LaRose: quiet and surprising all at once

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

3 words: somber, interwoven, lyrical

This is one of those books where you hear the premise and you go, “Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?”

Here’s the premise: a man accidentally kills his neighbor’s young son while deer hunting, so he gives his own child to the neighbor to balance things out.

The hunter is Ojibwe, and this is an old tradition that he’s honoring, in order to repay his debt. A very old tradition, carried out in the current day.

I gotta say: I had to suspend my disbelief that anyone would do this. But then I thought: everyone else is not me.

And while the giving of the child is at the heart of the book, the story expands to encompass the lives of both families — with a focus on the two marriages and the teenage girls in each family — and the priest on the reservation, and a retired teacher, and a ne’er-do-well who’s stealing medication from the older folks.

There’s all kinds of drama coursing through this book, but even so, the book is quiet.

Maybe this came through extra much because I listened to the audiobook, which is read in lovely fashion by the author. She keeps the story sedate, even as people make choices that are fairly eye-popping.


Give this book a whirl if you like… stories of complicated family situations, reading about contemporary Native American life, mild doses of magical realism, and exploring the effects of long-held traditions


I know it happens to us all…  What’s the most recent book that made you suspend your disbelief?

JFK time travel extravaganza

Photo credit: Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston11/22/63 by Stephen Kin

11/22/63 by Stephen King

3 words: wide-ranging, wry, absorbing


Stephen King, where have you been all my life?

Actually, I know the answer to that one.

Dude’s been on the bestseller list most of the years I’ve been a reader. But I associate him with horror, and I can’t handle the horror.  

But ever since reading On Writing, my eyes have been opened.

Then my friend chose 11/22/63 for book club, so we could test whether King actually practices what he preaches.

I’m thinking he certainly does.

This book knocked my socks off.

It’s more than 800 pages long (which translates into 25 CDs of audiobook, which translates into a full month of listening at my usual pace), and I would’ve been perfectly content if it had been longer.

…cuz this book has it all goin’ on.

Rip-roaring plot: CHECK!

Likeable, relatable, memorable characters: CHECK!

Engaging narrative voice: CHECK!

A well-researched historical setting: CHECK!

Creative use of language: CHECK!

This book… it has all the things.

Here’s the quick rundown of this wonder:

Jake Epping is a high school English teacher whose buddy at a local diner shows him a wormhole into the past. His friend’s goal was to travel back in time to avert the JFK assassination, so the world could be a better place, and his dying wish is for Jake to carry out the mission. So… Jake dives back in time to 1958 and starts living a new existence in the past.

And King paints a vivid picture of that era — the good and the bad. There’s food that tastes terrific (and there are segregated restrooms) and there are kind and neighborly folk (and there are lots of people smoking).

In spite of the bad parts, Jake begins to feel at home in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And he falls in love. (That wasn’t exactly supposed to happen.)

So as he gathers intel about whether Oswald acted alone, Jake’s living a double life. And that always creates interesting dilemmas.

I’m a JFK geek (each of those four words links to a different JFK post… and that ain’t all of ’em) going way back, and I’ve read an embarrassing number of pages about his life and death. And I’m here to tell you… King got stuff right.

Dude not only researches the living daylights out of a topic, but then he’s careful about the way he sprinkles in the knowledge… like perfect seasoning.

This book… it far exceeded all my expectations.

I just wish I could read it again for the first time. Cuz: wow.

Give this book a whirl if you like… time travel; long, unfolding stories; reading about the JFK assassination; first person narrative; a mix of historical fiction, fantasy, adventure, suspense, and romance

So, kind readers… what book most knocked your socks off?

Ann Patchett for reals

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

3 words: warm, candid, conversational

Ann Patchett not only writes a wickedly good novel and owns a ridiculously beautiful bookstore, but the woman can scale a wall.

For reals.

Her dad was an LA police officer, and she went through the police academy there, which required that she leap over a wall. And she started training, and then she did that thing.

And that’s just one of the completely unexpected facts you learn when you read this book (or listen to it, which I recommend, because Patchett reads it herself and her voice is perfect for the reading of the books).

While the title essay is about her marriage (and the way, and the reasons, she resisted marriage for a long time), the other essays are about things like this: her loving care of her grandmother, and the time she drove around in a motorhome she was supposed to detest (but fell in love with it instead), and how she concocted the plot of her first novel while waitressing at a TGI Friday’s.

And one of the essays describes how she became a bookstore owner. And I was enraptured. And now all I can say is…

Nashville and Parnassus Books… I’m coming for you.

The Dear Man and I have a date with a donut, and we intend to keep it.

