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Nerdy Special List October 2017

October is one of my favorite months. The leaves change colors—well, not in L.A. but back east in pictures from family. The weather is cooler so I don’t have to sweat my back off every day, and we have Halloween, when I can laugh at people’s costumes and eat all the leftover candy.

And then there are fall books. October has such strong releases that even after three of us fought over the same book (Joe Ide’s Righteous; Erin won the wrestling match), we had no shortage of other titles to recommend.

Read on for this month’s picks.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash (William Morrow, October 3)

Wiley Cash’s third novel is based on the story of Ella May Wiggins, a white woman working in an integrated North Carolina textile mill. Wiggins works nights six days a week—approximately 70 hours—and earns nine dollars. Abandoned by her husband with four small children, Wiggins has very few options if she wants her family to survive.

When she learns about a union rally in a nearby town, she risks everything and attends on her only day off. Her personal story and singing talent grab the attention of the union organizers, and she soon finds herself the poster child for the movement.

Cash’s rich sense of place, enthralling narrative, and compassion make The Last Ballad a wonderful reading experience. The illustrations of early union efforts remind us of the sacrifices that were made to build the United States into the country it is today. Relating it to current events only makes the themes all the stronger. Another winner for Cash.

Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi (Razorbill, October 31)

Debut author Tochi Onyebuchi has created a profoundly gripping fantasy world, using influence from Nigerian folklore and the age-old, universal idea of haves and have-nots.

In this world, there are the powerful mages who can extract sin from people in the form of beasts, and aki who are needed to kill and eat the sin once it’s been withdrawn. The aki then bear the burden of the sin, in their hearts, minds, and on their skin in the form of tattoos.

Taj is a cocky young aki who gets tangled in a sinister plot to destroy his homeland. He must team up with a young mage to defeat the evil forces and protect his loved ones. Beasts Made of Night is brilliant and intense. It touches on powerful themes like justice, inequality, and family. And it unhooked this fantasy skeptic from her stronghold on reality and delivered her into an amazing realm of magic and wonder.

From Erin at In Real Life:

Righteous by Joe Ide (Mulholland Books, October 17)

What do ruthless Chinese gangsters, a loan shark with a horrific past, a beautiful lawyer, and a DJ have in common? They’re all part of the case Isaiah Quintabe investigates in Joe Ide’s impressive sophomore novel.

IQ heads to Las Vegas on a case that is close to his heart, while also investigating his brother’s death ten years earlier. Ide balances mystery, action, humor, and danger perfectly, and has a singular ability to create a cast of characters as engaging and fascinating as any you’ll meet, and the cases IQ investigates are worthy of his skills.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

The Dirty Book Club by Lisi Harrison (Gallery Books, October 10)

In 1962, Gloria Golden and three twentysomething girlfriends live by Prim: A Modern Woman’s Guide to Manners. Then, at a monthly potluck, over martinis and Neil Sedaka on the hi-fi, they explore a copy of The Housewife’s Handbook to Selective Promiscuity.

For the next 54 years, the group meets to secretly discuss evocative books, pushing the boundaries of their truths and repressions. Their fabulous history is the background for a new generation when Gloria’s gang passes the club on to four young women who hardly know each other and sometimes don’t even like each other.

Though filled with ribald humor and infused with a fantastic Golden Girls/Maude vibe, there is plenty of substance as well. Funny and warm, smart and sassy, it’s an all-around satisfying read.

Where the Sun Shines Out by Kevin Catalano (Skyhorse Publishing, October 17)

My tagline when I recommend this debut, and I’ve been doing that quite a bit lately, is “Gird your loins.” It’s not for the faint of heart, but man, is it worth the pain if you’re a fan of grit-lit.

Two young brothers are abducted in a gut-clenching opening and only one returns alive to their small hometown in New York. The impact on the surviving brother, his family, other members of the town, and the town at large are explored in depth over ten interrelated stories that strip life to its core and then probe it with a red-hot poker. This is never done for the sake of shock value, but always in furtherance of the characters and story.

If, like me, you’re a lover of great writing that pushes your comfort zone, look no further. As an added bonus, the cover is glorious.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

Breach of Containment: A Central Corps Novel by Elizabeth Bonesteel (Harper Voyager, October 17)

This is the third in a science-fiction series, and I am loving them!

After Elena Shaw has left Central Corps, she’s working as an engineer for a commercial shipping vessel. She meets up with her former ship and shipmates after a disastrous delivery on a planet that added more problems.

There are space rescues, tense communications, and Elena’s reunion with her ship, but with a corporation trying to rule the galaxy, will reunions save it?

While this is part of a series, this strong and page-turning story stands alone.

PCN’s recommendation:

We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union (Dey Street, October 17)

Whether or not you’re already a fan of Union’s screen work, you’ll likely want to be friends—or at least have drinks—with the actress after reading this collection of personal essays. She is funny, whip smart, and unafraid to make herself look ridiculous, like in detailing the home remedy she tried for her yeast infection to avoid being seen buying Monistat.

But as I was still laughing, she ripped me to shreds with the account of her rape at 19. And about her wearing mittens in her mostly white Chicago neighborhood because “thugs don’t wear mittens.” Union has faced obstacles but she’s a survivor, and readers will find her strength and sense of humor inspiring.

Which October releases are you excited about?


Text, Don’t Call: An Illustrated Guide to the Introverted Life

Being an INFJ (the rarest personality type), I was happy to come across this book. The following review appeared originally in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission.

Twenty years ago, as illustrator and author Aaron Caycedo-Kimura was trying to figure out what to do with his life, he made a monumental discovery: he was an introvert, specifically an INFJ, according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. “The description nailed and validated me; among other things, INFJs are deeply emotional, empathetic, relational, and INTROVERTED.”

