Rollin, Rollin, Rollin

18 Feb

I love when a new year starts out SO STRONGLY. Here we are on February 17th and I’ve already got a solid 3 that should end up on my year-end list (Hamnet & Fresh Water for Flowers, both out in June and When Time Stopped out now). Of this recent batch, my 3 faves were:

Oona out of Order was such a weird fast fun one. Basically the main character wakes up on the morning of her 19th bday (New Years Day) her normal 19 year-old-self, except that she isn’t. She’s living her 51st year – in a house she doesn’t recognize with people she doesn’t know (but who seem to know her pretty well) inside a body that is older. And from then on, every year she begins each year out of order. Sounds confusing, but the chapters go fast so it’s pretty easy to keep things straight. They all start with a number like 19/51, so that lets you know that she’s chronologically 19 but living the year as 51. Fast and fun, a lighter, shorter Time Traveler’s Wife. 4 stars

Long Bright River has been a pretty buzzy thriller these past few months and I was totally there for it. My best bookseller friend said it reminded her of your favorite old Dennis Lehane (Mystic River or Shutter Island) and that is totally accurate. Mix of police procedural and family story of addiction – the detective is investigating a string of murders and is worried that her sister might be the next victim. So good and twisty. 4.5 stars

And lastly of my favorites this month, Fresh Water for Flowers. This one doesn’t come out until June so I won’t say TOO much now – it’s the story of a woman who lives in and takes care of a graveyard. And just so so much more. She has some tragedies in her past that make her such a compelling character, plus she gets to interact with a lot of different people through her job as cemetery caretaker. Love love loved it. Perfect book to take to the lake and wade through, it’s long and wonderful. 5 stars.

The others, briefly:

142 Ostriches was kind of a fun debut about a young girl who inherits an ostrich farm when her grandmother dies. Family story, lots of strong women and loser men. 4 stars.

I love John Boyne (Heart’s Invisible Furies, Ladder to the Sky) and was so excited to see this older one of his that revolves around the Romanovs. I didn’t love The House of Special Purpose as much as his others – I thought the twist at the end was pretty clearly coming from the first few chapters. But his Rasputin lived up to my imaginings! 3 stars.

These Ghosts are Family has been hyped as the next Homegoing – a debut novel that picks apart and traces back a Jamaican family. Overall it was fine – I thought the second half was way more interesting than the first. 3.5 stars

My neighborhood book club read The Power and it really just isn’t the sort of story I gravitate too – speculative fiction about a world in which women have the ability to electrocute people with their hands. They have The Power! and take over society. I was expecting it to be a sort of feminist manifesto but really the women turned pretty savage and it just wasn’t my fave. 3 stars.

Return to Form

17 Feb


Y’all know I loved Station Eleven but you might not know I’ve loved Emily St John Mandel since I read the galley of her first novel, Last Night in Montreal. Station Eleven was a little bit of a departure for her, a departure that definitely upped her base of readers by the thousands. I think that this one will be hard for people who just want more post-apocalyptic Shakespearean fanfare. The Glass Hotel definitely feels like a return to her previous style. I’m not even sure how to sum it up – it’s about a young woman named Vincent, her past, her present, her brother & how she goes from tending bar at a glass hotel on a remote island to swimming laps in the private pool of her mansion. Sort of windy and roaming but I really enjoyed it! 4 stars.

Starting Off with a Bang

20 Jan

I don’t know what it is about a new year that makes reading so good, maybe the cold weather or the early darkness? This is the second or third year in a row that has started off incredibly strong for me. Of these first seven 2020 books, I’d guess that two or maybe even three will end up on my Best Litpicks of the Year list.

Two of these I know for sure are already out, the others are coming shortly. Except for Hamnet, which doesn’t come until the summer but it was so amazing I wanted to mention it now.

Five-Star reads first. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, out in the summer, amazing historical fiction about Agnes Hathaway. Don’t know who she is? You do, you probably just don’t know her name. Regardless of her famous husband, Agnes is a character you will LOVE. I rank this right up there with Song of Achilles and The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine Bonaparte. Amazing. Put your holds on it now! 5 (hundred) stars.

