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Guest Book Review: PARADISE SKY by Joe R. Lansdale

When a copy of this novel first appeared on my doorstep, Mr. PCN, being a big Joe R. Lansdale fan, immediately snatched it up and claimed it for himself. After he tore through it in about two blinks, he submitted the following review. This title also made the Nerdy Special List for June—PCN

paradise skyJoe R. Lansdale’s latest novel Paradise Sky is witty, outlandish, and full of adventure. Fans of his previous books such as The Thicket, Edge of Dark Water, and A Fine Dark Line will recognize the familiar narrative framing device, as well as the usual references to the Sabine River and the fickleness of East Texas weather. Lansdale, however, deftly manages to escape being formulaic in Sky.

Not long after the Civil War, twenty-year-old Willie (aka Nat Love aka Deadwood Dick, a character first referenced in A Fine Dark Line) is sent on an errand by his Pa from their farm in rural Texas to town for supplies. It’s a long walk on a hot day, young Willie’s mind wanders, and his eyes absentmindedly alight on a woman’s bottom while she’s bent over doing laundry—just as her husband’s eyes catch Willie looking.

It’s a defining moment in the story because the couple is white, Willie is African American, and Texas has yet to embrace the notion that former slaves are now free and equal, as opposed to animals that can be killed for little or no reason. This incident begins a world of trouble and the odyssey of a young man toward wisdom. Along the way, Willie strikes up a friendship with Wild Bill Hickok, sleeps with four Asian women (one with a wooden leg), joins the army, wins a shooting contest, and even eats a dead guy.

Among my favorite passages:

I ain’t no great judge of poems, though Mr. Loving had me read a considerable number of them, but I can tell you these were so bad they hurt my feelings. I threw the book away and had an urge to bury it lest a coyote come across it, read a few lines, and get sick.

The buildings was thrown up willy-nilly along the sides of the street, as if some drunk had been given lumber, hammer, and nails and told to go at it. A few buildings had seen paint at one time or another; some rambled nearly into the street, as if they was trying to slink across it and into the hills and return to timber.

This novel is great storytelling as it ought to be, and readers should reach for the Sky.

Amazon | IndieBound


Meeting a Childhood Idol

When I was a kid, my role models were four pop-culture icons: Princess Leia, Jaime Sommers (The Bionic Woman), Wonder Woman, and Laura Holt from Remington Steele. I don’t think it’s hard to see why—they’re all smart, strong women, often smarter than their male counterparts, especially in the case of Laura Holt, who was the brains behind the fake detective played by Pierce Brosnan.

Years ago, I got to meet Carrie Fisher. I cried, because there was no way I could’ve conveyed in words how much the Star Wars movies meant to me as a child. The experience was surreal and mind-blowing and full of joy.

This past weekend I got to meet another of my longtime idols. It started when my very talented friend Eileen Galindo posted on Facebook that she was doing a stage reading of Nora & Delia Ephron’s Love, Loss, and What I Wore, adapted from Ilene Beckerman’s bookAmong her castmates: Stephanie Zimbalist. Laura Holt herself.

IMG_2059The reading was one weekend only. I scrambled for tickets and Mr. PCN and I drove to the Laguna Playhouse on Saturday. I even wore my Holt-ish hat.

I looked at this trip as going to support Eileen, with no expectations I’d get to meet Ms. Zimbalist. I’m no good at walking up to famous people and telling them I used to idolize them. I mean, I recently stood about twenty feet away from Harrison Ford and didn’t say a word to him.

The reading was funny and poignant, and afterward Mr. PCN and I waited in the lobby for Eileen. She came out, we shared hugs and congratulations.

Then, because Mr. PCN (unbeknownst to me) had told Eileen ahead of time about my rabid Laura Holt fandom, she said, “Wait right here. I’ll get Stephanie for you.”



Before I could compose myself, Stephanie walked out, shook my hand, was as nice and gracious as can be, and I started getting that verklempt feeling.

Since the stage reading had been about fashion and the clothing we wear during significant moments of our lives, I told her that in college, while some of my friends were dressing like Madonna with their underwear as outerwear, I liked hats and classic clothes and pencil skirts because of Laura Holt. Her style was timeless, and while I’m not sure I have any fashion sense, to this day I shy away from trends and stick with items I can wear for years. Stephanie said she still has the hats and suits, and that they were her idea.

I didn’t want to take up too much of her time because she needed to rest up for another performance that evening, so I just asked for a photo and thanked her.

