appropriation of Culture” manages to say some really important, insightful things about race while being freaking hilarious. Find it in his 2004 collection, Damned If I Do.

141202Besides Percival Everett, Levar Burton has featured works by Charlie Jane Anders, Octavia Butler and Daniel Wallace, among others. Burton’s podcast is a delight if you enjoy audiobooks. First there’s the creamy-smooth goodness of Levar Burton’s voice, but it’s also a wonderful forum for underrepresented authors. Many of the stories he’s chosen are by women and/or authors of color. It’s a fun way to discover authors who haven’t gotten as much exposure as they should have.

814-kplvc6lAnother great fiction discovery was Mick Herron. He’s been around for a while, but I finally picked up the first book in his “Slow Horses/Slough House” series and loved it. The Slow Horses are failed British intelligence agents. They’ve all done something egregiously wrong, but not quite criminal. Still, they know too much to be allowed back into ordinary society, so why not make use of them. The sad-sack screw-ups are relegated to Slough House (Slough House=slow horses, get it?!?!), where they are meant to shuffle papers and enter data until the end of time. They’re presided over by gruff, shambling, slobby Jackson Lamb, who may not be as washed up as he keeps trying to pretend to be.

And of course, they do NOT stay behind those desks and enter that data. They inevitably get drawn into various high-stakes adventures, which they botch up stupendously before generally getting their sh*t together in the final few chapters. It’s like Johnny English as written by Graham Greene (meaning the British novelist, not the Native American actor mentioned in the Percival Everett story cited above). Far less introspective than Percival Everett, but loads of fun to read. If you like a good caper story, especially of the “gang that couldn’t shoot straight” variety, read these.

Ironically, one of the worst novels I read this year was also by Mick Herron. Called This Is What Happened, it was an utterly unconvincing dystopian tale blended with the now tiresomely familiar twisty domestic thriller genre. Skip this one and read the entire Slough House series instead.

downloadAs for nonfiction, I read so many, many fascinating perspective-altering books this year, it kind of exhausted me. I highly recommend Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush. This book takes all the talk of climate change and brings it down to the personal level. Rush interviews people whose entire neighborhoods are now underwater and destined to stay there. She examines the faulty assumptions over the last fifty years that have made flooding even worse in places like New Jersey and New Orleans. It will definitely make you reconsider retiring to the seaside, I can tell you that.

9780252082122Another life-changing read was Goodbye iSlave by Jack Qiu. This under-noticed treatise is a bit dry at times but has so much important to tell us. Qiu writes about the morally questionable nature of our mobile device addiction — the slave labor that mines the materials, the toxic workplaces where people who are virtual prisoners assemble the things, the rising pile of toxic trash that comes from throwing all this crap away after just a couple of years. His book offers some possible solutions to the problems presented within the text, including the FairPhone, a repairable mobile device. I wanted so badly to get one after reading this book, but looks like they aren’t even available in the USA.

Last but not least, I read a lot more poetry than I have in years. Possibly this was because I was managing the poetry collection at the grouchy old-school library I last worked at. (You know the kind of library I mean: where the librarians all sit on stools behind a high desk, reading their own books and hoping you will go away and not ask them that question you’re about to ask. It was not a good fit.)

But at any rate, I got to read a lot of poetry. And what lingers with me now is Gabriel, the heartbreaking masterpiece of loss by Edward Hirsch. Published several years ago, this long poem/short book is a father’s elegy for the death of his beautiful, baffling, troubled son. Gabriel died at the age of 22, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, it was many days before Hirsch was able to find out what had become of his son and learn where the body had been taken. Truly, it is every parent’s worst nightmare turned into art. The poem will especially resonate with anyone who has a child struggling, as Gabriel did, with mental illness and developmental disorders.

Hirsch with Gabriel in happier times

And those are my most memorable books from 2018. Sorry if it’s a heavy list, but it was a heavy year.

Happy reading to all of you in 2019!

 

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Book reviews are on sabbatical…

There’s been a lull in my “Book in a Minute” reviews on the blog page. I switched libraries, then I had a shoulder injury, then I left the new library, then I tore up my knee and spent a couple of months catching up on Netflix. Now I’ve become a vice-president in charge of marketing and communications in my husband’s new engineering consulting firm. Because apparently there wasn’t enough chaos in my life.

Now things seem to be getting back on their usual rickety tracks and I’m finding more time to write (and think) about books again. Expect some new reviews soon and possibly even some news about some new writing from me in 2019–although possibly not under this pen name. Details when I’m able to share more with you!

As always, check out my Facebook page for news too.

 

Nathan’s Back!

nathanasnathanOf course, in my heart, he never really went away. Despite that miserable final season of Castle,  I know he’d land on his feet. And of course he has.

For a number of years, the main reason people seemed to visit this site (other than book reviews and shameless self-promotion of my own books, of course) was to contemplate the magic that is Nathan Fillion. Don’t believe me? I have the stats to prove it. For a while, it seemed like Nathan should be paying me his publicist’s fee. But then I got busy with career stuff and kid stuff and marriage stuff and library stuff and kind of neglected Nathan for a while.

Today, I intend to start rectifying that mistake!

So here’s Nathan in a short fan film, I think it first popped up at San Diego Comic Con this month.  It’s Nathan as Nathan. Nathan Drake, that is. Apparently, Nathan Drake is a video game version of Indiana Jones. So maybe a male Lara Croft?