American Dirt has been the buzziest book of the season so far, and for good reason. It’s timely and also just a really compelling story. The story is about a Mexican woman named Lydia, living the good life with her journalist husband and young son. She owns a bookstore (so obviously I loved her) and was only slightly surprised when the cartel killed 16 members of her family. On the run with her son, her story becomes a migrant story. She’s trying to make it to Denver, undocumented, and through her we get the story of so many other migrants. Timely and good. 4.5 stars

It always feels like book magic when I pick up a book I’ve never heard of and wind up loving it SO much. That’s what happened with When Time Stopped. Shocking also because it’s a memoir and that’s not usually my jam. But listen to this crazy story: Arianna Neumann grew up in Caracas, the only daughter of a second marriage. When her father died, she had been living in Italy but flew home for the services and to clear out his things. His study, once crammed full of a lifetime of correspondence and papers, had been cleared out and all that remained was a single box. Inside, she found a German ID with her father’s picture and someone else’s name, along with a ton of other German documents.  Of course she started investigating and holy moly the story she uncovered! It’s a WWII story, obviously, but it reads like a novel. Her thorough research and her insane success in tracking down survivors who knew her father and grandparents….this story! It could be a movie. 5 stars! definitely on my Best Of list. On sale 2/4/2020.

The other four were good. The Bear is kind of a weird post-apocalyptic novel about the last two people on earth. Lots of nature and survival, solid 3 stars. The Great Pretender was the selection for a book club I just joined, non-fiction about a study done that had 8 people check themselves into a mental institution and document their treatment. The woman who wrote it wrote the book Brain on Fire so she has an interesting perspective. 3 stars. I love Louise Erdrich and The Night Watchman was very much in line with her other things. Very good story, loosely based on her grandfather’s life. 4 stars. I ended the last year with one of the most talked about thrillers of 2019, The Silent Patient. It was good, fast, thrilling…all you could want from a thriller! I sort of suspected the twist but it was still good. 3.5 stars

Top 10 Litpicks of 2019

18 Dec

It’s that time of year again! I beat my goal of 52 books with a whopping 59 for the year (crossing my fingers I can get one more in for an even 60). Although that feels low to me (thinking about my pre-husband, pre-baby years of 100+), I am thankful that I met my goal! Life has been busy. Here are the ones that stood out for me this year:

1. Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera. Set in South Carolina in the early 1920s, the story follows three women – Gertrude, Retta and Annie – as their lives intersect on a struggling tobacco plantation. There is a lot going on in this novel, and I was there for all of it! I loved learning about the boll weevil infestations that ravaged the south before the Great Depression, it’s a small part of the set-up of the story but it was interesting. Perfect for the Where the Crawdads Sing crowd.

2. Normal People by Sally Rooney is one of my more recent reads, perhaps that’s why it’s so far up this list. I really enjoyed this very relatable story of Marianne and Connell – it also had sort of a Gothic undertone that I felt made it that much more engaging.

3. Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe may be my most surprising top ten finalist – I’m not even sure where you would find it in a bookstore (YA? Contemporary fiction? Mystery?) and that’s part of why it was so great. It’s loosely based on the author’s boyhood in Australia. Eli Bell is a typical boy – but not really. He doesn’t know his father, his mother is in jail and his step-father is a known heroin dealer. His brilliant older brother is equal parts blessing and burden – a genius who does not speak. At all. These characters felt so real and so perfectly flawed and true. So good.

4. Jojo Moyes’ new book The Giver of Stars is finding major commercial success right now and I think it’s warranted. I really loved this story about the packhorse librarians of WPA-era Kentucky. This rekindled a major Appalachian obsession that started when I read Catherine Marshall’s Christy years and years ago. Worth the hype!