I didn’t tell her how much seeing her play a smart, independent woman on TV meant to me, how I admired Laura for being her own boss and teaching her male partner the tricks of the trade, not the other way around. How Laura inspired me to briefly work for a detective agency in L.A.


This is my keep-calm-and-don’t-freak-out face

To Stephanie, I was just another fan. But to me, it was a special afternoon.

Now I just have to find out where Lynda Carter and Lindsay Wagner hang out.

Any other Remington Steele fans here? Who have you always wanted to meet? What would you say to them?


Nerdy Special List June 2015

Summer starts in June, so I’m looking forward to more time for pleasure reading. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m self-employed and make myself work every day.

But for those who do get to take summer vacations, here are the June releases my blogger pals and I recommend. I’m giving away one of these books. Read on to find out more.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman (Atria Books, June 16)

Fredrik Backman’s follow-up to his amazing debut, A Man Called Ove, proves he is the real deal when it comes to writing superb novels. My Grandmother incorporates his hiccup-triggering humor, heartwarming compassion, splendidly quirky and complex characters as well as universal themes about the beauty of life and the pain of loss.

Elsa, a precocious seven-year-old who doesn’t really fit in with other kids her age, finds joy in the fantasy world of the “Land of Almost-Awake” with her grandmother. But when her grandmother dies of cancer, the lonely, grieving girl finds herself on the most monumental adventure ever, contrived by her grandmother before she dies. The life lessons Elsa’s grandmother bequeaths her through the exploits of the scavenger hunt are relevant to children 7 or 70.

Backman’s language is breathtaking, creating art with metaphors. And dialogue is splendidly natural and authentic, evoking a rainbow of emotions that mirror the characters’. The layers of the plot and levels of symbolism make this a keeper of a book to read and reread, and walk away with something extraordinary and new every time.

A Force for Good by Daniel Goleman (Bantam, June 23)

Daniel Goleman, a longtime friend of the Dalai Lama, outlines the Tibetan monk’s inspiring vision for changing the world with genuine compassion. A Force for Good is not a religious book; it’s a plan for humanity that incorporates science, economics, education, and more. Goleman shares experiences the Dalai Lama has had as well as evidence and anecdotes from others, all supporting his platform of compassion over greed, violence, and fear.

Many books of this ilk create inspiration but leave their readers wondering what they can do. A Force for Good offers ideas that every individual can work with and build on, ranging from things that help the environment to things that help the less fortunate. Good is a long-range, global plan from a brilliant futuristic thinker, so this is a book that can be of value to any human living on Earth. When you’re ready for a jolt of optimism, pick up this book.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Paradise Sky by Joe R. Lansdale (Mulholland Books, June 16)

paradise skyDespite his life being glamorized throughout dime novels, Deadwood Dick needs to set the record straight—including how he got his name, how he saved Wild Bill Hickok, and how his life changed by looking up at exactly the wrong time.

Willie Jackson was born in East Texas and spent his childhood in slavery. The war between the states changed that, but not enough to make survival easy. Caught looking at a white woman’s backside, Willie inadvertently steals what may be the slowest horse in East Texas to escape said woman’s furious husband. Escape he does, barely, but his father and farm do not.

From there, Willie is kindly taken in, nearly caught again, and then begins a new life as Nat Love, and then eventually Deadwood Dick. Joe R. Lansdale truly is a master storyteller and Paradise Sky is no exception. It’s delightful, funny, and full of the best tall tales. I would highly recommend adding this to your summer reading list.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller (Crown, June 2)

freedoms childJax Miller’s impressive debut is a hard and fast cross-country trip through a family tree full of violence, betrayal, and vengeance. Freedom Oliver has been in witness protection for 18 years when she finds out her daughter, Rebekah, is missing. Freedom gave birth to Rebekah during her two years in prison for killing her husband, and never saw Rebekah again. Throwing a wrench in the works is brother-in-law Matthew Delaney’s release from prison after 18 years, where he was doing time once Freedom turned the tables and implicated him in brother Mark’s murder.

Not sold yet? Throw in three more Delaney brothers; their 600-pound, coke-dealing matriarch, Lynn; Rebekah’s brother (and Freedom’s son) Mason; and Mason and Rebekah’s adoptive parents, who run the church from which Mason was shunned and Rebekah might have been trying to escape. The Delaneys are out for blood, Freedom and Mason (who also haven’t seen each other for 18 years) want to find Rebekah, and all paths are bound to meet up at a bloody intersection. Fast and lean with few missteps, Miller’s debut is a gritty but worthwhile ride.

