Five murder-less mysteries to read now

2015-09-14-1442202994-5925631-mildredpierce.jpgNo murder, not even a crime; yet the 1941 novel Mildred Pierce is filled with suspense and tension throughout. I had no problem getting Joan Crawford (from the 1945 film Mildred Pierce) out of my head as I read because the real Mildred Pierce (well, the fictional Mildred, but the one in the novel) is younger and more complex than Crawford’s onscreen character — and the story is rawer. Not even Kate Winslet’s portrayal in the 2011 HBO mini series detracted from the vividness my readerly imagination brought to James Cain’s book.

“Mildred Pierce is the unicorn of crime fiction, a noir novel with no murder and very little crime,” mystery novelist Laura Lippman wrote in a Slate piece (more…)

My favorite books published in 2015 (#libfaves15)

List Fatigue can set in as early as November 30 with all the “best”  books, movies, music lists that start rolling in. At first I compulsively check out all the book lists, and then I check out after about List 11 — because many of the lists repeat the same books.

Commonality is fantastic, and gives us a memorable snapshot of the year. The Best Books lists are also great guides for shopping for books for Christmas gifts. But the real Top 10 lists I love? The ones from librarians. Instead of doing a “best of …” type list, many of us tweeted our favorites of the year. (Big distinction between “favorite” and “best.”) Using the hashtag #libfaves15, librarians counted down their top 10. No restrictions (other than asking that people choose books published in 2015). The result? Some of the top books you’ve seen on other lists, but also a lot of shout outs for science fiction, fantasy, mystery, historical romance and contemporary romance. Books that we love — and that we can’t wait to share with readers. (more…)

Five ways to climb out of a reading slump

What if I told you that being a librarian had ruined me as a reader? Well, it would be a lie. Mostly.

About four times a year, I suffer a bit of a reading crisis. You could call it a reading slump if you’d like, but given that my day job involves connecting people with books, I consider it a full-blown bookish crisis. I feel an obligation to be up on what’s new; plus, shiny new books! If I’m preparing for a community book talk program, I’ll spend weeks and weeks of late-night reading specifically for what that audience might like. It starts to feel like an assignment.

Luckily, this happens only occasionally. Seasonally, in fact. And, luckily, I’ve found a few ways to climb out of the plotless, character-void abyss of a reading slump that comes after required reading. Here are five ways I’ve found to connect with books again, along with my personal book prescriptions.

2015-09-21-1442808647-13262-amyfallsdown.jpegChoose a different format. I’m not just talking e-book versus print here. I most often read new releases (hardcover, checked out from the library) or soon-to-be-released (which means digital advance copies on an ereader). My favorite format, however, is trade paperback. The size is great for bus commuting and couch reclining, the weight feels good in my hands, and I plain and simple just like this type of book best.

  • Rx: Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett (2013). A novelist hits her head right before a reporter interviews her, and whatever she said (she can’t quite recall) has made her a literary darling in great demand for her wisdom on writing and publishing.
  • Prescription notes: I had checked this out twice in hardcover, but returned it both times unread. I was attracted to the redesigned cover (a basset hound!) and a blurb from super librarian Nancy Pearl.

2015-09-21-1442809231-1206812-mebeforeyou.jpegShop differently. I work in a building with close to a million books (Yes, I know! Bliss.) Yet I do most of my browsing online from reviews and Twitter. I’ve lost the “serendipity in the stacks” that lead to some of the best discoveries. Sometimes I just need to get out of my regular book selection space — computer screen and my workplace — and visit a book store or another library.

  • Rx: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (2012). A rom com with an unlikely relationship between a quadriplegic and the young woman hired to help him.
  • Prescription notes: That description didn’t exactly pull me in, which is why I hadn’t placed it on hold at my own library. It also was one of those books that I didn’t need to read, because it was so widely shared and read. Then one day, three years after it was published, I came across the book — a nice, clean trade paperback version of the book — on display at a different library branch. Sold.