Later, during a creative dry spell, Caycedo-Kimura, using the handle INFJoe, began posting illustrations online about his life as an introvert. “The response was amazing…! One person wrote, ‘I’m so happy to find out I’m not the only one.’ ” Following that experience, Caycedo-Kimura created Text, Don’t Call: An Illustrated Guide to the Introverted Life.

The guide is intended to help introverts understand themselves better and navigate the extroverted world. Caycedo-Kimura points out, for example, that introverts often describe themselves as antisocial or shy, but he illustrates how introversion differs from those two other qualities: being shy stems from a lack of confidence and antisocial behavior indicates an aggressive attitude toward others, while “introversion is the preference for directing our attention inward.”

The guide could also help extroverts be introvert allies—e.g., by ensuring at social gatherings that introverts “have a quiet corner where people don’t crowd [them]”—or simply be more empathic when introverts feel “peopled out” (exhausted after spending time at large gatherings). The drawings have a gentle wit, getting Caycedo-Kimura’s points across in a conversational, nonclinical style. Introverts will find he nails and validates them, by making it clear “we introverts are alone together.”


This Is Spinal Crack

A million years ago, my friend Lauren and I had a conversation about books and snacks and said we’d do it again, though we didn’t know when. Well, we were even lazier than we realized.

But we managed to finally have another online chat, this time about Rachel Khong’s superb Goodbye, Vitamin. As usual, Lauren is the one who brings up testes. 

Oh, and the title of this post? It refers to the cracking of books’ spines. Mr. PCN came up with it as the name of this series of conversations. As if Lauren and I are capable of doing it again. Let’s see first if we can crank this baby up to 11.

Pop Culture Nerd: Hey, you there?

Lauren: I don’t see anything.


L: Never mind, figured it out.

PCN: This will be part of the transcript.

L: Then I won’t swear at you out of the gate.

PCN: Swear away, but not at me since I’m not the problem.

L: My swear was going to be your inclusion of my ineptitude, but since that will not be a surprise to anyone, let’s get on with the show. Would you like to start with the lovely and funny Goodbye, Vitamin?

PCN: Yes, but first we need to talk snacks. What do you have on hand?

L: I think I failed at snacks last time, too, didn’t I? I just crammed some Trader Joe’s mac and cheese down my gob before we started. You?

Photo: Pexels. I don’t take pics of my food.

PCN: Mmm. Mac and cheese. I’m eating popcorn with sea salt and chili lime corn chips.

L: You’re so much better at that than I am. It’s also fitting we start with Snack Talk since Vitamin includes some pro-level snacking. Because I’m a weirdo, I counted the different foods mentioned: 142. I think my first text to you while reading was “I love this already, tons of snacks and missing pants.”

PCN: Yes! Snacks + no pants = perfection. It’s clear Rachel Khong knows what she’s talking about, whether it’s food or life or dementia. The impressive thing is her specificity. She cuts out all but the most riveting details, leaving nothing but scalpel-sharp observations.

L: She did a fantastic job with an emotional topic (dementia) in a difficult format (diary entries). In most books, that many mentions of one category of things, especially in fewer than 200 pages, would drive me insane. That she makes those feel such a natural and welcome part of the story evidenced a fabulous talent to me. Should we interrupt ourselves with a plot summary?

PCN: A 30-year-old woman, still smarting from the breakup of a relationship, goes home to help take care of her father, who’s suffering from dementia. She keeps a diary while there, and it’s funny AND poignant. How’s that?

L: Perfect. You read it before I did, which was fun because I then got to bombard you with texts while I was reading. One thing you mentioned that we both agreed on is that this one grabbed us both right off the bat. Opening line: “Tonight a man found Dad’s pants in a tree lit with Christmas lights.” Hilarious, poignant, and those wonderful, specific details you mentioned, all right in the first line. It only gets better from there.

PCN: A man stages a protest by throwing away his pants—how could that NOT grab us right away?

L: More than ten mentions of pants. (I’m starting to sound like Rain Man).

PCN: Is it 13 minutes to Judge Wopner? There are so many funny details. When I first heard this book had a character with dementia, I thought, NOPE. That’s a painful subject for me. But I kept hearing how witty Vitamin is, and I’m intrigued by writers who can find the humor in difficult situations. I’m so glad I took Vitamin. (Corny?)

L: Ha. Yes, corny, but I laughed. I had also passed it by, and I can’t even say why since I like difficult and painful stuff (was Rain Main also a masochist?). What blew me away about Khong’s writing is just what you mention above—all the details related to both the humor and the pain. All those mentions of food make it clear how important food is/was to this family.

And yet Ruth’s mom stops cooking because she feared anything but juice and vitamins might have contributed to Ruth’s dad’s dementia. That was heartbreaking. To get those ideas across so well in short diary entries is…let’s just say I was astounded to learn this was Khong’s debut and that she wrote in diary format because she didn’t think she had the chops (corny?) to write a novel. Methinks she’s way off base with that self-assessment.

PCN: With all the rave reviews, I hope she realizes she’s quite good as a novelist. Looking forward to seeing what she writes next.

L: I will pick up her next offering immediately, without regard to cover or subject matter. We are not easily won over (some might even say difficult), but she snagged us but good.

PCN: Oh, I want to mention one of my favorite lines. In her dad’s journal that he kept about her childhood, he wrote about how after he kept telling her to behave, little Ruth got frustrated one day and yelled, “I’m BEING have!”

‪L: That was a great line, out of so many. It will come as no surprise that one of my favorites includes “testes.” Oh, shit, I meant “balls,” but in the meaning of testes.

PCN: Balls always make a book better. Remind me: the balls weren’t mentioned in a food context, right?

L: Ha. No. They were talking about jury duty, which led to this diary entry about what her dad told her: “The word ‘testify,'” you said, “comes from testicles. Men used to swear by their balls.”

PCN: So honorable.

L: There was a mention of meatballs.

PCN: Now I want spaghetti. I liked how, when Ruth watched an old movie in which her dad was a background actor, she saw him sitting in the back eating an olive on a toothpick. Another great example of Khong’s specificity. She didn’t just write Ruth caught a glimpse of her dad onscreen. She described exactly what he was doing.