From PCN:

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (Crown, June 23)

little paris bookshopJean Perdu runs a Parisian bookstore called Literary Apothecary. What makes it different is that it’s on a barge moored on the Seine, and Jean doesn’t just sell books, he prescribes them. He can read customers’ emotional needs and give them the best book(s) to make them feel better.

The irony is that he doesn’t have the same insight about himself, and has spent the last 21 years emotionally blocked due to heartbreak from a failed love affair. He unmoors the barge one day and, along with a famous novelist experiencing writer’s block, goes on a journey to find himself.

The novel makes charming and witty observations about books, how they’re not merely a “balm for the soul” but “freedom on wings of paper.” Mentions of good food also abound, and George provides recipes at the end of the book, as well as “prescriptions” for readers, e.g. Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April being recommended “for indecision,” with side effects including “falling in love with Italy.” Bookshop is a prescription for those looking to escape to France and vicariously indulge in books and fine dining.


As promised, one of these books is up for grabs. I’ll try to make it a regular feature—giving away one of the recs on the NSL every month.

This month’s prize, thanks to Atria Books, is My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. To enter, leave a comment telling me something your grandmother has told you. Fanciful lies are accepted.

Giveaway ends next Friday, June 12, 9 p.m. PST. US addresses only, please. A randomly chosen winner will have 48 hours after notification to claim prize before an alternate winner is selected.


May 2015 Pop Culture Consumption

While I didn’t review everything I read and watched last month, I consumed a lot of pop culture. Much of it was unexceptional, but there were a couple of gems. I’ll write more about some of these in the coming weeks, but below are my lists and quick notes on the best in each category.

Books read:

  1. little black liesStay by Victor Gischler
  2. Day Four by Sarah Lotz
  3. The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango
  4. Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton
  5. How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz
  6. Invasion of Privacy by Christopher Reich
  7. Manhattan Mayhem: New Crime Stories from Mystery Writers of America edited by Mary Higgins Clark
  8. What Doesn’t Kill Her by Carla Norton
  9. The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

My favorites were Black Lies and Fire. Lies broke me out of a bad reading slump, and Fire shows that Lutz’s writing gets deeper and more complex with each book.

Movies seen:

  1. age of adalineAvengers: Age of Ultron with Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, et al.
  2. The Age of Adaline with Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford
  3. Pitch Perfect 2 with Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld
  4. Welcome to Me with Kristin Wiig, Linda Cardellini, Wes Bentley
  5. Survivor with Pierce Brosnan, Milla Jovovich, Dylan McDermott

By far the best of this bunch was Adaline. Lively is luminous as a woman born in 1906 who has a freak accident in her 20s that arrests her aging process. Though this would seemingly be a dream come true for many Hollywood actresses, Lively imbues Adaline with melancholia and loneliness as she constantly has to leave loved ones behind. Adaline moves through more than a century in the course of this movie, but the actress’s mannerisms, speech, and classic beauty make her believable as someone who’s timeless.

Movie shot:

  1. The Waiting with James Caan. I play a small part.

TV shows binge-watched:

  1. schumerHappy Valley with Sarah Lancashire, James Norton
  2. Inside Amy Schumer with Amy Schumer
  3. Grace and Frankie with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin

I do recommend Happy Valley, a BBC show about a tough female cop tracking a gang of drug dealers/kidnappers, but the top spot here goes to Amy Schumer’s show.

The razor-sharp comic just won a Peabody and you can see why by watching her show, in which she tackles topics such as rape in the military and the media’s objectification of women but makes you laugh while she’s making her point. I don’t use this adjective often but will apply it here—Schumer’s comedy is brilliant.

Have you seen/read any of these? What did you think?


Book Review: LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE by Jessica Knoll

luckiest girl aliveJessica Knoll, a former Cosmopolitan magazine editor, debuts in book publishing with Luckiest Girl Alive, a novel that adroitly handles timely news topics.

Ani FaNelli is an editor at a women’s magazine in New York City, and engaged to the JFK, Jr.-esque Luke Harrison. Before Ani ties the knot, she agrees to be interviewed for a documentary about the devastating events that occurred while she was a student at an august prep school in Pennsylvania. The tragedy rudely thrust her into the public eye 14 years earlier, and Ani finally wants to set the record straight. In doing so, she could also unravel her seemingly perfect world.