2015-09-21-1442809077-7921702-weliveinwater.jpegRead short stories or essays by a favorite author. I was going to say “pick up a collection of short stories.” But what I’ve found is that to come out of this particular slump, I need assurance that an author’s style and voice will keep me going. I stick with authors I know I enjoy, but look for their shorter work.

2015-09-21-1442808911-9667220-alittlelife.jpegBase your next book on its appeal characteristic. Do you read for character, story, setting, or pure love of the language of writing? Sure, it’s possible you read for all four, or for different ones depending on your mood. But what’s the common appeal among your favorite books? For me, it’s character.

  • Rx: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015). I’m still reading this one, immersed in the lives of four friends who first met at college. I don’t ever want to come out of this book.
  • Prescription notes: This character-rich novel is such a satisfying reading experience for me, reminiscent of my other favorite character novels: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

2015-09-21-1442808998-9907064-bellweatherrhapsody.jpegAsk a professional. Talking to a librarian or a bookseller is the truest form of reading therapy. A good one will get you talking about what you like in books, and give you a book match based on clues you’ve given when talking about books you love AND the mood you’re in at the moment. Ask a friend for a book recommendation and you’ll often get one of her personal favorites; ask a librarian or a bookseller and you’ll get a suggestion tailored just for you.

  • Rx: Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia (2014).
  • Prescription notes: A librarian friend handed this to me, knowing I’d first be intrigued by the cover art and then enticed by the set up. If Glee and Heathers had a baby — and added a mystery — it would be this book. I read it in two sittings, and was back on my way to being the reader I am.

My quarterly slump is behind me now, and I’m off for a great reading season. Here’s hoping you are, too.

October 2015 middle-grade releases

highly unusual magicEach month the collaborative blog the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors lists new releases. Following this feature saves me a lot of time as I look for the new, the brightest, the yet-to-be-discovered books written specifically for middle grade readers. It’s not an all-inclusive list, which would be exhaustive. And its manageability makes it a terrific resource.

Here’s an excerpt from and link to the post:

Did you happen to see recent headlines about how independent book stores aren’t just surviving, they’re actually thriving? The Week magazine summarizes findings and offers its own spin on why book stores are vital, including the fact that they “curate and recommend in a human way.” That point is crucial for middle grade readers who depend (often unknowingly) on parents, librarians, teachers, and booksellers to help them find the right book at the right time. We here at the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors take the privilege of being able to curate and recommend quite seriously — and joyfully. And with that, we happily present you with fifteen choice middle grade books heading to book store and library shelves this month (continue reading October new releases on the Mixed-Up Files blog here).

Short review: ‘Counting by 7s’ by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting by 7sCounting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fantastic middle grade with a genius middle schooler whose world is turned upside down when her parents are killed in a car accident. This is one of those stories where an unlikely cast of characters come together to make things right, characters get enlightened along the way, bonds form and the ending is hopeful. Lots of books try to do this; Counting by 7s nails it. It’s being compared to Sharon Draper’s “Out of My Mind.” It made me also think of Susan Patron’s “Higher Power of Lucky” and Joan Bauer’s “Almost Home,” mixed with Lisa Yee’s “Millicent Min.” Humor, heart, and you learn a ton through 12-year-old Willow Chance’s observations. Another bonus, that I wish we didn’t have to still call out: Diverse group of characters in terms of ethnicities (Vietnamese, Spanish, unnamed) and personalities — just the way life and friendship is in most of our communities. Love this one!

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Short review: ‘Fangirl’ by Rainbow Rowell

FangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A YA novel with the characters in college is the first big draw on this one. Cather and her twin sister Wren are freshmen at University of Nebraska, struggling to establish their own identities and pushing each other away in the process. Great voice throughout this novel, with a fascinating look at the world of fanfiction. I loved everything about this book and have already been recommending it to John Green fans. What a great year 2013 is with two books (Eleanor & Park published earlier) from Rainbow Rowell!

