December Wrap-Up

December was a fun, relaxed reading month for me — school let out for the semester, and I completely shirked all responsibilities (besides mothering and the occasional meal prep) in favor of reading feverishly. I wrapped up the month with a total of eleven reads — middle grades fiction, thrillers, fantasy, romance, historical fiction, rural noir, and an audiobook to boot.

While I enjoyed reading copious amounts of fiction, one drawback is that I didn’t post many reviews. (Oops.) For the sake of brevity, here’s a two-sentence review on each title I read in December! (Listed in no particular order.)

  1. Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger. Rural noir reimagining of Hamlet, filled with dark, brooding vibes as one teenage boy seeks to find — and bring to justice — his father’s murderer. An exploration of grief and loss as much as a portrayal of our devotion to family-shared histories. ⭐️⭐️⭐️💫
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  2. One Day in December by Josie Silver. A debut novel highly reminiscent of books-turned-films One Day and Something Borrowed. Classified as romance or a rather drawn-out love story, this novel wasn’t for me — I didn’t like the characters, and that was enough to turn me off the story completely. ⭐️⭐️img_7839-1
  3. Voyager (Outlander book 3) by Diana Gabaldon. This third installment in the Outlander series is much more fast-paced than the second novel, and brings with it a flood of emotions as Jamie and Claire are reunited (I’d say “spoiler” here, but I think we can all agree that a series with 10 novels obviously has to have the two reuniting at some point). Rife with that overdramatic penchant for danger and conflict I’ve come to know and love in Gabaldon’s tomes, Voyager satisfies (and infuriates, a time or two,) right up to the last page. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  4. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. This fantasy novel — first in its trilogy — features a Russian setting and all kinds of Russian folklore. It feels like a dark, more human fairytale than its Disney counterparts, and I loved the complex feelings and desires of the major characters — both good and bad. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  5. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. I really only need a few words to sum up this mind-bender: WTF, holy shit, WOW. Reid has proven himself a master of brevity and psychological horror, and I’m just going to keep twiddling my thumbs anxiously until he releases another work. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  6. The Train of Lost Things by Ammi-Joan Pacquette. Middle-grades fantasy work featuring a young boy determined to save his dying father by retrieving a lost jacket the two share a bond over. Characterization seemed a bit off and voices were hard to place age-wise, but the themes of grief and loss could be a great tool for young ones struggling to cope with their own grief. ⭐️⭐️💫
  7. The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston. A witchy tale set in Wales, featuring a young bride who hasn’t spoken since she was a child and her new husband who is determined to recover from the loss of his first wife. The setting is vivid and drew me in, but hot-and-cold main characters were irritating. ⭐️⭐️💫img_7967
  8. Freefall by Jessica Barry. This thriller, set to release in a few days, features a young 
    woman who survives the crash of her wealthy fiance’s private plane — and her subsequent attempts to remain “unfound” in the Rocky Mountains. While I was intrigued enough to continue reading and discover why the woman was afraid of being found, the truth seemed anticlimactic. ⭐️⭐️⭐️img_8262
  9. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. A work of fantasy based in 1890s New York City, this novel follows the magical beings Chava — a golem, or human made ofclay — and Ahmad — a desert being that is a “spark of fire” but has been trapped in the form of a man. This fairytale, with roots in Syrian folklore, is an utterly magical and beautiful story that I savored up to the last word. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️img_7998
  10. The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser. A sweet, entertaining read about 5 siblings — aged 4.5-12 — who are on a mission to change their landlord’s mind about renewing their lease. The book covers a range of worthy topics, from compassion and generosity to selflessness and the inevitability of change. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  11. The Ragged Edge of Night by Olivia Hawker. A compelling and different story about resistance during WWII, featuring a former friar who becomes a husband and father after responding to the personal ad of a widower in need of someone to provide. A bit dragging at times, but ultimately a beautiful story made even more sweet by its ties to reality: the main character is based on the author’s husband’s grandfather. ⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

Whew! December was a huge month for me, reading-wise, and while I enjoyed shirking reality for a while, I know that January will be far less lucrative in terms of numbers — and that’s okay. Overall, I greatly enjoyed many of the books I read last month, and though I didn’t conduct any in-depth analysis on any of the titles, I can see myself recommending several of these works to friends and family members in search of their next great read.

Have you read any of these works? If so, what did you think of them?

Happy reading, friends!

Best of 2018: A Recommended Reading List

I read 84 books in 2018 — a few of them, rereads — and there were so many that I immensely enjoyed. Pachinko was my first read of the year, and it was a 5-star title. I started the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny and thoroughly delighted in the first three novels (I’m really dragging them out, here — don’t want the series to end!). Beartown stirred me, deep. But a handful of titles stand out — they’re exceptionally well-written, their plots moved me in meaningful ways, the characters were especially memorable . . . I know I’ll revisit these books again someday. And in the meantime, I’ll be thrusting them into the hands of any willing listener I can find.

