Judging a Book by Its Lover by Lauren Leto

Judging a Book by Its Lover by Lauren Leto is a guide to the mind of readers everywhere, and it offers some great tips on how to fake it for readers who may not have read some contemporary or classic authors that everyone else has been.  Leto is like many of us in that she says, “Considering yourself a serious reader doesn’t mean you can’t read light books.  Loving to read means you sometimes like to turn your head off.  Reading is not about being able to recite passages from Camus by memory.  Loving young adult novels well past adolescence isn’t a sign of stunted maturity or intelligence.  The most important thing about reading is not the level of sophistication of the books on your shelf.  There is no prerequisite reading regimen for being a bookworm” (page 8).  To that end, she discloses that she’s likely to be found with the latest Janet Evanovich in her hand when she has to fly anywhere.

The initial confessions read like that of any bookworm, with the boxes and boxes of books moved from apartment to apartment and from makeshift bookshelf to re-purposed material made into a bookshelf — in her case, a couple of old ladders (page 13).  Leto even offers a funny little bit about changing the readers’ mascot from a worm to a cat, but one of the most ironic reasons in the book is because cats hold grudges (page 63) — like many do against James Frey from A Million Little Pieces, who offers a witty quote about Leto’s book on the cover.

Through a series of chapters of advice on how to fake having read a particular book, using vague statements and comparisons to popular movies and other writers you may have read, Leto has created an unapologetic homage to reading as entertainment, education, enjoyment, escapism, and understanding.  She even includes a chapter on rules for the book club, which means talking about book club with others not in your club or about the books you are reading in the club as well as how best to end a disagreement over something that happens in one of the books read by the group.  Her observations on members of a book club and their roles from the leader to the quiet (usually girl) member are in line with many readers’ experiences, including those who might even fit those character types in one group or another.

Some of the best aspects of this book are the snarky comments about authors and readers of certain authors, like those who adore Chuck Palahniuk are boys who cannot read and those who love Chuck Klosterman are boys who don’t read.  Leto’s comments about the “Literati,” a chapter with an alternate title of “Why Ernest Hemingway Once Told John Updike Literary New York Is a Bottle Full of Tapeworms Trying to Feed on Each Other,” is hilarious and a warning for those would-be writers out there.  Judging a Book by Its Lover by Lauren Leto is not really about judging anyone, but it is about having fun with books and reading, making connections even with strangers, and finding happiness in a bent page — to paraphrase her (page 245).

About the Author:

Lauren Leto dropped out of law school to start the popular humor blog “Texts from Last Night.” She co-authored the book Texts from Last Night: All the Texts No One Remembers Sending. She lives in Brooklyn.

This is my 78th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.

Everyday Writing by Midge Raymond

Everyday Writing: Tips and Prompts to Fit Your Regularly Scheduled Life by Midge Raymond is a slim volume with purpose — to get those writers back to the words on the page.  Raymond is a busy woman, like most writers, and she holds a full-time job in addition to writing.  Her advice is on point and should be taken to heart — by me especially.  The book is broken down into two main sections — tips on how to become a writer and stay in that mode and a series of writing prompts broken down my expected writing duration.

I’ve got a semi-unconventional review today.  This book offers me more motivation than ever.  With the toddler running around and the full-time job, plus the additional stress I’ve been under lately, I need a good kick in the butt to get me back to writing.

What I loved about Raymond’s book was her no-nonsense advice and her anecdotes about her own struggles with writing.  She even shares some of the best moments she’s experienced when she was procrastinating.  One major point that book bloggers already know, especially in this time of Twitter and other social media, that we need to disconnect from the Internet.  My book is overflowing with post-it tabs, but here are a couple of my favorite passages:

“Being an Everyday Writer is not about putting daily words on a page but about seeing the world as a writer and recognizing the myriad ways in which your everyday life informs your work.  And this, in turn, will put words on the page.”  (page 2)

“Writing exercises can help our writing in ways we don’t know until we do them.  They can, for instance, allow our minds to retreat from the puzzle of a current project and wander a bit, perhaps leading us back to the puzzle from a different angle and getting us closer to a solution.”  (page 6)

Some of her practical advice includes creating a schedule that works for you with your work and childcare schedule and that it doesn’t have to be every day.  Additionally, you have to remain open to revising the schedule and making sure that others in your life take your writing time as seriously as you do.  Writers also need to set bigger goals and break that down into more manageable goals, and these goals should be reassessed at least quarterly to determine how much progress has been made.  Another cool tool in the book is Raymond’s checklist for those writers who think they’ve finished a piece to make sure they’ve covered all the bases, including whether every scene is necessary and whether the point of view is consistent.

