Paperback Picks – July

Summer really is the season of paperbacks isn’t it? Some of my favorite titles have been/are being released in paperback this summer, so if you haven’t read these, I highly recommend the following:

Gone GirlGone Girl, Gillian Flynn

I find it difficult to review this book without giving the whole thing away, but with all the buzz around the novel and the upcoming film adaptation, I’m pretty sure there are few people left who haven’t heard about this book. I chose it for my list because Flynn’s talent for storytelling has forced me to completely re-examine my belief that I’m not a fan of thrillers. Flynn investigates the bonds of marriage, obsession and identity in the modern world. She uses language to expertly pull her characters apart and put them back together.

“It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless amount of characters.”

The Cuckoo's CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith a.k.a. J.K. Rowling

Another thriller that is well-written, well-crafted, surprising and engaging! I wouldn’t have guessed it was Rowling, but in retrospect it has the same depth of character and setting I’ve felt in her Harry Potter novels. Just a terrific mystery. And now, with the release of The Silkworm, is the perfect time to get hooked on this series. (Just a side note: the hardcover edition’s cover was so much better than the cheesy paperback cover. Don’t let that distract you.)

“But the lies she told were woven into the fabric of her being, her life; so that to live with her and love her was to become slowly enmeshed by them, to wrestle her for the truth, to struggle to maintains foothold in reality.”

And the Mountains EchoedAnd the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini writes with such agonizing beauty that I could have stopped every few pages to copy his words, pull apart sentences and admire his gifted storytelling. Using the complicated politics, displacement and fractured lives in Afghanistan, he manages to both expand the setting to Europe and America and make it more intimate by so closely examining the lives of his characters. At its core, this is a book about family. Who are they? What are the bonds that tie? What does it mean to love someone?

“Beauty is an enormous, unmerited gift given randomly, stupidly.”

The LowlandThe Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri has such a light touch in her books, it’s almost as if you forget there’s an author behind the story. She treats her characters delicately, simply placing them in front of the reader without judgment and seemingly without premeditation to get them from the beginning of the plot to the end. Nothing ever seems forced or contrived in her books. She also evokes setting better than almost anyone I’ve read. Her sketches of Calcutta and Rhode Island were so real to me that I feel I’ve been to both places. My one criticism is that I never fell in love with any of the characters. I felt for them, but not as deeply as I hoped.

“The future haunted but kept her alive; it remained her sustenance and also her predator.”

Paperback Pick – The Color Master

I saw in the New York Times that Aimee Bender’s latest masterpiece is now out in paperback, perfect for summertime beach bags.

The Color MasterThe Color Master

Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender’s collection of stories satisfied all my desires. Powerful, dark, magical, engaging and filled with unforgettable images.

Not surprisingly, I was most moved by the stories containing magical realism, especially “The Color Master,” “The Devourings,” and “Appleless.” Bender has an amazing ability to immerse readers in an alternate universe while making it seem all too real. These stories touch me emotionally and their “truths” are more real to me than a story set in my own backyard.

“And in it all, the sensation of shaking my fists at the sky, shaking my fists high up to the sky, because that is what we do when someone dies too early, too beautiful, too undervalued by the world, or sometimes just at all — we shake our fists at the big, beautiful, indifferent sky, and the anger is righteous and strong and helpless and huge. I shook and I shook, and I put all of it into the dress.”

I was pleasantly surprised that her more realistic tales held the same kind of resonance for me. “The Red Ribbon,” “The Fake Nazi” and “The Doctor and the Rabbi” are excellent examples of short stories that stand alone as full-bodied, if incredibly lonely, works of fiction.

“It is so often surprising, who rescues you at your lowest moments.”

I’ve determined that I will pretty much follow Aimee Benderwherever she goes. Immensely satisfying.

For more of my Aimee Bender love, read:

My review of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and Food for Literary Thought.


Paperback Pick

Just going to show that books are just as good in paperback, here are a few of my picks for your weekend reading.

