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. 

Review: Bitter Orange

Well, friends, I’ve done it: I’ve read my “best book” of 2018, and it’s only going to be downhill from here. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’m just basically 923% positive none of my other reads this year will top it.)

In July, I reached out to Tin House to request a copy of Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller, slated for release October 9. I’d previously read her dark and disturbing family drama, Swimming Lessons, and I was extremely pleased to have been granted an early copy by the publishing gods.

img_5216

The novel comes adorned with a dark and mysterious cover that features three oranges — two grouped together, one off to the side; appropriate when one takes into consideration the synopsis:

Frances (“Franny”) is a reclusive 39-year-old woman whose only friend (and roommate — her mother) has just died. She’s never had pals her own age before, and remembers in all-too-vivid detail the humiliation of childhood birthday parties attended out of obligation. As she reaches middle age, Franny is socially isolated and overweight — characteristics I later came to attribute to her mother’s overpowering nature. At any rate, in the wake of her mother’s passing, Franny accepts a stint at Lyntons for the summer. She’s to move to the countryside estate and take stock of its outbuildings and decorative architectural features, then report back to a wealthy American who has just purchased the sprawling property sight-unseen.

Naturally, when Franny discovers she’ll be living with two others, she’s a bit hesitant — how should she greet them? Is it too forward to assume they’ll even speak? But she’s quickly welcomed into Cara and Peter’s lives and granted access to their life-loving ways: late night picnics, drinking on the roof, skinny-dipping in the pond. Ever uncomfortable in her own skin, Franny flirts with the idea of becoming beloved to someone.

When she discovers a peephole in the floor of her bathroom — leading directly into Cara and Peter’s bathroom below hers — Franny is overcome with curiosity . . . and remorse. She can’t resist the temptation to peek into their private lives, but the choice leaves her feeling guilty. And lemme tell y’all: guilt is a beautiful thing when you’re writing a character.

Fuller does SO. MANY. THINGS. right with this novel — the prose is evocative and atmospheric, the very definition of “painting a picture with words.” For example:

“I went into the corridor and looked both ways but there was no one there. I called for them again but heard nothing. The shadow at my back returned, grey air pressing up against me, and I spun around to catch it. Wrongdoing. The word came into my head as if someone had spoken it aloud. “Hello?“ I said, but my voice sounded hollow, and I ran then, along the corridor—the locket around my neck bouncing— out of the staircase door, and up into the daylight.”

And:

“Small grey mounds lay on the floor in various states of decay and I saw they were oranges, and I realized that for years the tree must have been fruiting and dropping them on the stone paving, nature hoping some of them would seed. I flapped my hand in front of my face to keep away the tiny flies and wasps which buzzed around the rotting fruit. There were no orange tree saplings in the orangery; the main tree had been taking all the water and light. But other plants were growing: bindweed snaked across the floor, and the whole of the back wall, which must have been built of brick, once whitewashed and covered with trellis, was pasted with the great hairy trunks of ivy, and almost completely obscured. Many of the iron seats around the sides of the room had rusted away, and there were gaps in the stone pavers where an underfloor heating system must have once supplied warmth.”

And sure, the writing is gorgeous; but what about the meat of the story? That’s what you want to know about, right? Is the plot strong?

In a word:

giphy

I discussed this novel in depth with my bookstagram buddy, @cassinthewilds, and we couldn’t stop swooning over Fuller’s absolutely thrilling current of suspense that slowly builds from the start. I may or may not have referred to Fuller as the Queen of Modern Horror at one point. And it’s a silent horror; that’s the beauty of it. I’m not keen on graphic violence, shock-factor, or gore — I think it takes a great deal more skill to quietly horrify readers — and Bitter Orange does just that. The creep-factor sneaks up on you slowly, until you find yourself asking Why am I reading this at 11:47 pm on a Saturday night when I’m home alone?

Another strength lies in Fuller’s characterization of the two leading females, Cara and Frances. Both display complex, deeply-rooted psychological . . . disturbances? . . . which are a direct result of their relationships with their mothers. In turn, their relationships with other humans are also tainted by these past experiences — Franny’s inability to live without her mother has rendered her incapable of self confidence and independence. I’ll leave Cara to you for analysis, dear readers, but just know this — the parallels between the two women are utterly fascinating.

