Favorite Books I Read in 2018

I’m not one of those people who always reads the most current books. I put books that look interesting on my Want to Read list on Goodreads and maybe I’ll get to them in the next few years. I always have such a backlog that I try to start with the oldest ones so they’re not on the list forever. I know, I’m a freak. I think books have feelings.

Anyway, so many of these books came out before 2018, but I read them in 2018 so who cares. These are my favorites from my last year of reading, and because I read 42 this year I’m only including my five stars.


The Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins
I don’t think I need to provide a summary here. I reread these after have a hankering for the movie one night and watching all four movies in one weekend. A good question I’ve gotten in book clubs and at readings is, if you could have written one other book, what would it be? And this is my answer. NOT just because it was made into a movie, (although how cool would that be?), and NOT just because it was a supermega phenomenon that made Suzanne Collins a shitton of money (although, obviously, also cool). It’s because the concept is SO genius and the execution of that concept completely brilliant. It’s edgy, it’s smart, it’s suspenseful, it’s sexy, it’s scary, and it has a lot to say about the nature of people and power and war and love and family and…just so many things!


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The Two-Family House, by Lynda Cohen Loigman
Brooklyn, 1947: in the midst of a blizzard, in a two-family brownstone, two babies are born minutes apart to two women. They are sisters by marriage with an impenetrable bond forged before and during that dramatic night; but as the years progress, small cracks start to appear and their once deep friendship begins to unravel. No one knows why, and no one can stop it. One misguided choice; one moment of tragedy. Heartbreak wars with happiness and almost but not quite wins.

I listened to this on audiobook and it was one of those ones that made me want to keep driving or sit in the car in my driveway an extra minute to keep listening. Here’s the blurb: Loigman alternates perspectives in this book, which I love, and each voice is so unique and compelling. The intertwining of the main event and its effect on all the book’s relationships is so beautiful and heartbreaking at times and funny in others. The benefit of the audiobook is the Brooklyn accents to accompany those voices, so I highly recommend it.


Hate You Give

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed. Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr. But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

This not only put a face and a story to the Black Lives Matter movement, it was also a universally relatable portrayal of a young girl struggling between fitting in and being true to herself and a beautiful story of a modern American family who alternate between surviving and thriving in a tough neighborhood.  Starr shows us her life through every possible lens. If you don’t walk away from this book with a new perspective, I don’t know what to tell you.


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Yes Please, by Amy Poehler
In Amy Poehler’s highly anticipated first book, Yes Please, she offers up a big juicy stew of personal stories, funny bits on sex and love and friendship and parenthood and real life advice (some useful, some not so much), like when to be funny and when to be serious. Powered by Amy’s charming and hilarious, biting yet wise voice, Yes Please is a book full of words to live by.

This is another one that I encourage you to listen to. It’s not a stand-up routine but is certainly as funny as you would expect!


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The Perfect Mother, by Aimee Molloy
A psychological thriller about a group of new mothers whose lives become unexpectedly connected when one of their newborns goes missing. As the police bungle the investigation and the media begin to scrutinize the mothers in the days that follow, damaging secrets are exposed, marriages are tested, and friendships are formed and fractured.

Totally addicting – I read it in one day! Not only was the story smartly plotted, with an ending I couldn’t guess, but I also enjoyed the various refreshingly honest perspectives on new motherhood.


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Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult

Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth, who is African American, is removed from an assigned patient when the baby’s white supremacist parents specify that they don’t want her touching their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. She hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime.

The story is told through Ruth’s perspective, as well as the white supremacist father and the (also white) public defender who takes her case but refuses to mention race in the courtroom. This was another one I couldn’t put down, another book that should be required reading.  Ruth, who always believed that if she worked hard her race didn’t have to define her, finally allows herself to be angry for the way she has been treated all her life. I also love how Picoult dove into the white supremacist psyche without trying to pull us over to his side, as well as the public defender’s journey to understand her own white privilege.


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Heartburn, by Nora Ephron
Seven months into her pregnancy, Rachel Samstat discovers that her husband, Mark, is in love with another woman. The fact that the other woman has “a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb and you should see her legs” is no consolation. Food sometimes is, though, since Rachel writes cookbooks for a living. And in between trying to win Mark back and loudly wishing him dead, Ephron’s irrepressible heroine offers some of her favorite recipes.

