Some time in the last year I decided to really give my airpods a chance and started trying more podcasts and audiobooks. I am never going to become a podcast person but I have a new love for audiobooks – especially because Libby and Hoopla make library downloads so easy! I love listening to a recognizable voice telling their own story and I’ve gained a new appreciation overall for memoirs.
My favorites -very recent and over the past year
Homework: A Memoir of my Hollywood Years by Julie Andrews. Should I really have to say more than Julie Andrews? I want to watch her getting into trouble with Carol Burnett, and then sing along to the Sound of Music
Dying of Politeness by Geena Davis. Worth it just to hear her mimic her sweet parents. She is kind of a badass and I want to go back and watch Beetlejuice now.
Paris: The Memoir by Paris Hilton. This I read a physical book and I think I’m glad I did. I did not expect this to be such an intense read! She was incredibly brave to talk about her horrific experiences at “boarding school” and I was glad to have a book to actually close and put away when I was ready to be done.
Honorable mentions to Pamela Anderson, Katie Couric, the whackadoo Matthew McConaughey and Prince Harry.- When I do have it in my to be a podcast person I am lovoing Chelsea Devantez’s Celebrity Book Club (anyone else a cookie?). When there has been a memoir I’m iffy on I always enjoy hearing Chelsea and her guests talk about books by interesting women. I would never have picked up Holly Madison’s memoir about life in the Playboy mansion otherwise and that was a great book to read before reading Love, Pamela.
I haven’t stopped reading even if I became a terrible reviewer and a dropped off the face of the earth book blogger. Still every time I finish a book that I loved – or despised – every book that has made me really think – I keep writing tiny reviews in my head. So maybe it is time to come back to this space? I miss talking about books!
Because of all going on in the world since March of 2020 my book selections have been heavily romance, fantasy and memoir. Last year I took a suggestion from my husband and read Don Winslow’s excellent The Power of the Dog – after which I resolved to definitely read only romance and celebrity memoirs for a year! I’m finally recovering from all those deaths and feeling ready to pick up a bit more depth and there are too many books to choose from! My recent favorites have been Nora Goes Off Script and I’m Glad My Mom Died. Then there was Legends and Lattes which was basically a hug in book form. Or You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty which was WOW. Just a bit more sexy than a hug while also so touching in talking about grief and loneliness and moving on.
I finally finally read my book club choice from the summer of 2020 – Such a Fun Age and loved every minute. And I just finished reading Lessons in Chemistry and am still trying to resolve my thoughts on this. I’ve fallen in love with audiobooks like Olga Dies Dreaming and at the same time found some like Friends Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing so self congratulatory I basically gave up at the introduction.
I’ve even been reading books I should have been reviewing! When you need happy reading I definitely think you should pick up Lana Harper’s Thistle Grove Books: Payback’s a Witch, From Bad to Cursed and Back in a Spell – you have time to read all three before In Charm’s Way comes out this fall! The romances are sweet, the magic is exciting and each book gave me a little bit more than I was expecting. Definitely books I’d read again for fun.
So what should I pick up now -before I run to the library to FINALLY get my copy of Spare? What great books have you been waiting to talk about?
My BIL wrote a book! This is such an amazing accomplishment I came out of blog retirement to ask him about it. Maybe this will be so fun that I’ll come back for more book talk… Meanwhile you should definitely check Jeff’s book out here: and maybe also bug him for a signed copy!
1. Tell us about Waking the Shadows? Where does the title come from? Waking the Shadows is the story of Samantha Cooper, a 15-year-old girl orphaned after the Civil War. Samantha lives with her uncle, whose traumatic experiences of the war have left him unwilling to share any details about the life and death of Samantha’s father, whom she barely remembers. Samantha has all but resigned herself to the fact that she will never know what happened to her family, when a new schoolteacher, Miss Juliet Howe enters her life and pushes Samantha to discover the truth of her past. When I started writing the book, I didn’t think the target audience was young adults, but it was clear by the time I finished the final draft that I had written a coming-of-age story that worked for young adult and adult audiences.
Creating titles has always been my kryptonite, so it should come as no surprise that my original working title, “Finding Samantha,” was super lame. My wife Holly and I came up with the title, Waking the Shadows while on a walk. The idea for that title harkens back to a Halloween program I wrote while employed at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier. My hope is that Waking the Shadows points people towards the theme of the book – that knowing a sad or tragic history is better than knowing nothing at all. The shadows are there. We may as well acknowledge them.
