Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817)

This wasn't the next Austen on my list, but library copies of Sense and Sensibility were in sorry shape and Emma was a bit longer than what I wanted to read at the moment. But, happily, it seems that any Jane Austen is good reading.

Catherine Morland leaves her family with their friends the Allens to go to Bath. After days of feeling like they don't know anyone, Catherine befriends a young woman named Isabella and quickly forms a close friendship. She also meets an intriguing young man named Henry Tilney, befriending him and his sister, Eleanor. Young and naive, Catherine tends to believe the best about those around her, even while they continue to betray and disappoint. Various romantic entanglings commence and new delicate friendships are endangered, culminating in a trip to the Tilney's home, Northanger Abbey.

I like Catherine in the way you can't help like a gullible young women who is nonetheless very well-intentioned. It pained me to see how careless Isabella was with their friendship, but Isabella was just a fickle woman whose loyalties were ever-changing. Catherine tried to do what was right, but often became confused about the motives of others, because she couldn't believe that other people were less motivated by goodness than she was. When she was on her way to Northanger with the Tilneys, Henry told her a scary story about the Abbey that of course wasn't true, but when she arrived and found the same mysterious trunk in his story she became frightened and instantly concocted a horror story in her head about the family. She felt ridiculous later, but it was delightfully hilarious.

The end of the story felt a bit rushed, and I was never drawn in by real romance between Catherine and Henry. It was clear from the start that he was her romantic interest, and there were few obstacles. Aside from how he teased her with stories of the Abbey, I didn't feel like I got to know him very well but he seemed like a nice enough young man. I was glad she escaped the clutches of a truly awful man who was interested in her for a while.

Jane Austen always writes with a bit of satire about her times, so I enjoy such passages as: "...for a fine sunday in Bath empties every house of its inhabitants, and all the world appears on such an occasion to walk about and tell their acquaintance what a charming day it is." She is very conscious of the frivolity of her characters' lives and doesn't hesitate to make some of them transparently ridiculous. Much like Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Isabella would totally display her faults easily in the course of a conversation, making strong assertions based on no evidence whatsoever and contradicting herself. She was funny but also exasperating.

Northanger Abbey was fun and cozy, just the perfect thing to read in winter.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Top Ten Most Anticipated Releases for the First Half of 2016

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish. I'm generally too busy trying to catch up with books I want to read that are already published to think a lot about those are forthcoming, but I managed to put together a list. Here are books I'm excited about that are being released in first half of 2016.

1. Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood
From the author of the Cahill Witch Chronicles, which I loved a whole lot and recommend all the time. Check out my reviews of those books: Born Wicked, Star Cursed, and Sisters' Fate. This is probably my most anticipated new novel right now, and definitely the one I've been excited about for the longest.

2. Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee
She wrote The Piano Teacher, which I also loved and recommend all the time. It's about British people in Hong Kong after WWII, and I'm happy to find that this new novel also takes place in Hong Kong. She did such a great job of evoking the sights and sounds of that place and I can't wait to revisit it in her upcoming book. I'm already on hold for it at the library.

3. The Crown by Kiera Cass
I can't wait for the conclusion of this series! The first three books began with The Selection, and then a fourth book, The Heir, jumped ahead 20 years and this final installment will conclude the entire series. These are great to listen to on audio so that's probably how I'll read this one too.

4. The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin
This will end the trilogy that began with The Passage and continued with The Twelve. There's been a lot of time between each book, which made The Twelve sort of difficult since I couldn't remember as much as I'd like from the first book. I'd love to read them all together again in a row, but will I be able to take that much time from everything else I want to read in order to re-read two really long books? I don't know, but either way I'll definitely be reading this one!

5. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
I just read about this one the other day here, and I think it sounds very intriguing! Two women wake up in a strange place and realize they are part of a larger group of women who are being held captive. All they seem to have in common is that they were all involved in public sex scandals. It sounds fascinatingly psychological. Plus I love that cover.

6. Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel 
This novel was mentioned on Books on the Nightstand months ago and I made note of it right away. A girl falls through the earth and lands on what appears to be the palm of a giant metal hand, beginning years of investigation and, apparently, a book series. Goodreads lists this as Themis Files #1. The podcast host who talked about this over the summer was very excited about it and it sounds quite unique.

7. Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler 
Mentioned on the same episode as the book above.  I don't remember what exactly was said about it, but it has something to do with a woman working in a fancy New York restaurant and getting involved with coworkers. I realize that doesn't sound super exciting, but it was a very glowing review that made me want to read it.

8. The A$$i$tant$ by Camille Perri
A woman who works at a huge company discovers a mistake for an amount of money that her boss wouldn't miss, but that could change her life. She takes the money, and soon other underpaid coworkers are coming to her for help. I just received this debut galley and am really looking forward to reading it.

9. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
I only just heard of this today when I looked at the Top 10 list on the Broke and Bookish website but had to immediately add it to my list. This author is great! I really liked Between Shades of Gray and Out of the Easy and now I'm looking forward to her newest.

10. We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson
This galley arrived at my doorstep last week from Simon & Schuster, the same publisher that sent me The Scorpion Rules. This one is from the Simon Pulse imprint which calls itself "daring and edgy" and the book is about alien abductions, the end of the world, and the one teenage boy who can save it. I'm sold.

Those are my ten that I'm anticipating, but I do want to mention two from the first half of the year that I've already read because I'm excited for everyone else to read them. First, American Housewife by Helen Ellis, a collection of darkly comic stories about domestic life. I really enjoyed these stories and have read some positive reviews from other sources as well, so I think a lot of people will like this one. Finally, the new Chris Bohjalian novel, The Guest Room. In this novel a bachelor party goes very wrong, and one family's life collides with the harsh reality of human trafficking. You will not forget this story or these characters for a good long while. I can't wait to hear what others think of this book!

What new books are you anticipating in 2016? Are there any important ones that I've missed?

Monday, December 28, 2015


Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)

Twenty-four year old Eileen was trapped in a life she didn't want, working at a boys' prison just outside of Boston and living with her deranged alcoholic father. Told from the point of view of herself in her 70s, she reveals what happened in the week leading up to Christmas that finally spurred her to leave her hometown of "X-ville" and start a new life.