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In no particular order, here’s the seven books that I read in 2018 and I hold most dear:

  1. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. I salivated over this novel in January — such a deeply moving and heartwarming and heartbreaking story — and you can read my full review here. It’s been 12 months, and I’m still thinking about June and her uncle Finn.
  2. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Rumor has it a second book will be coming out in 2020, and I’m here for itThe Golem and the Jinni is a fascinating, engrossing fantasy story with roots in Syrian culture and folklore. Chava and Ahmad were some of the most well-drawn characters I read this year, and I couldn’t put this one down.
  3. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This series is controversial, but it’s largely popular for a good reason: Gabaldon can write a drama, friends. I came to this hefty tome in March with a couple of friends I met on bookstagram — Betsy (@booksgloriousbooks) and Taylor (@shihtzus.and.book.reviews) — and it was honestly probably my first foray into adult romance. I don’t typically enjoy the genre, but Clare and Jamie’s story was just so enthralling, and the books is so much more than a love story. I just finished the third book this month and while I’ve enjoyed all of the books in the series thus far, Outlander remains my favorite. And, if I’m being honest, this one’s always going to hold a special place in my heart because it’s the book that sparked a long-distance friendship of epic proportions.
  4. Foe by Iain Reid. This was my first Reid novel and y’all, it BLEW. MY. MIND. His books are short and quick reads, with brief chapters and compelling storylines. I tore through this one in less than 24 hours — it was THAT good. Foe is a mind-bending and provocative read that contemplates human relationships, and humanity itself. If you’re in the mood for something fast and bendy, this is it.
  5. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller. I’ve gushed about this one so much on bookstagram, it almost feels excessive to talk about it more. Here’s my full review, and here’s a link to buy the book.
  6. An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. This work of nonfiction was absolutely fascinating. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: An Unexplained Death is so much more than a work of true crime. Brottman touches on some deeply unsettling aspects of human nature, including our obsession with the macabre and our deepest needs to both tether ourselves to and isolate ourselves from the victims of crimes. This obsessive account of Brottman’s own unofficial investigation into the disappearance and death of Rey Rivera is a solid — and overlooked — gem of 2018.
  7. The Line That Held Us by David Joy. I’m pretty wishy-washy about picking a number one or “favorite” book, typically, but Joy’s gritty work of Appalachian noir is it. If you’re holding a gun to my head and telling me to choose, I choose you, The Line That Held Us. This novel is dark. It’s vividly drawn. It’s evocative and atmospheric and full of absolutely brilliant characters. Joy somehow manages to weave together this tragedy that is chock-full of emotion and desire and fear and the result is breathtaking. I cherished every word of this novel, then rushed out to buy his other works. You would be wise to do the same!

For a look at my reading year in review, head to this link. But before you go, tell me about your favorite reads of 2018! Did you read any of the titles that made my list? Leave me a comment and let me know what you thought of these works — or what books I need to add to my TBR for 2019!

Happy reading, friends, and Happy New Year!

Recommended Reading: 3 Wintry Reads That Live Up to the Hype

Hey there, bookworms. Are you on a quest for some fantasy titles for this wintry season? Look no further! I’ve been feverishly reading some hyped backlist titles and these three are perfect for those chilly winter days spent snuggled on the couch. Check it out!

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  1. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. I finally read this Russian folklore-esque tale a few weeks ago and I freaking loved it. Settled in a northern img_8153 egion of medieval Russia, the story follows young Vasilisa, a strange and perhaps magical girl, as she struggles to take the reins of her own life — despite her resentful stepmother’s attempts to stifle her. Meanwhile, Vasya’s village is plagued by an increasing sense of fear and foreboding about the winter to come. When a new priest arrives, determined to drive out the demons (and the pastoral people’s torn devotion between the modern church and ancient pagan customs), Vasya is (mostly) alone in her struggle to combat the unseen forces that will devastate her people. This work of fantasy is so vivid and rich in its composition, I couldn’t put it down — and now I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed that I get the second book in the trilogy for Christmas!
  2. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. I raved about this fairytale-based novel last Christmas — and I’m strongly tempted to read it again this winter. The story begins with a middle-aged couple who has resettled in the Alaskan territory, determined to forget the disappointments of a childless life amid extended family back East. Mabel and Jack grow increasingly distant with each passing day, each facing their own disappointments about marriage without children; but when they build a snowgirl on a whim during the first snow of the img_8151 laskan winter, they seem to find a bit of joy again. Later, when a mysterious child begins to appear in the snowy forest, Mabel is intent on rescuing the girl — and becoming the mother she’s always longed to be.
  3. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. In an absolutely poetic work of majesty, Wecker weaves together the narrative of Chava the Golem — a clay being brought to life — and Ahmad the Jinni — a fire-spirit trapped in human form. While much of the novel takes place in 1890s New York City, the story crosses centuries and continents in the winding telling of the Jinni’s storied past. The novel begins by bringing both characters “to life” in the overwhelmingly vibrant city, near one another but without any img_8152knowledge that the other exists. When fate crosses their paths, the magical beings forge a friendship that is everything their human relationships cannot be: honest, open, without hidden sections of self. But the Golem and the Jinni are dangerous creatures, and always at risk of being discovered — so when several elements combine to create a disastrous situation, the two must make a devastating decision that may forever end their relationship. I was utterly captivated by the beautiful and exotic worlds Wecker built in this fantasy with its roots in Syrian legends and culture. Truth be told, I never wanted it to end — and I’m now eagerly anticipating the slated-2020 release of the second book in this series.

These three titles absolutely live up to the hype they’ve received online — I marveled at each of the works, all three of them richly composed out of ancient folklore and fairytales with more complexity than the standard Disney lot (no princesses falling for charming blondes, here!). Heroes and villains retain elements of both good and bad, desires are achingly raw and relatable, and the writing itself in each of the novels is commendable.