Another one to listen to on audiobook – it’s narrated by Meryl Streep and absolutely hilarious!


Homegoing

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America, from the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day.

This was such a unique form of storytelling – a new perspective every chapter, each one so different and yet dealing with the root issue of systemic racism. Each descendant’s story provides a snapshot of their generation’s history. So smart, so compelling!


Lilac Girls

Lilac Girls, by Martha Kelly Hall
A WWII novel told through the voice of New York socialite Caroline Ferriday, who works at the French consulate and is in love with a married musician;  Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager thrown into a concentration camp for her role as courier for the underground resistance movement; and  ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, who responds to an ad for a government medical position only to find out it’s in a concentration camp.

I’ve read a fair share of stories from concentration camp survivors (both fictional and otherwise), but they’ve been mostly male. Reading it from the female perspective made it hit closer to home, and like many tales of this nature left me wondering if I had the kind of strength (and luck) necessary to survive such horrors. Despite the weight of the subject, Hall Kelly has a simple writing style that is easy to read and keeps you flying through the pages. With themes of resilience, forgiveness, and the enduring power of love through tragedy, you will be hard pressed not to find something that tugs at your heart strings.


I Liked My Life

I Liked My Life, by Abby Fabiaschi
Maddy is a devoted stay-at-home wife and mother, host of excellent parties, giver of thoughtful gifts, and bestower of a searingly perceptive piece of advice or two. She is the cornerstone of her family, a true matriarch…until she commits suicide, leaving her husband Brady and teenage daughter Eve heartbroken and reeling, wondering what happened. How could the exuberant, exacting woman they loved disappear so abruptly, seemingly without reason, from their lives? How they can possibly continue without her? As they sift through details of her last days, trying to understand the woman they thought they knew, Brady and Eve are forced to come to terms with unsettling truths.

Maddy, however, isn’t ready to leave her family forever. Watching from beyond, she tries to find the perfect replacement for herself. Along comes Rory: pretty, caring, and spontaneous, with just the right bit of edge…but who also harbors a tragedy of her own. Will the mystery of Maddy ever come to rest? And can her family make peace with their history and begin to heal?

Another audiobook that kept me sitting in the car! The actors read their parts perfectly, the story so heart wrenching yet hopeful, the writing simple yet sophisticated, and the characters layered but relatable. I highly recommend this if you’re looking for a book to make that commute seem shorter! I liked it so much I ordered the book book.


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The Passenger, by Lisa Lutz
Forty-eight hours after leaving her husband’s body at the base of the stairs, Tanya Dubois cashes in her credit cards, dyes her hair brown, demands a new name from a shadowy voice over the phone, and flees town. It’s not the first time.

She meets Blue, a female bartender who recognizes the hunted look in a fugitive’s eyes and offers her a place to stay. With dwindling choices, Tanya-now-Amelia accepts. An uneasy―and dangerous―alliance is born.

It’s almost impossible to live off the grid today, but Amelia-now-Debra and Blue have the courage, the ingenuity, and the desperation, to try. Hopscotching from city to city, Debra especially is chased by a very dark secret…can she outrun her past?

Another one I read in only a couple sittings. Super absorbing and addictive. I just HAD to find out what set the main character on the run in the first place. PS – you’ll never guess.


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Goodnight, Beautiful Women, by Anna Noyes

Moving along the Maine Coast and beyond, the interconnected stories in Goodnight, Beautiful Women bring us into the sultry, mysterious inner lives of New England women and girls as they navigate the dangers and struggles of their outer worlds. A woman watches her husband throw one by one their earthly possessions into the local quarry, before vanishing himself; two girls from very different social classes find themselves deep in the throes of a punishing affair; a motherless teenager is sexually awakened in the aftermath of a local trauma; and a woman’s guilt from a childhood lie about her intellectually disabled cousin reverberates into her married years.

I don’t tend to gravitate to short stories, (although Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories are absolutely delicious), I loved these so much! They were dark, smart, deep and enlightening, with gorgeous gorgeous writing.


