Book Review: Travelers Rest, by Keith Lee Morris

This review originally ran in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

This quietly unsettling novel combines past and present, dreams and reality, into one strange hotel mystery.

The Books That Pull You In

I've been in an odd reading slump lately; I'm reading a ton, and a lot of it is very good, but nothing is pulling me in and holding my attention the way I'd like it to. So I did what I always do in situations where I want to talk about books but don't know what books I want to talk about: I asked Twitter.

Week in Reading: January 25

It was a wintry wonderland up in these parts this weekend: Friday and Saturday brought 30 inches of snow to my little town (approximately an entire winter's worth of snow in one 36-hour period), and a host of scattered thoughts on adulting and the magic of snow in its wake. I had hoped the forced hibernation would mean lots of reading time, but I found myself too easily distracted to focus on much. I did finish All is Not Forgotten, a psychological thriller that I'll be writing more about later on, and The Blind Assassin, which I absolutely loved after I hit about the halfway point (it was a bit of a slow build in the first half).

Scattered Thoughts on a Snowy Sunday

I'm in a weird headspace today, so forgive the rambling nature of this post. It snowed here Friday and Saturday--30 inches of snow, to be precise--and I'm riding the little-kid highs of the thrill of snowstorms (everything's closed! We can walk in the middle of the streets! Oh my god, it's *still* snowing!) and the adult-like lows of the dangers of them (do we have batteries? Will they ever plow our street? Where will they put all of this snow? Is the furnace return blocked outside? Why don't I have any water pressure-omg-is-it-a-frozen-pipe-I-have-no-idea-how-to-own-a-house!?). 

It's the conflicting nature of my feelings that is confusing to me today: I am sad to see the storm go, sad that we never lost power, that we weren't forced to build a blanket fort and read by flashlight (sad, perhaps, that we chose not to build a blanket fort and read by flashlight anyway). I am grateful for two days of guilt-free rest from running, but my legs are itching to be back out on the roads. I am thankful for a chance to hibernate this weekend, and also stir crazy, and also convinced my hibernation was too short.

I want a drink. I want a cookie. I want a nap. I want to read every book on my shelf.

I need to do the dishes, fold the laundry, and figure out how to get my car out of the garage over 3 feet of unplowed snow, and go back to work tomorrow.

I want to be a child. I have to be an adult. I need to learn how to live between those two things: how to appreciate the moments--like 30" of snow--that bring childlike wonder into our lives, and using those moments to bolster me through the harder parts of being responsible.

Is this what it feels like to grow up?

Picking the Best of the Best: Incredible 2015 Fiction Books

I read a lot of really great books last year, and a lot of so-so books, and a few really crappy books (very few of that last, actually, because I tend to just put aside books I don't like). In no particular order, and to complement my favorite 2015 non-fiction books and the ten books that blew my mind in 2015, here are the best fiction books I read this past year:

#Hamalong: Chapters 10-13

I'll be participating in Reading Rambo's Hamilton Readalong for the next two months, so expect weekly (if I can keep up) posts on the book from now through the end of February. Because the story of Hamilton's life is generally known from history books and the musical, I will not be avoiding spoilers in these posts (in other words: if you're planning to read Hamilton and want it to be a surprise, skip along).

[Technically this week's reading was Chapters 10-14, but I misread, so I'm a chapter behind the rest. Oops.]

We are moving right ALONG in this ol' Hamilton's life, friends. In this week's chapters (10-13), Chernow goes over Hamilton's time building up a successful law firm (albeit one with an awful lot of Tory traffic for the patriots' tastes); reflects a bit on Hamilton's past and how it might impact his future; dives into the Constitutional Convention and all its drama llamas; and gives us a full-on rundown of the Federalist Papers that puts Clifs Notes to shame. That last was about as interesting as reading Clifs Notes, to boot, which is not at all interesting.

Week in Reading (and a #24in48 Wrap!)

It's Tuesday, not Monday (when I usually post my week in reading plans...), but this was a three-day weekend and I luxuriated in spending as little time at my computer as possible. This included a slightly new tack for the #24in48 readathon: I posted my plans for the weekend, and updated on Twitter as I read, but I didn't compile my total pages read or my total hours reading or any other information here on this ol' blog. I actually didn't keep track of any of it at all, and it was rather glorious.

#24in48: Preparations and The Stack

It's back! #24in48 is here here here here here! Well, it's here tomorrow, anyway, which means it's not too late to sign up to join us for a whole weekend of snacks, reading, and talking about reading.

