Looking Back: July in Books

I officially left my job and embarked on a summer of unemployment in June, but the unemployment lifestyle didn't truly begin to feel real until July. Two family vacations meant lots of travel time, downtime, and reading time, and there were some true gems mixed into my July reads:

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russel: I've had people telling me for years to read this book, and yet for some reason it has taken me until just this week to finally read it. I actually started it in April, set it down after 50 pages, and had to start it again last week to get back into it--but once I did, I was hooked. Russel uses a vision of the future in which Jesuit priests are exploring other worlds to probe questions of morality, philosophy, religion, and humanity. Full thoughts to come.

The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer: Another one I've had on my radar for what feels like ages (July was a good month for catching up on some TBR books in my world), and another one I absolutely devoured, start to finish. I read and enjoyed The Interestings and was struck by the power of Wolitzer's writing, though I occasionally questioned where it was going. Never happened with The Wife, which is a searing, honest portrayal of a crumbling marriage, looking back over the history of how the woman became the wife. Hand-in-hand with Dept. of Speculation, this will make you take a good, hard look at marriage and all its implications.

To Have and Have Not, by Ernest Hemingway: Continuing my attempt to read all of Hemingway's works, To Have and Have Not traveled down to the BVI with me this month. While the setting is different--Havana and the Florida Keys, rather than the Caribbean--it felt right to read Hemingway's account of a boat captain looking for work and finding adventure in the sticky, sweltering sun of Great Camanoe island.

Tigerman, by Nick Harkaway: I adored Harkaway's Angelmaker, and though I have yet to read The Gone-Away World, Harkaway is cemented in my brain as a talented author who is capable of twirling together the absurd and the serious in such a way as to make us look more closely at our own shockingly normal lives.  Tigerman lived up to this expectation, relaying the story of an aging British Sergeant and a young boy who join together to fight against unseen forces in a sort of grotesquely wonderful scene ripped from the comic books. Full review to follow in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, by Lydia Netzer: As with Tigerman, I picked up How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky because I fell head-over-heels in love with Netzer's debut novel, Shine Shine Shine. Like her previous work, Netzer's newest dabbles in space and romance, this time pulling together a couple who were groomed by their mothers to fall in love and be perfect for each other. It's quirky and weird and a little bit crazy, which makes it perfectly whimsical.

World of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters: Winters wrapped up his Last Policeman trilogy with World of Trouble, which continued the story of Detective Hank Palace, out to solve crimes in a world that is about to end. I love the creativity and cleverness of this mystery trilogy, which uses a pre-apocalyptic setting to repeatedly challenge readers to consider what they might do if, say, they knew the world was going to end on October 3rd. My full review of World of Trouble.

The Visitors, by Sally Beauman: The Visitors was not a perfect novel, but it was an epic one, spanning ancient Egyptian history, stories of British and American archeologists in the early 20th century, and family politics in the later 20th century. The familial storyline felt cumbersome at times, but the detail about Egypt and its many tombs and myriad secrets is compelling and fascinating for anyone with a passing interest in Egyptology. My full review of The Visitors.

What were the best books you read in July?

Authors That Take Up the Most Space on My Shelves

I own a lot of books (something like 28 boxes in storage, give or take a few hundred more tomes in my current apartment). Some are galleys, some are carefully curated selections. Most are by different authors, but there are a few writers that dominate a disproportionate amount of space on my shelves/in my boxes/on my Nook:

J.K. Rowling, 10: All seven Harry Potter books, of course (the hardcovers in the boxed suitcase-like set), plus a few scattered old paperback editions of the earlier titles in the series. Plus A Casual Vacancy and the first Robert Galbraith book, and that makes 10+.