I thought I knew how the book would end. I was certain there’d be a murder, and I was equally sure I knew “whodunnit” — alas, I was absolutely incorrect in my musings. The resolution left me a bit breathless, and to be honest, I’m already looking forward to rereading the novel to follow the trail of breadcrumbs again (this time with the conclusion in mind). I will warn you, though: once you start thinking about the narrative, and the characters, and the concept of truth — you’re going to have a few questions to consider at the end of this book.

Overall: 5 stars. Do not wait to read this book. Pre-order it today. I get nothing if you do, but you’ll get a freaking amazing thrill and I’ll have more friends to talk about this new obsession of mine with.

Also: for fans of Shirley Jackson, “A Rose for Emily,” and Shutter Island. 

Review: Whistle in the Dark

The first time I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I was thrilled to my core. Over a decade later, I still remember the tremble of fascination and eeriness that delighted me as the narrator and I spiraled toward the dark conclusion. (If you’ve never read the story, follow the link and do so — it’s a quick read. And one that I consider required reading of like, everyone.)

I suppose the slow-moving paranoia and dedication to uncovering something (that may or may not exist) is what draws me in to Gilman’s work; and it is this same fascination with obsession and the potential for “craziness” that made Emma Healey’s latest novel, Whistle in the Dark, a compelling and spine-tingling read.

img_4390

Due out next Tuesday, July 24, from Harper Books, Whistle in the Dark is a slow-burning story about a mother and daughter. The book isn’t rife with action, and it isn’t a “thriller” in the trendy sense of the word, but I was captivated, and I was thrilled, by the time the novel met its end.

Synopsis: Jen Maddox has a pretty normal life: she’s mother to Meg, 26 years old and who’s just told her parents she’s pregnant; and Lana, 15 years old and the epitome of angsty teen. Her husband, Hugh, is a nice guy and the two of them exchange witty banter on a regular basis. “Normal” is the perfect adjective to describe the foursome — until, that is, Lana goes missing on a mother-daughter painting holiday and doesn’t resurface for four days . . . seemingly without a memory of where she was during that time, what happened, and who — if anyone — she was with. As Jen puzzles over the circumstances surrounding her youngest daughter’s disappearance (& recovery), readers learn that Lana has a history of suicidal ideations and depression. Jen is certain this disruption of their lives will lead Lana down a dark path, and frantically seeks to uncover the truth (no matter what the police or her husband think).

I will admit: the book wasn’t quite what I expected when I set out to read it. Based on the cover description, I thought Whistle in the Dark would be more of a fast-paced mystery/suspense novel in which a mother sets off on a journey to uncover the truth about her daughter’s disappearance. And in some ways, this is a fair description of the things that happen in the book; however, a majority of the book is actually devoted to the relationships between family members and Jen’s uncertainty — and resulting timidity — as a mother.

Here’s what I liked about it:

  • Jen’s character, though often frustrating, feels so true to life. While I was irked by her sometimes-passivity, I found her fearfulness of botching things with her tempestuous daughter to be very accurate.
  • The storyline trundles along slowly, but the details that Healey gives us in the family’s daily excursions and mealtimes and arguments feel like a breadcrumb trail that leads to something magnanimous.
  • Whistle in the Dark has just one perspective/POV to follow, and God bless it for that.
  • The prose is something else, my friends. It’s absolutely beautiful in its deliberate, thoughtful way, and I just wanted to write down all the damn phrases to store away somewhere safe, for looking at on rainy days. If ever there were a time to slow clap for an author’s writing style, this would be it.

Here’s what I didn’t love:

  • LANA. She drove me nuts (I feel you, Jen) and I was often repulsed by her behavior. That being said . . . I felt that she, too, was pretty well drawn for a teenager struggling with *not teen angst but real, actual depression*. So, while I hated her a lot, I also related to her, and felt the urge to text my mom several times and say Sorry for being such a difficult depressed shithead in high school. Oof.

Whistle in the Dark is a marvelously drawn, character-driven novel that creates this intimate portrait of a family dealing with the realities of chronic depression and the paranoia that (I assume) exists in parents of children who’ve attempted suicide. There’s an element of dark mystery lurking beneath the surface, as the book centers on the aftermath of Lana’s disappearance/return, and Healey’s ability to produce Jen’s anxiety in the reader (me!) was a truly surreal experience.