L: She knocked those details out of the ballpark. Which reminds me, before we move on, I have to say that you, sports hater extraordinaire, using a sports analogy to describe this book to me has to be the greatest compliment/blurb of all time. I can picture this on the paperback version: “Nailed me in the sweet spot. Or whatever that saying is.” —Pop Culture Nerd

PCN: Huh? I don’t even know which sports analogy I used.

L: That’s the beauty of it.

PCN: If you say so. Hey, all this talk of food has made me hungry.

L: Let’s shut ‘er down and eat.

Buy Goodbye, Vitamin from Amazon

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Nerdy Special List September 2017

I’m late getting the list up this month because I ran away. It’s been an exhausting year and I needed a respite from everything, so I went to stay with relatives where there’s no cell service or Wi-Fi. Don’t believe such a place still exists?

It was wonderful. I could hear crickets.

No filter

I did drive into town to make one phone call and peek at Facebook to make sure friends were OK from Hurricane Irma. Otherwise I just breathed fresh air, hiked, stared at the water and stars at night, contemplating whether I could give up working and start paying for things with chickens.

But of course, I could never give up reading.

Here are the September releases my pals and I recommend.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

The Western Star by Craig Johnson (Viking, September 5)

At book number 13, I’m still as in love with Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series as I was at book 1. This installment takes readers into some of Walt’s backstory—the early years with his wife Martha—and a deadly train trip of Wyoming Sheriffs on a locomotive named The Western Star.

Johnson includes his trademark humor and smart allusions to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Wyoming’s nature is mostly in the passing countryside, but Johnson proves he’s equally talented at building a strong setting on a moving train as he is in the amazing beauty of his home state. Boy, howdy, another great read.

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (Farrar, Straus Giroux; September 12)

This stunning YA novel about three generations of women from an Indian family is both timely and timeless. As teenagers, Sonia and Tara Das move to the United States with their parents. The girls attempt to acclimate to their new home in their individual styles while their mother holds tight to the cultural traditions and norms of India. Their clash of personalities comes to a peak when Sonia elopes with a man her mother disapproves of, causing an estrangement between the two.

But the next generation of Das women find a way to heal the past and move forward. The themes of identity, diversity, and compassion are relevant now more than eve, and Perkins has delivered them in a gorgeous book geared to young readers but with appeal for all ages.

From Erin at In Real Life:

House. Tree. Person. by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink, September 8)

Ali gets a job at a psychiatric hospital despite her lack of qualifications, but finds the residents take to her. Her success with patients gets her in trouble with the spooky couple running the facility.

She’s also investigating what, if anything, her son had to do with the death of the person whose body he allegedly discovered. If that’s not enough, an unexplained trauma in Ali’s past haunts her, making her family question her every move.

Catriona McPherson is one of those rare authors whose characters jump off the page and into readers’ hearts. She puts them in situations as fascinating as they are terrifying. House. Tree. Person. (the title is explained in the book) pulls you in and along every twist and turn. My only complaint is that it had to end.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (W. W. Norton, September 26)

For three years, journalist Jessica Bruder immersed herself in an exploding American subculture—individuals, couples, and families who have forsaken real estate for “wheel estate,” living on the road performing itinerant work to make ends meet.

As a result of the housing crisis, stock market collapses, divorces, failed businesses, and health issues, to name a few causes, people are increasingly finding themselves having to choose between food and electricity, health care or rent. By living in converted campers, vans, or even the family Prius, they have found a way to survive and sometimes even thrive.

Bruder’s account of this transient community (and some of the businesses that take advantage of them, e.g. Amazon) is insightful and frightening, as the American dream is exposed as something often closer to a nightmare.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence (Flatiron Books, September 26)

Seriously, who wouldn’t fall in love with a title like that? Annie Spence is witty and fun, and I think she’d be a blast to work with.

Libraries do have to break up with books—the title is too old, its condition may be too gross, the information may have been found to be incorrect. We call this weeding.

But the books Annie is in love with—well, it makes you want to keep a list of new books to try. And like all good librarians, she provides lists of recommended reading at the end.

Come for the laughs, stay for the books.

PCN’s recommendation:

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton (Minotaur, September 5)

Here I am talking about trying to relax and unwind, and yet I’m recommending this book that kept me TENSE the whole time I was reading it. Sharon Bolton usually has that effect on me. And I love it.

The premise: A group of tourists on a hot-air balloon ride witnesses a man killing a woman on the ground. The man looks up, sees them. The balloon crashes, and it’s nonstop terror from there as the killer relentlessly pursues the eyewitnesses to his crime.

I’m not saying anything more because the revelations are a 10 on the scale of whaaaat? Read Dead Woman Walking if you want a suspenseful thriller that makes you feel like the call is coming from inside the house.

What are you reading this month?


Nerdy Special List August 2017

Summer is almost over and I’m relieved because I’m melting. But I’ve had more excellent reads this summer than I did in the past few years, and many of the standout books are August releases.

Here are our recommendations this month.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin (Little, Brown; August 15)

In a troubling look at the rape conviction of Willie J. Grimes, little justice is found in the American justice system.

When Grimes was convicted, his lawyer believed him innocent. When the North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services examined Grimes’s case, they too believed him innocent. When he was referred to the Center on Actual Innocence, they believed he was innocent. But no one could help Grimes because the process was never deficient; the jury simply made the wrong determination of guilt.

Ghost of the Innocent Man is nonfiction that reads like the most heart-pounding of thrillers, and that makes it all the more terrifying. (Read Jen’s full review at Shelf Awareness.)

Pablo and Birdy by Alison McGhee, illus. by Ana Juan (Atheneum/Caitlyn Diouhy Books, ages 8-12, August 22)

This sweet, mystical realism middle-grade book about an orphan and his pet parrot examines the theme “the winds of change mean fortune lost or fortune gained.” As the almost-ten-year-old Pablo discovers when he goes in search of the truth about where he came from, it isn’t always easy to tell when what’s been lost and what’s been gained.