2. What inspired you to write a novel? I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I’ve started several, none of which went further than the first few chapters, aside from the book I wrote in 5th grade about a character named Detective Dominike (yes, that’s how I spelled “Dominic”). Really, my only goal when I started the project was to finish the book. Everything that’s come after the completion of the first draft – the editing, publishing, selling a few copies – is just icing on the cake. The idea for Waking the Shadows came from two places. First, I wanted to write a story that helps people connect with history on an emotional level. Specifically, I wanted readers to understand that the effects of the war extend well beyond 1865. The historical timeline of the Civil War ends in 1865, but its impact lasts far longer, as seen through my characters. Second, I started writing the book around the time the first Confederate monuments were being taken down. As a public historian, part of me was sad to see them go because they provide opportunities for people like me to do historical interpretation. They were an opportunity to talk about the Lost Cause Myth, segregation, and racism. That being said, I also understood that A) most people don’t see the monuments the way I do, and B) the monuments don’t just exist in their historical moment, they exist in their current community, and having monuments to the Confederacy on courthouse lawns and public parks is inappropriate. Those two thoughts produced the theme of this book. Namely, the impact of the war lasts well beyond Appomattox, up to and including today, and that we should both recognize the good and bad of our past and take responsibility for choosing our own future.
3. How much research did you have to do? Why did you choose fiction over nonfiction when this is your area of interest? The historical details in the book are accurate, though not specific, which was intentional. I purposely did not write any details that put characters in a specific location, or battle, or regiment, mostly because I wanted readers invested in the story, not the historical details. However, this also had the happy side effect that I didn’t have to do much historical research for this book. Had I written a story where characters were in a specific place, then I would have to find out details like, what the weather, where was the regiment, what did the regiment do, and so on. By being vague on the details I saved myself some work. The historical details that are included in the book reflect years of study and research into the Civil War generally. This general knowledge was enough to make the book historically accurate. The primary accounts I use in the text, which are all outlined in the End Notes, are fairly common and well-known accounts, so I didn’t have to dig too deeply. I chose fiction because I think narrative is an effective way to engage people in history. One can write narrative non-fiction too, but I’m more interested in connecting people emotionally and fiction is a great vehicle for that. I love reading non-fiction, but feel my best contribution to the field is taking what I learn from non-fiction and translating it to a story that anyone, including people who don’t even know the Civil War is, can appreciate.
4. Did you know how the book was going to turn out? Or can you answer that without spoilers? I knew the theme of the book from the very beginning. I knew what underlying message I wanted to communicate. But, there was a fairly significant plot change that I arrived at about halfway through the first draft, which I can’t share without giving away a major component of the story.
5. Are there any favorite books or authors that inspired you? What are you reading now? The book that first piqued my interest in the Civil War is Harold Keith’s Rifles for Watie, which was written decades ago. I think I read it when I was in third grade and I’ve been hooked on the Civil War ever since. For more contemporary authors, I think Michael Saharra and Ralph Peters write traditional, military-focused Civil War historical fiction very well. I think my book is more closely aligned to the way Robert Hicks (Widow of the South, A Separate Country) approaches historical fiction, though our writing styles and audience are very different. Stephen Ambrose and Winston Groom set a high bar for good narrative non-fiction. My favorite storytellers, however, are Neil Gaiman and Fredrik Backman. They don’t write historical fiction, but I love the way they craft their stories. I’m currently reading some Civil War non-fiction that may help me with my next novel. I’m currently in the midst of Richard Sommers’ “Richmond Redeemed,” which is a very dense, traditional non-fiction campaign study. It’s level of detail nearly makes it a reference book, rather than a cover-to-cover read, so I’m looking forward to reading something superfluous when I finally finish this text.
6. We hear talk of a possible second book? Will it be a sequel? Still Civil War related? Give us more detail! I’m considering writing another book. It too will be set during the Civil War. I know what theme I want to write about, and I know what historical subject and event I want to write about, but I haven’t quite figured out the plot structure yet. Unlike Waking the Shadows, this book will be set in the midst of a specific time and place and feature real people and the historian in me isn’t ok with manipulating what actually happened to suit the structure I have in mind. Thus, I have to do more research and read books like Richmond Redeemed to make sure I get my facts right. I don’t want people who know their Civil War to read the book and find distracting errors. If I know it was raining on a particular day, then I want my book to reflect that. I hate when details that are objectively wrong end up in books and movies. All that being said, unless I sell about a million more copies of Waking the Shadows, I’ll have to keep my day job, so a second book is still way out on the horizon. Maybe around the time George R. R. Martin finishes his next Game of Thrones book I’ll be ready to publish a second book.