Ani may come across as snarky and shallow at first, going to great lengths to curate an enviable life, complete with a glamorous job, aristocratic fiancé and four-carat engagement ring. But as her secrets are revealed, so is her vulnerable side. What happened to her as a teen—and is happening now too often to young people in real life—would destroy the average person, but it fueled Ani to strive for the brass ring. To her, success is the best revenge, and readers will want her to achieve it.

Knoll writes with veritas about Ani’s workplace: “The uglier and trendier [my] outfit, the stronger I emanate intimidating magazine editor.” Similes are arguably overused, but many descriptions are incisive and witty, such as a girl’s eyes being “so far apart they were practically in her sideburns.” Knoll balances the sharp with the sad, creating a protagonist who has pieces of both.

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is republished here with permission.

Amazon | IndieBound


Big Bear Adventure

Since we had a long weekend, Mr. PCN and I decided to run away from civilization and the noisy neighbors with their chainsaws and leaf blowers and constantly barking dogs.

We rented a cabin in the mountains near Big Bear Lake, where it was blissfully quiet. It was too windy and choppy on the water for kayaking so we took a tandem bike around the lake. The air was crisp, the temp about 40 degrees, and this was our view.



After we had lunch, we came back to the cabin and built a fire. That’s a jacuzzi tub to the left.



The cabin also had a private deck, where I’d take my coffee in the morning…


…but it was cozier to stay inside by the fire and dig into my stack of books. I brought 3, was able to finish the top 2 (reviews to come), and have started the third.

IMG_2020And that’s about all I did on my spring vacation. How was your weekend? What did you read or watch?


Guest Book Review: HOLD STILL by Sally Mann

This review is by contributor Thuy Dinh, editor of Da Mau Magazine.

Hold Still coverThe cover photograph of Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold Still, shows the author as a prepubescent tomboy, airborne against a gray expanse of sky. She seems suspended outside of time, as if she could be from any decade: her hair, white T-shirt, and preppy plaid shorts belong as much to the first decade of the 21st century as to the middle of the last century. This cover image of Mann brings to mind her gorgeous yet controversial black and white photographs of her children in Immediate Family—naked water sprites from a lost, ahistorical Eden.

Here’s the shocker: Mann thinks photographs have the power to distort, or worse, supplant a person’s memory.

Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past….As I held my childhood pictures in my hands…I also knew that with each photograph I was forgetting.

The thematic tension in Hold Still reflects Mann’s two life-long passions: the static romance of photography and the dynamism of the written word. Central to this tension is Mann’s identity as a Southern artist deeply burdened by her forebears’ past with slavery.

Mann’s memoir celebrates the natural beauty of Lexington, Virginia—her birthplace—yet it also acknowledges the region’s ingrained racism. Mann recounts being raised mostly by Virginia (Gee-Gee) Carter, her family’s black housekeeper. While she loved and respected Gee-Gee, she now realizes that neither she nor her parents, who were considered kind employers, ever questioned the segregation practice that was prevalent at the time. No one inquired whether Gee-Gee, who worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for Mann’s family, besides taking in the neighborhood’s laundry to supplement her income, had time to eat or feed her own family.

By juxtaposing photography’s selective truth with her family’s blinkered complacency on the question of race, Mann offers her stark narrative as atonement. She poignantly observes how often real life is too large, too complex, to be framed by image.

Nevertheless, Hold Still affirms the questing nature of art, how art challenges calcified assumptions and in so doing forges new paths. Mann resurrected the past in her decision to use wet collodion plates for her Deep South project. Air bubbles, dust motes occurring in this painstaking process—where chemicals had to be applied directly onto the glass plates—became “blessings from the angel of uncertainty” who bestowed “persuasive consequence, intrigue, drama, and allegory.”

These marks of imperfection represent the fluidness of art that liberates it from staticity, hewing it closer to life, or what Mann describes poetically as meuse, a word that describes a hare’s bodily imprint on the grass, closely connected to the word Muse, daughter of Memory.

Photo by Liz Liguori

Photo by Liz Liguori

Hold Stil beautifully demonstrates that an artist’s personal history is inseparable from her artistic self. In this indelible memoir, carefully curated with family snapshots and preserved memorabilia, Mann shows that her obsessions with the artistic process, family, race, and death are traits inherited from several of her guilt-ridden ancestors, who were vexed either by unmet desires or by the slavery issue.

Seen in this light, the resplendent images of her long-ago nude children are not so much provocative as wistful. Mann has always known that American innocence is a fictional construct, created out of deep longing, struggle, and isolation.


When Is a Spoiler a Spoiler?