Have you read any of these works? If so, what’d you think? Tell me in the comments below!

 

WWW Wednesday – 12/12

It’s that time of the week again! I’ve been reading some pretty fantastic stuff lately and I can’t wait to share with you!

WWW Wednesdays

WWW Wednesday is hosted by Sam over at Taking on a World of Words — if you’re interested in participating simply answer the following questions:

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. What did you recently finish reading?
  3. What do you think you’ll read next?

Here’s what I’m currently reading…

The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden. This fantasy/respun fairytale has been on my list since its gorgeous cover hit shelves a year ago. I didn’t grab a copy until it came out in paperback, though, and I wanted to save it for winter — AND WINTER IS HERE, Y’ALL! In just a few hours during my kid’s afternoon nap, I’ve managed to read about 40% of the book. It’s so. freaking. good. img_7759Vasilisa is born into a northern family in the depths of winter. Her mother dies with the effort of childbirth, and her family is left to manage without a woman — until her father travels to Moscow when Vasilisa is six, bringing home a cold new wife with him. The girl, always “different,” struggles against her stepmother’s unmoving piety. While a priest works to exorcise the community of demons, Vasilisa befriends these guardians and grows increasingly interested in the world they have to offer.
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The Train of Lost Things by Ammi-Joan Pacquette. This middle-grades read is a bit out of my ordinary wheelhouse, but I decided to jump in on a buddy read of the title, hosted by my buddy Kathleen (@book_beat) on Instagram! Marty’s most prized possession is a denim jacket his dad gave him for his birthday. Every time the two do something special together, they find a pin to attach to the jacket as a sort of commemoration. But the jacket goes missing one day — the same day Marty discovers his father is dying (soon) of cancer — and Marty sets off on a mission to recover the jacket from the Train of Lost Things, a mythical and magical train from his father’s stories. When Marty finds the train, though, he doesn’t expect to also find another kid looking for a lost possession — Dina — or that the train has gone of the rails and is stealing things. 

The Ragged Edge of Night by Olivia Hawker. A historical fiction novel set in WWII-era Germany, in which Anton — a middle-aged man stripped of his role as friar and teacher by Nazis — travels to a small village to respond to a wanted ad. His mission? To marry the young widow Elisabeth, mother to three small children. Anton isn’t looking for love; rather, he’s seeking to make amends for his failure of the schoolchildren who haunt his memory. But he’s surprised at how quickly the children capture his heart, and as the threads of resistance tug, Anton must make a choice between his new family and the secret rebellion. I’m listening to this one while I workout — so far, so good!

Here’s what I’ve recently finished…

Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger. Touted as a retelling of Hamlet, this literary thriller tells the story of 17-year-old Jesse’s strife to bring his father’s death to truth. On img_7632an evening hunting trip, Jesse discovers his father shot through the head, and though the police rule it a suicide, Jesse is certain his dad would never do such a thing. He sets out to discover the identity of the murderer and uncovers some disturbing truths — about his father, his mother, and himself — along the way. This was a well-drawn, engaging story that satisfied my longing for grit and darkness. 3.5 stars.

One Day in December by Josie Silver. I’ll spare you the synopsis, as this one’s all over the internet right now; ultimately, the book is touted as a rom-com/chick lit novel, and that’s a pretty accurate placement of the work. I keep trying romance in hopes that someday I’ll find one I like, but sadly, this wasn’t it for me. I didn’t really love either of the main characters, who often railroaded others in their efforts to fulfill their own desires; and I’ll spare you the spoilers, but some things Jack did were downright uncharacteristic of the initial development the author gave us. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it, either. 2.5 stars.

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon. This was another strong installment in the Outlander series. While certain aspects of Jamie and Claire’s relationship continue to frustrate me (not gonna say it, but if you’ve read this book, YOU KNOW), I continue to enjoy the historical details and elements of adventure in these novels. And, in direct contradiction to the statement in the previous paragraph: I do like the romance between these two. *throws hands up in the air in a shrug*

Here’s what’s next…

I’ve got a looooooot of titles stacked up for December, including these reads:

  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
  • The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston
  • I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

and a couple of ARCs that just came in from HarperBooks:

That’s all for this Wednesday! What’s on your plate this week? Tell me in the comments below!

WWW Wednesday – 11/28

WWW Wednesdays

In an effort to bring a little more regularity to this blogger’s recently-hectic life, I’m

jumping on board the WWW Wednesday train. WWW Wednesday is hosted by Sam over

at Taking on a World of Words — if you’re interested in participating simply answer the following questions:

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. What did you recently finish reading?
  3. What do you think you’ll read next?

November has been a good reading month for me so far — I feel like I’ve had quite a bit of variety in the genres I’ve picked up. First things first, though!

Here’s what I’m currently reading . . .

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The Ensemble by Aja Gabel. This is my book club’s selection for November and we’re due to discuss it in just a few days — eep! — so naturally, I just started it yesterday. I’ve been listening to the classical pieces listed at the beginning of each “part” of the book which adds to the reading experience, in my opinion. This novel was extremely hyped on Instagram in the spring when it was published, so I went into it with a little apprehension; but so far, I’m quite invested in the characters and the way their storylines so badly want to diverge. The Ensemble follows four musicians who belong to a string quartet and desperately seek fame and success — but at what cost? How much will they sacrifice to achieve their dreams?