So that’s it, the best books I’ve read this year. Right now I’m rereading my absolute favorite book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and listening to Michelle Obama’s Becoming on audiobook. On deck for early 2019 I’m looking forward to reading Gregory David Robert’s The Mountain Shadow, his follow-up to Shantaram, also one of my favorites), The Perfect Stranger, Megan Miranda’s follow-up to All the Missing Girls, (one of my favorites from 2017). I’m also salivating for Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers and Elin Hilderbrand’s The Perfect Couple (what’s up with titles with Perfect in the title lately?) to come out on paperback, and I want to check out more from Jodi Picoult. And my TBR list is still over 140 books long!

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Letting Go (a little) of the Dream, plus a book review of Yes, Please by Amy Poehler

Boy did this book pull me out of a funk as I recovered from surgery. Do yourself a favor: listen to the audiobook. One of the few times when I think reading a book would be kind of a waste is in the case of memoirs read by comedians. I just put Amy Schumer’s, both of Mindy Kaling’s, and Tina Fey’s even though I’ve already read hers. It’s like listening to a combination of a stand-up and a master class, laughing and learning in (in my case) 30-minute increments for days on end. I looked forward to the drive to and from work and often wished the commute was longer just so I could listen to more, and was so sad when it was over.

On top of a lot of laughs and a dash of inside-information about a few celebrites (SNL hosts and colleagues as well as Parks and Recreation castmates), Poehler has some sage career advice that applies not just to aspiring actors and creative types but ambitious people in general. The thing that has stayed with me most is what she said about “treating your career like a bad boyfriend.”

“Your career won’t take care of you. It won’t call you back or introduce you to its parents.Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around. It will forget you birthday and wreck your car. Your career will blow you off if you call it too much. It’s never going to leave its wife.Your career is fucking other people and everyone knows but you. Your career will never marry you. (…) If your career is a bad boyfriend, it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go sleep with somebody else.”

Her point in all this is to have the dream, but don’t hold on so tight to it that the energy you put out is desperate. Because we all know, ain’t nothing sexy about desperation. It’s something I need to work on. For so long all I’ve wanted is to be able to write full-time, to be a book-a-year author who supports herself through writing. So after Friends and Other Liars was not a huge success, and while my second book is out on submission seemingly for the rest of my life, I got pretty depressed. I tried to be positive, and did like a million visualizations a day to try to manifest this, but I’ve been holding on to it so tight that I’m probably scaring it away. Poehler encourages her readers to just “do the thing” and not the “worrying about the thing, and criticizing the thing,” to enable you to be in the moment. Because, and this quote has stayed with me, “You have to be where you are to get where you want to go.” The present is not just something to get through, it’s absolutely necessary for me to be here, to “bake in the oven,” before I’m ready to be eaten. I turned that into a weird metaphor, but you get what I’m saying.

There were many more impactful moments in this book. I absolutely loved it and will definitely re-listen when I need a reminder to just chill the fuck out and live the life I have now.

Five stars!

Book Review: The Perfect Mother, Aimee Malloy

This book blew my socks off! I was out this week recovering from surgery and this was just what I needed – I read it in two days! Here the blurb:

They call themselves the May Mothers—a group of new moms whose babies were born in the same month. Twice a week, they get together in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for some much-needed adult time.

When the women go out for drinks at the hip neighborhood bar,they are looking for a fun break from their daily routine. But on this hot Fourth of July night, something goes terrifyingly wrong: one of the babies is taken from his crib. Winnie, a single mom, was reluctant to leave six-week-old Midas with a babysitter, but her fellow May Mothers insisted everything would be fine. Now he is missing. What follows is a heart-pounding race to find Midas, during which secrets are exposed, marriages are tested, and friendships are destroyed.

This is totally the next Gone Girl, except with a more satisfying ending. It’s the type of book I’m sure will be a star-studded movie (I already have plenty of ideas for who should play the characters 😊). I don’t want to give anything away, I will just say that you will never see the ending coming. But of course, half the fun is trying to figure it out.

Under the brilliantly written mystery, I found the underlying theme of the book, about new motherhood and the way we judge each other as women and mothers, to be perpetually relevant and always in need of discussion. The May Mothers are generally supportive of each other, but there is definitely still shade thrown when it comes to hot buttons about everything from breastfeeding to co-sleeping to having a glass of freakin’ wine to working vs. staying home.