I'm facing a rare weekend of all pleasure reading: I've met all of my review deadlines for February books, and haven't yet received my batch of March reading from my editors. Which means this weekend is all about Clean Your Reader and Read My Own Damn Books. Here's what I'm eying:

#HamAlong: Chapters 6-9

I'll be participating in Reading Rambo's Hamilton Readalong for the next two months, so expect weekly (if I can keep up) posts on the book from now through the end of February. Because the story of Hamilton's life is generally known from history books and the musical, I will not be avoiding spoilers in these posts (in other words: if you're planning to read Hamilton and want it to be a surprise, skip along).

YOU GUYS THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD. Seriously, if you like well-written, interesting, engaging, incredibly thoroughly researched books that unexpectedly spawned viral musical hits... why are you not reading Hamilton right this very instant?

After the action-packed, insane adventures of the first few chapters, I expect every moment of Hamilton's life to be absolutely jam-packed with unimaginable, unbelievable, entirely real events--and Chapters 6-9 didn't disappoint. Though this span of nearly 100 pages doesn't yet move the United States fully out of the Revolutionary War, Hamilton as an individual matures beyond the upstart young soldier/aide-de-camp we came to know in Chapters 1-5. Chernow alludes to the changes we can expect in reviewing Hamilton's pay book early in Chapter 6:

For anyone studying Hamilton's pay book, it would come as no surprise that he would someday emerge as a first-rate constitutional scholar, an unsurpassed treasury secretary, and the protagonist of the first great sex scandal in American political history. (112)

Hot damn, is that a lot to pack into a pay book (also, excellent use of the Oxford comma there, Mr. Chernow). But in just these few chapters, we're seeing the beginnings of all of this: Hamilton becomes a practicing (much respected) lawyer; writes a bunch of political whatsits and whosits (that's the technical term for those, right?) that Chernow posits are the precursors to The Federalist Papers; studies (and writes about) the economy; and, oh yeah, falls in love with (and gets married to) the daughter of a wealthy New Yorker.

via Emily Wright on Pinterest

All of that is fascinating, but what I found most interesting in this section was watching Hamilton the boy grow into the post-war man history remembers most keenly: a brilliant, outspoken, well-written economist-philosopher-leader-voice whose opinions were never in question (as Miranda writes, "I will not equivocate on my opinion / I have always worn it on my sleeve").

By dint of his youth, foreign birth, and cosmpolitan outlook, he was spared prewar entanglements in provincial state politics, making him a natural spokesman for a new American nationalism. (157) 

To a peculiar extent, his mind was already [by twenty-five] focused on the problems that were to dominate the post-war period. (158)
Some other scattered thoughts:

  • I absolutely loved Hamilton's moment of "completely unnecessary bravado," doing parade-ground drills in the midst of besieging the British Army.
  • Major props to Chernow for using "poppycock" in a sentence completely unironically.
  • Maybe it's just because I'm listening to the end of the Hamilton soundtrack as I write this, but can we talk about sad some of this is getting? I was disproportionately upset by the growing rift between Washington and Hamilton over the course of the War. And Laurens' death was fairly soul-crushing. And the increasingly persistent references to duels and dueling! Just, stay away from dueling, Hamilton. I'd like to reach back into history and shake you. 
  • Hamilton's views are almost terrifyingly applicable to the political landscape of the United States today:
    • "The inquiry constantly is what will please, not what will benefit the people. In such a government there can be nothing but temporary expedient, fickleness and folly."
  • I think Hamilton's a pretty cool dude, but was fairly annoyed by his insistence that Eliza bear him a son. Like there's something wrong with (eldest) daughters. Pssh.
So, yeah, that's a lot. And we still have 600 pages to go.

2015 Reading by the Numbers

Because I love data, and numbers, and spreadsheets... I picked up 137 books in 2015, of which I finished 118. Here's how those break down:

What, if anything, do you track in your reading habits? I'm always looking to improve my spreadsheet (by the way, I'd be happy to share mine with anyone who wants it; since I've quit Goodreads, it even calculates how far ahead of my annual reading goal I am...).

Ten Notable Books from 2015 I Haven't Read... Yet

Despite the fact that over 90% of my reading in 2015 was frontlist (books published in 2014 or 2015), I still feel like there were SO MANY excellent books released in 2015 that I just didn't find the time for. I even own several of them (the best laid plans and all that...); here are ten I definitely plan to make time for in my 2016 reading:

Week in Reading: January 11

How's January going, guys? Who's still keeping up with their resolutions? Who didn't even bother making any to begin with?

January here has been weird: it swung from 55 degrees to 18 degrees back to 55 degrees in about a week, and it's taking a toll on these ol' sinuses. As such, I haven't gotten quite as much reading in as I'd have liked (sinus headaches are the worrrst), but it was still a pretty great reading week. I'm loving The Blind Assassin, which I'm reading for a Mini Long-Distance Book Club discussion with a friend, and Hamilton is off to an absolute baller of a start. I'm also still puttering through my re-read of Rules of Civility on audio.