Everyday Writing: Tips and Prompts to Fit Your Regularly Scheduled Life by Midge Raymond is a slim book, just what writers need — practical advice, but not lengthy practical advice that causes them to procrastinate about their projects.  Raymond’s writing style as engaging as her advice, and the writing prompts can be used for any project.  What she offers most is the ability for writers to be flexible and not beat themselves up about it so long as they are meeting their own goals.

About the Author:

Midge Raymond’s short-story collection, Forgetting English, received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Indiana Review, North American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, the Los Angeles Times magazine, and many other publications. Her work has received several Pushcart Prize nominations and received an Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship.

Midge taught communication writing at Boston University for six years, and she has taught creative writing at Boston’s Grub Street Writers and Seattle’s Richard Hugo House. While living in Southern California, she held writing workshops and seminars at San Diego Writers, Ink, where she also served as vice president of the board of directors.

Midge lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she is co-founder of the boutique publisher Ashland Creek Press.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which was my book club’s October selection, has been celebrated and made into a movie already.  Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter share the narration for the 1960s segregated Jackson, Mississippi, as the lines blur between the races and to social classes.  While Skeeter’s social class is not as pure as it seems, the Black maids are struggling to make ends meet and hold their tongues even as others are engaged in sit-ins at the local Woolworth’s and marches.  Stockett carefully illustrates the social and color lines in the South, while also paying careful attention to the harsh realities of Black maids in white households.  This is not just a story about Black maids, but also about where stigma comes from, how it is perpetuated, and how it can be overcome.

“And I know there are plenty of other ‘colored’ things I could do besides telling my stories or going to Shirley Boon’s meetings — the mass meetings in town, the marches in Birmingham, the voting rallies upstate.  But truth is, I don’t care that much about voting.  I don’t care about eating at a counter with white people.  What I care about is, if in ten years, a white lady will call my girls dirty and accuse them of stealing the silver.”  (page 256)

Stockett has created a novel that gets readers thinking about their own environment and what they tolerate on a daily basis, even though they do not agree with certain things that happen or continue to be spoken in anger or prejudice toward others.  Like she notes in her “Too Little, Too Late” essay at the back of the paperback, no one in her white family who had a Black maid even thought about asking the maid what it was like to be Black in the deep south.  How many things that go on daily do we disagree with and dislike, but allow to happen without so much as a criticism or objection?

On one hand, readers are introduced to the Black maids and the prejudice they put up with from their white employers, and on the other hand, Stockett introduces Skeeter, a young woman returned from college to find that she is vastly different from her childhood friends, Hilly and Elizabeth.  While the parallel is lightly drawn and clearly not the same kind of prejudice on both sides, it does raise the question about what it means to create groups within a larger society to the exclusion of others.  Both avenues lead to great isolation and emotional pain, but the consequences of speaking out against that oppression are potentially more violent and devastating for the maids than for Skeeter.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett provides a balanced look at the love and disdain in the relationship between white women and families and Black maids, but it also tends to play it safer than one would expect given the volatile time period being discussed.  Yes, there are occasions of devastating tragedy, spousal abuse, and hints of other violent behavior, but truly the focus is less on the consequences of speaking out and more on the ties that bind each group to one another.  Stockett has chosen to show the complex relationships between these women given the societal constructs that constrain their actions and behaviors, even if they would wish it not so.

About the Author:

Kathryn Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Creative Writing, she moved to New York City where she worked in magazine publishing and marketing for nine years. She currently lives in Atlanta with her family. The Help is her first novel.


This is my 77th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.



What the Eclectic Bookworms Thought (Beware of Spoilers):

Overall, we all enjoyed The Help and determined that it accurately portrayed the South, particularly the conflicted emotions of the Black maids and the children they raised.  It also demonstrated the poor logic that many white families used to determine what Blacks were good enough to do for them, but not good enough to share with.  For instance, Blacks cannot use the same bathrooms as whites because they are diseased, but at the same time, those maids can cook their families’ food and raise their children.

The group seemed split about which character they liked best, with some of us in favor of Minny, while others liked Skeeter and Aibileen best.  One of our female members said that Aibileen’s voice was the most balanced, and that’s why she liked her best, while our youngest member said that she enjoyed Skeeter best because she was an aspiring writer.  Personally, Minny’s kick ass attitude and yet vulnerability when it came to her husband and children made her both frightening and endearing — as well as a little bit vulnerable.

The club also discussed whether we would go as far as Minny to get revenge on Hilly, with only a few of saying that we would and a couple of us indicating we would have gone further.  At one point the discussion of slavery came up and whether the maids would have considered themselves still slaves or something more than that, but we all seemed to be on the fence about that question.  A discussion of other cultures’ use of slavery and how slaves could earn their way out was also mentioned, though none of us had any concrete sources on hand to discuss that too much in depth.