A Land More Kind than Home

A Land More Kind Than HomeWiley Cash

One of the best books I read in 2012 is now in paperback! Rural, religious zeal, coming of age, mystery — this book has it all.

From my 5 star review

Wiley Cash did not so much ease me into the disturbing world of his novel, as grip me by the throat and pull me along…The Appalachian mountains come alive through his descriptions. The characters’ voices practically sing off the page.

Cover image from Goodreads

Cover image from Goodreads


Tupelo Hassman

Another 5 star review of another harrowing book.

To love Girlchild as much as I did, you have to be willing to understand “raw.” Tupelo Hassman does not shy away from the anger, bitterness or shame that go with the broken down territory.

I am currently reading two books in paperback edition

Finally getting around to reading The Catcher in the Rye, which I’m liking not loving…

and one of absolute favorite books, which I am rereading (and enjoying even more the second time around), The Family Fang, by the uber-talented Kevin Wilson. This was another 5-star review.

The Catcher in the Rye

Book cover from Goodreads

Book cover from Goodreads

What are your weekend picks?

Happy reading.

Paperback Picks – October

October was a great month for paperback releases. Here are my picks for five not to miss.

A WALK ACROSS THE SUN by Corban Addison

4 stars

Addison took my breath away with this unflinching look at human sex trafficking. Be warned: the tsunami that wipes out Ahlaya and Sita’s entire family and leaves them homeless orphans is not the most tragic thing that happens in this story. In fact, that happens in the first chapter. What follows is a downward spiral of kidnapping, rape, smuggling and terror as these girls are “trafficked” from person to person, country to country. But don’t let any of that scare you away. Corban Addison has also written something beautiful and touching and honest. The inner strength present in these characters is inspiring. Plus, Addison does an admirable job of drawing the truth out without preaching. Addison does not shy away from the graphic or gruesome details of this atrocity, but somehow he never pushes too hard or too far.

“Hope may vanish, but can die not.”

STAY AWAKE by Dan Choan

4 stars

“It is the worst sound Gene can imagine, the sound of a young child dying violently…” Any story collection with this line in its opening paragraph is not for the faint of heart. Dan Chaon‘s characters are dark and twisted. This is not bedtime reading, but I love his writing. Like any short story collection, some are better than others. Each piece is haunting but “I Wake Up” and “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow” stand out as the best. A few stories crossed into a territory too dark for my taste and the final piece was just plain confusing, but overall I find Chaon’s writing brilliant.

“This is one of those things that you can never explain to anyone; that’s what I want to explain – one of those free-association moments with connections that dissolve when you start to try to put them into words.”

SACRE BLEU: A COMEDY D’ART by Christopher Moore

4 stars

Moore is smart-assed hilarious, definitely irreverent, and sometimes brilliant. He reimagines art history in 19th century Paris, mixing together all the masters of the time, and traveling back far enough to throw in Michelangelo as well. The cast of characters is at once familiar (van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet) and unusual (each intimately connected to the next). The plot centers around a murder/suicide, a mysterious color man, the enchanting Juliet and a baker/painter named Lucien. Throw in some politics, magic, curious inventions, cave paintings and whores and you get a mess of book that delighted me just the same. I was completely taken in by Moore’s language and satire. For all the bouts of uproarious laughter, he scratched at deeper truths.

“They are between. Not what they used to be, and not what they have become. In those times, they are nothing. And I am invisible, and I am nothing too. That is the true demimonde, Lucien, and the secret is, it is not always desperate and dark. Sometimes it is just nothing. No burden of potential or regret. There are worse things than being nothing, my friend.”