Who cares, it’s Nathan-licious and that’s what counts, right? More Nathan news to come, fellow Fillion fans…

Book in a Minute: Jane Eyre’s Sisters

I know, I know. It’s been a minute. What can I say? New job for me, husband who’s starting up his own new business, shoulder injury, moving — you name it, I’ve got the excuse. I can’t promise a lot more reviews in the future, but this was a fascinating book, so I thought it’d be worth taking a minute to break my long silence!

Jane Eyre's Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine's StoryJane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story by Jody Gentian Bower

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A little slow and ponderous in places–kind of reads like it might have begun life as a doctoral thesis. But what an excellent, under-discussed topic!

As a writer, I’ve sat through countless workshops that try to stuff women’s lives into the “hero’s journey” format laid out by Joseph Campbell. The format was picked up by Hollywood script doctor Christopher Vogler and is widely touted as the only story worth telling.

Personally, I’m not entirely sure I buy the theory that all great stories must fit Campbell’s hero’s journey in the first place. I definitely don’t believe that all great stories about women fit that mold. So Jane Eyre’s Sisters by Jody Bower was a welcome discovery. I’m not sure I agree with all her conclusions, either, but I’m just thrilled that SOMEONE finally decided to analyze the great works of literature that resonate more with women than with men!

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Book in a Minute: I Remember You

I Remember YouI Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Disappointing! I was sold by the fact that the super-talented Simone St. James, a worthy successor to Daphne Du Maurier, wrote a rave review of this book. And many others have also loved it and found it super-scary. But for me it was utterly meh.

Three frenemies in dire financial straits have bought an old house on a remote island with plans to turn it into a bed & breakfast for outdoorsy, nature-loving tourists. They decide to go to the island in the depths of winter to do their renovations so they can start raking in the cash from tourists as soon as the weather breaks. Yeah, nothing wrong with that idea as anyone who reads suspense can tell you. Of course things start going creepily wrong right off the bat. There’s the charter boat captain who drops them off and warns them they’ll be totally alone on the island and he may not be able to get back to rescue them right away if the weather turns. There’s the word GOOD-BYE spelled out in seashells on the floor of the cottage. There’s that other person they keep glimpsing from a distance but can never meet. At least, maybe it’s a person…

If it were just a tightly written short story or novella about this trio and their adventures, I think I’d have been all in on this story and loved it. But there’s a parallel story about a doctor whose son has been missing for three years. I found that plot excruciatingly slow-moving and hard to believe. (view spoiler)

Lastly, there was the translation. At least, I hope it was a bad translation. Because the language was so clunky and reportorial, not at all visual and evocative, which to me is what a ghost story needs.

I listed this in my “Did not finish” shelf because I pretty much skimmed my way through the last ten chapters. I did my best in honor of Ms. St. James, but next time she recommends a read, I think I’ll just re-read one of her own books instead!

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Book in a Minute: Catching Dreams

Catching DreamsCatching Dreams by Karin Celestine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How are there not tons of reviews of this sweet little book?!

This is an adorable and very quick read. Part of a delightfully illustrated series about a little animal family featuring Baby Weasus, a baby weasel adopted on Christmas Eve by King Norty, King of the Weasels. And featuring their equally adorable friends, Panda, Emily and Small.

In Catching Dreams, Baby Weasus has a bad dream. King Norty gives him a dreamcatcher, and later, Weasus wants to return the favor, so Emily teaches him how to make one of his own. Each book in the series features a simple craft like this, with instructions on how to make the item.

We shelve these books in our children’s picture book section at the library where I work, but they would make excellent gifts for older kids too. And fun little party favors, even for grown-up occasions like baby showers.

I love these books and am on a quest to tell the rest of the world about them!

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Book in a Minute – Library Edition: The Clairvoyants

The ClairvoyantsThe Clairvoyants by Karen Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Karen Brown won acclaim for her debut The Longings of Wayward Girls, a suspenseful novel about two missing girls. Although her new book, The Clairvoyants, is also billed as psychological suspense, it’s really more accurate to describe it as a coming-of-age story with dark, supernatural overtones.

Martha and her sister Del grow up on a farm in Connecticut. When Martha is only 7 years old, she has a vision of her great aunt. Unfortunately, her great aunt has already been dead for many years when they “meet.” As a child, Martha is only mildly disconcerted by the event. It seems to be an isolated, intriguing fluke. But in her late teens, a harrowing incident triggers her strange gift again. She begins experiencing more visions of the dead — most not as pleasant as her great aunt.

Hoping to leave the dead behind, Martha flees to college in Ithaca. There she finds romance with a brooding photographer named William. But her idyll is disrupted when the past comes calling in the form of her impulsive sister Del. Just as Martha tries to reconcile herself to being her unstable sister’s caretaker, a fellow student on campus vanishes. Martha’s visions return with a vengeance.

Although the missing girl is pivotal to the plot of The Clairvoyants, Brown’s story is too leisurely paced to feel like suspense. Her focus is less on finding the missing girl and more on understanding Martha’s unwillingness to use her “gift.” Indeed, Martha’s reluctance to get involved in the case becomes a symbol for her reluctance to take charge of her own life.

Readers who enjoy women’s fiction with a dash of magical realism, such as Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic and Sarah Addison Allen’s The Peach Keeper should enjoy The Clairvoyants. Like these authors, Brown uses the suspense genre to explore the rivalries that shape women and their relationships with one another.

This review originally appeared at “Between the Covers,” the book review blog for the Baltimore County Public Library. For more great reading ideas, check out all the reviews there.

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