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. This is my first audiobook (ever!) and I’ve started listening to it as a means of motivating myself to get on the elliptical during Henry’s afternoon naps. The premise is simple: nine individuals, seeking change or a rest or some sort of personal growth arrive at Tranquillim House for a ten-day retreat. The resort has a reputation for its inventive and intense methods, and the guests are eager to begin — if not a bit apprehensive. When the gong sounds and 5 days of silence (Noble Silence) begin, things begin to get . . . interesting. Thus far, I’m really enjoying the narrator, and I’ve been surprised by the number of times I’ve laughed out loud.

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon. This is the third book in the Outlander series and part of a buddy read I’m doing with bookstagram buddies @shihtzus.and.book.reviews and @booksgloriousbooks. We’ve been crawling through this one, a bit (started it October 1), but I’m finding the pacing much better than the previous book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. While I’m not generally a fan of romance novels, Gabaldon’s Outlander series has me hooked, and I don’t think that’s likely to change anytime soon.

Here’s what I’ve recently finished . . .

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An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. This nonfiction title was sent to me for review by Henry Holt Books. This work of true crime/investigative nonfiction is an unexpected gem: covering the disappearance of young, charismatic Rey Rivera, who was discovered dead and later proclaimed — unbelievably — to have committed suicide at the historic Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. Sprinkled in among the exhaustive research regarding Rivera’s suspicious death, Brottman has included interesting asides about the history of the Belvedere Hotel and its many suicides over the decades. This work of nonfiction also includes more than a few spot-on observations about the human psyche, our fascination with morbidity, and tendencies toward blame within the pages.

Here’s what’s next . . .

I’ve already started compiling a list of wintry reads I hope to get to in December. Here’s a couple I’m especially looking forward to.

There’s also a strong possibility I’ll reread The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey because I loved that book so dang much last year. If you’re in the market for a magical, sweet, and emotional read — I can’t recommend it enough!

What’s on your December reading list? Give me some wintry ideas in the comments section, if you will; and as always, happy reading, friends!

7 Books to Read if You Love a Rural Vibe

I can remember thinking in high school, Why are so many books set in the city? I was born and raised in a rural area where cows outnumbered humans, and had such a difficult time fully relating to the idea of life on the crowded streets of the Big Apple or London; these were places I’d never been, and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have pizza delivered to the door (our closest option: Pizza Hut, 27 miles away) or to spend thirty minutes traversing a few city blocks (you could get from one side of town to the other in 3 minutes, if you hit the stoplights just right).

Obviously, I didn’t give up on these titles; part of the joy in reading is, for this little reader on the prairie, “traveling” to other times or places that differ significantly from my own life. That being said, there’s just something about rural literature that I adore — the homey feel I get when I read about an old dirt road leading to nowhere under a canopy of trees, the not-so-anonymous vibes of small-town crime, the intimate knowing between neighbors who’ve team-raised half the kids in the community.

In honor of this love affair with rural America, I give to thee: A List of Renee’s Favorite Rural Reads.

  1. The Line That Held Us by David Joy. Published by Putnam Books, August 2018. If you’re in the market for something gritty, something utterly compelling, something sofrigginmindblowinglyEXCELLENT that you can’t put it down, look no further. I picked this one for my August BOTM selection and just got around to reading it in September and I still haven’t stopped thinking about this glorious work of fiction. (Or recommending it to, like, everyone.)
  2. Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache Series. Published by Minotaur Books, 1990 – present. I’m only three books in (Still Life, A Fatal Grace, and The Cruelest Month), but these cozy mysteries do not disappoint. Nestled in the teeny town of Three Pines in Quebec, Canada, the book isn’t *technically* rural; however, the small-town vibes are terrifically reminiscent of the upbringing of anyone who’s been part of a community of a couple hundred. Everyone in Three Pines knows everyone else, all are quick to welcome — and assess — newcomers, and the small-town feel is utterly endearing.
  3. Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell. Published in 1933. This satirical work of fiction examines a family of sharecroppers in Georgia during the Great Depression. The narrative is centralized on a family of poor white farmers — the Lesters — who are struggling to survive in an era that no longer needs all hands on deck to cultivate, plant, and harvest cotton. The Lesters are ignorant, depraved, and some of the most darkly-comical characters I’ve ever read. Often repulsive and darkly hysterical*, this tragic portrait of 1930s America  depicts rural life in an unfathomable time.
  4. Descent by Tim Johnston. Published by Algonquin, 2015. Nestled in among the Rocky Mountains, Descent takes readers to the dark places that exist in the shadows between family members. The Courtland family heads off on a family vacation prior to the eldest daughter’s departure to college. What should be relaxing and rehabilitating ends in despair when the daughter disappears without a trace on an early morning run. This novel isn’t purely set in the countryside — there are some forays into the city as family members search for their missing daughter and sister; but much of the novel takes place within the wooded mountains or rural areas outside the city, at times both blissfully lonesome and achingly void.
  5. The High Divide by Lin Enger. Published by Algonquin, 2014. This western novel features the Pope family, living on the prairie of Minnesota in 1886 and newly abandoned by Ulysses, father and husband. Leaving without a word of explanation and hardly a farewell, Ulysses leaves his two sons and wife reeling: where could he have possibly gone? It doesn’t take long for the boys to set off after him, truly a wild goose chase in an era unprivileged with cell phones and social media. This work of historical fiction offers spectacular views of the prairieland and Midwest of more than a century ago and I am here for it.
  6. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Published by Little, Brown, 2012. If you read my review of this spectacularly charming work of fairy-tale-esque fiction last winter, you’ll already know I was utterly captivated by Ivey’s lonesome Alaskan couple, childless and increasingly individual as the months pass by. When the pair builds a snow child on a whim during the first snowfall of the season, things take a turn for the better and the couple soon discovers an orphaned girl, roaming about the woods. Is she a manifestation of their snow child? Is she the product of homesteaders, long dead and gone? And more importantly — is she theirs to love forever? Surrounded by nothing by the breathtaking and brutally remote Alaskan wilderness, The Snow Child is a perfect read for those seeking a rural setting . . . and better still, it’s ideal for these chilly and snowy winter days.
  7. Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. A simple, but evocative novel in which several ordinary characters — a father raising two sons alone, two solitary bachelors dwelling together, a pregnant teenager thrown out by her mother, and a compassionate schoolteacher — are strung together in an unembellished by heartwarming manner. Set in the plains east of Denver, the novel is a portrait of the simplicity and community that comes with life in rural America.

