Recommendations, Reviews and Musings
Here’s what I’m currently reading or just finished or squirreling away money to buy or didn’t particularly like. Finished books at the top, in progress at the bottom. Tweet @SuzanneBrazil what you’re reading at #BooksbytheBed
I’m always on the hunt for a “must read” so don’t be shy!
What I’m Reading in 2016
Sometimes, I have multiple books going at the same time, and not all are novels – some are short story collections, poems, etc. I will attempt to keep a list of those in progress, those I’m dabbling in, and those I’ve finished. I’m sure there’s some I missed in 2015, books I’ve read that now I can’t remember! Here’s to better record keeping in 2016!
A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny – I’m not usually a fan of series, or if I do like one, I get bored four books in. Not the case with Chief Inspector Gamache and the rest of the residents of Three Pines. This latest entry is a worthy addition, and luckily for me, my memory of the first in the series faded enough to let me start all over at Book 1.
I Am One of You Forever by Fred Chappell – I borrowed this through interlibrary loan based on Author Sarah Addison Allen’s recommendation in the back of one of her novels. Through a series of linked short stories, Jess, the narrator’s, coming of age in rural North Carolina is told in lyrical, almost magical, prose. Funny, poignant, and with an eye full of love for the area and the people, we meet Jess’s family and share in his adventures. If this were a film, I would have called it a “good, old-fashioned movie.” Loved it!
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen – My third foray into her work. There is plenty of “telling” instead of showing in her work but it all works. There’s myth to infuse and it colors the edges.
Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen – Another escape into Allen’s Magical Realism world where the people are real but their talents or surroundings are surprising. See my comments down below for The Sugar Queen.
A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty – You may have heard of her sister, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret have blown up around the world (with Reese Witherspoon set to film one of them). I was reading about Liane on her website and found out her sister is a novelist as well. Picked this up from the library and it was a fun read. A YA magical realism-ish journey with a girl in the real World and a boy in The Kingdom of Cello. I was struck by her imaginative use of language and her world building. Definitely recommend if you enjoy adventure and all things “other.”
Death in the Stocks by Georgette Heyer – I became such a fan of Josephine Tay’s mysteries and so many of her readers recommended Georgette Heyer, I decided to give her a go. Crisp, with great characterization and breezy humor with such a modern feel, I can easily recommend her to others. I will be putting more of her on my TBR list!
Stein on Writing by Sol Stein – Recommended by a writing mentor who has published 10 novels or more! If she reads it, I’m reading it. It was worth it. I picked up two invaluable tips that helped move my writing to the next level. I will be re-reading this!
Why Smart People Do Stupid Things with Money: Overcoming Financial Dysfunction by Bert Whitehead, MBA, JD – Provides some interesting insight into the whys with well-documented, commonsense hows. Will be using a few of these checklists in my own world!
The Lucidity Project: A Novel by Abbey Campbell Cook – Received an autographed, Advance Reader Copy for review directly from the author. This never fails to thrill me. Still, I evaluate all books honestly from my own personal likes and dislikes. A main character you can root for, check. A setting that whisks me away, check. Something to noodle over, learn from, puzzle out, or laugh about, check. Full review to follow but will recommend!
Dark Corners: A Novel by Ruth Rendell – More of a “why-done-it” than a whodunit, Rendell’s specialty is exploring the dark corners of the mind. From the very beginning, you know there’s a murder, it’s the following along of a seemingly average guy as he descends into murder that is the treat. This is her last book, blurbed by King. She’s considered a master, and I’ve enjoyed several of her books, especially the Inspector Wexford series. This is worth the read if you like psychological drama in a spare story.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James – An interview with writer/actress Emma Thompson sparked my interest in this. She’s part of a Henry James book club which sounded very British (even if he started out as an American) and literary. I wanted to read something “creepy” from another era, so I put it on my list along with Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.
The cover image of James’ novella is ultra-creepy, and the story inside did not disappoint. Whether you subscribe to the theory of the unreliable narrator or the theory of repressed sexuality in the Victorian era, the kids are creepy, the ghosts are creepy, and the unworthiness of the adults as caretakers is perhaps the scariest of all. Read it under the covers with a flashlight.
