Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Dear Barry Eisler, author of A Clean Kill in Tokyo

Dear Barry Eisler,

Last year I read Livia Lone, the first in your new series about the badass titular character. It was my favorite mystery of 2017. I knew I wanted to start the rest of your backlist from the beginning, and I couldn't resist waiting to read your first mystery, renamed A Clean Kill in Tokyo, while I traveled through Tokyo earlier this month, as I love to read books set where I'm traveling.

I started A Clean Kill in Tokyo around 4:30 in the morning in Des Moines. I expected it would keep me company as I flew first to Chicago, then Tokyo, and finally to my final destination of Bangkok, where, incidentally, Livia Lone spent some time.

From the opening scenes (and the opening kill) of A Clean Kill in Tokyo, I knew I was in for a thrilling read. This book is relentless. As I read, I was impressed at how you balanced the pacing, character development, and setting. Tokyo (and to a large extent, Japan as a whole), is a character in this novel. As I read, I learned more about the city, the country, its culture and customs, and its government.

Two things happened while I was reading this book that will forever make me think of when I read it. First, our simple layover at Narita airport became a landing at Narita and bus transfer to Haneda airport. As I read, I realized I would get to see more of Tokyo than only the airport. I was ecstatic to see a little bit of the city I'd been picturing in my mind as I read. The second happened after our layover, as I didn't quite manage to finish it before arriving in Thailand. Late in the novel, Rain thinks, "My fingerprints were on file from the time I returned to Japan after the war--I was technically a foreigner, and all foreigners in Japan get fingerprinted." Had I not read this at this time, that line would have seemed like a throwaway. Instead, because of our flight delays and airport change, I, too, had just gone through customs and been fingerprinted. It's an eerie detail for a thriller, and I loved it because it's the perfect detail for a crime novel.

I'm glad the John Rain novels are living a new life with Thomas & Mercer, and I look forward to the next one. Like Livia Lone, this was a thrilling read. John Rain is a compelling character, and I'm curious to see where he goes next. It's also clear this book was originally published in 2002. There were a few lines in this novel that made me groan. You've gotten much, much better about writing female characters (thank goodness.) Midori isn't as dynamic of a person as she is a musician. I wanted more from her character. Please don't ever let a (male) character think, "It was like being raped" without some backstory that gives him that purview. That line is inexcusable, and because I've read Livia Lone, I doubt you'd use that simile today (thank goodness.)

All in all, I really liked A Clean Kill in Tokyo. It introduces a fascinating character in John Rain, offers a rich and deep backstory for him, features a dynamic and fast-paced mystery, and I learned a lot about Vietnam, Japan, and U.S.-Asian relations in the last forty years. I'm really looking forward to A Lonely Resurrection and the rest of your books.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 276 pages
Publication date: 2002 (reissued/updated August 5, 2014)
Source: purchased

Want to read for yourself? Buy A Clean Kill in Tokyo from Amazon (Kindle edition--only $1.99 or free with Kindle Unlimited!)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, January 15, 2018

Dear Steven Hartley, narrator of The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Dear Steven Hartley,

I listened to most of The Music Shop on flights from Des Moines, Iowa to Bangkok, Thailand (with stops in Chicago and at both Tokyo airport.) I don't like to fly, but I do love to travel, and flying is part of that reality. To help distract me from the fact that I'm flying, I like to pick books to transport me to a different place, and your narration made me feel like I was on Unity Street in the 1980's.

I decided to read The Music Shop when it was named a January Book of the Month pick. This year, I'm aiming to read all 60 Book of the Month picks, and to do that, I know I'll need to listen to one each month. I was quite intrigued when I saw The Music Shop was your first audiobook. After listening, I'm surprised, but I'm confident it won't be your last. The Music Shop is told from the point of view of Frank, a curmudgeonly, but loveable man who is passionate about music and vinyl (only vinyl.) Your performance made Frank come alive for me. He isn't a character I would have been drawn to. In fact, if I read this novel instead of listened to you read it, I think I would have wished even more for multiple narrators. I longed to get inside the heads of the other cast of characters more. As a reader, I'm drawn to books about unlikely people forming strong bonds and becoming a sort of family, and The Music Shop's Unity Street does exactly that for its characters.

As I listened, I kept thinking that I enjoyed this book more because I was listening. First, I loved your choices of when to sing or hum to help people who may not know all of the music referenced. It was helpful both to make me feel like I was in the story, where the characters were hearing it, but it also gave the story itself more depth. Your music-infused performance was particularly wonderful during the Hallelujah chorus, where I imagine if I were reading, my eyes would have begun to skim past all of the Hallelujahs, but you forced me to listen to them and feel them.

When I read Rachel Joyce's first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I said "At times I felt dismissive of this novel as 'charming' or 'quaint', and while it is both of those things, Joyce's writing elevates this novel. She is a writer to watch." I feel much the same way about The Music Shop. It is cute and sweet and charming and quaint. It's also deftly plotted. As each reveal was made, I found myself thinking, "of course." None were surprises, but they were perfect for these characters and this story. Ultimately, I think it may have been too well plotted and well-planned out because it didn't feel as authentic as it should. It felt smartly convenient and enjoyable, but I like a bit more difficult and surprise in my books.