I had two extremely annoying reading experiences recently and it brought to mind a question I’ve had for a while so I thought I’d seek outside opinions.

Here’s what happened, with two books in a row. I was reading the first ARC while using the accompanying press release as a bookmark. I hadn’t read the release because I’m so spoiler averse, I rarely read synopses, except to maybe skim the first sentence and the last to get a very rough idea of plot.

At one point I put the book down to grab a snack, a vital part of my reading ritual. When I inserted the press release into the book to keep my place, I accidentally glanced at the first sentence at the top of the page.

FullSizeRender (1)It mentioned the death of a character. In bold. I was on p. 52, the death hadn’t occurred, and it wasn’t something I was anticipating. I was super annoyed by the spoiler and haven’t picked up the book again.

The next ARC I read, I made sure to not use the press release as bookmark. But like the other book, I dove in without knowing anything about the plot. When I took a break, I put the book front cover down.

And that’s when I saw the synopsis on the back—with the very first sentence IN BIG FONT mentioning the death of a character I’d thought would be the protagonist. I was on p. 35 and the death hadn’t occurred.

Why are spoilers being given away so freely?? In press materials, no less. As I asked myself this, the obvious answer was: Because other people don’t think these are spoilers.

Which brought me to this question: When does a plot point become a spoiler if revealed? To me, if something happens before p. 5—maybe p. 8—it’s OK to mention it in a release or review. If a major development happens after that, best to keep mum or be vague when addressing it.

Not everyone agrees with me, though. Some reviewers have told me anything that happens before p. 30 is not a spoiler. Some people say p. 50 is their cut-off mark.

What do you think? When does something become a spoiler to you?


Nerdy Special List May 2015

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

We have a full list this month. After a couple of lackluster reading months, I was happy to read some strong books in April and to see my blogging friends did, too. Hope you find something on this list that piques your interest.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Dry Bones by Craig Johnson (Viking, May 12)

dry bonesDem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones do make for a good old-fashioned mess in Absaroka County, Wyoming. Craig Johnson’s eleventh Walt Longmire novel involves the discovery of a Tyrannosaurus rex named Jen, the death of an Indian—who just happened to own the land the dinosaur was discovered on—and the fight between three different groups over who exactly has the rights to this priceless pile of dry bones.

Life is never easy and rarely quiet in the least populated county in the least populated state in the Union. Johnson continues to keep this series fresh and unpredictable, and readers can count on his wonderful sense of humor; rich, dynamic characters; and great plot twists. The atmosphere and setting take their silently powerful supporting roles in Walt’s “Save Jen” story line as Craig Johnson spins another astounding yarn.

Dietland by Sarai Walker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 26)dietland

This daring debut is a wonderful mix of satire, mystery, adventure, and feminist fiction. Using a morbidly obese protagonist and a terrorist group known only as Jennifer (don’t ask me, I have no idea what the deal is with my name this month), Sarai Walker examines society’s objectification of women.

Alexis “Plum” Kettle has battled her weight all her life. She’s tried diet after diet and only succeeded in making herself fat and miserable. Now she’s decided to have weight-loss surgery, convinced this will be the turning point in her life. Her procedure is scheduled and she’s ready to go, until she meets Verena Baptist and her cadre of women working in various ways to empower women.

About the same time Plum meets Verena, Jennifer starts targeting institutions and individuals around the world who harm and debase women. Plum unwittingly finds herself tangentially tied to this group and must make some of the hardest decisions of her life.

Dietland is bold and passionate. Any woman who’s ever felt shunned because of arbitrary definitions of beauty will appreciate and empathize with Plum’s plight. Any person who hasn’t felt this way needs Dietland even more. It’s a powerful message wrapped in witty storytelling. Sarai Walker has a winner and is one to watch.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Beneath the Bonfire by Nickolas Butler (Thomas Dunne Books, May 5)

beneath the bonfireLast year I had the privilege of reading the wonderful Shotgun Lovesongs. While the novel never got the attention it fully deserved, I’m hoping the release of Beneath the Bonfire will change that. In Nickolas Butler’s new short-story collection, he again examines complex friendships that arise in small towns, the bonds between men, and a love for rural landscapes.

Highlights include “The Chainsaw Soiree” (my favorite), which tells the tale of a beloved annual party, the last of which is truly life altering; “Morels,” where mushroom hunting and the bonds of friendship take an unexpected turn on one particular hunt; and “Beneath the Bonfire,” the story of a complicated relationship between two scuba divers set against the backdrop of a bonfire on a frozen lake.