Packed full of rich characters, an intoxicating island setting, and an enchanting myth about a seafaring parrot that knows all the words of the world, this heartwarming novel will have readers searching for the seafarer and craving elephant ear pastries.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

If the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss (Sourcebooks Landmark, August 22, 2017)

Sadie Blue is seventeen, pregnant, and a Loretta Lynn super fan. She’s also an abused newlywed at the end of her rope. Living in the impoverished Appalachian community of Baines Creek, Sadie is supported by many of the small town’s inhabitants.

Told from multiple perspectives, Leah Weiss’ debut novel paints a portrait of a struggling town filled with struggling people. Colorful characters and a unique voice make this a standout debut. If the Creek Don’t Rise is an excellent example of gritty, southern fiction with a dash of hope.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

The Party by Elizabeth Day (Little, Brown; August 15)

Three weeks following a party at an upper-crust British vacation estate, one attendee is in critical care and Martin Gilmour is undergoing police questioning.

Through Gilmour’s interrogation, Day unravels the dynamics and history of two couples linked by the husbands’ longtime friendship. Sociopathy, class structure, devotion, and betrayal all play a part in the evening’s spiral into a moment of violence.

From PCN:

The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh (Ecco, August 1)

Calvin Cooper is the sheriff in an isolated Texas town full of people who are starting over after they either committed a violent crime or witnessed one. But since the residents have had their memories entirely or partially erased, they don’t know if they’re innocents or killers. Things go well for 8 years, until people start getting murdered.

The Blinds defies categorization with its unique blend of Western, sci-fi, dark humor, and examination of fate and human nature. I normally don’t even like Western or sci-fi, but this blistering, unpredictable novel moved me with its moments of beauty among life’s brutalities.

What are you reading this month?



I was in a bad reading slump recently. Picked up six novels and put them all back down after reading only the opening paragraphs. Nothing pulled me into its world, or introduced me to characters I wanted to spend time with.

Then I met Eleanor Oliphant, and she was exactly what I needed.

Eleanor is the star of Gail Honeyman’s delightful debut, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. She does accounts receivable in an office, takes phone calls from her mum every Wednesday, eats pizza and gets drunk on vodka every weekend, and talks to no one until Monday comes back around.

When she does have to be around people, she has no edit button or social skills. When she goes to events, she sees no problem with putting sausage rolls into her purse for later consumption. In other words, she’s my kinda gal.

Here are glimpses of her inner life.

On sports:

Sport is a mystery to me. In primary school, sports day was the one day of the year when the less academically gifted students could triumph, winning prizes for…running from Point A to Point B more quickly than their classmates…

As if a silver in the egg-and-spoon race was some sort of compensation for not understanding how to use an apostrophe.

Her thoughts while walking through a neighborhood:

The streets were all named after poets—Wordsworth Lane, Shelley Close, Keats Rise…poets who wrote about urns and flowers and wandering clouds. Based on past experience, I’d be more likely to end up living in Dante Lane or Poe Crescent.

Her disdain for obvious statements, after buying a coffee at McDonald’s:

Naturally, I had been about to pour it all over myself but, just in time, had read the warning printed on the paper cup, alerting me to the fact that hot liquids can cause injury. A lucky escape!

How she’d like to be dealt with after her death:

I think I might like to be fed to zoo animals. It would be both environmentally friendly and a lovely treat for the larger carnivores.

She’s a straight-up weirdo but this is why she’s wonderful. Her life is forced out of its routines when a man falls down in the street in front of her. Extending herself is something she doesn’t do, but when she helps him, it leads to unexpected places—and feelings. Eleanor is funny and tragic, innocent and wise.

There’s an element of mystery to her backstory—why did she show up at her job interview with a black eye? Why can’t anyone meet her mum?—but it’s hardly necessary. Eleanor is the draw. She believes no one thinks she’s interesting, but she’s all that and more.

Nerd verdict: Eleanor is more than Fine

Buy from Amazon

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Nerdy Special List July 2017

Oh, man, it’s been so hot here, I’m tempted to run down the street naked and dive into random sprinklers. Mr. PCN said the neighbors would just think it’s a regular Friday.

The other day, I was reading with the window open and smelled smoke and got all annoyed at my neighbor for ruining my air. He’s always outside my window smoking something or other.

Then I turned on the news and saw it wasn’t my rude neighbor but a FIRE.

Speaking of heat, below are our favorite July reads. This month, we have a guest contribution from Mr. PCN, who liked a book so much he wanted in on the NSL action.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais (Putnam, July 11)

Set in the midst of apartheid in 1970s South Africa, Bianca Marais’ debut novel is heartbreaking and inspiring, revolting and uplifting. The darkness of hate is countered by the illumination of love and compassion. The result is an intensely powerful story that transcends time and geography.

Robin is nine years old when her parents are killed. Her only remaining relative is her aunt, Edith, an airline hostess.

Beauty is a widow schoolteacher whose daughter, Nomsa, goes missing during the Soweto student uprising. Beauty leaves her home in the rural village of Transkei to search for Nomsa.

Fate brings the two together when Edith needs someone to look after Robin while she travels for work, and Beauty needs a residence in order to stay and try to find Nomsa. Robin’s white world clashes with Beauty’s black one at first, but they each learn from the other. The lessons are rarely easy, but their journey together is gripping and hopeful.

Hum If You Don’t Know the Words is at times very difficult to stomach. The hate and disregard for human life is too easily disseminated. But Marais does find light in the darkness, reminding readers that change starts with those little glimmers of kindness and compassion, and that bigotry is learned behavior that, under the right circumstances, can also be unlearned.