The catalyst was a glamorous woman named Rebecca, a new coworker who befriended Eileen right away. Eileen was usually very stand-offish but was drawn to Rebecca right away, and became obsessed with her. When Rebecca drew Eileen into a crime, there was no turning her down.

Although Eileen is a crime novel, a thriller, it's not action-packed, but more of a character study and a slow burn. But it was filled with anticipation of what was to come, with many references to the eventual crime and Eileen's later life once she escapes her home and basically becomes a different person. There was a point at which I got a bit annoyed and thought come on, where is this actually going? But I am impatient and that was a brief feeling. When the crime eventually came, it was pretty great.

But it's more about the character than the crime, and she is super dark. She describes herself in unflattering ways: "I looked like nothing special...I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time." She was constantly punishing herself, denying herself food, comfort, pleasure. Her eating was disordered, she drank too much, she had no friends. She projected a bland exterior, a "death mask" to cover all the negative feelings swirling inside of her. She kept a dead mouse in the glove compartment of her car.

The house she shared with her father was a disgusting mess. Neither of them cleaned and the place was cluttered, dingy, and dirty. Rolls of insulation in her attic bedroom sat for years, an unfinished project her father had abandoned. In 1964, when the story takes place, it was a women's job to keep a tidy house, but Eileen rejects this role, as she rejects much of what is considered appropriate for women at the time. She is suspicious of orderly houses: "Those perfect, neat colonials I'd passed earlier that evening on my way through X-ville are the death masks of normal people. Nobody is really so orderly, so perfect. To have a house like that says more about what's wrong with you than any decrepit dump...People truly engaged in life have messy houses." Of course, despite her messy house, Eileen is not engaged with life. At least not until she meets Rebecca and everything changes.

I've been wanting to read this for a while, and picked it up this week because I saw that it takes place in the week leading up to Christmas. (On Christmas Eve as I was reading, I noticed that Christmas Eve that year was also a Thursday, so the timing was especially good.) I first heard about Eileen when I saw the galley on Edelweiss last spring before it came out. I requested the galley but didn't get approved until later when I was wrapped up in reading our Community Read nominations so it sort of fell by the wayside until I was browsing at the library a week or so ago and grabbed this copy.

It hasn't received much attention despite positive reviews, including this one from the New York Times. It doesn't have many ratings on Goodreads, nor has there been much buzz about it. But it will definitely find its way to my Staff Picks shelf, right next to other dark novels like Gillian Flynn's Dark Places and my ever-present favorite, The Cry of the Sloth. If you like dark crime novels that are strongly character-driven, I highly recommend this one.

Winter Bingo is going better than I thought it would. This fulfills the "thriller" square.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend

How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend by the Monks of New Skete (2002)

The Monks of New Skete breed and raise German Shepherds and are respected authorities on dog training. This guide begins with an introduction to dogs and dog behavior, paying special attention to the differences between breeds, and goes to offer specific advice about training, problem behavior, and how your dog fits into your life. Reading about dog training can be very boring, but it's something I just need to learn about. Luckily, this book is written in a pretty easy-to-read style, with very short chapters and a lot of photos.

Their training style was pretty refreshing. They don't treat heavily, but instead use a lot of praise, and though they use positive reinforcement they also use correction (usually just a leash pop.) We got our dog from the MSPCA and did obedience training there, and they are very firmly into positive reinforcement only: reward good behavior and ignore the bad. To me this seems rather idealistic and doesn't take into account the individuality of each dog. Many of the training methods assume a certain response on the part of the dog, which is frustrating if your dog doesn't respond that way. Also, ignoring bad things doesn't make them go away, to me it seems ridiculous not to actually address certain bad behaviors (i.e. biting, which is one of our dog's problems.) Anyway, I know that the Monks of New Skete are pretty respected so it's good to know that discipline/correction isn't considered out of the question by all dog trainers. It's good to have options.

As I already learned not long ago from Pit Bulls for Dummies (which I read most of but didn't review here) different breeds of dog were originally bred for specific purposes, and certain traits remain. The Monks discuss this as well and I find it pretty interesting, and it explains why our dog will probably never be able to behave at a dog park (pit bulls were bred to be aggressive towards other dogs, and she definitely has some issues there.) There are also some crucial stages in a puppy's life during which if they aren't trained or socialized properly, the problems may never be totally overcome. We don't know our dog's history, but I can't imagine she was trained or socialized well as a pup considering she was abandoned on the streets. This all seems like bad news for us, but actually I like knowing which problems to focus on and which to just let go.

Other takeaways from the book were that dogs should sleep in the bedroom (but not on the bed), shouldn't be trusted to have the run of the house until they're 1.5-2 years old, and that you should clean their ears every week (blech.) It was also helpful to read their methods of teaching various commands, even though we've already taught the basics to our dog. Not everything made total sense to me; the book occasionally used terminology I was unfamiliar with but that they apparently assumed readers would know. When they mentioned a dog's "withers" I had to Google it because I didn't know what part of the body that was, and I don't know what a "bark collar" is either, but didn't bother to look it up.

At the end, they provide a list of resources for further reading, which is great though I'm unlikely to spend much more time reading about dog behavior. The list is also a bit dated since this edition is from 2002, but I honestly don't know how much difference that makes. At the time of publication, clicker training was just becoming popular and apparently positive reinforcement was also a recent trend so things have definitely changed, like in any other area. But still, it was a pretty informative, useful guide.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Victorian Chaise-Longue

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski (1953)

I recently read about this short book on the bookarahma blog, and immediately requested it through interlibrary loan. I had just finished How To Be a Victorian and was really in the mood for some Victorian lit, and this little time travel novella fit the bill.

It's the early 1950s and Melanie, who has recently had a baby, is recovering from tuberculosis. She's been on bed rest for several months and hasn't even been allowed to hold her baby yet. But she's doing better, and is allowed to move into another room and lie on the ugly Victorian chaise longue she bought just before getting ill. Then she falls asleep, and when she wakes up she's on the same chaise longue, but in 1864 and everyone is calling her Milly.