In closing, Steven, while I have some conflicting thoughts about the novel itself, I'm so glad I listened to your performance of it, for it truly was a performance. There are narrators whose performances I enjoy enough to listen to a book simply because they perform it. I'm astonished The Music Shop was your first audiobook, and I'll be keeping an eye on what you do next. Chances are, I'll be listening, not matter what it is. Thanks for transforming The Music Shop for me. I'll be recommending the audiobook to many.


Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 320 pages (8 hours 28 minutes)
Publication date: January 2, 2018
Source: purchased

Want to read for yourself? Buy The Music Shop from Amazon (Kindle edition.) Obviously, I recommend you listen to the audiobook.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sunday Salon: Good morning from Thailand!

The Sunday Salon.comGood morning from Chiang Mai, Thailand!

What a crazy, fun, exhausting week it's been. Last Monday at 3:30 a.m., I met my co-professor and the fourteen students taking our J-term travel course at the Des Moines airport. After delays in both Des Moines and Chicago (fuel pump issue requiring us to change planes), we arrived in Tokyo after our flight to Bangkok departed. The airline arranged a charter bus to take us from one Tokyo airport to the other, where we finally boarded a flight to Bangkok and arrived at 6 a.m. instead of midnight. We spent two days exploring Bangkok, then we took the overnight train to Chiang Mai, where we're settled in for another week before heading to Krabi. After so much travel, it's nice to be in the same place for awhile. It's also nice to be in Chiang Mai, a city I adore and have had the privilege of visiting three times in the last year and a half. It's my last time in Thailand for awhile, so I'm trying to soak up every minute of it I can, while also taking some time to rest, relax, read and write.

One thing I've learned about traveling to Asia is that my body adjusts a bit faster than my brain. I don't sleep much or well on airplanes, so I choose my reading very carefully. Mysteries work because they typically have short chapters and a fast pace. I also spend a lot of time listening to audiobooks while playing games on my phone. Both are a great way to pass time, but I look forward to dipping into something a bit more serious this week.

Despite my travels, I'm really excited that I've posted every day of 2018. Perhaps my blogging finally is back. Most importantly, I'm having so much fun blogging. It's been delightful to change up my format and write more freely. I plan on using Sundays to look back on the week, share a little of what's happening currently, and sometimes look ahead at what's to come in the next week.

If you only read one thing I wrote last week...
Read A love letter to Chloe Benjmain, author of The Immortalists, my first 6-star read in two-and-a-half years. This book means so much to me, and I'm so glad it came into the world this year. Get a copy and enjoy.

...but if you want to read everything...
I wrote traditional reviews of two buzzy January thrillers, The Wife Between Us, which I enjoyed but didn't love, and The Chalk Man, which blew me away and still surprises me that it's C.J. Tudor's first novel.

I wrote about Explosion at Orly, a nonfiction account of the 1962 Air France crash that killed more than 100 Atlanta residents who were patrons of the arts. The 2018 release I'm most excited about is Hannah Pittard's new novel, Visible Empire, which is inspired by those events. I was ecstatic to get an egalley of it this week, and I can't wait to dig in!

I wrote a letter to Reza Aslan about his newest book, God: A Human History

I wrote a letter to people who tell me to read more classics about starting the year with the often-recommended The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. (Spoiler: I didn't like it.)

Lastly, I wrote two lists about the latest collaboration from Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Two lists about Every Breath You Take by Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke

(this post contains some spoilers, both of this book and the rest of the series)

There is so much to like about this book:

1. That cover is stunning.

2. The premise, a tv documentary working to solve cold cases by interviewing everyone involved, including the suspects, is great. I would definitely watch "Under Suspicion" if it were real. Reading the books is like watching the show, but we also get the behind-the-scenes action.

3. Laurie's dad is really great.

4. This novel is set at the Met Costume Ball. That's fun. And it inspired a really funny conversation with my friend Leslie, where we guessed what the conversation was like between Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke. It went something like this: "Who is the most glamorous celebrity you can think of who would attend the Costume Ball?" MHC: "Barbra Streisand!" AB: "Definitely Beyonce."

5. It's a fun, entertaining read. but...

There is so much not to like about this book.

1. This is a series about making a tv show. 68% into this book, there's this line: "I think we're actually ready to start cameras rolling." Seriously, the show was barely in the book. Why spend 68% deciding what the show will be about and then make the show you've been thinking about making for two-thirds of the book?

2. Related: the mystery wasn't very compelling.

3. Laurie is pretty annoying when she's not working. I get it: her husband was murdered. It's hard, but can she have an original thought or feeling about that that she hasn't had for the last three books? Every time she mentioned or thought about Alex, I rolled my eyes and sometimes even groaned out loud. [spoiler--highlight to read] Thank goodness she and Alex got back together at the end, or I might not have been able to keep going. [end spoiler]

The verdict: This series really isn't that good. It may have peaked with All Dressed in WhiteThe last two were not nearly as good as the first two. But I also like this series enough to keep reading, even if they don't improve. There is time in my reading life for an entertaining page-turner with a mediocre mystery.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 305 pages
Publication date: November 7, 2017
Source: publisher
Want to read for yourself? Buy Every Breath You Take from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Friday, January 12, 2018

A letter to people who tell me I should read more classics

Dear Friends Who Think I Should Read More Classics,

You'll be pleased to hear the first book I read in 2018 was a classic. You will be disappointed to hear I did not like it. At all. I admit, I was a little disappointed too. I had been meaning to read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for years. It sounded like a classic I actually would like. It's very short (132 pages). It's written by a woman. It's about girls coming of age. What could go wrong? I found it annoyingly dated and quite dull.