5. If you are one of the readers who read and loved Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan Novels, you should check out A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio. They share the same translator, actually, which may be why they feel so familiar I’m not sure.  Set in Italy, it’s the story of an unnamed narrator (a young girl) who leaves her home one day with her father and is dumped unceremoniously at the home of her birth parents. She hadn’t known that her parents were not her birth parents, and up until the moment her dad left she had no idea she’d be living with these strangers. I thought this was a great story about figuring out who you are and coming to terms with unexpected twists and turns life throws at you.

6. Time for the most obscure title on my list! If you want to read Fallen Mountains you will have to order it online or request that your library purchase a copy. It’s not easily accessible but it’s worth the hunt if you love a great, straightforward mystery. Set in a small town in Pennsylvania with tons of great characters, secrets and cover-ups start to pile up when a recently returned man goes missing. The writing in this is so incredible. I was immediately interested in each strand of the story line, and then shocked at the way they all came together.

7. I flew through Kevin Wilson’s new novel Nothing to See Here this past weekend. It sounds bizarre (kids that burst into flames when they’re agitated or upset) but it was actually a pretty serious family novel (exactly the kind I like). Lillian gets a call one day from her best friend from high school (Madison) asking her to move in with her and her hot-shot politician husband. Madison’s husband’s ex-wife has died and now his twin 10-year-olds are coming to stay. Lillian’s job is to take care of the kids and keep them hidden from the press, as Madison is worried they’ll catch on fire and ruin her husband’s reputation.

8 & 9. I’m a sucker for an original format. Anything that’s a little out of the usual typically skyrockets my opinion. Two fit that bill this year – Taylor Jenkin Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six and Myla Goldberg’s Feast Your Eyes. There are a lot of similarities here, now that I’m thinking about it, but most of them would spoil Daisy Jones. Both stories look back over the career(s) of once-famous-still-talked-about artists, and both stories look back in an interesting way. Daisy Jones and the Six reads like the transcript of your favorite rock band’s documentary, trying to unearth why things ended the way they did. I’ve heard the audio version of this is A+, each member of the band getting his own narrator/voice. The Myla Goldberg isn’t about a band, but rather a photographer who made waves with some controversial photographs of her daughter. The story is told through the catalogue notes of her show at the Museum of Modern Art. Both of these stories felt so real they had me googling the respective artists – fictional though they be.

10. This last one I actually read at the end of 2018 and knew that it would probably be on this list. I know a lot of people love books like A Man Named Ove and Arthur Truluv and oh any other cloyingly sweet story about a cranky old men trying to turn their cranky old lives around. I don’t love those kinds of books but man did I love When All is Said, which is not too far off from that. This story is about Maurice Hannigan (Ove-style-old but definitely not cranky) who heads to the bar inside his small town’s hotel one night and has five drinks. Each drink he toasts to one of the five most important people in his life – his brother, sister-in-law, son, daughter and late wife. I loved that his stories about each one perfectly created an image of his life, and I loved him. This one is definitely left an impression.

Runners Up & Also Enjoyeds:

Rounding out the Year

3 Dec

I sat down to work on my Top Ten Litpicks of 2019 and realized I have a little catching up to do before I can dive into that post. I haven’t been reading AS MUCH lately, but here’s what I loved:

Normal People by Sally Rooney and Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. The Trevor Noah is older – if you didn’t read it when it came out and haven’t read it yet you should do so right away. It was the fastest and most amazing memoir I read this year (I know that’s a short list). So so good and so crazy. Plus his voice is so distinctive that when I was reading I could hear it in my head which made it that much better. 5 stars!

Normal People has been on a lot of lists already this season as one of the best – really it was so good. It’s a love story, but also feels sort of Gothic and twisted in the some of the same ways Lying in Wait did (no murder in this one). Starts in high school with social outcast Marianne secretly dating popular kid Connell – he doesn’t want anyone to know about her. We follow them to college where the tables turn; Marianne is now being successful and making friends and Connell is really struggling. This story did feel very… I don’t know … familiar? Not that I’ve read it before, it just feels like relationships I’ve seen my friends in and even feelings I’ve had myself. Very NORMAL. So good. 5 stars.