This is where it gets kind of creepy. She can look down and see that she is in someone else's body, and she has limited access to Milly's thoughts - certain people look familiar to her and she has some vague memories. Although she is from a very different time, when she speaks the right phrases for the Victorian era come to her lips. Conversely, she cannot seem to say anything that is too inappropriate to that time. In desperation she wants to prove that she is from the future by telling the people around her about future events, but she physically can't say the words. But worst of all, Milly also has tuberculosis but she's not recovering as Melanie was in more modern times.

Everyone is so condescending to Melanie, acting very stern every time she gets the least bit excited or upset about anything. Of course it's even worse when she is Milly because she's farther back in time when women were looked down upon even more. This all reminded me a bit of The Yellow Wallpaper, in that Melanie/Milly was cooped up and infantilized and heading down a pretty dark spiral.

Melanie tried to figure out what caused her to travel back in time, and thus, what could possibly get her home. But she was helpless in her illness, unable to even get up. All during her ordeal, she kept thinking that in her present, everyone was dead, including Milly.

"This body I am in, it must have rotted filthily, this pillowcase must be a tatter of rag, the coverlet corrupt with moth, crisp and sticky with matted moths' eggs, falling away into dirty crumbling scraps. It's all dead and rotten, the barley-water tainted, the nightgown threadbare and thrown away, these hands, all this body stinking, rotten, dead."

If that's not a vision of horror, I don't know what is.

There's more to it too, a secret that Milly has kept from her sister, and another that they both share, but Melanie doesn't discover them until very late in the story. She has no real allies at all, and must endure this bewildering ordeal alone.

A pretty satisfying little story, if you like that sort of thing, which obviously I do. And it qualifies for the very conveniently-located time travel space in my Winter Bingo. I didn't even plan that!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Top Ten Best Books I Read in 2015

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. I'm actually doing last week's topic, because at the time I thought it was a bit premature for a Top 10 of the Year list. It still is, but I actually want to do next week's topic next week. So here it is!

These are my favorite books that I read for the first time in 2015. (I had some 5-star re-reads on my list but I'm not counting those.)

1. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

2. The Likeness by Tana French

3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

4. Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

5. The Selection series by Kiera Cass (I'll count the whole series as one.)

6. Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics

7. Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

8. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

9. The Bees by Laline Paull

10. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

And as I keep looking at my list I see many more that I want to include but I'm making myself stop. These were the first ones I saw when glancing through my list so I'm sticking with them!

What were your favorite books this year? Did you read any that were on my list?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Waiting On You

Waiting On You (Blue Heron #3) by Kristan Higgins (2014)

Like the first two books of the Blue Heron series, Waiting On You takes place in the small town of Manningsport, NY. This time, it is local bartender Colleen O'Rourke who takes center stage. Colleen prides herself in being a matchmaker, but hasn't had a relationship herself since her heart was broken by Lucas Campbell. Now she is focused on fixing up the athletic but awkward Paulie Petrosinsky with local gorgeous womanizer Bryce Campbell, who just happens to be Lucas's cousin. But Bryce's father is not doing well at all, which brings Lucas back to town, and for Colleen this is both upsetting and exciting.

Colleen's past relationship with Lucas was revisited in a series of flashbacks including their explosive breakup when Colleen learned that he knew about her father's affair and kept it quiet. A few months after their breakup when she had cooled down and was receptive to seeing Lucas again, she learned he was about to be married. Years later he is divorced and only back in town for a limited time, but the two are irresistibly drawn to each other. Colleen may be able to forgive him for his past mistakes, but she is not willing to have her heart broken again. She won't leave Manningsport, where her business is the heart of the town, and Lucas won't leave Chicago where his sister and her children live.

There was a lot else besides their romance going on in this book. Colleen's father and step-mother have a 9-year-old daughter, who at her tender age already isn't thin and pretty enough for her mother. Colleen's mother still isn't over her ex-husband but might be ready to try at romance again. Lucas's aunt is treating her dying husband poorly, just as she treated Lucas poorly after his parents died and he had to be raised by his aunt and uncle. Meanwhile, Bryce is a drifter who lives in his parents' basement and can't manage to keep a job. He seems, frankly, pretty dumb. But the ladies love him, including Paulie, who is totally not his type (she's more interested in lifting weights than primping to look nice for guys like him) yet has been smitten with him for years.

One of my favorite aspects of this story was how both Colleen and Lucas were involved in caring for an older relative in declining health. Lucas's Uncle Joe had failing kidneys, but it was cancer that was killing him more quickly. Colleen's grandfather had Alzheimer's and she visited him frequently at the nursing home where she worked part-time. (Before opening a restaurant and bar with her twin brother, she had gotten some nursing training.) Both Colleen and Lucas visited their older relatives frequently and were compassionate and attentive.

Like the other books in the series, Waiting On You was frequently hilarious. It got a bit over-the-top madcap at some points, like when Colleen decides to cook dinner for Lucas and manages to screw up every single step of the way. I appreciate that the characters have healthy senses of humor and don't take themselves too seriously. It makes them more realistic and genuine. When Colleen's friend Faith remarks on why men are afraid of Colleen she mentions her twin brother, at which Colleen quips, "I know. I should euthanize him."

I also found it interesting that Colleen, while a much-loved bartender, also had a (completely earned) reputation for sleeping around. I'm not sure her reputation was worked into the plot very well, because it mostly seemed like she had a lot of respect, until the subject of her sex life came up, and then things turned a bit more negative. I'm honestly not certain whether or not it was realistic, but I appreciate that a romance novel heroine was allowed to be human in this way.

Waiting On You is firmly in the sub-genre of small town contemporary, with dogs. (I'm pretty sure "with dogs" is a romance sub-genre.) I didn't mention the dogs because they're not integral to the plot, but Colleen has an Irish Wolfhound named Rufus, and Paulie has several rescue dogs because Bryce volunteers at the shelter (the only gig he can stick with.) I'm trying to decide how this book compares to others in the series. I think the actual romance part of this one wasn't as good as the previous books, but it had a lot of great stuff about family and friendship, which definitely counts for a lot. All in all, I found it a fun and satisfying read, and will likely continue with the series.