Ernest Hemingway, 11: I long ago decided to try to sit down to read everything Hemingway has ever written, and while I'm still far from accomplishing that goal, I've got a good collection going: The Old Man and the Sea, two editions of The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, Islands in the Stream, To Have and Have Not, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, two editions of A Moveable Feast, a second e-book version of The Sun Also Rises, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. That's 11, and since I'm doing this from memory, I think I missed a few. (Bonus points to Hemingway because of the many Hemingway-themed reading I have, including Hemingway's Boat, Hemingway's Girl, The Paris Wife, and Mrs. Hemingway.)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 6: I'm a sucker for a pretty edition, and Coralie Bickford Smith's decadent volumes of Fitzgerald's works are no exception. In addition to my battered old paperback copy of The Great Gatsby, which has survived the decade+ since I first read it in high school, I have two of Fitzgerald's novellas from Melville House's Art of the Novella series, The Beautiful and Damned, This Side of Paradise, and Tender is the Night. (Bonus points to Fitzgerald because I own two novelizations of his wife's life, Z and Call Me Zelda, plus two Out of Print Gatsby-themed shirts.)

Margaret Atwood, 6: Oh Margaret Atwood, how I love thee. On my shelf: the Maddaddam trilogy, The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, Alias Grace.

Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson), 15: I've written before about my undying love for Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, and with fourteen volumes in all, let's just say this dominates my shelves. (Doesn't hurt that I own two copies of the first book in the series, Eye of the World.) On top of that, my husband and I collectively own most, if not all, of Sanderson's other works.


This post is part of Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

Books That Go Together

I'm vacationing this week, staring out over beautiful stretches of water, thinking about books that go together. I packed with me Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, and Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick, but I haven't started either because I can't seem to decide which I should read first.

When I first read Anna Karenina, I started with the introduction. It was called the introduction, and I expected it to introduce me to the text. Instead, it gave away the outcome of the story--and turned me off of classics introductions forevermore.

But when I read Jane Austen's Emma, I started with the essay on the novel in A Jane Austen Education, and found that I ultimately took more away from Austen's novel than I might have without the essay introduction. (That being said, I still didn't enjoy the novel, and find I'm not so much of an Austen fan.)

Now I'm staring down Moby Dick and Why Read Moby Dick?, uncertain of where to start, and wondering about books that go together, and whether reading about a book enhances the reading of it, or whether reading about a classic is more impactful if you've already read the classic being discussed:
  • Lolita and Reading Lolita in Tehran
  • The Great Gatsby and So We Read On
  • Jane Austen's novels and A Jane Austen Education
That's not even taking into consideration books about an author's life (such as Hemingway's Boat), novels that reinvent an author's life (Z: A Novel of Zelda and Call Me Zelda come to mind), or modern retellings of classic novels (Great, Song of Achilles).

What do you think? Where should I start?

Rewind: Inheriting My Reading Spot: The Saga of an Armchair

I'm on vacation this week and next, so will be mixing in some past posts with new reviews and content to keep things active around here. This post originally ran in October 2011, but it just as near and dear to my heart as it was three years ago.

Once upon a time, my dad's cat ran away. The cat had a tendency to do this and not return for days and days, so we trekked through the neighborhood with flashlights in hand, making absurd mewing noises and shaking bags of treats.

When this did not turn up one Very Sly and Sneaky Cat That I Thought Deserved to Spend the Night Out in the Cold, we checked our neighbors' houses. At one of these houses, a bundle of items for Purple Heart stood perched on the stoop, awaiting the next-day arrival of the truck. Amidst this bundle was buried one Very Ugly and Very Pink but Very Cozy Looking Armchair.

This wasn't just any armchair. This was my grandmother's armchair. Why, you ask, were my neighbors donating a family heirloom to the Purple Heart? In the smallest of small world stories, it turns out they had purchased it from a Goodwill nearly 20 miles away, intending to have it recovered in not-so-ugly fabric. When the re-upholstery proved to be too expensive, it sat in their basement. When no one bought it at their yard sale, it was destined for Purple Heart.