Other topics touched upon during the discussion include the friendship dynamics in Hilly’s group and how most of the women were subservient to Hilly and her approval, while others like Skeeter seemed to see that cow-towing to Hilly was wrong as well as how Minny and her family seemed to get by more easily than Aibileen who was on her own without any children.  We all enjoyed the book, though some of us would have preferred less about Stuart and Skeeter’s relationship and that other sections were trimmed down.  I personally enjoyed the additional insight into Skeeter and Stuart’s relationship after having watched the movie and found that part lacking in the film.

Things Your Dog Doesn’t Want You to Know by Hy Conrad and Jeff Johnson

Things Your Dog Doesn’t Want You to Know by Hy Conrad and Jeff Johnson is a humorous collection of stories from 11 dogs who bare all.  Not only do they divulge secrets about why those “pee” walks take so long, but they also enlighten dog walkers on the order that dogs should be taken out and why.  There are hijinks from dogs eating shoes and eating even mores hoes when owners lock them in the shoe closet, and there are dogs giving parenting advice to owners about their own puppies.

Sarge was one of the funniest given that he was a narcotics dog and became addicted to the pot that the police had him sniffing out.  He goes through several different jobs from junkyard dog to service dog.  He has trouble holding down a job.  Axelrod is another funny little dog who has a thing for herbs and incense given that there are herbal soaps in the bathroom, he thinks the herb garden outside is the perfect place to go potty since his owners seem to like the scent.

Conrad and Johnson have a firm grasp of the dog mindset and their seemingly erratic behavior from chasing cars to herding kids throughout the house.  A book you can dip into in the waiting room for entertainment, follow only one dog’s story from beginning to end, or read cover to cover.  Things Your Dog Doesn’t Want You to Know by Hy Conrad and Jeff Johnson is fun for dog owners, kids, those who love dogs, and anyone in between looking for a good chuckle.

About the Authors:

Best known for his work in mysteries, Hy Conrad was one of the original writers for the groundbreaking series, Monk, working on the show for all eight seasons, the final two as Co-Executive Producer. In a related project, Hy was Executive Producer and head writer of Little Monk, a series of short films featuring Adrian Monk as a ten-year-old.  His latest TV work was as writer and Consulting Producer for White Collar.

Hy is also the author of hundreds of short stories and ten books of short whodunits, which have been sold around the world in fourteen languages.  Hy’s first mystery novel series, Abel Adventures, will debut in 2012 with the publication of Rally ‘Round the Corpse.  And his first full-length comedy/mystery play, Home Exchange, premiered at the Waterfront Playhouse in May 2012.  He lives in Key West and Vermont with his partner and two miniature schnauzers.

Jeff Johnson spent most of his working life in advertising agencies, currently as General Manager of Cramer-Krasselt in New York City.  He is the author of The Hourglass Solution:  A Boomer’s Guide to the Rest of Your Life and co-authors (with Paula Forman) a national online advice column called Short Answers, which also appears in newspapers all along the east coast (from Massachusetts to Florida).  Jeff lives in Vermont and Key West and is on the Board of Directors of the Waterfront Playhouse and the Florida Keys SPCA.

This is my 76th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.

Out of True by Amy Durant

Out of True by Amy Durant, blogger at Lucy’s Football, has a poignant dedication in the front:  “To everyone who doesn’t quite fit:  You do.  You will. Keep going.  You’re almost there.”  And in many ways, this dedication sets the tone for the collection.  There are a number of poems in the collection that talk about love and loss, but there also are those poems heavily focused on things and people that are just out of reach as the narrator continues to strive for the ultimate goal.

Durant has a frank style that not only clearly defines the poetic story, but also draws parallels from ancient myths and literature.  In “SYZYGY,” in which the moon and sun fall in love but are separated by the horizon, but Durant allows the celestial bodies to not only communicate through the tides and other messages.  The lines are written in the pattern of notes between married couples asking for the dishes to be washed and errands to be run.  But there is an undercurrent of disappointment as the narrator postulates that the sun will not rise and the evening will not bring the moon — the promises made that cannot be kept, like those between busy married couples and others that are forgotten or intentionally made knowing that they cannot be kept.

From "What We Build What We Destroy" (Page 20-21)

I like to build a fire; 
the ritual of it.  Placing the
small sticks, twisting the
paper, tenting the larger
logs.  The flames
licking around the edges,
teasing, like a schoolgirl
skipping along the edge
of a playground;

then the bite, the moment
the fish takes the bait, the
roaring upward, the rush,
the suck of air.  All eyes on
the dance of the flames.
I made this.  This thing that
can destroy:  I made this.

