2018 – A Look Back; 2019 – The Year Ahead

Well, I didn’t read as much as I wanted to this year, especially the last couple of months of 2018. However, I did read more than I thought I did when I looked back over the list. Plus, I read some really good stuff! Quality over quantity, right?

I was trying to make a decision on what was my top, top read of the year. It was really tough, and I ended up with a Top 5. The list includes a variety of genres as you’ll see, and I think they are a good smattering of tastes and styles, old and new. You can go back and read the individual reviews at your leisure; I’m just listing why they made me happy!

First, I want to give a shout out to So Not A Superhero by S.J. Delos. It’s a self-published book and it’s a great example of the quality of writing in self-published material. I know non-traditionally published books often get a bad rap, but that’s changed a lot in the last few years. If you’ve given your blood, sweat and tears to a manuscript, why have your work sit in someone’s slush pile indefinitely when you can post it up on Amazon and reach millions of people instantly? So Not A Superhero is so worth the investment and so are many others you’ll find. Don’t be a publishing snob – you’ll miss out on some great stuff and I’m glad I took a chance on this book.

Second, I would be remiss to not mention Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston. If Kossola’s story doesn’t touch your heart, you don’t have one. This dialogue between Hurston and him is so poignant and so eye-opening and so, so heartbreaking. I’m betting that most of you only ever thought about the blight of slavery as happening to a group of people and not considered their individual horrors because that’s how it’s generally handled in history class. If so, then then you need to take the time to read this. Scratch that. You need to take the time to read this no matter what.

Third, I want to talk about Callahan Garrity and Heart Trouble. This is the last book in this series which was written in the 1990s. I devoured them in a short amount of time, not realizing how short the series is. Mary Kay Andrews has written a great deal, and this particular series was written earlier in her career and under the name Kathy Hogan Trochek. If you like mysteries where the characters and relationships are at the forefront and the mystery is secondary, you’ll love this series about a former cop turned private investigator who also owns a cleaning company. There is humor, drama, romance, and some really great storytelling. I haven’t gotten past the fact that there are no more Callahan Garrity books to be able to try Andrews’ other books but I will. I’ll get there. I’ve been assured they are just as good. Maybe 2019.

Fourth, I really, really enjoyed Erotic Stories of Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal. It was perhaps the most surprisingly delightful book out of everything I read. I didn’t know quite what to expect when I started it, but I found it funny, heartwarming, heart wrenching, and, yes, erotic. I said in my review that it is very reminiscent of Maeve Binchy’s work and I stand by that. I don’t always like books that celebrities go on about, but this one holds up well to the hype. Give it a try – I think you’ll enjoy it! (P.S. – I read it before Reese picked it!)

Last but not least is the book that I think I enjoyed the most because it was such a sweet surprise. – The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. This book was recommended by a coworker and I kind of got it on a whim. I listened to the audiobook, which was sublime. Mythology was always a favorite subject of mine, so I liked that aspect. Plus, it’s rare that you get new information on characters you think you know and this book brought a different take to the table about the Achilles story. Additionally, it’s quite simply a beautiful love story and a book that I thought about long after I finished it. Read it and see for yourself. Miller’s new book, Circe, will be on my 2019 list for sure!

Speaking of 2019, here’s the reading list I’ll be using for the next year with the option to make up my own categories as the need arises! Happy reading and happy 2019!

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Book Made Into A Movie

The things we do for money when we get desperate: sell plasma, pawn family heirlooms, barter agreements of various natures, forge letters from famous people and sell them to memorabilia collectors…bet you hadn’t even thought of the last one, had you? You’re welcome!

It takes real skill and imagination to create believable forgeries of some of the most well known names in Americana – Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Louise Brooks. It also takes real desperation and chutzpah to keep doing it. Stealing personal correspondences from a library collection, buying antique typewriters from an exact time period, creating a fake uncle of your own from whom you inherited these personal treasures that you can hardly bear to part with (wink, wink)…it’s a lot of work. In fact, it sounds like a caper from a movie that might star someone like, let’s say, Melissa McCarthy. Drama, hijinks, laughs, and a lesson learned at the end. Throw your popcorn away and go home.

If that’s a movie you want to see, you can! It’s real and so is Lee Israel’s story, a fact I didn’t realize when I plucked this book from a library display. I glanced at the back cover blurb, not reading it too closely (obviously) and thought it sounded interesting. It wasn’t until I got a little ways into the book and did my usual Google searches that I put the pieces together. Israel was a successful and respected celebrity biographer in the 1970’s and 1980’s, thus her skill in working out the nuances of a person’s character in the faux personal correspondences when she turned to forgery for a living. Israel’s fall came from a biography on Estée Lauder that was rushed to publication before it was ready (trying to beat the real Estée Lauder’s own memoir) and received with lackluster reviews. It was the failure that curtailed her professional writing career. That failure and her own difficult personality made her practically unhireable and she was on the brink of destitution. To top it off, her beloved cat was sick and she couldn’t afford the vet fees. That is what caused her to steal and sell her first celebrity letter and spurred her forward into the world of forgery.

As a matter of “professional pride as a writer,” Israel never directly plagiarized her material. Rather, she researched and read and studied other correspondence and life events of her subject and wrote the letters “in the style of” the subject, adding small details and personal thoughts from her vividly accurate imagination. Sometimes, the more embellished or racy the gossipy letter was, the more money she would get. As Israel writes, “I had already discovered that the scandalous pleased the dealers. A clucked tongue meant a better price.” Don’t we all love those scurrilous details? I’ve included a link here to an interview Israel did with NPR in 2008. It’s fascinating.

Sadly, Israel was a gifted writer but is mostly known for her criminal dealings. She died alone in 2015. I have not seen the film adaptation of this book yet, but I did find a trailer here. The movie was releases this week and hopefully is playing somewhere near you. This Vox article has some great tidbits about Israel’s life, including her purposeful downplaying of her partner in crime, Jack Hock. Israel never seemed very contrite about her con jobs and, in fact, was paid to write about her life and forgeries after being caught, as we know by this book review you’re reading! Others also seemed to admire her despite the criminality. The lead FBI investigator on Israel’s case, Carl Burrell, called her “brilliant” in her obituary and has stated his favorite letter of hers was one signed as Ernest Hemingway where he complained of Spencer Tracy’s casting in The Old Man and the Sea. Even those who bought the forgeries were not as angry as you might think. In this New York Times article, Naomi Hample, one former buyer of Israel’s faux letters, said, “I’m certainly not angry anymore, though it was an expensive and very large learning experience for me,” Ms. Hample said. “And she’s really an excellent writer. She made the letters terrific.”

For a slim volume (127 pages), there are certainly a lot of layers to peel through. If you’re very lucky, you may find one of the forgeries that are rumored to still be in circulation. Ironically, an Israel forgery can be pretty valuable. After all, they were so good that two of them were put into a collection of Noel Coward’s letters – as his own work! Now, that’s some good writing!

Book With A One Word Title

I’ve been reading a smattering of children’s literature lately to help friends sort through potential award nominees. One of the titles I came across was Dirt, a novel I would have loved as a kid.

The premise is one of hope and friendship. Yonder, a young girl whose mom has died, has quit talking. Period. She can talk, she just hasn’t since her mom died in a car accident. Her kind-hearted dad is despondent and drinks too much since his wife’s death, hardly noticing the comings and goings of his little girl. Yonder is teased and bullied at school, too stubborn to make her side of the story known. Our girl Yonder doesn’t take the bullying lightly, though, and gets a few licks in on the bullies. Of course, she is the one who gets suspended from school. After being suspended, she decides to skip school for a week, figuring nobody will notice. She busies herself around the shack she and her father call home and ventures out in the rain one evening. In the pouring rain she comes face to face with the little round Shetland pony from the neighbor’s house.