Death Comes To Kurland Hall (A Kurland St. Mary Mystery) by Catherine Lloyd – I’m really enjoying this series. Usually, I prefer stand alone novels, but every once in a while, I fall in love with a setting or a group of characters. The jacket describes this as a combination murder mystery/Regency romance. They mystery wasn’t especially difficult to figure out, although it kept me interested. I love the setting and Major Kurland is Mr. Darcy’s rival. Lucy is a likeable, persistent, and independent heroine. If the devices used to keep the two of them apart strain belief at times, they are no less enjoyable to read! Highly recommended.
The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen – The two things I’d love to be able to do in my novel-in-progress, are to take readers away and make them care about the people in my book. This novel accomplished both. It even had a few penetrating insights into mothers and daughters, all mixed up in a frothy concoction that was easy to devour. I will look for her other books when I want to get away.
The Outsmarting of Criminals: A Mystery Introducing Miss Felicity Prim by Steven Rigolosi – Books about books and booklovers are catnip to me. The main character and amateur sleuth, Felicity Prim, did not disappoint. Easy to get lost in the setting and enjoyable premise. The ending wrapped up a bit too neatly and required a larger-than-usual helping of the willing suspension of disbelief. Based on 90% of the novel, I would still recommend!
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey – I fell in love with Josephine Tey’s mysteries a few years ago and thought I’d gotten to them all. Snagged this off the library shelves during a bout with the flu. There’s something about her focused yet evocative writing that just works with my brain. Her mysteries are lean. This one was unusual in that it focused on Grant, her lead detective, recovering in hospital, and he remains flat on his back through almost the entire story. The plot focused on Grant’s interest in the mystery of Richard III and accusations that he murdered his nephews. Through other characters, Grant investigates history and comes to some startling conclusions. Thought-provoking about the old adage that history is written by the victors. Can’t recommend Tey’s work highly enough!
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss – Dry humor, a wealth of history, and a no-nonsense approach to the written word. Confession: I read this in the bathroom over a couple of weeks. Possible overshare but still recommended!
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger – Cried when it was over. That doesn’t happen often. It’s a lovely story, a happy story, a sad story, a hopeful story and sometimes even a scary story. It’s a GREAT story. It’s an old-fashioned, squeeze-you-tight story of adventure and love and loyalty and grief and mistakes and heaven and hell. It’s poetry and plain talk. Best book I’ve read this year.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert – I resisted buying this book because it had the “bandwagon” feel. Everyone was touting it and recommending it and that automatically makes me suspicious. A trusted mentor said it was worth the read and I succumbed. I’ve marked about half the pages as containing wisdom that provides a jolt. Think of it as caffeine or sunshine. It reaffirms that we’re all here to make stuff. Good, mediocre, commercial, esoteric—whatever it is, just make it already. Worth the read.
The Lake House by Kate Morton – Big, sprawling, intricately woven tale of a family and their secrets, loves, fears, mistakes, and ultimately, their hopes. Luscious settings and intriguing characters, highly recommended!
Murder in an Irish Village by Carlene O’Connor – Check out my review here! Great mystery, number one in series with #2 due next year!
Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham – A writer friend loaned this to me (I’m keeping it, she’s ok with that) because she thought it had some similarities to the type of manuscript I’m working on. You may know Lauren Graham as the coffee swilling mom on the Gilmore Girls. Mostly I was just so impressed at what a great job she did! The dialogue is snappy, her main character is believable and likable, and the plot held my interest.
The Lightkeepers: A Novel by Abby Geni – Adventure and intrigue in a place you’ve probably never heard of. I’ll be doing a full review of this for Blogcritics.org and a Q & A with the author, so stay tuned. With starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, along with prominent placement from Barnes and Noble, this is one to put on your list for 2016!
The Virgins: A Novel by Pamela Erens – My first novel of 2016, recommended by a friend. Engrossing, painful, page-turning exploration of first love and lust at an East Coast boarding school. Despite the fact that a major reveal happens 1/3 in—you keep turning the pages to find out how. The voice and narrator are unforgettable. Highly Recommended!
Books Read in 2015
Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury – This will be my final finished book for 2015. I can’t think of a more appropriate title to close out my year. I knew I loved many of Bradbury’s stories but hadn’t ever considered reading his advice on creativity and craft. This is one of my favorites. The essays are half about writing and his process and half about particular works. All give incredible insight, folk wisdom, and some just life wisdom. I came to see him as a cross between the storytelling genius of Stephen King, the beautiful language of his oft quoted Emily Dickinson, and a twinkle of mischief from, maybe, Neil Gaiman? I will seek out more of his work and advice. Loved this book!