Readers will find her interplay of imagery fun, and perseverance becomes a strong message throughout the collection no matter if the narrator must let go of a past love or strive for a goal.  The cover ties the collection together with the stairway upward, signifying the struggle and the journey all at once with the light near the top of the stairs and the darkness below.  In many ways, this image demonstrates how each of us has a darkness in our lives that we journey away from, but at the same time that it can be present in the most enveloping way.  Particularly with the purposeful forgetting of high school memories in “Oubliette,” in which the narrator cannot catch up with those people she has forgotten even though the scars of what happened back then remain and are ever-present.  There is a truth in the forgetting that the narrator shares, illustration that the scars make up who she is even though she has forgotten the details of the faces of the perpetrators, which in itself may be a fallacy or a willful denial.

Out of True by Amy Durant is an emotional and insightful look at life’s travails and the decision to persevere and journey onward.  Durant’s debut poetry collection has a unique voice that highlights the harsh realities of life and love, but also the beauty of struggle and how it makes us not only who we become, but more than what we are.  Letting go is a must in this life, but also there must be a semblance of acceptance in order for humans to enjoy their lives, find joy, and evolve.

***Stay tuned tomorrow for an Amy Durant reading and giveaway***

About the Poet:

Amy Durant is a writer living in the Capital District of New York. She blogs frequently at her own site, Lucy’s Football, about far less serious things than this, and is lucky enough to write for Insatiable Booksluts about all things bookish. She is the artistic director for one of the many wonderful community theaters in her area and lives with a very cuddly but very spatially-impaired Siamese cat. Her book, Out of True, was published by Luna Station Press in August 2012.
This is the 20th book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.



This is my 75th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.


From the Land of the Moon by Milena Agus, translated by Ann Goldstein

From the Land of the Moon by Milena Agus, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, is the story of a young unnamed woman’s grandmother just at the end of WWII in Italy after the 1943 American bombing of Cagliari.  Despite the namelessness of the main characters, there are named secondary characters in the slim novel that provide it depth and the main characters some roots.  The granddaughter is telling the story of her grandmother after her death, reminiscing about the growth and change in family.

The life of this family has seem good times and bad times, with some members experiencing greater hardships than others.  The grandmother in particular has a number of suitors that fail to come back after several weeks due to rumors about her sanity.  Her own family keeps her at arms length and often hidden from public view unless necessary.  She’s the black sheep of the family, though from what we learn about her she has normal urges of a young woman and a desire for freedom.  More than that, she’s got a creative mind and a penchant for writing.

“One day my great-grandmother waited for her in the courtyard with the whip, made of ox sinew, and began to hit her until even her head was bleeding and she had a high fever.”  (Page 14)

After a number of miscarriages and failed pregnancies, the grandmother has little recourse but to take action and find away to rid herself of at least one health problem.  On a trip to take care of her kidney stones in the healing waters, the grandmother meets a young man, known only as the Veteran.  In many ways, they are the same, but they also have different tragedies to overcome.  He was a concentration camp survivor after being captured during the war, while she is an escapee from her family.  Like the many times destroyed home on Via Manno, families are built and rebuilt as the darkness is torn out of the house and light once again filters in through its large windows with new hope.

From the Land of the Moon by Milena Agus, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, is about family and how it can be ripped apart and held together by secrets.  But it also is about dreams and love, and the sacrifices we must make to live into the future.  In many ways, its about the perseverance of our ancestors and how they can shape us in the future, even without our knowledge.

About the Author:

Milena Agus was a finalist for the Strega and Campiello prizes, and was awarded the prestigious Zerilli-Marimò prize for Mal di petra (From the Land of the Moon). It is her first novel. Agus lives in Cagliari, Sardinia.

About the Translator:

Ann Goldstein is an editor at The New Yorker. For Europa Editions, she has translated three novels by Elena Ferrante—The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter—Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, The Chill by Romano Bilenchi, The Father and the Stranger by Giancarlo de Cataldo, and The Worst Intentions by Alessandro Piperno. Her translation of Linda Ferri’s Cecilia is forthcoming in May 2010. She received a PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award and was a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome. She is currently editing the complete works of Primo Levi, for which she received a Guggenheim Translation fellowship. She lives in New York.

This is my 74th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.

Married at Fourteen by Lucille Lang Day

Married at Fourteen by Lucille Lang Day is a memoir about a young girl who wants to grow up fast in the late 1960s, that she seriously starts looking for a husband at age 12.  She’s completely unhappy with her family life, particularly her mother, and with school.  The story spends a great deal of time in the first section examining the numerous boys that Day dated and tried to have sex with, but it also spends a lot of time on her frame of mind for this behavior.  She believes that marriage will set her free from the confines of her own family, allowing her not only to become a mother, but also make her own decisions.  In addition to love and finding a way out of the home, Day is a typical teen in her need to break out of conformity and make her mark, which in her case meant breaking up the monotonous school uniform with her own style and obtaining a switchblade to make her feel more adult-like.

