Reading Recap | October 2018

Here’s a look at the books I read in October. I’m stingy with my 5-star ratings, so it’s a literary miracle that two books earned them this month. Have you read any of these? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Rating: goldstargoldstargoldstargoldstargoldstar

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

The novel goes back and forth between time periods and two primary characters. The first is Yale, a gay man living in Chicago in the 1980s. AIDS is slowly but surely killing his friends. One of those friends was Nico whose sister is Fiona, a stand-in mother to the group. Fiona’s great-aunt has some valuable art she’d like to donate, so Fiona connects her to Yale, a development director at an art gallery.

Years later in 2015, Fiona travels to Paris to find her adult daughter who became part of a cult. She stays with an artist from the old Chicago scene while she searches for her child and is forced to face the tragedies of her life.

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

The Great Believers is a story about love, friendship, parenthood, art, and the AIDS epidemic, yet the novel never feels as if it’s trying to do too much. Makkai is a gifted storyteller who weaves together the dueling timelines so seamlessly that it looks as if it were easy.

Though Makkai focuses on Yale and Fiona, this novel is full of vibrant characters. Instead of being there to further the main stories, these characters are as interesting and well-developed as the two protagonists. Makkai’s writing is gorgeous and poetic. This book contained a lot of heartbreak, but also so much life.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Literary fiction diehards who don’t mind heavy subject matter will find a lot to love here.

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The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad #2) by Tana French
Rating: goldstargoldstargoldstargoldstargoldstar

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Cassie Maddox is one of the detectives readers meet in Tana French’s first book, In the Woods. In The Likeness, Cassie is a little bored. She transferred out of murder into the domestic violence unit. Her work is routine, she now wears suits, and she has a sweet boyfriend. Her life is pretty safe and predictable. When a murdered woman is found who happens to look just like Cassie, she’s called to the scene. It turns out the dead woman not only looked like Cassie but was living as Lexie Madison, the identity Cassie used years before in an undercover case. Cassie is asked to go undercover yet again to try to find Lexie’s killer, and she can’t resist.

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

The thing that makes In the Woods great makes The Likeness great, too, and that’s French’s pacing. Some mystery and suspense novels have twists and turns every other page. Those books focus on plot, and the characters take a backseat. The Likeness has an exciting plot and does include twists and turns, but French takes her time in her storytelling. Several chapters can go by before there are any significant plot developments. If that sounds boring, it isn’t. French’s prose is consistently interesting, and her characters seem like real people. The tension she creates is palpable.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Fans of In the Woods will love this continuation of Cassie’s story. Mystery lovers looking for depth and great writing will enjoy this, too.

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How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister
Rating: goldstargoldstargoldstar

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

Anna Crawford is an English teacher who was suspended for an outburst at her public high school. When a shooting takes place there, Anna is one of the first suspects. She’s ruled out quickly when law enforcement realizes the shooter was someone else, but her life is turned upside down anyway. Her home was torn apart searching for evidence. Her face was on the news.  She lives in a small town, so she can’t escape people’s judgment. How to Be Safe examines a year in Anna’s life after the shooting and how it deeply affected her, even though she wasn’t there when it happened.

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

Tom McAllister uses effective, dark satire to explore a nation that profoundly loves its guns. He also shows just how damaging our quick judgment can be to innocent people.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

People who are okay with unlikable and unreliable narrators will be this book’s best audience.

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Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott
Rating: goldstargoldstargoldstargoldstar

WHAT’S THIS BOOK ABOUT?

This is another nonfiction title from Lamott in which she sets out to write everything she knows about hope. Lamott’s usual topics are here in abundance: God, politics, addiction, and friendship.

WHAT WAS GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK?

What I most enjoy about Almost Everything is that Lamott genuinely wrestles with hope. It doesn’t come easily to her; she realizes joy is a choice. I appreciate that kind of honesty and found this book refreshing.

WHO SHOULD READ THIS BOOK?

Fans of Lamott’s previous work will like this one, as well.


What did you read this October? Leave a comment and let me know!

 

Top Five Friday: Mysteries & Suspense

Until the past couple of years, I’d never been a reader of genre fiction. I was all about realistic literary fiction and, when I was feeling especially wild, maybe a bit of magical realism. I’d pick up the occasional mystery or suspense novel when something like Gone Girl came along that was impossible to ignore, but I never sought out mysteries or suspense stories until recently.

I’ve found that when I’m feeling tired or stressed there’s nothing I’d rather pick up than an engrossing page-turner. Sometimes I need a plot-driven novel to get me out of my head, yet good writing is still a must. I want the beautifully crafted sentences, character development, and the strong sense of place that make me love literary fiction so much.

Today I’m sharing five novels that had the engrossing plot I was looking for and great writing. Since I’ve already mentioned Gone Girl, let’s start there.

gonegirl.jpgGone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The girl in the title is Amy who vanishes from her Missouri home. Her husband Nick claims his innocence in her disappearance, yet few believe him. From there, Flynn examines their personalities and marriage with gripping tension and precision.