This is the best short-story collection I’ve read in a long time. I’d recommend it to lovers of good literary fiction—and maybe that readers give Shotgun Lovesongs a chance, too.

From Erin at In Real Life:

The Fall by John Lescroart (Atria Books, May 5)

9781476709215_p0_v2_s260x420The Fall begins quite literally when a young woman plunges to her death from an overpass in San Francisco. The expected questions abound—was she pushed? Did she jump?—but that’s where this story stops being predictable.

The woman in question,  Tanya, had a difficult, tragic life, but she had begun to persevere in the face of great adversity. As we meet the people in her life, the answer to who might have wanted to do her harm is anything but clear. Hidden agendas and muddy motivations abound, and they make for a fascinating journey.

John Lescroart is one of those rare series author who brings fresh eyes to each of his legal thrillers. This time, Dismas Hardy’s daughter, Rebecca, takes the lead in the case arising from Tanya’s death.

But this book is much more than a courtroom tale; it includes insightful social commentary as it explores a number of timely social issues, and it lets readers spend time with characters who are a pleasure to know, whether they’re old friends or new acquaintances.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Rumrunners by Eric Beetner (280 Steps, May 12)

rumrunnersFor generations, the McGraw men have worked as transporters for the Stanley crime “syndicate” in southeast Iowa, a tradition about to come to an end. Calvin is 86 and grumpily retired in Nebraska, son Webb is in his sixties and pulling a few last jobs, and grandson Tucker rejected the McGraw outlaw genetics and became an insurance salesman.

But when Webb goes missing with $12 million of Stanley drug money, the generations come together to find him in order to repay the boss. What’s billed as “Smokey and the Bandit meets Justified and Fargo” doesn’t disappoint, and Beetner has written a full-throttle ride filled with car chases, fistfights, and fights with everything from power tools to broken glass.

Rumrunners keeps you on your toes, mixing light and funny with vicious and bloody. You definitely want to call “shotgun!” for this ride.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (Atria Books, May 12)

soul of octopusSy Montgomery has been called a cross between Indiana Jones and Emily Dickinson, and she puts both personas together in this engrossing and emotional study of the octopus.

The account of her relationship with several octopuses (not octopi, I learned) at the Boston Aquarium is a dazzling look at the intricacies and depth of octopus intelligence and communication, both within its natural environment and, more remarkably, with humans.

Displaying individual character traits, varying reactions to individual humans, and complex problem-solving skills, octopuses teach us a valuable lesson in not selling the mindfulness of other species short. Montgomery deftly weaves scientific facts into an incredible story of love and friendship that’s not to be missed. (Click here for Lauren’s full review.)

From PCN:

Disclaimer by Renée Knight (Harper, May 19)

disclaimerCatherine Ravenscroft starts reading a thriller titled The Perfect Stranger one night and recognizes herself as the novel’s villain. The story references events that happened to her twenty years earlier. Since she’s never told anyone about what happened then, it seems impossible for the book’s author to know certain personal details about her. She must track down the writer and soon, because in Stranger, things don’t end well for the Catherine-like character.

Disclaimer alternates between the POVs of Catherine and the person who self-publishes the damaging novel within this novel. The characters are not easy to like, but keep reading because the ending is quietly devastating. It also capsizes any presumptions readers might have about the characters, reminding us not to rush to judgment when we don’t know the whole story.

Which May releases are you looking forward to?


Book Review: OH! YOU PRETTY THINGS by Shanna Mahin

oh you pretty thingsJess Dunne, the protagonist of Shanna Mahin’s Oh! You Pretty Things, is 29 years old, recently divorced, third-generation Hollywood and not sure what to do with her life. The story opens with her quitting a barista job at a hipster café because she’s not hip enough to get the desirable morning shifts.

One thing she can do is cook, and the guy who takes her coveted shifts at the café refers her to his former boss, an Oscar-winning film composer who might be agoraphobic. Jess becomes the composer’s personal assistant, which leads to her landing the plum gig of assistant to glamorous A-list actress Eva Carlton. Just when Jess is enjoying her life adjacent to the spotlight, her estranged, former-child-star mother comes to Los Angeles for an extended visit, threatening Jess’s sense of stability and making her revisit some ugly secrets from her past.

Jess is a likable heroine, an anchor among flighty people. What helps her maintain her sanity is a sense of humor (“I’ve been watching the shopping channel so long, I’m running out of reasons to not order those fake ponytails.”) Though she’s not an actress, Jess keeps up a façade to hide the painful childhood her mother subjected her to.

