Reading Wrap-up: December

I started out the month with my sights set on the titles pictured below…

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Baby H., capturing the gleeful essence of my bookish being in this portrait. 

I knew it would be a stretch, completing 6 titles while the little guy learned to army crawl, changed up his nap rhythm (yet again), and generally demanded all of the attention (not even a little mad about it). But still, I persevered — and guys, I’m not disappointed at all to tell you I only fell a little short. The quality of books I read this month was S-U-P-E-R-B, for the most part, and that means far more to me than the number I accomplish.

Read on for a 30-second book review of each title I completed in December, in order of their completion.

  1. The Wife Between Us by Sarah Pekkanen and Greer Hendricks. This psychological thriller alternates between the perspectives of two women — the ex-wife, and the wife-to-be. The novel is full of twisty surprises that kept me on my toes from start to finish, and though I didn’t love the lead male (or his Christian Grey-esque characteristics), I was very pleasantly surprised by this ARC that I received from St. Martin’s Press. Overall: 3.5-4 stars…can’t decide.
  2. Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich. This work of speculative fiction features Cedar Songmaker, an adopted Native American woman who is pregnant at a very ominous time: the world is experiencing backward evolution and no one is sure what will happen when the next generation of children is born. Will their brains be functional at the level of modern-day humanity, or is the modern world about to witness Neanderthals in the living flesh? Told in a series of very-lengthy diary entries, FHOTLG was more of a miss than a hit for me due to a number of underdeveloped characters and a disappointingly slow build to a meh conclusion. Overall: 2.5 stars. Maybe.
  3. The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey. This zombie-apocalypse novel surprisingly swept me away. I’m not really one for zombies or post-apocalyptic themes, but Carey created a fantastic cast of characters that follows young Melanie and her beloved teacher as they struggle to survive a series of cataclysmic events. Unbeknownst to Melanie, she’s a “hungry” — but her wit, humor, and naiveté come together to create a lovable female lead whose perseverance and strength are absolutely worthy of your time. Overall: 4.5 stars.
  4. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The minute I finished Ng’s debut novel (Everything I Never Told You) I started champing at the bit for her next masterpiece. LFE did not disappoint: with tension and familial drama, this novel is a portrait of a utopian community nestled in the outskirts of Cleveland in the 90s. I savored this story from start to finish, relishing the recurring imagery of fire and the rich emotions of remorse, desperation, and loyalty. Ng is QUEEN of writing trainwrecks-in-waiting. Overall: 5 big, shiny stars.
  5. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. For a full review, check out this postThe Snow Child is a touching, hopeful tale of one couple’s struggle to overcome their disappointment at being childless — by moving to the Alaskan frontier and starting anew. This is an ideal read for adult fans of Harry Potter and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus; but it’s so much more than a novel for fantasy-lovers. This story, based on a Russian fairytale, is magical and heartwarming with every turn of the page. Overall: 5 snowflakes.
  6. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Okay — I’m cheating a bit, here . . . I’m only halfway through this work of YA fiction, but I’m absolutely in love with Brunt’s construction of time and place, and her vivid characters. When June loses her beloved uncle Finn to AIDS in the 1980s, she loses more than a close family member; she loses the only person who truly gets her. Though I’m not finished, I already know this is going to become one of my favorite fiction reads of the year, one I’m likely to highly recommend.

Review: The Snow Child

“‘There,’ he said. He stepped back. Sculpted in the white snow were perfect, lovely eyes, a nose, and small, white lips. She even thought she could see cheekbones and a little chin. . . . As they stood together, the snow fell heavier and faster, making it difficult to see more than a few feet. ‘She needs some hair,’ he said. ‘Oh, I’ve thought of something, too.’ Jack went toward the barn, Mabel to the cabin. ‘Here they are,’ she called from across the yard when she came back out. ‘Mittens and a scarf for the little girl.’ He returned with a bundle of yellow grass from near the barn. He stuck individual strands into the snow, creating wild, yellow hair, and she wrapped the scarf around its neck and placed the mittens on the ends of the birch branches. . . .”

Nestled in among the many wonderful books I had lined up for this month was a title that seemed ideal for Christmastime and those blustery winter days: The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. (Side note: I’m obsessed with the author’s name. It’s so lyrical and marvelous! Good job, parents.) It’s been years since we’ve had a white Christmas in Kansas — truly, I can’t remember the last — and I was craving the magic of snow one way or another. This novel did not disappoint.