7. Where can we buy your book and have it signed? You can currently purchase my book through Amazon, or from me personally, if you find yourself in the greater Des Moines area. There’s an e-book and print version on Amazon and if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, you can download the e-book for free. I’m happy to sign any book that is put in front of me, so folks can either find me, or mail me a copy to sign (just give me return postage and an address). I’m still waiting for my self-appointed Vice President of Marketing to find money in the budget for a full-fledged book tour. Apparently, my list of travel demands are “unreasonable” and “absurd.”
8. Finally, what’s your favorite U2 album?U2 is near or at the top of the most overrated bands in rock history. I guess I would have to say their 18 Singles album is their best work. At least on that album you’re getting a few good songs since it’s their greatest hits.
Ignore Jeff’s obvious foolishness when it comes to U2 albums (Achtung Baby obviously is their best album) and go check out his book!
Happy New Year! It’s not too late to tell you our best reads of last year is it? If it is, its Amanda’s fault.
Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter: I don’t know why I waited so long to read this. Actually, I do. The description as “set in a remote Italian coastal town in 1962” made me think it would be a snoozefest. That’s because it reminded me of the time I tried to listen to “Under the Tuscan Sun” on audio on a long drive. Anyway, this book was no snoozer – it was smart and funny and lovely.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel: You guys 99% of the world’s population dies in a pandemic, and the wold that’s left is haunting. I don’t think I have enough chill to live there.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal: All I want to do is go to an exclusive dinner party that ends with Pat Prager’s Peanut Butter Bars. Or maybe I should host one.
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas: Read.this.book. And then examine your life. I highly recommend the audio.
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo: I threw away most of my socks because they were not bringing me joy. Recently this became a problem because it got cold out, so I have been searching the internet for all the most joy-inducing socks. I’m pretty sure those come from Smartwool (Amanda votes they come from Stance).
Amanda – Yes I cheated and made a few categories. It was a good reading year! I tried to read as few white dudes as possible and loved that. I will definitely continue that goal for 2019.
Half a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She’s brilliant. Read everything this woman writes.
Night and Silence, Seanan McGuire. Have I mentioned I’m obsessed with Seanan’s books? I love October Daye (and all her other series) but these books just get better and better. This urban fantasy series makes me laugh and cry and I could reread them all at any time. I just joined her Patreon and I can’t wait to read all the short stories too!
A Dangerous Crossing, Ausma Zehana Khan – heart wrenching but a great mystery. Maddening when you think about the tragedies in Syria and immigration in general. I loved the growth of the characters over this series. Honorable mention: The Dry, Jane Harper -I’m enjoying this series and eager for #3.
Whiskey and Ribbons, Leesa Cross-Smith. This story of a woman who is widowed while pregnant is one I can’t stop thinking about. This gave me a lot to consider about grief and motherhood, but was also just a great story.
The Dinner List, Rebecca Serle. Another book about love and loss that stayed with me all year (link to my review.
YA: Sadie, Courtney Summers – A brutal mystery about the things that can happen to young women (link to my review). Everywhere You Want to Be, Christina June – Read this retelling of Little Red Riding Hood so you can feel summer in January! Get some red sunglasses and let Tilly dance off with your heart. (I need to give a copy of this way soon); Far From the Tree, Robin Benway – This book about siblings and adoption was fantastic. Made me cry and I loved just about every word.
Romance: A Princess in Theory, Alyssa Cole- Long lost princesses are my jam and I don’t even feel a bit of shame. Alyssa Cole was one of my best finds of the year. Read all her kissing books! The Wedding Date, Jasmine Guillory – This romance kicks off with a stopped elevator and a fake date – apparently fake dates are also my jam (SeeThe Kiss Quotient as well) The Proposal was also delightful and I can’t wait for her next book.
Nonfiction: So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo – Things have to get better. Just read this.From the Corner of the Oval, Beck Dorey-Stein – – This was a such a happy read even if it made me miss Obama terribly. I would never have thought being a White House stenographer brought along so much personal drama.
When Sabrina Nielsen arrives at her thirtieth birthday dinner she finds at the table not just her best friend, but also her favorite professor from college, her father, her ex-fiance, Tobias, and Audrey Hepburn.
At one point or another, we’ve all been asked to name five people, living or dead, with whom we’d like to have dinner. Why do we choose the people we do? And what if that dinner was to actually happen? These are the questions Sabrina contends with in Rebecca Serle’s utterly captivating novel, The Dinner List, a story imbued with the same delightful magical realism as Sliding Doors, and The Rosie Project.