“Nevertheless, I kept mine, which was tucked safely behind my math and history books in my locker.  I wasn’t about to hand it over to any cop.  It was a symbol of who I was.  It meant I didn’t play by the rules; it meant I made up my own rules.  It meant I was a rebel.  It meant I was bad.”  (Page 4 ARC)

When Day finally marries, she finds it is not all romance and roses, but she has to think about more than herself now that she has a daughter, Liana.  In a way the first portion of the book is a good illustration of why teens need observant parents in their lives — to teach them what is right and what is wrong, but also to guide them down the best path.  Day seems to have learned some lessons in love the hard way.  She also learned some lessons about motherhood and how far she was willing to go for money.

Part one looks back at Day’s teenage years, while the second portion of the memoir is a series of self-contained stories from her life as an adult, struggling to gain a college education after her struggle for a high school diploma as well as her struggle to keep a job and be treated fairly by her employers.  Married at Fourteen by Lucille Lang Day is an engaging look at what it was like for a young woman with big dreams of equality to live in the 1960s.  Day’s memoir is a stark look at family life, alcoholism, rebellion among teens, and so much more.  There is a cultural shift, but also an evolution within Day as she takes on her self-imposed struggles in love and motherhood.

About the Author:

Lucille Lang Day has published creative nonfiction in The Hudson Review, the Istanbul Literary Review, Passages North, the River Oak Review, the Willow Review, and many other journals. She is the recipient of the Willow Review Award in Creative Nonfiction and a Notable Essay citation in Best American Essays. She is also the author of a children’s book, Chain Letter, and eight poetry collections and chapbooks, including The Curvature of Blue, Infinities, and The Book of Answers. Her first poetry collection, Self-Portrait with Hand Microscope, received the Joseph Henry Jackson Award. She received an M.A. in English and an M.F.A. in creative writing at San Francisco State University, and then an M.A. in zoology and a Ph.D. in science and mathematics education at the University of California, Berkeley. The founder and director of a small press, Scarlet Tanager Books, she also served for seventeen years as the director of the Hall of Health, an interactive children’s museum in Berkeley.

This is my 72nd book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.

Bowling Avenue by Ann Shayne

Bowling Avenue by Ann Shayne follows Delia Ballenger’s re-acquaintance with all things Nashville, including her absentee mother, statuesque brother-in-law, and two nieces she barely knows when she’s given her sister Ginna’s house, 603 Bowling Avenue.  Bowling Avenue has a culture all its own, with the in-your-business neighbors and the families of doctors from the Vanderbilt.  Delia has lived her life on her own terms, but has rarely returned home for family gatherings or holidays, spending her time alone in Chicago catering to the needs of the super rich on holiday in a variety of countries.  She’s lived an isolated life, and because of that her sister’s death is even more shocking as are the revelations that come with her passing.

“I don’t believe in ghosts, I really don’t.  So the prospect of staying at my dead sister’s house is not daunting in terms of worrying that I’m going to run into a spectral Ginna wandering the hall in her Lanz of Salzburg nightgown.  Actually, that would be really terrifying.  She wore those things all her life:  eyelet trimmed, flannel, hot as fiberglass insulation.”  (Page 10)

Death can change family dynamics in many ways, and Shayne examines how the death of a loved one can either tear a family further apart or bring them closer.  In the Ballenger family, communication is practically non-existent unless you are looking for sarcastic comebacks or blame.  Delia has a lot to learn not only about dealing with grief, but also about what it means to find a home and a family.  Shayne has a unique style and deftly wields the first person point of view through which readers learn the Ballenger family secrets.  The secrets unfold bit by bit as Delia attempts to get her sister’s house ready for sale, and as she deals with her mother’s interference and her brother-in-law’s hands-off approach to fatherhood and family.

Nashville has more than the music business, and Shayne has some of the quirkiest characters.  They are by turns fun and infuriating, but that’s what makes the story so engaging.  Bowling Avenue by Ann Shayne is a fun read with a tender heart.  Delia and her family will make you feel at home and wrap you up in their arms.  Readers will be cheering her on as she examines her past, her present, and her future.

***I want to thank Alma Katsu for recommending this book to me.***

About the Author:

Ann Shayne lives in Nashville with her husband and two sons. She is the co-author, with Kay Gardiner, of Mason-Dixon Knitting: The Curious Knitter’s Guide and Mason-Dixon Knitting Outside the Lines. Their blog, Mason-Dixon Knitting, has persevered since 2003 despite constant begging for them to shut up.

This is my 73rd book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.

The Caller by Karin Fossum, translated by K.E. Semmel

The Caller by Karin Fossum, translated by K.E. Semmel from the Norwegian, is the eighth book in her Inspector Konrad Sejer series of books.  It is not only a mystery with a adrenaline rush, but also a psychological examination of the criminal and victims minds.  Rather than a mystery that needs to be unraveled, Fossum creates an unsettling atmosphere that keeps readers on the edge.  What will happen next, how will the criminal again strike fear into those around him — neighbors, family, strangers.