King Louie’s Shoes by D.J. Steinberg, illustrated by Robert Neubecker (Beach Lane Books, ages 4-8, July 11)

D.J. Steinberg’s nonfiction picture book about King Louis XIV is whimsically delightful. Adults will have as much fun reading it to children as kids will have taking in the world of this famous French king.

The story (accompanied by fun facts at the end) of short-stature Louie’s high-heeled shoes is as captivating as Neubecker’s fantastic caricature illustrations, bold with color and humor.

Louie wants to be big in every way. He gives big gifts, holds big parties, but he needs to figure out how to change his height. He tries tall wigs and high thrones before asking his shoemaker to craft him special shoes. The result offers a life lesson complete with giggles. Steinberg and Neubecker know how to make learning fun, for kids and adults.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed (Little, Brown, July 25)

If a book can be said to be both dreadful and wonderful, then Gather the Daughters is one such book.

Set in an unknown period after a fire destroys civilization, an island community is formed by ten men desiring a deeply patriarchal society. These men, known as the ancestors, make a list of things a person shalt not do and those are the rules that govern their small society.

The men farm, or carve, or labor outside the home, while the women keep house. Females submit to their father until they are married, and then they submit to their husbands. When their child has a child, they take their final draught. The shalt-nots are never questioned, and if women were to question them, well, bleeding out is very common in childbirth.

Janey, Amanda, Caitlin, and Vanessa are four girls living in this rustic island community. They begin to question the rules, and that is a very, very dangerous thing to do. When one of the girls is murdered for desiring something better for her own daughter, the girls start a resistance.

Eerie, bleak, and full of dread, Jennie Melamed’s debut novel is also excellent. Her beautiful prose balances the grim existence of the characters, and the multiple narrators flesh out life on the island. For those who enjoy dystopian fiction, this will be my go-to recommendation of the summer.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips (Viking, July 25)

In Fierce Kingdom, Gin Phillips turns an idyllic mother-son afternoon at the zoo into a skin-prickling, breath-holding nightmare.

As Joan and her four-year-old son rush to the park’s exit at closing time, they find their path blocked by a man with a gun. What follows is a three-hour, real-time evening of cat and mouse, where every noise could mean death around the corner.

Phillips does a stupendous job creating an atmosphere that will take readers straight to the gut of the hunted. This is one hell of a summer blockbuster.

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite (Plume, July 11)

We’ve all been there. Watching a movie or reading a book, we’ve all said, “That could never happen to me,” or “There’s no way I wouldn’t have seen THAT coming.” Jen Waite is here to dispel those notions with her gutsy and oh-so-important memoir.

Jen and her husband Marco’s first encounters were out of a Hollywood movie. The sparks flew, they “just knew.” Five years later, the blissful couple is married and expecting a baby.

But after his daughter is born and his wife is at her most vulnerable, Marco changes into someone unrecognizable. In Before and After timelines, Waite takes readers through the horrific journey of discovering the man she thought she knew was a textbook psychopath.

Waite pulls no punches on any front, writing with scathing honesty about herself, Marco, guilt, shame, cognitive dissonance and the myriad emotional assaults that come from such a discovery.

This is not a story of redemption. Waite required none and Marco can never obtain it. It’s the story of one woman courageous enough to share her story to shine a light for others.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

Chasing Down a Dream by Beverly Jenkins (William Morrow Paperbacks, July 4)

This eighth book in the awesome Blessings series, about a woman who bought a town on eBay, has two citizens marrying, one citizen planning another’s funeral, and Gemma and her grandson working on fostering and adopting two orphans injured in a tornado. Another very enjoyable visit with the Henry Adams community in Kansas.

From Mr. PCN:

First of all, I’d like to say I am honored to be among all of you who tirelessly contribute to the NSL. Here’s my contribution.

Afterlife by Marcus Sakey (Thomas & Mercer, July 18)

Marcus Sakey’s novel encompasses a London street urchin in 1532, a modern-day sniper being chased by two FBI agents, and not only what connects them but literally everything in between. I’d describe it as spiritual science fiction with a love story at the center of it all. Confused? Just read it.

Note: Producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer have grabbed Afterlife to turn it into a feature film. I hope they don’t muck it up.

From PCN:

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner (Random House, July 4) 

Manon Bradshaw from last year’s Missing, Presumed is back, and this time she has 1.5 kids, one she adopted and another in her tummy. The single mom (by choice) has moved from London to give her family the elusive better life, but then murder happens nearby. And the main suspect is someone Manon will turn her full fierceness on to protect.

She and her former detective constable Davy, who’s now a detective sergeant, are the kind of decent, smart, and witty people with whom I’d want to share a pizza (English sandwiches?) if they were real. Add the complex plot and Unknown proves Steiner should be as well known as the best writers in crime fiction.


Book Review: THE LIGHT WE LOST by Jill Santopolo

Lucy and Gabe met as Columbia University students on 9/11, when emotions were running high and “our shields were down.” After spending a very intense day together, however, Gabe reunites with an ex, and Lucy doesn’t see him again until graduation, and it’s only for a brief moment.

Almost a year later, they run into each other once more, and this time they embark on a passionate relationship. But their desire to effect positive change in the world—a yearning sparked by what they witnessed on 9/11—means career choices that won’t allow both to stay in Manhattan. Gabe goes overseas and Lucy meets someone else, but they keep in touch through life changes big and small, wondering if they’ve made the right decisions and what their dreams may have cost them.

Spanning 13 years, Jill Santopolo’s The Light We Lost is a beautiful, thought-provoking exploration of life choices, and how attaining one’s dreams can be euphoric and gut-wrenching at the same time. Lucy and Gabe’s love is both idealistic and realistic; Santopolo puts them in situations where there are no easy answers. Should one choose a dream job offer or true love? Who must do the sacrificing or compromising? If you know a relationship would be once in a lifetime but finite, and soul-crushing when it ends, would you jump in anyway?

Don’t read the promotions comparing this to other popular novels, for that might spoil the ending. But even if that happens, the emotional journey is worth it.