Descent by Tim Johnston – Wow. I had to make myself stop reading this at midnight the day I started, because I knew I’d stay up all night to finish it. That hasn’t happened to me in awhile. My heart raced, and I was there, on the mountain. Even when I peeked ahead (just to see if I could stomach the ending), I missed a twist and was surprised nonetheless. Billed as a “literary thriller,” it was the cover and the back blurbs that made me take a photo of it and text it to my family as we were shopping together two weeks before Christmas. Part of me was disappointed as I unwrapped it Christmas morning. I knew it wouldn’t be an easy story to digest, and I often avoid stories about families such as this. My parenting genes won’t let me enjoy it for all the anxiety it creates. This will be the last novel I finished reading in 2015 and it is excellent! I highly, highly recommend. Besides, the author was really cool and tweeted me back on Twitter! I find myself wanting to see this the day it debuts in theaters (not sure they’ve sold the rights yet, but, oh my). A painful, redeeming, frightening look at wilderness, families, and all of our assumptions about life.
Playing Big by Tara Mohr – This isn’t a book about finding a career or your passion, although it could certainly help with those things. This is a book about finding out the best way to just be. It’s about how we talk to ourselves, view our potential, about inviting creativity and kindness to take a larger role in our lives. It’s encouraging, enlightening, informative, practical, hopeful, wonderful. I’m buying a copy for my daughter (probably the CD version so she can listen in her car as she’s very busy these days). This will be on my Top Ten list for the year.
Chapter After Chapter by Heather Sellers – A friend loaned me the hardcover and I bought my own paperback. Does that tell you anything? Practical, inspirational, motivational, encouraging and slightly psychic. She seemed to see right into my head and heart and churning gut as I try to work my way through my project. Playful voice. May not be for everyone but I loved her real, down-to-earth approach.
The Good Neighbor by Amy Sue Nathan – This was the second novel, also recommended by one of the agents at the Chicago Writers Conference. I loved the imperfect main character in this modern day study of a women pursuing a life out of the ashes of her old one. The elderly neighbor added an unusual sprinkling of flavor. Messing up, even with good reason, and then taking the steps to live the life you imagine . . . makings of good story stuff!
Maze of Blood, A Novel by Marly Youmans – Based on the life of pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard, and set in 1930’s Texas. A full review is coming but if you haven’t found Marly Youmans yet, if you’re a writer who thinks they’ve read everything, if you’re a sucker for a tale well-told, you’ve got to read something by this woman.
Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules by Steven James – Finished this on my lunch hour today (yes, you do have time to read and write). It confirms the best of the info I’ve already found on story in books like Immediate Fiction and Invisible Ink but adds excellent examples, lists and charts (if you like those), and permission to do things your own way. Intuitively, I don’t like outlining. Steven James says it’s ok. HIGHLY RECOMMEND
Eighth Wonder: The Thomas Bethune Story, A Novel by Anita M. Cal – I received an advanced reader copy of this novel and it was an extraordinary tale. At 410 pages, in pdf form, I thought I’d have a hard time getting into it as the topic of slavery is a hard one for many to read. The characters were engaging, the settings evocative, and the story well told. I finished it in one day and I hate reading electronically! I’m planning a full review of this soon so stay tuned.
The Glass Wives by Amy Sue Nathan – I met an agent at the Chicago Writers Conference and she recommended I check out this novel. It had a great premise, a believable main character, and an emotional arc that was easy to relate to. She has a second novel coming out this month and I can’t wait to pick that one up as well.
Naked by David Sedaris – Funny, sad, unique voice. I’m a fan. Listened to this in the car because I’m trying to squeeze in more reading and my eyes are taking a brutal hit. Recommend!
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon – One of those inspiring reads. You’ll pick up a trick or two. Get bogged down by life. Stub your toe on the dusty book peeking out from under your bed. Pick it up and turn a few pages. And get all tingly with inspiration all over again.
Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon – Read this one first, out of order. It’s slightly more spectacular than his first one. I’m loyal, what can I say?
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell – Meandering yet compelling anecdotes are tied back together in unexpected ways. Always something to learn from a Gladwell book.
Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization by John J. Ratey, M.D. and Richard Manning – Obsessed with this one. Already focused on eating clean (avoiding most if not all processed food, grass-fed, organic, etc.) but this ties in other categories like sleep, movement, mindfulness, etc. Energizing, igniting.
The Women Come Out to Dance: Stories by Elmore Leonard – Part of broadening my horizons this year as a reader is to get more short stories in. Asked my sister for her favorite and she recommended this. Leonard can write. Especially loved the one about the senior citizens hooking up! Overall, the themes aren’t my favorite to read about but for studying the form, we could all do worse.