Overall: 4.5 stars. Read Whistle in the Dark if you’re okay with slow burns and moseying plots and enjoy a dark story with a payoff at the end.

Review: Birds of Wonder

Last month, I won a ridiculous amount of giveaways — ten, I believe — on Instagram, BookRiot, and Goodreads. Sadly, I did not win the lottery. Although, it could be argued that books > money . . . right?

Anyway, to the point: one such win was in a giveaway on author Cynthia Robinson’s IG page (@cynthiarobinson2605), in exchange for an honest review on Goodreads/IG/the blogosphere. I received the book from the publisher a mere three days later and got to reading immediately — it’s slated for release February 20.

Birds of Wonder is Robinson’s debut full-length novel. At about 300-some pages, the work of fiction is what I’d consider average in length, but let me tell you — it is chock full of dark characters and twisty plot points. As with many thrillers/mysteries/crime novels of the day, the story is told from multiple perspectives. I enjoy this for a few reasons: it adds a layer of deception and intrigue, it lends credence to unreliable narrators, and it makes the chapters fly by that much more quickly. I’m a self-proclaimed oddball that has developed a weird obsession with breaking reading into chunks. Books with longer chapters sometimes make these chunk-goals hard to achieve what with my increasingly-adventurous baby demanding attention and whatnot, so the shorter, individual narratives featured in books like Birds of Wonder somehow make the reading feel more manageable.

I digress. The novel is told from the perspective of six starkly different individuals: Beatrice, high school teacher and stiflingly ambitious and cheery widow; Jes, lead investigator on the case and daughter to aforementioned theater teacher; Liam, local vintner and child welfare lawyer; Edward, creep-of-all-creeps and obsessive artist; Conner, aspiring photographer and local student; and Waldo, known schizophrenic and laborer at Liam’s vineyard.

The six compelling narratives are strung together to cover the course of a few days, when a mutilated body is found on Liam’s property early Saturday morning. Unfortunately, the body belongs to Amber, one of Beatrice’s students and the star of her upcoming school theater production. Beatrice, busybody that she is, naturally spends the next couple of days in a state of anguish over the loss of her star, though whether her grief is more heavily concentrated on the tragic loss of a young life or the tragic loss of her leading actress is a bit fuzzy at times. Meanwhile, Jes scrambles to find the murderer before her misogynistic and repressive colleagues are able to, hell-bent on proving herself valuable despite her “drawback” of a college education. As the case winds to a close, everybody is in for a stunning revelation. EVERYBODY.

The Good: One of my favorite things about this novel is how marvelously crafted Beatrice’s character is. She. Drove. Me. Bonkers. And, if I’m being honest, all of the characters were very well-constructed; it’s just that Beatrice and Edward kind of hogged the limelight. Their beings were far more vivid than the others and I was in turns repulsed and transfixed by the two. I was also appreciative of the topics present in this mystery: sex trafficking, drug abuse, infidelity, loyalty, foster care, self-fulfilling prophesies . . . at times, it felt like there was too much that Robinson was trying to cram into this book; but overall, the themes worked well together. Oh! And another thing — Robinson did a great job of characterizing the strained relationship between a mother and daughter who have a very one-sided acquaintance. Beatrice’s insufferable interjection of herself into Jes’ life was so very reminiscent of small-town family life. I shuddered for Jes on a number of occasions.

The Okay: In the beginning, some of the descriptions were laboriously repetitive in their allusion to plants and birds and so on. I found myself wishing a few things were cut so we could get past the flowery descriptions and into the meat of the story. In short, it got off to a bit of a slow start. Additionally, as mentioned previously, it sometimes felt like the author was trying to accomplish too much in the short span of 300 pages/two days.

The Bad: Waldo’s narrative was just hard to get my head around. Sometimes it was distracting. Maybe I am dense (very good possibility) but I usually had to read his section more than once and was left thinking, Wait — what? I realize this is due largely to his unhinged nature; it just didn’t quite work for me. Fortunately, his narrative formed a very small part of the novel.

The Verdict: 3.5/5 stars. Read this one for the creep factor (here’s looking at you, Edward) and the family drama.