And yes, this is a book about fear — the fear of death — the fear of death when it calls.  Death is always unexpected when it arrives, but what if you are lulled into an artificial sense of security by your own contented perceptions of your home and neighborhood?  What if something occurs that simply disrupts your preconceived notions of security?  Fossum asks these questions with each new prank and situation, and she ramps up the anxiety with each page turned.  From the very first pages, readers become aware that the Norwegian landscape will darken and tranquility will become tentative.

“Poor little thing, she thought, and tore its thighs off.  She liked the cracking sound the cartilage made when tearing from the bone.  Light and tender, the meat let go easily, and she succumbed to the temptation to stick a piece in her mouth.  It’s good, she thought, it has just enough seasoning, and it’s lean too.  She filled the pie dish and sprinkled on Cheddar cheese.  The she checked the time.  She didn’t worry about Margrete.  If the child sneezed she would know it immediately.  If she coughed or hiccuped, or began to cry, she would know.  Because there was a bond between them, a bond as thick as a mooring line.  Even the slightest tug would reach her like a vibration.”  (page 2)

However, it is the undercurrent under the surface plot that ripples beneath, providing just enough suspicion to keep readers wondering who the true criminal is.  Readers get a sense of Inspector Konrad Sejer as an honest man whose seen it all, but continues to work for the police as a way to ensure justice.  But readers also get to know how much his life has changed over the years and where his strength comes from — his family and young nephew Matteus.  His health may be failing, but the case is always important, pulling him away from his own misery into that of the victims and even the possible perpetrator.

When death calls, even in its mistiest form, The Caller by Karin Fossum, translated by K.E. Semmel tackles the what ifs and the inevitability that comes with that visit, including the reassessment of behavior and routine, love, and perseverance.  The atmosphere of the novel is by turns complacent and topsy-turvy, and Fossum’s characters must navigate the new world into which they are thrust.

About the Author:

Karin Fossum is the author of the internationally successful Inspector Konrad Sejer crime series. Her recent honors include a Gumshoe Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for mystery/thriller. She lives in a small town in southeastern Norway.

About the Translator:

K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, the Washington Post, Aufgabe, The Brooklyn Review, The Bitter Oleander, and elsewhere. He has worked as the Publications & Communications Manager of The Writer’s Center, an independent nonprofit literary organization based in Bethesda, MD that offers over 300 workshops in writing annually and hosts around 50 literary events a year.  He is known for his work translating Simon Fruelund’s fiction, and he has received a translation grant from the Danish Arts Council.

This is my 71st book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.

The Realm of the Lost by Emma Eden Ramos

The Realm of the Lost by Emma Eden Ramos is a middle-grade fantasy novel about a 13-year-old girl, named Kat Gallagher, who is feisty and responsible.  She’s got younger siblings, Ellie and Colm, and a home life that is not what it once was, but she takes it on her own shoulders to care for her little brother whose sick a lot of the time.  Her and Ellie, on the other hand, act as sisters should, especially sisters who share a room.  They bicker over space, and one day on the way to school, all of the tension boils over on the streets of New York City.

An accident changes everything for Kat, and she finds herself in a place that is disconcerting to say the least.  Here, she meets Rosario and Mikey, her brother and sister in the realm, and she must contend with Miss A, her realm mother.  Between the Tallyman, the mysterious forests, and the creepy dark mists that come out at night with Apate, Kat must navigate a strange and frightening world.  What makes this world believable is Ramos’ ability to ground her characters in a place and time, despite their strange surroundings.

“Before she died, Grandma Rose gave me a sterling silver necklace bearing the Celtic triskele.  ‘This,’ she explained, pointing to each swirl that extended from the symbol’s triangular middle, ‘will bring you knowledge, power, and, someday, a safe passage.'” (from ebook, location 27)

Grandma Rose is like Kat, a feisty Irish woman who immigrated to the United States, and she is reminiscent of the grandmothers who tell tall tales from the past and generally dote on their grandchildren.  Unfortunately, we don’t see much of this relationship, but a glimpse is enough to get the gist that she’s an important part of Kat’s upbringing.  The relationship between Ellie and Kat is clear, though the relationship with their mother is a little less developed.  However, Ramos offers the right balance of plot and description to see where Kat is and when, allowing the suspense and tension to build to the twist.

The four realms and what they signify are interesting, and could bring additional inspiration for a series of novellas, if Ramos is so inclined — the possibilities are endless.  But what is truly engaging is the parallels between The Realm of the Lost and Kat’s real life, only in the lost realm, Kat is forced to take on the role of younger sibling.  The Realm of the Lost by Emma Eden Ramos is an adventure that teachers Kat that there are more important things than just whether you have your own room.

***I wanted this to be longer!***

About the Author:

Emma Eden Ramos is a writer and student from New York City. Her short stories have appeared in Stories for Children Magazine, The Storyteller Tymes, BlazeVOX Journal, and others. Emma’s novelette, Where the Children Play, is included in Resilience: Stories, Poems, Essays, Words for LGBT Teens, edited by Eric Nguyen. Three Women: A Poetic Triptych and Selected Poems (Heavy Hands Ink, 2011), Ramos’ first poetry chapbook, was shortlisted for the 2011 Independent Literary Award in Poetry. Emma studies psychology at Marymount Manhattan College.  Please visit her Website.

This is my 5th book for the 2012 Ireland Reading Challenge.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is a novel that tries hard to be a Gothic tale full of ghosts and melodrama, but light on the actual romance.  Margaret Lea receives a random letter from famed contemporary author Vida Winter, a woman who spends a lot of her time telling stories even to those journalists seeking her real-life story.  Lea is a bookworm extraordinaire, who helps her father in his antique bookshop, while her mother is hold up in her room every day barely engaging them.  Margaret is intrigued by Winter after reading a volume of short stories from her vast collection of books, titled “Thirteenth Tales of Change and Desperation.”  Upon meeting the woman and asking for three true things she can double-check for their accuracy, Margaret is sucked into her real-life tale by their own common bond.

What follows is the unraveling of Vida Winter’s real life story in a fragmented narration, which vacillates between Margaret’s journalistic digging and Vida’s fairy tale-like story.  Setterfield weaves a story of mystery that Margaret is determined to uncover even as she is haunted by her own family past.  There is a cast of secondary characters that are as colorful as Winter, but there are moments of too much detail that bog down the narration in Winter’s story and in Lea’s investigations and wanderings around Winter’s childhood home of Angelfield.

“Vida Winter’s appearance was not calculated for concealment.  she was an ancient queen, sorceress or goddess.  Her stiff figure rose regally out of a profusion of fat purple and red cushions.  Draped around her shoulders, the folds of the turquoise-and-green cloth that cloaked her body did not soften the rigidity of her frame.  Her bright copper hair had been arranged into an elaborate confection of twists, curls and coils.  Her face, as intricately lined as a map, was powdered white and finished with bold scarlet lipstick.  In her lap, her hands were a cluster of rubies, emeralds and white, bony knuckles; only her nails, unvarnished, cut short and square like my own, struck an incongruous note.”  (Page 43-4)

Despite this, Setterfield peppers her story with mist and ghosts, leaving the reader wondering if they are real.  The creation of Margaret and her back story, which is similar to Vida’s, is a bit contrived to propel the story forward and to engage Margaret in the investigation of Winter’s family.  Overall, the story within the story is the most engaging with incest, twins, and family secrets, and the story on which Winter builds her new life as an author.

“‘You think that a strange thing to say, but it’s true.  All my life and all my experience, the events that have befallen me, the people I have known, all my memories, dreams, fantasies, everything I have ever read, all of that has been chucked onto the compost heap, where over time it has rotted down to a dark, rich organic mulch.  The process of cellular breakdown makes it unrecognizable.  Other people call it the imagination.  I think of it as a compost heap.'”  (Page 46)

The conclusion of the story is very anti-climatic with a wrap up of all the secondary and tertiary characters, which felt unnecessary, and there are elements of the story that remain unresolved.  The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is an intriguing novel that could have done better under a different structure to capture the reader’s attention fully, rather than allowing the story of Margaret to pull them out of the biography of Winter, who is the true protagonist of the novel.  While Margaret is a necessary evil in that she is picked by Winter to tell her story, and she must investigate the truth of it given the legend that surrounds Winter as an unreliable narrator, there are too many moments in which Margaret’s wanderings and indecision disengage the reader.

About the Author:

Diane Setterfield is a British author whose 2006 debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, became a New York Times #1 bestseller. It is written in the Gothic tradition, with echoes of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

This is my 70th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.



What the Book Club Thought (Beware of Spoilers):

Most of the members enjoyed the novel, including the male member who selected the book as his pick for the month.  Two of our members, including me, just felt the book was an OK read.  While most of us did not mind that Setterfield did not provide a concrete time or setting for the novel, one of our female members wanted to feel more grounded.  Several members mentioned an overuse of Jane Eyre and allusions to the classic novel, which was clearly a favorite of the character and the author.  Most of us enjoyed the story within the story that was about Winter’s childhood and family and thought it was the most engaging.  While most of us did not hate Margaret, most of us believed it was contrived to make her a match for Winter’s story.  One male member absolutely did not like Margaret at all.

Also touched upon in the discussion was the great feelings of Margaret for her deceased twin, a twin that she never met and never saw given that she died almost immediately after birth.  Some of us didn’t believe in this feeling and deep connection, but would have believed it more if she had grow up with her twin and she died after a bond had formed.

