What I read last month: October 2017

In What I Read Last Month, I recap the previous month’s reading and shamelessly copy and paste from my Goodreads reviews. You can read previous months’ What I Read… by clicking here. Disclaimer: Amazon links are affiliate links, but despite wanting to support writers by buying books, I get most of mine from the library.

Here’s what I read:

Magazines

I sampled a variety of literary magazines online: LitMag, Necessary Fiction, and a few more from the Baltimore Review. I also got way behind on my New Yorker short fiction and have a big stack sitting next to my couch.

Books

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

★★★★

Homegoing is a fascinating novel. Being a sucker for a deep, character-driven novel, I worried I would struggle with the structure of this one. It begins in 18th-century Africa and follows the descendents of two half-sisters, neither of whom knew the other, to present-day United States.

The novel starts out rich and engaging, and I was sad to leave the original characters behind. As I read, I had to make peace with the fact that some characters, I would never see again. There is a built-in lack of closure here, and it would’ve left me wanting more if not for the way everything gets braided together in the end.

That said, by necessity, more characters pile up as the book goes on. In the beginning, it’s easy to see the connections between them. As we near present day, the author must resort to exposition that feels heavy-handed for a close-third POV. For example: in my head, I never think, “my father, John, worked for several years as a truck driver for a nursery in Pennsylvania.” It’d be more like: “I thought back to the years my dad spent driving trucks for the nursery.” But in the context of an epic story, you need to know his name, so you can say, “oooooh, okay, this is John’s daughter we’re meeting here.”

When bits of exposition and connecting details are inserted this way, they can pull the reader out of the zone. We become aware of the fact that we’re reading, as opposed to staying immersed in the POV character’s experience.

In the case of Homegoing, the plot is king, and the story here is really incredible. I loved seeing how everyone’s story played out, and how these two parallel sets of ancestors built upon each other.

I’d also never read an account of slavery, Jim Crow, and beyond that felt quite like this. While we’re occasionally taken out of the story to be told how a new character connects to the ones we know already, we’re also drawn back in by the vividness of their lived experience.

All in all, Homegoing is an important book, and one I had trouble putting down. The ambitious structure required a little bit of flexibility on my part, but I was well rewarded in the end.

Almost Missed You by Jessica Strawser

★★★

Almost Missed You is pretty heavily plot-driven, and therefore not the first book I’d usually pick. However, after seeing the author speak at several Writers Digest conference sessions, I just had to give her book a read.

I was fascinated by her choices in writing this book. She gives Finn, the runaway husband, several POV chapters. Not only that, his wife Violet is ostensibly the main character here, but she ends up feeling almost secondary to the supporting cast. The plot revolves around her, but we experience her story most vividly through the perspectives of her husband and best friend. The story, really, is both hers and Finn’s.

And isn’t that the case in every marriage?

Because I love uncovering people’s stories, I loved how Almost Missed You’s plot unfolded over time. Strawser reveals just enough in each chapter. In fact, she reveals an entirely natural amount of information given the point of view, so the exposition doesn’t feel clunky. We move from one character to the next, putting the pieces together little by little, until everything comes to a head.

I especially appreciated the somewhat-ambiguous ending, which manages to avoid feeling contrived or insulting to the reader.

My biggest criticism is that many passages feel heavy on telling vs. showing. I would’ve preferred a little more rich detail showing the characters’ internal reactions, and a little less outright telling what characters were feeling. On many occasions, the author doesn’t trust the writer quite enough, and hands us too much straight information.

Even so, I’m glad I read the book, and will probably read Strawser’s second novel as well.

All the Names They Used for God: Stories by Anjali Sachdeva

★★★

(Note: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review)

This collection provided everything I look for in a short story: a world that draws me in at once, and a character who takes me on a journey. With each story, we experience a transformation. The writing is what I’d call speculative fiction, but it’s incredibly seamless. Every world the author creates feels like it could exist alongside our own. Sometimes the story’s place in time is clear (e.g. Carnegie’s steel mills). Sometimes it feels like it could be pre-industrial or post-apocalyptic.

Most of all, though, each story stands on its own as a complete journey. While there seems to be a trend toward vignettes and character sketches in modern short fiction, I found these stories refreshing. No story ends on too neat and tidy a note, but neither are we left feeling like we haven’t traveled anywhere. Each story hits the perfect balance with pacing, plot, and character arc.

This book was a delight to read, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a good short story collection.

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What I read last month: September 2017

In What I Read Last Month, I recap the previous month’s reading and shamelessly copy and paste from my Goodreads reviews. You can read previous months’ What I Read… by clicking here. Disclaimer: Amazon links are affiliate links, but despite wanting to support writers by buying books, I get most of mine from the library.