Review: Celine

He laughed too, but what he felt was alarm. He looked past Amana and Gabriela to the outer rocks and saw the dark swell. It was the next wave and it was the second in a set and he watched it as if in slow motion: the wall lightening to green as it rose, rising impossibly tall, the guarding boulders out in the cove dwarfed beneath it, the quivering top frayed by wind and then a piece of it curled and collapsed and the water fell: a surge of whitewater chest-high roared in over the black slack of water of the inner cove and he was slugged and knocked over, his shoulder and neck hit rock, he came up lunging out of ice foam to see the tumult sucking back.

Last week, I made my first trip to a public library in over two years (for two years, I walked my classes to the library to check out books, but never got any for myself); and checked out books for myself for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-many-years. In truth, I only went to the library because I needed to check out the movie version of Of Mice and Men for my senior English class, which had recently finished studying the novel; but while I was there, I decided perhaps I could look into a few books I’d been eyeing on Litsy.

One of my four selections: Celine, a March 2017 fiction novel by author Peter Heller. Wedged neatly between two white spines on the New Releases shelf, Celine‘s lush green cover immediately drew my eye and I knew I’d heard of this mystery before. (A quick review of Litsy confirmed this suspicion.)

img_5407

CELINE FTW!

The novel opens in the past with an exquisitely crafted piece of prose that sets the stage for the rest of the story. It is here that young Gabriela is introduced to readers, before meeting her again some forty years in the future when she enlists the help of the novel’s title character, Celine: a 68-year-old private investigator born and bred of the upper crust society that is bourgeoise New York in the 1930s-40s. An anomaly for her breed, Celine challenges the expected roles of the jewel-encrusted “old wealth” families of her time period, bucking tradition to attend a boarding school that encourages students to work like farm hands; enroll and study at college; work for the FBI; and establish her own mostly-pro bono business as a private eye. Celine is everything society raised her not to be — and for that, readers will love getting to know her decadently-layered character.

Anyway. Gabriela, tied to Celine through their alumni status at the same college, seeks out Celine for help locating her father who has been missing for more than twenty years. Although Gabriela’s photographer father is assumed to have been mauled by a bear in the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park, a body was never recovered and more than a few details point to possible alternatives to the conclusions investigators came to just a few short days following her father’s disappearance. Celine is immediately enamored with the graceful, intelligent, and beautiful young woman who shows up at her door with a heartbreaking story of an unbelievable childhood, and she agrees to take the case. After arrangements are made, Celine and her husband (Paul) head to Yellowstone to sift through the puzzle that is not quite as open-and-close as investigators led Gabriela to believe decades ago.

As Celine and Paul work together to uncover the truth, Heller reveals nuggets of Celine’s own past to readers in a teasing manner . . . one tidbit at a time. Readers will race to finish this puzzle of a novel (and then regret not savoring it a bit more slowly, as several early details become important later on, as the mystery unravels).

The Good: Heller’s prose is to. die. for. (See the opening quote and try not to love it.) Although fragments bugged me in a nagging sort of way off and on throughout the novel, I quickly determined Heller is a Writer of Esteem. The opening scenes at the ocean completely drew me in; so much so that I raced through the rest of the novel and wanted to cry a bit when the story was all over. Another reader on Litsy noted that the ending felt a bit like an opportunity for continuation or a series, and though this is purely speculation, I’m happy to imagine a world in which Heller publishes more novels in the Celine vein. The plot of this work is enticing and not overly-populated with characters, which makes for a more intimate knowing of the individuals most central to the story. And, of course, Celine is a total grandmotherly badass. What’s not to love about that?

The (Not Actually) Bad: I read this one too quickly. Seriously. I started it Sunday night and was finished by Tuesday morning — and no, I did not skip work to read. It was just. that. good. My advice to readers: savor it, slowly. This one is definitely going on my to-be-purchased list, and I anticipate a reread in the near future.

The Verdict: 4.5/5 stars. Really, y’all: I just loved this book. I want to be Celine when I grow up, and I don’t doubt you’ll feel the same way.

Reading Roundup: March 2017

People of WordPress: March. Was. FANTASTIC! I somehow managed to finish nine novels this month, thoroughly surpassing my goal of one book per week! As a high school English teacher whose time is rarely my own, I am going to just revel in the glory of those nine books for a hot minute.

book gif

Because your time is precious — and my time is limited — here’s a quick look at the books I enjoyed this month, in order from least favored to most favored.