And how did it end up at Goodwill in the first place? My Very Helpful Uncle donated it, along with the rest of my grandmother's furniture, after she died. Little did he know that the chair, no matter how very ugly and very pink it was, was well-loved. My grandmother had sat in the overstuffed armchair everyday for as long as I could remember - first when she lived with us, then when she moved in with my dad when my parents split up, and then when she moved in with my uncle later on. It was her center, her spot, her comfort zone. It gave her a wingback to lean on while she cried through Days of Our Lives, and it held her in its comfy cushions while she read romance novels plastered with Fabio covers.

It broke my heart when we lost that chair. Luckily, though, the chair never lost us.

Three families, two houses, and several NYC apartments later, the chair has returned to its rightful home in my living room. It has become my rock, my nook, my reading center. And until a week ago, it was still Very Pink and Very Ugly (though also Very Cozy):

Now it has left again, this time for a stint in a reupholstery shop. The chair will now be Very Khaki Colored and Very Plain and Still Very Cozy. It will always be my grandmother's chair, but in recovering it, it will continue in its journey to become my chair, too. The upcoming chairless weeks will be a trial. I'm not sure where to rest my feet when settling in with a new book. My library books have no cushion creases in which to lose themselves. My reading lamp shines on an empty corner. But when the chair returns to me, as I know it always will, I will curl into its oversized arms, open a book on my lap, and read with thoughts of my grandmother to keep me company.

(Follow-up post: A New Reading Nook, on the chair post-reupholstery.)

Book Review: Alias Hook, by Lisa Jensen

Originally published in the July 15 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Everyone knows how Peter Pan defeats his piratical foe: Pan throws the evil Captain Hook into the ocean, where he is eaten by a crocodile. But what if Hook did not, in fact, die? What if he could not die?

Lisa Jensen (Witch from the Sea) bases her second novel, Alias Hook, on this premise, turning the classic fairy tale on its head in much the same style as Wicked did for The Wizard of Oz. In Jensen's reimagined Neverland, Hook is Captain James Benjamin Hookbridge, an English gentleman and privateer caught in Neverland and forced to fight the Lost Boys against his will. Peter Pan, on the other hand, is a ruthless barbarian whose youth prevents him from understanding the cruelty of his actions as he kills Hook's men again and again.

Two centuries of fighting with Pan and not dying have left Hook wishing for nothing more than the sweet relief of death--until he encounters a grown woman in Neverland, an occurrence strictly prohibited by Pan. This presents Hook with something new: hope that the rules of the Neverland may not be as unbreakable as he had once believed them to be, and a renewed desire to leave the place forever and live the rest of his life in peace.

Told from Hook's perspective, Alias Hook can sometimes feel cluttered with overwrought pirate speak or ungainly with the outmoded vocabulary of an 18th-century gentleman. As the plot picks up pace, however, this potentially distracting language falls away to reveal a story of magic and romance, powerful in its ability to remind us to believe in the impossible, no matter the odds.


Alias Hook | Lisa Jensen | Thomas Dunne Books | Hardcover | July 2014

Decisions, Decisions: Packing for Vacation Reading

I'm spending two and a half weeks in this lovely place, with one main agenda item: read, read, read. I have internet, but the connection is limited, and while the family will be doing some serious snorkeling, I have issues with breathing underwater (namely that it makes me freak out) so I'll have several days to bask in the glory of a quiet house with a view of the ocean.

Great Camanoe, British Virgin Islands

Which means that when I packed for the trip, I put some serious thought into which books would be coming with me--especially given the strict weight limits for luggage, given the six-seater plane we had to take to get to our final destination (which, like snorkeling, didn't go well for me).

On unpacking my bag on arrival, I realized my book selections fell into a few key vacation reading categories:

I have read exactly zero books for the Classics Club so far in 2014, and vacation seemed as good a time as any to start. I've had Moby Dick on my to-read list for what feels like ages, and I'm still trying to read all of Hemingway's works, even though I didn't manage to do it before I turned 26.

As a reviewer, I often fall behind in recent releases that I don't manage to pick up before publication date. These are just a few of those titles, but they all look so wonderful in different ways. And Land of Love and Drowning is set in the Virgin Islands, so should make for some awesome themed reading as well.