Pretty Things skewers the film industry with a ring of truth and equal helpings of snark and heart because Mahin, like Jess, is third-generation Hollywood. But the novel is less about the gloss and excess than about finding one’s identity and place in a slippery world full of illusions.

This originally appeared as a starred review in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is republished here with permission.

Amazon | IndieBound


Q & A with Author Michael Robotham

photo: Tony Mott

photo: Tony Mott

Australian author Michael Robotham was an investigative journalist and ghostwriter of memoirs for celebrities and politicians, among others, before publishing his first novel, Suspect, featuring psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, who’s afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. O’Loughlin has appeared in subsequent novels, two of which won the best novel category of the Ned Kelly Awards, the top Australian literary crime prize.

Robotham’s 10th novel, Life or Death (read my review here), is a standalone, about a man named Audie Palmer who, after serving a lengthy prison sentence, escapes from prison one day before he’s due to be released. Stephen King says it’s “a nerve-shredding thriller with the heart and soul so often missing from lesser crime and suspense novels.”

Why did it take 20 years between the idea for Life or Death and publication?

I first stumbled upon the idea in March 1995 when I read a small newspaper story about a man who escaped from prison the day before his release. The obviously question was why? This intrigued me as the setup for a novel, but it took me a long while to think of a compelling reason, which I knew had to involve a love story. Then it took me even longer before I felt I had the writing skills necessary to make readers believe that Audie Palmer would endure 10 terrible years in prison because of a promise he made. I am always trying to challenge myself as a writer and this was a huge challenge, not just in the writing, but also choosing Texas as the setting.

What made you choose Texas? What were some of the pleasures and challenges of capturing that Southern feeling?

I didn’t so much choose to write about Texas as choose to write about Audie Palmer and then had to find a location that I think fit his story. I spent the longest week of my life in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas because I initially thought I might set the story there. I settled in Texas because, as the slogan goes, Texas is “like a whole other country.” It’s not just the size or the cultural diversity–it’s the food, the pride, the people and the history. What other state has its own Independence Day or bumper stickers threatening to secede? I also saw plates that said Don’t mess with Texas, but I don’t know whether that was an anti-littering message or a threat.

I spent five weeks in Texas doing the research, sitting in bars, chatting to locals and driving enough miles to get white-line fever. At the same time, I was listening to audio books by Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, James Lee Burke and Philipp Meyer, trying to get the rhythm of the language.

It’s a daunting prospect to set a novel in a strange place but hopefully I haven’t made too many mistakes.

Some of the scenes, especially ones involving Audie on the road, evoke a sense of music, as if they’re movie montages. If Audie’s life had a soundtrack, which songs would be included?

I’m terrible with music questions, which is why there are so few songs referenced in my novels. I should name songs like “Yellow Rose of Texas” or “Galveston” but that wouldn’t be telling you the truth. I am, however, a huge fan of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, so they have to be included on any soundtrack, along with Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and the classic gospel blues number “John the Revelator.”

life or deathSuspect was intended as a standalone but the characters were developed into a series. Life or Death is being touted as a standalone…but is it really?

No plans as yet [to make it a series]. I do have another idea for an American novel, but might set it farther north in Maine. I have thought about bringing FBI agent Desiree Furness into a future novel. She’s a great character, so the answer is: “Watch this space.”

Tell us about your reaction when Stephen King raved about your work.

I regard Stephen King as the world’s greatest storyteller since Charles Dickens. When I read his comments about Life or Death, I said to my wife, “It won’t matter if I never sell another book. I can retire now. I will sit in my rocking chair and prepare to tell my grandchildren that the great Stephen King once called me a master.” Believe me–it doesn’t get any better than that.

Let’s hope retirement is many years from now for you. In addition to journalism, you’ve done your share of ghostwriting. One downside is that you don’t get credit for the writing, but there must’ve been perks, too.

Most people do jobs where they don’t get their name written up in big bold type. Teachers. Postmen. Surgeons. Social workers….

As a ghostwriter, I got to look at the world through a fresh set of eyes every time I took on a new project. I had to capture a new voice and immerse myself in an interesting life, performing a sort of literary ventriloquism where nobody recognized my presence. This was challenging and rewarding creatively, and also made me a good living.

Anonymity didn’t bother me because the people who counted–publishers and agents–knew which ghostwriter was responsible for a book. They gave me the credit, even if the general public had no idea.