I can now check off the "Romance" square in Winter Bingo! Please notice that it's nowhere near the one other square that I have checked off.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sunday Knitting

Remember my Thyri Pullover, which I kind of finished back in July, but was a bit too long? And all I needed to do was rip back a bit and re-knit the hem? Five months later, I am finally wearing it.

Very little was involved in finishing it, just a couple of hours of work plus washing and blocking. But I may have mentioned that we got a dog a while ago and she really, really enjoys biting and chewing and tugging on things, especially things made of fabric. The first time she came into the house, she immediately walked over to my knitting basket and grabbed my Thyri in her teeth. So, I didn't really touch the sweater until we sent her off to a board and train facility several weeks ago, where hopefully they're teaching her the value of hand-knit items. (That is what they teach there, right?)

This pattern is from the Winter 2014 issue of Knitscene, and I was immediately drawn to it because of the built-in handwarmers, which unfortunately I didn't get any good photos of. This is probably the best one:

Perfect for my Dickensian workplace.

The neckline is a little wider than I'd like, which you can tell better from the photo below. This is a common problem with many knitting patterns. I mean, sweaters are for winter and winter is cold so I'd like to not have my collarbones exposed. I also have to adjust the sweater a bit when I first put it on because it's a bit tight around the shoulders, pulling the neck even wider. But once I rearrange it to my liking, it seems to stay pretty well.

It's not the most flattering fit, I'll admit, but this sweater is more about the coziness. What really makes it is the yarn: I used the recommended yarn, Madelinetosh Tosh Vintage in the colorway Forestry. It's really gorgeous and feels wonderful too. It's hand-dyed though, which means I had to knit a couple of skeins at a time, moving back between them every couple of rows. This is not only annoying and disrupts the flow of knitting, it created a weird little seam, which is most visible on the back right shoulder.

But that's a fairly minor issue. All in all, I'd call this project a success. This is a sweater I think I'll be reaching for a lot this winter.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Winter Bingo

Since it's mid-December already and I've already failed the TBR Pile Challenge for this year, I thought it was the perfect time to pick a new challenge!

I've been sort of entranced by book bingo, since I first heard about the Books on the Nightstand Bingo this summer. It was too late to join, but I knew I wanted to participate in something similar. I recently discovered a blog called Pretty Deadly Reviews which hosts seasonal book bingo, and I found it just in time for the winter edition. Here's the bingo card:

I don't think I'm going to make book choices based on the card, but instead just see how the chips fall. Hopefully some will fall in an unbroken line across the card.

The challenge started at the beginning of December and runs through the end of February. I've already read a qualifying book: Dumplin' by Julie Murphy fulfills the "One-Word Title" square. I'll continue to post my updated card, with the squares checked off, each time I review a book that fills one of the squares.

Am I undoing everything good that came from discarding my To Read list? I can't wait to find out! And will I sign up for more book challenges in 2016? I fear I may!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Bridget Jones's Diary

In which I share vague recollections about books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

I'm surprised that I've never written a post about Helen Fielding's chick lit book Bridget Jones's Diary, because it seems like just yesterday that I listened to the audiobook for the 4th or 5th time. As you are probably well aware, this book is about a British singleton looking for love, trying to lose weight, and obsessing over the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. Written in diary form, chapters begin with lists: weight, drinks consumed, calories consumed, cigarettes smoked. They then go on to recount her clumsy, madcap adventures at work and dating and with her colorful group of friends.

What makes this book (and the follow-up, Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason) so wonderful to me is the audiobook narrator, Barbara Rosenblatt. Ok, the book itself is great too - relatable and super hilarious! But the way this narrator reads it is just fantastic and her performance adds so much to it. The best part is how she reads Bridget's mother, a flighty and meddling middle-aged woman who doesn't understand how to use voicemail and who is constantly giving Bridget advice, insisting she get her colors done, and demanding to know why she's still single. The conversations they have are totally hysterical. Even after listening multiple times, it still makes me laugh.

I always think of this book around the holidays because it opens with an invitation from Bridget's mother to attend Una Alconbury's New Year's Day Turkey Curry Buffet. This is where Bridget first meets top London barrister Mark Darcy who is wearing a terrible sweater and who she immediately dislikes and then goes on to have a romance with. So if you're looking for a different sort of holiday book, perhaps this would be a good choice.

The movie doesn't at all compare to the book, though I'll admit some good casting for the two most important roles: Renee Zellweger as Bridget and Pride & Prejudice's own Colin Firth as Mark Darcy. I thought that Zellweger captured the character well, and there is really nobody else to play Mark Darcy but the actual Mr. Darcy. And Hugh Grant was also perfect for the role of Daniel Cleaver, Bridget's boss and love interest. Otherwise, it just couldn't capture what was so good about it, which really was the telling of the story in the form of the diary. Plus, Barbara Rosenblatt didn't play Bridget's mother.

Bridget Jones's Diary spurred my interest in chick lit, and I went on to extensively read Jane Green, Jennifer Weiner, Marian Keyes, Sophie Kinsella, and probably lots more that I'm forgetting. Such fun stuff!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


Dumplin' by Julie Murphy (2015), narrated by Eileen Stevens

Dumplin' is the story of Willowdean Dickson: high school student, Texan, fast food worker, Dolly Parton fan, and daughter of a former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet and current pageant organizer. She is fat, and has definitely been made fun of at times, but she's pretty confident about herself, has a great best friend, and a pretty good life. It has only recently been marred by the death of her beloved Aunt Lucy, who weighed in at close to 500 pounds and died of a massive heart attack at the age of 37. Determined to get more out of life than Lucy did, Willowdean decides to enter the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant.