RUNNING THE RIFT by Naomi Benaron

4 stars

The choice to set a love story amid the genocide in Rwanda does not immediately seem wise, but Naomi Benaron handles this story with such tenderness and sincerity that she succeeds in creating something both beautiful and horrific. Jean Patrick is a young Tutsi man coming of age in a large, loving family. While poor in material wealth, his natural talent and strong determination to become and Olympic runner drive him toward success even in the face of Tutu discrimination.Benaron’s choice of running as an extended metaphor works beautifully as Jean Patrick struggles with ambition, trust and pride. Benaron sets a strong pace and the novel’s start and knows just when to make her surge. Hard to believe she is a first-time author herself.

“Your hope is the most beautiful and the saddest in the world.”

CARRY THE ONE by Carol Anshaw

3 stars

Carol Anshaw creates a brilliant premise for her latest novel.. A group of “friends” leave a wedding, all drunk, stoned or high and kill a 10 year-old girl. Each in his or her way must carry that weight forever. I appreciated the skill with which Anshaw drew the similarities and differences in the other characters’ reactions to the trauma. All of these men and women are seriously screwed up to begin with, so heaping on guilt and sorrow leads to some really bad behavior. She shifts perspective often, giving us a glimpse into each character’s soul. I flew from storyline to storyline always wanting a little bit more and wishing Anshaw could have shown a little more trust in her readers. But still, a worthwhile read.

“Carmen could see the women gathering, clutching the Instamatics, tears already pooling in the corners of their eyes, tourists on an emotional safari, eager to bag a bride.”

Paperback Picks – July


by Erin Morgenstern

4 stars

Erin Moregenstern has created something quite spectacular in this debut novel. Playing with ideas of magic, illusion and perception, she unveils a truly fantastic circus.  More driven by characters and imagery than by plot, Morgenstern nonetheless drew me into a labyrinth of moves and counter moves. I felt the tension, especially in the love story between the players. And, rather than fill her book with peripheral characters, she makes each person three dimensional and important. But alas, the ending lingers on too long. Morgenstern falls trap to that author’s need to explain what we’ve just read — not trusting either her story or her readers enough. Still, I was rapt all the way through and was not disappointed by this book which I have awaited for months. It’s worthy of its buzz.

You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”


by Dana Spiotta

4 stars

I’m thinking about past events. I’m interested in recall, exact recall, of what was said, who said it and to whom. I want to know the truth, undistorted by time and revision and wishes and regrets.

So says Denise Kranis, the 40-ish narrator of Dana Spiotta’s brilliant novel, Stone Arabia. Denise is comparing her own story-telling to that of her brother Nik’s, which involves much more elaborately constructed and documented versions of reality. I love this truth-seeking premise, even more so for the way Spiotta juxtaposes the siblings’ styles and temperaments. They are both truth seekers, but who’s to say which is the real truth?

Spiotta smartly tells her story in short chapters from Denise, which move both forward and backward in time. We know she is after some explanation (some truth) to explain where (Nik’s place) and why (upset) she is the moment we meet her.  But to get to that explanation, we have to know Denise and how she thinks, what she longs for. This unveiling is where Spiotta truly shines.

I felt the memory of my father on my body, the way you feel a breeze or the heat of the sun. He did not feel – and so was not – entirely lost to me. Inside, beyond my recall of events and dates and talk, there was this hot-wired memory of his body…your experiences, the hard felt ones, don’t fade. They are written forever in your flesh, your nerves, your fingertips.


by Thrity Umrigar

4 stars

I finished it in one day because I never wanted to put it down. I don’t know what it is about books by Indian writers, but they seem more lush and intimate to me than many American or British authors.
Here Umrigar is exploring the bonds forged by 4 women who came of age in the tumultuous India of the 1970s. 30 years later an illness brings them together again. As you would expect, there are lingering dramas, unclaimed passions and misunderstandings. All those issues are handled deftly by the author as she shifts narrators among, not just the four women, but some of their husbands as well.
She explores the cultural differences among these friends, both in light of their idealistic youth, and from the perspective of “middle age.” Muslim, Parsi, atheist, wealthy, American — all these labels come into play without being stereotyped.

