Greetings! And welcome to the big book review issue. I hope you find something in here suitable for your last-minute holiday gifts. If not, certainly you can find something you might like to read! And scroll on down to the bottom to find out how you can win a book. I’m giving away two copies of Lynne Hinton’s new book, Sister Eve, Private Eye.
Enjoy and Happy Holidays, Rochelle, the Write Now! Coach
During National Novel Writing Month, I taught a writing class at a Milwaukee Public Library. On the first day, I found a young African American boy standing in the short hallway that led to the classroom. He was creeping along the wall and peeking around the corner at what was going on in the room.
When I invited him to join us, he shook his head and said, “Don’t want to.” I told him we’d be making lists of the people and animals, places and events that we loved to read about in books. He shook his head again. But, after a bit, he came into the room, gave me his name, and grabbed some paper and a pencil. He sat at the far end of the table, curled into himself and the paper, and scribbled. He looked up only once, as far as I could tell—and that was to find a baby name book. (We use those to name our characters.) At the end of the first class, he had a long list of characters (and their names), places, and events for his story. By the end of the three-session class, he’d made a good start on his own story.
When I teach writing, we always start here: listing what we love to read about. (See: Write What You Seek) Usually, the characters, settings, and situations that we find delicious when we read tend to be the ones we’ll also enjoy writing about. For this boy, the list was a gateway into writing.
As a writer and a writing teacher, I tell all of my students: If you plan to write books, you must first read books. Every writer needs to know what it means to be a reader—to look to books for escape, kinship, comfort, direction, new worlds, new understandings of old worlds, a kick in the pants, and—always—a good story. Once you know what it is to fall in love with a book, to think of the characters as your own close friends, to underline and commit to memory passages of narrative that will guide your life—then you will be ready to write your own book.
I’ve come up with ten rules for reading as a writer, which I will post some day. But for now, I want to give you just the first two:
1. Read anything that you experience as delicious or fun or engaging. When I was in graduate school studying theology, I often read fiction in between theological tomes. Once, I carried around Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin that had a woman on the cover. My classmates teased me for reading “trash” when I should have been reading God’s Word. (Perhaps they’d never found the truth about God in fiction.) The same or worse may happen to you when you pick up a kid’s book, erotic fiction, or ancient Greek literature. Put your own book cover around it and read it anyway.
2. Read the books you wish you’d written. If you desire to write a specific kind of book—children’s fiction, young adult, romance, business—then read everything you can get your hands on in the genre. Read the bestsellers, the best reviewed, and the best loved. Talk to your potential audience and ask them what they like to read—and read that.
That’s it for my rules—for now. And now for my eclectic list of books I’ve loved this year.
Fiction and Mysteries
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Set in Nigeria during a military coup, 15-year-old Kambili and her brother Jaja leave their wealthy and fanatically Christian home to live with their Auntie Ifeoma. They’re exposed to a world where they can challenge the status quo, be open to new ideas, and laugh often. The reader has the pleasure of watching Kambili weigh this new world against her old one and find something new.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. Blame the dogs. The Queen’s dogs ran off one evening, and she found them barking at the traveling library. The Queen borrows a book and falls headfirst in love with reading. It changes her life. She asks everyone she meets, “What are you reading?” (and receives blank stares back). Because Queens tend to pronounce, the book is filled with lovely pronouncements about books and authors such as this one: “A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler. Do you need something sweet to read? This might be it. Shotgun Lovesongs, set in small-town Wisconsin, follows the friendships of four high school friends as they grow into men, husbands, fathers, and lovers.
The Trinity Game by Sean Chernover. I’m a sucker for a good religious thriller, and this one fits the bill. Priest Daniel Byrne investigates alleged miracles for the Vatican. When his uncle, televangelist and known con artist Tim Trinity, prophesies about events that come true—Daniel is sent to investigate. When Daniel’s findings contradict the Vatican’s wishes, he must decide who to obey: his family or his calling.