This is not a "fat girl gets thin and lives happily after" book, nor is it a "fat girl learns to feel good about herself" book. Rather it is about a fat girl who already feels good about herself and does normal things that teenage girls do. But in doing so, she inspires other teenage girls who don't fit in to enter the pageant, which is revolutionary. And just because Willowdean thinks she's as entitled to enter the pageant as any other girl, doesn't mean that others share her view. Her mother, for instance, did not want Willowdean to enter because she would "embarrass herself." (Wow, mom, way to be supportive.) Willowdean thinks her mom is ashamed of her, just as she was ashamed of Lucy. But part of the reason why Willowdean wants to enter the pageant is because it's something that Lucy never would have done. Willowdean loved her a ton, but she really limited her own life in a lot of ways and Willowdean is determined not to hide herself away like she did.

I haven't even gotten to the romance part of the story yet. There is this really hot guy named Bo who Willowdean works with, and they start getting very close. Like, making out regularly. But it's a secret; as much as Willowdean feels confident about herself, she is sure that everyone would be shocked that guy like him would be with a girl like her and she doesn't want to tell anyone about their relationship. She doesn't even tell her best friend Ellen, who has been totally forthcoming about her own romance. Then when Ellen follows Willowdean's lead in entering the pageant, Willowdean gets super mad at her (because Ellen is totally pageant material) and their friendship really takes a hit.

There are all kinds of reasons why this is one of my favorite teen books of the year. I love that it takes place in the South, with the accent (it was an audiobook) and the politeness ("Bless his heart") and the Ranch dressing and the sweet tea. I love the importance of Dolly Parton in Willowdean's life, and this book really made me want to listen to her music.

There were many funny moments, and one of my favorites is early in the book when Bo unexpectedly transfers to Willowdean's high school. Her new friend Amanda observes that he's the guy Willowdean works with and asks, "How do you get any work done? His butt looks like a peach." Thenceforth, Bo is referred to by Amanda as Peach Butt. God, I love teenagers.

Willowdean is also very self-aware. When first getting involved with Bo she considers the possibility that he might actually be a jerk. She says, "I just can't think that about Bo. But I guess this is how every girl in the history of the sexes has been played. Because the rules apply to every situation except your own." I loved how thoughtful and introspective she could be, and how self-assured and determined she was.

This is a great audio pick! As I mentioned, there are Southern accents (which I always find quite charming) but also, this narrator just got everything right. Her tone was perfect in capturing Willowdean, and she also did a great job with the other characters' voices; they were all distinguishable without sounding forced or overdone. It was so much fun to listen to!

In summary, this book was pretty much perfect. Read it. Then go listen to some Dolly Parton songs. Trust me, you'll want to.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

TBR Pile Challenge Wrap-Up

I realize the year isn't over, but I'm pretty sure this challenge is over for me. My original sign-up post is here.

Here is my final tally:

1. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (finished January 27)
2. The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway (failed! admitted defeat on March 16)
3. The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (finished February 20)
4. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (finished May 25)
5. Walden by Henry David Thoreau (finished August 10)
6. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
7. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
8. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (finished November 15)
9. Between Man and Beast by Monte Reel
10. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (finished April 12)
11. Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (finished April 27)
12. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

All Fall Down by Sally Nichols
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (finished April 1)

As you can see, I completed 8 books out of the required 12, which is actually a nice surprise, because for some reason I thought I had only read 7. 

When I deleted my entire to-read list on Goodreads, I kept just the titles for this challenge, but I didn't really hold onto my desire to read them. Some of them, sure, but not all. I'll probably still read Tender is the Night someday, and possibly A Separate Peace, but I'll likely not give another thought to the rest.

I already made a list for next year's challenge but, alas, it turns out that the host, Adam at Roof Beam Reader, will no longer be doing this challenge. It's all right because I'm considering not doing any challenges next year, but I fear I may weaken and join one (or two) anyhow. Adam is hosting a couple of other challenges and the one that tempts me is the Shakespeare Challenge, because I hate Shakespeare but my hatred may be unjustified.

Although I didn't complete this challenge, I feel satisfied with how well I did and I'm especially glad I finally read the ones I did. Mortality was good but I could have lived without reading it, but the others were all really wonderful so I'm glad I made them a priority this year.

Did you participate in any reading challenges this year? How did you do? 

Monday, December 14, 2015

How To Be a Victorian

How To Be a Victorian: a dawn-to-dusk guide to Victorian life by Ruth Goodman (2013)

If you've ever wondered what life was really like in Victorian times, look no farther than this detailed guide by historian Ruth Goodman. Taking the reader chronologically through the day, it begins with waking up in a very cold room and moves through grooming, exercise, breakfast and continues until concluding with bedtime. Each chapter is a thorough examination of its subject, including the differences between social classes, and answers many questions you may have if your only exposure to this period is from novels.

I don't know how many books on Victorian daily life are out there, but one thing that I bet makes this one unique is that the author has tried so many of the things herself. She's a historian and BBC presenter, and once spent a year on a Victorian farm, and has extensively experimented on her own with things like making clothes, testing recipes, and whittling toy soldiers. She has also harvested crops by hand while wearing a corset, used a privy, and gone months without shampooing her hair (spoiler: thorough brushing is enough to keep your hair clean.)

I found just about everything in this book interesting, but a few things stood out to me. For instance, the clothing in this period was made out of heavy fabrics very different from what we wear today, which you can't tell from pictures of the era's fashions. It makes sense given how cold people's houses were, something that I do not envy them. The chapter on personal grooming included some advice on behaviors that could "destroy a girl's looks, such as staying up late, playing cards, reading novels by candlelight and any outward display of surliness." In the same chapter, I learned that the rare use of cosmetics meant that a poor girl could just as easily live up to beauty standards as a wealthy one and, in fact, a rural working-glass girl was more likely to be held up as an example of beauty. When reading about leisure pastimes, I was surprised to learn that gardening was most popular among urban working-class men, and for one particular flower show most of the organizers were miners.

Practical constraints had a wider influence than you might think. For instance, the type of fuel available for cooking was an important determinant in the food cooked. In areas where people cooked with peat fires, the low smoldering heat was great for porridge and oat cakes. Those same foods would have been burnt to bits with the intense heat from a coal fire. In a similar vein, doing laundry was a complicated labor-intensive process that took a very long time and hogged the stove so no meals could be cooked at the time because it was being employed in heating water. The household would essentially be upended while laundry was being done. The author credits the invention of the washing machine with a large role in women's liberation, which makes a lot of sense when you look at how laundry had to be done previously. It was exhausting just to read about.