So all I’m saying is, everything that seems important–our quarrels, or philosophical differences–in the end, it doesn’t matter much.  You know?  In the end, what matters is what remains.”


by Jenny Wingfield

4 stars

Jenny Wingfield has created something very special in this whirlpool of a novel. She wrote a story that continued to pull me in deeper and deeper, while still surprising me. Despite all the drama and heartache present in the Lake and Moses lives, I never felt emotionally manipulated and the plot never seemed contrived. Those are significant accomplishments, especially for a first-time novelist.

What ultimately unfolds is a story of family, loyalty and faith that I found hard to put down. At times deeply disturbing, I found these characters ultimately inspiring and very real.

Jenny Wingfield is definitely a writer to watch.

And she knew Life well enough to know that if one person in a house gets really miserable for any length of time, the misery spreads like smallpox.”

Paperback Picks: June

So many great choices this month. My top 5 June paperback releases…

Cover image from Goodreads


by Bonnie Jo Campbell

5 stars

The word “savage” comes to mind in describing this book. Margo’s life on the Stark River is brutal in all ways – physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The graphic depictions of animal skinning alone are enough to keep some readers away; never mind the violence that befalls Margo. But if you can get past the descriptive writing of savagery, you can appreciate the beauty of Campbell’s other writing, especially relating to river life.

She hoped Smoke was wrong about people being unknowable. She hoped that she could crack herself open like a nut and know herself, at least. Then she’d be able to start figuring out everybody else.”

She never strikes a false note during this sad tale which I so appreciate.  Even the supporting characters were three-dimensional and clearly had a place in the book’s plot. I cared about each of them – even those I despised. That’s quite an accomplishment for a writer. And best of all, she writes a perfect, fitting ending. Brutal, savage and dark – but also wonderful.


by Amor Towles

5 stars

I cannot possibly write a review that reflects the intelligence and sophistication of this book. Integrating art, photography and literature into his portrait of 1938 New York, Amor Towles also tells a great story about the choices made by one young woman — Kate/Katey/Katherine Kontent, and her friends.
Kate is smart, funny, unpredictable and determined, all qualities that make a fine heroine. But she’s also imperfect, which makes her infinitely more interesting.

The game had changed; or rather, it wasn’t a game at all anymore. It was a matter of making it through the night, which is often harder than it sounds, and always a very individual business.”

Towles kept me on my toes throughout the novel — no easy feat. Best of all, he evoked the time period seamlessly, making me feel I was on this journey along with Kate.


cover image from Goodreads

by Michael Ondaatje

4 stars

When an 11 year-old sets up the story about his 3-week solo trip across the sea, readers may believe Ondaatje is writing a coming of age adventure. But this book is so much more than just that. He also deftly spins intricate character studies of the ship’s passengers from first class to the Cat’s Table (the place in the dining room where life’s “unimportants” are seated.) And, without many fussy complications, he also weaves in a haunting mystery. All of these elements could be awkward or clumsy in a lesser writer’s hands, but Ondaatje is a master.

What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power.”

All of the characters have emotional depth and the movement back and forth in time from “Mynas” 11 year-old perspective and his adult ruminations on the same events seemed effortless.


by Nina Sankovitch

3 stars

As someone committed to reading every day and writing about whatever I read (even if just for my own purposes), I get this author. Even though she undertook her book-a-day program as a way to “hold herself still” and get through her grief over her sister’s death, we see many of the same things in books, so I loved much of this memoir on a purely emotional level.

The purpose of great literature is to reveal what  is hidden and to illuminate what is in darkness.

I especially like the chapter on sharing books with others. I had never thought of giving a book as “giving a piece of one’s soul,” but it makes perfect sense to me. When we open ourselves up about our passion for a certain book or writer, we are opening our hearts. And when someone does it for us, it is a gift not to be treated lightly.