Egghead, or, You Can’t Survive on Ideas Alone by Bo Burnham – Damn impulse purchases! Those display ends at the bookstore are worse than the gum and candy landmines at the grocery stores. Laughed at a couple of these. Thought a couple of them were clever. Overall, just meh for me. No doubt he has a talent, just not my wheelhouse.
A Man Called Ove: A Novel by Fredrik Backman – I finished this book with a wide grin and tears streaming down my face. Ove may go down as one of this decade’s premiere, memorable characters in literature. Don’t be surprised if he turns up in a charming, independent film with maybe, Robert Deniro or Jack Nicholson in the lead role. At its essence, A Man Called Ove is a fable about love, friendship, loyalty, fear, death, bigotry, violence–life. Ove is grouchy, lonely, remote, fierce, opinionated, sad and hilarious. The author throws him into the pot with a hilarious mixture of neighbors and spices the soup with the history of how Ove got to be Ove. One of my favorite reads of the year.
Beautiful Affliction: A Memoir by Lene Goldberg – Highly recommended. Read my full review here.
A Paris Apartment: A Novel by Michelle Gable – What a fun read! Love, lies, antiques and Paris. I found myself immediately engrossed in April Vogt’s life and loves during a business trip to Paris. Her find–an apartment full of priceless antiques, untouched for decades–makes her curious about the life and loves of the previous owner and her family. I was much more invested in April’s story and cared more about her loves and life than I did about the mystery woman from the past. Gable weaves a sensory tapestry showing off Paris and France in a delightful escape from the every day. Highly recommend!
The Silver Witch by Paula Brackston – This was an atmospheric read. Alternating between two women in two different time periods, the author employs magic and history to tell a tale of love, loss and courage. Lyrical prose and an engaging protagonist held my interest. The plot isn’t surprisingly original and yet I enjoyed following the author into the world she created.
Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. by Rob Delaney – I went looking for this one on purpose after watching Catastrophe, the new Amazon Prime series written by and starring the author. The show was raunchy, poignant and hilarious. I loved his rough and tumble face and especially enjoyed the performance of his leading lady. The book did not disappoint. He divulges his backstory with wit and self-deprecating humor. He’s a guy who had the right start in life and nearly managed to screw it all up. A talented writer with the “it” factor.
The Last Animal by Abby Geni – A collection of engrossing short stories dealing with love, loss, childhood, parents and other human pursuits with a connection to the natural and/or animal worlds. This is only the second complete collection of short stories I’ve read and it’s made me a convert to the form. I usually prefer full-length novels or flash fiction. These are awesome tales.
Ragdale: A History and Guide by Alice Hayes and Susan Moon – I had the magical pleasure of reading this book while staying in the Ragdale House. I felt as if I were time traveling and could feel the joy of the family that created and infused the house with life for so many years. A wonderful map to the home created by one of the architects of the Arts and Crafts movement; a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright and many others. More than that, this is a window on a bygone era of bucolic summer days, bonfires, and the joys of the creative life told by two of the women who grew up there.
Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova – Sucked right into this authentic, working-class Irish family in Boston. An example of one of those novels where things happen on a small scale but the detail and insight into the lives of these people brings it fully to life. A devastating portrait of a family dealing with an incurable genetic disease and its repercussions that manages to avoid sentimentality. Ultimately hopeful.
I Regret Everything: A Love Story by Seth Greenland – For lovers of language and love stories. Lawyer/poet falls in love but doesn’t have long to live. Will he choose love even if it messes up what’s left of his life? Told from two points of view, each likable in their own way. Witty and sad and happy.
Lemongrass Hope by Amy Impellizzeri – Poignant, surprising study of choices we make and the life that results. Sprinkle in a touch of magic, some exotic settings and a hint of time travel. Recently interviewed the author. Stay tuned!
The Daylight Marriage by Heidi Pitlor – Front cover blurb from Stephen King hooked me. The story will tie your heart in knots and the structure keeps the suspense flowing.
We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler – Impossible to classify so I’ll say what struck me about this the most was the author’s ability to get to the guts of the teenage protagonist and the ingenious, surprising use of language, structure and . . . Pirates!
Little Pretty Things by Lori Rader-Day – Check out my review here.
The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield – One of those magic books in a slim package. A kick in the pants for writers or anyone pursuing a creative life.