Last time we were in Nashville, we made these two mistakes: 1) I forgot that Ann Patchett and her bookstore live there, and 2) We blew past the very enticing Donut Den even though we really wanted to go to there. The Donut Den, which is like 3 feet away from the bookstore! We’re gonna fix this.

Give this book a whirl if you like… authors describing what it’s really like to do their work, memoirs of women’s lives, and some serious candor

What author do you wish would write a memoir?

Reading recent Morrison

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

3 words: complex, unsettling, layered

You know how some books improve after you’ve read them?

This is one of those.

As I was reading, I was engaged with the story and the characters. But when I finished the book… wow.

It became something altogether better.

The flavors all melded. The storylines converged. The layers lined up (though not too neatly).

This is also a book that surprised me, because I thought I knew where it was going–a story of a woman and her mother. But then it took some unexpected turns — not in the “Oh my gosh, what a plot twist!” way, but in a way that was more like real life, where the story unfolds in ways we just don’t expect.

This is the story of a woman who names herself Bride, who dresses all in white to set off her blue-black skin. And it’s the story of the mother who was ashamed of her. And the man who abandons her. And the friend who might not be a friend to her.

And then there are hippies living off the grid, and a woman torching bedsprings, and all of these things make sense.

I listened to the audiobook, which Toni Morrison reads herself. Her voice is quiet and expressive. Her words do the work, and her voice is the vehicle. It works just right.

Give this book a whirl if you like… literary fiction, books by authors of color, multiple narrators, hints of magical realism, and a story that’ll keep you thinking long after the reading is done
So, readers… What’s a book that improved after you read it?

Feeling all the feels: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Actual real-life small town in actual Iowa

3 words: stark, moving, somber


Oh, Marilynne Robinson… you make me so sad. And so happy-sad. But mostly so sad-happy.


If you’re reading a book by Marilynne Robinson, here’s what to expect: lovely writing, deep and quiet inner lives, and an in-depth examination of the ways we care for–and sometimes fail–each other.


She puts her characters, with their harsh lives, into a mean world and then comforts them with other characters. But then the mean world barges in and threatens to mess things up.


And since the characters have become people we care about… this is tough to take.


Yet: I keep coming back for more.


But only at measured intervals, because my heart can only take so much.


Like the other two Robinson novels I’ve read, Gilead and Home, this book revolves around the lives of the Ames and Boughton families in small-town 1950s Iowa.


In this book, Lila, the “old man” preacher’s young wife, is the central figure, and her story is a sad, sad, sad one. She’s probably an orphan, and she’s homeless, and she doesn’t know her actual last name. Dear heaven.


It’s the kind of book that made me specially grateful for the simple things, like my sturdy-roofed little house with running water. It’s even got electricity this house!


So there’s Lila’s resilience and self-reliance. And there’s the unlikely love story of Lila and Rev. Ames. And there’s the simplicity of the story, plus its complexity.


It leaves me feeling wildly melancholy yet hopeful.


What about you? Ever read a book that made you feel so emotionally conflicted?


Neil Gaiman: the true story


The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman

3 words: wise, impassioned, bookish

Two minutes into listening to this audiobook, I got a little verklempt.

And really, this should not surprise us, cuz when Neil Gaiman writes about the importance of books and reading and libraries, it’s powerful stuff. And when a person listens to him reading those words aloud… holy Toledo, people.

Get out the tissues, my fellow readers.

So this book starts out with essays and speeches about the power of books. And then there are oodles of other topics: graphic novels, introductions to the works of various fantasy authors, and creativity.

And while I thought I might bog down during the introduction to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, I found that I just kept learning new things.

And then I started to curse Neil Gaiman, because I kept adding books to my already too huge TBR. Books like The 13 Clocks by James Thurber. And Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones.

And then, toward the end of the book, there’s his famous “Make Good Art” commencement address.

It made me want to make good art.



So, if you’re anything of a Neil Gaiman reader, and especially if you’re a Neil Gaiman devotee, this book is rather a treat.

And if you’re an audiobook listener, I highly recommend the audio version, cuz Gaiman reads it himself and he’s seriously skilled at the narrator thing.

What’s the best author-narrated audiobook you’ve listened to?

How to find great audiobooks

June is Audiobooks Month, and I’m seriously celebrating!
And you can, too. 
Here are some ways to find great audiobooks.

Of course. Ask your librarian for some suggestions! (We love that.)

Personal recommendation

First, you know know an avid audiobook listener, ask that person! A friend of mine did this recently, and it totally made my day to suggest audiobooks to her.  

