Category Archives: what I'm reading

The 2017 Reading Project – February

In the January post, I indicated that I’ve added layers to my 2017 Reading Project (books I’ve “always” meant to read). The layer I added in February is: all fiction by writers of color. I allowed myself one exception since I was in the middle of re-reading a novel by a white British author when February 1st came around. As soon as I added this layer, dozens of books came to mind, books I’ve read reviews of recently, or have been meaning to read.

Some highlights of my February reading:

Clover, Dori Sanders – I heard about this book, originally published in 1990, because of Call Number, a CrateJoy book subscription box created by a librarian named Jamillah in order to help readers build a personal library of books by black authors. This book was the first selection. Clover’s voice is so compelling as she experiences the death of her father, living with her father’s new wife, a white woman, and her extended family’s grief. This is a coming-of-age story, as well as a story of a family coming to grips with death and a new family member at the same time. Clover’s relationship with her Aunt Everleen, especially as she butts heads and then becomes allies with Sara Kate, her stepmother, was moving.

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The Hilda series, Luke Pearson – These large-sized comic books are mad and amazing. Hilda cannot resist an adventure and I love that best about her. What I also love about her (and this is going to sound weird) is that she’s not drawn or depicted as stereotypically “girlish.” She’s got blue hair and gigantic boots. She’s just this little being who’s very compassionate and curious and always saves the day (after she messes everything up). The art is incredible.

kindredKindred, Octavia E. Butler – This is my always-meant-to-read selection this month. Butler was recommended to me a few years ago, and of course her novel Parable of the Sower has come up recently (alongside Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Orwell’s 1984) as being particularly relevant in our current political environment (/crisis). I listened to the audio version, narrated by Kim Staunton. My experience was similar to The Handmaid’s Tale in that I really enjoyed Staunton’s narration, even while wishing I’d read the book on the page (next time). Kindred is the story of Dana, a 1970s writer in California, who is somehow yanked back in time to a plantation in Maryland, where she saves the life of a young white boy. She returns back to her own time and her husband Kevin, only to return again and again to the plantation and the boy, Rufus, as he grows, each time protecting and saving him. Kindred reminded me of Outlander a bit, except set in more recent times (both the “present” and the “past” storylines are more recent), and of course the story of American slavery is still all-too relevant. Dana’s 1970s didn’t feel much removed from my 2017: her life felt very modern and distant from the past she journeys to. As Dana spends longer stretches of time on the plantation (as a slave, though she has special standing in the house because of her relationship with Rufus, the boy she saved), I was horrified by how she adjusts to slavery, how she is able to justify the actions of the plantation’s masters, even as she’s horrified at this herself. I was so scared for her, sad and angry for what she was suffering as a slave and what she was losing in her “real” life back home, and it was terrifyingly easy to imagine an 2017 version of Dana, of myself, in the story.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling with illustrations by Jim Kay – Here is my one exception. New large-sized editions of the Harry Potter series, illustrated anew by Jim Kay, are being released and I figured it was a great excuse to re-read. Mary GrandPre’s original illustrations have set a really high bar – so much of what we see in our head is because of her! – but Jim Kay has done a really fascinating job of adding new
dimensions, a slight twist to scenes and characters. It’s really remarkable.

Rad Women Worldwide, Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl – No princesses this mont28502749h, just rad women. I think the subtitle says it all – Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks and Other Revolutionaries Who Shaped History. This book is so visually arresting that I recommended it to several people just by reading it publicly (which I did on purpose), but I’ve also recommended it to a lot of people – friends and teenagers, boys whenever I can. Girls and women need to know about these amazing women, but so do boys and men. I’ve been loving what I’ve been thinking of as “kick-ass women encyclopedias” and I’d included Wonder Women by Sam Maggs (read in December) and Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath (January) in that list, if you’re looking for more.

Mooncop, Tom Gauld – This graphic novel just showed up randomly, so I read it. It is literally about a cop on the moon, though I’d say it’s also about loneliness and human nature. This Goodreads review by Jan Philipzig says it best: “Sparse, subdued, existentialist, melancholy, wryly humorous, and maybe even a tad romantic: I liked it quite a bit. 3.5 stars, I’d say.”

Kick-Ass 1-3, Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. – A friend recommended these and I’d liked the movies a. I have to admit: I’m really conflicted. The art is incredible, of course. The story is unique, compelling. There’s a Kill Bill-level of violence that’s just insane. But. Two things. One – these books should really be called Hit Girl. They’re really about her. She’s the interesting character, the one who keeps rescuing Kick-Ass over and over. There would be no story without her. And two – something happens in Volume 2 that angered me so much, because it involved casual and devastating violence that was entirely unexplored in the story. And it should’ve been explored. It just seemed lazy to me that it wasn’t, and also a damn shame. I finished the series, but I could never quite recover from that disappointment.

The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward – Using James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time as lens, or a seed, the essays in this anthology meditate on race in America now. I was moved – angered, inspired, saddened – over and over as I read one essay each day. I was finishing the anthology when I saw I Am Not Your Negro, so the essays I’d read inspired by Baldwin were literally in conversation with Baldwin in my head as I watched the film.

Zombillenium Vol 1-3, Arthur de Pins – Not entirely about zombies, this trilogy of comic books about a theme park run by monsters for human guests is funny, weird and often really, really dark.

Queen Sugar, Natalie Baszile – I listened to the audio narrated by Miriam Hyman. Audio books are really making my commute so much more pleasant. I loved living with these characters for a few days. Charley Bordeleon moves from California when she inherits a Louisiana cane farm, feeling alien in a place that is fairly familiar to me. Not entirely, since I don’t have experience on cane farms, but it was still a cool experience to “know” some of the characters from my own experiences in Louisiana. It would be easy to view Charley’s brother Ralph Angel as “the bad guy” in the family dynamics, but since we get chapters told from his point of view and we know his intentions and his struggles, he’s impossible to dismiss. The idea that some family can’t be reunited or see each other’s side really resonated, but of course it was so sad. Charley’s struggle to work the farm and the way she gathers support and partners was probably my favorite aspect of the book.

Half-Resurrection Blues, Daniel Jose Older – I’m a big fan of Daniel’s, having read both his young adult novel Shadowshaper and Long Hidden, the anthology he co-edited last year in preparation for a panel at the Louisiana Book Festival and his appearance at the library. I’ve been anticipating diving into his adult fantasy series, Bone Street Rumba, the third of which was just published in January. This first book does a ton of world building, offering a glimpse of an otherworldly and gentrified Brooklyn, and introduces a fascinating cast of non-corporeal and somewhat-corporeal characters. I can’t wait to find out what happens next, considering where this first book left off.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead – I loved Whitehead’s novel Zone One (another zombie book that’s not really about zombies) back in 2012., so I’ve been wanting to read his newest novel since it was published. The tension in Zone One was unreal and Whitehead definitely used his skill for tension in The Underground Railroad. I read it in about two days, completely gripped by the story of Cora, a slave who escapes a Georgia plantation and her desperate journey for freedom after that escape. I was entirely captured as a reader, and as a writer, I was just in awe of the skill with which Whitehead delivered this masterful novel. [He came to New Orleans shortly after I read the book, so I got to see him read from the book and discuss it, which was an incredible experience.]

Born a Crime, Trevor Noah – I listened to the audio of this memoir, which was a little less than 9 hours, during a spring cleaning binge and I was completely blown away by Noah’s narration. There’s just nothing like hearing someone tell you their story. And Noah is incredible at accents and voices. He says in the story that he picked up numerous South African languages during his childhood and this ability to speak to people in their language got him in and out of a lot of experiences. He uses that skill here, speaking and even singing in a variety of languages and accents. He’s an incredible writer, too, invoking scenes so vividly that I felt like I was sharing my house with a host of people whose lives were foreign to me, but who felt so familiar by the end of the story.

I read (or listened to) 32 books (and one issue of a comic book) in February, and these are the highlights.

 

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NaNoWriMo 2016 – Fin

I had ambitions of updating more often this NaNoWriMo, a la 2012. But that didn’t happen. A lot of other things did…

Okay, I’ll just say it. The election kinda poleaxed me. And that’s all I’ll say on that.

So I was processing a lot emotionally and intellectually the last few weeks. But, least you think that this is my “yeah, it didn’t work out” post, that is *not* in fact the case.

I accomplished everything I set out to do this month. I just crossed the 50k finish line (50,004 words) with a combination of new words for The Novel (maybe about 8k total) and over 42k words for the new POV character in the zombie novel. There was lots of action sequences in that, so I had a lot of fun playing.

Plus, I met Chris Baty when he came to talk at Words & Music. He signed my dogeared (and underlined, no kidding) copy of No Plot, No Problem and I ended up helping to introduce him. Basically, my fellow WriMo Hayley and I gave testimonials about What NaNoWriMo Means to Us, then sat down and Chris proceeded to give a hilarious and inspiring talk. That was cool.

I meditated almost every day of the month via the latest Deepak Chopra  + Oprah Meditation Experience. And I read. A lot. But most especially the 2016 Best American Essays, one essay each day. This is a tradition I usually do in January, to start the year off, but I really needed it this month.

