Friday, April 19, 2019

THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE


Review of THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE by PHILIPPA GREGORY

I adore Philippa Gregory. She’s my favorite historical fiction author and, as such, I use her as my measuring stick for other historical fiction, asking myself, “Did I like that as much as a Philippa Gregory novel?”

After THE CONSTANT PRINCESS, which focused on Henry VIII’s first wife Katherine of Aragon, and THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, which focused on the infamous Anne Boleyn as well as her less well-known sister Mary, Gregory follows with THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE. This novel continues the saga of Henry VIII’s many unfortunate wives, as told through three perspectives: his fourth and fives wives, respectively, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, as well as Jane Rochford, widow of Anne Boleyn’s brother.

What makes Gregory’s novels exceptional are the characters. Each feels like a living, breathing human with complex emotions and understandable motivations. My issue with some historical fiction novels comes when a character follows history…but why? Their decision doesn’t make sense for the personality the author has created. Gregory sticks to the major historical facts, but crafts such compelling, convincing characters that, even knowing the ending and likely “twists,” I’m riveted to the page.

Gregory’s version of Anne of Cleaves is a timid young woman desperate for any opportunity that will free her from her brother’s tyrannical control. Like Katherine of Aragon, she’s easily underestimated, but proves herself worthy of admiration over time. Anne may be quiet and unassuming, but she’s smarter than she’s been given credit for and she learns to make the best of her circumstances.

Meanwhile, Katherine Howard, even younger, lives fast and wild. She’s a vain, selfish, thoughtless child of a young woman who snatches at forbidden fruit without thinking any further ahead to possible repercussions. She innocently believes life will work out in her favor, because…well, so far it always has.

Last, there’s Jane, reduced to an existence of memories, regret, and self-torture. Her testimony sent Anne Boleyn and her brother (Jane’s husband) to their deaths. Jane has always told herself whatever she most needs to believe is the truth and she’s reaching the point where she cannot remember what the real truth is.

Whether these woman are anywhere close to accurate depictions of the true historical figures, Gregory’s novels are so enjoyable precisely because she makes these character her own. Each one is captivatingly compelling and distinctive.

Friday, April 12, 2019

LEAGUE OF DRAGONS


Review of LEAGUE OF DRAGONS by NAOMI NOVIK
(ninth in the TEMERAIRE series)

I feel sad even writing this review. Why? Because it’s the last book in the Temeraire series, one of those series I wish could keep going forever. Laurence, Temeraire, and their many other comrades – human and dragon alike – have come to feel like familiar friends. I enjoy their casual banter almost as much, and in some cases even more, than their high stakes adventures.

This last installment sees a weakened Napoleon retreating. The opportunity to end his reign of terror is clear, but still threatened by debate about treatment of dragons. In a desperate ploy to maintain his control, Napoleon promises the sun and moon to dragons who join or defect to his cause.

These books have always been skilled at examining the complexities of war and politics. Laurence and Temeraire do not merely need to plan a strategic battle plan for approaching and fighting Napoleon’s troops. More importantly, they need to maintain the morale and support of their own ranks.

The ending of this final Temeraire story could only ever be bittersweet for me. Except for one amnesia twist miss, I enjoyed every book in this series immensely and would have happily continued reading as many as Novik wanted to write. Laurence, but Temeraire especially, carved out places for themselves as some of my top-memorable characters.

Friday, April 5, 2019

INKDEATH


Review of INKDEATH by CORNELIA FUNKE
(third in the INKHEART trilogy, translated by ANTHEA BELL)

This final installment in the captivating INKHEART trilogy finds our heroes trapped within the beautiful but dangerous (and fictional) world of Inkheart. The entire novel has a very somber tone, with clear “the grass is always greener” themes. Meggie, among others, yearned for this magical world and, now here, she yearns for home. Neither will ever fulfill her completely.

This series features a huge cast of interesting characters and unfolds through short chapters in alternating viewpoints. I will confess that multiple viewpoints is never my preference. Funke is a master with her material, but nevertheless I find that when the viewpoint splits so does my investment. Rarely do I invest as strongly in multiple viewpoint stories as I do with one perspective. It lends too much to the idea of each character as an almost insignificant piece in an overwhelmingly huge puzzle.