And here’s a peek at a few titles I haven’t read yet, but am highly anticipating due to their rural vibes!

  • A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed. Published by Tin House, 2018. An unconventionally wrought story about a young boy growing up near a river in the Midwest, sans parents. The book is told in glossary-style, a list of informative vignettes about various subjects the boy encounters in his lifetime. The book promises to be a coming-of-age tale, and you all know how I feel about those. 🙂
  • The Worst Hard Time (nonfiction) by Timothy Egan. Published by Mariner Books, 2006. This work of nonfiction is mostly focused on the area I now occupy: the vast — and unforgiving — southwest region of Kansas. A portrait of the dust storms and utter calamity that devastated the Midwest in the 1930s, The Worst Hard Time is “the story of those who stayed and survived — those who, now in their eighties and nineties, will soon carry their memories to the grave . . . “. I’m particularly interested in this title as my grandfather-in-law has often imparted memories of his own upbringing during the Dirty Thirties, an era which is unfathomable to most of us today.
  • Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich. Published by Putnam, 2015. Now this one — this book is what I’m all about, friends. Have you ever watched Lawless,  the movie about a moonshine-making family in the hills of Appalachia during the Prohibition era? I have. Seven times. I’ll probably watch it again tonight, now that it’s on my mind. Anyway — Bull Mountain seems to fall in line a bit with the rowdy gang of vigilantes in Lawless. The novel features a family history of down-home mobsters running moonshine, pot, and meth across state lines, with virtually no legal consequences. This is all well and good until one of the sons — Clayton — decides to become a law-man and separate himself from his family of criminals . . . until the federal government steps in and Clayton is forced to reconsider where his loyalties truly lie. I have high hopes for this one, my friends. HIGH.

Got any other great rural reading suggestions for me? Drop ’em below in the comments! I’m always on the lookout for books that bring life to the places tucked away in forgotten valleys or between mountain towns or left untouched among the prairie grasses of the Midwest. After all, home is where the heart is; and once you’ve loved the country, your home will never change.

*I read Tobacco Road in college in a course titled “Literature of the South.” My classmates were deeply disturbed that I (& my darkly humorous professor) found the book “funny” at times. I’d like to clarify that this isn’t a “OMGLOL” book, but rather, a book that one has to laugh at here and there in order not to weep at the sheer depravity of the characters featured. And honestly, it is funny sometimes. It’s satire. 

Fall 2018 Releases to Add to Your List

I don’t know about you, but this month was F U L L. In fact, it feels like Christmas is coming tomorrow — that’s how frazzled school has me! There are so many great books releasing that I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on yet — A Spark of LightThe Witch ElmBridge of Clay — all by some tried-and-true authors that I go back to again and again. There are some other great reads you may not have heard about, though, that I’ve had the pleasure of reading + reviewing — check ’em out below!

  1. The Caregiver by Samuel Park. Simon & Schuster, September 2018. This work focuses on the complex and tumultuous relationship between young Mara Alencar and her mother, Ana, in a Rio neighborhood in the 1970s; and alternately, the relationship between Mara and the woman she cares for within her home in 1990s Bel Air, Kathryn. My full review can be read here.
  2. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller. Tin House, October 2018. I’ve already sung a love song to this dark, atmospheric read here. This novel is a very literary work, chock-full of evocative imagery, symbolism, and the kinds of features that make English Lit majors’ hearts go pitter-pat. If you’re in the mood for something with a classic vibe and all kinds of eerie features, this is the read for you. (And if you’re in the mood for something action-packed, keep moving.)
  3. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Harper Collins, October 2018. A dense, thought-provoking tome from a seasoned author, Unsheltered is a tale of two time periods: 1880s and present-day Vineland, NJ. Alternating between Willa, modern-day mother and freelance journalist struggling to hold together the pieces of her crumbling family (and home) and Thatcher, science teacher and sadly undervalued husband to a very unappreciative young wife in the 1880s. The two narratives are connected by the characters’ place of residence, both then and now a deteriorating and poorly cobbled-together structure that is symbolic of their own ragged lives. A bit overwrought in terms of philosophical political conversations, but the story and characters are compelling, nonetheless.
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird (graphic novel) by Harper Lee, adapted and illustrated by Fred Fordham. Harper Books, October 2018. This classic novel, recently chosen as America’s favorite novel per PBS’s Great American Read vote-off, was republished this month with a bit of a twist. The novel was reworked into a graphic novel, which means that teachers who are sharing the classic coming-of-age tale with students will have an accessible option for those kids who “hate reading.” Shudders — is there such a thing? 

