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My Year in Books: What I Read in 2016

My Year in Books:  What I Read in 2016

Last year I decided to list all the books I’d read in 2015, broken down by category. I don’t know if this was interesting for anyone except me, but I did point out which books I recommended and which I definitely did not.

I decided to do the same thing this year. This year, you’ll notice, I read A LOT of Young Adult and Middle Grade novels. I’m trying to become a YA/MG author, so this is called doing my homework. You’ll notice that within the self-appointed homework assignment, I stopped for a while in the Judy Blume cannon. I realized I’d never read the classic Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, so I read that and then went back and reread a couple other Judy Blume books.

You’ll also notice there isn’t much in this list that I highly recommend. I don’t know if I’m becoming pickier or if books are becoming crappier, but these days I rarely come away from a book with rave reviews. (See my post about that.) At Thanksgiving I was so dejected by my inability to find amazing books that I reread two of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels just to comfort myself.



I’m not sure what to do to remedy this problem. I started using #AskALibrarian on Twitter, but I’ve been disappointed by several of the books they’ve recommended to me. I recently read The Year of the Gadfly and Searching for the Rose Notes, both suggested to me by librarians on Twitter.  Although they both started out promising, the plots and character motivations became more and more muddled and ridiculous as I continued, and by the end of both books I found myself saying “Really? I read all the way to the end for this?”

I really want to find some amazing books to read in 2017, especially since I’ll be on maternity leave, and I’ve heard that breastfeeding is a great time to settle in with a novel. I guess I’ll keep asking friends and librarians and the Internet for suggestions, and I’ll  remember that if I’m really not enjoying a book, I don’t have to read to the end. There are plenty of other books to choose from, and I know there must be books out there for me to fall in love with.

What do you guys recommend?  What have you read this year that you loved?

Here is my list of books. (The * means I didn’t finish the book.)  Happy reading in the new year, everyone!


YA/MG: 35

The Voyage to the Magical North by Claire Fayers

Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin

George by Alex Gino

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro*

Trash by Andy Mulligan

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids by Shelley Tougas

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (I wrote a blog post about this one)

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The Hired Girl Laura Amy Schlitz

Stolen: A Letter to My Captor by Lucy Christopher*

Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead – RECOMMEND A really well-done contemporary Middle Grade novel.  I wrote a post about it here.

Doll Bones by Holly Black

Ash by Malinda Lo – (Cinderella as a lesbian of sorts.  Beautiful writing; terrible plot.)

Fairest by Gail Carson Lavine

The Girl I Used to Be by April Henry

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (I wrote a blog post about this one)

Looking for Alaska by John Green

The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas (I wrote a blog post about this one)

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell — HIGHLY RECOMMEND – A quiet YA romance between two misfit kids. Rowell creates so much tension and emotion within simple school and home scenes. I loved the characters, the dialogue, the interior monologues, everything. Beautifully-written and a great example of a story told from two points of view.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy — RECOMMEND – A YA comedy-romance about a fat Texas girl who decides to enter a beauty pageant. If you want a tutorial on how to plot a contemporary fiction novel, this is it. Murphy puts all the emotional highs and lows in just the right places and takes the reader on a charming roller coaster ride. She’s also created a fantastic character in Willowdean.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

A Path Begins (The Thickety #1) by J.A. White

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Blubber by Judy Blume (reread) — HIGHLY RECOMMEND Loved this book when I was a kid, and, to me, it is still the perfect contemporary middle grade novel. There are a lot of books for this age group about bullying, but in so many of them the bullying is predictable or generic or stereotypical.  In Blubber the characters, situations, and the bullying itself are all highly specific, and that’s what makes this book so real.

Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson by Judy Blume

Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume (reread)

The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (reread) — HIGHLY RECOMMEND Loved this book as a kid and still love it now. Raskin breaks all the rules (adult characters in a middle grade book, “head-hopping” in the narration, etc.), but she won the Newberry Medal for The Westing Game in 1978, which just goes to show that you can do anything you want in a book, as long as you do it well.