Yeah, you’re gonna want the Audies website.
Every year AudioFile gives Audie awards to audiobooks in tons of categories, so all you have to do is find a category you like, and listen to a winner. These are all solid choices. They’re also safe bets if you want to venture outside your usual reading comfort zone, because the Audie’s have got you covered: this stuff’s gonna be great.
Listen to audiobook samples online. They’re available all over the place: your library catalog and eAudiobook apps; Audible; Because let’s face it: some audiobook narrators are going to make you want to reach for headphones of the voice-cancelling variety. Some narrators’ voices, you’re just not gonna like. It’s OK. Just “acknowledge and move on,” as my wise and hilarious friend would intone.

My fellow audio addicts… What’s your favorite way to discover new audiobooks?

Beach book

The Violets of March by Sarah Jio

3 words: quietly dramatic, romantic, family secrets


First, a few observations:

  1. Sarah Jio. Why had everyone else on earth heard of her, while I remained oblivious?
  2. It occurred to me that the alternate title could be The Clue in the Diary.*
  3. Apparently I’ve become one of those readers who yells, “Don’t do it!!” at characters in books.**


Here’s how the book got on my radar:

Sarah Jio’s name came up at BEA during a conversation about women’s fiction. So I asked Katie of Words for Worms, who was all knowledgeable and helpful and modest about it, and she told me everything I needed to know about Jio.

Then I did the Good Reads “Want to Read” thing.

And a couple of weeks later… I’d been casting about for a good Beach Read for Book Bingo, and I realized this book fit the bill.

There were even beaches in it!

And a woman reinventing herself after a horrible experience, and family secrets from the past, and an old diary with mysterious clues, and an island setting, and budding romance, and a marvelous great-aunt.

I like all of these things.

And Jio weaves them together into a story that had me paying close attention to my eAudiobook, even while sorting the laundry. (Sometimes my mind really wanders while I’m doing that. I really like doing the laundry. [I know: Sick.])

I’m notoriously picky about reading more than one book by an author, so this is a big statement, even though I’m using careful language so as not to over-commit:

I might listen to another Sarah Jio book one day.So… wanna spill? What author did you discover late in the game? 


*Nancy Drew mystery. You knew that though, right?

**Woman! When the lying, cheating ex-husband calls, you don’t consider a reconciliation even for a split second!


Unfeathering the nest

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

3 words: character-driven, warm, ensemble cast

Is it just me, or is everyone else hearing tons of buzz about this book?

After it popped up for about the 50th time, I decided to give in and give it a try.

Though I gotta tell you: I was a little bit concerned that, based on the plot summary I’d heard, I wouldn’t be able to like any of the characters.

The book’s set-up is this: four siblings, once they reach middle age, are to inherit a princely sum of money from their parents.

And all of them have set up their lives so they’re completely dependent on this big cash infusion for their future happiness.

Or so they think. (Or maybe they’re right?)

And then: Guess what??

Since they’re all set on inheriting the money, of course one of them messes up in a big way, so their mother decides to bail him out using the vast majority of the funds… thus ruining the lives of his siblings.

Or so they think. (Or maybe they’re right?)

Given that these people had all counted their chickens before they hatched–or put all their eggs in one basket–or whatever other obvious metaphor you’d like to use–I expected to feel little sympathy for these characters.

And this is where the author’s genius comes through.

She made me care about these people, even the ne’er-do-well brother whose irresponsible actions set the whole mess into motion.

So maybe I didn’t exactly like many of the characters, but I cared about them.

A big cast of characters, all fully developed and quite real — and with an author whose warmth toward them infuses an unexpected level of humanity into a story about the ways money can infest family life.

Fish story

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

3 words: somber, melancholy, empathetic

I’ve always wanted to like Hemingway, but have never gotten there till now.

And the only reason I read (listened to) The Old Man and the Sea is because Book Bingo made me do it. (Hello, “Embarrassed to Admit” [I’d never read it])

And then I strapped myself in for the ride. (Literally. I listened to this audiobook in my car, so: seatbelt.)

It was surprisingly eventful, the experience of reading this book. I was stunned by my emotional engagement with the thing.

It started with the narrator.

Donald Sutherland.

I just don’t like ’im.

He’s lispy when he talks, and I don’t like the way he looks, either (not that that has any bearing here; I’m just being petty).

So I began listening in a state of mild annoyance, because: The Donald.

But then the story took over, and I (sorta) got past the voice.

And I was truly surprised by the way I was rooting for the old man, yearning for him to catch that fish. I was actually leaning forward in my seat, urging the fish to be caught.

But then I slumped back, as Hemingway described the way the fish’s mate would trail along as the fish died on the line. The fish’s mate would mourn the loss. (Who knew?)

So then I was all mixed emotions.

And that made me delighted, because: how many books can do that?

So I was left marveling at Hemingway’s enormous sympathy for the characters he had created, but also marveling at his easy brutality toward them. Made me realize why he’s considered one of the greats. I get it now.

Bonus: Book’s available in an adorable little edition in a sardine can