This is a twisted tale that lets readers into the minds of two fascinating characters. I enjoy stories about the inner workings of marriages, and this one didn’t disappoint. When I got to the end of the novel, I thought, “Of course. This is exactly how it should end.” That’s always a great feeling when you finish a mystery.

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The Dry by Jane Harper

A friend and coworker of mine (hi, Irene!) read The Dry and raved about it. I’d also read many positive reviews and was worried Harper’s debut novel couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Needless to say, it did. I love books with a strong sense of place, and this book delivers.

It’s set in a small Australian town during a drought. The heat and thirsty land are palpable as we read about Aaron Falk,  a federal agent who travels from his home in Melbourne back to the town in which he grew up. His former friend Luke is dead, along with Luke’s wife and son. Folks are saying it was murder/suicide, but Aaron’s not so sure. The novel explores the mystery of these deaths, but also Aaron’s past and connection to the victims. The next book in the series, Force of Nature, is also great.

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Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Like The Dry, this novel has a vivid setting. It’s set in a rural town in East Texas where racism runs deep. Darren Matthews is a black Texas Ranger who begins investigating the death of a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman who was married to a white supremacist. Though they died days apart, Darren is convinced there’s a connection between the two victims. Darren’s marriage is in trouble, and he drinks a bit too much, but he pursues the truth with a passionate focus. He’s a well-developed character who I was rooting for the whole time. I’m excited about the next book in this series since Bluebird, Bluebird ends with an exciting twist.

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The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn

The Woman in the Window is named Anna. She struggles with agoraphobia and drinks a little too much these days. She loves wine and spying on the neighbors who share her block in New York City. One day she sees a crime she shouldn’t have, and that causes her to unravel even more than she already was. Anna is a wonderfully complex character, and the story of how her phobia developed is as satisfying as watching her try to overcome it.

In some mysteries and suspense novels, it’s easy to predict where the story is headed. I thought I knew exactly what was going on in this book, but I was wrong. There were several twists I didn’t see coming, which made this such a fun read. So far, this is one of my favorite books of 2018.

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In the Woods by Tana French

This story is told from the perspective of Rob Ryan, a Dublin detective who’s still carrying baggage from a strange childhood event. When he was twelve, he woke up in the woods alone and bloodied, not knowing what happened to the two friends who were with him. Years later, Rob and his partner Cassie start investigating the murder of a young girl found in the woods in which Rob’s friends disappeared. He has a hunch the crimes are connected, but his identity as the kid who got left behind is a secret only his partner knows.

The mystery in this book is intense, but just as intense is the deep dive readers get into Rob’s head. We not only get to see him grappling with the murder investigation, but we learn more about his past and see how what he thought he’d overcome still haunts him.


What are your favorite mysteries and thrillers? Based on these books, what would you recommend I pick up next?

Books for Anxious People

Anxiety is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced. If you haven’t been through it, know that it’s a grating mixture of fear, uncertainty, and unsettledness that combine to create a deep sense that something is terribly wrong, even when it isn’t. I’ve struggled with anxiety off and on for many years, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Sometimes when I’m anxious, I can’t read because my mind just won’t slow down enough for me to process anything. Other times, though, I’m able to find comfort in books. Today I’m sharing a few that have encouraged me. If you’re struggling with anxiety or know someone who is, I’d recommend checking out these titles.

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Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

When Matt Haig was twenty-four, his anxiety and depression pushed him to consider ending his life. He didn’t, and he explains some of the reasons why in this brief but powerful book. Haig engagingly discusses his struggles, able to reflect on his past with vulnerability and insight only gained in hindsight. Despite such dark subject matter, Haig’s writing is witty and joyful. This book is an excellent reminder that things get better.

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Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

I adore Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, so when I saw this book on the discard shelf at my library for only 50 cents I grabbed it immediately. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of essays by Strayed from the time she was Dear Sugar, an advice columnist for The Rumpus. The advice she gives in this book isn’t full of warm and fuzzy self-help tricks; Strayed tells the truth with a combination of fierceness, generosity, and kindness that makes this book extremely comforting for me.

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The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom
by Henri J. M. Nouwen

This little green book is one of the most beloved books I own. It’s a small collection of writings that Nouwen, a priest who dedicated the last decade of his life to helping those with special needs,  wrote to himself during periods of great loneliness and depression. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, scared, or discouraged, I always reach for this book. It’s divided up into short sections, some only a page long, so it’s perfect for flipping through until you find the words you need. No matter what my situation, I always see hope and wisdom in Nouwen’s words.

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The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown

Remember a few years ago when Brene Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability went viral? I watched it one night when I was feeling discouraged and scared about the future, and it was indeed a game-changer for me, a person who struggles with vulnerability. I quickly sought out Brown’s other work and started with The Gifts of Imperfection. In it, Brown talks about her research on shame, courage, compassion, and connection. This is one of those books that has my underlining all through it. Brown’s words helped ground me during a time when I felt so much anxiety about my future and gave me helpful strategies to take control of it.  I heartily recommend all of Brown’s other books, as well.

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The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne

In addition to struggling with anxiety, I’ve also been burdened with phobias throughout my life. The worst one has been a fear of bees and wasps that got so bad I barely wanted to leave my house in the summertime.  Thankfully, a gifted therapist helped me work through that phobia, but she did tell me I might need a “tune-up” every now and then.

That’s where this book comes in. It serves as a good reminder of how to face and conquer phobias, steps to take to minimize anxiety, and even lists and explains some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, so you know you’re not dying when panic hits. If you too deal with phobias and anxiety, I can’t recommend this workbook enough.


Are there any books you turn to in tough times? I’d love to hear about them.

Favorite Horror Novels from Someone Who Thought She Didn’t Like Horror

As a person who hates being scared and is easily startled, I’ve never understood the appeal of horror novels. I love a good suspense story, but stories that are too violent or just plain scary aren’t for me.

I was going to do a post called “(Almost) Horror Novels” about books I found extra-creepy, but as I was looking up the books I wanted to discuss on NoveList, I realized I could strike the “almost” from the post’s title. Based on NoveList’s genre descriptions and reviewer commentary, these books could accurately be described as horror novels.

In an article for NoveList, librarian Sarah S. Davis defines the horror genre like this:

“The goal of horror is to inspire fear. Horror manipulates our deep-rooted anxieties and brings them vividly to life on the page. These fears could be material — clowns, wolves, vampires — or they could be intangible, like solitude, poverty, and failure. Escalating tension pits an everyman against his own mind in a clash that is often more psychological than physical.”

I’ve read many books that made me fearful, had escalating tension, and messed with my anxiety. Today I’m sharing four favorites.

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Final Girls by Riley Sager

Quincy is the only survivor of a horrifying massacre. As a sole survivor, she’s automatically added to a group of women the media calls Final Girls. Each girl was the only survivor of a brutal crime, and as the book progresses, we learn more about what those crimes were. Quincy can’t bear to think about the night of the massacre, but she’s forced to when another tragedy occurs, and one of the other Final Girls shows up at her door.

This novel is dark, twisted, and there were a few violent scenes which I had to skip. But even though this story made me squirm, I read it straight through. If you like this type of fiction, I bet you’ll read it that way too.

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Providence by Caroline Kepnes

Jon and Chloe were best friends in middle school. Chloe was beautiful and had the attention of the popular kids, but Jon was the target of their scorn. As he walked to school one day, Jon was kidnapped. Four years later, Jon wakes up alone and reads a note from his abductor saying he’s been in an induced coma. When Jon reenters his life, he realizes he has an unwanted power: he can give people heart attacks and kill them. Until he’s cured, he can’t be around his parents or Chloe, who he’s in love with.

Kepnes tells this story in alternating chapters between Jon, Chloe, and a detective nicknamed Eggs who wants to know why healthy people are dying of heart attacks. Providence is as much of a love story as it is a detective novel. It’s as much of a science fiction tale as it is a work of suspense. It reveals the horror of someone who would abduct and manipulate a teenage boy just as it shows the horror of loving someone you can’t have. So far, this is one of my top novels of 2018. Don’t let the offbeat plot keep you from giving this book a try.

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The Monk by Matthew Lewis

Speaking of offbeat plots, we’re going from 2018 back to 1796. This gothic novel is difficult to summarize. There’s a monk, of course, named Ambrosio. There’s a woman and/or demon who tempts him. Eventually, Ambrosio sells his soul to the Devil, which is never a good move, in my opinion. In the NoveList description of this book, they call it “an extravagant blend of sex, death, politics, Satanism, and poetry.”

Based on that description, I probably never would have selected this book on my own, but it was assigned to me in a college English course. My professor was giddy that the Catholic university I attended let him teach this, and perhaps some of his enthusiasm rubbed off on me because I ended up engrossed in this sordid tale. If you like your fiction a little weird and disturbing, give this classic a try.

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Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Ashley Cordova is the 24-year-old daughter of reclusive Stanislaus Cordova, a movie director known for his cult classic horror films. One night, Ashley turns up dead in an apparent suicide. Scott McGrath, a journalist, doesn’t believe Ashley killed herself. He knows the Cordova family has a lot of secrets and he recruits a couple of scrappy strangers in his quest to get answers.

Night Film is one of my favorite novels of all time. I’ve never read anything like it. The prose itself creates such a spooky atmosphere, but Pessl includes images in the book depicting things such as websites and photos pertinent to Scott’s investigation which add even more interest. This book got a bit of buzz when it was released in 2014, but I never felt it got enough praise for its originality.


What (somewhat mild) horror would you suggest I try next time I want some literary excitement? I’d love some more recommendations.