I would like to back up and describe the premise of this third installment, but with so many characters and plot lines it feels too complex to summarize. Of course, those who read the first two novels have an idea of where the story’s headed. To do my best, I’ll suggest that this entire third book is a long and dramatic showdown between Meggie’s family (among others) and the evil Adderhead.

As always I adore that books play an active role in both the story and the magic of this series. An exceptional book becomes the key for either success or failure in overcoming the Adderhead.

Despite my disinclination for series with so many viewpoint characters, the INKHEART trilogy will go down in my memory as a classic favorite. I, too, understand the perhaps misguided yearning for the magical world of Inkheart.

Friday, March 29, 2019

THE SIN EATER'S DAUGHTER


Review of THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER by MELINDA SALISBURY
(first in THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER trilogy)

Twylla is her kingdom’s executioner as well as the future queen. Her bare skin has the power to kill anyone who touches her, with the exception of the royal family thanks to their superior blood. She she is betrothed to the crown prince and, in the meantime, utilized by a vicious queen for murdering traitors, not to mention scaring everyone else into submission. Then the queen assigns Twylla a new guard, a too friendly guard with a habit for asking questions he shouldn’t.

For me, this turned out to be a trust-the-author book. By that, I mean that all of my criticisms were eventually explained to my satisfaction. Everything fits together; everything has been considered. Even what doesn’t make sense now will fall into place at the right moment. I want to avoid spoilers, so I can’t be as specific as I want, but let me list some examples. The queen seemed at times over-the-top evil to me, but later her character made perfect sense to me. Also the magic system had weak points, but the questions I asked turned out to be extremely relevant to the plot.

I really connected with the characters emotionally and felt intensely affected by their excruciating circumstances and decisions. I’m a critical reader, but I can’t wait to rave about this book, primarily because it made me feel. When you read as much as I do (and write and study the craft of writing, including how to dissect a story into structural pieces) well, it becomes harder and harder to be surprised and, more importantly, to be moved. That’s all the more reason I’m impressed when a book really gets me.

THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER, first in a series, does end on a bit of a frustrating cliffhanger, but resolves the most important threads. I am thoroughly invested and can’t wait to see where this story takes us next.

Friday, March 22, 2019

DAVID AND GOLIATH


Review of DAVID AND GOLIATH: UNDERDOGS, MISFITS, AND THE ART OF BATTLING GIANTS by MALCOLM GLADWELL

This author has been recommended to me plenty of times over the years, but this is my first read by him. It definitely lived up to all the hype and made me eager to read the rest of his work. The premise of DAVID AND GOLIATH lies in the namesake story: how thinking outside the box can flip the game.

For his examples, Gladwell reaches far and wide, but in so doing emphasizes how applicable his theory is to all aspects of our society. Chapter 1 focuses on youth girls’ basketball. I do not know enough about basketball to be any kind of expert here and that will be clear in my paraphrasing. Gladwell follows a specific couch who volunteered to coach his daughter’s basketball team, but really didn’t know a thing about basketball himself. He realized that his team simply wasn’t good enough to win based on skill alone. However, in his research on the sport he also realized there are other ways to play the game that could give his girls an edge, such as focusing more on stamina than skill. Again, no basketball expert here, but my understanding is that this coach’s particular approach is completely legal by the rules of the game, but considered unsportsmanlike by some. Gladwell argues that it’s really a matter of opinion. As with David and Goliath where Goliath expected a hand to hand combat only to be taken out by a rock, the girls didn’t play the game like people expected. Subverting expectations gave them a much needed advantage, but those who feel tricked by flipped standards call out the strategy as cheating.

I especially loved Chapter 2, which discussed our misperception that many factors in life are a linear graph. Take money, for example. It’s a typical fallacy that the more money you have the happier you are. Realty (and logic, in my opinion) suggests that it’s actually a bell curve. Money increases happiness until a certain point at which more money only makes happiness decrease.

