2011 Reading Challenge Results and More

I knew at the end of last year that I had signed up for too many reading challenges, especially since the little one was going to be born early on in the new year (2011), but I signed up for a ton anyway.

For those who are interested, I’m going to share with you some results.  First I read 107 books this year, which is a feat considering the life changes of a new baby and house that occurred.  I finished 2 read-a-longs (IT by Stephen King and Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles), but failed a third (Villette by Charlotte Bronte).  I hosted my own challenge — 2011 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge, which wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped, but was renewed for 2012.

Ok, the challenges I failed to complete are:

  • 2011 Audio Book Challenge, which I signed up for 3 audio books and only listened to 1.  I had grand plans for listening to 2 others, but alas, with no commute and working from home, that didn’t happen.
  • Nordic Reading Challenge 2011, which I signed up to read 3 books, particularly those by Steig Larsson that I’ve wanted to read forever.  It just didn’t happen.
  • 2011 Sookie Stackhouse Reading Challenge, which was informal with Dar of Peeking Between the Pages, and I’m not sure if she read any either.  I only have to read beginning with book 5 through the rest, but it didn’t happen either.

These are the challenges I completed:

Ireland Reading Challenge, which I signed up to read 2 books.

Wish I’d Read That Challenge 2011, which I signed up to read 3 books and actually read 18.

2011 New Authors Reading Challenge, which I signed up to read 25 new-to-me authors and read 77.

2011 U.S. Civil War Challenge that I co-host with Anna and barely finished with just three books.

2011 Fearless Poetry Exploration Challenge that I signed up to read 5-10 books and actually read 33.

South Asian Reading Challenge, which I signed up to read 3 books.

Finally, even though the Reagan Arthur Challenge is perpetual, I’m dropping this from my list because I never seem to get to the books.

This year I’m experimenting with selling my Best of 2011 list to those interested for $9, and the list includes just poetry and fiction since that’s mainly what I read and review here.  Anyone who wants the list can send payment through PayPal to savvyverseandwit AT gmail DOT com or if you need other arrangements send me an email, and I will email you the link and password for the list.

In 2012, I hope to read as much or more books, finish all my challenges, and have lots of fun with the blog and reading. I also plan to get back to writing…

We the Animals by Justin Torres

We the Animals by Justin Torres is raw, abrasive, and rough because its characters are “animals” reverting to their baser selves in fear or confusion.  The novel reads like a short story collection, throwing readers into brief moments throughout the lives of three boys growing up in Brooklyn with a Puerto Rican father and a white mother.  Manny, Joel, and the third boy who narrates the story, creates an unconventional coming-of-age story.

“It wasn’t just the cooing words, but the damp of her voice, the tinge of her pain — it was the warm closeness of her bruises — that sparked me.”  (page 17)

These boys are wild and crazy, and their dysfunctional family life has taken them on a roller coaster ride of emotions from anger as their father beats them to deep sorrow when their mother comes home from her job to find their father has left.  These boys run free in the neighborhood, have no manners, and are struggling to find their place in the world.  Are they boys that need the protection of their mother or are they men who can take on their father and be free?  Torres shows episodes in which both of these things are true, but these boys are clearly in between, at an age where things can be magical but reality is too stark to ignore.

Torres’ writing is instinctive and brutal at times, giving this novel an autobiographical feel.  The novel is told from the viewpoint of the youngest boy reminiscing and much of it seems nostalgic, even for the not-so-normal parts of his life — where he sees the good in it and possibly relationships he misses having.  However, even though the novel is told from the point of view of the youngest brother, readers may find themselves disconnected from the characters because the scenes are so clipped and blaze by with quick, bright images that shock them — at least until the end.  At little more than 100 pages, We the Animals takes readers on a quick journey through a rough childhood of poor, mixed-race boys in Brooklyn who have to deal with more than there share of depravity and sadness.

I want to thank Ti at Book Chatter for her review that got me interested in Torres’ work.

About the Author:

JUSTIN TORRES was raised in upstate New York. His work has appeared in Granta, Tin House, and Glimmer Train. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was the recipient of a Rolón Fellowship in Literature from United States Artists and is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Among many other things, he has worked as a farmhand, a dog walker, a creative writing teacher, and a bookseller.

This is my 67th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

This is my 18th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That Challenge.