Mabel and Jack are newcomers to the Alaskan frontier in the 1920s. Middle-aged and devastated by their inability to have a child, they decide to move from all they know “Back East” and start anew without the burden of neighbors, family, and friends whose lives are rich with children. Alaska seems the perfect place to isolate themselves, and it is; at least, until Mabel realizes that her winters will be one long darkness after another for days on end, and her summers filled with an unceasing sunshine that seems to mock her quiet unhappiness. Although the couple is no stranger to struggle, Jack quickly finds his farming skills are no match for the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness and the couple is faced with a bleak predicament: they must clear the land and produce a bountiful crop in the coming summer, or tuck tail and head home. As winter looms closer and money runs out, Jack and Mabel realize fears they hadn’t even considered possible before.

While the two face increasingly dire circumstances, their relationship (unsurprisingly) grows more and more strained. But with the first snow of winter, the magic of fresh beginnings also descends, leading Mabel and Jack to build a snow child that somehow seems to hold all the hopes and tenderness they’ve reserved for their own child throughout the many years. In the morning, the snow child is gone — but a mysterious little girl and her fox roam the woods nearby, and Mabel is inclined to entertain some very fantastic possibilities.

Based on the Russian fairytale “Snegurochka,” The Snow Child is a luminous story of hope, magic, and the unfailing nature of parental love. I adored the characters developed by Ivey, particularly Faina, whose being remained pure and otherworldly throughout the story’s unraveling.

The Good Great: The storyline is tight, with no gaping plot holes or aimless ramblings. Characters are attentively crafted and unique — no overlap in this novel! A prevailing sense of wonder hovers throughout the novel. There’s truly no other way to put it: this book was magical. Not in a fantasy/Harry Potter sort of way; rather, in the subtly wonderful way of children’s dreams about woodland fairies and Santa’s elves.

The Bad: No complaints on my end. At times, I felt like the build up was becoming tedious — I wanted to know, dammit — but by the end of the novel, I was convinced the entire thing was flawless.

The Verdict: 5 stars! The Snow Child is officially one of my new favorites of all time, and I wholly intend to reread this beauty in winters to come. I can’t recommend this sweet, endearing tale enough.

Incoming! December Book Mail

At the beginning of the year, I made a promise that book addicts around the world will find familiar: I vowed to not buy any books until I’d read the ones already waiting on my shelves.

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The fact of the matter is, I’m fairly certain I acquired at least twenty more books this year. At least. And by “least,” I mean “the highest amount I’m willing to publish on a blog that my husband sometimes reads.”

At any rate, November was especially good to me; I received an ARC from MacMillan; won two books in an Instagram giveaway; and was made aware of the existence of BookOutlet thanks to some beloved Bookstagram buddies, just in time for Black Friday. If you haven’t had the joy of perusing this site yet, give it a look and let your little bookish heart soar at the overwhelming volume of new editions priced at wallet-friendly prices. Like, less-than-five-dollars friendly. Yeah. I know. Take a moment to let that soak in.

This month when my hoard arrived in the mail, I actually shrieked. I was so excited my hands started to quiver a bit with anticipation. I’ve never been foolish enough to try any drugs stronger than NyQuil and Tylenol PM, but I’m willing to bet my thrill rivaled that of a coke addict about to score his next hit. (Too far?)

Without further ado, take a look at these 11 finds I added to my shelf this month, courtesy of my Black Friday BookOutlet spree (for a mere forty-one dollars and twelve cents!):

img_9129 A Good Country, published in 2017, is a fiction novel touted as “truly brave” and “an important novel for this moment in our history.” (Percival Everett) A bit from the novel’s synopsis: Laguna Beach, California, 2011. Reza Courdee, a sixteen-year-old straight-A student and chemistry whiz, takes his first hit of pot. In as long as it takes to inhale and exhale, he is transformed from the high-achieving son of Iranian immigrants into a happy-go-lucky stoner. He loses his virginity, takes up surfing, and sneaks away to all-night raves. For the first time, Reza — now Rez — feels like an American teen. Life is smooth; even lying to his strict parents comes easily. . . . We are left with . . . a lingering question that applies to all modern souls: Do we decide how to live, or is our life decided for us?

img_9128From the author of The Miniaturist (which I have yet to read, but have had my eye on for some time) comes The Muse, published in 2016. This work of fiction follows two women in different countries and time periods: Odelle Bastien, living in London in 1967; and Olive Schloss, dwelling in Spain in 1936. Odelle is an immigrant working at an art gallery when she discovers a high-interest painting by an artist who died under mysterious circumstances. Decades earlier, Olive moves with her parents to the southern coast of Spain where she grows close to a housekeeper and a painter. The two women are united across the decades by a tie that even they are unaware of.

img_9127This purchase was strictly made on cover appeal. The artwork is absolutely spellbinding, so I’m trusting the work will be, too. From the inside cover: Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the Forest, Xan, is kind. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey. One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. . . . Sounds perfectly fantastic, doesn’t it? I’m so excited to jump into this modern-day fairy tale!