Sometimes I wished there were more illustrations, especially in the chapters about clothing, because prose descriptions aren't always enough to really visualize what she is talking about. But I realize that more illustrations make books longer and more expensive to produce so that's a minor quibble, and I found the illustrations and photos included very helpful.

I got a bit bogged down late in the book and though I initially thought it was because of the length (though 440 pages isn't a lot for something this detailed) I realize it was probably just because I was reading about sports at the time. Mostly I was quite rapt, thirstily drinking in everything I could about this era that I find so fascinating (most of which I am sure to forget later.) At times, I found the simplicity of certain aspects of Victorian life appealing, but mostly I enjoy my indoor plumbing and right to vote.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Crimson Petal and the White

In which I share vague recollections about books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

Eons ago I read Michel Faber's book, The Crimson Petal and the White, which was super popular at the time and which I really, really loved. It's funny to read about it now, because there's so much negativity towards it that when I read about it in preparation for this post I began to doubt myself. I thought "Is it just me? Had I just not read very many books at the time and was confused about what a good book is?" But then I looked at reviews by my Goodreads friends and felt reassured, because both Lubkowski sisters rated it highly and they are not wanton with their praise. This is why I love Goodreads - reviews from literary critics can't compare with the opinions of the totally non-famous people in my social circle.

The Crimson Petal and the White follows a Victorian-era prostitute named Sugar as she tries to break free of prostitution, becoming involved with a wealthy businessman who has a mentally ill wife. A full cast of well-developed characters with complicated lives made this story rich and immersive with, as I remember, some interesting themes about the treatment of women of various classes during this era.

Since then, several other books have satisfied me in a similar way, so if you've also enjoyed The Crimson Petal and the White, these might be appealing to you. The one that first comes to mind is Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue, which is also about a prostitute trying to escape that life. The writing is maybe not as lush, but it's still a detailed and compelling reading experience that I didn't want to end (and what an ending!) And I would be remiss not to mention Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, which was almost Dickensian in its complexity and details of the period. Lesser-know is Kate Manning's My Notorious Life, a morally complex novel about an early provider of birth control and abortion. And if you like these kinds of novels, you might also like classic sensation novels like The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.

What I would not recommend for read-alikes are Michel Faber's other books, at least the ones I've read (Under the Skin and Vanilla Bright Like Eminem) I'd recommend them in general, especially Under the Skin, but they are very different books from The Crimson Petal and the White.

Have you read this book? Do you think my readalike suggestions are good ones, or do you have some better recommendations? Please share your thoughts!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss (2010)

Marie and Pierre Curie met and fell in love in Paris in the 1890s. They worked together and discovered two new elements (radium and polonium) and recognized radioactivity as an atomic property, for which they won the Nobel Prize. When Pierre was killed suddenly, Marie continued alone, going on to win a second Nobel, the first person to ever do so. The story is under 200 pages and filled with lush illustrations, making it a great pick for those who want to learn about the Curies but are scared off by lengthy science-heavy biographies.

There is science in it, but not too much for someone like me with a very weak science background. Redniss gives you just enough to understand their work and why it was important. The focus is more on the biographical aspect of the story.

The Curies were alive during a very interesting time. Advances in science seemed magical to some people, and increased their willingness to believe in other fantastical things. The Spiritualist movement had been increasing in popularity and now was reaching its height with a proliferation of mediums who claimed they could contact the spirits of the deceased, using photography to provide "proof" in the form of hazy shapes. Even the Curies were known to attend seances.

After Pierre's untimely death, Marie eventually began a love affair with a man who turned out to be married. Her relationship with Paul Langevin was found out by his wife and made public, creating a scandal just as Marie was scheduled to travel to Sweden to accept her second Nobel Prize. Fun fact: their relationship didn't work out, but Marie's grand-daughter ended up married to Paul's grandson. They were both scientists, too.

The best part of this book is the beautiful art, and it's worth picking up just for that. Redness used a technique called cyanotype printing, which she describes in a note but which I didn't really understand because it is science-y. But it creates vivid, saturated images that make the book feel light and fanciful. It's really a lovely work of art.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Top Ten New-To-Me Authors

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is the top 10 favorite authors I read for the first time in 2015.

This was more difficult than I anticipated! I actually had to narrow it down, but when choosing between authors I predictably went with those whose books are the most dark. Some of these authors are just new to me, but for others I read their debut novel.

Here they are, in no particular order, with links to my reviews:

1. Tana French - I read The Likeness.

2. Amy Lukavics - I read her debut, Daughters Unto Devils.

3. Kiera Cass - I read The Selection, The Elite, The One, and The Heir. But who's counting?

4. Wilkie Collins - I read The Woman in White.

5. W. Somerset Maugham - I read The Painted Veil.

6. Emily St. John Mandel - I read Station Eleven. Didn't everybody?

7. Erin Bow - I read The Scorpion Rules.

8. Scott Hawkins - I read The Library at Mount Char.

9. Rebecca Scherm - I read her debut, Unbecoming.

10. M. O. Walsh - I read his debut, My Sunshine Away.

Did you discover any new favorite authors this year?

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Forgotten Girls

The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel (2015)

A woman is found dead in a forest in Denmark, but nobody has reported her missing or come forward to identify her. When the police release her photo to the media, an older lady says she recognizes the woman's distinct scar, and that she cared for her as a child at a hospital for the developmentally disabled. When Louise Rick begins investigating, she finds a death certificate for the girl - and her twin sister - issued 30 years ago.

The sisters were "forgotten girls," dropped off the hospital and never visited by their families. At the time, it was recommended that families sever contact to make the permanent hospital stay less traumatic. This way, kids wouldn't live in hope of their families someday coming back to take them home. This background made for a pretty sad story, but also an intriguing one.