The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell – Chose this when it was my turn for book club. The other members are struggling with it and I was for about the first 50 pages. But I love a good mystery based on historical fact. I don’t mind the combo of learning while being entertained. As soon as the ancient manuscript is revealed, I am hooked! I love books about books. Excellent book with so much insight into the lives and studies priests in the Vatican. The mystery for me was secondary.
Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald – Most succinct and illuminating book on story craft I’ve read in the last year.
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh – Another re-read. This is a spiritual book for me. Such wisdom and delight and understanding. I’ve given it as a gift many times and realized I no longer had a copy of my own…so I bought another!
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple – This is a re-read for me. Loved it so much the first time, decided to re-read as a writer. I loved Semple’s voice and her characterization and guess I’m drawn to the unique epistolary style!
Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver (re-reading)
The Mangle Street Murders: The Gower Street Detective: Book 1
I’m marinating some ideas for a possible mystery. I don’t often read series as the third and fourth books often feel tedious. The protagonist in this series debut is a true feminist and a delight to follow around the filthy streets of London. I found the detective to be a bit cartoonish and I disliked the epilogue of afterword which seemed tacked on in a cheating “let me explain more” kind of way. That said, I would try another for the main character and the interesting depiction of old London.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice: A Novel by Alix Christie
I adored this book and even got a tweet back from the author! The amount of research that she works into what amounts to a page-turner is mind-boggling! This is an engrossing character study that keeps you on pins and needles even though you’re aware of the historical outcomes. Cannot recommend highly enough.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (book club)
First person, present tense, two POV. Suspenseful! Can’t say more until after book club.
How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman
This was creepy! Kept me up when I was home alone. But a good story. First person, present tense which worked for the most part. I got a little impatient waiting for the narrator to act but overall I would recommend it!
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikrey
For true book lovers. Maybe a little corny but uplifting and readable. These kinds of books make me believe the bookstore is real and I want to visit it!
Death Comes to London (A Kurland St. Mary Mystery) by Catherine LLoyd
See below – loved this one too. They’re having a “season” in London! What’s not to love?
Death Comes to the Village (A Kurland St. Mary Mystery) by Catherine LLoyd
A bit of Jane Austen for the cozy mystery set. I picked these up because I’m trying to get a feel for the plotting of mysteries. These were delicious. My disclaimer is that I’m a fan of 18th century England (all centuries of England if you must know). There’s romantic tension, a brooding hero, a smart heroine who is a victim of her times and circumstances. They’re fast-paced and I would recommend. Some people have issues with the ending or the plot contrivances but I’m not some people. I step into their world and wander the village with them.
Brother of the More Famous Jack: A Novel by Barbara Trapido
The cover and blurbs sold me on this. Liz Gilbert and Marie Semple (author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette – one of my faves) said it was a must-read. It’s a character-driven piece and it did hold my interest but wasn’t memorable for me.
Among Others by Jo Walton
Recommended by a writing teacher. We both enjoy fantasy and YA. This has a young (14?) narrator who I just loved. A magical element but it’s not other-worldly. The fantastical parts are treated as every day and it works. Plus, the MC is a book lover. This almost always endears them to me. A lot to say about fitting in, finding your people, growing up and overcoming your circumstances. Well-told. I ended up sending it to my great niece who is 13 and a unique individual!
Bird in Hand: A Novel by Christine Baker Kline
Bought this when I picked up Brother of the More Famous Jack. I thought the cover description made it sound similar to the story I was writing and I was intrigued. Ended up loving this. Told from four different points of view about an incident that changes everything, how the past can rise up to haunt you, how you may never really know people. It was intelligent and just a good “what if” story. One of my faves this year.
The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon – Book Club!
Meh – creeped me out in one part when the motion activated light in my closet turned on by itself.
Glimmerglass by Marly Youmans
Loved – see my full, official review here.
The Vacationers by Emma Straub
Book Love (Pushcart Press)
Unspeakable (essays) by Meghan Daum
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mendel
Bringing in Finn (memoir) by Sara Connell
How to Read Like a Writer – Recommended by my retreat leader at Ragdale.
How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster – Caught my eye in Barnes and Noble yesterday. One of my inner gremlins gnawed at my brain until I purchased it. Started it in bed this morning. What’s better than a Sunday morning in bed with new books?
How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey – Recommended to me by Mary Carter, prolific novelist and teacher!
The 90-Day Rewrite by Alan Watt
Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon