Reviews

2019 Favorites

As indicated by my continually languishing blog, 2019 was not my best year (why is adulting so hard?!), but it was a busy year! I still prefer long form reviews, but I definitely get more engagement on Instagram, so you can often find me there. However, I can’t completely throw in the towel, as I think I still have a handful of readers, so this post is for you!

The River // Peter Heller. Full of elegance and foreboding, Peter Heller has written an outstanding novel that’s part love letter, part warning label for the natural world. From pragmatic Jack to the introspective Wynn to mercurial mother nature, the character development is excellent. As the boys move from the calm lake waters to the swift whitewater of the Maskwa River, the pace of the story moves with them. Heller, a former contributing editor to Outdoor magazine and National Outdoor Book Award Winner, is adept at describing the terrifying beauty of the world around us and, for me, it’s where the novel really shines.

The Institute // Stephen King. Not his best, and not his worst, but I was thankful to return to the comfort and atmosphere of his writing. Set in a medical research lab (in Maine!) that has a habit of kidnapping children, Luke Ellis and his fellow gifted residents must find a way to break free of the institute, or risk never leaving at all.

Marilou is Everywhere // Sarah Elaine Smith. Did you like Twin Peaks? How are My Absolute Darling? Yes and Yes? I have the book for you.

A Prayer for Travelers // Ruchika Tomar. Disorienting and compelling, A Prayer for Travelers has Cale searching for her beautiful friend Penny, who has disappeared from their small desert town. Non-linear and often raising more questions than it answers, Tomar’s book of friendship and a dying town will haunt you.

Ghost Wall // Sarah Moss. An eerie, atmospheric tale of a teenage girl who, along with her parents and several others, attempts to reenact the Iron Age in Northumberland. A complex, disquieting read. This is a book I read and didn’t initially rate highly, but I’ve thought about it so often over the last ten months that I had to include it.

The Choke // Sofie Laguna. I didn’t review this one, but I’m still thinking about it. Kate did a lovely mixtape for it. A beautiful, traumatic read.

The Reckless Oath We Made // Bryn Greenwood. I loved All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, and I had high hopes for this tale of Zee, a woman on a dangerous path, and her knight Gentry. I was not disappointed.

The Nickel Boys // Colson Whitehead. This one is on everyone’s list, and rightfully so. It’s that good.

Fall Back Down When I Die // Joe Wilkins. If you’ve been considering this one, or even if you haven’t, Fall Back Down When I Die by Joe Wilkins is a must read for literary fiction fans. Set in rural Montana, Wendell is a poor ranch hand, barely getting by, but he doesn’t say no to taking care of seven year old Rowdy, the son of his incarcerated cousin. Following the trials of these two, set against the backdrop of the first legal wolf hunt in thirty years, will break your heart. A truly touching, timely novel. 

Daisy Jones and the Six // Taylor Jenkins Reid. I started this in book format, but switched to the audio version and it was AMAZING. When a book is told through so many different perspectives, actually hearing the characters is so helpful to me, otherwise their “voices” tend to blend together in my mind (I find myself going back to the beginning of the chapter to find out whose perspective it is). Given the huge amount of coverage this novel has received, there’s no need for me to say anymore than “it’s a good one.”

Here’s to 2020!

Lists

A Decade of Favorites

I’m not prepared to write my best of 2019 list yet (that’s coming at you tomorrow), although when I do, I suspect it’ll be different from the lists floating around, simply due to the fact that I have not kept up with the hype this year. There have been too many behind the scenes happenings to devote a lot of time to my favorite hobby.

Now that I have been blogging for so many years, I thought it would be fun to take a look back on my favorite books over the last decade – the ones that have truly stood out above the rest. Most of these books contain characters and events that still cross my mind, even years later, or writing so beautiful that it’s really stuck with me.

Without further delay, here are 30 (!!) books over that last decade that have left a significant impression on me.

2019: (1) The River // Peter Heller. (2) Daisy Jones and the Six // Taylor Jenkins Reid (on audio, specifically). More to be determined once the year wraps up.

2018: (1) The Line That Held Us // David Joy. (2) Spinning Silver // Naomi Novik. (3) West // Carys Davies. (4) Foundryside // Robert Jackson Bennett.

2017: (1) My Absolute Darling // Gabriel Tallant. (2) The Bear and the Nightingale // Katherine Arden. (3) The Rules of Magic // Alice Hoffman. (4) The Heart’s Invisible Furies // John Boyne.

2016: (1) All the Ugly and Wonderful Things // Bryn Greenwood. (2) Sweetgirl // Travis Mulhauser. (3) The Girls // Emma Cline.

2015: (1) Get in Trouble // Kelly Link. (2) Kitchens of the Great Midwest // J. Ryan Stradel. (3) The Library at Mount Char // Scott Hawkins.

2014: (1) Shotgun Lovesongs // Nickolas Butler. (2) The Ploughmen // Kim Zupan. (3) Burial Rites // Hannah Kent. (4) Euphoria // Lily King.

2013: (1) The Good Lord Bird // James McBride. (2) Donnybrook // Frank Bill. (3) Fortune’s Pawn // Rachel Bach.

2012: (1) Tell the Wolves I’m Home // Carol Rifka Brunt. (2) Tigers in Red Weather // Liza Klaussman. (3) Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk // Ben Fountain.

2011: (1) The Devil All the Time // Donald Ray Pollock. (2) A Discovery of Witches // Deborah Harkness. (3) The Sisters Brothers // Patrick DeWitt.

2010: (1) Under the Dome // Stephen King? I wasn’t tracking my reading in 2010. I had toddler, ended the year very pregnant with my next (he was born January 2011) and we moved into a fixer-upper. Come to think of it, I probably didn’t even read…

Reviews

Honor Roll // Vol. 4

I’m certainly not one to declare the book review dead (but did anyone even see my Bring Out the Dogs review, I think not…), however I do think it’s the type of post that’s less engaging, less likely to be clicked on, less likely to be read… You get the idea. And, dear readers, I’m secure enough in my insecurity to admit I do want people to read what I write, if only to continue to share my love of whatever wonderful/quirky/clever/delightful/daunting/terrible book I just read. These are a few that made my honor roll, and here are the ones I don’t think you should miss.

The Widow of Pale Harbor // Hester Fox. I absolutely loved The Witch of Willow Hall (Fox’s first novel) and I’m happy to report her sophomore novel is equally as entertaining. Sophronia Carver, widow and town pariah, is the immediate suspect when a series of escalating town pranks strike Pale Harbor, Maine. When the pranks turn deadly, she begins to fear she’s being targeted. Gabriel, the town’s new preacher, is enchanted by the widow, and seeks to prove her innocence. With a bit of romance, Edgar Allen Poe, and a whole lot of Gothic-ky goodness (yes, that’s the technical term), The Widow of Pale Harbor is a delightful October read.

Last Ones Left Alive // Sarah Davis-Goff. Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff surprised me. I was expecting a run of the mill zombie novel – perfect autumn reading – but not a thoughtful story of survival and loneliness. Living on an island off the coast of Ireland, Orpen’s childhood has been as idyllic as possible, given the skrake (zombies left to roam the countryside of mainland Ireland). Orphaned after the death of her mother and her partner Maeve, Orpen leaves the island in search of someone, anyone else left out there. She scours the country, her journey fueled by tantalizing scraps of decades old newspapers and flyers, searching for the banshees. Who and what they are? She has no idea. Davis-Goff’s novel is riveting, a tense road trip through a ravaged Ireland. Orpen grapples with isolation, loneliness, and fear, determined to find out if she’s the last one left alive. A solid addition to post apocalyptic literature.

The Bear and the Nightingale // Katherine Arden. This novel is an absolute delight. In the same vein as Spinning Silver and Uprooted, The Bear and the Nightingale was pure reading pleasure. Arden’s novel in rooted in Russian fairytales, following the Petronova family. Vasilisa is the primary character, though a few of her siblings are prominently featured, I enjoyed it from the first page until the last, and I can’t wait to read the next two in the trilogy.

The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs // Katherine Howe. This one has everything that appeals to me in an autumn novel: witchcraft, academia, cursed romance, and family secrets. The greater Boston area setting is just a bonus. In this novel we return to the world of PhD Connie Goodwin, her steeplejack Sam, and archives of the greater Boston area (Salem, Marblehead, etc.). If you enjoyed The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, pick this one up, it’s such a lovely follow up.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest // J. Ryan Stradel. This one languished on my shelf for too long, and now since reading it, my review of it has been suffering the same fate. This charming novel, starring the once in a generation palate of Eva Thorvald, is a punchy, satisfying story of family in all its messy forms. It’s hard to say more than that, but Eva’s culinary adventures with her unique family will stick with me for a long time. It was an unexpected delight and I highly recommend it.

Reviews

Bring Out the Dog // Will Mackin

I’ve had this collection of stories for an embarrassingly long time, long enough that I don’t even want to admit how long. Let’s just say it was well before their eventual publication (thanks, Netgalley, and sorry for being such a deliquent!).

Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog is a collection of stories that depicts the absurdity and tragedy of modern warfare. The stories aren’t particularly gruesome, and there’s little in the way of the overt masculinity I associate with a Hollywood blockbuster depiction of war. Stories of war can easily translate to grandiose adventures and great acts of heroism. Thankfully, this is not that story, and despite it’s grim subject, it’s a humane collection – gritty and honest – laced with just the right amount of dark humor and boredom. I enjoyed it very much.

“I wondered if, one night, we’d drop out of the starry sky in our blacked-out helicopters and land near a walled compound in the desert. We’d run toward that compound with the rotor wash at our backs, through the dust cloud that had been kicked up by our arrival and out the other side. Through a crooked archway in the compound’s outer wall, we’d enter the courtyard. And there, among the fig trees and goats, we’d find an American tourist with a camera slung around his neck. Having served his time in Afghanistan, our fellow-American had gone home, fallen in love, got married, and had the two bow-haired daughters now hiding behind his legs. Maybe he’d wanted his girls to see how brightly the stars shone in the desert. Maybe he’d wanted to share with them all the strange places the Army had sent him, way back when. I imagined that he’d look over at us and then say, with understanding and remorse, “Dudes, war’s over.”

Highlight include “Crossing the River with No Name”, the story of a man who has already used his miracles, “The Lost Troop” (from which the paragraph above is taken), a story of a troop revisiting their interpreter’s petty childhood teacher, and “Great Circle Route Westward Through Perpetual Night”, which is the story of the death of the troop’s dog.

I picked this up based on the striking cover and the even more striking George Saunders recommendations. I was not disappointed. If you’re interested in the modern American experience in war but don’t know where to start, this is an excellent place to begin.

Miscellanea

Readers Imbibing Peril | #RIPXIV

It’s (almost) the best time of the year. Apples! Apple cider! Apple cider donuts! Crunchy leaves! And my personal favorite, the return of sweater weather (and before the onset of parka weather). This also means it’s time to imbibe some peril. If you’re like me, it tends to mean mildly perilous. Having children has made me a bit squeamish, especially in regards to movies. I just don’t want anything bad to happen to anyone.* That being said, I’m sure one or two misfortunes will befall the lovely characters below. It is (almost) October, after all.

READ:

False Bingo // Jac Jemq. “The mundane becomes sinister in a disquieting story collection from the author of The Grip of It.” Yes, please.

The Institute // Stephen King. ” From #1 New York Times bestselling author Stephen King, the most riveting and unforgettable story of kids confronting evil since It—publishing just as the second part of It, the movie, lands in theaters.”

The Widow of Pale Harbor // Hester Fox. A town gripped by fear. A woman accused of witchcraft. Who can save Pale Harbor, Maine from itself?

The Choke // Sofie Laguna. “A brilliant, haunting novel about a child navigating an often dark and uncaring world of male power, guns and violence, in which grown-ups can’t be trusted and comfort can only be found in nature, The Choke is a compassionate and claustrophobic vision of a child in danger and a society in deep trouble.” 

Picnic at Hanging Rock // Joan Lindsay. ” It was a cloudless summer day in the year nineteen hundred. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three of the girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of Hanging Rock. Further, higher, till at last they disappeared. They never returned.” This is a classic I’ve never gotten around to, but I am here for it now.

Last Ones Left Alive // Sarah Davis-Goff. “Last Ones Left Alive is the story of Orpen, a young woman who must walk on foot across a ravaged Ireland in the desperate hope of saving herself, and her guardian Maeve, from the zombie-like menace known as the skrake. Sarah Davis-Goff’s strikingly original debut will appeal to readers of dystopian literary fiction such as STATION 11 or THE END WE START FROM.”

WATCH:

This is an ambitious list for me, as I’m not exactly a tv watcher (like 30 minutes a week, if that?), and I think I’ve failed this portion of the event every year. But it’s good to have goals.

1. IT Chapter 2. I’ll be watching this along with everyone else.

2. Picnic at Hanging Rock. The series, starring Natalie Dormer (The Tudors remains one of my favorites).

3. A Discovery of Witches. I’m a fan of this trilogy, but have been unable to watch the adaptation yet. First step is figuring out how to watch it.

4. Castle Rock. I did watch all of season one and enjoyed it. Skarsgard is so creepy. It’s fantastic.

*And no, I do not know how to explain my love of Stephen King’s IT. It’s a mystery.

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