It is a gift we humans have, to hold on to beauty felt in a moment for a lifetime.”


by Margot Livesey

3 stars

Some books just transport me. No politics. No deep thinking. Just a well-written escape. This novel fits that bill. Based on the classic Jane Eyre, Gemma Hardy tells the tragic, yet inspiring story of a young girl struggling against all odds. Gemma Hardy just will not give up despite her parents’ deaths, her aunt’s hatred, her lover’s lies. She’s a fighter. She inspires sympathy and kindness from a few key characters, but mostly she does it alone. What is remarkable is that I never pitied her, maybe because she didn’t pity herself.

She was afraid of numbers the way some people are of spiders.  The sight of them made her want to hide.  What I loved about them, their clarity, was for her duplicity.  Behind an innocent 2,or 5, or 9, she spied a mass of traps and pitfalls.”

I knew from the start that she wouldn’t let circumstances keep her down. This is not the sort of book that struck me with beautifully written passages or even startling revelations, but it was an extremely enjoyable read.

Paperback Picks – May


by Tayari Jones

From the opening line, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” to the closing, Jones hooked me with this wonderful, heartbreaking, honest novel. Within 20 pages, Jones has laid the characters’ baggage at the reader’s feet; but instead of stagnating, the narrative just continues to dig deeper into the themes of love, loyalty, friendship and betrayal.

I let go of the breath I didn’t know I was holding. This was what it was like to have a friend, someone who knew exactly what you were and didn’t blame you for it.” Each teenage girl’s voice is written beautifully, getting to the heart of those years. Each girl is searching for her place, identity and family — it’s just more complicated because they share a father.

Without ever choosing sides, Jones allows her story to do the talking. I was left aching for both girls and unsure if the ending is how I would have written it, just what I look for in a great book.


by Ann Patchett

I treasure the beauty in Patchett’s writing.

In an instant the veil of insects lifted and Marina saw nothing as she had never seen nothing before. It was as if God Himself had turned out all the lights, every last one, and left them in the gaping darkness of His abandonment.”

Add to this beauty the fact that Patchett crafts a wonderful story about science, anthropology, reproduction and loss, and it equals a true winner. I was lost in the Amazon, conflicted and drawn to possibility right along with the main character Marina.

In this life we love who we love. There were some stories in which facts were irrelevant.”

I was slightly disappointed in the book’s last 50 pages, which come so fast and so improbably, that I was drawn out of the story. Still, I loved this book.


by Jennifer Weiner

If you like Jennifer Weiner’s other books, you’ll like this one too. She doesn’t deviate from her tried and true formula of likable women struggling to shed their past skins. In this case, it’s four women connected by a Philadelphia fertility clinic. I was mildly surprised by some of the plot’s turning points, but by the end I was so frustrated by the unrealistic way it came together that I literally dropped the book. Weiner is such a talented writer and I don’t blame her for sticking with a formula that has proved successful, but wouldn’t it be great if she would stretch herself (and us, her readers) beyond our comfort zones?


Paperback Picks for April

Book cover from Goodreads


by Kevin Wilson

5 Stars

Hands down the most brilliantly creative book I read in 2011. Darkly comic (and sometimes just dark), the Fangs live at the border between life and art.

Art, if you love it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it did not matter. It was worth it.”

Wilson takes this thought-provoking premise and fills it with these wonderful characters. Buster and Annie (the children of the family now struggling into adulthood) are exactly the products we might expect from a dysfunctional family. I couldn’t help falling in love with them and truly caring what happened as the story twisted through to its conclusion.

Book cover from Goodreads


by Alice Hoffman

5 stars

The events in the book swirl around the fall of Jerusalem and the siege of the fortress at Masada. Although I knew little about these events when I started the book, she draws the setting and characters so well at I honestly felt I was living there with them. My pulse quickened at dramatic moments and I felt the heat and wind of the desert just as described. The four women who tell this story are all damaged, yet strong (my favorite kinds of characters). And I love that they are all dovekeepers (peacekeepers) in a time of war and brutality.

