book review

Seven Books I Can’t Wait to Read

The stacks of books on my nightstand grow ever taller, but here are a few books I just can’t wait to read.

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng.  Well, thank goodness for this. Celeste Ng’s new book will be out in September. It’s so far away, the cover image isn’t even ready yet, but what a gem to look forward to this fall. The book explores “the weight of long-held secrets, the nature of belonging, the ferocious pull of motherhood—and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.”

 

9780316154727_p0_v3_s192x300Theft by Finding, by David Sedaris. I’m a David Sedaris completist. Even if this turns out to be a list of food he ate, I will read it. And it will be hilarious. This collection will be out in May. Mark your calendar.

 

 

 

 

 

30107561Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson. In his new novel, Wilson introduces us to Isabelle Poole, a pregnant teen who agrees to raise her child in an experimental collective called The Infinite Family. I enjoyed Wilson’s quirky style and compassionate voice in his debut novel, The Family Fang.

 

 

 

 

30268062Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. It’s his debut novel, but George Saunders’s achievements in nonfiction are many. The story is about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the beginning of the Civil War. And, as if this doesn’t sound interesting enough, there are ghosts!

 

 

31941884The Light We Lost, by Jill Santopolo. The Light We Lost is described as One Day meets Me Before You with an unforgettable ending. I’m fortunate to have an advance reader’s copy of this novel, set to release in May.

 

 

 

 

32616120Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay. I can’t think of an American writer whose work is more relevant and more poignant right now. Difficult Women is a collection of short stories all centered around—you guessed it— “difficult” women.

 

 

 

 

29974618The Mothers, by Brit Bennett. A number of you have had great things to say about this novel: the lovely, lyrical prose, the way the story unfolds over the course of a decade, the implications of living with the decisions made by our younger selves. Really looking forward to this one.

 

 

If you’re wondering, like I am, how you’re going to get through the stack of books on your list, check out Nina Badzin’s six tips for How to Read More Books This Year.

What books are you looking forward to reading? I’m always looking for recommendations. 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Be Your Own Hero

If you’ve been a writer for more than five minutes, no doubt you’ve been introduced to Joseph Campbell’s work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (If not, consider this your introduction. You’re welcome.) Campbell combines psychology with mythology to uncover the connections between folk tales told in different cultures across human history.

Through his research, Campbell found a standard set of archetypes in myths told around the world. In short, stories unfold in similar ways, no matter where they originated, because humans find these story structures the most satisfying. Storytellers have used these techniques for millennia.

So we writers often follow the Hero’s Journey for our characters, but what about ourselves? From time to time, we find ourselves mired in doubt and fear; we second guess; we lose our way. It can be difficult to summon the courage to keep typing, and it is sooo much easier to settle down to a Gilmore Girls marathon on Netflix with a bowl of chips and guacamole. (I’m just guessing.)

32964445A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to attend a talk by author, editor, and coach Kendra Levin. She knows a thing or two about helping writers be confident and stay calm. In her new book, The Hero Is You, Kendra suggests that we can embark on the Hero’s Journey by placing ourselves as the hero of our own story. I’ve never thought about myself as the hero of my own story. Have you?

How can I apply this to my writing life? Heroes protect, serve, and sacrifice.

  • Protect: My time, my ideas.
  • Serve: The greater purpose, what I am trying to say to the world through my writing.
  • Sacrifice: Gilmore Girls may have to wait.

It helps to create a realistic framework for how heroes do this.

  • Goals:
    • Track your progress. For me, this could mean meeting a certain word count each day or simply ensuring I work on my writing projects daily.
    • Break your journey into manageable chunks. It’s daunting to look at my WIP and think about how many pages I have yet to write. Having a separate document for each chapter makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something.
    • Reward yourself for each milestone. Maybe I’ll watch the first episode of Gilmore Girls.
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses:
    • Strength: I’m a morning person. Get up early, get words on the page.
    • Weakness: Oh, there is something called Gilmore Girls on Netflix?
  • Allies:
    • Find your tribe. Frodo had Samwise, Luke Skywalker had Han Solo, and Lorelai had Rory. I have a dedicated and intrepid writing group. (They are terrific, and I’m not just saying that in case they read this.)

 

kendra-levin-e1484057335875

At the end of her talk, Kendra asked us two questions:

  1. What is one small step you can make in the next week to work toward your goal?
  2. What step could make the biggest impact?

I really didn’t do Kendra’s book justice in this small space. The Hero Is you: Sharpen Your Focus, Conquer Your Demons, and Become the Writer You Were Born to Be delves into the different archetypes of  the Hero’s Journey and how that relates to your writing journey. You’ll find lots of encouragement and camaraderie within the pages. 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

Seventh Annual Great Books to Give…and Get

Books make great gifts. If you’ve got a long list of people to buy for this holiday season and no idea what to get them, here are a few suggestions from books I enjoyed this year.