A few others on my stack that I haven’t gotten to but am looking forward to reading soon:

  • A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed. Tin House, September 2018. “…the adventure of William Tyce, a boy without parents, who grows up near a river in the rural Midwest.” Coming-of-age novel set in the heartland? Ummm, count me in.
  • An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. Henry Holt & Co., November 2018. A nonfiction work of…true crime?…that follows one woman’s obsessive investigation into a mysterious assumed-suicide at the former Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. Upping the ante: she uncovers a string of believed-suicides in previous decades, all at the same hotel. I’m HERE FOR IT.

That’s all for now! Back to the school-and-mama-life grind it is. Happy Halloween, and as ever, happy reading, friends.

3 New Releases You Won’t Want to Miss

June is upon us, and with it, a wealth of delightful new book releases. I’ve had my eye on several upcoming titles — chiefly, Us Against You by Fredrik Backman, the sequel to Beartown — but I’ve also been fortunate enough to receive advance copies of a handful of distinctly different books that I rather enjoyed and want to share with everyone!

The Ones We Choose by Julie Clark. Fiction, 368 pages. This novel was released May 8 by Gallery Books. It’s part family drama, part science lesson — and believe me when I tell you, as a very unscientific-minded individual, the science component of this book completely made the story. Paige Robson, main character and geneticist extraordinaire, is a single mother to an increasingly inquisitive 8-year-old boy named Miles. She’s always been honest with Miles: he was conceived via sperm donor. She’s also done a fantastic job of raising her son collectively with her mother and her sister’s family. However, Paige didn’t account for the boy’s desperate need to know who his biological father is — and his fury at her, for having deprived him this standard piece of the family pie. All Paige knows for certain is that her own father was a deeply disappointing figure in her own life, and she wants so much more for Miles.

When Miles makes a friend at his new school, Paige is thrilled — twofold, when she realizes his mom is fun for her to hang around, too. And while the families become closer, Paige begins to let her guard down one day at a time . . . until a few cataclysmic events coincide to turn her life upside down.

I love, love, loved the fascinating science mini-lessons sprinkled between chapters in this family drama, and that’s saying something coming from a self-proclaimed science-hater. (I hated the subject in school. It was boring. This book totally changed that outlook.) Ultimately, this is a book about relationships and how we define ourselves based on our relationships with our families — especially our parents. Overall: A solid 4/5 stars.

***

Goodbye, Sweet Girl by Kelly Sundberg. Memoir, 254 pages. This prosodic personal work was released June 5 from Harper Books. I was wowed by Sundberg’s depth of voice and her unflinching portrait of her reality: that of an abused wife who doesn’t know that she needs to (and later, how to) leave her angry, damaging husband.

I’ve never been in a physically abusive relationship (or verbally abusive, for that matter). Like most other people who’ve never been abused, I’ve often mused about how a woman (or man) can stay in an abusive relationship. How can they stay tethered to someone who hits them? Screams at them? Belittles them? How can they be with someone who doesn’t respect them?

I still don’t fully comprehend such scenarios, but Sundberg’s memoir is such an honest processing of the kind of decisions that go into such relationships, I do feel like I came to an understanding of sorts about the kind of thinking — and emotional evolving — that makes it so difficult for people to leave abusive relationships.

The chronology of this book is very disjointed; an aspect that works really well in general, but can be confusing from time to time. In some ways, it reads like a conversation; as though you’re sitting in a cafe with Kelly Sundberg and she’s recounting her life experiences, jumping from one memory to the next without any care as to which event happened first or next or last — only that they happened. Ultimately, I really, really appreciated the strength of Sundberg’s voice in this work and the absolutely unapologetic story she tells. 4/5 stars.

***

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz. Fiction – detective story, 387 pages. Released (in the US) June 5 by Harper Books. This was my first Horowitz novel, and based on the Goodreads reviews, it isn’t his best. But I can’t tell you that, remember? — because I haven’t read any of his other works. About halfway through, I realized that Horowitz was writing himself as the main character (would’ve definitely realized this earlier if I’d been paying closer attention to the fact that the MC’s name is “Anthony” and/or if I was familiar with his bio) — which made for a bit of a trippy fiction read. Allow me to explain:

The Word is Murder is a detective novel that follows a writer — Anthony — and his retired-but-still-kinda-working detective friend, Hawthorne. The relationship is supposedly evocative of Holmes & Watson, but — gulp — I’ve never read any Sherlock Holmes, sooo . . . I can’t attest to the effectiveness of this recreation. Anthony’s done some writing work with Hawthorne in the past (he consults with Hawthorne when writing scenes that involve police work), but one day Hawthorne comes to Anthony with a fresh idea: he wants Anthony to write a book about him. For half of the profits.

As the two begrudgingly work alongside one another to unravel the secrets of a recent string of murders/attempted murders, Anthony narrates events with no dearth of snark — and that’s part of what makes this read so entertaining. I can’t say I loved either Anthony or Hawthorne’s characters (they were both a bit . . . prick-ish? . . . for my taste), but I did quite enjoy the murder mystery at the heart of the work. The writing was solid, if a bit self-proud at times, and I certainly intend to pick up Horowitz’s other highly-praised novel, The Magpie Murders. Overall: 3.5-4 stars.