The central mystery was a great setup, as was Louise's situation at work in the newly-created Missing Persons Department. She was hoping to hire her own staff, but on the first day she found that someone had been assigned to her; not only that, but she had to go fetch him because he was hungover and overslept. This sub-plot about Louise's relationship with her co-worker was an interesting one, but I think it will developed more in later books in the series.

While Louise is investigating, there are more murders and a disappearance which, predictably, are all related. I had some ideas about where this story was going, but when it all came out it was worse than I thought, and some of it was a little implausible. Not what happened, but certain characters' attitudes about it. Not everyone in my book group agreed with my criticisms though, so this might not bother other readers. Better character development would have improved this aspect of the story for me.

Camilla, a journalist and Louise's friend, decided to also start investigating the case, but separately without consulting Louise. She could have been replicating Louise's work and screwing things up for the investigation - which is what I thought was going to happen - but it just happens that her nosing into police business was super helpful. I found Camilla's subplot (which also included some romance drama) to be unnecessary.

Although this novel had a lot of elements that should have worked for me - crime, Scandinavian setting, secrets from an old hospital - somehow it just didn't quite hold together. I think there's much better Scandinavian crime out there than this one, which I only found to be ok. The Forgotten Girls is seventh in a series and I haven't read any of the others, but I'm unlikely to try them.

Have you read anything by this author? Do you have other Scandinavian crime novels to recommend? The only other author I've read in this genre is Stieg Larsson.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Thirteenth Tale

In which I share vague recollections about books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

I read Diane Setterfield's novel The Thirteenth Tale back in 2008 and mentioned it briefly here. I have not, however, stopped thinking about it since then.

A biographer named Margaret receives a request from an elderly novelist to come listen to her life story. The novelist, Vida Winter, has always been very secretive about her life, but now recounts it in all its shocking glory. It's a fantastical gothic story of family secrets, lies, betrayals, and possibly a madwoman in an attic.

Although I'm a little fuzzy on the details (except for some shocking spoilers that I won't reveal here) I do still remember being so engrossed in the story that I didn't want to put it down. After finishing, nothing else I tried to read seemed good enough, which is both wonderful (because what a great book!) and frustrating.

I put The Thirteenth Tale on my Staff Picks shelf every now and then (when it's not checked out already, that is) and it always gets taken. I remember it being popular back in the day, and it seems like a lot of people I know have read it already, but apparently not everyone. If you haven't, maybe it's finally time.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Perfect Match

The Perfect Match (Blue Heron #2) by Kristan Higgins (2013)

For her whole life, Honor Holland has been in love with her good friend Brogan. Finally, she decides it's time to lay her heart out on the line. When he rejects her, she's devastated. But when she learns that he is suddenly engaged to her best friend Dana, she is pissed. So much so, that she ends up in a barfight over it. Classy. This is the same night she meets Tom Barlow. Tom is a teacher of mechanical engineering, and ever since he started there are suddenly far more women taking up the subject. An even bigger problem is that he has just learned the school won't renew his visa and he's in danger of having to go back to England, too far from his unofficial stepson, Charlie. Unless, just maybe, he can find someone to marry him. Well, Honor is free and available now, and as her ob/gyn has just reminded her, time is growing short if she wants to have children. Perhaps a marriage of convenience will work out well for everyone.

Obviously it is not that simple or it wouldn't require a whole book. Honor and Tom do hook up the first time they meet, but later when they decide to commit marital fraud and move in together, they decide not to have sex in an effort not to complicate things. This, of course, makes things worse because they became so tense and weird around each other. Honor acknowledges it probably would have felt more natural had she not suggested this stupid no-sex idea, but unlike many contrived romance plots based on neuroses, here it was fairly convincing. Honor was fresh from a pseudo-relationship in which she was hurt when she let her feelings show, and she wasn't about to get wrapped up in another guy who probably wasn't that into her. Tom's last relationship was with Charlie's mother who he was engaged to but, as it turns out, wasn't as in love with him as he was with her. And he has a lot at stake with this marriage; the one great thing that came from his relationship with Melissa was her son Charlie, to whom Tom was completely devoted. Leaving him to go back to England would be disastrous.

There were a lot of great relationships in this book, but my favorite was the one between Tom and Charlie. Although they were close when Charlie was a kid, after his mother died things changed. Charlie's father is rarely in the picture, only swooping in briefly now and then, so the withdrawn, sullen Charlie now lives with his grandparents who barely care about him while Tom is stuck with only seeing him once a week. Even then, Charlie barely speaks and shows no interest in Tom or the activities he plans. Once Honor enters the picture - well, to be honest it's more Honor's teenaged niece Abby - Charlie starts to come out of his shell a bit. I loved how all of this shaped up throughout the book. It was so heartbreaking and sweet.

Kristan Higgins is good with family stuff. One of my favorite aspects of the first book in this series, The Best Man, was story of the Holland family and their vineyard, which was continued here. I like that the family is imperfect, but not dysfunctional. They're easy to like, but not boring. Honor was a likable character too, with her weird little Yorkshire terrier Spike (who Tom called Ratty) and her fascination with medical reality shows such as Top Ten Tumors and The Mysterious World of Pork-borne Illnesses and World's Best Impalements.

Which brings me to the humor. If I am to like a romance novel, it can't take itself too seriously, and those written by Kristan Higgins apparently do not. In one scene, her family are all trying wine and noting the subtle flavors of apple, limestone, nesberry, and hay in that pretentious and mysterious way that wine connoisseurs do. Honor's niece Abby pipes up with "I'm getting overtones of fog and unicorn tears....with just a hint of baby's laughter."

As I mentioned earlier, this was the follow-up to The Best Man, which I liked a lot except that the writing was a bit clumsy and juvenile at times. This one was a definite improvement, although there was still an awkward use of stand-ins for swear words, like "fungus" and I think even one "bleeping." I recently heard a podcast interview with Kristan Higgins in which she mentioned how much she swears in her books. There were a few actual swear words in the book, but these weird non-swears were way more noticeable. Maybe the swearing improves in later books.