So, in conclusion, my life really works best when I’m writing, reading and meditating every day, it turns out. I accomplished a lot this month. Annnnd, I’ve got something cooked up for December, too, so stayed tuned…

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Quarterly Progress Report: 2015 Q1

Alright now, it’s been a while. You and I both know this, so I’m just ‘fessing up. Since I’ve been pretty quiet this year and because two of my favorite regular posts are the annual end of the year homework and the quarterly reading reports, I thought I’d just smash them together to create a quarterly progress report. Whether this will be a one-timer or a series remains to be seen – let me know what your thoughts are, if it’s something you’d like to see again or not.

Updates on 2015, my life and goals so far:

1. This blog: I’ve been writing and maintaining a blog fairly consistently since 2008 and it’s been a lot of fun. I started out writing 10+ posts a month, sometimes as many as 20-25 during NaNoWriMo in November. The world of blogging has changed so much since 2008, as has my personal and professional life, so there have been different iterations of this blog in that time and that’s the beauty of it, I think, watching it stretch and mutate to become what is most necessary and fun for me at any given time. I think the blog will be undergoing a new iteration soon and I’m in a phase of figuring out what I need from it. I’m crowdsourcing information from a group of other bloggers (look for their links on the right, under Band of Bloggers) and I would genuinely love to know your thoughts, whether you’ve been reading for a long time or catch the occasional random post, whether its in the comments or privately (my email is on my bio page).

2. My low-key New Year’s resolution: During the last few years, my email inbox has become a terrifying place, unproductive and chaotic, a black hole into which good information and correspondence have disappeared. Last year, I had more than 2,000 unread messages in my inbox (not in folders, inbox). Without quite intending to (at first), I started doing something about this late last year, picking up steam as I went. I stopped subscriptions to a lot of email newsletters, switched from daily to weekly in some cases, and deleted dozens of emails in batches. When 2015 started, I had fewer than 200 emails in my inbox, going back to 2012 and I have been steadily dealing with these, as well as developing better and faster data and correspondence management techniques that work for my personality and schedule. As I write this, I have fewer than 25 emails in my inbox, the oldest one is dated 3/1 and I intend, moving forward, to keep it that way. This might seem like an incredibly tedious, nerdy and anal retentive task to update you about however, this took so much patience and I feel such a sense of accomplishment that I just had to mention it.

3. Reading and re-reading: After the blowout success of last year’s Re-Reading Project, I had plans to keep going with new titles and more guest posts. I think a project of the same magnitude of last year’s, especially without having a list of titles in advance or any prep done, was just too overwhelming. The book titles I’d planned to read at the front end of the year were all massive and depressing and I just couldn’t do it in the depths of the winter. I haven’t re-read a single book this year. And on the reading front… well… I’ve been slacking off there, too. I’ve read some really amazing books this year, which I’ll tell you about in the Q1 Reading Report soon. I started off with 10 titles in January, a really decent number. But then I only read 5 in February. As for March…I haven’t finished a single book in March, which is an entirely unprecedented experience in my life (to my recall). I *have* been reading, of course, but mostly articles and excerpts of other work (Delanceyplace newsletter is one I kept, as well as the Smithsonian newsletter and NPR’s book and music podcasts). I’ve been reading one massive encyclopedia-esque book since last year and browsing some other books. Also, I sat down and read through the first 60+ pages of the memoir and have been recently re-reading the blog as part of my impending revamp. I’m sure I’ll finish at least one actual physical book this month… [I actually finished reading 2 books since I began writing this post.]

4. Home sweet home: In early 2014, I moved for the second time in 6 months and spent the rest of the year in a tiny temporary apartment. It was a hot mess when I first moved in and after some renovation and the repurposing of things I’d had forever, as well as things I inherited from friends when they moved, it became my home. It was in an area of town I’d never spent much time in and had always gotten lost in before, yet I started digging the neighborhood almost immediately. It was never supposed to be permanent, but it suits me so utterly, which has taken me by surprise. It was looking like I’d have to move again (3rd time in 18 months), so I started 2015 completely devastated, having realized how much I loved the place and how hard it was going to be to find a new home. Then, on my birthday, I got the news that I could stay for the foreseeable future. Very often, I look around my cozy apartment and think, “I’m so glad I live here.”

5. Eating right: One of my proudest moments of 2014 was when a friend looked in my fridge and said, “Hey, what’s with all this green stuff?” It’s only gotten “worse” (or better, more like) since then. I am now cooking and preparing the majority of my meals, eating at home far more often than I eat out. While I did eat canned soup for lunch pretty much every workday for three months (winter sucks, y’all), most every other meal was prepared using fresh and local ingredients. At the farmers market on my way home from work last week, I was telling the tomato vendor about the great sandwiches I’ve been making with her tomatoes and her market neighbor’s bread, as well as the kale from the vendor at the far end of the market. I told the baker (who’s become a friend) how the 8 people at the recent Peauxdunque retreat ate off one of her loaves of rustic white bread for two different meals (breakfast, paired with homemade apple butter and dinner, alongside my spaghetti). I let the citrus man talk me into a second bag of grapefruit on the promise they’d keep well in the fridge for weeks (and his grapefruit are so sweet I never use sugar on them). While I’ve been cooking quinoa without incident for a while, I was so excited to cook dinner for a friend that I cooked waaaay too much and then had to share several more meals with friends just to get all the quinoa eaten up. Happy accident. This has become my hobby, entertainment, passion, all in one, which makes for a very good investment.

6. Writing is my life: I’ve streamlined my life a great deal in order to write as much as possible. I get up at 5:30 or 6 a.m., get to the coffeeshop when it opens at 6:30 and write for an hour before work. Sometimes I meditate before my writing session. After work, I come home and cook dinner and prep the next day’s lunch, occasionally meditate, maybe talk to some friends or watch a movie and go to bed pretty early. I still dance tango once or twice a week, but that’s been pretty much all of my socializing outside my house. (Except for occasional literary events like Delta Mouth and the Tennessee Williams Festival). Except for going to the farmers market, I do nothing else regularly. This hibernation worked very well for me during the winter when it was miserably cold and got dark so early. I’ll probably be shaking it up a bit now that it’s getting warmer. But I know that, despite not being a morning person, I really treasure my hour of writing in the morning (even if the hour is actually only 15 or 20 minutes because I’m running late), so I will work hard to maintain that habit.

7. Traveling: Despite my craving for stability and structure, I really love the way travel shakes things up, energizes me and throws everything into a bit of chaos. I’ve already traveled twice this year. First, 36 hours in Portland, Oregon for ValenTango (and to see my brother) last month. Then, two days on a “ridge” near Nashville for Peauxdunque’s annual writing retreat last weekend. I’ve also recently spent a weekend in Baton Rouge, which was an odd and wonderful “staycation” experience in a city where I once lived for several years. It was a blast from the past that united family, friends from several eras of my life, a literary reading, a tango house party, a visit to a museum and several drives through campus. I hope to visit Atlanta soon and maybe carve out some time for a New York City adventure. Let’s see.

That’s the nuts and bolts about what’s been going on the last three months. You’ll be getting a Q1 Reading Report soon and perhaps a reinvigorated, reconfigured bragging on post (or series…). In the meantime, don’t forget to comment or drop me a note about what you’ve enjoyed about this blog and what you might like to see more of here and from me.

 

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2014 Q4 Reading Report

Oh goodness, is this Reading Report overdue. I meant to post this early in January,  but here it is the end of the month and this is my first post of 2015. Ah well, better late than never, right? I read some great books during the last quarter of 2014, as you’ll see below. And I also tweeted about some of my reading as I read, so you’ll get some bonus photos, to make up for being so late.

October

My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult – I listened to the audiobook on the long drive from Philadelphia to Atlanta at the tail end of the Residency Road Trip. One of the most surprising things about this book, considering how sad the premise is, was that it was easy to get engrossed in the story behind the sadness. It was interesting on a legal, moral, emotional and very human level. I cared deeply about the characters, even when they were being totally annoying or foolish. It felt like a play that came alive in my car as I drove, which was really helpful considering I was on the road for over twelve hours.

Me Before You, Jojo Moyes – Bought this at a sale at my hometown library. I was aware of it from how well it sold at the bookstore while I was working there, but I didn’t really know what it’s about before I started reading. It’s an incredibly grim subject matter (especially considering the book I read previous to this one), but it’s not a story that’s grimly told. Somehow, the book manages to have the blithe lightness of a romantic comedy, while very intelligently and responsibly addressing a controversial, highly charged subject. I flew through the pages, and got really invested in how things turned out.

Lean Mean 13, Janet Evanovich – I listened to the audio of this one on my way back to Nola from Georgia. I think this is the perfect way to engage with the Stephanie Plum books. I’d started to get impatient with the silliness and formulaic quality of them while reading them, but those very qualities make them such perfect stories to listen to while on the road. Not too distracting, but very entertaining. They keep me great company in the car. The lady who reads the books for the audio is very good as well.

Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay – Coming back from the residency, I was such a happy dork picking up all of the books the library was holding for me, especially when it came to this one. I’d been looking forward to reading it for months and it didn’t disappoint. Roxane Gay’s novel An Untamed State is beautiful and brutal and she brings those qualities to bear on these essays, which are also funny and silly and insightful and so, so unerringly smart. She’s one of my new favorite writers.