Magazines

The new Tin House arrived in my mailbox in mid-September. Yay! I’m trying to ration it so it lasts.

I also read a few stories from Bodega and The Baltimore Review.

I secretly love well-written television, and will consume content about television writing at any opportunity. Despite being notoriously snooty about excessive television-watching, I tore right through the New Yorker TV issue. The piece about Jenji Kohan, creator of Weeds and Orange is the New Black, was right up my alley.

Books

Winter Garden

★★★★

Well, shoot. I’m unsure how to rate this one. I almost feel like I need to evaluate the first and second halves of the book separately.

I have to admit, I wished I could put this book down for at least the first half. A lot of things tripped me up: frustrating main characters, who kept hurting good people who loved them. Clunky exposition shoved into characters actions that conflicted with the close third POV. Unnatural-feeling dialogue. Whole sentences summarizing what a savvy reader could easily learn from the surrounding prose.

These trip-ups appear in many, many successful books. And indeed, there’s a reason I kept reading this one. After reading two of her books, I think Kristin Hannah’s special power is creating characters that pop. Even when I felt frustrated with them, the characters felt real enough to me that I couldn’t walk out on them. I had to know what happened.

In this case, perseverance paid off. The first-person chapters are especially powerful. The final half of this book feels like a different story. I couldn’t stop reading. The pacing was spot on, emotions were intense, and the end was totally unexpected. I’d normally say it was too neat, but the neat ending worked for me this time.

I’d give the final act of this book a much higher rating than the beginning, which could use some work. Overall, the average experience for me still balanced out to three or four stars.

Bonita Avenue

★★★

I’m not sure what to make of this book.

On the one hand, it is a truly impressive debut novel. Well-honed, and the writing pulled me right in. The English translation reads wonderfully. Despite its considerable length, especially for an author’s first published novel, I read Bonita Avenue rather quickly.

That said, all this skilled writing hangs on a plot that I struggled to find believable by the end. The one major aspect I found lacking in Bonita Avenue was contrast. As I read on, it seemed every character had something outside the norm going on: schizophrenia, a secret multi-million-dollar porn site, sociopathy (though, as depicted, Wilbert is hardly a believable sociopath, which makes his outcome in life feel overblown), a weird fetish.

This is a consistent pet peeve of mine: books that offer a full slate of outlier characters when one rarely finds that in real life. One might believe the (step)daughter of a university president could have become a secret millionaire from the porn site she ran with her boyfriend. That, in an of itself, is a great plot set-up. But from there, every single circumstance we encounter is extenuating. The POV shifts, though they work well for the book, exacerbate this issue by bringing in backstory and side plots from multiple angles.

Bonita Avenue was well-written enough for me to let this go as a form of abstract art. However, the end of the book really brought this contrast issue into focus for me. The final chapters are troubling and intense, but somewhat dulled by everything we’ve seen thus far.

Without revealing any spoilers, there are also some significant reveals toward the end. These are left mostly unresolved. The end of a book shouldn’t wrap up every plot thread neatly, but neither should the reader be left hanging. It’s a delicate balance. For my taste, Bonita Avenue stopped just short of giving me everything I needed to feel like I could close out my relationship with its characters.

Overall, the reading experience was something I definitely don’t regret, but I had higher hopes for the eventual resolution.

Other stuff

I’ve spent some quality time with Writer’s Market and Guide to Literary Agents, both of which have helped me organize my fiction queries.

I also attended the Baltimore Book Festival with my four-year-old. I had to pass up the opportunity to wander for hours in the used-book tents in deference to my travel companion, but I did snag a free copy of Towson’s Grub Street magazine.

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Support my book on Kickstarter!

As I gather up my monthly roundup of exciting reads, I’d be remiss not to mention my very own: my book is on Kickstarter!

My blog, The ADHD Homestead, is expanding to include its very first ebook: Order from Chaos. Order from Chaos features my signature combination of book-smart know-how and real-life experience, and it’s not just for adults with ADHD. It’s for anyone who’s struggled to get organized.

That’s right: if you’re currently struggling to organize your life, and you want to feel less frustrated and alone, you need this book.

Help me make it happen by supporting the Kickstarter today. If you can’t pledge any cash, you can still support this project by spreading the word to your friends. This is a unique book, part self-help memoir, part quick-start guide, and all the things readers love about The ADHD Homestead. And you can be part of its creation!

Have questions? I’m hosting a live Ask Me Anything Q&A on Thursday night. Click here to sign up for updates, or to submit your question ahead of time.

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What I read last month: August 2017

In What I Read Last Month, I recap the previous month’s reading and shamelessly copy and paste from my Goodreads reviews. You can read previous months’ What I Read… by clicking here. Disclaimer: Amazon links are affiliate links, but despite wanting to support writers by buying books, I get most of mine from the library.

August was a bear of a month. I was out of town for 16 of 31 days, stretched over three different trips. That’s a lot of time spent packing, unpacking, visiting, and traveling to and fro, not to mention my WDC17 prep and followup.

Despite the harried pace, I was lucky enough to find some great reads. I give mostly three-star Goodreads reviews, and August gave me two five-star books.

Here’s what I read:

Magazines

I read the summer issue of Tin House on the beach, starting with Daniel Wallace’s Sea Girls. I also polished off the previous issue, which included Leslie Jamison’s un-put-down-able essay about Amy Winehouse.

Catching up on a big stack of New Yorker short fiction, I found myself most transported by Will Mackin’s Crossing the River No Name and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Show Don’t Tell.

Books

The Unseen World

★★★★★

This is the rare book that I finish and think, “there’s nothing I would’ve done differently.”

The Unseen World is a clever, well-executed novel. The characters are compelling and their lives are set against a delightful backdrop.

There are some plot developments I anticipated (and was glad when they finally arrived), and some surprises that made for lovely Easter eggs at the end. I was about to call the ending too tidy, but the epilogue completely made up for it. Just like Moore’s previous book Heft, I recommend this to just about everyone.

World Made By Hand

★★

When I got around 85% of the way through this book, I realized it wasn’t all going to come together in a big bang at the end.

I’m going to spend some time chewing on this one, and considering why the author did these things the way he did.

In the meantime, I’ll say I enjoyed the setting and the world-building was good. This book reminded me why I think post-apocalyptic fiction is so neat. I love seeing writers ponder what humans would do if the world as we knew it came to an end.

The book could’ve used a little more resolution at the end, re: the different factions, how we should feel about them, and how they might work together (or not) going forward. We spent a lot of time learning about the various folks living around Union Grove, and sometimes I wondered to what end.

Perhaps the biggest issue for me was the female characters. I’m not sure why the end of the modern age resulted in all the women reverting to traditional gender roles. Many of the cult members came from the military, but they couldn’t have included any women who had formerly served in the military? There weren’t any gay people at all, or women who did something other than tend the home and support the men? I’d buy it if many, or even most, of the women did this. However, it would’ve been more believable to have a token woman vying for her rightful place within the town leadership. Or even a man who rejects the new (old) mountain-man lifestyle. As it was, the characters were too divided into types for a book released in 2008.

The Hate U Give

★★★★★

Every once in a while, I come across a book I want to read slowly, but can’t. The Hate U Give was one of those books. I knew I was cutting my time with these characters short by devouring it so quickly, but I couldn’t help myself.

From page one, the main character, Starr’s, voice is so on point and compelling. There’s no getting-to-know-you period, no slogging through act one to get to the action. I was hooked from the very beginning. The narrative sucked you straight into the world of the story, and I experienced everything vividly, right alongside the characters.

This is a really important book, and it’s pulled off superbly. I want to go tell everyone to read it. We need more books like it, to bring us out of the hashtags, the generalizations, the racist talking points around privileged white dinner tables.

I saw another reviewer criticize the character Hailey — a white friend of Starr’s who claims she isn’t racist, but reveals over time that she actually kind of is — as an unrealistic caricature. I wish that were true. The Haileys of the world grow up with no requirement to develop empathy or deep understanding of people who aren’t like them. Successful contemporary fiction like The Hate U Give could change that.

Though this book is billed as YA, it holds nothing back. So, buyer with a younger YA reader beware, and The Hate U Give is every bit as valuable and relevant to adults as it is to YA readers.

My only substantive criticism is that a few of the longer chunks of dialogue started to lose the voice. It’s easy to slip into a little monologue in service to the message and have it come out not quite how the character would say it. But, all things considered, this effect was mild, and offset by the excellent flow in most of the book’s dialogue.

All in all, The Hate U Give is an important and compelling read, and I highly recommend it to just about anyone.

Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World

★★★

This is such a fast read, you have no reason not to read it.

Unlike David Allen’s Getting Things Done or Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, this book won’t give you a full action plan to improve your life. It’s more like a compass to point you in the right direction.

Of course, given its length, the author really can’t get into detailed how-tos and action items. If you’re looking for that, go with a longer book like those I mentioned above.

However, this book gives a nice kick in the pants and a reminder of what’s important.