Renee’s Summer Reads: The Big List

It’s not quite June, and I’m already certain this one’s going to be a hellacious summer. We’ve had several consecutive days of 90+ degree temps and Friday is forecasted to hit 104 — for the love — so I’m writing off spring altogether. Nice effort, sister. Better luck next year. (But really. Please. Next year.) I’ll be real honest with you all: I’m probably going to avoid the outdoors as much as possible, until this heat wave decides to back off a bit.

I’m heading back to teaching in the fall (half-time, to tell the truth, but still) and I’m already scrabbling to read as much as is humanly possible before August 20th rolls around. In honor of the literature feeding-frenzy that is, truthfully, already under way, here’s a list of books I’m looking forward to reading this summer! (Also: it’s highly likely I won’t finish this pile. Also also: it’s also very probable I will add some other titles as the weeks pass. I’m a fickle girl, I know.)

  1. Something Wonderful by Todd S. Purdum. Nonfiction. Henry Holt Books sent me a FINISHED HARDCOVER COPY of this bad boy and let me tell ya — I am stoked to pick it up after I finish my current read. Per the dust jacket blurb: A relevatory portrait of the creative partnership that transformed musical theater and provided the soundtrack to the American Century. Yep, you guessed it: this is a biographical portrait of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the musical gods who essentially provided the soundtrack for my childhood. I can’t wait to read and share with my sister, who’s an actress; but I might be most invested in the memories I’m sure this book will bring to the surface, regarding lazy summer days spent in my late grandmother’s living room watching The King & I and Oklahoma! and my all-time favorite, The Sound of Music.
  2. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool. Fiction. My mom’s been hounding me to read this work — by none other than a Wichita, Kansas author! — for no fewer than five years. She finally pressed a copy of it into my hands last time I was home, and here we are! It’s set in fictional small-town Kansas and follows Abilene Tucker, a young girl whose father sent her away for the summer so that he could work a demanding job. Abilene feels abandoned, so she hops off the train in Manifest, Kansas in search of clues about her father’s past. I’m such a sucker for coming-of-age novels (for real — probably my favorite genre) and I know this one won’t disappoint.
  3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Fiction. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve made it to 28 — and through a BA in English — without having read this American classic. It’s touted as a “poignant and deeply understanding story of childhood and family relationships,” and centers on a young woman’s coming-of-age experience (what’d I tell you about those stories?!) in the poverty of early-20th Century Brooklyn.
  4. The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch. Fiction. From the back cover: “In a war-torn village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer captures a heart-stopping image: a young girl flying toward the lens, fleeing a fiery explosion that has engulfed her home and family. The image, instantly iconic, garners acclaim and prizes — and, in the United States, becomes a subject of obsession for one writer, the photographer’s best friend, who has suffered a devastating tragedy of her own. In a bid to save the writer from a spiraling depression, her filmmaker husband enlists a group of friends . . . to rescue the unknown girl and bring her to the United States.” This book comes with so much praise — I’m confident it’s going to be a great pick.
  5. Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Nonfiction. I was alerted to this recent release via a Facebook post by Simon & Schuster, regarding works about fierce women. This promising work follows the escape of Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s chief attendant, and her attempt to escape the ownership of her white masters (who were dodging the law at every twist and turn in every attempt to recapture their “property”). I really, really love a good work of historical nonfiction — especially when it’s related to a subject I know little (or nothing) about.
  6. Suicide Club by Rachel Heng. Fiction. This work by debut author Rachel Heng was kindly gifted to me by Henry Holt Books and releases in July. It’s a futuristic work, set in NYC — where people live hundreds of years and are obsessed with achieving immortality. The main character, Lea, is one such person — until an unexpected twist of fate draws her into the inner circle of “Suicide Club,” a group that seeks to live outside society’s norms (aka, the pursuit of eternal life) and achieve death on their own terms. What more do you need to know, guys? I’m fascinated.
  7. Not Her Daughter by Rea Frey. Fiction. I won this August 2018 release in a Goodreads giveaway. The story focuses on two women and a child: an unfit, unhappy mother; a successful, lonely woman who commits a crime to rescue a child that reminds her of herself; and a little girl, whose world is filled with silence and solitude.
  8. A Hope More Powerful than the Sea by Melissa Fleming. Nonfiction. In truth, I was looking for Decca Aitkinhead’s All at Sea when this work caught my eye at Barnes & Noble. Its cover features vivid blue painted waves and the blurb describes this novel as an account of “Doaa, a Syrian girl whose life was upended in 2011 by the onset of her country’s brutal civil war. . . . Adrift in a frigid sea, no land in sight, just debris from the ship’s wreckage and floating corpses all around, nineteen-year-old Doaa Al Zamel stays afloat on a small inflatable ring and clutches two little girls — barely toddlers — to her body.” This immigrant narrative looks to be utterly compelling and heartwrenching.
  9. Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey. Fiction. Henry Holt Books sent me this July release to review, and I’m really glad for that, because it sounds absolutely fabulous. The story starts with a couple who is traumatized but relieved to have their fifteen-year-old daughter returned to them after she went missing for several days. However, she’s gone mute and the court of public opinion is swirling with theories. In an effort to save her family, the girl’s mother, Jen, sets off on a journey to discover the truth of the events that led to her daughter’s disappearance — and the darkness that she may have encountered while she was gone. I haven’t read Healey’s first book — Elizabeth is Missing — but it’s a critically-acclaimed work and award winner, and that’s usually a strong indication for author potential.