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


Nerdy Special List June 2017

School’s out and summer has started, which means lazy days—or in my case, lazier days. I blame it on the heat. And laziness.

But there’s one activity I’ll always do a lot of and that’s reading. The NSL contributors and I enjoy diving into pools of books to find the standouts each month.

Here are our favorites for June.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero by Cate Lineberry (St. Martin’s Press, June 20)

There are many amazing African-American heroes whom we read and hear about in school, see memorialized around the country, and easily recognize by name. One who isn’t quite as common but easily as exceptional is Robert Smalls, a South Carolina slave who stole a Confederate steamer and sailed it in the Union Navy forces.

Smalls’ goal was to save his family, but he accomplished far more. Following his incredibly dangerous escape, Smalls went on to pilot vessels for the Union, raise funds for a community of freed slaves, own a business, learn to read, provide education for his children, and buy the South Carolina home he grew up in as a slave.

Lineberry’s thorough research and obvious passion make this account of Smalls’ life engaging and fascinating. As Americans, this is a story we should know as well as Fredrick Douglass’ or Harriet Tubman’s.

Unsub by Meg Gardiner (Dutton, June 27)

Caitlin Hendrix grew up surrounded by the case of the serial murderer dubbed The Prophet. Her father was the lead investigator for the Alameda Sheriff’s Department.

The case was never solved but it ended her father’s career as well as his marriage. That didn’t prevent Caitlin from following her father’s career path, though.

Twenty years after The Prophet disappeared, Caitlin is a making a name for herself in the narcotics division when she’s summoned to a murder scene. The victim is found with a Mercury symbol, The Prophet’s calling card.

Whether it was left by the actual killer, back after 20 years, or a copycat is unclear, but Homicide Sergeant Joe Guthrie knows the most important clues of the case are locked in the mind of former detective Mack Hendrix, and the only way to him is through Caitlin.

Based on the notorious unsolved case of San Francisco’s Zodiac Killer, Unsub is a creepy, atmospheric, fast-paced thriller full of plot twists and suspense.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Perennials by Mandy Berman (Random House, June 6)

Is there a better way to welcome summer than with a debut novel about summer camp? I don’t think so.

I never went to summer camp, but I always, always wanted to, so perhaps a bit of my appreciation of Mandy Berman’s Perennials is rooted in envy. Regardless, it’s good.

Rachel and Fiona are campers—and later camp counselors—at Camp Marigold. They come from vastly different backgrounds but are best camp friends.

Told from multiple perspectives over the course of multiple summers, resembling linked short stories more than a novel, Fiona’s and especially Rachel’s stories are fleshed out in this coming-of-age novel. It’s heartfelt and melancholy, awkward and bittersweet. It’s not about action-packed summer hijinks, but rather a meditation on the benefits and burdens of friendship.

Berman is a talented writer, and I look forward to seeing what she writes next. In the meantime, Perennials is the perfect literary kickoff to summer.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

You’ll Never Know, Dear by Hallie Ephron (William Morrow, June 6)

I did not want to read this book. The cover creeped me the hell out and I wanted to throw it on the “get rid of this book” pile as fast as possible. [Ed. note: she offered to send it to me.]

But duty called and I’m glad it did, because it’s a super enjoyable read and not nearly as doll-creepy as I thought it would be.

Sorrel Woodham, dollmaker extraordinaire, has purchased a newspaper ad every year since her daughter Janey disappeared. The ad offers a reward for the return of the doll that was made by Miss Sorrel in Janey’s likeness and taken along with her.

Forty years later, a response to the ad sends three generations of Woodham women on a mission to finally find out what happened to Janey. Ephron is a smart writer who keeps the plot engaging while avoiding the numerous pitfalls that can turn an amateur investigator story into an eye-roller. I tore through this traditional suspense mystery and recommend it as a great summer read.

Ash Falls by Warren Read (Ig Publishing, June 13)

In the beautifully written opening of Ash Falls, convict Ernie Luntz escapes into Washington mountains following the crash of his prison transport vehicle. As word of Ernie’s run for the hills makes its way through his hometown of Ash Falls, Read unexpectedly turns his fantastic novel into something other than a prison escape story (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

The reader is treated to interconnected stories from multiple third-person points of view, including that of Ernie’s wife, son, and others impacted by the violence that sent Ernie away in the first place.

Read’s language is beautiful and stark, with many passages that are repeat-read worthy. This debut novel is not to be missed by grit-lit fans.

From PCN:

The Child by Fiona Barton (Berkley, June 27)

An infant’s skeleton is found under the foundation of a building being demolished. The bones have been there for decades. Whose child was it and how did it get there?

Kate, a reporter, jumps on the story. Two other women, Emma and Angela, follow the case closely, with dread and for entirely different reasons, until the three women’s paths converge in an emotional and satisfying way.

Barton (The Widow) makes loss and longing palpable, but she also shows what lies on the other side of grief is joy.

What’s in your reading stack?


Movie Review: WONDER WOMAN (No Spoilers)

I’m so excited the review embargo has finally been lifted on Wonder Woman and I can share how good it is!!

I hated last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and even Wonder Woman’s cameo couldn’t save it. I wasn’t impressed by what little I saw of Gal Gadot in that movie. All she was allowed to do was be a mannequin in gorgeous gowns and briefly fight as WW, without showing much personality.

What a difference it makes when she gets to be the star of her own movie. Gadot doesn’t have the greatest emotional range, but she’s much warmer and playful in Wonder Woman. She’s convincing as both a warrior and an innocent, when Diana meets a man, leaves her all-female home island of Themyscira, and experiences the real world—all for the first time.

That man, of course, is pilot Steve Trevor, imbued by Chris Pine with gravitas when called for, and deadpan humor when not. Steve isn’t just a helpless mortal always in need of being saved, like women often are in movies about male superheroes. Pine gets to do some heroic stuff, too. He and Gadot make a winning crime-fighting pair.