Then there’s the judgement the rest of the world scrambles to cast on Winnie and the rest of the group for daring to leave their babies at home for an evening to blow off a little steam. Serves her right to have her baby stolen, right? People are such dicks.

But no one is harder on the mothers than themselves – from Collette, who’s afraid to tell her husband and the world that she wants to stay home with the baby; to Francie, who is so financially constrained and whose husband is barely helping with their colicky baby; to Nell, who’s forced to return to work before she’s ready and then held to an impossible standard. It begs the question I’m always asking: why do women have to slash each other – and themselves – down? Why can’t we just be comfortable with our own choices and not put others down for theirs? Have a kid or don’t, work or stay at home, breastfeed or formula, who the f@&$ cares? Just love your kid (or your life sans kids), and stop being an asshole to everyone else!

End rant.

Anyway, my point is this book is the bomb. The characters are vivid, the plot engrossing, and the underlying message, that NO ONE is “The Perfect Mother,” make this a five star read.

Book Review: The Engagements, by J. Courtney Sullivan

The bestselling author of Maine returns with an exhilarating novel about Frances Gerety, the real pioneering ad woman who coined the famous slogan “A Diamond is Forever,” and four unique marriages that will test how true—or not—those words might be.

Evelyn has been married to her husband for forty years, but their son’s messy divorce has put them at rare odds; James, a beleaguered paramedic, has spent most of his marriage haunted by his wife’s family’s expectations; Delphine has thrown caution to the wind and left a peaceful French life for an exciting but rocky romance in America; and Kate, partnered with Dan for a decade, has seen every kind of wedding and has vowed never, ever, to have one of her own. As the stories connect to each other and to Frances’s legacy in surprising ways, The Engagements explores the complicated ins and outs of relationships, then, now, and forever.

I listened to this on audiobook.

This book was much more substantive than the cover implies. I loved how every character had a different relationship to marriage – from traditional to firmly anti to everything in between. It was so cool how all the characters tied together through the ring – but I did miss when Frances had it and how it passed to Evelyn and Gerald – can anyone help me with that? It’s driving me crazy.

My favorite character/storyline was most definitely Frances, the ad woman who designed such a successful campaign for diamonds that it changed the tradition of engagements forever. It was fascinating to hear the history and the evolution. And I loved that Frances was so fiercely independent. She wasn’t some spinster who couldn’t find a man to make babies with. She simply wasn’t interested. Like my own Great Aunt Frances, she preferred being alone and was perfectly content with her decisions. I particularly enjoyed the conversations she had with her ad woman friend – reciting the list of stupid questions she was asked as the token woman of the office. If you liked Peggy Olsen on Mad Men (personally one of my heroes), you would like Frances’s story. Oh, did I mention she’s based on a real person?

I liked Evelyn’s story too, as well as James’ and his family. Their Boston accents alone were worth the audiobook vs print version. And while I practically LOATHED Delphine (I had a whole paragraph sounding off about her, but decided to edit) and found Kate correct but tiresome, I really liked and respected the author’s use of each character to represent a different aspect of feminism through the ages.

Four stars from me, and I’ll definitely be checking out more of J. Courtney Sullivan’s work!

Book Review: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Wow. This book was…incredible. Here’s the blurb:

Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.

I thought it was really smart and really ballsy the way Picoult chose to write through the perspective of the black nurse, the white supremacist, and the white attorney defending the nurse. Ruth was the perfect example of why “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” doesn’t shield you from racism. Reading Turk’s perspective was difficult; it’s hard to imagine this enormous underground network who actually feels that anyone but white, straight men are inferior, that in fact they should be wiped off the face of the earth. This is the blatant racism, even if the swastika tattoo is hidden under a hat, that we think of when we say we aren’t racist.

I think I got the most out of Kennedy’s perspective. She, like me, like most of us, are not racist in the way that Turk is. She’s even a public defender who works for mostly African American clients, and calls her southern, conservative mother out on her racist lights. But though her work with Ruth, she’s forced to examine her own biases and privileges. She realizes how she and all white people have benefited from systemic racism, and how the refusal to acknowledge these advantages only perpetuates this racist system.