As the appetizers are served, wine poured, and dinner table conversation begins, it becomes clear that there’s a reason these six people have been gathered together, and as Rebecca Serle masterfully traces Sabrina’s love affair with Tobias and her coming of age in New York City, The Dinner List grapples with the definition of romance, the expectations of love, and how we navigate our way through it to happiness. Oh, and of course, wisdom from Audrey Hepburn.
Who among us would pass up dinner with Audrey Hepburn? I know I could not miss that chance, so I was ready for this book the minute I read the description. I was expecting a fluffier more “chick lit” book than this really was. I found The Dinner List to be a book about love and loss, about growing up and friendship, and about what we learn to love from our parents. I loved this book so much. I laughed, I cried – I actually ignored my kid while I was riding the train with her so I could read it – something that has never happened.
Even though the night was of course magical – hello Audrey – it didn’t have so much whimsy as magical realism can. Not like reading Sarah Addison Allen for example. If magical realism isn’t your jam I wouldn’t let that steer you away. We move back and forth from the dinner party to Sabrina’s time with each guest. We see her falling in love, realizing she’s an adult and learning to say goodbye. I really did cry when the party ended and this will be a book I read again.
Listing the guests at my fantasy dinner party is a favorite game of mine. My husband and I fight about who would be worth the invitation or not. As of right now my fantasy dinner party guests are: Lucrezia Borgia, Madeleine Albright, Neil Gaiman and my dad. Fascinating conversation all around I am sure! I’d bring my husband as an honorable mention. Tell me who you’d invite to your party?
Thank you Shelf Awareness and Flatiron Books for this advanced copy in exchange for an honest opinion!
Rose Marshall died in 1952 in Buckley Township, Michigan, run off the road by a man named Bobby Cross—a man who had sold his soul to live forever, and intended to use her death to pay the price of his immortality. Trouble was, he didn’t ask Rose what she thought of the idea.
It’s been more than sixty years since that night, and she’s still sixteen, and she’s still running.
They have names for her all over the country: the Girl in the Diner. The Phantom Prom Date. The Girl in the Green Silk Gown. Mostly she just goes by “Rose,” a hitchhiking ghost girl with her thumb out and her eyes fixed on the horizon, trying to outrace a man who never sleeps, never stops, and never gives up on the idea of claiming what’s his. She’s the angel of the overpass, she’s the darling of the truck stops, and she’s going to figure out a way to win her freedom. After all, it’s not like it can kill her.
You know how sometimes you get so excited when one of your autobuy authors has a new book that you preorder it and wait and wait and wait and then you’re so excited you think you’ve already read it? Just me? I danced in my chair when I got my hands on an ARC of Seanan McGuire’s The Girl in the Green Silk Gown and decided to “reread” Sparrow Hill Road in anticipation. Imagine my surprise when I realized I was reading a brand new book! So… on to Rose’s story.
Rose Marshall is a beloved ghost aunt to the Price family in McGuire’s Incryptid series – one of my favorites – I know a ghost aunt sounds odd but just read them! When we meet Rose she’s been dead much longer than she’s been alive and she has tons of stories to tell. She rides the roads as a hitchhiking ghost preventing accidents when she can and when she can’t she tries to guide other souls home.
I should have known McGuire would write ghost stories that touch my heart rather than scare me. This is the author that got me obsessed with zombies (just her zombies – and just read Feed if you haven’t!). Rose tells her story going back and forth in time until we find out what happened on Sparrow Hill Road the night she died and why Bobby Cross still won’t let her be – that’s the part of this ghost story that gave me chills. We learn ghosts can make families of choice and that being dead doesn’t stop hurt and regrets. Listen to Rose’s stories – maybe you’ve seen her on the road in her green silk gown.
I am reading the news in short snippets these days because unless it’s about Serena Williams or maybe Prince Louis’ christening it all gives me panic attacks. I’ve been reading fiction voraciously to escape (and a few nonfic too) and The Chicago Public Library is giving me everything. Here’s a list of what I’ve been loving – other than reading Goodnight Moon on repeat.
Katie Daniels is a perfection-seeking 28-year-old lawyer living the New York dream. She’s engaged to charming art curator Paul Michael, has successfully made her way up the ladder at a multinational law firm and has a hold on apartments in Soho and the West Village. Suffice it to say, she has come a long way from her Kentucky upbringing.
But the rug is swept from under Katie when she is suddenly dumped by her fiance, Paul Michael, leaving her devastated and completely lost. On a whim, she agrees to have a drink with Cassidy Price-a self-assured, sexually promiscuous woman she meets at work. The two form a newfound friendship, which soon brings into question everything Katie thought she knew about sex—and love.