  1. The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult. Fiction. Picoult is one of my go-to authors when I’m craving a palate cleanse and quick but engaging read. I love her novels because each focuses on a different family complexity — betrayal, abuse, deceit, forgiveness, etc. The Tenth Circle tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who is raped at a party — and the incredible toll this experience takes on her mother and father as the family attempts to keep their unit whole. Picoult handles the challenging topic with finesse, but this novel falls short of her other works. Rating: 3 stars.
  2. The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith. Mystery, crime fiction. This second member of the Cormoran Strike series (see #3) is gruesome — but provides readers with another solid mystery to ruminate over as the book lopes along. Strike and Robin return to their sleuthing when a frumpy (and somewhat batty) woman asks them to search for her husband — a moody author who has been missing for ten days. Though the wife is certain her husband is merely hiding away to nurse his wounds, and acquaintances at the publishing house assume the author’s disappearance is a thinly-veiled publicity stint, Strike quickly discovers a much darker truth. This novel was more difficult to follow than the first, and was peppered with characters that were difficult to keep track of, as well as book plot within the book — making for a read that required much more focus on my part. I didn’t dislike The Silkworm, but didn’t love it nearly as much as The Cuckoo’s CallingRating: 3 stars.
  3. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. Fiction. Almost-8-year-old Elsa embarks on an adventure after her grandmother’s death — one that involves several grumpy and/or reclusive neighbors, a wurse, numerous Harry Potter references, and a whole heap of fairy tales. Elsa struggles to come to terms with the truth about her grandma’s identity and learns to share her best (read: only) friend with dozens of others, all while dealing with the challenges that arise when one’s parents are divorced and a new sibling is on the way. Read this book for its endearing characters, bittersweet life lessons, and refreshingly childlike bursts of imagination. Rating: 3.5 stars.
  4. Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson. Utopian fiction. A utopian tale in a world full of dystopias, Perfect Little World operates under an intriguing premise: 10 families with newborn children move into a complex to raise their children collectively and function as a communal family of sorts. The novel becomes an engaging examination of family and normalcy, asking readers to reexamine traditional beliefs. Although the experiment starts out with a great deal of promise, all good things must come to an end. . . . The conclusion falls a bit flat, but readers will fly through this fascinating book, all while grappling with personal judgments and preconceived notions of what “good parenting” looks like. Rating: 4 stars. (A more in-depth review can be found here.)
  5. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. Mystery, crime fiction. The first in a series of detective novels featuring British war-veteran Cormoran Strike and his trusty sidekick Robin, The Cuckoo’s Calling is a masterfully woven mystery and race against time to find the truth about the tragic suicide (or murder?) of supermodel Lula Landry. Read it for the well-constructed characters and puzzling plot; even if whodunits aren’t your thing, this read won’t disappoint. Rating: 4.5 stars. (A more in-depth review can be found here.)
  6. The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts. Nonfiction. This charming nonfiction read is about an underdog horse. Once doomed for slaughter, former plowhorse Snowman is purchased for $80 by Dutch immigrant Harry de Leyer with the intent of making the four-legged creature into a gentle lesson horse for his students at an all-girls boarding school in the Northeast. Against all odds — seriously, this horse beat death — Snowman becomes a legend and national pet. Touted as an inspirational Cinderella story, this novel doesn’t disappoint. Read it for the historical context on an era that gets skimmed over a bit (1950s) and the feel-good vibes that buzz with each turned page. Rating: 4.5 stars.

Rereads & lifetime favorites (don’t want to skew the monthly rankings, folks):

  1. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Fiction, literature. Set in Great Depression-era Southern California, Steinbeck’s novella about friendship, loneliness, and power (or a lack thereof) is a quick and heart-wrenching read. George and Lennie form an unlikely pair, navigating the dangerous waters of a world that is often unkind — especially to those who are different. Read this 100-page masterpiece for Steinbeck’s strong prose and powerful symbolism; love it for its ability to transport readers to a hopeless nation in the midst of great strife. Rating: 4.5 stars.
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Historical fiction. Just read it — it’s timeless and perfect, even the sixth or seventh or eighth read through. . . . Rating: 5 stars.
  3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (illustrated by Jim McKay). Fantasy. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book, and I’m not sad about it. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is my greatest book love, no matter how much I age. Rereading the novel in its illustrated form was a treat! If you are a fan of the series, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the illustrated version here. Rating: 5 (billion) stars.