I strongly related to Chapter 3 and its analysis of organic chemistry, as I know several people who have struggled with that educational requirement. Gladwell posits that the emphasis of organic chemistry comes from a perhaps outdated mindset, and instead weeds out many students who would make spectacular doctors…who maybe aren’t brilliant at organic chemistry. This same chapter also brings up the old phrase big fish in a small pond and vice versa. In this case, Gladwell applies the adage to schools. Many students believe the obvious smart decision is to attend the most prestigious university into which they’re accepted. The truth is that this may have a little fish in a big pond effect and there are times when it’s wiser to choose the smaller pond, the place where you’ll thrive and stand out the most.

This book was written several years ago, but Chapter 6’s focus on racial tension will feel especially relevant today, in particular given Gladwell’s focus on media portrayal. Then Chapter 8 addresses our ever-confused perceptions of crime and how best to take preventative measures. He mentions common statistics and debunks possibly misguided interpretations of those numbers.  

I’m only scratching the surface here, but Gladwell offers many specific examples that successfully make his case for “thinking outside the box.”

Friday, March 15, 2019

NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD


Review of NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD: A WRITER ON WRITING by MARGARET ATWOOD

This book about writing by the famous Margaret Atwood is adapted from the series of six Empson Lectures that she gave at the University of Cambridge. I will admit that the book does read like a series of lectures, at times more long-winded than necessary as though to meet a certain time obligation rather than establish a point as concisely as possible.

I often argue that writing advice and discussions breaks down into three categories: business, craft, and philosophy. This book is definitely about the philosophy of writing: what it means to be a writer, in a broad sense. Each chapter (lecture) is loosely thematically organized, but all tie together as a broad analysis of this societal role. In fact my favorite quote states, “Writing…is an ordinary enough activity…Being a writer, however, seems to be a socially acknowledged role.”

Writing can be a lonely profession, tucked off in a solitary room spending hours considering human nature. Writing books are invaluable reminders that we writers aren’t alone. Many say that we are telling the same stories over and over again, but it’s the specifics that make them unique. Well, each of us writers may have a unique, specific set of life experiences, but there’s plenty of familiar trends, too. You’re special, but you’re not alone.

Friday, March 8, 2019

WHAT ALICE FORGOT


Review of WHAT ALICE FORGOT by LIANE MORIARTY

Last that Alice remembers she was young and madly in love. Then she wakes in the hospital where they tell her she has amnesia. Oh, and she’s apparently ten years older, the mother of three children, and divorcing the love of her life.

First, my ranty disclaimer. I am not, broadly speaking, a fan of amnesia as a plot device. It didn’t help that I happened to be reading three books at once that all made use of amnesia as a twist. However, I will say that of those three I liked the amnesia element the most in WHAT ALICE FORGOT, and I can articulate why. Usually I find fictional amnesia very frustrating, because – when it’s introduced midway into a story – the reader has to wait for the character to catch back up with everything the reader already knows…and the character knew only a few pages previously. More often than not the amnesia element feels like a pause button; the story doesn’t resume with new developments until the characters remember what they should. WHAT ALICE FORGOT avoids that tired trope, because we catch up with Alice. She has amnesia from the very start of this novel and we know as much about her current life as she does.

My typical quibble with Moriarty’s novels is that she always utilizes a juicy piece of mystery bait for suspense. In this case, there’s a woman people keep mentioning to Alice and then clearly wishing they hadn’t mentioned. Alice has no idea who this woman is or why she’s so important, but comments make clear her name is associated with tragedy and drama. My issue with mystery bait is that it’s usually unnecessary. In this case, I saw no reason Alice couldn’t ask someone for more information about this woman and save us pages of wondering and speculating with her.

However, my nitpicky comments asides, I found this a heart-wrenching, powerfully affecting novel. Moriarty manages to step away from the cliché, dramatic nature of amnesia as a plot device and really made me imagine what it would feel like waking up one day only to be told I am ten years older, now married, and have kids I can’t remember. I highly empathized with Alice’s terror at suddenly being responsible for children she cannot even remember having, not to mention the agony of having her devoted partner switch from besotted to bitter overnight.

And, of course, this story features what I always adore about Moriarty’s work: great characters and interesting relationships with crackling dialogue. It’s her unique, dynamic characters that make all of her work so addictive.