The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith – Was very eager to read this one after reading the first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling. I wanted to listen to the audio, like I had for the first, but it was unavailable, so I had to be content with old-fashioned reading, which was nice in its way, of course. I just soaked up this second mystery and the dynamic between Cormoran and his assistant Robin Ellacott. Once more, I was a tiny bit disappointed with the quick and tidy wrap up at the end — both endings have felt a bit easy and unfinished. But the journey to get there was delightful.

Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman – Read the ReReading post here.

House Proud, Valorie Hart – I introduced Valorie, a friend of mine from tango, during her talk at the Louisiana Book Festival last year. As preparation for that, I pored over this beautiful design book featuring Louisiana homes, including Valorie’s own home with her late husband Alberto Paz.

November

Gates of Thread and Stone, Lori M. Lee – If I remember correctly, I learned about this one on Goodreads, in a discussion about The Queen of the Tearling and Kiss of Deception Once more, a fantasy Y/A novel, really engrossing and interesting, the first of a series (why do I keep doing this to myself? At least the sequel to this one comes out relatively soon – in March). It reminded me a bit of the books by the German author Kai Meyer, which is a really good thing.

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons, Barbara Cohen & Bahija Lovejoy – Read the ReReading post here.

Sammy Keyes and the Killer Cruise, Wendelin van Draanen – I love these books, love Sammy Keyes and her friends and their hijinks. She’s really grown up in the last several books, finally discovering the identity of her father and having an adventure with him during the titular cruise of this book. While grabbing the link above, I realized another book in the series is already out – and it’s the last one! I’m looking forward to reading it and a bit sad I won’t be reading any more new adventures, but I have a suspicion that she’ll be in a good place by the time we say goodbye.

Yes Please, Amy Poehler – I knew I was going to love this book just from the table of contents. “Say Whatever You Like,” “Do Whatever You Want” and “Be Whoever You Are” happen to make fantastic mantras. Anyway, this book was, of course, hilarious, but also very insightful and inspiring. After writing about the day she was born, Amy Poehler recommends everyone go ask their parents about the day they were born, which made me realize I don’t think I’ve ever heard the story of the day I was born. Just one of many brainstorms and moments of inspiration.

Dark Places, Gillian Flynn – Whew, boy, this book in INtense, just like Flynn’s other books. Unlikeable women who are utterly human (and sometimes monstrous in such human ways) are Flynn’s specialty. It’s a lot to ingest and I usually need a break between books, but I stand in awe of this women’s storytelling ability. I always feel a little creeped out looking at her author photo – she looks so sweet and normal, to write such breathtakingly dark and weighty books. Of all writers, she’s probably the one I’d both want to have coffee with *and* avoid in dark alleys. Just goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover or an author by her photo. 🙂

Worn Stories, Emily Spivak – This was a pretty cool book. Dozens of essays about articles of clothing and what they represent to the writers/wearers of the clothing. With pictures! It was an accidental find and I was curious. I thought I’d flip through, read a handful and then move on, but I ended up reading every last word. Some were twee and light, but most were (surprisingly, to me) interesting and impactful. It started out as a blog, before it was a book, and the blog continues.

December

Prelude to Bruise, Saeed Jones – I used to be a poet, once upon a time. Sometimes, I still find myself moved by poetry more than almost anything else. These days, while I may read a handful of poems occasionally, I almost never finish an entire book of poetry. I forget, each time, how emotionally weighty poetry tends to be. So I look at a slim volume and I’m like, “Oh, I’ll zip right through this!” But I don’t. I linger and dwell, sometimes for years and never finish a book. So, this is probably the first book of poetry I’ve finished in a long time. I “zipped through,” even though I felt like his poems were eviscerating me with razor wire. But I couldn’t stop. True to form, I obsessed over the lines and words, sometimes getting hung up for a few days before going back and moving on. [You’ll note I tweeted about picking this book up at the end of October, but I didn’t finish it till December.] I had a deadline to finish – this book was requested by multiple people at the library – and I couldn’t bear to return the book without reading it all.

Rooms, Lauren Oliver – Another of my favorite writers, though she’s so fast that I can’t really keep up. This is an adult novel from her, a gothic family story that reminded me of both The Family Fang and Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, my favorite play. The way Arcadia uses various portions of the house and estate, as well as time, really echoed here, in Rooms.

The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer – Oooh, this book was really important for me to read. I found myself sweating and trembling occasionally as I read it. Why is asking so freaking difficult? Why is owning your right to be and ask for what you want and need so hard? I am so very different from Amanda Palmer – in personality and demeanor and comfort zones, but I admire her so much and it turns out that she has been battling a fight that I’ve struggled with a long time. Need to re-read this every year, or maybe every six months.

Doing the Devil’s Work, Bill Loehfelm – Review forthcoming in 225 Magazine.

Fearless Fourteen, Janet Evanovich – Listened to the audio on my trip to Atlanta to visit my parents for Christmas. It was perfect company, made the trip go smoothly (it’s always rough counting on the radio between Mobile and Montgomery).

My Sunshine Away, MO Walsh – Review forthcoming in 225 Magazine.

So that wraps up 2014. I read some really awesome books in 2014 (A little over a hundred! Roughly, 22 nonfiction books and 74 fiction, plus some other stuff.) In this first month of 2015, I’ve already read a six-book series, a screenplay and two books of essays, all really good stuff, so stay tuned for 2015’s Q1 Reading Report in early April.

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The Re-Reading Project: The Book I Couldn’t Re-Read

This time last year, I had a small sheet of paper taped into the back of my journal with a list of twelve books jotted out. My plan was to re-read one of these twelve books each month in 2014 and write about the experience, what I remembered from my original readings and what I discovered reading them now. I’d first read almost all of these books before I was 16 (when I moved to Louisiana) and while I’d read most of them only one time, I counted them all as favorite, influential books.

In January, I quickly fell in love with the project and read 9 kids’ books. I was in the middle of moving for the second time in six months, so I think I was a little nostalgic for childhood and a semblance of stability. It was a lot of fun, in the middle of chaos.

February found me in my new home and brought me company in the project: my friend Maurice re-read an influential book of his own and wrote a guest post. I re-read a Japanese fantasy translated into English.

March brought a guest post from my sister Aimee, re-reading an author she introduced me to and who I would re-read later in the year, as well as a post of my own about re-reading a speculative anthropological romance novel.

As April opened, I re-read a gothic romance while on a train to visit my new love and my friend Missy re-read a philosophical horror novel I’d never read by an author who also wrote a series of books I almost re-read this year.

In May, I confessed to my history as a reader of romance novels and I re-read my first “real” romance novel, by a writer I’ve never read again, and then re-read a romance by a writer whose mysteries I still read, conflicted though I may be about enjoying them.

June saw me at my love’s house, re-reading a young adult trilogy by an author who disappeared for ten years and then became wildly popular again as two of her series were made into t.v. shows. My friend Mary re-read folk tales right around the same time her book of poetry inspired by folk tales was published.

July brought me heartache, but I pushed on and re-read a horror novel by the author my sister introduced me to at age ten and my friend Noel re-read another horror novel by a more famous horror novelist.

August took me back to school, re-reading three books I was assigned as a student, one of which I hated and one of which I loved, and I got on the road for the Residency Road Trip. Blogger Lisa re-read another canonical tome that impacted her.

September was an oasis of calm, of thinking, reading and writing and I re-read a speculative science thriller and my friend James re-read a magical realistic family saga by an author who died this year.

In October, I returned to “real life” and New Orleans, wrapping up the Residency Road Trip and settling back in. I struggled to re-read the book I’d originally scheduled for October and at the last minute changed it to a magical realistic romantic tale as my Peauxdunque cohort Emily re-read a romantic Civil War saga.

During November, I conducted my own private NaNoWriMo and happily re-read an adventure tale based on an ancient Iraqi folktale while another Peauxdunque cohort, Joi, re-read a gothic horror novel about suburbia and family (not written by Gillian Flynn).

December finds me in a familiar place – swimming through chaos and uncertainty. My friend Rachel re-read a satirical science fiction novel and I struggled, once more, to re-read the book I’d originally scheduled for October: a fantasy novel published in 1992 by an author who has switched to writing mysteries. (If you can guess what the book is from that description, let me know.) I’ve always remembered this book as one of my favorites, though I might’ve only read it once (it’s recorded in 1996, when I was 14, but I find it hard to believe I only read it one time). I was excited to re-read this book all year long – it was one of the first titles that went on my list. Several times, as I read other books, I thought of this book. There’s an artist protagonist, so I thought it would be perfect after living with an artist for a month at the residency. But, as I dove in, the book never really caught my attention. I was fifty pages in when I started again this month, so I had a head start and I still couldn’t get invested. It finally got a bit more interesting when I passed the 100 page mark last night, but I’m a firm believer that there is a time for every book in a person’s life. And I finally had to admit that I’m just not meant to re-read this book this year. Maybe next year.