At one point during the discussion, one member wondered aloud if Winter would have chosen someone as inexperienced as Margaret to write her biography or if she would have chosen someone with more experience.  In most of our estimations, we believed that Winter was as eccentric enough to want some unknown writer write her biography rather than someone more experienced.  In a way, some of us agreed that she would prefer an unknown writer because she could more easily manipulate the story with someone less experienced.

The cutting of Isabelle randomly when her and Charlie begin to interact seems incongruous with a young girl who is doted on by her father.  While we could see that the kids were neglected in many ways and that the dishevelment of the house played a role in how they all interacted, it was a bit of a stretch that a well-loved young lady would automatically cut herself and enjoy inflicting pain without a catalyst/reason.  One member, in particular, wanted to know more about why she engaged in those behaviors and why the incestuous relationship began or was inevitable.  However, given that the point of view of the story is from a younger member in the household as it was told to her, this was not possible, which again calls into question the structure the author chose to use.

Overall a good book with some good elements and some not-so-good elements.

How I Rank Our Book Club Picks for the First Round:

  1. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  2. City of Thieves by David Benioff
  3. A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear
  4. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
  5. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
  6. Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
  7. Ashes by Ilsa Bick
  8. Star Wars & Philosophy by Kevin S. Decker and Jason Eberl

Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip

Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip is set in 1930s Shanghai when gang leaders are at odds over the foreign and domestic business, but in the shadows are skeleton women who can make men fall in love with them and be willing to risk everything for them, even their lives and fortunes.  Heavenly Songbird Camilla is tied to the Flying Dragons boss Mr. Lung, but her agenda is more secretive as she seeks to fulfill her duties to a rival gang, the Red Demons and Mr. Wang.  An orphan turned spy, she sings on stage and warms the bed of Mr. Lung at night when she meets his son, Jinying, who has fallen head over heels in love with her since first hearing her sing at the Bright Moon Nightclub.

“People admired or hated me as the ultimate femme fatale.  But I myself had no idea who I was.  I was nobody, literally.  An orphan, I was adopted by a man and his gang for their own purposes.  Later I learned that man was Big Brother Wang, his gang, the Red Demons.  Under their constant watching and fussing over me and their strict discipline, by fourteen I’d grown up to be a watermelon seed-faced, full-bosomed, slim-waisted, long-legged beauty, possessing everything desired by men and envied by women.”  (page 4)

Camilla puts on a confident air, but when she is surprised by the talents of the Shadow, a magician at a competing club, and bristled by the critiques of gossip columnist Rainbow Chang.  While she contrives scenarios in which to make herself seem superior and to maintain her place with Mr. Lung, the presence of his son is unsettling.  Readers are taken on a journey through Camilla’s time with the gangs and the adventures that leaves them in suspense about the success of her mission.

However, there are moments when devices such as lipstick cameras are mentioned that may or may not be historically accurate (I was unable to find a history on these objects), and the quickness with which Jinying falls for Camilla is a bit too abrupt.  The quickness of Jinying’s affections could be due to the narration’s point of view, which is Camilla’s as told from sometime in the future about the past.  And while she is uneasy in his presence, it is clearly more about lust than about true love.  The only other points in the book that could distract the reader are the repeated references to her repeated training as a spy and skeleton woman and Camilla’s continued references to Sun Tzu’s strategies and The Art of War.  On the other hand, there are great little historical tidbits from China’s past, including the overthrow of previous kings and legends from Chinese history, that are highlighted by Camilla’s story as an illustration of how even the best strategies do not always work.

More interesting are the parts about her actual training and her need to learn endurance to stave off the pain of torture, as well as her focus on becoming nothing or dead so that the enemy cannot torture her through others, thus depriving herself of emotion and connection to others.  Yip is adept at creating the sense of deception throughout the novel and the dangers around every turn, as she is at creating the illusion of emotion through Camilla and her interactions with others.  Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip is a novel that is less about 1930s Shanghai and its troubles and more about the women who made it tick and set the stage for change, with or without consciously knowing they would.  Yip creates an allure in the prose that is reminiscent of the skeleton woman’s ability to manipulate the emotions and actions of others. The true test comes when one can coax a skeleton woman into feeling love and the sacrifice that sometimes follows.

About the Author:

Kensington author Mingmei Yip believes that one should, besides being entertained, also get something out of reading a novel. Her new novel is Skeleton Women is about survival, letting go, and finding love and compassion.

Her debut novel Peach Blossom Pavilion is the story about the last Chinese Geisha and also that of courage and the determination to succeed and attain happiness. Her second novel Petals from the Sky, a poignant Buddhist love story, is about wisdom, compassion, when to persist and when to let go. Her third novel Song of the Silk Road is an adventure love story between an older woman and a younger man with a three million award on China’s famous, dangerous route.

For more about the author and her books visit her Website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

This is my 69th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.