This is certainly not a comfortable read, which is why I think it’s so important to. We are taught not to talk about race, we like to think racism doesn’t exist, and certainly not within ourselves. But the simple fact is, ignoring racism doesn’t make it go away, and we all have to be aware of and work on our own biases is anything is EVER going to get better.

This is one of only a few books I wish I had written. I’m sure many people take issue with it – from people of color upset that Picoult co-opted the POC experience to well-intentioned white people who aren’t willing to examine their privilege. I can understand those points. But I simply can’t help myself – it’s a hell of a book and an engrossing read. The only thing I did not like was the “twist” at the end. It wasn’t that I hated it, I just felt like it wasn’t necessary to the story, and it gave a way too oversimplified reason for one of the character’s racism.

Five stars.

Book Review: True Colors, by Kristin Hannah

True Colors was one of those booked I carried around everywhere so I could sneak in a chapter whenever I had a spare minute, and I couldn’t wait to get home and sit in my rocking chair on the porch with it.

Vivi Ann started out a little frustrating, probably because of the way we saw her through Winona’s eyes. The way she used Luke to restore her reputation was pretty despicable. But her struggle was very compelling and her relationship with hope and belief relatable. It’s always interesting to read about how people deal with various kinds of grief. It was hard to see her go down such a heartbreaking path, particularly when it was to her son’s detriment.

It was also interesting to see Winona’s evolution. I was rooting for her in the beginning – who doesn’t identify with being jealous of someone who always gets what they want, particularly when you loathe yourself?  And how could she not have low self-esteem with a father who was always so cold to her? It drove me crazy that she wouldn’t tell Vivi that she was in love with Luke. I don’t think that would have landed her Luke, but I think it would have stopped the growing hatred toward her sister. Although this isn’t really spelled out, I think it wasn’t just her jealousy of Vivi but also a prejudice against Dallas because of the color of his skin. Just saying! I love how the roles reversed at the end, with Winona becoming the driving force of hope when Vivi needed it.

The plotting was practically flawless. Hannah did an amazing job of holding the tension. I spent much of the time trying to decide whether he was a good guy or a bad one. His rough edges were understandable considering all that he had to endure  – a tragic childhood, constant racism, a clear vibe from Vivi’s family that he was unwelcome. But I also felt like he was a little possessive, and we didn’t get to see a lot of good qualities beyond that he was sexy. That made it all the more interesting to read! I had no idea where the book was going, and couldn’t figure out how it was going to end until about 50 pages from the end. The ending itself was also lovely, very satisfying.

I do wish we had heard from Aurora’s perspective, but I understood as the story went on that it was really the tale of two sisters (Winona and Vivi Ann) navigating envy, disappointment, betrayal, distrust, and abandonment.

Book Review: Something Borrowed, Emily Giffin

Do you think it’s possible to like a book more because you’ve seen the movie first? I know movies are never as good as the books on which they’re based, but I find if I watch the movie FIRST then I like both. In the case of Something Borrowed, by Emily Giffin, I think having Kate Hudson and Ginnifer Goodwin in my head made the story come more alive. I saw the movie years ago and finally got around to reading it. I was in the mood for something a little lighter and more consuming than the literary fiction I’ve been reading, and this really fit the bill.
IMG_0047Summary:

Rachel White is the consummate good girl. A hardworking attorney at a large Manhattan law firm and a diligent maid-of-honor to her charmed best friend Darcy, Rachel has always done the right thing and played by all the rules. Since grade school, she has watched Darcy shine, quietly accepting the sidekick role in their lopsided friendship. But that suddenly changes the night of her thirtieth birthday when Rachel finally confesses her feelings to Darcy’s fiancé, Dex—and is both horrified and thrilled to discover that he feels the same about her. As the September wedding date nears, events spiral out of control, and Rachel knows she must make a choice between her heart and conscience. In so doing, she discovers that the lines between right and wrong can be blurry, endings aren’t always neat, and sometimes you have to risk everything to be true to yourself.