Like recent releases, I'm hoping vacation can be a chance to catch up on some books that have lingered on my to-be-read stack for an inappropriately long time. It's a mixed bag here, but I'm hoping for some gems.


Of course I also came down with a Nook loaded with galleys, e-books, and other options, but the ones above are the ones highest on my list. I won't get to them all (never do), but I've got high hopes... and lots of sunshine.

What kinds of books do you bring on vacation?

Book Review: The Visitors, by Sally Beauman

Originally published in the July 11, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

With The Visitors, Sally Beauman (Rebecca's Tale) transports readers back to Egypt in the 1920s, when explorers, archeologists and historians searched for uncovered tombs of Egyptian pharaohs and the riches they were thought to contain--a time of mystery and discovery for which no parallel exists today. The Visitors weaves together the imagined observations of Lucy, an 11-year-old girl traveling to Egypt with her guardian, and real historical characters, including Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon, two British men credited with the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb.

Much of Beauman's novel is told in the elderly Lucy's recollections of her childhood travels, combined with her memories of her family life at the time. While the tales of faraway Egypt are far more interesting than the family politics of Lucy's life, the two narratives combine to present a full picture of Lucy and how her life has been shaped by the events she witnessed abroad. Her naïveté as a young girl stands in stark contrast to her full understanding of the enormity of the discovery of King Tut's tomb--and the secrets that surrounded that momentous event--as an adult.

The Visitors is large and ambitious, covering subjects as disparate as the legacy of grave robbers in ancient Egypt and the political tension between the local government and foreign archeologists. Though the great secret to which Lucy's story builds could potentially be lost in the sea of recollections about her family life, keen readers will find suspense, excitement and ambition in Beauman's nuanced, intriguing story.

The Visitors | Sally Beauman | Harper | Hardcover | July 2014

Guest Post: Ben H. Winters Recommends Mystery Books for Aspiring Writers

I recently read (and adored) Ben H. Winter's Last Policeman trilogy (see my reviews of The Last Policeman and Countdown City, as well as the final volume, World of Trouble, on sale this week). So when the publisher, Quirk Books, asked if I'd be interested in participating in a blog tour with Winters, I couldn't resist. Below, find Winters discussing his #fridayreads picks for aspiring mystery writers. And if you're interested, you can check out all of Winters' other tour stops over on the Quirk blog
If you haven't already read the trilogy, you can also enter to win all three of the books, courtesy of Quirk Books, by filling out the form here.


I frequently say that the best way to learn to write a book is to read a lot of books. It’s kind of a cheap and useless piece of advice, though, isn’t it—because first of all I think probably everybody who wants to write a book has already figured that out (although every once in a while you meet an aspiring writer who says something like “I don’t really like to read that much,” which is pretty astonishing).

And then also the obvious question is, “Any books in particular?”

So let me see if I can make some suggestions. Here are a bunch of books that will not in and of themselves teach you how to write a mystery, but which I know I am a better writer because I have read them.

The first thing you want to do, actually, is read this short opinion article by Lee Child, the guy who writes all those Jack Reacher novels. He will explain to you that your primary job is NOT to create interesting events and secrets, that’s the SECONDARY job. The PRIMARY job is is make the reader wait, so they are so eager to get to the interesting events and secrets that they fall into that intense feverish state we call the pleasure of reading.

Get that, and then read Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, greatly and justly acclaimed as a Golden Age masterpiece; when you are done and have recovered from the shock of the final chapters, go back and read it again, noting those precise moments where information is omitted, or presented wrapped in veils or buried in a maze of misdirection.

Then you gotta read Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, by the French psychoanalyst and literature professor Pierre Bayard. Engaging with Bayard’s cerebral (and at times maddening) book-long dissection/celebration of Ackroyd isn’t fun, exactly, but the guy points to and explains all of Christie’s tricks—it’s like the part of a Penn & Teller show where they go, “Okay, here’s how we did it…”

Then go ahead and read Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which besides being the progenitor of a thousand hardboiled crime novels set on a thousand rainswept streets, is another wickedly deceptive piece of work. Details hide between sentences, they are flashed at us like the bottom card on a deck and then tucked away before we can process them.