An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay. Mireille Duval Jameson lives a life of privilege—she grew up with means, is married to an adoring man, and has a beautiful son. While visiting her wealthy parents in Haiti, she’s kidnapped and her father refuses to pay the ransom. Mireille spends 13 days with her kidnappers and many months recovering from the ordeal. This novel presents a terrifying and riveting portrait of violence, the results of wealth and corruption, and what it means to live with post traumatic stress disorder.
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. The eleven linked stories in this book, filled with precise language, eerie images, and unforgettable characters, will haunt you—I guarantee it. And if you happen to be a writer—well, let’s just say that Ogawa seems to have much fun creating perfectly hellish situations for writers to inhabit.
Famous Writers I Have Known by James Magnuson. When Frankie Abandonato, a con man, discovers that he looks just like the reclusive writer V. S. Mohle—he takes his place as a guest faculty member in a prestigious Texas writing program. The position is funded by Rex Schoeninger, a bestselling novelist who’s never gotten literary acclaim and has kept up a 25-year feud with Mohle. I have to say—this book made me laugh out loud. It’s a fun literary satire.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. The narrative moves between the diary of Nao, a lonely, despairing 16-year-old documenting the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun and Ruth, a middle-aged Canadian novelist who finds the notebook on the beach, in a Hello Kitty lunchbox.
The Black Hour Lori Rader-Day. Amelia Emmet, a sociology professor at a private Chicago college, has just barely recovered from a getting shot by a student she didn’t know. As she returns to work, she wants to discover why he did it. Then she meets Nathaniel Barber, a graduate student fascinated by the study of violence and Emmet’s new teaching assistant. Together, they’ll search for truth—even if it endangers them both. A riveting stand-alone mystery debut.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I had a huge book hangover after reading this riveting story–and no wonder. At 576 pages, it’s a book that a reader can settle into and then get lost in. Set in 1922 London, 26-year-old Frances Wray and her widowed mother are coping with many losses—the death of Frances’s brothers in the war, the death of Mr. Wray, and the decline of their family finances. To help make ends meet, they rent part of the house to a young couple, Lilian and Leonard Barber—and this small act changes everything. Filled with passion and mystery, this is a story that twists and turns in ways you couldn’t imagine.
Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction
45 Pounds (More or Less) by K. A. Barson. Sixteen-year-old Ann Galardi wears a size 17. Her perfect mother wears a size 6. When Ann’s invited to be her Aunt Jackie’s bridesmaid, she sets off on a quest to lose the weight before the wedding, no matter what. At once funny and poignant, this is a book for anyone who’s felt not-quite-perfect!
Double Exposure by Bridget Birdsall. Fifteen-year-old Alyx Atlas was born with ambiguous genitalia. She was raised as a boy but knows inside that she’s a girl. After being beaten by bullies, Alyx and her mom move to Milwaukee to start over. Alyx makes new friends, earns a spot on the girls’ varsity basketball team, and begins to revel in her new life–when a dangerous game of Truth or Dare reveals her secret and threatens everything. This is a powerful book about gender, identity, and the importance of family.
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff. Albie is a fifth-grade boy who doesn’t quite measure up. He’s not super smart or artistic or athletic. His busy parents want more from their only child, and pressure him to do better. Then he gets a new babysitter who helps him figure out what he IS good at. This is a sweet, quiet book that shows what really matters in life.
West of the Moon by Margi Preus. I loved this book, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Astri, a young Norwegian girl, wants to join her father in American. But then her aunt and uncle sell her to a cruel goat farmer. Astri escapes, rescues her sister Greta, and sets off on a harrowing journey across country and onto a ship heading for America. Beautifully written, the story weaves in Scandinavian folktales and their characters. If you like plucky, fierce young girls—then you need to meet Astri. She’ll show you how to stay sane and move forward in the worst of times.