 

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik BlackmanFor the curmudgeon in your life: A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Blackman. A charming book about a sourpuss who will win your heart! The author, Fredrik Blackman, has the ability to take serious subjects (death, suicide, OCD) and relate them in such a matter-of-fact way that they are not off-putting or used for shock value. Backman treats the issues and the characters with kindness. I was rooting for Ove from page one. A Man Called Ove redefines family and shows us the power of connection. I’m looking forward to reading other novels by Fredrik Blackman. Any suggestions on which one to pick up next?

 

The Gentleman, by Forrest LeoFor anyone who likes P.G. Wodehouse sprinkled with a little Noel Coward: The Gentleman, by Forrest Leo. Even if you’re not familiar with Wodehouse’s Jeeves books, just know that this one is a fun, hilarious farce. The basic premise: Lionel Savage, a poet and once-wealthy nobleman, finds himself short on cash and decides to marry Vivien Lancaster for her money. A few months into his marriage, he is disenchanted with Vivien and horrified to learn the poetry muse has left him…so he makes a deal with the devil. His ever-vigilant butler, Simmons, is there to help Lionel extricate himself from the steady stream of problems he creates.

 

 

Before the Fall, by Noah HawleyFor those who want a page-turner: Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley.  A small plane crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard and only two survive: a down-on-his-luck painter and a boy, the son of a wealthy television network executive. Did the plane crash by chance? Or was there something more sinister at work? It’s difficult to say too much about the plot without giving away any surprises. The author did a solid job of dropping hints so that you are sure any number of characters could have been responsible for the plane crash. The story alternates between each character’s point of view so you can see how desperate each person is to hold onto the ideas he or she values most. Sometimes it was downright frustrating and agonizing to witness the lengths to which some characters were willing to twist a tragedy into their own personal gain. A great page-turner!

 

Lab Girl, by Hope JahrenFor those who love to dig in the dirt or read about people who do: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. After reading Lab Girl, I will never look at trees the same way again. Respected scientist Hope Jahren gave me a new appreciation of these silent but knowing inhabitants of our planet. She has dedicated her professional (and one could argue her personal) life to furthering our understanding of the flora that is crucial to life as we know it. But this book isn’t all about trees. It’s also about Jahren’s life as a scientist, which can be a difficult road for a woman leading her own lab. I liked the structure of this memoir—personal reflections interspersed with informative science. Jahren does a lovely job of putting words to her emotions as in this one memorable passage: “I navigated the confusing and unstable path of being what you are while knowing it’s more than people want to see.” While this memoir is ostensibly about the path to becoming a scientist, it’s really about finding your tribe (even if that is only one other person), perseverance, and following your curiosity—universal desires to which many of us can relate.

 

Atlas ObscuraFor those who have wanderlust in the weird: Atlas Obscura, by Joshua Foer, Ella Morton, Dylan Thuras. “Inspiring equal parts wonder and wanderlust, Atlas Obscura celebrates over 600 of the strangest and most curious places in the world.” Yes, please! This book revels in the weird, the unexpected, the overlooked, the hidden, and the mysterious. From the dazzling glowworm caves in New Zealand to eccentric bone museums in Italy, every page expands your sense of how strange and marvelous the world really is.Just flipping through this book was a delight. The compelling descriptions! The illustrations! The photos! The charts! I’m using a lot of exclamation points because this book is that cool! I can’t think of a better gift for a creative person to be inspired.

 

Becoming Wise, by Krista TippettFor those who want a grounded and fiercely hopeful vision of humanity: Becoming Wise, by Krista Tippett. Krista Tippett is an accomplished conversationalist. She has interviewed the most extraordinary voices examining the great questions of meaning for our time, but her gift is knowing how to listen and expand the dialogue. From conversations with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to poet Naomi Shihab Nye to Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek, she aims to meet the world where it really is, and then to make it better.I came away from this book with a feeling of resilience and redemption, two words that seem to define her perspective. The book, like her podcast, is a master class in living in the 21st century. And if you haven’t yet listened to Krista Tippett’s podcast, “On Being,” do yourself a favor and go through the archives now.

 

Stories of Your Life, by Ted ChiangFor those who like character-driven science fiction: Stories of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. Disclaimer: I’m not an avid science fiction reader, but I loved this collection of short stories for the way Ted Chiang is able to use science to explore deeper questions about human nature. He asks the question every good writer (and perhaps scientist) asks: what if… What if men built a tower from earth to heaven—and broke through to heaven’s other side? What if we discovered that the fundamentals of mathematics were arbitrary and inconsistent? What if exposure to an alien language forever changed our perception of time? And as with any good story, the answers are never cut and dried. I was often left wondering about the phrase “perception is reality.”  One of the stories is the basis for the new movie “Arrival.”

 

Siracusa, by Delia EphronFor those who demand compelling, if not entirely likable characters: Siracusa, by Delia Ephron. Siracusa is the story of what happens to two couples on vacation in Italy. By the end of their short stay, events have occurred which will change their relationships forever—but maybe not in the way that you might expect.  Delia Ephron does a marvelous job in drawing well-rounded and believable characters. The four main characters (with each chapter alternating in first person among them) are crafted with precision. Their flaws and blind spots are apparent immediately. I feel I know them better than they know themselves. Have you ever felt conflicted about a novel even months after finishing it? I found it difficult to root for any of the  characters, mired as they were in their own shameless self-contemplation (and often self-congratulation). The very fact that I wanted to finish the book despite not finding any redeeming qualities in the characters is a testament to Delia Ephron’s skill as a writer. I’d be very interested to hear if you feel the same about Finn, Taylor, Lizzie, and Michael.