Friday, March 1, 2019

THANKS, BUT THIS ISN'T FOR US


Review of THANKS, BUT THIS ISN’T FOR US by JESSICA PAGE MORRELL

Whenever I read a book, I stick tabs on the pages with quotes I especially like. Normally, this equals 0-5 tabs per book, leaning more often towards 0. However, this book had so many tabs by the time I finished reading it, I may as well have stuck one post it note on the front that said: “almost every page” and saved some paper. By the end, I filled five typed pages full of quotes. These are mostly writing advice, but such valuable, well-articulated writing advice that I want the reminders when I’m writing and re-writing my own stories.

Some of my favorites include “Don’t mistake drama for melodrama,” “Revision is the other half of writing,” “Fictional characters differ from us mere mortals,” and prepositions are the “carbohydrates of writing.” And those are simply quotes I selected for their brevity.

I believe all writing advice can be subdivided into three categories: business, craft, and philosophy. Business explains the publishing industry. Craft focuses on the actual writing, the technical mechanics. And philosophy is closer to self-help or therapy for writers, dissecting the emotional turmoils and inner demons most every writer encounters. From my experience, most (well-known, popular) writing books focus on philosophy. This can be validating in a supportive way, but not necessarily helpful on the level of improving one’s writing. Morrell delivers one of the rarer specimens focused on craft. Then she further impresses with not a little but tons of actionable suggestions and insight. Much of what I read attempting to explain craft is too vague: write well. Morrell acknowledges that it is perhaps easier to pick apart what isn’t working than to provide a formula for what works, but I think she has that the right approach. By pinpointing and then addressing problems in a story, the writer can continue to improve its quality.

Morrell provides so much clear, actionable insight that I almost feel I owe her a consulting fee much greater than the cost of this one book. Every chapter ends with a section on what she calls “deal breakers.” In other words, the most common mistakes she sees in relation to whatever aspect of writing that chapter addressed. As if that weren’t enough, she also includes several immensely helpful lists of revision questions. By answering all these questions for your current story, it’s easy to narrow in on the weak points that could use more work. I also made note of her wimps versus heroes list for assessing your protagonist as well as her advice for book openings.

THANKS is easily the best book on the craft of writing that I have read. All of us readers are capable of discussing, in vague terms, what makes a good book, but Morrell actually breaks stories down into their specific components, shows how each works, and how they fit together. She not only provides invaluable advice for assessing your own work, but she’s not stingy with that advice either. A lot of craft writing books have mostly “filler” in my opinion and boiled down perhaps a page or two of actionable suggestions. Every page of THANKS is exceptionally helpful.

Friday, February 22, 2019

A DANCE WITH DRAGONS


Review of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS by GEORGE R. R. MARTIN
(fifth in the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series)

While I loved this book, I’m afraid I may not have much to say about it, because it feels like more of the same (in a good way). This series skews a little from my usual taste, but I understand the appeal for hardcore fans and am filled with admiration myself for the scope of the work.

I waffle about my feelings on the extreme violence. I agree that it’s period accurate, but it nevertheless feels, for me, at times too gratuitous.

This series features a huge cast and, as a character-centric reader that sometimes frustrates me. I have difficulty remembering everyone or strongly investing in anyone. I tend to prefer a more focused storyline following on one or a few characters; in my opinion, the more character perspectives the less driven the story. More accurately, epic storytelling is a different type of story. By portraying a wide cast of varied people we get more of a sense of humankind overall. Whereas with my preference you form a stronger bond with one or a few fictional people and their individual struggles. That said, for all the names I forget, I’m impressed at how many Martin makes memorable. I know I'm not alone in listing Daenerys as an obvious favorite.

Friday, February 15, 2019

BECOMING A WRITER


Review of BECOMING A WRITER by DOROTHEA BRANDE

This book on writing was published in 1934, but is still remarkably relevant today. It’s slim, but packed with concise and valuable insight, which I find preferable to longer, rambling books.

Most books about writing either focus on: business, craft, or philosophy. BECOMING A WRITER does a little of both the latter two. It addresses the emotional difficulties of writing while also providing some specific exercises. I love when writing books include, well, homework. I find it much more helpful than vague musings on what makes a good book.

