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Friends, here we are again, at the end of another exhausting year.  We made it! I never lost my reading momentum this year and I’m truly grateful.  In fact, I think reading constantly has been the key to my mental and emotional stability this year (such as it was, which is to say, not great).  I’m definitely a mood reader and this year for the first time I didn’t fight my moods, which were, understandably, somewhat volatile and tumultuous. I didn’t make myself read things I thought I “should.”  Instead, I went where my moods* took me.

I dove into mostly fantasy fiction this year,** immersing myself in stories that are DEFINITELY not real (escapism really works, friends!). On the other hand, I also took deeper look at individual, true-life stories, told in folks’ own voices.  My love for memoirs really snuck up on me, and those listed here are just a handful of my favorites among a large list of wonderful ones. Because when the world feels hostile and uncaring, apparently I yearn for empathy both in myself and in others.  Sharing in the pain and joy of others reminded me of the humanity in all of us (a spoonful of humanity makes the despair go down).

Another habit I’ve honed this past couple of years is not finishing books I’m not liking. As a result, I really loved almost everything I read (my average rating is 4.0+), so making this list was hard.  That’s why there are more honorable mentions then there are favorites. Here’s to another year of moodiness!

Essays: My newfound love for essays has also surprised me this year.  Essays are the perfect format to throw into a mix if you (like me) read more than one book at once.  They are easy to pick up and put down.  My hands-down favorite this year was Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno, which I’ve already talked about in another post.  Her writing is beautiful and her exploration of gender, sexuality and identity is eye-opening. [Trigger warning for SA]

Honorable mention #1: Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough.  Lauren grew up in an honest-to-goodness cult.  Her essays walk us through her cult years growing up and her Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell years in the military, and what she did with herself after being “asked” to leave the military.  She’s also a great person to follow on Twitter.  [Trigger warning for SA]

Honorable mention #2:  Here for It by R. Eric Thomas is hilarious and engaging.  His story about his school newspaper article that got him labeled a ‘typical racist white dude’ is unforgettable. His Twitter feed is worth a follow too. 

Nonfiction:  The costs of structural racism in our country are often unseen but white citizens. We seem to think that either they aren’t there or, if we are being honest and know that they are, we have a sneaking suspicion that they are not our costs to pay (spoiler: they are). In The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee, an expert in economics and policy, shows readers how these costs (in housing, healthcare, voting, lending, the job market) hurt us all. And how helping the most vulnerable helps us all.

Honorable mention #1:  This Book Will Make You Kinder by Henry James Garret is a book about empathy and all the obstacles we put in our own way to keep us from being kinder, more empathetic people.  It’s filled with silly (and educational!) drawings but don’t be fooled, this book is for real.

Honorable mention #2
Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male Power by Ijeoma Oluo.  At perhaps no better time than now, in the middle of a botched pandemic response, do we need to examine our cultural need to follow the leadership and authority of folks who are clearly not up to the task.  This book examines the historical context of why we arrived here and what we need to do to change it. 

Memoir (LGBTQ+): It only took a few pages before I fell in love with Ivan Coyote, author of Tomboy Survival Guide.  This is a memoir told as a series of stories of his Canadian upbringing and transition into his true authentic self.  This year I really leaned into stories of identity, specifically gender identity and sexual orientation and this is one of the best I read.  Turns out I’m easily swayed to read anything with Tomboy in the title, and this one didn’t disappoint.  In fact, it sets the bar high for all other tomboy books.

Honorable mention #1:  The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood by Krys Malcolm Belc is the emotional and engaging memoir of a trans man who transitioned during his pregnancy for his second child (and first pregnancy).  We follow Kris as he journeys through parenthood and pregnancy with all the unique emotional and logistical challenges that such a pregnancy presented. 