 

The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer AckermanFor the nature lover: The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman. After reading this book, you’ll never use the term “bird brain” again—unless you’re using it as a compliment!  There’s the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that can hide as many as 30,000 seeds over dozens of square miles and remember where it put them several months later, and the New Caledonian crow, the chimpanzee of the bird world, that makes its own tools. While some birds may not have traditional “book smarts,” they have “street smarts” in that they are able to negotiate complex social networks. They deceive and manipulate. They eavesdrop. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They share. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. All of these cool and interesting facts would have just floated by me if it were not for Jennifer Ackerman’s excellent storytelling abilities. She writes about avian intelligence in a clear, conversational style that kept me engaged to the last page.

 

Looking for more Great Books to Give and Get? Check out the previous lists: 20152014, 2013201220112010

What are some of your favorite books from 2016? Share in comments. 

Great New Books

I think the vast majority of books I’ve read in the past few years have come to my attention through personal recommendations. I rely on their honest opinions to help me select my next read. There are too many great new books to waste time reading bad books.

One site that I have been following since its inception five years ago is Great New Books. This site is a collective of 10 bloggers who take turns recommending a new book every Wednesday. They only review books they love, and, in turn, I have been introduced to many authors and books that otherwise would have escaped my notice. They have lengthened my TBR list considerably.

Today I have the distinct pleasure of offering my recommendation over at Great New Books. This summer novel will whisk you away to an island paradise with a family whose vacation turns out to be something short of bliss. Please join me there for my recommendation and a full archive of other Great New Books!

Why We Read: To Have Fun

Sometimes I don’t want a deep, thought-provoking read. Sometimes I don’t want to be challenged or need to research historical background. I just want to open the cover and enjoy.

Also, the onset of warmer weather encourages me to pick lighter subject matter. Sweeping epics like All the Light We Cannot See and Station Eleven feel stout, like a hearty bowl of stew. Good for curling up under a blanket on a winter’s day when the sun sets at 4:30. In the summer, I tend to gravitate toward the literary equivalent of flip-flops.

I recently read two books that were just plain fun. Just because these novels are entertaining doesn’t mean they don’t have well-rounded characters and an engaging plot. These books won’t ask a lot of you. They probably won’t change your worldview or evoke sympathy for others’ plights. You might not think about the characters long after you close the cover, but they will put a smile on your face.

16071745Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham

If you want to get yourself geared up for The Gilmore Girls episodes later this year, this will do the trick. Someday, Someday, Maybe feels like Bridget Jones meets The Gilmore Girls. It’s a new adult story of young Franny trying to land her first real gig as an actress in 1995 NYC. (A thinly veiled autobiography of Lauren Graham’s experience?) There’s plenty of witty banter, clever lines, and twenty-something angst.

We know how things are going to turn out for Franny, and in that respect, there isn’t much surprising about the story itself. There are no twists, turns or dark dealings. It’s a straight-forward tale about a time in our lives when we’re unsure of what is supposed to happen next, when all of life feels like a secret and we don’t know quite which way is up.  I listened to this as an audio book, which was the right call. Lauren Graham reads the story, and she’s perfect of course.

13538873Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Let me say that I have an unnatural attachment to novels about bookstores and libraries. I enjoyed The Storied Life of AJ Fikry and The Little Paris Bookshop. So I had a feeling I would like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but I didn’t know how much!

There is a secret society, high-tech whiz kids, special fonts (yes, I said fonts), and a budding romance. The story is always moving forward, weaving an interesting group of twenty-somethings that circulate around the main character, Clay. I think it’s safe to say that Clay has a lot of “just right” connections—far more than I had at his age—which all fall into place perfectly. He knows how to get his friends on board to help him solve the curious situation he finds himself in since he started working at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore.

Robin Sloan did a nice job of describing these disparate worlds—the high tech Google cohort and the secret society members who surround themselves in ancient texts clad in flowing black robes. If you pick up a “carbon-based copy” (as Alice in A Window Opens calls paper books), you’re in for a fun treat: the cover glows in the dark!


I’d like to recommend one more read centering around twenty-somethings, though maybe not as light-hearted as the books mentioned above. It’s a short story by yours truly, published this week at The Cortland Review. “A Seductive Shortcut” is a modern retelling of an Aaron Copland composition. It takes place at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and, yes, an Elvis tribute artist makes an appearance. I hope you enjoy it!

It was two a.m. They’d been up for nearly twenty-four hours. Married for four. Yet they stood at the edge of the lake, unable to tear themselves away and go into the hotel where one of those fancy high roller-rooms was waiting for them. Brian had booked it a few days ago when he’d had an inkling of this plan.

Can you recommend any fun reads?

Have a great weekend, everyone!