Review:
Dudes, I read this in one day! Started with a few hours on my deck, then later as my hubs watched the Alabama game (Roll Tide!) and then into the wee hours of the night. The last time I read a whole book in a day was, like, Animal Farm? Because it was like 100 pages? Griffin’s writing style and formatting (hello short chapters. I must get better at writing short chapters), kept me saying “one more chapter, okay just one more chapter,” until I finally just gave in and stayed up until 1:30 in the morning to finish.
It’s hard to pinpoint what I loved about it. Of course I rooted for Rachel, and identified with her feelings of inadequacy that come from having “that friend” who seems to have a charmed life and the world by the balls. But Darcy was also just so fun to “watch,” especially as I was imagining Kate Hudson the whole time.
I did feel like it was a little long in the middle (if I had to read “we made love” one more time it would put me off sex indefinitely), but again I did read it in like 8 hours. Having more of a Darcy-like personality myself (always being straightforward about what I want, I mean, not the whole competitive, lying, conceited part), I got so frustrated with Rachel for letting things drag on. I wish I had seen just a teeny bit more of Darcy’s good side just to make the dilemma a bit more high stakes.
Despite that, the pacing was really good, the characters vivid, and the story realistic enough while still being the perfect escape. Four and a half stars. 

Book Review: Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas

Goodreads Summary (sorry, I’m getting lazy):

In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.
img_9938Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling homeopath, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.

My Review:

So the reason I haven’t read or watched The Handmaid’s Tale is exactly the reason I was hesitant to read this book – it’s my (and most women’s) worst fears realized, in a world where our worst fears seem to be knocking at our door. But while sticking my head in the sand might prevent me from hearing the knock, it doesn’t stop them from kicking down the door. So I gave it a shot. Let me tell you, this should be required reading in our schools, and I gotta tell ya it wouldn’t hurt if the men in charge of governing this country picked up a copy. Zumas is a highly talented literary author, one who made me root for this unique ensemble of characters through thick and thin. Not that I needed any more convincing, but this book reaffirmed for me what I’ve always believed: women who want to be mothers should have every opportunity to be one, and women who don’t should not have to be.

I listened to it on audiobook, and as such had a little trouble with Gin’s storyline. I liked her very much, but the writing through her perspective was very poetic/haiku-ish and not really my style. I bet I would have liked Gin’s chapters more in written word, and I bet a lot of readers out there would flip for that writing style. Zumas did a great job of keeping the stakes and the tension high, so much so that in the last hour or so of listening I was gripping my steering wheel just dying to know how everything turned out for each of the characters. I love also that, while all the characters were quite troubled, we were left with a sense of hope for each of them.

 

Book Review: The Late Bloomer’s Club, by Louise Miller

I was awoken at 3am this morning by my dog barking (from under the covers, it would have been funny if it wasn’t so terrifying), and couldn’t get back to sleep. That’s okay though, because it gave me a chance to finish this charming second novel by Louise Miller!

I JUST read The City Baker’s Guide last month, and was so excited when I finished and found out her new one was coming out that day – I ordered it immediately.

Readers get to revisit the fictional town of Guthrie, which is like the Vermont version of Star’s Hollow. This time through the lens of Nora Huckleberry, owner of the Miss Guthrie diner, after inheriting a house and an enormous, coveted piece of property from her neighbor – Peggy the cake lady. But the property comes with strings – there are several leans against it from the neighbor’s debts, and between Nora’s struggling diner, a mysterious woman whose nursing home expenses the neighbor had always covered, and her sister, Kit, who inherited half the property and wants to cash in to fund her independent film project, Nora may have to put the town at risk by selling the property to a dreaded box store. Oh, and did I mention the corporate liaison for said store is quite handsome, and that he’s trying to help Nora capture Peggy’s dog, who went feral when his owner died?

It sounds like a lot going on, but it was a very pleasant, easy read. It might not keep you up all night turning the pages, but it definitely keeps your interest as you invest in this lovely cast of characters. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted for Nora, mainly because her journey in the book was to figure out what she wanted for herself. I enjoyed the witty batter at the diner and between Nora and Max, Kit’s boyfriend, and I loved the authentic feel of the town meeting scenes. And anyone with a sister can identify with the unique dynamics of two people who see the world through different lenses.