I can understand why it would have been a powerful, moving novel when it was written. At that time, a character like Miss Jean Brodie might have been a revelation. In 2018, she's not. Or at least, she's not to me, because I'm drawn to portrayals of complicated women in fiction. I know it's not fair to blame the book for being of its time. I'm not blaming the book or Muriel Spark. This reading experience perfectly illustrates why I don't typically read classics and reminds me why I didn't major in English. It took me four days to read this book because I avoided picking it up. When I did, I often found a reason to put it down after two pages. On the fourth day, I decided I would sit and finish it because I couldn't abandon a book this short. Also, I was tired of having my 2018 list of books read be blank.

So, my dear, well-meaning friends who I always tell me I should read more classics, I'm glad I made time for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, even though I didn't like it. Instead, this book reminded me of a valuable lesson: I don't really like the classics, and that's okay. I much prefer to read about the past from historical fiction and history. I learned this lesson in college when I tried to major in English and struggled to read the required books as I longed to read from the giant piles of newer books from the library that surrounded me.

In closing, I'm not saying I'll never read another classic. I hope to finally read Pride and Prejudice this year (and maybe a few more of Jane Austen's novels too.) I still want to read Nathaniel Hawthorne because even though I didn't name my child after him, I feel like as the parent of a child named Hawthorne, I should at least have an informed opinion of him. I will probably never read Moby Dick or the Russian classics. It's okay because you won't read of the most books I recommend to you either. I want you to read what makes you happy.



P.S. I do want to watch the movie to see Maggie Smith play Jean Brodie. Want to watch it with me?

Rating: 2 out of 5
Length: 132 pages
Publication date: 1961
Source: library
Want to read for yourself? Buy The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A letter to Reza Aslan, author of God: A Human History

Dear Reza,

A couple of years ago, I listened to you read the audiobook of Zealot: The Life and Times of  Jesus of Nazareth. I found it fascinating, if somewhat disappointing at the lack of (understandable) lack of information about Jesus himself. I really enjoyed listening to the book and liked the emphasis and enthusiasm you narrate with. When I heard you had a new book, God: A Human History, I wanted to listen to it too.

I, like many, have a complicated relationship with religion. I was raised in the United Methodist church. My father is a United Methodist pastor. Many of closest friends are also pastor's kids, and many more of closest friends are friends I met through church. About six years ago, I realized I didn't consider myself a Christian anymore. It was a big deal to me because being a liberal United Methodist was such a large part of my identity for so much of my life. It wasn't a big deal because I hadn't been actively attending church for a few years. I always took issue with some aspects of my religion. I never believed in hell. I wasn't a big fan of most of the Old Testament. I liked the idea that each religion of the world saw a different facet of the same god. I didn't make grand declarations about no longer being a Christian; I just wasn't.

I've attended church several times since then, and it's always a weird experience. I still find great comfort in the familiarity of United Methodist liturgy. I still find meaning and enjoyment in singing my favorite hymns. I also feel deeply uncomfortable with some parts. I have a deep love for the church and the memories and friendships it gave me, but I didn't want to be part of it anymore. After the presidential election of 2016, I found myself craving something like church. I considered visiting churches, including United Methodist, Unitarian, and Church of Christ. I still didn't consider myself a Christian or want to be one, but I wanted the communal comfort of church or something like it. I never visited because I couldn't quite wrap by head around what or why.

Your new book, God, came at an interesting time for me. I had again lost the urge to go to church, but I remain interested in the variety of reasons other people have for their faith.  I found God fascinating. Parts of it reminded me of The Last Neanderthal, a book that made me ponder all the ways we are similar to our neanderthal ancestors. I was most fascinated to learn how different cultures throughout history have sought the personification of God. It makes so much sense, and it seems so obvious, but seeing the connection was illuminating to me. I loved your exploration of the things that are similar across religions and across history. Your book helped me understand that the cravings I had last year connected me to so many humans across history. As I've spent a couple of months thinking about and reflecting on your book, I realized it fundamentally changed how I view religion. For me, religion had been primarily about belief, and when I lost the belief that Jesus rose from the dead, I lost religion, even as I held on to some belief in an unspecific god. Reza, your book gave me another approach to religion: comfort. Comfort was always part of religion and faith for me, of course, but it wasn't the point of access. I don't know if I'll want to find a church again, but if I do, I will feel okay exploring without committing. 

Reza, thank you for writing God and thank you for reading the audiobook. Reading it felt like having a long, thoughtful conversation with you. This book has remained circling around my thoughts since I finished it in November, and I imagine I'll keep thinking of it for a long time.


Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 321 pages (5 hours 22 min)
Publication date: November 7, 2017
Source: library
Want to read for yourself? Buy God: A Human History from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

  As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

book journal: Explosion at Orly by Ann Uhry Abrams

The book I'm most excited about in 2018 is the new novel by Hannah Pittard, Visible Empire. I've loved two of her earlier novels, Reunion (my review) and Listen to Me. Like me, Pittard grew up in Atlanta and now lives in the Midwest. I'd be excited about any new novel by Hannah Pittard, but the premise of this one took my breath away:  "an epic novel—based on true events—of wealth, race, grief, and love, charting one sweltering summer in Atlanta that left no one unchanged. It’s a humid summer day when the phones begin to ring: disaster has struck. Air France Flight 007, which had been chartered to ferry home more than one hundred of Atlanta’s cultural leaders following a luxurious arts-oriented tour of Europe, crashed shortly after takeoff in Paris. In one fell swoop, most of the city’s wealthiest residents perished." How, I marveled, did I manage to grow up in Atlanta and not know about a plane crash that killed 132 people? As I began my quest to know more about this event, I discovered a nonfiction book about it, and I immediately requested it from the library. While I'm impatiently waiting for a copy of Visible Empire, why not read about the real event?

Explostion at Orly: The Disaster That Transformed Atlanta is a fascinating look at both the plane crash and modern Atlanta history. I read this book while I was in Atlanta for Thanksgiving, and it was fun to chat about it with my brother and sister-in-law. I learned a lot about modern Atlanta history, particularly its art scene. While I think some knowledge of Atlanta aided my enjoyment and understanding, Uhry Abrams does a good job orienting the reader. To write this book, she gathered the families of all those who died in the plan crash. This access to the memories and stories provides rich personal details, but it also bogs down the narrative. It's a slippery slope, as she's trying to tell the stories of all of those who took part in some or all of the Paris trip, and that's a lot of people to keep track of. Naturally, I was drawn to the stories of some more than others. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book unless you're really interested in the subject matter--it's written for a specialized audience. It's a fascinating and tragic story, and reading Explosion at Orly made me even more excited to read Visible Empire and see how Pittard will fictionalize this incredible story.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 237 pages
Publication date: September 24, 2002
Source: interlibrary loan
Buy The Explosion at Orly. Pre-order Visible Empire (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

book review: The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

The backstory: The Chalk Man is the debut psychological thriller from British author C.J. Tudor.

The basics: Told in dual narratives in 1986, when Eddie and his friends discover the dismembered body of a young girl in the woods, and 2016, when Eddie and his friends each receive a cryptic chalk drawing in the mail.

My thoughts: I didn't order The Chalk Man as my December Book of the month, but judge Kristin Iverson's blurb did make me immediately start the egalley I had on my Kindle. This mystery wasn't even on my radar, and I'm so glad she convinced me to read this one. (Want to try Book of the Month? I'd love it if you use my referral link!)

The Chalk Man is a crime novel, but it doesn't necessarily read like one, as the crime is only part of the story. To be sure, there is a body discovered, and her head remains missing (how eerie is that?), but part of the benefit of the two timelines is the very ordinariness of life that infuses this story too. The characters are dynamic and fully formed, and there is much to their lives beyond the dead body and chalk figures. The shifting timelines work so well and help build the suspense, but they never feel like a gimmick.

The novel builds beautifully to its last third, which is a tour de force filled with expected and unexpected twists. When I finished, I was astonished it's Tudor's first novel.

Favorite passage: "The thing you have to understand is that being a good person isn't about singing hymns, or praying to some mythical god. It isn't about wearing a cross or going to church every Sunday. Being a good person is about how you treat others. A good person doesn't need a religion, because they are content within themselves that they are doing the right thing."

The verdict: This mystery is remarkably smart, suspenseful, complicated (without being confusing), and accomplished. I'm shocked it's a debut novel, as the plot is so delightfully intricate.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: January 9, 2018
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Chalk Man from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Follow C.J. Tudor on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, January 8, 2018

book thoughts: The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

The backstory: Greer Hendricks worked as an editor for more than 20 years. For her first novel, she teams up with one of the authors whose work she edited.

My thoughts: The Wife Between Us is one of this season's buzziest books, which is always a dangerous proposition for a thriller. And this particular thriller is one that benefits from the reader knowing as little as possible going into it. I'm glad I read this one before its publication so each surprise was still a surprise.

I read a thought of mysteries and thrillers, and I can't recall the last time I actually said out loud while reading, "wait, what?!" and flipped back a few pages to make sure I hadn't misread. This novel's first big twist is so much fun. It flips this novel on the reader, and it made me realize I was reading a very different novel than I thought I was. Unfortunately, after the thrill of that twist, I realized I actually preferred the novel this begins as rather than the one it ends up being. This novel relies heavily on its characters, and I couldn't believe they were actually real people. To me, this novel felt like a fun idea, but I never fully engaged in these women's stories because they didn't feel like real people.