Never Knowing by Chevy Stevens

Never Knowing by Chevy Stevens follows the success of her debut Still Missing (my review).  Again, Stevens uses therapy sessions with Nadine to tell a terrifying story that leaves readers anxious and biting their nails.  In her second novel, Sara Gallagher — resident of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, who restores furniture for a living — walks her therapist through the search for her birth mother and how it led to her discovery that her birth father has committed some heinous acts.

Recapitalizing on the “waiting” in Still Missing, where the Annie waited for her captor to return and waited for her moment of escape, Sara Gallagher is waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for the other shoe to drop with her fiance, and waiting for her birth father to come out of hiding.

“When I first told you I found my mother, I said it was like standing on cracking ice.  This is like falling straight through into the freezing water.  You struggle back to the surface, your lungs burning, everything focused on that patch of light above you.  And you finally make it there, but the hole’s frozen over.”  (page 164 of ARC)

The sessions between Sara and her therapist ramp up the tension even further, keeping readers anxiously turning the pages.  Like other thrillers, the situations are surreal, but not to the point that they are unbelievable.  The police officers are running Sara ragged with their demands, veiled disappointments, and outright guilt trips.  Moreover, the entire situation has caused problems with her adoptive family and her fiance.  Readers will want to slap the cops in this one, while at the same time become suspicious of her fiance and the cops throughout the story and shake Sara.

“This last week I went through the motions, but I felt flat, disconnected — angry.  I didn’t know what to do with this new reality, the horror of my conception.  I wanted to bury it in the backyard, far away from anyone’s eyes.  My skin crawled with knowledge, with the evil that I’d looked into, that had created me.  I took long showers.  Nothing helped.  The dirt was on the inside.”  (page 31)

Stevens creates tension and builds sympathy easily.  The main protagonist, Sara, transforms from a woman with abandonment issues to a woman exhibiting the symptoms of a rape victim and to a strong mother bent on saving her own child from danger.  While some of the plot is predictable for avid mystery readers, there are revelations at the end of the novel that will make it worthwhile.  The story is tied up neatly at the end and is satisfying, though bittersweet.  Overall, Never Knowing is a fast-paced, thriller for the summer, and it begs the question would it be better to know or not to know about your birth parents or your own past if you were adopted.

About the Author:

Chevy Stevens grew up on a ranch on Vancouver Island and still calls the island home. For most of her adult life she worked in sales, first as a rep for a giftware company and then as a Realtor. At open houses, waiting between potential buyers, she spent hours scaring herself with thoughts of horrible things that could happen to her. Her most terrifying scenario, which began with being abducted, was the inspiration for STILL MISSING. After six months Chevy sold her house and left real estate so she could finish the book.

Chevy enjoys writing thrillers that allow her to blend her interest in family dynamics with her love of the west coast lifestyle. When she’s not working on her next book, she’s hiking with her husband and dog in the local mountains.  Please also check out her blog, follow her on Twitter, and on Facebook.

This is my 17th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That Challenge.  I’ve wanted to read this book since finishing Still Missing and listening to Chevy Stevens talk about her books live on BookTrib.

Where She Went by Gayle Forman

“But the end, when it finally came, was quiet.” (page 109)

Where She Went by Gayle Forman is the follow-up to If I Stay (my review — please do not read this review of Where She Went until you’ve read the first in the series because this will contain spoilers), and it is told from Adam’s point of view several years after the end of the previous book.  His band Shooting Star has hit it big, he’s got an A-list actress girlfriend, and all the money he could want, but what he doesn’t have is what he wants most of all.

Closure is a word that is thrown around a lot, but as humans we often want to know the reasons why things happen, and when we are not given a reason — even one we think is bollix — it incenses us.  In some ways we become obsessive about it.  Forman has a firm grasp of this obsession and its ties to passionate love, and the intensity of these feelings come to the fore when Adam is in New York and attends a concert at Carnegie Hall.

“I slide into my seat and close my eyes, remembering the last time I went to a cello concert somewhere this fancy.  Five years ago, on our first date.  Just as I did that night, I feel this mad rush of anticipation, even though I know that unlike that night, tonight I won’t kiss her.  Or touch her.”  (page 38)

In addition to the flashbacks of Adam’s rise to fame, Forman sprinkles in lyrics, which act like stanzas from poems, at the beginning of certain chapters, providing a certain lens or frame of mind for the characters.  Readers will enjoy seeing the more creative fruits of Adam’s labors because it provides an insiders view into his evolution into the “guy” he’s become.  Forman also does well showing the realities of the music industry and how many musicians just become commodities, losing themselves and their artistry.