This year, I re-read and wrote about 21 books (rather than the 12 I’d originally intended) and my friends wrote 10 fabulous guest essays about books they re-read. Interesting stats: of the ten guests, eight are women and two are men. Even more interesting: I’ve only read 2.5 of the 10 books my guests re-read (the .5 is for Mary’s folk takes because while I didn’t read her edition, I’ve probably read most of the stories), though I have started reading, but never finished, half of them. I didn’t assign any of the titles my guests picked, though we did discuss them in advance and I sometimes scheduled them according to what I was re-reading (Noel in July most notably).

It turns out that the Re-Reading Project is going to continue, with a new slate of books and in a different form. Let me know if you’re interested in re-reading and writing about your experience and stay tuned. In the meantime, you can use this post as an index (or scavenger hunt, if you prefer) for all of the essays for the 2014 Re-Reading Project. 

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The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Spoiler alert: If you have not read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and you will be disappointed if I give away the ending, that’s just tough because the book was written 35 years ago and you should have read it by now.

If I’m honest, I only chose to re-read Douglas Adam‘s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (or The Guide as it will now be referenced) because it’s short. At the moment, my life is timetabled into so many compartments (work, email, sleep, work, not writing, reading articles posted on Facebook, looking at videos of cats on the internet, email, sleep) that adding even the most pleasurable of activities needs a flow-chart, Venn diagram, spreadsheet, and series of calendar apps just to formulate if I have time to finish a task such as reading a book.

Yet, this is a very worthy project, and Emilie does not take “I don’t have time to read” as an excuse. So, I cleared the chocolate wrappers, budget reports, and file folders containing single receipts from 2007 off the desk of my day job. I told my colleagues not to bother me. “Please turn down the Christmas music”, “No I don’t want to come to the office party”, “I don’t have time for mulled wine, mince pies, and discussions about how Cindy in Accounts really shouldn’t wear her hair like that.” I was doing something important. I was organising my time so I’d know if I had time to re-read a book. Not a moment for office frivolity.

After seven hours and thirty-two minutes of focused analytics and statistical analysis, I came to the conclusion that I would indeed have time to read the book…if I held all calls, cancelled my appointment with the chiropodist, and cracked on with it.

Realising that I had left my copy of The Guide in a box in my father’s closet in a house on a different continent, I opted to download the Kindle version. The beauty of this platform is that it doesn’t waste time with silly things like page numbers. Instead, it gets straight to the point and tells you how long you can plan on reading.

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Three hours and thirty-nine minutes later, I was quite happy that Emilie is a tough task master and forced me to make time for a novel I’d already read. Twenty-six years after the first reading, the book seemed to change slightly from science fiction to a handy list of contemporary technology. Back then, it was sci-fi and every piece of it was weird, wonderful, and completely fictitious. Reading it in 2014, Adams seem like a fortune teller, able to foresee gadgets of the future:

[…] he also had a device which looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press-buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million ‘pages’ could be summoned at a moment’s notice.

 “And you are not,” said Fook, leaning anxiously forward, “a greater analyst than the Googleplex Star Thinker […] which can calculate the trajectory of every single dust particle throughout a five-week Dangrabad Beta sand blizzard.”

And of course, we currently have the infinite probability drive…don’t we?

Actually, the deeper revelation I had while re-reading this book was not about the miracle prophecies – as most science fiction will get lucky and predict something if it sits on a bookshelf long enough – but it made me realise how miserable my life has become. This realisation was completely unfathomable when I first read the book as a sixteen year old living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1988 – ten years after the story was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4, nine years after it was first published into a book, and six time zones away from where it was written.

I am no longer a high school student with a future ahead of me and enough free time to read a book while swinging softly on a hammock in my parent’s back garden. Instead, I sit at a dreary desk on an even drearier winter’s afternoon, sun down at 4 pm, cheap tinsel lining the cubicles, and the soft seasonal tunes of Bob Geldoff insulting an entire continent playing in the background. As I re-read the pages in which the Vogons vaporize the Earth to make way for an intergalactic motorway, I realise that if this were to happen in ‘real life’—while I might be a bit unnerved and discombobulated—I don’t think the personal distress would last for long. Granted, if the Earth were vaporised and I was on it, I wouldn’t be much of anything. But, let’s say I was rescued by a passing spaceship and I cast my eyes down at the dark space where the Earth (and that infernal desk to which I was chained) used to be, I can’t imagine I’d feel much at all. Or, maybe—like Arthur Dent—it would be too much to take in.

England no longer existed. He’d got that – somehow he’d got it. He tried again. America, he thought, has gone. He couldn’t grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He’d never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he though, has sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonald’s, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald’s hamburger.

He passed out.

As a teenager reading The Guide, I thought I was irreverent, interesting, and terribly witty. I thought I would grow up to be a maverick author who plays by her own rules, and I would be lavished in kudos, awards, and cash for recognition of writing a society-changing novel. The reality is very different. It’s the end of 2014, I live in Dundee, Scotland; I’m middle-aged and any notion of actualising anything less than mundane disappeared long ago.

How similar my life is to that of Arthur Dent – pre-destruction of the Earth – is what first struck me about the book: wandering through existence, not taking in the grandeur of the Universe, an unrewarding adult life obstructed my view. Of Arthur, The Guide states, “He worked in local radio, which he always used to tell his friends was a lot more interesting than they probably thought.” I, on the other hand, work in fundraising, which no one thinks is interesting. Because it isn’t. Arthur, upon being picked up by an inter-stellar ship in infinite probability drive, is most concerned with finding a cup of tea, and he spends much of the story allowing the plot to unfold around him. I can imagine that, if placed in a similar situation, I would become preoccupied with finding a cup of coffee.

Arthur blinked at the screens and felt he was missing something important. Suddenly he reaslised what it was.

“Is there any tea on this spaceship?” he asked.

Other than stumbling upon the manufacturing of Earth 2.0, Arthur’s presence is of no consequence. Towards the end, he finally becomes important as he is the last surviving member of the human race who was on Earth moments before its destruction. He has stamped upon his brain an imprint which will answer the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Yet, there is a giant hole in this argument, for there is another member of the human race on board that ship, Trillian. So, despite a last minute attempt to make Arthur relevant, he is – actually – quite inconsequential.

As a kid, I saw Arthur Dent as a character who was swept away, but still acted heroically in the face of it all—a bit like a Doctor Who companion. As an adult I have come to the realisation that Arthur Dent is much more ignoble, an object to follow so that a story can be revealed. If we were to compare him to a 70s film, he would be neither Smokey nor the Bandit; he’d be the car, an important device but not one that’s terribly interesting.

A re-reading of The Guide has helped me to realise that unless you’re one of a small host of famous do-gooders like Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Maryam Mirakhani, or Amy Poehler, your life is fairly inconsequential. We are all Arthur Dent; our very existence happened at the odds of 7887602006 to 1, and despite the great fortune that we even exist, we do nothing with our lives. Instead, we are pulled haphazardly through the universe unable to completely grasp the vastness of it all.

The second thing I noticed about re-reading The Guide is how much the satire is a dig at being British; something I most certainly would have not “gotten” as a 16 year old American. Now, with over a decade of living in Britain stamped on my passport, I can see the subtle Britishness of the book. And I mean real British. None of that Downton Abbey drivel.* The Guide is “two up two down”, “Tetley Tea and Penguins”, “Rule Britannia”, “spending your Costa del Sol holiday searching for a Greggs” kind of British.

Yes, as a teenager I recognised the deeper satire within the novel, the sentiments that are so very British few teenage Americans would recognize their context. However, there was one thing I did pick up from The Guide as a teenager. Something that has seeped into my subconsciousness. This book taught me the structure of funny. It’s the simple rhythm of the long game. No quick crack falls. It’s the set-up then the punch. Here’s how it works: profound, profound, profound, mundanely simple.

I have carried this rhythm with me throughout life. The ability to find the mundane within the outrageous. The knack for ending a list of the wondrous with the banal. The chance to shut down amazement in lieu of boredom. This book has taught me that being a combination of Arthur Dent and Marvin is okay, because if it’s satire you’re not miserable, you’re just witty.

With a microsecond pause, and a finely calculated micromodulation of pitch and timbre – nothing you could actually take offence at – Marvin managed to convey his utter contempt and horror at all things human.

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Meta author photo

Rachel Marsh blogs about being a creative writing teacher and writer at www.rachelmarsh.co.uk, where pretends to be upbeat and completely ignores the fact that she works a day job. At heart Rachel is a truly miserable individual and she blames it all on Douglas Adams.

 *Editor’s  Note: Emilie would like to stress that she doesn’t think Downton Abbey is drivel, even if she was a bit disappointed with one particular plot twist. You know which one.

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The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: Flowers in the Attic

It is so appropriate to color hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw. And as I begin to copy from the old memorandum journals that I kept for so long, a title comes as if inspired. Open the Window and Stand in the Sunshine. Yet, I hesitate to name our story that. For I think of us more as flowers in the attic. Paper flowers. Born so brightly colored, and fading duller through all those long, grim, dreary, nightmarish days when we were held prisoners of hope, and kept captive by green. But we were never to color even one of our paper blossoms yellow.

If you know me, you’ve heard me say that I read my childhood, rather than lived it. I started binge reading at 9. Books were brought to the dinner table, on family outings, and on car rides, where I read until I puked from the motion sickness. Benjamin Franklin is (falsely) credited with saying, “Beer is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy,” but I say books are the real proof of a divine being.

My interests were varied. I loved stories about families living in “olden times” (Little House on the Prairie, The Witch of Blackbird Pond), graduated quickly to racier subject matter like Teens With Issues – I read Go Ask Alice before I was old enough to know that neither pot or acid cause drug overdoses. I was always especially drawn to both tragic characters (any female in a Bronte novel) and heroic ones (Pippi Longstocking, anything about Amelia Earhart). Reading was the perfect escape for a kid who was herself not the most adventurous.

My first encounter with Flowers in the Attic had me thinking it was going to be scary, as it was in the horror section. I had seen a classmate hiding it in a textbook, clearly unable to put it down. And that cover. Originally, you’d open the house cutout to reveal four creepy children, beautiful, with platinum hair and bright blue eyes rimmed with red, and a ghastly lady looming over them like a malevolent cloud. With a quick perusal of chapter titles like The Wrath of God, I was sold, even if I was kind of scared of that photo and possibly any kind of horror in general. My friends who had snuck the book off their moms’ bookshelves promised all kinds of messed up stuff going on in this book. Spoiler: there’s incest! I suspect I devoured it in one long sitting that included hiding it under the covers and losing a night’s sleep.

When Emilie told me about her Re-Reading Project, I immediately knew I had to pick it up again. It’s been decades since I first read it, but I read it over and over again throughout my adolescence and later teen years, so I always recalled it having all of the elements I love most in a good book: religious fanaticism, discovery of dark family secrets, forbidden love, starvation, general suffering, adolescent ennui, arsenic (any romantic poison), kick-ass female heroines (bonus that the main character was my age).

I dove right back in and lo and behold, I found myself unable put it down. And this is while on break from reading Dark Places, people! Here I had thought everything was so profound in this book only because I had been a teenager when I was so obsessed with it, but damned if I wasn’t again drawn in, crying in all the right places. After seeing the recent movie treatment on Lifetime (and recalling the horrible “tragedy” of a movie that came out years ago where Kristy Swanson, aka the original Buffy, played our heroine), I might have lost a little faith, but really, these movies fail to capture what is special about the book. Seems they can’t make up their mind whether to go full camp or full-on dramatic treatment. So, as a sidenote, I implore film and TV to just leave FITA alone. Unless you’re a genius.

I immediately recognized that so many phrases and images have stayed with me:

The Dresden Dolls (when the band came out, I wondered if they named themselves after the book and this is partially true).

-Singing to myself Dance Ballerina Dance while enduring many an endless ballet class.

-Whenever I see the colors red and purple, I think of Carrie because these are her favorite colors.

-The lines from when Grandmother comes in to discover Christopher staring at Cathy nekkid.

-I’ll always wish I could throw a Christmas party as grand as the Foxworths’.

-I’ll never look at powdered donuts without thinking they could mask the taste of arsenic pretty well.

-The image of that swan bed.

-Corey playing the banjo and writing depressing lyrics at the age of 7.

It certainly left a lasting impression on my developing mind (and made me appreciate my mom oh-so-much more!)

As a writer, I can’t help but notice the writing is pretty tight, the vocabulary is rich (surely it expanded my vocabulary), and VC Andrews uses adequate metaphors (not the most complex) and what may be obvious, but forgivable, foreshadowing.  There’s a trustworthy narrator who has enough distance from the subject matter. The author avoids sentimentality (barely, but just enough), quite a feat given the circumstances. Of course no one can deny her storytelling prowess.

As VC Andrews says herself, “I think I tell a whopping good story. And I don’t drift away from it a great deal into descriptive material. When I read, if a book doesn’t hold my interest about what’s going to happen next, I put it down and don’t finish it. So I’m not going to let anybody put one of my books down and not finish it. My stuff is a very fast read.”

Agreed.

I wondered, too, just who is the intended audience, keeping in mind, it was a best seller back in the day.  Bored housewives? (I swear, this is not the Fifty Shades of Grey of the 1980s. The writing is far superior.) Horror fans? Those seeking a modern day Wuthering Heights? All of the above?

My thoughts on character during this read primarily had to do with Corinne, the mother who locks her children in the attic of her ancestral home after she’s left a “penniless” widow. As a kid reading this, I just dismissed her as a bad person, and now that I’m closer to the mom’s age than the childrens’, I wanted to give her much more consideration. I wondered at first if she might be portrayed a bit two-dimensionally, a stock evil character? As a teenager, I was pretty disgusted with her weakness; the idea of a woman that wouldn’t just woman-up and go to work to support her family, but now I wondered if I might be more sympathetic to her “handicap” as a pampered housewife and mother, a grown woman of privilege. Not really.

She’s actually a master manipulator of the worst kind. “Oh but you are heartless and ungrateful children!” she laments after she comes back after long time away, during which, the kids had starved and the grandmother drugged/tarred Cathy. She’s a manipulator and even gets her Oedipal son to forgive her after that and agree that it’s she who is having a difficult time in life.

I again felt that familiar thrill when Cathy repeatedly stands up to her and in the end, demands that she take dying Corey to the hospital. I never underestimate the allowance for a strong female character. Corinne still pissed me off as a less righteous modern day feminist. Check.

I also found myself thinking, would kids these days possibly not mind being locked up with access to wifi and games (because surely Corinne would have supplied them with all of these modern necessities)? I think when I read it for the first time, I might have thought it wasn’t so bad—they had all these books and toys and treasures and Cathy could dance in the attic. On their first Christmas, Corinne had brought them a TV (impressive that the young teens were hyper aware they needed to not let the twins become idiot box addicts). I was similarly impressed when Chris tells Cathy they must go about life pursuing their dreams (becoming a doctor, dancing); force twins to learn how to read and discover their own talents.

I’m not going to dwell so much on incest here (shocking, I know), other than to say that it comes about organically and similar to how I felt reading it when I was younger, I empathized with the kids and felt they were forced into a completely perverted situation as adolescents. I don’t find it titillating, nor disgusting. I think more people concentrate on that being the biggest deal in the book, completely overlooking the fact that you can’t get more disgusting and depraved than locking away four healthy children in a room for 3 years and 4 months and then slowly killing them off. We’ve got a close first person POV, so that makes it even more profoundly disturbing. Incest, big whoop, a bigger deal when I read it the first time. VC Andrews is hardly the first novelist to write about incest, of course. There’s been incest galore ever since the Bible.

Throughout this read and after finishing, I still find myself haunted by the idea of leaving any creature that is dependent on you, no less children, alone to survive locked up, imprisoned with a caretaker that you know is a monster. To slowly die a horrible death. The sheer horror of that. What is almost inconceivable is given an unflinching treatment with adequate restraint (that is, not sensationalist, nor salacious).

The problem is, despite my love for it, the fact that this novel develops into a series (that I similarly devoured, but now have no desire to do so) does kind of cheapen everything as it devolves into more sensationalist subject matter. Not to mention all of the books that her ghostwriters put out. All of them are formulaic. All of them involve incestuous families with big secrets. The families are either extremely wealthy or extremely poor and there’s aspiration to attain riches (which happens thanks to the cliché long-lost rich relative).

One final observation: Flowers in the Attic is described on the cover of new editions simply as a “tale of forbidden romance.” Forbidden, is putting it mildly and this book is definitely not a romance novel! More like, a tale of tragic neglect and its resulting perverted consequences. To be honest, who needs any kind of statement like that on the cover of a best-selling novel (that was published decades ago)?

I almost feel at this point I could write a thesis as to the literary merit of this book, but for the sake of this fun project, I’ll end here. It would be too easy to dismiss Flowers in the Attic as a melodramatic read suitable for those seeking out scandalous entertainment. Did people similarly dismiss classic gothic novels like Madame Bovary and Wuthering Heights (surely this one gave VC some inspiration)? I’m glad I gave it a “second” (or rather, tenth) chance.

Joi and FITA

Joi Brozek lives, reads and writes in New Orleans. With this re-reading of Flowers in the Attic, she’s made the stunning discovery that she’s been chasing a VC Andrews novel her entire writing life. With this in mind, she returns to the beast of a book she’s been unsuccessfully trying to finish for the past decade.

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The Re-Reading Project: Seven Daughters and Seven Sons

 These are the words written long ago by Buran, daughter of Malik, a poor shopkeeper of Baghdad. She put them down so that her children, and their children, and their children, and all those who came after them would know of the remarkable events that had given rise to their illustrious line.

And wonder of wonders, she wrote all these words in her own hand, forming each beautiful Arabic letter with perfect precision and grace, for her father had taught her to read and write when she was very young, even though it was not the custom in her time for girls to learn such things. Read these words, then, and open your eyes wide in amazement at the marvels that Allah has wrought.

I’m not sure when I first read Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy. I know I read it in 1996, around the same time I read Jurassic Park, Fahrenheit 451 and The Lord of the Flies, but I recently found a note that I’d read it a year earlier in 1995. I read it again in 1999 and 2001, but hadn’t read it since then, until I re-read it for this project. So I read it at least four times before the age of 20 and while I’ve carried it with me from home to home, I hadn’t read it as an adult.

It’s impossible to really know how this book has influenced me over the course of my life, but I can easily say: quite a lot. It was first published in 1982, the year I was born, though I read the 1994 Beech Tree edition (including this latest time).

7 D and 7 S cover

A note at the end of the book says that it’s based on a folktale that “has been part of the oral tradition of Iraq since the eleventh century of the common era.” I would’ve only known Iraq from the Gulf War, which had taken place just a few years earlier, so the opportunity to read a book like this, about a girl very different from me (one who with a different religious and cultural background, who also would’ve lived in a completely different time than I lived) was huge. It probably did a lot to shape my curiosity about different cultures.

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons is the story of Buran, the fourth of seven daughters. Her father Malik is known as Abu al-Banat, the father of daughters, and this is believed to be the cause of his unluckiness in business and his family’s poverty. Malik’s brother has seven sons and is very wealthy and arrogant. After her seven cousins are sent to far-flung cities to try their hand at business, Buran convinces her father to invest his meager savings in her and to allow her to dress as a boy and try to make her fortune. She travels via caravan from Baghdad to Tyre and in just a few years, amasses an enormous fortune, which she sends home to her family so her sisters can make good marriages and her parents can prosper. In Tyre, she befriends Mahmud, the prince, still in the guise of a man. There’s a section from Mahmud’s point of view as he begins to suspect the friend he knows as Nasir is actually a woman and devises tests to prove this is the case. During the last test, Buran/Nasir flees from Tyre and on her way home to Baghdad, she meets each of her male cousins, all of whom have fallen low.

Essentially, 7 D and 7 S is an adventure story with a girl protagonist. Buran is very smart and very brave and she travels all over modern day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, making a fortune in business. While her actions go against cultural tradition, she is pious and respectful of her family. As she grows and learns, she becomes more independent and knows her own mind, and she essentially becomes the head of household. Her father defers to her judgement in business and while at first her parents urge her to marry, her father doesn’t force her to. Her father is very crafty about starting the gossip that eventually brings Mahmud to Baghdad in his search for Buran (though he doesn’t know her true name), telling her over and over, “How could such a thing be kept secret?”

That’s one of my favorite parts actually, Buran’s independence when she returns home and her partnership, of sorts, with her father as he comes to understand her intelligence and strength of character. For such a slim novel, it really covers quite a lot of ground and does some amazing character development. However, one thing I was always disappointed by, more so on the re-read, was that Buran/Nasir’s success in business is mostly relayed in hindsight and from Mahmud’s point of view. We don’t get to see her establishing herself in Tyre and making the decisions that ultimately make her successful. It’s a flaw of the story, but one that’s easy to understand – the main points of the tale, especially for young readers, are first, Buran’s independence and courage, and later, the romance that eventually develops between Buran and Mahmud. Plus, the wheelings and dealings that made her successful in Tyre would’ve made the book a lot fatter (and maybe more along the lines of the plotting and machinations in Game of Thrones, which actually sounds pretty awesome).

7 D and 7 S definitely holds up all these years later. It was a quick, entertaining and inspiring read. Both authors wrote other books, but nothing since this one. Barbara Cohen wrote a handful of children’s and teen titles and died in 1992 (before the Internet got going properly, so there’s very little information about her online). Bahija [Fattuhi] Lovejoy wrote three other books about Iraq and Baghdad, in the 60s and 70s. I’d dearly love to know more about how they came together to write this book, but can’t find anything online.

The first thing I did when I finished this time around was try to find reference to the Iraqi folktale that the book’s based on, but to no avail. I’m not the only one whose looking, though and I’m going to keep an eye out for collections of Iraqi/Arabic folktales. Shahrazad is mentioned several times, so that makes me wonder if 7 D and 7 S might not be based on one of the tales she tells in the Thousand and One/Arabian Nights. I think this is something I’m going to have to research further.

While researching about the authors and the original folktale, I found a bunch of the reviews of the book online. It was nice to see the ones from folks who have fond memories of this book from their youth, like I do. The frustrating reviews were those that compared this book (usually unfavorably!) with Disney’s Mulan. Frustrating for so many reasons, including the fact that both the original folktale and 7 D and 7 S predate Mulan and also because I think it’s interesting when myths, folktales and fables from different cultures resonate with each other (surely Disney’s Mulan is based on a folktale – so many of the movies are). The other really annoying reviews were from folks who said that the book was inappropriate for young readers because of a) the nudity (Buran looks at her own naked body after having been disguised as a man for a while) and b) a few references to Mahmud’s consorting with his father’s slave girls (hate to say it, but probably appropriate to the era of the story) and c) the descriptions of how Buran/Nasir and Mahmud feel about each other (completely relevant and not at all gratuitous). We’ve got bigger problems in our society if female nudity (in privacy) and mild sexual feelings are considered problematic reading material. You can probably tell by now that I get really peeved about what’s considered appropriate for young readers by parents and educators. Too often, the “appropriate” books are the ones that are whitewashed and sanitized and don’t speak any truth at all to young readers. My reading was never censored by my parents when I was growing up and I ignored any other adults who tried to censor what I read – I feel like this, more than any other single aspect of my youth, has made me the intelligent, respectful, curious person that I am today.

Books like Seven Daughters and Seven Sons made me more socially aware and curious, inspired and entertained me. And they still do, well into my adulthood.

 

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The Re-Reading Project: Practical Magic

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town. If a damp spring arrived, if cows in the pasture gave milk that was runny with blood, if a colt died of colic or a baby was born with a red birthmark stamped onto his cheek, everyone believed that fate must have been twisted, at least a little, by those women over on Magnolia Street. It didn’t matter what the problem was–lightning, or locusts, or a death by drowning. It didn’t matter if the situation could be explained by logic, or science, or plain bad luck. As soon as there was a hint of trouble or the slightest misfortune, people began pointing their fingers and placing blame.

Anytime I set rules or guidelines for myself, I always have to break them at some point. October is the month in which either the whole Re-Reading Project would derail, or I’d throw pretty much all the rules out of the window. It wasn’t supposed to be Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman this month. In fact, Practical Magic doesn’t technically fall within the parameters of the Re-Reading Project (books that have influenced me, which I originally read before the age of 16). I didn’t read Practical Magic till I was 17, so it breaks a crucial rule there, yet it was one of the *first* books that got added to my list, when I conceived the project last year. I just didn’t think about the fact that it didn’t obey the rule that I used to select *every other book* in the project. When I outlined the books I’d read, I slated Practical Magic for December, last, because I’m re-reading the books in roughly the order I originally read them, a nod to the fact I was ignoring (that this book didn’t follow my rules). Then, I considered swapping it for October, but I thought that was a little too cheesy. I mean, it’s a book about witches during October? I can do better than that, right?

Normally, I start reading each month’s book on the 1st, to give myself plenty of time for re-reading and reflection, no matter what may come as the month goes by. Some months, I’ve really needed all the time I could get. On October 1st, I was leaving Philadelphia and driving to Georgia and my copy of the book I was “supposed” to read in October was in storage. Why I didn’t bring this book along with all of the other books I hauled 3,000+ miles, when I knew I was “supposed” to read it, I’m not entirely sure. But, I know it wasn’t an accident. Even as I was packing for the residency in August, I was unconvinced that the book I was “supposed” to read in October was the right one. So I didn’t think about it and left it in storage.

As soon as I got back to New Orleans, I snagged the last three books for the Re-Reading Project from storage, including the book I was “supposed” to read this month. Looking at them all side-by-side, I was tempted to read the book for November (because it’s the shortest and I was overwhelmed getting back to my real life), but I decided to leave it for the craziness of next month (NaNoWriMo season). And I looked at Practical Magic and thought, “hmmm, I’d really love to read that right now.” But I reminded myself that it was too “on the nose” for October and I started reading the book I was “supposed” to read.

Now, I love this book. It’s a great book. I own several copies because it’s somewhat rare and it’s so special to me. There are even a couple of cool parallels between the book I was “supposed” to read in October and my experience at the residency. But, because I started late and I was slammed as soon as I got back to town, and for reasons I didn’t want to face, I was only 46 pages into this 400+ book by the time October was two-thirds gone. I started to think I wasn’t going to be able to finish the book and the re-reading review on time. And then, finally, I threw the rules and the “supposed tos” out the window and I started re-reading Practical Magic.

That’s a very long intro, without having actually talked about the book itself. Well, here we go.

Like the book mentioned above, I have had several copies of Practical Magic. First a battered blue paperback with a black cat on the cover. Later, a pretty trade paperback copy. Fairly recently, I bought this gorgeous hardback copy and this is the one I read this time around.

Practical Magic I saw the movie first, in the theater when it came out in 1998 (I was 16). It came out, appropriately enough, in October. My family had just moved to Louisiana in July and I was miserable. I hated Louisiana, I was angry that my parents moved me halfway through high school and I’d had to leave all of my friends behind. My heart was broken because I didn’t know when I’d ever see the boy I thought I loved again. And I was channeling all of these feelings into a novel about a teenage witch (my first finished novel, which will probably never see the light of day). So, as you might imagine, Practical Magic was a movie that felt very much for me. It’s a movie I still love, a perfect storm of amazing actors, music from Stevie Nicks and a zeitgeisty moment.

Maybe this is where my odd preference comes from, to watch the movie first if I know a book is being adapted. To this day, I find it fairly easy to love a movie and a book as separate creations, but only if I watch the movie first (with rare exceptions). Because, as much love as I have for the movie Practical Magic, it has very little in common with the book. The book has been changed in the ways Hollywood loves to change original material (i.e., in some smart ways, but mostly for flash). I’d probably hate it if I’d read and loved the book first. It would be very hard not to.

The book is subtle, lean and incredibly detailed at the same time. It can cover years in a few pages. Sally Owens’ first husband Michael is only in the book for 6 pages, but he feels very real, a fleshed-out character. It’s a book about the certainty of “old wives” cures and the uncertainty of love. While the movie may take delight in depicting the Owens women as witches, in the book, they are only ever referred to that way by other people and not really directly. They are women who know things and who can do and make things, using inherited knowledge of human behavior, anatomy, botany and husbandry. And while we so commonly understand these traits to be associated with witches, Hoffman never makes any of the magic in the book flashy or outlandish. It’s all possible, it’s all real, it’s all practical. The subtly is one of the best things about the book and that is almost entirely lost in the movie. I will say this, there is at least one aspect of the movie that I always think about whenever I think about the story – I’d forgotten it wasn’t in the book at all till now! Because the 1998 movie is such a product of its own time and it veered so far from the source material, I think it’s entirely possible for a the book to be adapted into a movie again, into a more faithful version that could be a good film in its own right. If I wanted to make more comparisons between the book and the movie, I could, but I’m going to focus on the book (and me) for the rest of this.

When I first read Practical Magic, I latched onto the young Sally and Gillian, and was bewildered when they were suddenly middle-aged women. I could no longer identify with Sally once she was the mother of two daughters, but instead, I transferred my feelings of kinship to the daughters, Antonia and Kylie. I thought I’d been in love when I first read this book, though my first love wouldn’t come for a few more years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing that first emotion because I was young, but I choose to redefine it now that I understand more about what love feels like and what it can do. Which brings me to now, re-reading Practical Magic and realizing that I am only a few years younger than the adult Sally and Gillian are in the book. Suddenly, their younger selves and Sally’s teen daughters resonate with me only in a nostalgic way and the characters who come alive to me are the middle-aged women, worn out by grief and love, as they each learn new things about themselves and find love again. The wounds and scars that love inflicts and heals is the subtext of the book that I can translate now, as an adult woman who is suffering grief over lost love. When I first read the book, I could only identify with the characters whose phases I had undergone (the maidens) and re-reading it now, in the mother phase, I felt like I have been, at some time in my life, every woman in this book.

Except the Aunts (the crones). These are the most truly witch-like characters, the women who raise Sally and Gillian and who are ancient by the time the main action of the story takes place. Their names aren’t revealed until the very end of the book, which I loved noting this time around. Throughout the rest of the book, they are only mentioned in plural, together, sisters whose identities can’t be separated. Until they are revealed to us, separate. In fact, each of the three generations of Owens women in this book (main characters) are brought to us in sister pairs, one dark and one light, the moon and the sun. While they always remain true to themselves, we get to see each of them them wax and wane, reverse roles, set and rise.

More than the personal discoveries I made as I re-read, I was startled to (re)discover connections between Practical Magic and my decade-in-the-making novel, The Winter Circus. Because Practical Magic came along, for me, at such a seminal period of my personal and writerly growth, I absorbed it into my being and then promptly forgot that the roots of my work are buried in this book. I read Alice Hoffman books all the time and she’s at the top of my “favorite authors” list, so I’ve never forgotten that her style has influenced me as a writer, but I did forget how very concrete the connection is, from her writing to mine, especially with this book.

I last read Practical Magic fourteen years ago — Kylie is younger than the number of years since I last read it. Re-reading it now is like looking at old photographs of myself and thinking, “oh, if only you knew, one day…”

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2014 Q3 Reading Report

My 3rd Quarter in reading was excellent. So far, the Re-Reading Project has really added so much to my annual reading. Even the books I’m reading for the first time have an extra edge now because I think about them in terms of whether I’d ever re-read them. Or, am I so invested in reading them that I’m willing not to read or re-read something else? It’s been kind of a game-changer. So much so that I’m considering continuing it into 2015. Not monthly the way I did in 2014, but sporadically. We’ll see… In the meantime, here’s my 2014 3rd Quarter Reading Report.

July

The Secrets of a Scoundrel, Gaelen Foley – Since I’ve outed myself as an occasional reader of romance novels in May’s Re-Reading posts, I might as well confess that I bought Foley’s newest the week it came out and spent an evening with the last book in her Inferno Club series. I’ve read a lot of romance authors in my time, but Foley is the only one I consistently buy new, as soon as they come out and read right away. I always consider it a mini-vacation, some entertaining reading that is for no other purpose but to enjoy. She’s writing great middle readers books with her husband under E.G. Foley and I’ve been having a lot of fun sharing these with the son of a friend. She’s a terrific writer, whatever name she publishes under and whatever genre she’s working within.

Dorothy Must Die, Danielle Paige – Another confession: I’m a sucker for a good book cover. This one is terrific and really illustrates the “hook” of this book: Dorothy has returned to Oz, gone mad with power and must be brought down. So, basically, I had to read it because I was curious about where this story would go. And it’s a really weird one that never went quite where I was expecting. I was a tad bored at times, but mostly I ripped through the pages. It got really good right before the end and then (damn) I realized it’s the first book in a series. Why do I keep doing this to myself? There’s a prequel available digitally, called No Place Like Oz.

Strangers, Dean Koontz – Read the Re-Reading post here.

The Queen of the Tearling, Erika Johansen – Something big was going on in my personal life and I needed a really good, absorbing story to distract me. I was trying to track down a copy of A Game of Thrones from the library (I need to get my own copies), but they were all checked out. Most of my books are in storage, so I turned to a pile of ARCs towering alongside my one remaining bookshelf and picked up a book I’d almost given to a friend to read, but had decided to keep. The next 24 hours and the rest of the world disappeared as I got sucked into The Queen of the Tearling. It’s simply one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. It’s 400+ pages and I stayed in on a Friday night to read it, then I was actually disappointed there wasn’t more to read Saturday night. I didn’t want to leave this world. I’ve had the ARC for months, but it just came out, so after I read the last page, I took to Twitter and saw that a lot of people were feeling the same way I was at that moment: rabid for the next book in the series (groan). There’s also some backlash – mostly people seem to object to the marketing campaign around the book, which compares it to GoT and Hunger Games. The ARC informs me the movie rights have already been sold and Emma Watson will star. The nerd in me is breathless in anticipation.

Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman – I’ve seen a few episodes of the t.v. show and liked it, but mostly I wondered how a memoir about being in prison would be handled. It was a compelling read, mostly because Kerman doesn’t pity herself or expect her reader to. She mostly focuses on the women she was incarcerated with, the community that helped her survive her time in prison. The tone is calm and rational, at times light-hearted, but it still made me enraged by the current prison system: the inherent racism and discrimination (Kerman admits she most likely received better treatment in prison and a lighter sentence because she’s white), the waste of financial resources, as well as the waste of human resources. As I read and finished the book, I couldn’t stop talking about the book and Kerman’s points about the prison system and I ended up having some really fascinating conversations.

Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh – My new book group selected this book. I fought against it, partly because I’d read it earlier this year and partly because I’d found the “white sections” (focusing on Brosh’s depression, etc.) pretty rough reading. But, I was outnumbered and it was our first book club selection. So, I re-read the book and the “white sections” were even tougher to handle the second time around, but this time, I got to talk about them with a great group of women who felt the same sense of connection with Brosh’s work. My connection with it is often unsettled and uncomfortable, but the other women in the group seemed to mostly take the stance, “Thank God someone is saying this out loud, on paper, for real.” We laughed a lot and it was a wonderful night.

Black and White, Dani Shapiro – My writing style isn’t a thing like Dani Shapiro’s, but as I was reading, I so wished I could write like her. I admire her writing immensely. It’s quiet and stripped down, yet fierce and vibrant. This story, about a famous photographer mother and the daughter she photographed nude throughout her childhood, was so painful and beautiful. It was utterly necessary.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson – Jenny Lawson is basically Allie Brosh meets Toni McGee Causey, hysterical and hyperbolic. Sometimes, I’d get a bit impatient with the storytelling (because it goes around in circles and on and on forever), but mostly I was laugh-snorting out loud and too damn entertained to mind that she wrote a book as if you were having one long, booze-infused conversation with her. With photographic evidence. Like with most comedy, there’s some real pathos buried underneath the humor and I admired The Blogess all the more for letting us see it.

August

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin – Once more, in the midst of a bunch of nonfiction reading, I was longing for a distracting novel and I turned to my pile of ARCs. This one was published in April, but though I picked it up “late,” I found that, as usual, I picked it up at just the right time. It’s a relatively slim book, but covers about 15+ years of a man’s life as he moves from isolated grief to become a central figure in a family and a community. I was continually surprised by how much story was packed into the book, yet it still felt light and easy, even when it was dealing with almost unbearably sad subjects. Writing a story that reads this effortlessly is hard work, I’m lucky enough to have learned, so the easier I skipped through the book, the more impressed I was with Zevin’s storytelling abilities. I could easily see this becoming a movie, something like Big Fish meets Amelie meets Chocolat.

The Young World, Chris Weitz – I’ve stumbled upon some very good dystopian Y/A and fantasy lately, each very good but each the first book in a series. So annoying cause I get hooked on the first book and then I have to have patience till another (and another…) come out. Anyway, this is another of those titles, written by the director of About a Boy, among other movies. The story is so easy to imagine as a movie and since Weitz is a film director, I was curious about why he decided to write it as a novel. I feel like the book answered my question. As the characters are searching for something vital in a library, they have a conversation about the value of books over electronic information/cloud storage. The characters in books have a longer life span than most people who live in our world and pretty much everyone in The Young World. It was the kind of perfect fictional moment that made me want to hug Weitz by hugging his book. So yeah, now I’m impatient for more books set in this world.

Lord of the Flies, William Golding – Read the Re-Reading post here.

The Kiss of Deception, Mary E. Pearson – I was talking books in a Facebook thread and mentioned how much I liked The Queen of the Tearling. A friend of my friend’s commented that she liked this book better. I looked it up out of curiosity and then immediately requested it from the library. I’d read 50+ pages just a couple of hours after I picked up from the library and finished it over what was a pretty active weekend. It has a lot in common with The Queen of the Tearling, but is also very different. Both feature royal girls fighting/embracing their destinies in a fantasy world that may actually be our own world hundreds of years in the future (I got that vibe from Kiss and TQotT drops some serious hints in that direction). Anyway, The Kiss of Deception is very compelling and also the first of a series (alas, more patience on my part).

The Ecstasy of Surrender, Judith Orloff, M.D. – This book applied to pretty much every aspect of my life the last few months. It took me a few weeks to read because I was trying to absorb as much of it as possible (and I was late returning it to the library because I had to finish it before I left for my trip). If you want to know more,  watch the TED Talk that was the origin of the book, though it’s just a taste of what the book entails.

Animal Farm, George Orwell – Read the Re-Reading post here.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury – Read the Re-Reading post here.

An Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir – I snagged this ARC before leaving on my Residency Road Trip. Something about it called out to me and I felt like I’d need an engaging novel at some point on this trip. Because it’s 400+ pages, I thought it’d be my fiction counterpoint to all the nonfiction I’ll be reading during September. But, I picked it up after I finished my August Re-Reading and I quickly got caught up in it. I read the first 100 pages relatively slowly (in about a day) and then quickly read 300 more pages in a few hours, unable to sleep because I was so engrossed in the characters and the world. On one hand, I’ve never read anything like this and on the other, it reminds me of A Song of Ice and Fire, The Queen of the Tearling and The Kiss of Deception, all “dystopian” fantasy stories set in some ambiguous alternate or future world that also feel like ancient myths and legends. The characters are constantly faced with impossible emotional and moral decisions and I care enormously about all of them. The one trouble with reading a book so quickly is when you never want to leave the story and you’re booted out by the last page. Since this book is coming out next April, it looks like I’ll have to wait a long while for the next book in the story (for surely there will be one since two of the major characters are setting out on an epic journey at the end). I’ll definitely be on the lookout for an ARC of the next book so I can pick back up with these characters as soon as possible.

September

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith – I listened to the audio book of this one on the way from ATL to Soaring Gardens and it was the perfect companion for such a long trip, at least for me. As I learned years ago when I spent three weeks driving twelve hours each day, the best audio books for drives are those that are so interesting they keep you awake, but easy to follow while paying attention to, you know, the road. I was *almost* done when Anne and I arrived at the house, so after we made dinner and unpacked, I sat in the library and finished listening to it. I have to say, I was a bit disappointed with the wrap-up of the mystery at the end of the book, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and story for days after I finished. I’m hoping to listen to the next Cormoran Strike book, The Silkworm, on my way back home. [Since Robert Galbraith is a pen name for Joanne Rowling, a.k.a. J.K. Rowling, I’d held off reading these books for a while. I was scared I wouldn’t like her non-HP books. But, no more fears here. She’s just flat-out a great writer, whatever she writes, under whichever name. And I think it’s brilliant that she wrote them under a male pseudonym.]

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton – Read the Re-Reading post here.

Blind Faith, C.J. Lyons – I read Lyons’ Broken last quarter and really enjoyed it, so I bought copies of the three Caitlyn Tierney books as my pleasure reading during the residency. Blind Faith is a solid thriller and like with Broken, the writing is great, so I’m carried along with the momentum of the story, racing to figure out what’s going to happen next. Perfect to balance out the other reading I’m doing here at the residency.

Twelve Minutes of Love, Kapka Kassabova – A mutual friend recommended I read this tango memoir after I told him I had started dancing and writing about what I was learning from tango about my relationships. I ordered it forever ago, but wasn’t quite ready to read any tango books. When it was time to pack for the residency, I knew I should bring some of the tango memoirs and academic texts I’ve been collecting. Then, a tango friend started quoting sections of the book once I got to Soaring Gardens and it zoomed to the top of my to-read list. I was reading both with a professional mind (to situate my own writing on the spectrum of already existing work) and also personally. I enjoyed the book quite a lot and also appreciated it, how hard the gossipy, accessible tone must’ve been to achieve and sustain through the work. It was a quick read and teaches you about tango as you read, so the casual, curious reader can enjoy it as well. However, it was all the richer for me as a tango dancer, finding similar moments and realizations within the experiences of a dancer with a very different background than me. There’s a great book trailer you should definitely check out.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot – I’d meant to read this book when it was first published, but it’s taken me four years to do it. Just goes to show that there’s a time for every book in each person’s life. It coincided brilliantly with two other books I was reading at the same time: Jurassic Park (above) and The World Without Us. Though Henrietta Lacks covers a lot of complicated scientific information, it’s immensely readable, very accessible. Beneath all the science, it’s a human story. I was intrigued in particular by the way that Skloot included herself in the story (she developed relationships with Lacks family members over many years) without ever overshadowing their story and that of Henrietta Lacks. The beating heart of the book was always the story of the woman behind the infamous cell line, and her family. If anyone one is interested in what’s been happening since the book was published, as I was, there’s a wealth of information on Skloot’s website.

Black Sheep, C.J. Lyons – The first book featuring FBI agent Caitlyn Tierney began from the P.O.V. of another female character, who shared the narrative. This book also features a case with another female character central to it, but as Tierney is the returning character and it deals with tragic events from her childhood, she carries the book a bit more solidly. I like this structure, and as both of the cases so far have been unofficial, it places Tierney squarely within the “rogue agent” subgenre of thrillers and mysteries. Rogue agents are generally male, so it’s refreshing to see her operate as both a woman in a male-dominated field (which also includes the criminals) and as a smart investigator. This book also flips the usual script by making Tierney wary of commitment, trying to break it to her boyfriend and mother that she’s married to her job. While it pretty typical (and realistic) that a female agent would have to defend this choice repeatedly, it’s not typical at all to see one portrayed as being ambivalent about marriage and family. Only problem with this book is that it was a tad too short. I’m glad I have the next one to dive into immediately.

The World Without Us, Alan Weisman – This was one of the the books in the library at Soaring Gardens. I picked it up idly, but was immediately intrigued and engrossed by the premise: what will the world look like if the entire human race suddenly disappeared? How will nature react to our absence? You might assume this would be a depressing book, and it is in some ways, but not the ways you’d expect, probably. The most repeatedly depressing aspect of the book is the realization that we’re the bad guys, that we speed up survival of the fittest and evolution with technology, create poisons and products that don’t biodegrade and we don’t know how to dispose of safely. While we should make more strident efforts to “save the planet,” it’s not really for the planet’s sake, but for the own. The planet’s schedule is a bit different than ours and it has a lot more time to sort survive than we do. Beyond that depressing aspect of the book, it was absolutely fascinating and unexpectedly jovial (in a dark humor sort of way). This is the kind of book that takes a lifetime to research and write. Or several, as Weisman introduces us to an intriguing cast of characters, many of whom have jobs and passions you’ve probably never considered.

Hollow Bones, C.J. Lyons – This last book in the Caitlyn Tierney series shares the same format, splitting the story between Caitlyn and another woman at the center of Caitlyn’s investigation. I like that all of the “victims” that Caitlyn is helping are strong women in their own rights who are also trying to investigate and survive their situations. A character from the second book recurs here in very satisfying ways. The setting is really interesting, the crime really upsetting (organ harvesting) and the whole story moves at a quick pace. While I’d read more books about Caitlyn’s investigations, I’m also pleased with where she’s ended up in this book.

So that’s the 3rd Quarter. My 4th Quarter is already shaping up to be very strong. For instance, randomly, all three of the books I’ve read so far in Q4 were written by women whose first names start with the letter J. That wasn’t planned, by the way. 🙂

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