The verdict: Despite my love for this novel's first twist, I couldn't shake the feeling that the authors tried too hard. I wanted the end to come together more and bring more twists. It was a fun read, but it could have been a better one. I'm glad I read this one, because it is a fun read, but it's won't make my list of best thrillers of 2018.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 342 pages
Publication date: January 9, 2018 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Wife Between Us from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A love letter to Chloe Benjamin, author of The Immortalists

Dear Chloe,

You probably don't remember me, but I was first in line for your galley signing of The Immortalists at the American Library Association conference last summer. When you got there, you were surprised and excited to see so many people in line for you, a relatively unknown author who was already garnering serious buzz about your sophomore novel six months before its publication. I admit, at the time, I thought it was your first novel because I didn't remember hearing about you. I'm sorry. I've requested your first novel, which was longlisted for a prize I follow very closely, from the library. I can't wait to read it.

I didn't pick up The Immortalists until December because I like to read books about a month before they're published. From the very first pages, I knew I was in good hands. I'm writing this letter because I want to thank you for writing the best book I've read in the last two and a half years. It's a really big deal to me to read a book and rate it six stars out of five. I've been blogging about books for more than ten years, and The Immortalists is only the seventh I've rated six stars. It's the longest gap I've had between six-star reads, but it also follows the blessed reading year of 2015 when I had an unprecedented two.

Six-star reads are really special to me. They're unexplainable to some extent because they are of the highest quality, which can be shared, but they also touch me so deeply emotionally and intellectually that they change me. Reading a six-star book is one of the most personal and unshareable experiences I know of. Six-star books mean so much to me they break my scale.

As I read The Immortalists, I was equally enchanted with your writing and your characters, who feel like family. I copied so many passages from this book, but I think this one is my favorite: "She knew that stories did have the power to change things: the past and the future, even the present. She had been an agnostic since graduate school, but if there was one tenant of Judaism with which she agreed, it was this: the power of words. They weaseled under door cracks and through keyholes. They hooked into individuals and wormed through generations." Perhaps it's my favorite because I agree. I also love it because it's exactly what this book did to me, and it made me feel like part of your book in the way your book has become part of my story.

I'll be recommending your book all year. I've already bought a few copies to give as gifts. I'm making Mr. Nomadreader read at as part of our two-person book club. I can't begin to explain how much I love this book and how much reading it meant to me. Thank you for the gift of this novel, and welcome to my Hall of Fame.


P.S. Please tell me where I can get a t-shirt or a bag or anything with Simon & Klara & Daniel & Varya on it. I need that in my life.

Rating: 6 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: January 9, 2018
Source: publisher

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

My 2018 Goals

Some years I make elaborate goals. This year is not on of those years. 

1. I want to read. Yes, part of me wants to read more than I did this year, but I don't want to set an arbitrary number. This year, I'd rather focus on enjoying what I read. When I do, I find so much more time to read. I will likely always be a reader more drawn to new releases than classics, but each year, there are books I don't find time for. I want to read some of those books on my priority TBR.

2. I want to read all 60 Book of the Month selections (5 are announced each month.) Last year, Book of the Month was the most reliable source of good book recommendations. I picked up (and loved) books I otherwise wouldn't have. I read books I didn't know about. Prize lists used to function this way, but I realized Book of the Month is more geared to the types of books I most enjoy. It's predominantly novels, with a sprinkling of nonfiction and an occasional short story collection. It's predominantly books written by women. Most months include one or two mysteries or thrillers. In 2017, its picks aligned quite nicely with my reading taste and habits.

3. I seem to make this goal every year, but it's a good one: I want to be better about reading The New Yorker. When I do read it, I always enjoy it. And it's expensive, so I should get my money's worth.

4. I want to read books by these authors: Hanya Yanagihara, Sarah Waters, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tana French, and Elena Ferrante. 

5. I want to finish the backlists of these authors whose books I've read most of and loved: Taylor Jenkins Reid, Ann Patchett, J. Courtney Sullivan, Jennifer Close, Hannah Pittard, Meg Wolitzer, Ellen Feldman, and Roxane Gay.

6. I think I've abandoned my quest to read all the titles ever longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction (and all of its names over time), but I do still want to read all the winners. I have eight left, plus the one that will be named this year.

7. I want to acknowledge that these goals, made at the beginning of the year, may not be the goals I want later in the year. I most want to read what I most feel like reading at any given time.

8. I want to write about what I'm reading here. I may write reviews. I may write journals. I may write only a few sentences, but I love this space as an archive of my reading I can return to, and I want to restart that habit this year.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Wrapping Up 2017

I had so much fun this week writing about my favorite comics, nonfiction, mysteries & thrillers, and fiction of 2017. But my favorites only tell part of the story.

I was reading...
I managed to read 102 books in 2017. That's only two fewer than 2016 (104), but still well below 2015 (131) and 2014 (139). I guess having a baby let me read a lot more than constantly conversing with a toddler does. I've been tracking my reading since 2009, and my 9-year average is 108, which is pretty neat. I didn't keep many statistics this year aside from what I read and in what month, but those numbers are most interesting to me anyway.

...but I wasn't blogging about it
I only wrote 23 blog posts in 2017. That's the lowest ever. By a lot. I'm not sure why, but I do know how much I've been enjoying blogging again this week, and I hope to at least talk about most books I read here. I may not write many reviews in my traditional style, and I want to experiment with different ideas, but I aim to write here more in 2018 (and I'm off to a good start!)

New Hall of Fame Inductees
I inducted three authors into my Hall of Fame! I didn't read any 6-star books in 2017 (well, I did, but it's not out yet, so you'll have to stay tuned for its reveal soon), so there aren't any new MVPs, but three authors earned a lifetime achievement induction, which means I've rated more than one of their books 5 out of 5 stars. I'd already rated one book by Chloe Caldwell and one by Maile Meloy 5 stars, so when their new books were published this year, they joined. One author, Taylor Jenkins Reid, was new to me this year. I rated two of her books 5 stars.

Favorite cover

Oldest book read (and first book read)
Explosion at Orly: The Disaster That Transformed Atlanta

First book read
The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam

Last book read
News of the World by Paulette Giles

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Thursday, January 4, 2018

My Favorite Reads of 2017: Fiction

I aim to read a lot of fiction by authors whose previous work I've enjoyed, by authors who are new-to-me, and by authors who are new. When I looked at this list, my ten favorite fiction reads in 2017, I'm happy to see that it reflects that aim. [Covers take you to Amazon]

10. Forever, Interrupted and After I Do by Taylor Jenkins Reid
2017 is the year I discovered Taylor Jenkins Reid. After reading her latest novel, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (see below), I wanted to go back and read her backlist in order. Forever, Interrupted is her first novel. I picked it up only knowing she had written it, and I so appreciated that particular reading experience, I'm hesitant to say more (so if you're spoiler-averse to events that occur within the first ten pages, skip ahead.) Nine days into the marriage of Elsie and Ben, Ben is hit by a truck while riding his bike and dies. This premise sounds overly dramatic, but it's not. The rest of the novel unfolds over two timelines: after Ben's death and beginning the night they met. This structure works perfectly for both storytelling and the emotional needs of the reader to not fully live in Elsie's initial post-Ben world. This novel could have been overwrought and depressing. Instead, it's beautiful and tragic. It wrecked me, but I loved it so much. After I Do, Reid's second novel, unfolds quickly, telling the love and life story of Lauren and Ben, who meet at college and get married. The novel opens with vignettes that feel so familiar, and very quickly, we see how happiness can turn to unhappiness. Lauren and Ben take an interesting approach to find their way back to each other: they take one year apart, where they're not allowed to contact one another. I loved this novel and its fully realized, richly-drawn characters navigating the realities of life. I'm so glad I still have two more novels on Reid's backlist to enjoy.

9. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
The Mothers is a novel that grew on me immensely. I enjoyed it while I read it, but also read with suspicion, as I'm wary of the politics of abortion novels. (To be clear: I'm not at all wary of the politics of abortion; I fear anti-choice fictional propaganda.) This wariness comes from so many years of seeing fictional women in books, in movies, and on tv, suddenly decide not to have an abortion--all for good, understandable fictional reasons individually, collectively have left me craving more actual abortion narratives. These things made me skeptical of The Mothers as I read because there are anti-choice characters (as there are in life). As I read, I also tried to make sense of the novel aside from its abortion storyline. I wanted to know what I was reading, and I couldn't decide if I liked it or not. The last third, however, made me stop caring and just enjoy this novel and its ambitions. By the end, I marveled at how accomplished this novel is. If Bennett can write a novel this good as her first, what will she do next? I cannot wait to find out.

8. The Mare by Mary Gaitskill
When this book came out, I had no desire to read it. There's a horse on the cover, and it's called The Mare. Then it was longlisted for the Women's Prize, and I read its actual description: Velveteen, an eleven-year-old girl from Brooklyn, participates in the Fresh Air Fund and spends a summer with Ginger and Paul in upstate New York. I opted for the audiobook, which features multiple narrators, and I'm so glad I did. While, yes, there are a lot of horses in this novel, it is much more a story of race, class, privilege, power, and charity. It's gritty and complicated, and both admired Gaitskill's ability to write from so many perspectives and found myself so caught up in the novel I forgot I was reading a world someone created. Gaitskill is an author I've been meaning to read for years, and this novel made me check out her backlist from the library.

7. All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
I loved The Middlesteins and was a little disappointed in Saint Mazie, but Jami Attenberg is one of the writers I love enough to always read her new novel, and the premise of All Grown Up would have drawn me in even if I hadn't read her earlier novels: "a wickedly funny novel about a thirty-nine-year-old single, childfree woman who defies convention as she seeks connection.​" All Grown Up is a wonderful character-driven novel. I'm drawn to the narratives of flawed, real women, and Andrea is a fascinating one. The novel is non-linear, which adds a richness to Andrea and helps propel the narrative. It's a novel I wanted to read in a single sitting (it's a slim 208 pages) because I was so enchanted with Andrea, her world, and her insights. Yet I also wanted it to keep going because while I loved the time I spent in her world, I also want to know more about her past and future. All Grown Up is my favorite Attenberg novel.