The supporting cast of Amazons, led by Connie Nielsen as Queen Hippolyta and Robin Wright as General Antiope—Diana’s mother and aunt, respectively—can be best described by one word: fierce. Their fight scenes are awe-inducing. I’ve followed Wright’s career for more than 30 years and I’ve never seen her kick ass like this. It made me think of Chinese martial arts films, where women fight as brutally as men and no punches are pulled for them. They aren’t trying to be cute or bopping someone over the head with a frying pan. These women are warriors and have the scars to prove it.

The real leader of cast and crew is director Patty Jenkins, who has managed to create a thrilling, action-filled movie that’s also surprisingly poignant and contains social commentary. Instead of going up against CGI monsters, Wonder Woman fights man, those consumed with power and greed who are willing to slaughter innocents in their bid for supremacy. WW is refreshingly free of angst—when she sees evil, she charges full steam ahead to combat it. She doesn’t go on a long trip to some far-flung location to gaze at her navel first, like some of her Justice League pals.

Wonder Woman—like the other Amazons of Themyscira—believes we should be governed by decency, wisdom, compassion, and courage. She’s the hero we need right now. Her world is an inspiring place to visit, and I can’t wait to see it again soon.


Interview with Dennis Lehane

photo: Gaby Gerster/Diogenes, Zurich

Dennis Lehane’s latest novel, Since We Fell, was published this week. I reviewed it for Shelf Awareness, and interviewed Lehane for the same issue. Below is our conversation, reprinted with permission.

It seems the only thing predictable about your career is that you always do something unpredictable. Since We Fell is different from anything you’ve written. The central POV is female, and Rachel and her family aren’t working class.

After 20 years of writing mostly about guys, it was refreshing to step into a woman’s perspective. And, yes, I decided to write about a bit more upscale world than I have before. Rachel comes from an intellectual family–her mother and father were both professors–but the damage they inflicted on her is just as brutal as the more direct forms of violence that happen in my other novels. And her journey (at least until she meets her second husband) is one of dislocation and isolation, of people abruptly leaving her life without a look back. In the first third of the book she’s on a search for her paternity. After that search leads to a mental breakdown, her next journey is to reclaim herself, which is the main journey of the book.

Rachel’s voice was so convincing, both as a woman and an individual with agoraphobia. How did you go about finding it? Did it come easily, and how did you know when it was right?

The voice mostly came easily. I did a pass after I was done to red-flag any areas where I thought Rachel could be sounding like a man or where I was seeing the scene through a pair of guy goggles. But there weren’t too many moments like that, as luck would have it. I ran the manuscript past a few female friends and it passed muster with them, so I figured I was okay from there.

As for the agoraphobia, I did a tiny bit of research but hardly to a taxing level. Most of the hard work of the book centered around drilling down into the causes of Rachel’s maladies. The gender-specific stuff and the particulars of how her panic attacks manifested themselves came out without too much struggle.

Your recurring theme of family is present: biological vs. chosen. Has becoming a father yourself affected how you write about family and father-child relationships?

No how-to manual can prepare you for the depths of both love and fear that overtake you when you bring a child into the world. I mean, before you have kids, you sort of get it… but you don’t, not really.

Since I’ve had children, I wrestle with the not terribly original terrors of not measuring up to what they need me to be, of failing them at crucial moments and, most of all, of what will happen to them if something happens to me before they reach adulthood. That last fear is clearly reflected in both the father-son relationship in my previous book, World Gone By, and the relationship Rachel has–or, more specifically, doesn’t–with her own father(s) in Since We Fell.

Regarding movie rights, you’ve said you only “sell to a studio through somebody,” e.g., to Clint Eastwood who then approached Warner Bros. about Mystic River, not to WB directly. Via which director did DreamWorks buy Since We Fell?

In the case of Since We Fell, I broke all my usual rules. I’m writing the adaptation, for example, and I did sell directly to DreamWorks, although with the inclusion of three producers whose work I admire. I’ve been in L.A. now for almost four years, so the “studios” are not as faceless as they were when I lived in Boston; I know a lot of the top execs. So, it’s a bit different from the days when I refused to sell to a studio because it felt like dropping the book into an ocean filled with unknowable but predatory creatures.

Tell us about your decision to write the screenplay, which you’ve said you never wanted to do for one of your novels.

Most times when I write a novel, the last thing I can see is the structure of it. I usually mosey on into my novels with a character or a line or two and just fumble around blindly for the light switch. And I rewrite a lot, usually in no particular sequence. So it’s normally impossible for me to see the structural through-line. I leave that for readers and, yes, screenwriters who wish to adapt the book.

But with Since We Fell, the idea popped into my head, fully formed: What if an agoraphobic woman with the “perfect marriage” comes to believe her husband has a second life in another city? And the answers to why that husband might be lying and what was going on in the background and how Rachel was going to have to conquer her agoraphobia to solve the mystery–all of that came to me in a matter of days. So for the first time since Shutter Island, I started a book with the structure locked in place. That made it easy to see how to adapt it for film. And I seemed like the right guy for the job. For once.

You live in L.A. now. Has the city inspired you to write any L.A. noir?

No. You’d be jousting with giants there. [Raymond] Chandler, [John] Fante, [Nathanael] West, [Horace] McCoy, and [James] Ellroy–to name just five right off the top of my head. I don’t see the point. I still have my little neck of the woods in Boston, the one place I feel confident that I know better than almost anyone. L.A. would take a lifetime to learn and I’ve spent that lifetime learning Boston. The L.A. literary landscape can get along great without any contributions from me.

You’ve written different genres and in different mediums. Is there something you’d like to tackle but haven’t yet?

Two things: I’d like to do a straight-up chase novel someday, à la Three Days of the Condor, a film I love. And I’d like to do a purely naturalistic novel in which there are no big action sequences or even overtly big emotions. Something small and quiet.