What’s at the top of your summer TBR pile? Drop a comment below and let me know! 🙂 Happy reading, bookworms.

Read Next: For Lovers of History

At least once a week, I get a text from a friend saying something along the lines of Hey, what’s up? I need a book list — stat! These requests come in from new mamas needing to unwind, busy teachers looking for an escape from reality, out-of-practice readers looking to rekindle their bookish flame but not sure where to start.

I absolutely relish these calls to action, certain that I can find something among the titles on my shelves to capture their interest. And here’s the thing: I can never choose just one title to share with them. It’s almost a burden, loving books so much . . . 😉

One of my favorite genres to recommend from: historical fiction & nonfiction. To be quite honest, I didn’t retain much from my high school/college history classes and I’m quite certain that 85% of what I know about past events comes from my obsessive reading of historical nonfiction and fiction. (Also a major reason I advocate so highly for frequent reading, as a teacher.)

To the point, though — here’s a list of some of my favorite historical reads, in both the fiction and nonfiction categories.

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Fiction. This multigenerational tome centers on the often-grueling circumstances of Sunja’s family: poor Koreans living in the shadow of Japanese racism post-WWII. Actually, the novel starts much earlier, at the start of the 1900s, with Sunja’s father’s birth; so readers gain a very insightful look at the relationship between Koreans and Japanese as well as both cultures. The writing is stark and though lengthy, the novel demands to be read diligently and without pause (when possible). Read more about it here.
  2. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. Nonfiction. Quite possibly my favorite work of nonfiction, ever, Seabiscuit is an endearing and emotional tale of one of the nation’s most formidable racehorses — and an absolutely thrilling comeback story. The story opens in the early 1900s and follows the lives of Seabiscuit’s owner, jockey, and trainer before introducing the legend himself. In the tumultuous and dramatic times of the Great Depression and World War II, Seabiscuit became an American hero and a symbol of the working class. Hillenbrand’s novel offers a fascinating portrait of this era, as well as a heartwarming and rousing emotional read. (Bonus: the film adaptation is also fantastic.)
  3. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Fiction. A searing tale of two young girls bound together by slavery — one, slave; the other, master — well into their adult years, The Invention of Wings is more than an engrossing narrative. It’s an uncomfortable, disturbing account of a piece of American history based on the very real lives of the Grimke sisters — born into a prominent Southern family of slaveowners, the pair were decidedly abolitionist in an unprecedented way for women of the time.
  4. October Sky by Homer Hickam. Nonfiction – Memoir. I originally discovered this gem in high school, some time after having watched the film adaptation. Originally titled Rocket Boys, this piece of NF is at once charming, laugh-inducing, gut-wrenching, and hopeful. Nestled in coal mining country in West Virginia, October Sky is the true story of Homer Hickam’s quest to be more than a miner and break free of the predetermined path set forth for boys in his town. Inspired by Sputnik‘s race across the sky, Hickam dreams of building his own rockets to send to the stars. His dad’s not happy about it, his mom can’t offer much in the way of open support, and he and his friends are the laughingstock of the drab community; but Hickam persists in his pursuit of outer space and the resulting narrative is an absolutely magnificent tale of perseverance and the heartbreaking nature of dreams.
  5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Fiction. This World War II-era novel is a bestseller for a reason: the gripping coming-of-age tale is absolutely stunning in its own haunted way. With an omniscient narrator (Death himself), the novel kicks off in Nazi-occupied Germany at the end of the 1930s. Liesel Meminger, given to strangers by her mother who cannot care for her any longer, comes to live on Himmel Street with the Hubermanns — a jovial man and his crabby wife who come to love Liesel like a daughter. I’m a huge fan of coming-of-age stories and the beautiful narration in this novel — coupled with the dramatic backdrop of a menacing time period — makes this an unputdownable read.
  6. ‘Tis by Frank McCourt. Nonfiction – Memoir. I didn’t know how much I loved memoirs until I read this gut-busting (and often tearjerking) tale of an Irish immigrant’s arrival in the “promised land” that America has been to so many over the decades. Frank McCourt arrived in America in 1949, fulfilling a dream of his and at once leaving behind the dismal poverty that had marked his life in Ireland (only to find more troubles in the land he’d so long dreamed of making his new home). I was fascinated by the tidbits of history and laughed out loud at the naive observations of the young Catholic boy in the big city of New York.
  7. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Fiction. Set in post-WWII Germany, this brief novel (200 pages in my rather small edition) is utterly captivating. “When young Michael berg falls ill on his way home from school, he is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover, enthralling him with her passion, but puzzling him with her odd silences. Then she disappears. Michael next sees Hanna when she is on trial for a heinous crime, refusing to defend herself. As he watches, he begins to realize that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.”
  8. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Nonfiction. This thrilling account of America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes, is closely woven into the history of the planning, design, and spectacle of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. As a work of narrative nonfiction, I found this novel relatively easy to read and only dry in a few places. The telling alternates a bit between Holmes’ arrival in Chicago (and his subsequent planning stages) and the World’s Fair architects and planning committees, offering readers more than just a glimpse at a serial killer’s timeline. I was fascinated to read about the birth of several modern-day amenities such as shredded wheat, sliced bread, and Juicy Fruit gum.

What are some of your favorite historical reads, both fiction and nonfiction? Tell me in the comments section below!