Read anything great in March? Let me know in the comments section below.

Review: Final Reads of 2016!

For almost three months, I abstained from reading (and, so it seems, blogging). This wasn’t entirely planned — I was exhausted, bogged down with grading and lesson planning in the thick of the first semester, and entirely uninterested in doing anything in the evening (other than eating and sleeping, of course). When we went on our vacation to Mexico, I was so mentally exhausted from finalizing a major editing project, wrapping up the quarterly publication I edit, and planning for the school days that I’d miss, I couldn’t bring myself to crack one of the three books I’d toted along with me on the expedition.

At first, I felt guilty. Then I was frustrated. And then — I panicked. What if I was burned out on reading altogether? What if I could never bring myself to finish another book again? If you can’t comprehend the fear that these revelations induced, imagine having your dominant arm amputated.

I should have known, though, that something I loved so dearly could never be pushed aside forever. With the advent of Christmas break, my desire to read returned (as did my sanity). Without further ado, I present to you my final reads of 2016:

  1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman. This book felt like a selection-of-obligation. I’d heard of Gaiman, referenced often by other readers and lovers of spectacular literature, but I’d never picked up one of his works. Each mention of his name made my cheeks burn a little brighter with shame. So, when Book of the Month made The Ocean at the End of the Lane an add-on option, I felt a sense of dutiful satisfaction when I added the book to my cart. And let me tell you — this pick was not at all what I expected. For whatever reason, I thought of Gaiman as some sort of contemporary male Jodi Picoult, a writer of the intense complexities of everyday life. I discovered, to my delight, an author with a knack for vivid prose and a captivating imagination. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a remarkably odd and fantastic work that expands on the childhood of a man who has returned home for a funeral. Readers are jerked into the past, along with the unnamed narrator, and sucked into a dark tale of magic, danger, and other worlds. Although this book doesn’t make my top 10 list for the year, I appreciated the beauty of the words in his novel and the nostalgic feelings the story evoked. Mostly, I have conflicting feelings about the work . . . I really admired the author’s diction, but felt “meh” about the story itself. When I was finished, I was left thinking . . . “Okay. Well. That was odd.” That being said, at right around 200 pages, this curious (and brief) book is worth exploring, if you have any interest at all in adult surrealism and fantasy. Rating: 3.5/5 stars
  2. The Sun is Also a Star – Nicola Yoon. This work of Young Adult fiction is, in a word, delightful. It’s also a bit heart-wrenching, idealistic, charming, and dramatic . . . but mostly, it’s delightful. Yoon writes the delicately entwined tale of Natasha and Daniel, resident New York teenagers facing very undesirable futures. Natasha, an immigrant of Jamaican parents, faces deportation after her family’s illegal status is revealed via some rather unfortunate circumstances. Daniel, son of Korean immigrants and lifelong resident of the city, is heavily burdened by the academic and professional expectations of his parents (who have already been disappointed by their first born). The book takes readers on a fast-paced one-day journey through the city, alternating between Daniel and Natasha’s viewpoints with short, witty “histories” of other characters or significant topics sprinkled throughout. The result? A sweet, hopeful account of love in a world of endless possibilities.  I raced through this engaging read in one day and couldn’t wait to recommend it to several of my high school students. Rating: 4/5 stars
  3. The Mothers – Brit Bennett. This book is everything, friends. Everything. Another Book of the Month selection, The Mothers sat on my shelf for two months during the Great Reading Hiatus of 2016. I finally cracked its spine two days before the new year and a handful of pages into the book, I knew I was in for a treat. Bennett writes the aching narrative of two girls estranged from their mothers — one by death, the other by choice. The unlikely pair, both members of a seaside church in a black community in southern California, develop a close friendship bordering on sisterhood as Nadia searches for reason and safety in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. Aubrey is the perfect companion for Nadia — comforting, seemingly self-assured, and loyal. The pair is destined for lifelong companionship, it seems . . . until one choice and a dark secret forever alter the course of their lives. The plot is heavy with deception, drama, and longing; characters are multifaceted and brilliantly relatable, despite (or because of?) the weight of the circumstances that compose their lives. The Mothers is a richly textured novel that will stir your heart and remain with you for years to come. Rating: 5/5

In short: if you only read one book in 2017, make it The Mothers. You can expect to experience heartbreak, but you certainly won’t know disappointment.