Lots of brilliant books (not to mention lots of tedious parodies) can point to Falcon as a big influence; two to read, for sure, are James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Note how both of these guys, in very different ways, take the cool steely surface of the Falcon and pry it open, show how much is going on beneath, in the anxious minds and wild hearts of the detectives.

But the novel that can teach you the most—not only how to deceive and delay, but also how to give the reader real human characters with real human hearts—is Clockers, by Richard Price. For my money, that’s the finest crime novel out there, because it so successfully marries the imperatives of the genre (solve the puzzle! Trick the reader!) with the imperatives of all great art: make us believe, make us care, challenge our expectations about ourselves and about other people.

There are pieces of all these books, influences of all of them, in The Last Policeman and its sequels. But hopefully I absorbed the lessons of the genre and then I made it my own. That’s how you do it, ultimately, you take what you can, and you go. You read for a while, and then you write.


What are your go-to mystery reads? And what books would you recommend to aspiring writers?

Book Review + Giveaway: World of Trouble, by Ben Winters

Ben Winters is back with World of Trouble, the conclusion to the Last Policeman trilogy, which is just as heartfelt and thoughtful and occasionally hilarious as the previous two volumes in the collection. The novel again follows Detective Henry (Hank) Palace, who is still trying to solve crimes even with the meteor Maia only weeks from impact.

In World of Trouble, the crime is he trying to solve is more personal than ever before: Palace is looking for his sister Nico, last spotted flying in a helicopter out to an unspecified location, where she and a group of fellow conspiracy-theorists were going to alter Maia's path and prevent it from hitting Earth. Suffice it to say that Nico does not want to be found, while Hank very much wants to find her, which leaves him tracing sketchy clues to even sketchier locations: an abandoned clothing store that once had a rogue internet connection; an empty police station in the middle of Ohio; an Amish farm.

World of Trouble continue the excellent philosophical narrative that Winters established in The Last Policeman and Countdown City. It asks big questions--What would you do if you knew the world was going to end? How would you protect the ones you love?--and offers up scattered answers: You might pretend the world was not going to end, or set out to horde as many supplies as possible. You might go Bucket List or take your own life. You might cut your family off from all communications to let them live their last days in ignorance of the coming events.

And buried within this philosophy is a mystery novel like any other, as a committed detective follows obscure clues to get to what he wants: answers. Where? Why? How?

It's no small task, setting a mystery in a world that is about to end, but Winters has pulled it off with panache. Seriously, if you haven't read these books already, stop everything and go pick them up.

Or just enter to win all three (courtesy of the publisher, Quirk Books) using the form below:

Good luck, and happy reading! And check back Friday for a post from Winters on how reading mystery novels shaped his writing, and what books he recommends for aspiring mystery writers.

Book Reviews: The Last Policeman and Countdown City, by Ben Winters

Ben Winters' The Last Policeman (Quirk Books, 2012) opens in early 2012, just a few months after astronomers announced that an enormous meteor named Maia would be hitting Earth--on October 3rd. Into this world of limited time steps Hank Palace, recently promoted from Officer to Detective with the Concord Police Department. While others are "going Bucket List"--departing their everyday lives to live dangerously, sleep with strangers, travel the world, or whatever their bucket list may include--Palace is staying put, determined not just to do his job, but to do his job well.

Suffice it to say that Palace's dedication to his work raises some eyebrows as he investigates an apparent suicide--which Palace believes may actually have been cover-up for a murder--as those around him wonder what the point of solving a murder may be if the world is just going to end in six months?

Countdown City (Quirk Books, 2013) continue Winters' Last Policeman trilogy, this time pitting Detective Palace against the case of a missing person. But with Maia less than three months from impact, people are going missing left and right, and it's up to Palace to determine why this case is any different from the rest--and what he'll do if he finds his missing man.