Another five-star read that I just finished last night – Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here. This one sounds super bizarre because it features 10-yr-old twins that spontaneously burst into flames. It becomes such a normalized thing in the novel you don’t even find it weird after a bit. Madison and Lillian are roommates at a girl’s boarding school when something happens that causes Lillian to leave the school. Years later, Madison is married to an older politician and calls Lillian to ask a favor – to come live with her in her mansion and take care of her husband’s estranged twins. Twins who happen to burst into flames when they’re upset or scared or mad. Sounds like Kevin must have children of his own – although mine don’t actually burst into flames, it does seem within the realm of possibility. 5 stars!

The others were fine – Picnic at Hanging Rock is much older, a mystery set at a girl’s boarding school in Australia, the girls all go out for a picnic and not all of them return. Felt a little dated but I needed to know what happened to them! 3 stars

Holding on to Nothing was actually pretty good. I’ve been on an Appalachian Lit kick and this fit right in. A contemporary love story about a young girl who was ready to burst out of her small town until she falls in with the handsome musician from the town’s most notoriously worthless family. 4 stars

This Tender Land I enjoyed until it started getting super religious. Two brothers at an orphanage/school for Native American children. They’re the only whites and get into enough trouble that they set out on their own. 3 stars

Yahtzee! Seven 5-star Reads in a Row

15 Oct

Holy moly! I have been on a reading roll lately and everything I’ve been reading has been great. I mean GREAT. The only one of these books I couldn’t recommend to everyone I know is Degrees of Difficulty only because it is so so difficult and also kind of hard to find (pretty much e-reader only & from a small press). The story of a family with a special needs son and the challenges they face as the child grows to a teen and then a man. The son, Ben, is born with a chromosomal disorder that causes a severe mental disability along with terrible seizures. We follow his parents and his older brother and sister – and things don’t go well. Tough but I’m glad I read it.

All seven of these other novels are 5-star reads for me.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson has been everywhere and on all sorts of lists lately. Short, beautifully written about a young girl (Melody) on the day of her…mmm…I don’t know what to call it? Debut? Big party at her grandparents house to celebrate turning 16. The beautiful thing about this one is that it takes that one day and shows it to us from the point of view of a handful of important people; her mother, who missed her own sweet-sixteen because she was pregnant with Melody. Melody’s grandparents, first one and then the other. Her father. Her best friend Malcolm. What you end up with is a portrait of the entire family, everyone’s stories coming together to explain where things are now.

Also on a dozen lists and popping up everywhere, Ann Patchett’s new novel The Dutch House. The blurbs all say it’s the story of a house (the dutch house!) but really it follows a brother and sister as they move from the Dutch House and on with their lives. The house still has a pull on them so they return to spy on it every now and then. I liked this – it’s slow(er) and I started and stopped a handful of times but the second half really picked up. Plus the cover is beautiful!

I’m a die hard fan of Helen Maryles Shankman and her collection of linked stories about WWII. The book club I’m in that hasn’t read In the Land of Armadillos yet is reading it for this next month and I flew threw it again, happy to find that I still love it as much as I did before. You can read more about it here if you’re interested in sad/magical/uplifting/depressing stories.

I follow one lady on Goodreads who reads and reviews SO MANY BOOKS – usually new – and it seems we have similar tastes. So when she backtracked and read A Parchment of Leaves from 2002 and gave it a 5-starred persuasive review, I picked it up at the library right away. Gosh so good! Turns out I love a good Appalachian love story (see below, also) and this one was full of characters I felt like I knew and a handful of good twists. Set in Kentucky in the early 1900s, it follows Vine – a beautiful Cherokee woman – as she falls in love with Saul (of Irish descent) and leaves her people to live with him and his people. And his people make for some darn good fiction.

Thirteen Doorways and Wolves Behind Every One I had finished before you could say the title five times fast. It’s a YA ghost story – also WWII but set in an orphanage in Chicago. Frankie and her siblings (brother and sister) live in an orphanage that is just as you’d imagine a 1940s orphanage to be and are visited by their father every Saturday. It never occurred to me that this happened but of course it makes perfect sense – families who couldn’t afford to feed their kids would leave them with the nuns. Anyway. It’s the story of Frankie told through the point of view of a ghost who haunts the orphanage. So there is a lot going on but it was great.