We stood and watched as God abandoned us, and then we did the best we could.”

The symbolism is deep and constant, but the deeper levels never get in the way of the storytelling.

Book cover from Goodreads


by Timothy Schaffert

4 stars

I’m not quite sure what to make of this book. It has the feel of a Tim Burton film — dark and funny at the same time. I found myself smiling a lot at the odd characters and their observations about modern-day small-town living. But Schaffert is also exploring some deeper ideas about aging, mass media, and perceptions of reality. Just when I was cruising along, I’d go back to reread passages, surprised to be so moved so suddenly.

We could endlessly reminisce, live in the past to an unhealthy degree, then politely kill each other some winter night before bedtime, stirring poison into our cups of whiskey-spiked chamomile tea, wearing party hats. Then, nervous about our double homicide, we could lie in bed together, holding hands again, frightened and waiting, still wondering, after all these years, if we even believed in our own souls.”

Without including a spoiler, I will admit that the last 30 pages are very weak, which was really disappointing given how strong most of the writing is. I’ll definitely give this author another shot.

Book cover from Goodreads


by Geraldine Brooks

5 stars

Geraldine Brooks is the Queen of Historical Fiction. I’ve liked everything she’s written, but Caleb’s Crossing is my favorite. Brook’s attention to detail, especially to the voice of narrator Bethia, is fascinating.

I felt the reckless abandon of one who knows she stands already among the damned. “Why not, then, another sin?”

Bethia’s diary put us squarely in the time and place of the book, 17th century Martha’s vineyard. We understand the constraints and opportunities of the time through her eyes. I could easily relate to her struggles to enlighten her mind while keeping her thoughts to herself. It’s a great conflict. As the title suggests, the story is also about her young Indian friend, whom she names Caleb. Can her. will he cross to the mainland literally and figuratively. That’s the story that moves the plot forward, but this is Bethia’s book all the way. A must read for historical fiction lovers



Paperback Picks


SO MUCH PRETTY  by Cara Hoffman

   4 stars

It took me a while to really catch the rhythm of this novel. The first half is completely non-linear, with dozens of shifting perspectives and crisscrossing chronology. The reader knows something terrible happened (at least one thing, that is); but Hoffman keeps us on the line a long time before we get the details. The details are sickening and horrifying, but by that time I cared about this town and these characters so much that I was compelled to keep reading. The author has a lot to say about how we live, about violence against women, about storytelling. It’s really quite intelligent, mysterious and gratifying.


   5 stars

How does an author write about something/someone who no longer exists? In Matar’s case, with incredible beauty and delicacy. His words seem not so much written, as poured gently. “I felt dizzy, as if comprehending the scale of things for the first time and with it the vast yet intricate reality of the physical world and my precarious presence in it….I wanted this world to be still. I wanted to fix it and be fixed in it.” Matar provides a touching story of a boy whose father disappears. We assume it’s a political kidnapping based on the few clues the author provides, but we don’t get all the answers — exactly Matar’s point. He wisely tells a story without depending on plot points. Instead, we get what’s left to his son. “I never have him whole. I am always standing too close to take him in properly.” It’s this feeling of what’s left unsaid that marks Matar’s strength as an author. perfectly paced from beginning to end, this is a short, graceful read.

THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

4 stars

Vanessa Diffenbaugh does an amazing job at balancing the beautiful and the ugly. The book’s title led me to believe I would read something charming and romantic. Instead, I found a tale of neglect and abuse. But underneath the sad tale is a protagonist grasping at the one source of beauty in her life, flowers. The “language” of flowers comes to represent all the emotions she can find – truth, despair, attraction, envy – but for the reader, ultimately leads to redemption. I just love how Diffenbaugh keeps all of this working, while still telling an engaging, even gripping, story. There were a few too many tidy conveniences for my taste, especially toward the end; but, overall, I found this book stayed with me for weeks after I finished reading it.