A Gift of Magic by Lois Duncan

I Am Drums by Mike Grosso


This is what the cover of Blubber looked like when I read it in the late 80’s.



In Search of the Rose Notes by Emily Arsenault

Each Vagabond by Name by Margo Orlando Littell

The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee — If you’re in the mood for something super light this is for you; it’s like Gossip Girl in book form.  And it’s set in futuristic Manhattan.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

The Girls by Emma Cline

Trans-Sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian

The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman (reread) —  HIGHLY RECOMMEND — Extremely imaginative and well-written fantasy.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman — RECOMMEND — Beautiful and haunting and strange.  A sophisticated fairy tale of sorts that’s like Coraline for grown-ups.

Elligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Predjudice by Curtis Sittenfeld — HIGHLY RECOMMEND — I LOVED this book, and I’m not even a Jane Austen fan. I thought it was such a clever farce. Sittenfeld takes the P & P characters and story but modernizes and enhances them in such creative ways. Loads of fun.

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia *

Cemetery Girl by David J. Bell

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

The Bees by Laline Paull*  — Very cool premise, and I loved it at first, but then I got bored about halfway through.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters — I mostly enjoyed it, but I’ve enjoyed other Sarah Waters books a lot more.

The Melting Season by Ira Sukrungruang

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

Losing It by Emma Rathbone — I’m only to page 65, but I assume I’ll finish before the end of 2016.  So far I’m enjoying it a lot, so we’ll see.  It could be a RECOMMEND!



I highly recommend this book.



Hidden Figures The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age by Katherine Ozment

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams by Deepak Chopra — RECOMMEND — This is a short little book with a lot of good, simple advice for how to live a happy and satisfying life – whether or not success, in your mind, includes money and accolades.

The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age Two by William Sears, Martha Sears, Robert W. Sears, James Sears

Girl in the Woods: A Memoir by Aspen Matis — I absolutely hated Aspen as a character and found her insufferable, and yet I couldn’t stop reading. I don’t know whether that’s a recommend for this book or not.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot -– HIGHLY RECOMMEND I’m sure you’ve heard of this book already, but the hype is real. It’s an interesting example of narrative nonfiction and an author who really inserts herself into the story.

Big Magic: Creative Living Without Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert —  Normally I love Liz Gilbert. I loved her novel The Signature of All Things and I loved her first nonfiction book The Last American Man. I also loved Eat Pray Love. But I did not love this book. It was okay — not terrible — but mostly forgettable.

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman — HIGHLY RECOMMEND — Written in a chatty, anecdotal style, I actually read this book before I got pregnant – just for fun. It’s very interesting and shines a light on how culture influences parenting styles.


I highly recommend this book, whether or not you’re an expectant parent.

Review of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Review of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

As a woman, as a Virginian, and as a former high school math teacher, the topic of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures both excited and moved me. She tells the true story of the black, female mathematicians who, during the labor shortages of World War II, came to work at NASA’s Langely Field campus in Hampton, Virginia. These “human computers,” most of whom had previously worked as underpaid math teachers in segregated public schools, stayed on at NASA after the war ended and became an important part of America’s race into space.

Fascinating, right? Totally. Except I had some trouble actually getting through the book.

Largely this was due to my taste in books. I was hoping for a highly-personal narrative that closely followed the lives of these brilliant women. I was hoping, to be honest, for another The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (a highly-personal nonfiction book that I devoured in two days). But that is simply not what Hidden Figures is.

Hidden Figures cover

I received Hidden Figures for review from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours


The book does follow four women in particular: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden. We learn about their personal lives as well as their careers and contributions to NASA. But it is done in a much more distant way than The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; instead of staying close to these women’s stories, the book often spans way out to address the wider historical context. For example:

So far, Hampton Roads had avoided the strife that had befallen Detroit, Mobile, and Los Angeles, where tensions between whites and blacks (and in Los Angeles, between Mexican, Negro, and Filipino zoot-suited youths and the white servicemen who attacked them) boiled over into violent confrontations…

…Negro resistance to this injustice had been a constant ever since the first ship carried enslaved Africans to Old Point Comfort on Hampton’s shores in 1609. The war, however, and the rhetoric that accompanied it created an urgency in the black community to call in the long overdue debt their country owed them.


Margot Lee Shetterly AP Photo by Aran Shetterly

Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampon, VA where she knew many of the women in Hidden Figures.


Also, unlike The Immortal Life, Shetterly, as the author, stays firmly behind the scenes (except for in the Prologue which, as it happens, was one of my favorite parts).  But all of this is not to say that Hidden Figures is bad or unreadable. The opposite, in fact.  It is a beautiful-written and expertly-researched book about a fascinating topic. It is the perfect book for people who love history and/or love reading nonfiction (especially if they enjoy nonfiction books about history). It’s not, however, the best choice for people like me who prefer novels, or at least nonfiction books that read like narrative fiction.

While this book wasn’t quite for me, I’m so glad it was written. I was happy to learn about these women, who proved you can be black and female and a top-notch mathematician (something, that, unfortunately, is still not as common as it should be.)  This is an important story that  most people knew nothing about until now.

What I’m greatly looking forward to is the motion picture; that’s right, Hidden Figures is going to be a movie! I’m guessing the film will likely focus on (and likely embellish) the narrative threads woven throughout the book and will provide me with the strong, personal story I tend to need when digesting my history.  The movie is due out this January.  It stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson and features Octavia SpencerJanelle MonáeKevin CostnerKirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons.




Review of Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, by Katherine Ozment

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Review of Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, by Katherine Ozment

Since 1990, more and more Americans have been leaving their churches and synagogues, and today nearly one-fourth of Americans claim to have no religious affiliation at all. In the thirty and under crowd, it’s a full one-third who categorizes themselves as nonreligious. In her new book, Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, Katherine Ozment examines this cultural shift away from organized religion and investigates alternatives for finding community and spirituality in the secular world.

I was really excited to read Grace Without God because, like Ozment herself, I consider myself spiritual but not religious. Ozment says that before she and her husband had children, she thought they’d “raise them in a colorful blend of religious pluralism – a little Zen Buddhism here, a visit to a Quaker meeting there, a smattering of secularized Christian and Jewish holidays throughout the year from which they would learn the basics of their heritage.”

That’s pretty much what my husband and I have been saying for the past few years, too. We figure we’ll have “spiritual time” with our kids each Sunday in which we’ll read a Bible story or a Greek myth or some other spiritually-minded text, talk about how to be a good person, then do a little meditation.


But, as Ozment explains, “vague plans are hard to enact.” When their kids were born, she and her husband forgot about their ambitious plans: “We held no bris or baptisms. We neglected to sign up for Hebrew school or seek a friendly nondenominational parish. We skipped most religious rituals all together.”

And then, five years ago, her eight-year-old son was watching as the parishioners of the Greek Orthodox Church across the street performed a Good Friday ritual, and he asked, “what are we?”

“We’re nothing,” she said. This answer sent Ozment into something of a crisis. In that moment she “felt at a loss to describe who we were, what we believed, and where we fit.” She decided to go on an exhaustive search to figure out the answer.

Ozement’s book is both a diligently-researched and highly-personal account of how she went about trying to make sense of religion, spirituality, and belief – both for herself and for her children.

Grace Without God cover


The first half of the book examines why people are leaving religion and the voids this can leave. Religion gives people a community and a sense of belonging. Religion gives people a value system and an opportunity to volunteer their time or receive support in times of need. People who have left religion often report missing the rituals and traditions that made them feel part of something larger than themselves. And lack of religion may be affecting the values of young people. According to Ozment’s research “two-thirds of children today think it’s more important to pursue their own personal happiness than to be good people.”

And when we try to create secular communities, rituals, and value systems, it can be difficult to do without the history and tradition that the major religions are rooted in. “Without religious belief,” Ozment writes, “we have to redefine what is sacred and then commit ourselves to nurturing and maintaining it.”   I felt the book got redundant about this point. Over and over again Ozment emphasized how religion provides us important things, and how it can be really hard to develop a sense of community and spirituality without it.

That’s why I was happy to get into the second half of the book in which Ozment stops agonizing over the problem and begins offering solutions. She describes alternatives to mainstream religion such as secular humanism, atheist groups, and secular rituals. I enjoyed learning about a Buddhist coming-of-age ceremony, the gift circle at the Ethical Culture Society, and nonreligious funerals. It was interesting to read about all the options out there for people who are looking for something to replace religion.

Reading Grace Without God made me re-think the vague plans my husband and I had made about “spiritual time” with our children. Maybe, before we have kids, we need to get clearer in our beliefs and values and figure out the best ways to provide our children with community, ritual, and opportunities for spiritual growth.

Perhaps that’s why my favorite two parts of the book came at the end. There is a large section of resources at the back of the book with questions to ponder, books to read, and websites to peruse.

And I loved the Epilogue, which is Ozment’s letter to her children. In it she sums up what she has learned in her years of research, and her advice to them is both poignant and practical. “Grace,” she says, “comes from knowing that to be alive and conscious in this world is a rare gift. If we are open to it, we can see that there is grace all around us, with or without God.”

tlc tour host

I received this book for free from TLC!

I Fell in Love with Tanka Poetry: A Review of Dawn Manning’s Postcards from the Dead Letter Office

I Fell in Love with Tanka Poetry:  A Review of Dawn Manning’s Postcards from the Dead Letter Office

At first, I wasn’t going to review Dawn Manning’s book of poetry, Postcards from the Dead Letter Office. After all, I don’t consider myself a poet. I don’t read much poetry. What would I have to say about her book? Certainly nothing intelligent.

But then I read the book, and I fell in love with it. I decided to review it (even though I might not say anything intelligent) because I want other people to discover this beautiful little book and fall in love with it, too.

One reason I’m so intent on sharing is that the poems in Postcards from the Dead Letter Office are accessible. You don’t have to be a literary scholar or have a degree in poetry to understand and appreciate them. And that, to me, is so wonderfully refreshing. These poems remind me that poetry isn’t supposed to make me feel stupid. Poetry is supposed to make me feel. And these poems do.


Postcards from the Dead Letter Office by Dawn Manning was published in 2016 by Burlesque Press.  It is available here, or on Amazon.  (What a good thing to read during National Poetry Month!)


Most of the poems in the collection are tanka, a form of Japanese poetry similar to haiku. When writing in English, Manning explains in the introduction, you can think of tanka “as a five-line poem that can be said in about two breaths.” What’s most important about the form, however, is that there is a pivot within the poem in which one image or idea turns into another:Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 10.47.25 AM.png

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 9.11.27 AM.png

Don’t you just love it? A row of gravestones becomes the teeth of a zipper that joins together heaven and earth. There’s so much to love in those five little lines. The image, the surprising metaphor, the feeling — both simple and complex — that this poem evokes. But I gush…

Manning’s tanka are bite-sized, able to be consumed in about two breaths. And yet they pack such an emotional punch. I have been reading a handful of her tankas each morning and feeling satiated all day.

Mexico 2012 006

Dawn Manning in Mexico.  Several years ago, I did this interview with her.


Postcards to the Dead Letter Office is broken up into themed sections:  tankas for each season and tankas for the various places the globe-trotting Manning has visited: Mexico, Venice, Scotland, and China to name a few. Interspersed among the tanka poetry are a few longer poems, though (to my short-attention-spanned-delight) none longer than twelve lines. The organization of Postcards as a whole was neat and beautiful, and when I finished reading the last poem, I felt complete; as if I had traveled the world in a single year and come home satisfied:

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 9.12.08 AM.png


Though the tankas are short (tweet-able, even), they say so much. Some explore beautiful images. Others take on personal topics. Occasionally, Manning mentions high-brow ideas like Ezra Pound or Monet paintings, but she kindly explains the references in her Notes section of the back of the book – she wants us to understand.  But perhaps the most wonderful thing of all is Manning’s cleverness, her quiet humor:

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 9.12.40 AM.png


Before reading Manning’s poetry, I had never heard of tanka. Now, I find myself so enamored with it I even tried writing some tanka of my own. It’s a fun form to dabble with, even for a self-proclaimed non-poet like myself.

Any poetry book that inspires me to write my own poetry must be good. And any poetry book I can read and enjoy from cover to cover… well, let’s just say, that doesn’t happen often.  Postcards from the Dead Letter Office is a collection I know I will come back to. Read and reread, savoring each deliciously dense poem. I can travel the world from the comfort of my living room, as Manning’s careful images bloom and turn in my mind.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 9.13.03 AM.png



I did a terrible job taking a picture of it, but Dawn made these wonderful postcards with her poems and photographs she took on her travels.

My Year in Books: What I Read in 2015

My Year in Books:  What I Read in 2015

Recently I was visited by the book fairy. At first, I didn’t realize it was the book fairy. I thought I had gotten drunk and ordered books online then forgotten about them. But no, a quick look at my account proved I hadn’t ordered Writing Great Books for Young Adults or Our Family Outing: A Memoir of Coming Out and Coming Through. These books just magically appeared on my doorstep the other day.  It must have been the book fairy, working her magic through Or, perhaps it was a sign that 2016 is going to be a good year for reading.

2015 has certainly been a good year for reading. I finally started using Goodreads for real, which has been super helpful for remembering what I’ve read and what I want to read.  It’s also a good place to gush or vent about books, sort of like having an Internet book club.

According to Goodreads, I’ve read fifty-two books this year — an average of one per week. What have I been reading?  Well, since I write books for young people, I try to read plenty of YA and middle-grade to get a sense of what’s out there. (Plus they’re just fun to read).  And reading thrillers is a great way to study plotting and how to write with suspense. (Plus they’re just fun to read.) This year I also read some (but maybe not enough?) literary fiction, and I rounded things out with a hefty does of nonfiction.

My books from the book fairy, under the tree.

My books from the book fairy, under the tree.

So here is my year in books, with special notes next to those I particularly did (and did not) enjoy. Oh, and as it turns out, Our Family Outing was actually ordered for me by a friend, not left by the book fairy after all. But Writing Great Books for Young Adults is still a mystery. Was it a gift or was it magic? Is it a sign? Will it be a good read? Only time will tell…


It Was a Very Good Year for Reading, or, The Books I Read in 2015


The Alchemist’s Daughter by Katharine McMahon

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (didn’t finish so this counts as a half)

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Find Me by Laura van den Berg DO NOT RECOMMEND How can a book with such a cool premise be so boring? I don’t know, but van den Berg manages to turn an apocalypse into a snooze fest.  So disappointing.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July HIGHLY RECOMMEND So weirdly sexual, so strangely heartfelt. July takes her usual type of protagonist — a lonely, neurotic, middle-aged woman — and gives her a disgusting and aggressive young roommate. This book is not for everyone, but it was definitely for me.

A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert HIGHLY RECOMMEND How can a historical fiction novel about an old maid who studies moss be a page-turner? I don’t know, but Elizabeth Gilbert manages to make it so. Completely compelling and beautifully written.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

Miranda July, author of The First Bad Man, has a message for you for 2016. photo credit.

Miranda July, author of The First Bad Man, has a message for you for 2016. photo credit.

     THRILLERS: 10

The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh RECOMMEND Creepy and suspenseful murder mystery set in an ominous small town in the Ozarks.

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter (Note:  The first half especially is suspenseful as heck, but it is not for the faint at heart – it gets pretty darn gruesome.  Trigger warnings out the wazoo.)

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

Don’t Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon

Promise Not to Tell by Jennifer McMahon RECOMMEND I read a lot of Jennifer McMahon books this year, as you can tell.  Even when they are sort of silly, I enjoy her stuff immensely because she mixes murder mystery suspense with supernatural spookiness in a way that is evocative and hard-to-sleep creepy. This one was probably the most suspenseful and had the least ridiculous ending. In a small town a girl is murdered… perhaps by the ghost of a girl who was murdered there thirty years before?

Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

In a Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware DO NOT RECOMMEND Wanted to like this one, but the characters were dumb and the plot was even dumber. The big reveal at the end caused me to groan and hurl the book across the room. About a “hen party” (what the British call bachelorette parties) that turns deadly.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith Wanted to enjoy this hardboiled mystery by J.K. Rawling, and I sort of got into it for a while, but then it didn’t quite hold my attention, and I ended up skimming the second half just to find out what happened.



     YA/MG: 14.5

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (didn’t finish so this counts as a half)

Flora and Ulysses by Kate Dicamillo

The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart

The Truth Commission by Susan Juby

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jen Han

Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead

The Lying Game by Sara Shepard

Never Have I Ever by Sara Shepard

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor RECOMMEND Beautifully written fantasy with a kick-ass, blue-haired protagonist and a wild otherworld of dangerous angels.  I don’t usually get into YA fantasy like this, but I was totally into this one.  I tried to read the sequel, though, and I couldn’t get into it.

Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillio

The Chosen One by Carol Williams RECOMMEND Thirteen-year-old Kyra lives in a polygamist society and has to escape before she is forced to marry her sixty-year-old uncle who already has six wives.  Whoa is right.  Go get this book now.



     NONFICTION: 16 (5 of which were books about writing)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert HIGHLY RECOMMEND I hate Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast, but boy can she write a book.  This one looks at the life of a fascinating and complicated man, Eustace Conway, who dresses in the skins of the animals he’s killed and eaten (and tries to convince everyone else to do the same.)  The really fascinating part, though, is the psychology behind Estace’s failed relationships with girlfriends and his own father.

The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace:  A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs HIGHLY RECOMMEND Oh so heartbreaking! So very, very heartbreaking!  Will give you much to think about as far as the stew of poverty, race, and class in America.  Written by his roommate at Yale, this is the true story of brilliant and charismatic Robert who grew up poor and black, managed to work his way to Yale, but then returned to his old neighborhood where he dealt drugs and was murdered in 2011 at the age of 30.   This is the only book in years that has moved me to tears.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace (only read half the essays so it counts as a half)

Smash Cut: A Memoir of Howard & Art & the ’70s & the ’80s by Brad Gooch

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (didn’t finish so counts as a half)

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham (This book is forgettable, yet pretty hilarious and enjoyable while you’re reading it.)

Queen of Fall by Sonja Livingston

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Missoula:  Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer (This book is long and full of trigger-warnings, but an important book, I think.)

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin HIGHLY RECOMMEND I would recommend this book for anyone:  man or woman, whether you’ve given birth or plan to or not.  Through individual stories as well as research and decades of midwifery experience, Gaskin shows that once birthing was taken out of the home, out of the control of woman, and put under the control of hospitals and doctors (and men), things changed, and not for the better.  This book gave me new understanding and appreciation of the mind-body connection and what women’s bodies are capable of doing, and it pretty much convinced me that if/when I have a baby, I want to do it at home.

Lust & Wonder: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs

     Books on the Craft of Writing:

Save the Cat:  The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder

Writing Irresistible Kid Lit:  The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction For Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers by Mary Kole HIGHLY RECOMMEND I’ve said this before, but this book is SO GOOD and I’d recommend it even if you’re writing for adults.  Lots of good stuff in here that I hadn’t read in other writing books.

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin

Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind

You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Nonfiction — From Memoir to Literary Fiction and Everything In Between by Lee Gutkind

Jump into a good book this year! (Photo by my brother, Deven Langston)

Jump into a good book this year! (Photo by my brother, Deven Langston)

Hide-and-Seek and What I Found in A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene

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Hide-and-Seek and What I Found in A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene

“Momma tells us it’s a game.”

A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene begins in the dark. Momma pulls her two young girls from their beds and takes them to hide in the bathroom. She locks the door and makes the girls lie down in the tub, piling towels on top of them. Then she gets in herself.

And thus we readers are pulled — ready or not — into this terrifying game of hide-and-seek and into this gut-wrenching story of one family’s desperation.

Told from the perspective of the older daughter, a perceptive ten-year-old who is hard-of-hearing, we see the family’s decent into poverty and violence through her eyes as she struggles to understand the actions of her self-destructive parents.

While I was reading A House Made of Stars, a memory came back to me. I was ten-years-old and playing at my friend Amanda’s house. Amanda’s father was dead — struck by lightning, she told me. Only now, years later, do I realize this is the kind of story a ten-year-old invents when she doesn’t know the truth, or, perhaps, when she’s trying to hide it.

My memory is of Amanda’s sixteen-year-old brother, acne-faced and heavy-set and scary as an ogre, chasing us through the house, threatening to kill us with a kitchen knife. Amanda and I hid from him in the attic, listening to his thumping footsteps below, and I didn’t know: was this a game? Or was he really going to kill us?

As a child — your life in the hands of the adults around you — there is fear in not knowing. And it’s scary when you realize the very adults you trust are hiding secrets.

In A House Made of Stars, Greene captures these fears of childhood, and she does so in the most dramatic of ways. The ten-year-old protagonist knows that secrets are being kept from her. She knows that Momma is hiding the truth about their family from Grandma (and perhaps from herself as well). She plays hide-and-seek with her cousin, but the real game is hiding from Daddy when he’s angry, or hiding in the car in the Wal-Mart parking lot when her bruises are too bad to be seen.

And because we experience the story through this ten-year-old narrator, we feel her fear. We overhear the adult’s voices in the next room, and we struggle along with her to understand what’s happening. Both she and the reader are in the dark, trying to make sense of this unstable adult world. We feel her helplessness, as well as her burgeoning strength.

A House Made of Stars is available for pre-order here.

A House Made of Stars is available for pre-order here.

A House Made of Stars certainly has similarities to stories of mental illness, poverty and child abuse, such as Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, and perhaps that would be my criticism:  that I’ve heard this story before.  But Greene’s novel it is something unique as well. She makes risky but rewarding choices with the prose. The language is sparse and rhythmic, and none of the characters are named –which seems to add to the poignancy and universality of the story. The short chapters set the pace as fast and urgent, and the childlike voice is all the more haunting because of its simplicity. I raced through the book in one night, feeling like my ten-year-old self, hiding in the attic and listening as the thumping footsteps grew closer.

In A House Made of Stars, the girl’s struggle is not only to understand the truth that’s been hidden from her, but also to decide whether or not to keep hiding. Is she ready to be found — and for Daddy to be found out — and if so, what will that mean for her and her family?

A House Made of Stars can be compared to Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. Even the names are similar!

In the end, for me, it was a game — Amanda’s big brother only trying to scare us — but not all children are so lucky. Perhaps we need another story like A House Made of Stars as a reminder that child abuse is happening all around us, hidden only by a thin veil of excuses and lies.

And, unfortunately, Tawnysha Greene’s gripping novel may be hidden from many potential readers. It’s published by Burlesque Press, which is a wonderful but small and relatively new operation.  (A House Made of Stars is their second book.)  This means you may not see Tawnysha’s book sitting on the shelves of Barnes & Noble.  It is up to us readers to spread the word and help this lovely novel be found.

You can pre-order A House Made of Stars here; it will be available on Amazon soon.    

You can visit Tawnysha Greene’s website here, or follow her on Twitter:  @TawnyshaGreene

Watch for my interview with Tawnysha Greene, coming later this week!  

Thank you, Burlesque Press, for the Advanced Reading Copy!

Smash Cut by Brad Gooch: Are You Cool Enough to Read This Book?

Smash Cut by Brad Gooch:  Are You Cool Enough to Read This Book?