Some of my favorite actionable suggestions include walks, self-imposed time-outs, and scheduled writing times. Walks are hardly a new concept for creative professionals, but Brande encourages that while on this walk notice everything. I emphasize that, because it’s easy to read and dismiss without truly considering. Take in the colors. The subtle differences in shade. Assess any man-made structures. Do you know what every part of that structure accomplishes? What each piece is called? Are there people around you? Can you see anything especially interesting about their appearance or body language? As for the time-outs, that’s my word choice. Brande acknowledges that sometimes when we sit down to write, we don’t feel “ready” and it’s easy to procrastinate with others tasks. So instead of allowing oneself to be sidetracked, she suggests that if you aren’t going to write, then go and stand in the corner until you’re ready to write. Odds are it won’t be that long. She also encourages scheduled writing times as a way of training oneself to write on cue rather than becoming too persnickety about the ideal environment for some elusive muse. As she puts it, if you tell yourself you will write every day for ten minutes at 4pm and you find yourself in the middle of a social event at 4pm, promptly get up and leave mid-conversation and perhaps go scrawl for ten minutes on a napkin in the bathroom. While certainly not ideal, difficult experiences like this increase the likelihood that you will plan around your scheduled writing session next time. Treat it like a contract. You said you would write for ten minutes at 4pm. If this is your job, then that is a job expectation. Don’t be an unreliable employee to yourself.

As for the more writing philosophy side of things, I made note of several memorable quotes, not the least of which being: “There is no situation which is trite in itself; there are only dull, unimaginative, or uncommunicative authors.” I cannot agree more.

Don’t write this book off for being old. The content here is relevant for writers today as it was in 1934.  

Friday, February 1, 2019

ABHORSEN


Review of ABHORSEN by GARTH NIX
(third in the ABHORSEN series)

The last book in this series, LIRAEL, felt very much like it cut off in the middle, but that also means that this one, ABHORSEN, jumps right into the action. Whereas LIRAEL started slower, ABHORSEN doesn’t need to waste any time with new set-up and doesn’t relax the tension until we reach the inevitable dramatic conclusion.

Nix sticks out in my mind as an author with a knack for writing content I don’t typically like in a way that I enjoy. Specifically, I’m thinking about action scenes and undead themes. I care most about characters and sometimes find fast-paced novels sacrifice character development for chaotic action scenes. Uninterested in pages of fighting or evasion, I skim ahead for the result. However, when Nix writes an action scene I find myself hanging on every word, invested not only in the outcome but also how we get there. (I think the lesson here is it’s more about balance than sacrificing one for the other. Make me care about the characters first and then I’ll care about their every step.)

As for undead themes, I do not care for vampires, zombies, or ghosts, and find few books that I consider exceptions to that generalization. Perhaps part of why I love Nix’s undead creatures is that they’re not really any of those three things. While it’s fair to call them that (undead creatures), they feel unique, varied, and compelling.

I want to end with a quote from another author about this series, because I agree so heartily. As Philip Pullman put it, SABRIEL is “fantasy that reads like realism.” Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that our heroine in this installment is a librarian.

Friday, January 18, 2019

BLOOD OF TYRANTS


Review of BLOOD OF TYRANTS by NAOMI NOVIK
(eighth in the TEMERAIRE series)

I adore the Temeraire series. Novik has mastered an utterly unique and appropriate authorial voice for her characters and setting and the dragons’ personalities and interactions never cease to amuse me. However, I will confess this installment is probably my least favorite of the series so far.

Our human hero Laurence finds himself stranded in Japan with amnesia. It’s the amnesia element that hurt the storyline so much, in my opinion. Personally, I rarely enjoy amnesia as a plot twist. It feels like any interesting development goes on pause while we the reader must wait for the character to play catch up: remembering everything that we already know…and the character knew, too, pages earlier. Only once the amnesia aspect is resolved does the story start to move forward again. It didn’t help that I happened to be reading three books at once that utilized this amnesia twist.

Of course, the primary tension in BLOOD OF TYRANTS comes from the fact that Laurence is separated from Temeraire and does not remember a thing about his beloved dragon companion. For all that Laurence can recall, he’s still in the navy. While this does indeed create some tension – Will Laurence remember Temeriare? What will happen when they’re reunited? – I found myself unable to invest in this storyline as much as with the other books.