I will likely continue with this series. (Oh, who am I kidding? I've already requested the next one from the library.) These books are fun and feel indulgent and are very quick to read. Just the perfect thing to sandwich between horror and classics, or whatever you need a bit of a break from.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

How to apply for a library job, part 1: submitting your application

After being laid off in 2009, I spent a full 2 years searching for a new job during the recession. I learned a lot about applying for jobs and interviewing. Now I'm a department head in my library and I've been on the other side of the process and getting just as much experience at hiring as I did at applying. I've been on hiring committees pretty constantly for the last 6 months for everything from library pages to the Assistant Director.

In seeing so many resumes and cover letters and conducting so many interviews, I realize that many things that seemed obvious to me apparently are not. I've also learned a lot that I wish I knew when I was applying for jobs. So I'd like to share what I've learned here. I hope you find this advice helpful.

One caveat: Hiring managers are all different people looking for different things, so a lot depends on the particular hiring committee. But I'm sure I'm not alone on most of this.

Cover letter

  • Write one. This shouldn't need to be said, but apparently it does. Your cover letter should not just be two sentences saying that you are applying for a job and your resume is attached. We can figure that out. That's not what a cover letter is for: it's to convince us that you are worth interviewing. See more about cover letter content below.
  • Know what the title of the job is that you are applying for, and the name of the library. Spell these things correctly. If you are directing your letter to a particular person, also spell their name correctly. I can't emphasize that enough. Details count: if the name has an accent mark over one of the letters, don't think you can leave that out. They will notice.
  • Proofread your letter. Make sure you're using complete sentences that make sense and that you've used a consistent font throughout. Also, use spellcheck.

If you do these things, you are halfway there. Congratulations! However, if this job is competitive you really need to put some thought and work into the content of your letter. Here is what I look for in a cover letter:
  • Tell me why you're interested in this job, especially if it's different from the path you are on. If you're applying for a job in a public library and you currently work in academic, or you're applying for a reference job and currently work in technical services, tell me why you're making a change. If you don't, I'll assume you're just applying for everything and don't especially care about this particular job.
  • Tell me about things you've done that you are proud of. Did you plan a successful event? Spearhead an innovative change at your library? Did your collection management increase circulation in your areas? Were you recognized for an achievement?
  • Tell me about any special skills or abilities you have. I don't need a list of what you do in your job. If you're a reference librarian you don't need to tell me in your cover letter that you answer reference questions; I'll assume it, because that's what reference librarians do. But do tell me if you are especially good at handling difficult patron interactions, or enjoy public speaking, or are the go-to person at your library for readers advisory questions about science fiction.
  • If you aren't very experienced, you may not have a catalog of accomplishments and skills to write about. That's ok. But tell me what about this position and the library especially excites you, and be specific. I like when applicants mention seeing the article in Library Journal about our Doctor Who Day, or tell us they've been coming to this library since they were a kid, or enthuse about all of our LGBT programming. You get extra points for being especially interested in the things that make our library unique.
  • Use the cover letter to explain anything strange that may jump out at me when I look at your resume. If you have a large gap in employment, or left libraries for a very different job fairly recently before coming back, or if you're a library director and you're applying for a lower level position I may have questions. This is tricky because it may be hard to address it concisely in a cover letter and best left to an interview, but you want to make sure you get that interview. None of the things above will alone make me put you in the reject pile, so if the rest of your letter and resume look good you'll probably be fine. But just consider it.
  • Keep it to a page or less. A few paragraphs is fine. Be concise.
  • Work on your opening. I used to start every cover letter with "I'm writing to apply for x position which I heard about on the x website. My ..... skills and experience with.... make me an excellent candidate for the position. My resume is attached for your review." Because that's what I was told. But do you know how incredibly tedious it is to read 20 cover letters that all start that way? Be better than that. Start right off with the good stuff so I'll keep reading!


After reading your cover letter, I'll skim your resume. That's right: I don't read every word of it. Sorry! I know you put a lot of work into it, but at the end of the day it's just a list of facts, which is boring reading. Again, this is me and other hiring managers may work differently but when I have 62 applications to get through (like for our most recent opening) I am not going to read every single word. However, if your cover letter catches my eye I'll pay closer attention to your resume. I'm usually just looking for particular things, but of course you don't know what those things are, so make sure everything is there and readable.
  • Skip the objective. It only reiterates that you want this job and I already know that. It's just a waste of space.
  • Formatting is important. As I said, I'm looking for particular things and it's much easier to find if your resume is easy on the eye. The first thing I will look for is your MLS, so make sure it's obvious in your easy-to-find education section. 
  • Put your job experience into some sort of recognizable order. Chronological is most helpful, because I look at your resume as a story of your career and it's easier to follow that story if it's in order. Unless you have a ton of library jobs under your belt and it would make your resume too long, I do want to see non-library experience. If you worked as a waiter for a long time that tells me something really positive about your customer service skills. If you have a background in photography, I will be scheming about how we can exploit this on this job. Almost everything is somehow relevant to a job in a public library.
  • Just like with your cover letter, proofread. Make sure your bullet-points line up, that your fonts are consistent, and that there's enough white space that your resume isn't just an assault of words. 

After applying

  • Please do not contact me to ask if I've received your application. They go to HR so I don't even see them until after the posting is closed. I've heard advice floating around recently to call and follow-up after applying, but please for the love of god ignore this advice. It is pestering. I cannot imagine how annoying it would be if even a fraction of the 62 applicants to this latest job called to "follow-up." Which, what does that even mean? The only way we can respond is to say that we will contact you if we want to interview you, and you should already know this.
  • Don't be discouraged. If you've done everything you can do, feel good about that. What you can't control are the other candidates and there will always be candidates out there who are better than you in some way, or in a way that is more appealing to that particular hiring committee at that particular time. You can't do anything about this, so don't sweat it. If you are really interested at working at that library and something else opens up later, please by all means, apply again! 

I hope this is helpful to someone out there. I welcome questions, advice, or arguments in the comments. If you do hiring and you feel differently about any of these things, please say so because I'm sure the job seekers out there would like to know.

Stay tuned for Part 2: interviewing