While I am more partial to City Baker’s, I found this book no less charming. We get to check in with some of our favorite Guthrie residents (like our friends over at the Sugar Maple Inn), and relax knowing that everything will end happily and tied up in a neat little bow. It has less actual baking than City Baker’s. And with how poetically Miller describes the baking process – airy, forgot to mention here that Nora and Max temporarily took over Peggy’s cake business – you can be sure I will be trying out that burnt sugar cake recipe!

How NOT to Blow It When Pitching an Agent

A few weeks ago I attended my third Writers Meet Agents conference hosted by the League of Vermont Writers. If you live anywhere close to Vermont and are looking for an agent, you need to attend this conference. LVW does a fantastic job of getting top agents from around the country who represent many different genres. They sit on panels, some of them give individual talks, and you can sign up for 10-minute pitch sessions. This is terrifying but such an important experience if you are going the agent route. Even if you’re planning to self-publish, it doesn’t hurt to practice your elevator pitch for the endless hours you are going to spent trying to market your book.

This time was a unique experience for me, because with my first book recently published and my agent signed in 2016, it was the first time I wasn’t there to pitch. At my first meeting back in…2010? (12? Who can remember? ), I pitched my first book, THE ROAD UNRAVELED. The agent and I didn’t connect, but even though she said “I mean you can send it to me, if you want,” I somehow computed this into a win, sent her my submission, and never heard from her again. The second time I was pitching FRIENDS AND OTHER LIARS, (at the time called Less to Carry), having shelved The Road Unraveled due to complete failure to obtain representation. Both the agents I pitched thought it was a great concept and asked me to submit. One of them I really didn’t connect with and later did not find very good information about online. The other one I submitted to and was ultimately rejected. So, even though many many many writers with agents have gotten them through in-person pitching, that was not to be my path.

So needless to say, I felt about a billion times more relaxed this time around knowing that I didn’t need to market myself and my book all in about three minutes whilst trying not to sweat through my shirt. But I also felt a little like an intruder. I kept the fact that I’ve published a book quiet until one attendee blatantly asked me why I wasn’t pitching. I kept it under wraps before that because I didn’t want to come across as arrogant, (although, the table told me, I should have been shouting it from the rooftops, I know they all would have wanted to set me on fire had I actually done that. I know because I would have wanted to if I were them).

So I skipped the first few sessions on how to get an agent, but I still knew that just being in a room full of writers is a valuable experience. It’s a little mecca of creativity that keeps me inspired, that reminds me that there is a huge, vibrant community of unique people out there who share my dream. Within 10 minutes of finding my seat (after 10 vulnerable minutes of “Is anybody sitting there?”), I found two women who wanted to form a writing group, and we have a “date” later this month to meet and figure out how to critique each other’s work. If these women become valuable crit partners, the conference just paid for itself. And that’s before the cool workshops I attended that helped me realize a few things I need to tweak in my WIP.

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Agenda for the LVW Writers Meet Agents conference. I attended from 11:45am on and got a lot out of the workshops!

Throughout the day, the big questions everyone was asking each other were 1) Are you pitching/Did you pitch? and 2) Are you nervous/How did it go? Some of the answers to this second question made me cringe, but I didn’t want to crush anyone’s spirits or come across as a know-it-all just because I’ve published a book. So I thought I would write this post for those of you looking to pitch an agent in hopes it can be helpful before the big day.

These are some examples of snippets I overheard and some comments that may help you if you are preparing to pitch:

“They told me I needed to add 10-20,000 words and then they might be interested. But I told them I was an English teacher so my writing is very tight, so I think I’ll send it along as is and they’ll remember that I know what I’m doing.”

So many things wrong with this. First of all, it’s totally cool to include a SHORT bio in your pitch if you have writing cred (an M.F.A., something else that’s been published, experience as a journalist, etc.). Being an English teacher is kinda relevant, but it’s not a dealmaker, especially not if this is your first book and you’ve never been published before. No agent is going to be like “Novels are generally 80-100,000 words, and this woman’s is 60, but hey she’s an English teacher so what do I know?” You might know writing but they know the business. And that’s the partnership you want – you focus on the writing, they focus on the business.