Jojo Moyes has left Me Before You-land and is trying something new: historical fiction. AND she picked one of my most favorite things to start with, the Packhorse Librarians of the WPA era. In the 1930s, as part of the WPA, women took to the hills with satchels of library books to distribute knowledge to the families that were in need of it. This novel follows the five women running the library in their small town. So good, so fast moving…I had a hard time putting it down and read way later than I should have. More Appalachian love stories! This reminded me of Catherine Marshall’s Christy, one of the books I remember most from my childhood (teacher who moves to an Appalachian town to teach) except instead of focusing on the families in the towns/mountains/cricks it focuses on the five women.

This last one Fallen Mountains is a hard one to track down. I had it on my e-reader as an advance copy and once I read it and loved it I went back and was dismayed to see that it’s from a small publisher and basically has very little chance of making it out into the world. Neither the KCMO library or the JOCO library stock it, it’s not likely on any shelves in the area. BUT it’s a great mystery! Set in a small town, so small it has only one sheriff/policeman, and he’s fixing to retire. When Transom Shultz sweeps back into town and subsequently disappears, our sheriff Red is certain it all goes back to something he helped cover up when the missing man was in high school. It goes back and forth between the time just before Transom goes missing and the investigation, totally reminded me of William Kent Kruger’s Ordinary Grace and I hope it finds some readers! It was so well done.

The Summer Has Gone (part 2)

12 Sep

Here is the second half of my summer reading. The top two books alone represent well over 1000 pages, such massive stories! The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer was one of my most anticipated releases of the year. After the first 200 pages I set it down and only just returned to it last week, well over a month later. It is pretty slow going, a WWII story based on the life of Varian Fry. Fry was an American in France during the war with the sole purpose of helping “important” artists escape. He had a list of people and was working one by one to help them find their ways out of an increasingly dangerous Europe. The second half definitely picks up but overall it was too long and too slow for me. 3 stars

The Most Fun We Ever Had made 500+ pages feel like 150. I flew through this giant family drama and loved every minute of it. The story of a couple with four grown children whose lives are simultaneously sort of falling apart. Great summer read that felt fast and also substantial. 4 stars

My sister-in-law recommended Copperhead to me, saying she couldn’t put it down and was still thinking about the characters long after returning it to the library. Of course I added it to my library queue right then and had it in my hands the very next day. Let me tell you, this one is INTENSE but so so good. It’s the story of a high school boy, Jessop, living in a small town. Jessop’s step-father and brother are in jail for a hate crime and his family has been long time members of a church that preaches white supremacy. On the day the book opens, his step-father has been released from jail and is integrating back into the family and the town and even the church. Jessop himself has not been to church since his brother was sentenced and does not believe the same things his family does but he carries the stigma of their actions on his shoulders. Something happens that makes everyone question him and his family. I loved the characters – they way they grew and evolved but my heart was in palpitations nearly the entire time I was reading. 4.5 (very stressful) stars

If you loved the Elena Ferrante trilogy, you won’t want to miss A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio. I loved this story from the point of view of our unnamed heroine as she arrives at her birthparent’s front door, accompanied by the man she had previously thought to be her father. Turns out the people she believed were her parents were actually cousins of her biological parents who had been unable to have a child of their own. Having grown up (to this point) in relative wealth and splendor, she must acclimate herself to her new life of poverty and integrate into her (very large and previously unknown) gang of siblings. 4.5 stars

Boy Swallows Universe was another great and unexpected read. I’m unclear as to whether this is marketed as Young Adult or not, either way I loved this amazingly written story of a young boy growing up in Australia with his brother August, his mother and his mother’s boyfriend. The boyfriend is a low-level drug dealer, his brother hasn’t spoken in many many ears, and his mother is a recovering addict. Sounds so terrible, right? and it is. But I was so invested in these characters and the craziness that unfolds. It’s a rough story but largely based on the author’s life and really just captivating and good. 4.5 stars.