When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds. I teach writing to inner city youth, and I struggle to find books that reflect their lives. This does. The story is set in Bed Stuy, New York, a not-so-good neighborhood with gun-toting drug dealers but also plenty of hard-working families just trying to get by. 15-year-old Ali boxes and helps out with his little sister, Jazz. He hangs out with his best friend Noodles and helps protect Noodle’s brother Needles, who has Tourette’s syndrome. But then the three boys end up somewhere they shouldn’t be, where people don’t know them, and things don’t go so well. A riveting story that gives the reader a peek into the challenges facing inner-city youth.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Cath and her twin sister Wren adore Simon Snow—the fictional protagonist in their favorite novels. In fact, they’ve been writing fan fiction about him for years—and they have their own set of raving fans. But when they go to college, Wren wants her own room and a break from writing. Suddenly alone, Cath must find her own way through her first year of college while worrying about her fragile dad, coping with an abrasive roommate and her ever-present boyfriend, figuring out what her fiction-writing professor really wants from her, and trying to keep up with her Simon Snow fan fiction. This is a sweet coming-of-age book about learning to navigate a new world alone and with others.
I love mystery series because I can watch a character develop over several books instead of just one. If you’ve read this blog before, you already know I love to read and recommend series mysteries by Louise Penny, Sue Ann Jaffarian, Sara Paretsky, and many more. Here are a few new series I’ve discovered this year.
Seven Kinds of Hell by Dana Cameron. (Fangborn #1) Zoe Miller, a twenty-something archeologist, has grown up on the run—but she’s never known from what, until now. Then her mother dies, her cousin disappears and she learns the background behind her secret life as a werewolf. Zoe is actually a child of the “Fangborn” – a race of werewolves, vampires and oracles. As she tries to save her cousin, she embarks on a quest for artifacts, including Pandora’s Box. An great addition to the paranormal genre—I love the quick-witted dialogue, the Fangborn world and characters, and the archeological details.
The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (Ruth Galloway #1). When I ran out of books on our summer vacation, I happened upon this series at a small Vermont bookstore. And happily so! Set in the saltmarshes of Norfolk, England, Ruth Galloway makes a quiet, solitary life as a professor of archeology specializing in bones. When a child’s body is discovered, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson calls on Galloway to help him find out what happened.
Sister Eve, Private Eye by Lynne Hinton. I received this book from the publisher to review—and enjoyed it. Sister Eve is a nun with twenty years of service under her belt. When her father, Captain Jack Divine, a private eye and former police detective asks her to help him recover from surgery, Sister Eve takes a leave of absence. In the middle of Captain Jack’s recovery, the two find themselves searching who killed a famous Hollywood director. This is a sweet first mystery in what promises to be an entertaining cozy series.
The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer. On her 14th birthday, Enola Holmes—the younger sister of Sherlock—discovers that her mother has disappeared. She heads to London to find her mother and escape her older brothers who want to send her to (gulp!) boarding school. This is the first book in a stunning series featuring the nearly fearless Enola as a first-class teenaged detective.
Nonfiction: What I’m reading now.
Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry. I’m constantly inspired to be a better teacher and writer by Barry’s What It Is . When I heard about Syllabus, I purchased it right away. It’s a delicious little volume, bound to look like a student’s composition book.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. Before I bought this book, I’d purchased three new bookshelves and three bins to hold clothes. Then I learned that the life-changing magic comes from getting rid of stuff BEFORE you organize. Oops. Well, I’m hoping that the holiday break–if I ever get to it–will give me some time to get rid of that extra stuff. I’ll keep you posted.
How the Light Gets In: Writing as Spiritual Practice by Pat Schneider. I’m only 16 pages into this, but already I’m hooked by the brutally honest prose and beautiful images such as this: “Tonight, words are turtles/sleeping under mud.”
On my shelf for the holidays:
I attended a fair number of writing conferences this fall–which led to buying way too many books that I had no time to read. As a result, I have stacks of books that I want to read. Here are the ones I plan to read while eating Christmas cookies:
That’s it for this year, writers! Please leave your favorites in the comments below—and don’t forget to enter to win a copy of Sister Eve, Private Eye! —Rochelle, the Write Now! Coach