I believe there’s only one book after this left in the series and, even if BLOOD OF TYRANTS wasn’t my favorite installment, I will be very sad when Temeraire and Laurence’s adventures reach their end.  I expect to remember stiff, formal Laurence and his articulate, well-mannered dragon for decades.

Friday, January 11, 2019

VELOCITY


Review of VELOCITY by DEAN KOONTZ

This is a great book, but not really my taste. When I worked in a bookstore, I vastly broadened my horizons in terms of what I read. Before I more or less only read young adult fantasy, with some regular fantasy and mainstream fiction. Then my bookstore co-workers introduced me to mystery, romance, and numerous subsections of nonfiction. I would call VELOCITY horror, not normally my thing but I’ve learned not to let that stop me from trying something different here and there.

Average guy Billy finds a note on his SUV offering him a choice: take the note to the police and the writer will murder an elderly woman, or don’t take the note to the police and the writer will murder a blonde schoolteacher. Billy doesn’t take this first note to the police, convinced it’s a twisted prank. However, when a blonde schoolteacher is murdered Billy finds himself plunged into the very center of a serial killer’s messy game.

The story is too gratuitously violent and psychologically perverse for me, but I also think it’s exactly as one might expect for the genre and exactly what some readers are looking for. It’s certainly fast paced with dozens of extremely short chapters adding to the sense that the reader is speeding through this whirlwind story.

Aside from unexpected exceptions when plot summaries don’t encapsulate the full merit of a book, I think readers are good at sensing what they will enjoy. VELOCITY is well-written and dense with actions and twists. I expect that anyone intrigued by the above premise description will not be disappointed with the book. However, if it sounds too dark or violent for you, it probably is. When you try new things, not every thing is a winner and, though I commend VELOCITY as a well-written book, it also convinced me I won’t be an avid horror reader anytime soon.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Favorite Books Read in 2018


For those who follow my blog throughout the year, the books on this list won’t come as a surprise. I write long reviews, though, so below you can find much shorter descriptions of my favorite books from 2018. All the books I reviewed are linked to the original post.

Note that these are books I reviewed in 2018, not necessarily books published in 2018.

1.     AMERICANAH by CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE

You could call this book a sweeping love story or an immigration saga; both are accurate. Ifemelu emigrated from Nigeria years ago, but a reconnection with her college sweetheart makes her reflect on her difficult immigration journey, and whether she’s where she wants to be now.


Thirteen-year-old Charlotte has no idea what’s in store for her when she finds herself crossing the Atlantic Ocean without her expected companions. Though bred for a life of luxury and etiquette, she instead plunges into one of maritime adventure.

3.     ABARAT: DAYS OF MAGIC, NIGHTS OF WAR by CLIVE BARKER

This second book in the imaginatively illustrated ABARAT series follows Candy on further bizarre adventures in this dreamlike world. Meanwhile, the nefarious Christopher Carrion hunts her, meaning the reader can expect a build towards a dramatic, epic showdown.

4.     SEBASTIAN by ANNE BISHOP

One of my all-time favorite authors delivers another gem with this fantasy series. The incubus Sebastian lives in a world made up of separate, magically linked “landscapes” that change depending on their inhabitants’ thoughts and emotions. When a dark force escapes its imprisonment, the horrific monster threatens this entire world with its unusual and twisted powers.

5.     NO GOOD DEED by KARA CONNOLLY

Though a skilled archer, teenage Ellie might have more than she can handle when she stumbles back into the past: specifically Sherwood Forest, unintentionally playing a Robin Hood role. This novel straddles the line between serious and silly, making this addition to time travel literature a fun and refreshing read.

6.     INKSPELL by CORNELIA FUNKE

This trilogy, wonderfully rooted in book magic, continues with this second installment. Though they conquered the horrific villain that Meggie’s father accidentally brought from a fantasy novel into the real world, Meggie longs to explore the novel’s magical world. Everyone warns her that the world of Inkheart is as terrible as it is beautiful, but Meggie might have to see for herself.