Second, this person used the word “them,” which tells me the person pitched more than one agent and got the same feedback. Now, I’m not saying that every piece of feedback you receive you need to act on. You have to make the right choices for your work, (please please please based on your instincts and not your ego), because it’s not worth getting into the publishing game if you’re not proud of the work you’re putting out there. BUT, if you are getting many people who are experts in their field telling you the same thing…they’re probably right.

Third, no qualification in the world will overcome the defensive and superior attitude this person displayed. Remember that agents are looking for more than your writing; they’re looking at you as a whole package. If you have great writing and qualifications but your attitude is entitled and all around sucky in your first meeting, then how difficult will it be for them to suggest changes to your book that will help it and you be more successful?

No matter what, listen, be humble, and say thank you to any agent who bothers to give you feedback. If you have been querying at all, you know that most agents cannot take the time and respond only with a “not for me” form letter.

“I told them how much my friends liked it.”

Oh geez, just don’t say this. Like, just don’t bother. Even if your friends are total unsupportive bitches and still liked the book, agents do. not. care. if your friends or your mom or your sister liked your book. Even if you know for sure that your readers are being honest with you, even if one of them is a local news reporter or another aspiring author or an English teacher. These peeps are great for reading your book, and may have even provided great feedback, but they are not agents, they are likely not experts in the industry, and they don’t read hundreds of manuscripts a week. All that your friends liking it tells them is that you do, indeed, have friends that like you enough to devote hours to reading your novel.

“I wasn’t quite finished summarizing the plot when they called time, so I didn’t get any feedback, but I think she liked it.”

You should practice your pitch and time yourself many times before you get to the big day. Don’t worry so much about memorizing word for word, but get some bullet points down on paper and time yourself as you talk. Trim, trim, trim. The summary of what your book is about (NOT the entire plot), should only be like 3 minutes. The rest of the time should be a regular ‘ole conversation where they ask you targeted questions and you answer and maybe ask them a question or two that’s been burning on your mind and shows that you are doing your research on the industry (for example: “I’ve always thought of this book as a potential series, do you see that fitting into my genre?” NOT “Will you be my agent?”). You want to leave time for this, because this is where you will (maybe) make an actual connection with your potential agent. And this is where they might give you valuable feedback you can take back to your work and/or your pursuit of representation. And you will smile and stay open and say thank you, RIGHT?

“They told me my book was unpublishable because all my research came from Wikipedia.”

Oh. Just…no. I don’t know the full context of this, but I know for an agent to have said that the book must have been heavily based on the research, and that research was probably wrong. Seriously, my heart broke for the person who said this. Anyone who has written a novel-length work (around 100,000 words) KNOWS how much time goes into a book. To be told it’s unpublishable, whether the person should have put more of that time into research or not, is devastating.

“I went bold and told them I wanted to be the next J.K. Rowling.”

If the agent on the receiving end of this “boldness” didn’t roll their eyes, they deserve a medal. Because first of all, DUH, everyone wants to be the next J.K. Rowling, regardless of the genre they write in. And while you may think it’s cute to say this, and may even demonstrate your level of ambition, agents are not going to think either of those things. All this tells them is that your expectations are unrealistic, that you haven’t done the research on your market, that you might even be a diva! Agents know you want to be as successful as possible, otherwise you wouldn’t be there.

“I didn’t really prepare anything, I just sat down and started asking her what and who she represented.”

Facepalm. This person didn’t just freeze, they just didn’t even bother to prepare. This makes me, a Type A overpreparer, want to scream. But let me calm down to explain: this is your shot to impress someone who could sell your book. To a publisher. For money. Don’t phone it in! Be prepared! Do some research on the agent, find out what they like and if your book is up his/her alley; prepare a few sentences about what your book is about, practice some answers to common questions agents ask, come up with one or two questions you can ask them (NOT what genres do they represent). It’s a pretty nerve-wracking thing you can’t ever be 100% prepared for, but in this day in age there is no excuse for not going in there with your shit together.

 

This post is getting very long, so I won’t go further, but Here’s a great article about all the elements of a pitch, questions you might be asked, etc. Read it. And read many many many other articles a few weeks in advance. Practice your pitch in the mirror, with friends, with your dog, whatever. And when it starts to feel more natural, stop. Practice once or twice the morning of the conference and then relax, trust that you’ve got it down, and breathe.

Good luck!