6. The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron
I'm fascinated by history, including ancient history. I love to think about how the world got from the time of neanderthals to the present and what a future as distant will look like. After loving The Bear, I was excited to see how Cameron told the story of Girl. The Last Neanderthal is the story of Girl, but it's also the story of archaeologist Rosamund, who is working (while pregnant) to uncover the bones of Girl. I would loved this novel with only one of these stories, but by pairing them together, Cameron lets the reader form powerful connections between these stories, which are separated by so much time. As I read, I reckoned with what makes us human and women. I don't know if this book would have been as powerful for me before I gave birth, but reading it as a mother definitely impacted by thinking about its connections and questions. It's also one of my favorite book covers of the year, partially because I failed to recognize the face profiles for so long, and it adds a beautiful image to this beautiful novel.

5. Black Wave by Michelle Tea
When Black Wave made the 2017 Tournament of Books, I found myself asking, "how did I not hear about this post-apocalyptic novel by Michelle Tea published by Feminist Press?" So I picked up immediately and read it compulsively while I was in Thailand. Black Wave is a strange novel, and I mean that in the best way. I spent much of it thinking "I have no idea what I'm reading, but this is awesome." It mostly defies genre and definitely defies convention. It doesn't begin as post-apocalyptic. It's a novel that shifts genres as it goes. The constants throughout this dynamic novel are Tea's writing, which is gorgeous and filled with biting commentary, and Michelle, a character as memorable and complicated and fascinating as any. Black Wave is a novel I wish had gained more of an audience. It's not for everyone, but for people fascinated by what fiction can be and do, Black Wave must be part of that conversation.

4. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
Lillians Boxfish Takes a Walk was my favorite audiobook of 2017. Based on a real woman (my favorite microgenre), this novel unfolds over the course of a single night, New Year's Eve 1984. Lillian Boxfish, 85 years old, walks all around Manhattan reflecting on her life. In the 1930s, she was the highest paid advertising woman in the country (for R.H. Macy's). Her walk is a reflection on both her life and on Manhattan. Both have changed mightily. Xe Sands, one of my favorite narrators, delivers a superb performance of one of all-time favorite fictional characters. This is a book I have recommended to so many people, and it's one I will turn to, both in print and on audio, again and again. I initially rated it only 4.5 stars because I found the ending somewhat disappointing, but it's a book I keep thinking about fondly and it's one I can't wait to read again.

3. Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy
Liars and Saints  is one of my favorite books I discovered reading old Orange Prize longlisted books. It's one of those books that made me ask everyone, "have you read Maile Meloy? She's amazing! How had I never heard of her?" Do Not Become Alarmed is Meloy's first adult novel in more than ten years. It's part thriller, part literary fiction, and part political and social commentary, which means it's all parts things I love. Two families go on a cruise, but while on an off-ship excursion, the children go missing. The reader sees what's happening to the both the parents and children, and all the narratives are terrifying and exhilarating. I devoured this book in twenty-four hours, and I love it so much. Much of it could be an accessible, escapist thriller. What makes this book exceptional is when the story stops. The ending isn't the end of the adventure, it's the aftermath. Please don't make me wait another ten years for a new novel, Maile. If you do, I won't be mad if it's this good.

2. Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
When I finished this novel, I said, "It's only May, but this is my favorite novel of the year, and I won't be surprised if it still is by the end of December." Part of me still can't believe I read a novel better than this one. J. Courtney Sullivan is an author I'm incredibly drawn to, from her first novel, Commencement, which I loved, to her family saga, Maine, which improved upon it. Sullivan is an author I love to see grow as a writer and storyteller. I knew she had a novel like this one coming one day, but I'm astonished she could tell a story this compelling this early in her career. It's an Irish-American family saga that spans many years. It isn't told linearly, and that is part of what makes it exceptional rather than just great. This family cast of characters is so well-conceived, and my perceptions of them changed over time because of how Sullivan tells their story.

1. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Dear Steph Opitz and Book of the Month,
Thank you for picking The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. I probably wouldn't have picked it up without Steph's essay in support of it, and it was my favorite book of the year. I've recommended it to so many people this year, both my bookish friends who read a lot, and my non-bookish friends who may only read a few books a year. They all love it. On the surface, it's an old-Hollywood tell-all. Evelyn Hugo, a famous movie star, also famous for her seven marriages, decides to tell her life story. It's fascinating to compare Evelyn's reality to the assumptions people have based on how the tabloids have covered her life. Evelyn Hugo is one of fiction's great characters, and this book made me a fan of Taylor Jenkins Reid from its dedication page. This book is a gift, and it was my favorite of 2017.
Fondly yours, Nomadreader

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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

My Favorite Reads of 2017: Mysteries & Thrillers

In a year when I often wanted to tune out reality and current events, I found myself reading a lot of mysteries and thrillers. Although arguably depressing in their own right, mysteries have a way of transporting me when I read. Even when I end up rating a book 4 stars or less, I often quite enjoy the time I spend reading the book, even moreso than some books that end awesomely but are somewhat slow to get through. I find when I read mysteries, I find more minutes in the day to read. As I made this list and ranked it, I realized rankings these books by my ratings (4, 4.5, or 5 stars) wasn't the right way to go. Ratings are highly subjective and imperfect, but I recommend all of these, for a variety of reasons.

Here are my seven favorites,with a three-way tie for first place!) (As always, clicking the book covers will take you to Amazon.)

7. Final Girls by Riley Sager
The premise of this one is bleak but fascinating. It centers on Quincy Carpenter, a young woman who ten years ago went on vacation with friends and ended up surviving a massacre. She became one of only three members of what the media have dubbed final girls: women who are the sole survivors of serial killers. Sager deftly builds a world that seems all too familiar. The cases are harrowing, yet compelling and mysterious. The unlikely friendship of these three women, whose lives otherwise would never have crossed, is oddly fascinating. Final Girls unfolds in two timelines, Quincy's weekend vacation with friends and the present. I read Final Girls compulsively. The ending wasn't quite as enthralling as the journey, but I loved every minute I spent reading and thinking about this one. Sager, who published this novel under a pseudonym, left me eager to pick up his next book (The Last Time I Lied, out July 10, 2018.)

6. Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker
The premise of this one is so intriguing: One night, two sisters, ages 15 and 17, go missing. Three years later, one of them comes back, and she's desperate to find her sister, whom she left behind in order to escape. But it takes quite awhile for the action to pick up after the opening scenes. I'm glad I happened to pick this to read while on vacation for Thanksgiving week. I kept picking it up because I had a moment to read rather than because I couldn't wait to see what happened, and I'm so glad I did. About half-way through, however, this novel became unputdownable. There were many delightful and surprising twists, and it more than made up for the slow start, which was needed to establish the foundation for the novel's long, satisfying climax. This novel was filled with twisty goodness.

5. The Travelers by Chris Pavone
I devoured both of Chris Pavone's previous novels (The Expats and The Accident.) The Travelers is a stand-alone, but it's thematically similar to the them. It centers on a a travel-magazine, Travelers, that early on set itself apart from the competition by being a company that both operated a travel magazine and a travel agency to make it effortless for the magazine's readers to experience the trips they read about. Genius, right? Well, it turns out many of the magazine's employees are also spies. The Travelers is a soapy, fun-filled, espionage novel filled with travel around the world. I read it when I was in Thailand in January, and it was a delightful to read it while traveling. Janet Maslin said, "when it comes to quick-witted, breathless thrillers that trot the globe, his are top-tier." I could not agree more, and I eagerly await a new one to read (and films to be made of all three!)

4. The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka
The only place I heard about this book was on Litsy, but I'm so glad I discovered this first in a series (the second, What You Want to See, comes out May 1, 2018.) It introduces Roxane Weary, a hard-drinking private investigator in Cleveland. She's such a fierce, freshly-drawn protagonist, and when I finished this novel, I realized my new favorite microgenre is feminist crime fiction featuring a hard-drinking, bisexual female protagonist. This book is all of those things, and in many ways, that makes me once of its most perfect readers. The book itself isn't perfect. At times I found Roxane to be annoyingly single-minded, and I think the title is a bit of a spoiler, but those minor missteps don't detract from this book. The resolution is awesome and satisfying, even if I guessed it before Roxane did. Lepionka is a major new voice in crime fiction, and I hope to reading Roxane Weary novels for many, many years to come.

1. Livia Lone by Barry Eisler
1. The Late Show by Michael Connelly
1. Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly (three-way tie)

Livia Lone is the first in a new series featuring the titular character, a Seattle sex crimes detective who was born in Thailand. When she was 13, her parents sold Livia (nee Labee) and her 11-year-old sister Nason). The two girls were separated when their shipping container arrived in the U.S., and Livia's drive to find her sister propels this narrative. She's straddling two worlds: her legitimate work as a police officer in Seattle, and her off the books work deep in the underbelly of sexual slavery. Livia Lone, the character and the book, are awesomely strong antidotes to the terrible realities of the child sex trade. The second in the series comes out on January 23rd, and I have it tucked on my Kindle to read while I'm in Thailand. Intrigued? It's the best $1.99 you can spend on your Kindle right now.

The Late Show is the first in a new series featuring LAPD detective Renee Ballard. One of the (many, many) things I love about Connelly's novels are that they pass in real time. Harry Bosch, the main character in the detective series of his I love the most, was born in 1950. The first mystery featuring Harry, The Black Echo, came out in 1992. I've wondered how and when Connelly will end that series, and what might come next. The Late Show attempts to answer that question, and it does so spectacularly. As a character, Renee Ballard thinks and acts a lot like Harry Bosch in her detective work, but her life outside of work looks quite different. Her work on the late show, the roving midnight shift of detectives who take initial reports but keep no cases, is also an interesting premise for mysteries going forward. The Late Show is a dynamite feminist police procedural novel and an excellent start to a series I hope is just as good and just as long-running as Harry Bosch. Connelly introduces a lot of personal and professional backstory about Ballard, but the central mystery is compelling and filled with Connelly's signature twists.

Two Kinds of Truth is the latest Harry Bosch novel, and I loved every word and twist. Harry feels like an old friend, as I've spent so many pages, books and hours with him. This mystery proves Connelly and Bosch are still at the top of their game. If you haven't started this series, do yourself a favor and pick up The Black Echo. I'm so glad I did in 2014, and I haven't stopped recommending them since. 

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!