Other stuff

I also grabbed a copy of Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat from the library and I’m in love. The illustrations are delightful, and Nosrat’s tone and style make the subject matter super approachable. I’m not finished yet, but I already know I’ll need to buy it for my kitchen shelf. I’ve renewed it the maximum number of times and don’t feel I can go on without it in my life.

Enough about me. What are you reading? Shoot me your recommendations in the comments!

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Books of 2014

Ah, the new year. Time to refresh my Goodreads reading challenge!

Even though my blogging efforts are focused primarily on The ADHD Homestead, I plan to use this space for news, announcements, and fun stuff — like a review of the books I read last year.

While I fell short of my 30-book goal for 2014, I still feel good about completing 19 books, including some meaty non-fiction reads. As any nursing mother of a newborn can attest, I had lots of built-in reading time in 2013, so I sailed through 28 books. I had to learn how to make (and protect!) time for books in the year that followed.

For 2015, I’m challenging myself to a very manageable 20 books. Hopefully I exceed that goal. In the meantime, here’s a ranked list of my 2014 reading. I can’t claim too much precision, but I can promise that the top four or five books in each category are well worth your time.

What should I read this year? What were your favorites from last year?

Fiction

  1. The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak
  2. Etched on Me – Jenn Crowell
  3. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands – Chris Bohjalian
  4. Landline – Rainbow Rowell
  5. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock – Matthew Quick
  6. Sudden Flash Youth: 65 Short-Short Stories
  7. The Painted Girls – Cathy Marie Buchanan
  8. The Kitchen House – Kathleen Grissom
  9. The Hundred-Foot Journey – Richard C. Morais
  10. Boys Like You – Juliana Stone
  11. Veronica Mars – The Thousand Dollar Tan Line – Rob Thomas
  12. The Newlyweds – Nell Freudenberger
  13. The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

Non-fiction

  1. The End of Night – Paul Bogard
  2. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East – Scott Anderson
  3. Difficult Conversations – Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton,  & Sheila Heen
  4. Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion
  5. Create Your Writer Platform – Chuck Sambuchino
  6. Jo Frost’s Toddler Rules – Jo Frost
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Excerpt of the Week #3

This week’s excerpt is from a newly resurrected novella. I’ve always been partial to it, but novellas can be tough to publish. I finally found a publication accepting longer stories with a June 30 deadline. I’m struggling with the flow and tone in several spots, but I like how my main character’s voice shines through here.

On my way out I heard it. Somebody was playing a high and mournful guitar solo, dragging a note out to just the right length before tumbling onward. I felt like I was walking through his open heart. I had to stop and listen, strain my ears through all the soundproofing in the walls. God, I loved listening to someone who could improvise like that. There are vocalists who can do it, too, but I never could. It was the one place where my voice still felt inhibited, like I had something stuck in my throat.

I heard another door open down the hall and shook it off, smoothing my arm hair down where it had been standing on end. When I walked past the room with the guitarist, I took a look out of the corner of my eye. The arm hair stood back up again and a chill went right down to my ankles.

— from Nightswimming (YA short fiction)

For previous Excerpts of the Week, click here.

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Excerpt of the Week #2

Fishing through the pile of guest posts and creative non-fiction I’ve been working on this week, I felt inspired to share an excerpt from my young adult novel manuscript. I recently decided to switch the perspective from third person to first person, which had the somewhat unexpected effect of taking me way back in the editing process — if it’s not a first draft all over again, it’s nowhere close to a final draft, either.

I love intense, well-written fight scenes — think the Nate-Brenda breakup scene from the HBO series Six Feet Under (disclaimer: contains excessive profanity and, of course, spoilers) — and I worked for a long time on this one. Of course, switching the perspective forced me to tear much of it down and rebuild. Here’s a piece of the new scene:

John rubbed his eyes with his palms, letting out a long breath that puffed his cheeks out around his lips. Just a few minutes earlier I’d wanted to stand my ground in that room until I’d saved our love somehow, but now all I could think about was getting out of there. My heart was growing little tendrils, reaching out through space for somewhere warm and safe and, most importantly, nowhere near John or his house. I needed to find Claudia.

“Look, I have to go. I have plans with Claudia later.” I settled my messenger bag across my shoulder and turned to walk out the door.

“Mariana, hold on.” I turned around, tried to keep my eyes cold, felt my body tense as he stood and walked toward me.

“Can I have a hug?”

“Why?” We stood facing each other in the doorway for a moment, waiting to see who would blink first.

— from Standing on the Precipice (YA fiction)

For previous Excerpts of the Week, click here.

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