img_9126Published in 1998, Antelope Woman is one of many titles by renowned author Louise Erdrich. Although I didn’t love her most recent novel (Future Home of the Living God), I’m willing to give Erdrich another try, as I’ve heard great things about her Native-infused literature. From the back cover, When Klaus Shawano abducts Sweetheart Calico, the seductive Indian woman who has stolen his heart, and takes her far from her native Montana plains to his own Minneapolis home, he cannot begin to imagine the eventual ramifications his brazen act will entail. Shawano’s mysterious Antelope Woman has utterly mesmerized him — and soon proves to be a bewitching agent of chaos whose effect on others is disturbing, and irresistible, as she alters the shape of things around her and the shape of things to come. 

 

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Published in 2015, this title comes with three full, front-and-back pages of praise. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this one might be a hit. The Small Backs of Children is the story of a photographer who captured a striking image of a young girl in a village stricken by war, and an attempt by a community of artists to locate the child featured in the world-famous photograph and rescue her, bringing her safely to the United States. As you can imagine, conflict abounds in this national bestseller.

 

img_9124 Alright, I’ll admit it again: I was drawn to this one by its magical cover and the absolutely curious title, The Smell of Other People’s Houses. You got me, Hitchcock; bravo. This work of fiction, published in 2016, is set in Alaska and features four individuals: Ruth, Dora, Alyce, and Hank. From the publisher: “Growing up in Alaska in the 1970s isn’t like growing up anywhere else: Don’t think life is going to be easy. Know your place. And never talk about yourself. Four vivid voices tell intertwining stories of hardship, tragedy, wild luck, and salvation.” I’m all about those tragedy-and-salvation novels, friends, and I can’t wait to crack the spine on this short but promising read.

img_9123Okay, I might be most excited about this discovery — Carrying Albert Home, by Homer Hickam. Hickam is the author of Rocket Boys, a beautiful and hopeful memoir that was made into the 1999 movie drama October Sky, both of which I absolutely freaking love. For those familiar with Hickam’s memoir, this “somewhat true story” will feature some familiar characters: Elsie and Homer Hickam, Sr. This novel promises historical nuggets, family legends, humor, and sorrow as Hickam weaves together the tale of his parents’ courtship and an alligator named Albert.

 

img_9122Published in 2016, Everyone Brave is Forgiven comes to readers from Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee. Dubbed “both searing and timeless” by the Seattle Times, this novel takes place in London in 1939 — in the heart of World War II. Set in London during the years of 1939-1942, when citizens had slim hope of survival, much less victory, Everyone Brave is Forgiven features little-known history and a perfect wartime love story inspired by the real-life love letters between Chris Cleave’s grandparents. Um, a love story set during the 40s based on actual love letters? Count me in, folks.

img_9121Foer stole my heart with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; which is why I jumped at the $2 opportunity to purchase this 2002 novel with the following synopsis: With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man — also named Jonathan Safran Foer — sets out to find the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war; an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior; and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukranian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past. I feel all the feels coming on.

img_9120I’m a sucker for covers with photographs of fog. If I ever write a novel, I am going to try my damnedest to ensure the cover features fog. Is there anything more alluring or enticing? This 2015 debut novel by firefighter Brian Panowich (okay, maybe that’s smoke on the cover, instead of fog?) promises plenty of drama and conflict: Clayton Burroughs comes from a long line of outlaws. For generations, the Burroughs clan has made their home on Bull Mountain in North Georgia, running shine, pot, and meth over six state lines, virtually untouched by the rule of law. To distance himself from his family’s criminal empire, Clayton took the job of sheriff in a neighboring community to keep what peace he can. But when a federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms shows up at Clayton’s office with a plan to shut down the mountain, his hidden agenda will pit brother against brother, test loyalties, and could lead Clayton down a path to self-distruction. This synopsis — coupled with Esquire‘s blurb “Prose as punch as rapid-aged whiskey” — was enough to draw me in. And at $3.72, I couldn’t click “add to cart” fast enough.

img_9119 Last but not least, this 2014 science fiction/post-apocalyptic release has been all over the Bookstagram/Litsy communities lately and I couldn’t resist adding the title to my cart. The book won the 2015 Toronto Book Awards and was a finalist for the National Book Award, Pen/Faulkner Award, and the Sunburst Award. Twist my arm, why don’tcha? From the cover: One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous Hollywood actor, dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time — from Arthur’s early days as a film start to twenty years int he future, he a theatre troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains — this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: Arthur, the man who tried to save him, Arthur’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony caught int he crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.