#HamAlong: Chapters 1-5

I'll be participating in Reading Rambo's Hamilton Readalong for the next two months, so expect weekly (if I can keep up) posts on the book from now through the end of February. Because the story of Hamilton's life is generally known from history books and the musical, I will not be avoiding spoilers in these posts (in other words: if you're planning to read Hamilton and want it to be a surprise, skip along).

Me, looking at the length of this book and the size of its tiny, tiny print.

So: I'm already behind and we've only just started. But dayum, this book is good. I'll fully admit to being put off by its GIANT size and TEENY TINY print, but the first 100 pages flew by far more quickly than I'd anticipated for two reasons:

  1. Alexander Hamilton apparently lived the kind of life that one couldn't even dream up for a fiction book. Seriously, some of this is downright unbelievable: he of dubious fatherhood was abandoned by his presumed father (the one who gave him the name Hamilton), left orphaned by his mother, left destitute all over again when his cousin-turned-guardian either shot himself or stabbed himself in the head (how exactly can the two be confused??), left destitute all over again when his uncle-turned-guardian up and died on him (people did that a lot) and then somehow managed to become George Washington's right-hand man like... 5 years later. 

  2. Ron Chernow is sly and unpredictably funny. Case in point:

In this ghastly place [Fort Christiansvaern], unspeakable punishments were meted out to rebellious blacks who had committed heinous crimes: striking whites, torching cane fields, or dashing off to freedom.

and, after Hamilton's mother, Rachel, was thrown in jail by her then-husband, Lavien, for perceived infidelity:

As an amateur psychologist, Lavien left something to be desired, for he imagined that when Rachel was released after three to five months this broken woman would now tamely submit to his autocratic rule...

Chernow's clearly gone to great lengths to not only read everything Hamilton ever wrote (or possibly wrote; as there are some writings in the world that may be attributed to him but are uncertain), but everything ever written about Hamilton, in Hamilton's time (ok, maybe not, but it certainly feels like it), or by those Hamilton knew. Though some details (like the minor one of the year of Hamilton's birth) have been lost to history, Hamilton overall reads like something written about a contemporary or even currently living character, so in-depth are the source materials.

By the end of Chapter 5, we have a strong-willed, brilliant young boy who has been exposed to the horrors of slavery; witnessed first-hand the problems of rigid class structures; left his homeland behind to seek an education; been granted the war he wished for to give him upward class (and income) mobility; made a few enemies; impressed a number of notable politicians and military leaders; possibly had gay relationships with maybe one or maybe two other notable figures in the American Revolution (pure speculation, that), but at least forged lifelong friendships; become a significant figure not only in the American Revolution but in the political landscape of the American colonies... and what else am I missing?

Oh yeah, and we have seven hundred more pages to go. No wonder Miranda found this to be excellent fodder for what is surely one of the best musicals of our time.

So bring it on, Chernow. I'm ready for the rest of it.

Goals, Goals, Goals: Reading, Blogging, and Personal

I'm not big on resolutions. I've made them in the past, but inevitably, they fall off my radar by the end of January and are replaced with the standard chaos of everyday life. So now instead of resolutions, I choose one word to focus my energy on over the course of a year, and in 2016, it's savor. The intent is to remind myself to enjoy the things I love--in part by letting go of the things that take up my time and energy and are not things I love.

Week in Reading: January 4, 2016

WELCOME, WELCOME, 2016. I have big plans for you, inclusive of this: read good books. I kicked off the year with two excellent February reads (The Black Presidency, by Michael Eric Dyson, and Youngblood, by Matt Gallagher), and hope to keep the streak of excellent books going as the year continues. With that in mind, here's what I've got on my nightstand this week:

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood: My long-time readerly friend and I have revived our Mini Long-Distance Book Club (#mldbc) with this Atwood book we both had on our TBRs. So far, it's living up to expectations. Good for #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks, to boot.

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles: This is a re-read on audio for me, keeping me company for lots of errands and chores and driving this week as I ease back into "the real world" after a few oddball, wonderful weeks of vacation and holiday celebrations.

Hamilton, by Ron Chernow: HOLY CATS, I joined the #HamAlong because I'm apparently insane. And also because I'll count it for the 2016 Read Harder Challenge, part of #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks, and it's a readalong with a lot of great bloggers that I know will be fun to read with. So. Join us?

Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen: I've heard so many good things about this fantasy novel, and it's being turned into a movie with Emma Watson this year, so I figured I should read it before that happens. Counting for Clean Your Reader and, yep, the 2016 Read Harder Challenge.


What are you reading to kick off the first full week of the new year?