What have you learned in the past 20+ years of your career that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

Nothing. Careers are often built because of what you don’t know, what you’re too ignorant to fear or too stupid to realize you shouldn’t try. I never regret something I tried at and failed. I only regret things I never tried at all.


Nerdy Special List May 2017–Take 2

OK, let’s try this again. Earlier this post was unfinished but published without my knowledge or permission. While writing it, I experienced technical issues so I saved what I had and asked tech support to look into the problems. When I went to bed, IT reps were still looking into it. 

In the morning, I got an email saying it had gone live and out to subscribers, even though I’d never asked the support team to publish it.

So here’s the finished post, including my own rec, if you still want to take a look.


Happy May, everyone! It’s raining as I type this so I’m happy to be inside curled up with a good book. Oh, who am I kidding? Even if the sun was shining, I wouldn’t be outside. It’s too…humany out there.

Luckily, books make great company, and here are the ones we recommend this month. Happy reading!

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Noteworthy by Riley Redgate (Amulet Books, May 2)

For those old enough to remember the Dustin Hoffman movie Tootsie, Noteworthy may conjure some of those memories.

This delightful young adult novel features Jordan Sun, a scholarship student at a prestigious performing arts boarding school. A junior at Kensington-Blaine, Jordan has never succeeded in securing a role in the school’s musical, so she confronts her advisor—also the show’s director—who tells her her Alto 2 voice isn’t conducive for most female roles in musicals.

Feeling dejected, Jordan thinks, “What have I got to lose?” when an all-school email arrives announcing try-outs for the elite, all-male a capella club on campus. She puts her theater training to work and disguises herself as Julian Zhang to audition. For the first time in her Kensington-Blaine career, Jordan, a.k.a. Julian, discovers a place she’s wanted, but how long can she maintain the charade and who exactly will she be when it’s over?

Noteworthy sings with fun language, sharp dialogue, and the cacophony of high school life. Redgate builds around themes of identity, class, and of course gender roles. This is a novel that exemplifies the high standards being set for young adult literature today. Humorous, complex and engaging, Noteworthy deserves a standing ovation!

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The White Road by Sarah Lotz (Mulholland Books, May 30)

“I met the man who would save my life twice—and ultimately destroy it—on a potholed road in the arse-end of the Welsh countryside.”

With an opening line that foreboding, I was hooked.

Sarah Lotz’s latest novel, The White Road, tells the tale of Simon, once a troubled youth now an adventure seeker, trying to get a spooky website off the ground. The cofounder, Thierry, sends Simon spelunking in search of three bodies left behind in a cave, Cwm Pot.

Guided by the unbalanced Ed, they find the bodies, just as a flash flood traps him with the bones. The intense cold and darkness, along with Ed’s corpse, terrorize Simon, but he makes it out alive with his film footage intact. The footage goes viral, against Simon’s wishes, leaving Thierry wondering how to top it.

He decides on a literal approach, and sends Simon to climb Mt. Everest to film the climbers who perished in the attempt. Once there, Simon realizes he didn’t escape the cave alone, nor is he the only one haunted.

The White Road is about Simon’s ill-fated exploits and the true weight of guilt. Lotz’s prose, though standard, is visceral and compulsory, and she absolutely nails the claustrophobic atmosphere. The beginning and end of the novel are excellent, and though it lags in the middle, it’s worth the journey to complete the whole thing. If you’re looking for a page-turner with an ending that will haunt you, give The White Road a try.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner (Down & Out Books, May 15)

Danny Gardner’s debut is a powerful work of historical crime fiction. Elliot Caprice is a chameleon with no clear space in the world. The son of an interracial couple raised under the wing of a Jewish loan shark, the semi-disgraced Chicago police officer has a history on both sides of the law.

Elliot returns home to Southville, Illinois in 1952 to find his uncle ill and the family farm in peril. Determined to save them both, Elliot takes a straight job, but ends up embroiled in the multi-fronted fight over a powerful businessman’s estate, not to mention his potential murder.

Elliot’s shady background, sense of justice, military and Chicago PD service, and skin color make for a fascinating and combustible mix mined superbly by Gardner. Intimate, violent and intense, with just the right humorous undertones, A Negro and an Ofay is a fast-moving crime novel with a soul.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer (Touchstone, May 16)

Beatrice is very empathetic, and can feel some of what happens to her patients as she performs neurosurgery on them. Beatrice takes a leave of absence to clear up the affairs of her brother after he passes away overseas.

Ben lived in Siena, Italy, doing historical research on the plague. Once Beatrice is in Italy, she reads Ben’s research. Between her empathy and Ben’s project, she finds herself in Siena in 1347, shortly before the arrival of the plague. Ben was researching why Siena had suffered more during the plague than any of its nearby cities, and Beatrice discovers one of the reasons.

I really enjoyed this book. I loved Beatrice, how smart she was, her sense of humor, and how she took care of herself. The descriptions of Italy in the 1300s are wonderful (though going there from the 21st century would be hard). I loved the characters, the setting, and the hows and whys of Beatrice’s time travel.

Highly recommended!!

From PCN:

Where Dead Men Meet by Mark Mills (Blackstone, May 30)

Reading this is like watching a classic Alfred Hitchcock movie, one with an everyman caught up in engrossing intrigue and on the run from dangerous spies and nefarious characters.

Luke Hamilton (think a young Jimmy Stewart or Joel McCrea) doesn’t know why deadly strangers want him dead. He partners up with a beautiful woman named Piper (picture Veronica Lake or Joan Fontaine) who may be able to help him—or put him in even more danger. They race across Europe, encountering many dead bodies on their quest to find the answer to Luke’s troubles, and to complete Piper’s agenda of avenging a loved one’s death.

The charismatic leads, sparkling dialogue, complex characters, mysterious plot, fast pace, and vivid European locales all add up to one breezy, entertaining adventure. For more info about this novel, check out the Maximum Shelf issue I did on it, which includes an interview with author Mark Mills.

What are you excited about reading this month?