7.     THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL by PHILIPPA GREGORY

Philippa Gregory remains my “measuring stick” for quality historical fiction. THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL follows Mary Boleyn, the sister of Anne Boleyn as well as King Henry’s mistress before he set both Mary and Queen Katherine aside for Anne. Gregory will make you feel every page as both Mary and Anne scramble for their ideal lives in a society disinclined to care what women want.

8.     THE SWEETNESS OF TEARS by NAFISA HAJI

This family epic switches between character perspectives for each chapter to collectively portray a complex and affecting family history. Skillfully written and expertly plotted, this novel impressed me on both micro and macro levels.

9.     CAN YOU KEEP A SECRET? by SOPHIE KINSELLA

This silly, amusing chick lit novel starts with the heroine unintentionally spilling her every secret, big and small, to her new boss: work secrets, family secrets, boyfriend secrets. Once she realizes what she’s done, cue embarrassment and awkward encounters.

10.  IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by ERIK LARSON

This nonfiction history book follows the American ambassador in Germany before World War II: William E. Dodd. An unusual man for both his time and ours, Dodd believed politicians should focus more on affecting positive change and less on monetary rewards for mediocre work. Unfortunately, his perceived eccentric views led many to dismiss his warnings about Hitler.  

11.  WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by DONALD MAASS

Veteran literary agent Donald Maass delivers a unique and helpful writing guide that merges the actual craft of writing with the business of writing what sells. By framing discussions around stakes, characters, and conflicts, Maass addresses what works well in stories and what makes us readers invest. Even with familiar advice, Maass finds his own unique and refreshing phrasing.

12.  THE HUSBAND’S SECRET by LIANE MORIARTY

When a wife finds a sealed envelope addressed to her in her husband’s handwriting, she innocently mentions it to him. He begs her not to read the letter, to dispose of it and forget she ever found it. With her knack for exemplary characterization, Moriarty explores how far we can extend trust, and what happens when it’s broken.

13.  LIRAEL by GARTH NIX

The second book in Nix’s one-of-a-kind ABHORSEN series follows new characters: Lirael, who lives among prophets but never seems to come into her own powers, and Sam, son of Sabriel and Touchstone and the reluctant abhorsen-in-waiting. When a powerful entity starts gaining followers, these two unlikely heroes find themselves taking charge in unexpected ways.

14.  TONGUES OF SERPENTS and CRUCIBLE OF GOLD by NAOMI NOVIK

This unique historical fantasy series, set during the Napoleonic Wars, imagines an additional branch of the military devoted to dragons and their riders. TONGUES OF SERPENTS sees a disgraced Laurence sent to Australia with his dragon Temeraire, where they encounter a dangerous new creature. Then CRUCIBLE OF GOLD introduces the pair to the powerful Incas, who could greatly sway the course of the war depending on whether they align themselves with Napoleon or against him.

15.  TELL US SOMETHING TRUE by DANA REINHARDT

River lives for his incredible girlfriend Penny, so when she dumps him he sincerely believes his life is over. Then he meanders into a support group for teens with addiction where he expresses his Penny withdrawal by substituting “girlfriend” for “marijuana.” Over the course of an expected but nevertheless satisfying internal journey, River recognizes the far greater hurdles that others overcome and that his life is far from over.


This nonfiction collection features dozens of remarkable tales about real women from history who defied social norms and expectations. While not all make for ideal role models, these woman are certainly all memorable.

17.  MAGIC STUDY and FIRE STUDY by MARIA V. SNYDER

The second book in this trilogy finds Yelena reunited with her long-lost family and struggling to master her magic. Then she becomes the best hope for stopping a predatory kidnapper, but she’s far from ready. Her adventures conclude with the third and final book FIRE STUDY.

18.  PERFUME by PATRICK SUSKIND

In this creepy, gorgeously-written magical realism tale, Jean-Baptiste has an almost supernatural affinity for smell. Not only can he separate out individual scents and track them, but he lives for the eventual goal of discovering a method of bottling and preserving the perfect smell.  

19.  THE SERPENT KING by JEFF ZENTNER

If I had to pick only one favorite book of the year, this would be it. This young adult novel follows the friendship of three unique misfits in a small town. Believe me, the description does not do justice to this story’s stellar quality. Read it.