Told from Adam’s point of view and using a similar style of flashbacks,  Forman again builds the tension between Mia and Adam from the beginning of their relationship and its end.  A young love unfinished, a journey taken alone by both characters, and so much left unsaid between them — a situation ripe for awkwardness, tenderness, and more.  Where She Went is an excellent follow up that not only fleshes out these characters, making them your friends so that you cheer them on and hope they find peace.  Both are quick, engaging reads, but are far from fluff, dealing with tough topics like death and redemption.

This is my 16th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That ChallengeI’ve wanted to read this book since reading Jill’s dual review in June.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

If I Stay by Gayle Forman is a young adult fiction novel about a teenage musical prodigy and her family.  She’s got a boyfriend with a band that is just taking off, and she’s under pressure to gain admission to Julliard playing the cello.  Tragedy strikes and changes everything, shaking up her world.

Forman’s prose is engaging from the first page, but the tragedy that befalls Mia is a predictable plot device that forces this blossoming 17-year-old to reassess her life.  Her music transports her to a safe place and even though she is not as confident as she thinks she must be to perform it, it is as much a part of her as her family and her boyfriend.  The strength of this novel is Mia’s character, her introspection, her trepidation at experiencing new things, and her ability to overcome embarrassment and fear.

“And I didn’t know how to rock-talk at all.  It was a language I should’ve understood, being both a musician and Dad’s daughter, but I didn’t.  It was like how Mandarin speakers can sort of understand Cantonese but not really, even though non-Chinese people assume all Chinese can communicate with one another, even though Mandarin and Cantonese are actually different.”  (page 47)

Mia often feels on the outside of her family, which has deep rock-and-roll ties in the community, and from her boyfriend, who is a lead guitarist in a up-and-coming rock band, and sometimes even from her own classical music because she has not done many of the things that other classical music prodigies have done with local quartets, etc.  However, Mia continues to plug along, beating back her insecurities and striving for the life she wants.  Forman has a firm grasp of a teenager’s life — the peer pressures they face, the insecurities that haunt each decision they make, and the passions in which they lose themselves.

Forman builds tension by shifting from Mia’s present into her past, careful not to rush through each moment and unfurling revelations as Mia sees them in each fragment of time.  Readers will be moved by Mia’s story and her struggle to find her true self amid high school pressures and more.  But If I Stay by Gayle Forman is more than a coming of age story, it’s about the ties that bind us to one another and how we keep those ties alive and relevant.

This is my 15th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That ChallengeI’ve wanted to read this book since reading Jill’s dual review in June.



This is my 32nd book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.


Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

More than a follow-up to Shanghai Girls (my review), Dreams of Joy by Lisa See is about sisterly love, loyalty, and adolescence.  Readers will see in Joy, Pearl’s daughter, the headstrong young woman that many parents see in their daughters — they know everything and cannot be told anything they don’t already know and understand.  However, what do young adults do when the times get rough in many cases?  They run.  Joy is no exception, but in her case, she not only runs from home when family secrets are revealed, but she runs to a nation she has never lived in and that is under the iron fist of communism and at the whims of Chairman Mao.  Pearl heads to China after her daughter, in a country that tortured her and abandoned her when her family needed help most.

“Yes, I’ve escaped the blaming eyes of my mother and the reproachful eyes of my aunt, but I can’t escape myself.  The only things I can do to save myself are pull the weeds in the fields, let my emotions for Tao envelop me, and obey what Z.G. tells me to do with a paintbrush, pencil, charcoal, or pastel.”  (page 87)

Set in late 1950s to early 1960s China, Joy brings us on a journey through China in her quest to rediscover herself and find her biological father, while her mother searches for her and evades deportation, imprisonment, and other punishments for her capitalist ties and bourgeois thoughts and actions.  See has taken these characters from China to America, shown us how Pearl and her sister May adapted and became American in Shanghai Girls, and in Dreams of Joy she has expanded their world and struggles, demonstrating how returning to the homeland is fraught with danger and has essentially left Pearl and Joy country-less.  To enter China, they must renounce their U.S. ties, which were hard to win and maintain when Pearl and May arrived as immigrants.

“Four months later, I’m on the deck watching Shanghai come into view.  A week ago, I stepped off a plane in Hong Kong and was enveloped by odors I hadn’t smelled in that particular combination in years.  Now, as I wait to disembark, I breathe in the scents of home — the oil- and sewage-infused water, rice being cooked on a passing sampan, rotting fish moldering on the dock, vegetables grown upriver wilting in the heat and humidity.”  (page 56)

While much of the story is focused on Joy and her first experiences with her biological father Z.G. and homeland China, Pearl’s arrival complicates the story as she and Z.G. are presented as Joy’s parents but are not married and do not share a bed. For Pearl, her journey is not only to reclaim her daughter, but also one of reconciliation with the past, which ultimately leads to the redemption she has longed for.  She returns to Shanghai to find the city in shambles and less vibrant than when she left it, but her home remains and she begins anew as she patiently waits for her daughter’s return to Shanghai from the countryside and to her open arms.

“The village, the fields, and the canteen begin to look like movie sets — just facades.  The people around me seem fake too, putting on their smiling face and shouting slogans about things they don’t believe.  Everyone still pretends to be open, welcoming, and enthusiastic about the Great Leap Forward, but there’s a furtiveness to them that reminds me of rats slinking along the edges of walls.”  (page 260)

What’s fantastic about this novel is not only the deep examination of what love is in its many forms, but what strong bonds a mother and daughter have regardless if the mother is biological or not.  There is a lot to discuss in this novel for book clubs and the like, particularly as See shows the deeply hypocritical slogans and actions of the Maoist regime and its campaigns to “out produce” imperialist nations like Britain and the United States in the Great Leap Forward, while at the same time maintaining its ties with capitalist nations through Hong Kong (which during this time was owned by Britain) and several fairs in Canton.

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See is one of the best books of 2011, and readers will be dragged kicking and screaming into a dark past filled with hypocrisy, corruption, and famine that makes the journey even harder for Pearl, Joy, and their family.  There are moments of joy, resolution, and sadness that will touch readers deeply.  A cultural melting pot of characters that delves deep below the surface of political beliefs and preconceptions to the core of what happiness and reunification with family really means.  Although many Chinese see their homeland and culture as tied to Mao’s liberation, it is clear that deep down their ties to family are at the core of their decisions and actions.  The circle closes around Pearl, May, Z.G., and Joy to make the dreams of bliss a reality for them all.

About the Author:

Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Peony in Love, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year.  She lives in Los Angeles, California.

Please check out her Website and my interviewed Lisa See, here.  Please also check out the discussion guide for Dreams of Joy.

The Giveaway for my ARC of Dreams of Joy (international):

1.  Leave a comment about which Lisa See novel is your favorite or why you want to read Dreams of Joy.

2.  Tweet, Facebook, or blog about the giveaway and leave a link in the comments for a second entry.

Deadline is June 22, 2011, at 11:59PM EST


This is my 14th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That Challenge.   I’ve wanted to read this since I finished Shanghai Girls last year.

Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins

Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins, published in 2011 by Random House, is broken into four sections and includes a quote at the beginning from Alan Bennett‘s The Uncommon Reader, “It was the kind of library he had only read about in books.”

Collins’ mater-of-fact tone in these poems treats death and loss as an inevitability, which it is, but at the same time there is a reverence for the dead, dying, and living.  In terms of Bennett’s quote at the beginning, Collins’ phenomenal library is the library of life — the spinning of the dog as it lays down and its movement from one spot to another or the moments in marriage or shopping for a mattress.

From Thieves (page 16-7), “for I was a fellow thief/having stolen for myself this hour, lifting the wedge of it from my daily clock/so I could walk up a wooded hillside/and sit for a while on a rock the size of a car.//” or from Simple Arithmetic (page 32-3), “and gone are my notebook and my pencil/and there I go, too,/erased by my own eraser and blown like shavings off the page.//”, Collins demonstrates the fleeting nature of our time here, how it is borrowed, and how we must make the best of it before it is gone.

Collins’ poetry is accessible as he creates stories and narrations to engage the reader and teach them what he sees.  Like a horoscope, each poem sketches a future, but like horoscopes, the power to make them true or to change them lies in the person meant to live them.  In The Chairs That No One Sits In (page 49-50), “You see them on porches and on lawns/down by the lakeside/usually arranged in pairs implying a couple// . . . It may not be any of my business,/but let us suppose one day/that everyone who placed those vacant chairs//on a veranda or a dock sat down in them/if only for the sake of remembering/what it was they thought deserved//to be viewed from two chairs,/side by side with a table in between./The clouds are high and massive on that day.//”.

The Straightener (page 5-6)

Even as a boy I was a straightener.
On a long table near my window
I kept a lantern, a spyglass, and my tomahawk.

Never tomahawk, lantern, and spyglass.
Always lantern, spyglass, tomahawk.

You could never tell when you would need them,
but that was the order you would need them in.

On my desk: pencils at attention in a cup,
foreign coins stacked by size,

a photograph of my parents,
and under the heavy green blotter,
a note from a girl I was fond of.

These days I like to stack in pyramids
the cans of soup in the pantry
and I keep the white candles in rows like logs of wax.

And if I can avoid doing my taxes
or phoning my talkative aunt
on her eighty-something birthday,

I will use a ruler to measure the space
between the comb and brush on the dresser,
the distance between shakers of salt and pepper.

Today, for example, I will devote my time
to lining up my shoes in the closet,
pair by pair in chronological order

and lining up my shirts on the rack by color
to put off having to tell you, dear,
what I really think and what I now am bound to do.

There are quite a few references to Dante’s The Divine Comedy in these poems, reflecting the journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise.  There are slivers of light from paradise and there are moments of fiery hell, but most of these poems live in the present or the past, examining with understanding, reverence, and sometimes regret that the actions we take in this life cannot be undone.  But Collins also touches upon the tightrope we must walk in relationships with our loved ones.

Overall, Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins is a collection of reflections and predictions for the future, but beyond the attention paid to larger concerns of life, Collins reflects on the smaller moments in time and the joys, frustration, and satisfaction they bring.  A fascinating look at everyday life that makes each moment extraordinary, and a collection that should be added to every library.


This is my 14th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.


This is my 13th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That Challenge.  I’ve wanted to read this since I learned Collins would have a new book this year.

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens

Broken down into sessions with a therapist and told in first person point of view, Still Missing by Chevy Stevens provides just the right amount of mystery and tension as Annie’s ordeal is revealed.  Readers should be prepared for a severely broken character from page one, which becomes apparent from the first word she utters to her therapist.  Annie is angry and still scared, and she struggles to tell her story.  The only comfort she has with her therapist is that she’s set the ground rules, and in this way, she has become similar to her abductor.

The jarring narrative style is perfect for the mystery and terror of this story, and Stevens has deftly created an angry and disillusioned character who feels abandonment down to her core.  Cracking her tough exterior is a slow process for the therapy sessions, and there are moments where readers will want the pace to pick up, but Stevens has set the pace appropriately to lead up to the twist at the end.

“Worse, I’ve become one of them–the whiny, depressing people who have no problem telling you exactly how shitty their end of the stick is.  All delivered in a tone of voice that makes it clear they not only got the wrong end, you got the one that was supposed to be theirs.” (page 29 of ARC)

During a couple of moments in the novel, Annie contends she’s watched enough crime dramas and read enough books to know about the criminal mind — at least in part — but then proceeds to “appease” her abductor as he tries to force himself upon her to protect her friend from him, even though from the beginning it has been obvious that he prefers her to express fear because it arouses him.  This may be a bit nit-picky, but given the set up, readers may find it inconsistent with Annie’s earlier characterization of herself.

Stevens successfully creates a character who is tough to love or even sympathize with as she pushes away everyone in her life, including her devoted boyfriend, especially when all readers see of her relationships are from her point of view.  Why does Luke remain devoted while she’s gone, why does her mother take her in if she’s so callous and drunk all the time, etc.?  The mystery of her kidnapping is revealed slowly throughout the therapy sessions, which move through “present” events more rapidly near the end of the book.  Readers may see the ending coming before it gets there if they’re intuitive and looking for clues along the way, and the final line of the book is very trite.  However, the action and suspense created by Stevens’ narrative style make the journey worthwhile.

Annie in many ways is still missing even after she’s returned home, and she was even partially missing before she was abducted.  Still Missing will provide readers and book clubs with a great deal to discuss about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), abduction, rape, and other horrifying events.

About the Today’s Exclusive Online Event:

The paperback release of Still Missing hits stores today, and in honor of that event, BookTrib is holding an online chat and giveaway with the author Chevy Stevens at 3 PM.  In addition to the online chat, the event will include exclusive video from the author and 10 gift bags for the giveaway.  Don’t miss out!

About the Author:

Chevy Stevens grew up on a ranch on Vancouver Island and still calls the island home. For most of her adult life she worked in sales, first as a rep for a giftware company and then as a Realtor. At open houses, waiting between potential buyers, she spent hours scaring herself with thoughts of horrible things that could happen to her. Her most terrifying scenario, which began with being abducted, was the inspiration for STILL MISSING. After six months Chevy sold her house and left real estate so she could finish the book.

Chevy enjoys writing thrillers that allow her to blend her interest in family dynamics with her love of the west coast lifestyle. When she’s not working on her next book, she’s hiking with her husband and dog in the local mountains.  Please also check out her blog, follow her on Twitter, and on Facebook.


This is my 21st book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.



This is my 12th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That Challenge.  I’ve wanted to read this since I received a copy from Shelf Awareness.

Midnight Voices by Deborah Ager

Midnight Voices by Deborah Ager, published by small press Cherry Grove Collections, is a collection that gives voice to the thoughts, the events, and the split seconds before tragedy or fateful decisions are made that are only heard in silence.  The silence is a voice, quick to speak and die out without stalking across the stage and declaring itself.  Secrets are revealed in these poems, like the undiscovered joy “Deborah Sampson” (page 11) — a woman who enlisted as a man in the Army during the Revolutionary War — felt posing as a man and disappearing from her real self.  Or in “The Moment Before the Moment” (page 19), where the narrator comes across the hidden beauty of a sunrise before the actual sun rises above the horizon.  Each poem illuminates the in-between, the edge, the precipice before the collision of events or moments in time.

The Space Coast (page 14; click the poem title and scroll the page to see this poem and others in the collection)

An Airedale rolling through green frost,
cabbage palms pointing their accusing leaves
at whom, petulant waves breaking at my feet.
I ran from them. Nights, yellow lights
scoured sand. What was ever found
but women in skirts folded around the men
they loved that Friday? No one found me.
And how could that have been, here, where
even botanical names were recorded
and small roads mapped in red?
Night, the sky is black paper pecked with pinholes.
Tortoises push eggs into warm sand.
Was it too late to have come here?
Everything’s discovered. Everything’s spoken for.
The air smells of salt. My lover’s body.
Perhaps it is too late. I want to run
the beach’s length, because it never ends.
The barren beach. Airedales grow
fins on their hard heads, drowned surfers
resurface, and those little girls
who would not be called back to safety are found.

At times, the images seem thrown together haphazardly, but readers must let themselves go, meditate on the words in the context of the moment presented, before the “truth” is revealed.  What is not said explicitly about certain moments can be as violent as the moment that remains unspoken — what happens between walking through a park after dark following a mother’s rejection and when the narrator wakes up with his pants around his ankles in “Rohypnol” (page 34).  What this style shows is that there are numerous ways to tell a story and to uncover “truth,” and it does not always have to be explicit or harrowing, though there are moments of violence on the surface of some poems.

Ager spends a great deal of time exploring the hidden spaces in our minds, our secret desires and thoughts, and even the thoughts we didn’t know we had.  Like a mother who has no husband or children to take care of for the evening in “Alone” (page 38), and all she can think of is the next task on the list or when the next task will come for her.  But beyond that, her personification of inanimate object, such as a telephone, can convey those unspoken desires in a way that a mere narrative involving a man and a woman cannot.

Midnight Voices by Deborah Ager is a personification of silent whispers in dark corners, where the secrets and mysteries of ourselves lie in wait — wanting to be revealed and not.  Readers will take a journey into these recesses and uncover their own hidden secrets, smile at the camaraderie these poems produce, and search for more.  One of the best collections I’ve read this year.

About the Poet:

Deborah Ager’s poems appear in New England Review, The Georgia Review, Quarterly West, New South and in the anthologies No Tell Motel and Best New Poets. She’s received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and she received a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

She is founding editor and publisher of 32 Poems Magazine. Many poems first appearing in 32 Poems have been honored in the Best American Poetry and Best New Poets anthologies and on Verse Daily and Poetry Daily. Ager codirects the Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Reading Series in Washington, DC and teaches at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD.


This is my 12th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.


This is my 19th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.




This is my 11th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That Challenge.  I’ve wanted to read this since the poet sent it to me for review, but life got in the way.

Lit Windowpane by Suzanne Frischkorn

Suzanne Frischkorn’s Lit Windowpane is a slim collection of poems, published by small press Main Street Rag, that examines what humanity has done to the environment and yet at the same time praises the unfettered beauty of nature.  Like the men in the tavern of “The Mermaid Takes Issue With the Fable” (page 3), humans have “blackened” the Earth and “laughed” along the way as we’ve entertained ourselves without a single moment’s pause about what our actions have caused — and in some cases irreparably damaged.

Many of these poems are like gazing through a lit windowpane at the wildness of nature, watching it from afar and not interacting or obstructing it — enabling it to just be.  Frischkorn’s lines are short, yet powerful in that readers immediately picture the scene and the action.  Upon further reflection, they come to see the message beneath the lines — from preserving nature to decrying the harm that has come to nature at the hands of humanity.

Youth Drowns in Housatonic River (page 4)

He swam across
+++ the inlet near Beard’s Island,

and I was lying in my river bed
+++ watching light ripple the surface.

I saw him swim a straight line
+++ through the sun. I had no choice

but to eat fish from the river,
+++ and the soil, it finds its way into

my skin. I am the river and the river
+++ is contaminated. The river is dying

and I am dying. His body was lean
+++ and strong, yet the cold shut down

his circulation. His arms. His legs.
+++ Please tell his mother I brushed

the hair from his forehead and sang
+++ sweet songs until the divers came

a day later. Tell her, he swam a straight line.

In “Youth Drowns in Housatonic River,” the narrator not only becomes the river, but also tells the tale of a drowning youth and the interconnectedness of humans and their environment. “The river is dying/and I am dying,” shows this connection, as do the lines in which the narrator is eating fish from the contaminated river.  Frischkorn’s images grown up and out, twisting around the reader, weaving a scene that gets under the skin and causes readers to rethink their own actions toward the environment.  A perfect example of this is her poem “‘A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door,’ T. Wolfe.”  The narrator talks about being reincarnated as a stone, a leaf, and unfound door, and through each scene readers see how easily a stone or a leaf can be treasured one moment and either discarded or forgotten in the next moment.

Overall, Lit Windowpane by Suzanne Frischkorn is a collection that seeks to quietly raise awareness among its readers, while cultivating a new appreciation for the beauty and mystery of the natural world.

About the Poet:

Suzanne Frischkorn is the author of Girl on a Bridge (2010), and Lit Windowpane (2008) both from Main Street Rag Publishing. In addition she is the author of five chapbooks, most recently American Flamingo (2008).

Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Ecotone, Indiana Review, Margie, Verse Daily, and other publications. She has new poems forthcoming, or in the current issues of Barn Owl Review, Copper Nickel, North American Review, PALABRA, Printer’s Devil Review, and Puerto del Sol.

From 2001 to 2005 she served as an editor for Samsära Quarterly and is currently an Assistant Editor for Anti-.

A 2009 Emerging Writers Fellow of The Writer’s Center, her honors also include the Aldrich Poetry Award for her chapbook, Spring Tide, selected by Mary Oliver, and an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism.


This is my 11th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.



This is my 18th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.




This is my 10th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That Challenge.  I’ve wanted to read this since the poet sent it to me for review, but life got in the way.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins is the third book in the young adult Hunger Games trilogy featuring Katniss Everdeen, Peeta, and Gale.  Readers have been raving about the series, and many are obsessed with the Peeta-Katniss-Gale love triangle.  (You can read my reviews of the previous two books, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire — IF you have not read the previous two books, be warned that this review will be full of spoilers).

Katniss has been rescued by the rebel alliance of District 13 — thought to have been destroyed by the Capitol — but Peeta was left behind to be captured by President Snow’s forces.  Beyond deciding whether or not to become the symbol — the MOCKINGJAY — of the rebellion, Katniss must further realize that she needs to make adult decisions, decisions that could impact the fate not only of the rebels, but of the human race.  Along the way, she will reconnect with Gale, her family, Finnick, and others from the Games, but she also will be hit hard by the tragedy of loss, even those losses she was too numb or too blind to notice when they occurred.  As part of her evolution, Katniss must learn to discern for herself the best course of action and how her actions impact others, as well as how each side is manipulating every move she makes.

“After about twenty minutes, Johanna comes in and throws herself across the foot of my bed.  ‘You missed the best part.  Delly lost her temper with Peeta over how he treated you.  She got very squeaky.  It was like someone stabbing a mouse with a fork repeatedly.  The whole dining hall was riveted.'” (page 244)

Collins has a firm grasp of how a young teenage girl would react to high levels of danger, betrayal, and dystopian heartbreak.  Her no-nonsense prose keeps the plot moving quickly and easily paints a picture that young and adult readers become lost in.  Time flies quickly as readers get absorbed in the rebellion, cheering on Katniss and her struggle to find her rightful place.  However, there are moments when the reader will want the plot to move more quickly or will want more action or will wonder why Collins is beating them over the head with the references to the oppressive nature and rigidity found in District 13.  At one point, it seems that the narration takes on a preachy tone as the benefits of democracy are heralded above the current, rationing-and-sharing government of District 13 and the power wielded by the dictatorship of the Capitol.  However, readers will easily forgive this digression as the action picks up once again.

What’s ironic about this third book is that Prim, Katiniss’ younger sister, seems more mature, while Katniss is still childlike and impulsive.  Prim seems to have matured in a way that Katniss, who has seen more violence, could not — perhaps because Katniss’ childhood was a place she could retreat to and feel safe.  Prim’s character development is not spelled out, but readers are likely to enjoy the new dynamic between her and her sister.  A number of secrets about the Capitol and what happened in District 13 are revealed, rounding out the trilogy.  Compared to the other books in the series, Mockingjay does not have as much action, but overall, it is a satisfactory end to this dystopian trilogy.

This is my 9th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That Challenge.  I’ve wanted to read this since I pre-ordered the book from Amazon.  It’s about time I read this one.

The Baghdad Blues by Sinan Antoon

Published in 2007 by small press Harbor Mountain Press, The Baghdad Blues by Sinan Antoon is a collection of poems that straddles the line between war and peace with war.  The narrator uncovers the emptiness of loss beneath the hard exterior of those consumed by the act of war, while at the same time drawing line in the sand to call out the enemy.  Each line is carefully selected for its subtle power, which can only be unleashed by an unexpected turn in the poem or in a stanza.

From “Wrinkles; on the wind’s forehead” (page 23-8)


the wind was tired
from carrying the coffins
and leaned
against a palm tree . . .


My heart is a stork
perched on a distant dome
in Baghdad
it’s nest made of bones . . .


the Tigris and Euphrates
are two strings
in death’s lute
and we are songs
or fingers strumming

The collection is divided into four parts, with Phantasmagoria II containing the most poems. Phantasmagoria, according to Wikipedia, “was a form of theater which used a modified magic lantern to project frightening images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts onto walls, smoke, or semi-transparent screens, frequently using rear projection. The projector was mobile, allowing the projected image to move and change size on the screen, and multiple projecting devices allowed for quick switching of different images.”  “A Photograph” is the most illustrative of phantasmagoria in that as the narrator unfolds the image of a photograph seen in the New York Times of a young boy in Baghdad, the true horror of the event comes to life and leaps off the page through the carefully chosen, yet sparse language used by Antoon.

Unlike other poets who discuss war in vivid and disturbing imagery, Antoon focuses on the impact of war on mothers, sons, and lovers as well as an entire nation and culture.  His use of slanted images and subtle transitions sets his verse apart from other “war” poets in that it creates an ironic atmosphere as the narrator speaks of blind bravery and courage, while at the same time stripping away worries of death by setting up orderly ways in which people will be taken care of once they have died.  There is a great sense of loss in many of these poems, but there is that faint hope that love will conquer all — whether it is the love of a mother for her son or the romantic love between men and women or the love of culture.

The Baghdad Blues by Sinan Antoon is a slim volume at 42 pages that will stick with readers long after they have read each poem.  Returning to these poems, readers will uncover the irony of Antoon’s words, but also the truth behind them.  Coping with the horrible sights and sounds that surround them, Iraqis must learn to preserve their sense of self amid chaos and find direction within the confines of their circumstances.

About the Poet:

Sinan Antoon is an Iraqi-born poet, novelist, filmmaker and assistant professor at New York University. His novel I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody and his collection of poems The Baghdad Blues are written with great sophistication and a haunting sense of irony, according to The Electronic Intifada.

Read more about him at NYU Gallatin.


This is my 10th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.



This is my 17th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.



This is my 8th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That Challenge. I’ve wanted to read this volume ever since I picked it up at the last Split This Rock Poetry Festival in March 2010.