Another perk was that I could be invisible. I didn’t have to do media or publicity. I still read all the reviews and celebrated the bestseller lists, but my job was done.

If someone asked you to write your memoir but you didn’t feel like doing it, which author—living or dead—would you choose to ghostwrite it? What would be the title?

Tough question. I guess I should be writing my own memoir, but if I had to put my life into another writer’s hands I would choose Hunter S. Thompson. Not for accuracy, but because I’m sure he’d make my memoir more exciting than the reality. And what would it be called? The Last Word.

This interview originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission.


Nerdy Special List April 2015

April is always a big month for me. Not only is it my birth month, it’s also that of my mother, husband, goddaughter, and two close friends. I should buy stock in Hallmark considering how many birthday cards I bought this week alone.

This year, April is also the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, which caused my family and me to flee to the US. Right before we left, my mom gave each of us kids a small bag and told us to pack only essentials. I crammed in a big book I’d just gotten for my birthday and that took up all the space. Which was fine with me, but not with Mom. I had to leave the book behind and pack clothes instead. I still think about that book because it no longer exists.

Speaking of books, the following are April releases my book-blogger friends recommend. I didn’t read anything outstanding but luckily they’re here to pick up the slack.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Michelle Obama, A Life by Peter Slevin (Knopf, April 7)
michelle obama a life

Washington Post political correspondent Peter Slevin’s biography of the inaugural African-American first lady is informative and inspirational. With meticulous research and the anecdotes provided by those from her inner circle, Slevin depicts a hard-working, courageous woman who overcame many obstacles on her road to success.

Michelle Obama was raised with the belief that you don’t make excuses—regardless of how legit they may be—you persevere. And so she did. The other strong belief instilled in her from childhood was that once you succeed, you reach back and help others behind you. Slevin illustrates how her life has been a testament to these beliefs. Michelle Obama, A Life is a captivating, moving look at a true American role model.

How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Lessons of Racist Childhood by Jim Grimsley (Algonquin, April 14)

how i shed my skinIn his stunning and often humorous memoir, Jim Grimsley looks back at the way racism was quietly instilled in him from birth. He was in the sixth grade when his North Carolina town began integrating the schools, and his story is that of the children that carried out the mandate handed down from politicians.

While adults battled the desegregation laws, the children quietly learned to attend classes, play sports, even support causes together. Losing the deep-seeded racists beliefs wasn’t a fast or easy or even complete process, but Grimsley examines his own journey down that road and how it shaped the man he became.

Engrossing, funny, and heart-breaking, How I Shed My Skin is an honest exploration of the roots of racism and the contribution a generation of young people made to the advancement of race relations in the United States.

From Erin at In Real Life:

The Mercy of the Night by David Corbett (Thomas & Mercer, April 7)

mercy of the nightPart legal thriller, part character study, and (large) part psychological suspense tale, The Mercy of the Night is at once interesting, scary, emotional, and perplexing. And I mean that as a compliment.

Phelan Tierney (yes, he knows he has two last names) helps people. He has a PI license, but he’s more a favors-for-friends PI than a jobs-by-the-book sort of investigator. One of his good deeds involves tutoring young women who are living in a rehab shelter, having escaped a range of desperate circumstances. When one of his students runs away, he agrees to try to find her and convince her to come back.

The young woman is question is Jacqi, whose horrific experiences as a child have set her life on a downward spiral, the force of which is apparently too strong for her to overcome. As the story develops, it becomes clear that in addition to tragedy, mystery and secrets play a part in her tale.

Corbett has a real way with words, giving each character a clear tone and painting a gorgeously clear picture of places and circumstances without getting all three-syllable-y about it. His books have won numerous accolades, and The Mercy of the Night will no doubt earn him more.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Spinster: Finding a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick (Crown, April 21)

spinsterFrom the time she was a little girl, freelance writer and The Atlantic contributing editor Kate Bolick found a sense of self in solitude. As an adult, she ran up against what she terms the “two questions that define every woman’s existence”—whom to marry and when. Part memoir, part sociological and feminist study going back more than 100 years, Spinster: Finding a Life of One’s Own is Bolick’s story of her two-decade journey to solve this internal conflict.

She does so by sharing the five female “awakeners” who helped guide her along various turns in her life path. These guides include poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, novelist Edith Wharton, and social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Whether or not you agree with or relate to Bolick’s premise, the lives of these five women and their impact—on Bolick and societal norms—make for an engrossing read.

Which April releases are you looking forward to?