I’m absolutely stoked to read each of these works in 2018, among dozens of other titles, undoubtedly. What’s a book you’re eager to read in 2018? Tell me in the comments below!

Renee’s 2017 Longlist

In January, I made a reading goal for 2017: complete 50 full-length novels before the year’s end. Normally, this wouldn’t seem excessively ambitious, but I was feeling the strain of teaching several grades of middle and high school English (let’s talk about the mounds of grading later, shall we?) and I knew that when Baby Schaffer made his appearance in June, all reading bets were off.

Now it’s mid-December and I’ve finished my 62nd book for the year, with my eyes set on finishing another 3 or 4 before the sun sets on December 31. *Cue book shimmy*

In January, I’ll publish a Top 7 list of my favorite reads for 2017 (because honestly, 5 isn’t enough and 10 seems too predictable); but for the time being, I wanted to offer a longlist featuring my best reads of 2017, to date.

Renee’s 2017 Longlist

  1. Celine by Peter Heller. Badass granny private eye with a knack for making readers wish they were her, accompanied by a slightly-awkward but nonetheless endearing and devoted sidekick hubby. Read this one for the exquisite prose and #GrownupGoals.
  2. Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller. If you’re looking for a book to knock the air out of you, look no further. Swimming Lessons is an aching tale of betrayal, abandonment, and denial that draws together two somewhat-estranged sisters as they seek the truth about their mother.
  3. Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown. If you loved Gone Girl, you will *probably* also love this family narrative in which everyone has secrets and nothing is quite as simple as it seems initially. Read this one for a protagonist you’ll love to hate (or, if not hate, judge).
  4. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. My Litsy review pretty much sums this one up: “If you are okay with becoming a blubbering train wreck, this book is for you.” Read this one if you have an interest in YA fiction and/or books that tackle the subjects of self-discovery and mental health issues.
  5. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. For lovers of historical fiction, this narrative juxtaposes one of the most starkly contrasting relationships of our nation’s history: two young girls bound together by slavery — one, slave; the other, master. This novel is an abysmally painful but hopeful and uplifting portrait of personal growth, sacrifice, understanding, and rebellion.
  6. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Perhaps one of my favorite “light” reads of the year, Ove is just . . . sweet, charming, a bit heartbreaking, hopeful, and amusing all at once. The characters are lovable, the plot is memorable, and the message is lasting.
  7. Descent by Peter Johnston. I read this one in January and it still remains toward the top of my list for the year as a low-key thriller and guaranteed page-turner. As a family of four struggles to come to terms with the disappearance of their daughter/sister, each individual also sets out on a journey of self-discovery. For a thriller, the prose in this one blew me away and left me wanting more from this author.
  8. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. The title character is the very definition of a hot mess, which makes for a fun, entertaining read. Equal parts mysterious, hysterical, and heartwarming, this novel is a great choice for the busy reader looking for something that isn’t super-heavy or lengthy.
  9. Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Easily the most beautifully composed novel I read in 2017, Salt Houses follows multiple generations of a family in the Middle East. Read this one if you love exceptional prose and authors like Amy Tan and Khaled Hosseini.
  10. Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. If you don’t typically pick up nonfiction, but you have a vague interest in historical events and enjoy true crime, let this be your one nonfiction read for the year. Grann’s research makes for a chilling and eye-opening read, featuring the Osage Indian tribe, the oil boom in Oklahoma, J. Edgar Hoover’s rise to power in the FBI, and the history of federal investigations.
  11. Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips. A speedy, terrifying thriller that I wouldn’t particularly recommend to mothers because it’s painfully real and just absolutely spine-tingling. This very well might be the best thriller I read this year (and last year, if I’m being honest with myself).
  12. Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. As with all Picoult works, Small Great Things tackles complex family and social relationships in a thorough and thoughtful manner. If you think you know the ins and outs of what it means to be white and what it means to be black in America, read this novel — and think again.
  13. The History of Bees by Maja Lunde. A chillingly relevant and feasible science fiction/dystopian novel that spans several centuries through the eyes of three parents striving to create a better world for their children, the only way they know how. Read it for the fascinating historical references to beekeeping and the utterly horrifying vision Lunde paints of the future.
  14. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. A very deserving selection for the National Book Award in fiction, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a new-classic work of Southern literature, replete with lyrical prose and thoroughly-constructed characters. Read this one when you’ve got time to digest the heavy themes and complex family relationships.
  15. The Trespassers by Tana French. Part of the Dublin Murder Squad series, this heavy tome somehow ends up a fast read that’ll leave you talking (or at least thinking) with a heavy Irish brogue. Pick this one up if you have an affinity for crime fiction and sassy female protagonists.

What were your favorite reads of 2017? Leave me a comment below!