Both of Winters' novels set relatively standard detective cases--an assumed murder, a missing persons investigation--against a backdrop of crisis and chaos, bringing a layer of pre-apocalyptic intrigue to what could otherwise be a simple police procedural. What is most fascinating about The Last Policeman trilogy is not the mystery to be solved, though Winters has crafted detailed and intriguing mysteries, but the decisions people make when they feel they are running out of time. Some stay, some go Bucket List. Some kill themselves, some kill others. Some get high, some get religious. The options are endless, and this never-ending combination of paths is what makes Winters' writing so absolutely compelling, challenging readers to consider: What would you do if you knew the world was going to end? And would your answer change as the date of impact got closer and closer?

The third novel in Winters' trilogy is due out from Quirk Books this month. If you haven't already read the first two volumes, get on it now so you're caught up by July 15th. And if you have already read them, check out Quirk's awesome pre-order campaign (which I was not paid to promote, I just think it's worth checking out).

Stay tuned for my review of the newest volume in the trilogy, plus a guest post from author Ben Winters on the best books to read to learn how to craft a mystery novel... I promise it will grow your reading list, whether you are an aspiring novelist or not.


Note: Thanks to the publisher for providing copies of both of these titles for review.
The Last Policeman | Ben Winters | Quirk Books | Trade Paperback | July 2012
Countdown City | Ben Winters | Quirk Books | Trade Paperback | July 2013

Looking Ahead: July Books

July is upon us (and then some), with fireworks come and gone, Arthur come and gone, and the first week of July pretty much come and gone. I'm a bit late getting this post up (like last month... the 1st of the month just keeps sneaking past me), but July promises some really great summer reads nonetheless:

California, by Edan Lepucki (Little, Brown, July 8): This book got the coveted Colbert bump when the talk show host encouraged readers to pre-order the book from anywhere but Amazon, adding on to the ongoing drama of the Hachette-Amazon battle. And it promises a hauntingly-dystopian near future, which is right up my alley.

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, by Lydia Netzer (St. Martin's, July 1): I loved Netzer's debut novel, Shine Shine Shine, so while I haven't a clue what her new book is about, I know I'll be reading it. (Ok, I read the publisher description: it's the tale of two astronomers who meet and fall in love and then find out they were engineered to be each other's perfect match).

Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique (Riverhead, July 10): The publisher promises echoes of Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in this multi-generational story set in the Caribbean in the first half of the 20th century. I can't wait to read this on the beach... in the Caribbean.

Season to Taste, by Natalie Young (Little, Brown, July 15): An "unexpectedly" funny novel about a woman who accidentally kills her (not very likeable) husband... and decides to dispose of his body in the only way she knows how: by cooking and eating him.

Crossword Century, by Alan Connor (Gotham, July 10): A history of crosswords from their New York Times debut in 1913 through to today? Ok, yes please.

The Visitors, by Sally Beauman (Harper, July 8): Based on historical fact with fictional characters woven in, Beauman's novel transports readers back to Egypt in the early 20th century--as archaeologists searched for the as-yet undiscovered tomb of King Tut.

Tigerman, by Nick Harkaway (Knopf, July 29): Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker blew my mind a little bit (ok, more than a little bit). Tigerman is strikingly different from Angelmaker... but also blew my mind.

Unruly Places, by Alastair Bonnett (HMH, July 8): A tour of the world's mysterious and unknown places--from lost cities to no-man's land to uninhabited islands.

What's on your radar for July?

Happy 4th and Hurricanes

Happy fourth, all! I don't know what you're all up to, but over here on the East Coast (I'm writing this from Cape Cod...) we're facing down Hurricane Arthur and waiting for the rain to start. And probably drinking hurricanes. I won't have much time to post over the coming week, though I have a few posts brewing. But I will be reading (hopefully a lot). Here's what I've got in my vacation bag:

What are you reading this holiday weekend? And if you're gearing up for/in the midst of Arthur yourself, be safe!