Yonder recognizes the pony and knows his reputation. The pony’s owner, Miss Enid, complains that the pony eats everything – glasses, newspaper, trash, iced tea (and the pitcher), tape, signs, and also has a penchant for pumpkins! Miss Enid calls him “evil pony beast,” so Yonder is hesitant to be around him. The pony has one eye and no name, but a mischievous and sweet personality that endears him to Yonder. She ends up calling him Dirt because he loves to eat it, play in it, and roll in it. Dirt becomes a regular visitor to Yonder and she realizes he is not an evil pony beast. He responds to Yonder even though she doesn’t speak. They quickly bond during Yonder’s week of being AWOL from school and Yonder finally has someone who cares about her and whom she can love in return.

The good times can’t last forever when you’re a young girl ditching school. The social worker shows up Monday to find out why she hasn’t been at school. Yonder nonverbally communicates she’s sick. Each day, Yonder promises to go to school. When she doesn’t show, the social worker forces her out the door. Off to school she goes only to come home and find she’s had a visitor. Dirt has made himself at home, getting into the “special cider” and taking a long nap in her house. Yonder and Dirt fall into a pattern of after school visits and they communicate wordlessly, growing closer as the days go by. Yonder worries that Dirt is not cared for when he wanders back to his home each night, just as Yonder is neglected by her own father as he falls into a deeper depression and drunken stupors.

One evening, Yonder is out walking and realizes Miss Enid is selling Dirt. And not as a pet. The sign in her yard says “Pony for sale. Good quality horsemeat.” Horrified, Yonder takes off to find Dirt to make sure he hasn’t already been sent away. Dirt is at her home, eating a fresh pumpkin. Yonder decides to move him into her house, hoping her father, in his stupor, won’t notice. He notices. Her dad agrees that Dirt can’t be sold for meat and offers to try and help Yonder keep him and, just like that, Yonder’s best friend moves in. Yonder heads to the library (my girl!) to research the care and keeping of Shetlands and finds it’s not unheard of for Shetlands to live in a home.

The two have an affectionate relationship. Yonder sets about getting Dirt’s room ready, training him to potty outside, and exercising him in secret. They play and nuzzle and enjoy each other’s company, often leaning up against each other and staring up at the sky. As Yonder says, “Sometimes the weight of a friend who needs you can lessen your load.”

The routine that Dirt and Yonder fall into is interrupted. Another bullying incident happens and Yonder decides she’s done with school. Social services eventually comes knocking again, and time’s up for Yonder, Dirt, and her dad. Things go from bad to worse as Yonder is placed in foster care and her father has a stroke from the stress. The doctor says Yonder’s dad will be in the hospital for quite awhile as he recovers, which means longer foster care for Yonder. Realizing she can’t do more for her father than the hospital can, Yonder hopes she can at least save Dirt. The rest of the book follows Yonder’s quest to track down her beloved friend, encountering a slew of people and animals along the way and using her determination and ingenuity to track down Dirt. He nasty Miss Enid brags she sold him to the junk man; he has sold Dirt to his brother; the brother has sold him to a petting zoo…you get the idea. It’s an ongoing chase to a satisfying conclusion.

The author, Denise Gosliner Orenstein, is pictured above with what I assume is the inspiration for Dirt. It’s a good story, reminiscent of other equine classics like Misty of Chincoteague, Black Beauty or The Black Stallion, one of my personal childhood favorites. Horse lovers and book lovers will enjoy this one!

Book Based On It’s Cover

Do you love IKEA? Me, too! The cozy home-like display rooms, the ingenious small space solutions, the inexpensive kitchen items, the meatballs! Heaven on Earth! Sneak into a small corner somewhere, wait till closing, and have the whole night to pretend to live in the tiny homey spaces! My love for IKEA is what drew me to the cover of this book. When the lights go out, however, what really happens? Horrorstor has some ideas about that.

A Home for the Everyone! That’s the motto for Orsk, a fictitious furniture superstore that was created to be a direct competitor with the superior IKEA. Orsk markets the same sleek, simple (and hard to put together) designs that IKEA offers, as well as the store model and naming style. However, someone seems to be getting a little too comfortable in the staged home areas, and employees notice weirdly placed fecal remains, broken items, and graffiti happening every night after the store closes. Has someone decided to vandalize the store? Are homeless people getting in? Disgruntled employees? Someone or something else? Five employees stay late one night to find out.

Basil is the upwardly ambitious supervisor. Amy is the unhappy employee who hates him. Ruth Ann is the “go to” employee for anything unpleasant that needs to be done. Matt and Trinity are the wannabe ghost hunters (Bravo, not A&E). Together, they spend the night to find an answer to the mystery.

Basil, Amy, and Ruth Ann are actually on the clock. While on patrol around the store, they find that fellow employees Matt and Trinity have snuck in also, not knowing the other three would be in the building. Matt and Trinity are hoping to use the investigation to make their big break to national ghost hunting fame. They are the only two who are actually glad to be there. The group gains a little bit of insight about each other while they wait out the night, but it’s not long before the group has more to deal with than office politics.

There are explainable noises, and the group does find a homeless man in the store. He denies being the one who defaces and damages the store, though. That’s not nearly the end of the bizarre happenings. Amy ends up calling the police once they encounter the homeless man. Even though she tries to call them off, they are obligated to arrive. However, there is a weird vibe in the building that makes employees feel lost and bewildered and it apparently extends to the outside world. The police call for directions more than once, but can’t seem to find their way to the massive store. Basil goes out to try to flag them down. Meanwhile, the rest of the group (including the homeless guy) decide to hold a seance to test for any ghosts in the building. Guess what? It works. Our group encounters The Warden, an evil entity attached to the former prison that used to be at the same property.

One by one, the group encounters The Warden and his crew who get into their heads, convincing them that they are worthless. Why fight the truth? You’re only good enough to run a register or answer call center phones. Stop resisting. More frightening and gruesome things happen to the group, just like any other horror story. However, the underscoring theme is the hell of retail and the churning out of bodies who make the minimum in order for upper management to make the maximum. Am I right? Ghastly. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked a lot of retail and loved it for what it was, but it’s not always workable to be a helping hand up.

No surprise, I chose the audiobook. Bronson Pinchot is a guest narrator giving the Orsk commercial blurbs throughout the regular narration given by Tai Sammons. The real book has more of a catalog feel to it. The image below is a screenshot from it, with story and fake catalog side by side.

It’s an interesting listen, a good quick horror story as we head into October. You can take it at face value or appreciate the satire. Either way, it’s entertaining and seems to have a cultish following. Here’s a quirky little book trailer for Horrorstor. Evidently, a television show was in development in 2015 but no word now on what became of it that I can find. In TV land, “in development” runs on its own timeline. I also found this Q & A with author Grady Hendrix.

Book About Books

Love letters and Dear John letters comprise this collection where a librarian waxes poetic about books she loves and hates and some to which she has to bid a fond farewell. The librarian in question, author Annie Spence, covers a broad range of titles in her collection of letters. As she explains, librarians are always working those books shelves for personal reading, recommendations for others or checking condition and use of each title for a final withdrawal from the collection. Spence singles out certain titles or authors and then writes personal letters to them that include anecdotes from library interactions, personal reflections, and always entertaining dialog on the pros and cons of popular selections.

The letters are funny and not remorseful at all of the books she doesn’t like or has never read. For example, Spence takes home Anna Karenina for a month, never reading a page of it. It sits around her home, waiting for The Bachelor to be over or for Rainbow Rowell and Dolly Parton’s biography to vacate her bed. Sadly, Anna Karenina is not to be and Spence’s letter apologetically relegates the tome back to the stacks.

As an example, The Time Travelers Wife is a personal favorite of hers, partly due to the main character working at the same library she did at the time. However, her reflection on the book goes much deeper and she discusses how reading and re-reading the book at different ages gave it a different but no less significant meaning to her life. This could be true of many favorites you read and re-read throughout our lives; different ages give different perspectives. You pick up nuances you missed before or passages that didn’t matter that much on the first reading take on a new life when read again. The Virgin Suicides is a 15-year favorite book of hers and the most perfectly written book in her opinion which affected her deeply. 50 Shades of Grey takes a beating (rightly so, imho) as does Twilight and Bill O’Reilly, and Spence shares her woe about the constant requests for these books (50 Shades made her say the word erotica to an old lady!) while they are surrounded by much better choices.

I chose the audiobook for this one and I was not disappointed. Spence and I actually share a lot of favorite titles and opinions on books (although we disappointingly disagree on The Hobbit), so it was an entertaining list to go back and revisit, comparing my feelings and thoughts to hers. There is even some book shelf envy in the passages, which is a real thing when you’re trying to organize a personal collection. The struggle is real, people. There are also titles I haven’t read, so it was nice to have something like a conversational book talk about several things that are now on my TBR list. There is humor, yes, but also a poignancy about the books that helped raise her, saw her through adulthood and the single years, marriage, childbirth, and post-partum depression.

I won’t lie, there are some spoilers throughout the letters. The book is organized in a way that you could skip the ones you don’t want to read just yet, and then go back later and pick them up once you’ve read the book. This book reminds me of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust series, Bibliotherapy, and other reading guides but with more personal anecdotes. not necessarily a book you want to read or listen to in one setting, but it’s a great book to browse as your mood suits you and one you will probably refer to over and over again. NPR’s article about the book is here. It’s a great choice for book lovers, either yourself or a friend. I’m betting you’ll find some as yet undiscovered gems!

Book Made Into A Movie

It’s 1962, and England is in the midst of losing its status as the center of the world to America and Russia. The dashing young President Kennedy shines his influence across the ocean and youth and exuberance are the coin of the day. The Pill is emerging in polite society, but just barely. On Chesil Beach, however, innocence prevails. Two young newlyweds are facing the daunting prospect of consummating their marriage. Both are virgins, and both are anxious about the impending event for their own reasons. Edward, apparently having experienced some degree of fooling around, is worried that he will again be overexcited and disappoint his bride (and embarrass himself) by arriving too soon as they say. Edward’s fears are the normal jitters of a naive virgin – you know there is an act to perform but you aren’t quite sure how to go about it.

Florence, on the other hand, has a real dread and disgust for what she knows of the sexual act. She loves the idea of being pregnant by Edward, but the act of becoming that way seems thoroughly offensive to her. Florence’s only frame of reference is a handbook for young brides that uses the terms engorged and penetration quite often, which sounds painful and uncomfortable and makes her not at all look forward to a lifetime of this activity. Florence’s mother is not open to a more enlightening discussion, her sister is too young, and her friends are too gossipy to ask. As author Ian McEwan writes, “…her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement and flesh; her composure and essential happiness were about to be violated.” Florence wants a life with Edward, but sex with him would not be “the summation of her joy, but was the price she must pay for it.”

Of course, neither has expressed their fears to the other. Especially not Florence, who was certainly okay with the engagement, the wedding, the excitement of married life…but not actual sex. This was never a conversation she had with Edward. As far as he’s concerned, she’s a nervous bride and he mistakes her rising nausea at the thought of consummation as her excitement for the unknown act to come. So, what’s a young, newly married couple to do?

It’s hard to imagine in this day and age when everything (and I mean everything) is exposed in film, television and reality shows. To go back to a time of such innocence in the first few pages of this book is both refreshing and cringe-worthy. You feel for the unenlightened couple, but it’s also sweet that they still have the most intimate things to discover about each other.