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D Is for Dunning: Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning

A former Denver cop who now runs a rare book store makes for an appealing amateur sleuth in the traditional Cliff Janeway mystery series. The big appeal for many fans I talk with is the knowledge readers gain about book collecting and values. Bookman’s Wake has many scenes in the Northwest (downtown Seattle; around North Bend). I think I knew enough about this series to recommend them without reading them, and now you do, too.

Seeing an author I love …

Here’s a puzzler: I write and talk about books for a living (in two different jobs), yet I absolutely cannot write about books. Or at least not the books that I love to my core.  If I really love a book, I am terrified to write even a paragraph about it, which I thought was probably because I’m afraid of not doing the book justice. But the truth is that I want to keep it inside my head, in some sort of cloud bubble of perfection, surrounded by emotions and visceral reactions, without concrete words to bring it down.

Such is the case with When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Anyone I know has heard how much I love this book, yet if someone asks me to explain why, I clam up. This is a book that shook me to my toes when I read it, reminding me not only why I want to write, but why I want to read.

Tonight I saw Rebecca at a book event in Seattle. She is unassuming, engaging and completely delightful. And now I love her all the more because she said tonight how she can’t talk about the books she loves most, wanting to keep them in that fragile world inside her head.

Short Review: ‘Flower Children’ by Maxine Swann

Maxine Swann’s story “Flower Children” won both an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize, and was included in The Best American Short Stories. Nearly a decade later, that story forms the first chapter of her lyrical novel, Flower Children, about four siblings raised by their living-off-the-land hippie parents in the 1970s. Everything about this short novel is beautiful, from the occasional and (successful) experimental plural third person protagonist to the stunning descriptions of how children with unlimited freedom yearn to conform.

Consider this passage from when the children first go to school and learn penmanship and rules:

“They learn not to swear. They get prizes for obedience, for following the rules down to the last detail. They’re delighted by these rules, these arbitrary lines that regulate behavior and mark off forbidden things and they examine them closely and exhaust their teachers with questions about the mechanical functioning and the hidden intricacies of these beings, the rules …”

Gosh, you know, that whole section was delightful when I first read it. The problem with posting it here, out of context, is that it might not actually entice you into reading this book. That’s always a problem with excerpts, though.

This is the kind of writing I used to revel in. Too often these days, I read for a different kind of escape, where I want to get whisked into a story or involved with the characters. Now, don’t get me wrong – I cared a lot for the four kids in this book. But it was the writing that I most looked forward to each time I opened the book, the way that Swann let me in to observe this family and their friends, never making a judgment. I think this would be an exceptional fictional companion read for The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeanette Walls.

‘The Year of Fog’ by Michelle Richmond

Photographer Abby Mason and her fiance’s daughter, six-year-old Emma, are enjoying the day at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Abby stops to photograph a dead baby seal, a diversion that lasts maybe 20 or 40 seconds – seconds that will replay endlessly in Abby’s mind during the next year; a few seconds that were long enough for Emma to disappear. When Emma isn’t immediately found, the assumption is that she must have drowned in the unpredictable currents. Most people give up, but Abby continues to believe that Emma is out there – she just needs to be found.

Memory plays a big part in this story, as Abby examines how we remember things, confabulation (filling in gaps in memory with fabrications that one believes to be facts) and how memories disappear. Abby struggles to find Emma, struggles to keep her relationship with Emma’s father and struggles to understand why Emma’s mother, who has been absent from the little girl’s life for three years, is back in a picture that has no Emma.

The plot recalls Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Deep End of the Ocean, but I think this book does much more on a literary level. The writing is spare, managing to be more vivid and emotional than you assume. My friend Susan said it’s “underwritten,” and that is a perfect description. Emotion, too, is off the pages, as if hiding in the margins and waiting to unfold in your head. The Year of Fog has a perfect balance of story and underlying philosophical ideas.