When Katie Met Cassidy is a classic story of girl meets boy, boy breaks her heart and girl meets… girl. This was not my typical romance at all and I loved it. I loved the sparks between Katie and Cassidy and the flirting. I also loved the questioning and challenging of relationship boundaries and terms. Katie hadn’t thought about another woman until she meets Cassidy and then she had to rethink everything. I enjoyed going back and forth between Katie’s doubts and Cassidy’s surety – they were a fantastic pair. I honestly wasn’t sure how this book was going to end which was extremely refreshing.
I thought this was a fun and fast read – I was done in a day – but it could have been longer. More depth into Cassidy’s family and her friendships wouldn’t have hurt at all It comes through loud and clear that she’s a player but there clearly could have been much more to her. For light summer though read this was just right and I will definitely make an effort to pick up Perri’s The Assistants now.
Thank you GP Putnam for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion!
Once only whispered about in clandestine corners, vibrators have become just another accessory for the suburban soccer mom, showing up in all manner of pop culture, from sitcoms to talk shows to the pages of glossy women’s magazines. But how did these once-taboo toys become so socially acceptable? The journey of the devices to the cultural mainstream is a surprisingly stimulating one.
In Buzz, Hallie Lieberman—who holds the world’s first PhD in the history of sex toys—starts at the beginning, tracing the tale from lubricant in Ancient Greece to the very first condom in 1560 to advertisements touting devices as medical equipment in 19th-century magazines. She looks in particular from the period of major change from the 1950s through the present, when sex toys evolved from symbols of female emancipation to tools in the fight against HIV/AIDS to consumerist marital aids to today’s mainstays of pop culture. The story is populated with a cast of vivid and fascinating characters including Dell Williams, founder of the first feminist sex toy store, Eve’s Garden; Betty Dodson, who pioneered “Bodysex” workshops in the 1960s to help women discover vibrators and ran Good Vibrations, a sex toy store and vibrator museum; and Gosnell Duncan, a paraplegic engineer who invented the silicone dildo and lobbied Dodson and Williams to sell them in their stores. And these personal dramas are all set against a backdrop of changing American attitudes toward sexuality, feminism, LGBTQ issues, and more.
What bravery must Hallie Lieberman have to have said “I’m going to be the first person to pursue my doctorate in the history of the sex toy.” I can’t imagine walking into a professor’s office to say that! Bravo to her.
I know the personal is political but wow does Buzz get personal. The history of America’s sex toy industry is as fascinating as you might imagine, ranging from a man pursued by the Federal government under RICO to a bisexual woman who went from hosting masturbation workshops to opening one of the first feminist sex shops. Feminism is everywhere in Buzz, but also advocacy for the sexual experiences of the disabled and the rights of gay couples.
Lieberman also takes the story of America’s sex toy interest from garage manufacturing to sales at Macy’s. Seriously, this book covers all kinds of ground! I definitely recommend this one when you want a non-fiction read that doesn’t get too serious, but still covers surprising depth. Even if I was giggling to myself at that cover every time I pulled Buzz out on my train rides.
Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil live a charmed life: he’s the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she grew up in a Tudor manor in England, they had a whirlwind romance in London, they have three year old twins on whom they dote, and he’s recreated her family home on the banks of the Hudson and renamed it Illyria. Yes, there are rumors that she’s having an affair with the architect, but rumors are rumors and people will gossip. But then Bayard is found dead with a knife in his chest on the night of their Twelfth Night Ball, Annabelle goes missing, presumed drowned, and the papers go mad. Bay’s sister, Janie, forms an unlikely alliance with a reporter to uncover the truth, convinced that Bay would never have killed his wife, that it must be a third party, but the more she learns about her brother and his wife, the more everything she thought she knew about them starts to unravel. Who were her brother and his wife, really? And why did her brother die with the name George on his lips?
Holly and I have made no secrets that we’re Lauren Willig fangirls. Though I do think the Pink Carnation series ended at just the right time I have missed Willig’s flirtatious banter and witty women. The English Wife started a bit slow but in the end I found it was just the right book at the right time for me. The romance and flirting – with just enough cheesiness was pure Willig and despite the sad mystery this book left me with a smile on my face.
We have a murder, a missing wife, the possibility of a blatant affair (or more than one), and the drama of old New England money. I loved the tension with the muckraking press and the overbearing mother who thought her class should rule the day. And oh my – the freaking ending – I had definite theories as I read as to what could have happened to Annabelle and Bay and let me just say I did not expect what the ending was at all.
Now I will go back to a Pink Carnation re-read while I wait to see what Lauren Willig writes next!
Thank you St. Martin’s Press for this advance copy!