*Check out my blog post for Carve Magazine about the Disabilities Panel at AWP 2015!*

Recently I became a book tour host.  Here’s how it works:  I tell the fine people at TLC Book Tours what types of books I like, and they send me free ones. I read the books and review them on my blog. It’s a win-win situation:  I get books; the authors get publicity. And, unlike a paying book review situation I did a few years ago (which shall remain nameless), I’m not required to give positive reviews. I can say whatever I want. Which means you know you can trust the following review of my latest TLC book…

Smash Cut by Brad Gooch is many things. At first I thought it a slightly pretentious, name-dropping memoir. Or perhaps a nostalgia-soaked literary ode to artsy-gay New York in the ’70s and ’80s. But as I got deeper into the book, I realized it’s something more. It’s a love story.

When I started reading Smash Cut, I didn’t know who Howard Brookner was, but a quick look on Wikipedia reveals that his life, especially the latter half of it, reads like a tear-jerker movie. He was a young director who gained fame for his documentary on William Burroughs (from whom he picked up a pesky heroin habit). His first feature film, The Bloodhounds of Broadway (starring Madonna, Matt Dillion, Jennifer Grey, and Rutger Haur), turned out to be his last. He was secretly battling with AIDS during the filming and died shortly before the movie was released, at the age of thirty-five.

Director Howard Bookner with William S. Burroughs, 1983. Photo credit.

In Smash Cut, the story of Howard comes packaged in the story of Brad, Howard’s long-time lover and best friend. In fact, Smash Cut is really Brad’s story, and perhaps that’s its downfall for me. The scenes without Howard — when Brad goes to Europe to pursue male modeling, for example — feel superfluous and indulgent, despite the fact that they are rather fascinating. It isn’t until Howard gets sick and the story turns its focus to him that I felt the true power of the book and the heart-breaking emotion behind Howard and Brad’s relationship.

The thing is, I’m a person who wants a story. I want a building of tension and a climax, and although that is certainly what happens in the second half of the book, memoirs can’t always have the arc of fictional stories. The first half of Smash Cut is more descriptive: of the clubs the men went to, of the eccentric/witty people they knew, as well as episodic: that time they went home to meet Brad’s parents, those nights when they hung out with Andy Warhol. There is a trajectory of sorts to be found in Brad and Howard’s relationship, but for a long time they are on-again, off-again and the story feels rather random…much like life, I suppose.

Let me be clear:  there are people who will love this book. If you were a gay man or an artist/model/literary type in New York in the 70’s and 80’s, you’ll love Smash Cut. If you wish you had been an artist/model/literary type in New York in the 70’s and 80’s, you’ll love Smash Cut. If you’ve fantasized about hanging out with people like William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, Madonna, or Sean Penn, you’ll love Smash Cut.

Brad Gooch

Brad Gooch


And there were times that I loved this book, too.  It’s sophisticated and elegantly written, and besides, who doesn’t want to read juicy tidbits about Sean Penn?  But sometimes I felt that instead of welcoming me into this fascinating world, Gooch’s references and his endless parade of “who’s who in New York” friends made me feel like I wasn’t quite cool or smart enough to join his private party. At one point Gooch describes being in love with Howard, “in a cool fashion that didn’t exclude others” (66), but this memoir, especially at the beginning, alienated me at times with its name-dropping, its tangents, its references to things I didn’t quite grasp. (Describing someone as having a Mark Spitz mustache, for example, doesn’t help when I don’ t know who Mark Spitz is.)

On the other hand, there are also parts of Smash Cut that speak universal truths and hit emotional chords. Strip away all the celebrities and witty dinner parties, and what you have left is the story of two people trying to figure out love and death.  As morbid as it sounds, I was most engaged when Howard got sick. Brad had no choice but to grow up; to care for his dying partner and face his own mortality as well. This is something everyone can relate to, and it’s what ultimately makes this book an ode — not to artsy-gay New York in the ’70s and ’80s — but to the love and friendship between Howard Brookner and Brad Gooch.

Brought to you by TLC Book Tours!

Brought to you by TLC Book Tours!