The book as a whole takes place on this wedding night. The nervousness and apprehension are interwoven with both their own thoughts and the memories of how the two met and courted. You see the signs, the two people who love each other but maybe love the idea of each other more. Edward, the history major, is truly smitten with Florence; the only thing Florence is truly passionate about is her music. While Florence loves Edward, her emotion is more familial. Not exactly what a young groom hopes from his bride.

McEwan hints at reasons for Florence’s revulsion, and the early 1960s are before the height of psychoanalysis, which Florence even mentions she might need at one point in the book. The “Will they or won’t they” question lingers in the air throughout the book and the ending still leaves me pondering the decisions made by the couple. I’m including a review from The Guardian here that I really enjoyed.

Since this is a ‘book to movie’ selection, I’ll give you my quick thoughts on the film. Not everything translates well to the big screen. The book immerses you into the conversations and minds of Florence and Edward, making the short novel a more intimate experience than you get from watching the film. While well acted, the film is just this side of boring. The inevitable changes that ruin most book to movie adaptations are there, of course, and it doesn’t help endear the movie to the audience. I can’t say a lot more about it without giving away the book plots, but it’s at least worth a look after you read the book!

You can see a trailer for the movie here. I found many articles bemoaning the film adaptation. One review from The Spectator can be found here and one from Roger Elbert’s site here.

Book with A Number in the Title

I’m sure many of you have taken one of the DNA tests out there through something like Ancestry.com or 23 and Me, right? You’ve at least heard of them. You can find out your familial regions, your predisposed tendencies for certain illnesses, and police are using them to solve crimes. What if you could also use it to improve your love life? Even more, what if you could use it to obliterate the dating and second guessing altogether? What if you could use DNA testing to find The One?

Imagine the possibilities! Think of the stresses and heartbreak of the dating scene, the crappy pick-up lines, the creepy dudes, the shadows of exes lurking in the background. Ugh! I’m over it. Take one simple test and your DNA will match you through legit science with the one person in the entire world who is just right for you. That’s it. No more dating, just start your life together and be happy forever!

There are downsides, of course. Who cares if you’re engaged already or have been married and had kids with someone else? The DNA match is who you are meant to be with. What if your match is living across the world or has age/race/religion differences? Would you take the test anyway, even if it meant that your current happy relationship with someone might be upended? You could always choose not to take the test, or just ignore the results if you aren’t matched with your current partner. Some people take the test but never get matched for one reason or another. Do you wait the rest of your life for the hope of a match? Ignore the science and choose your mate with the random waves of the universe the way humans have done for thousands of years?With the niggling doubt in the back of your mind that someone else might be out there waiting for you…?

Would you do it?

In The One, we follow the stories of several characters who have taken this DNA matching test that has become a worldwide sensation. It’s made divorce rates skyrocket, but is more promising for an almost zero divorce rate with future generations. Plus, it’s no scam – there is actual (fictionalized) science explained in the book about how the DNA is extrapolated into finding the other person in the world who best suits you. Online dating sites are going by the wayside and why wouldn’t they? You can pay only 9.99 (pounds sterling) and find The One. We meet a young engaged couple who decide to take the DNA test just to see what happens (never a good idea); a divorcee whose husband has left her for his own DNA match (that has to hurt); a young Scottish woman who has a match in Australia whom she’s never met (red flags); and a serial killer who is looking for true love (but finding victims on the remaining dating sites left open). Oh, and a female billionaire who’s notoriety keeps her out of any normal dating pools (how do you hide that secret?).

It’s an interesting concept and the story is a mix of British chick lit, sci fi, and thriller all rolled into one. Some of the plot points are easy to see coming but the story is compelling and keeps the reader interested throughout. There are also some compelling twists and turns that come with such a genre mash-up. Let’s just say that the serial killer may not be the creepiest person in the book! There are definitely the warm and fuzzy feelings, as well. It’s a good mix of sweet and sinister.

I’ve included a link here to some book club questions and other tidbits about author John Marrs and a link to the Kirkus Review if you still need to be convinced to read it!