Honorable mention #2:  Stuck in the Middle with You by Jennifer Finney Boylan.  I was introduced to Jennifer Finney Boylan when I read her book Good Boy, about being raised as a boy with his childhood dogs.  Her writing is beautiful and so relatable.  This memoir includes not only the story of Jennifer’s experiences as a parent in more than one gender (she had her children before she transitioned), but also interviews with other parents regarding gender and identity. 

Memoir: If you think that I got a lot of my book recommendations from folks I follow on Twitter you would be correct.  Ashley C. Ford is a gorgeous writer, plain and simple.  I will read anything she writes.  In Somebody’s Daughter she explores shares her deepest self with us and in doing so shows us how we can approach family, love and loyalty while still being true to ourselves.  [Trigger warning for SA]

Honorable mention:  I automatically buy any book that Jenny Lawson writes.  Her previous books have delved into mental health issues in Jenny’s hilarious, chaotic and inimitable way.  Broken follows in this tradition of the author sharing her truest, weirdest, most ridiculous and funniest self.  It’s a book that made me cry but also laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe.

Antiracist: Clint Smith, the author of How The Word Is Passed is a literal poet.  And this fact shines through every sentence of this powerful book.  He takes us on a journey around the country, exploring parts of the U.S. with ties to racism:  Monticello Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery and Galveston Island.  His descriptions are so powerful that the reader can see what he sees, which adds an additional emotional impact to the stories of our horrific past.

Honorable mention #1:  Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson is a gut-punch of a book.  Every beautiful, brutally true sentence requires your full mental attention and emotional investment.  Each chapter is addressed to a soul tragically lost to unnecessary and yet all too common violence against Black bodies:  Elijah McClain, Emmett Till, Eric Gardner, Breonna Taylor and others.  It should be read slowly, carefully, and unflinchingly. 

Honorable mention #2 & #3:  The most basic thing we white folks need to do to educate ourselves about racism is to listen to BIPOC voices.  Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man by Emmanuel Acho and The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person by Joseph, Frederick are two wonderful gifts from the Black community to us white folks – these are books explicitly written for us so that we can hear the things we need to hear.  I recommend both of these books for those just starting their antiracist journeys or for kids.  Uncomfortable Conversations even has a specific young readers version (which I got both my kids!)

Middle Grade: I read Verdigris Pawn by Alysa Wishingrad in less than a day.  I could not put it down.  It’s a delightful middle grade fantasy with characters you really root for.  It has some magic and also some mystery and just enough stakes to have you on the edge of your seat waiting to see what happens next. 

Honorable mention #1 (&2):  I stayed up until 2am reading Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor by Ally Carter.  It’s a story about orphans and mysteries and dark cloaked figures who are up to no good.  There is murder and intrigue and danger at every turn. There is a group of scrappy kids who are not to be trifled with. When I was done, I went out to buy the sequel. Winterborne Home for Mayhem and Mystery proved just as engaging (requiring another late night).  My kid, my mother and I all loved this series, so it’s good for all ages)

Horror:  Chuck Wendig has no right (as the kids say) to go this hard, not after what he did to us in WanderersThe Book of Accidents is, in many ways, a straightforward horror book.  There is a serial killer, plenty of gore, and some scary-as-shit, unexplained phenomenon.  But there are also portals and magic and demons.  I don’t know how he keeps all these threads together, but he does.  This book defies boundaries and genres.  And it’s so damn good. 

Honorable mention #1:  Dark Waters by Katherine Arden is the third in her Small Spaces Quartet.  This one is set in Spring (the previous two were in Fall and Winter).  The author does “horror for kids” as well as my perennial favorite, Neil Gaiman.  Because it’s middle grade, I always believe the kids will be alright, but there are just enough stakes to make me question this every once in a while.  As an adult, I find these books scary in that atmospheric way that is thrilling.  She’s a great storyteller.

NOTE: I started using The StoryGraph this year instead of GoodReads and consider this an unofficial plug to try this site out. It gives you great end of the year stats (see below for my Moods* and Fiction/NonFiction**)

The books read at a certain age, for me between 10 and 13 years old, can be permanently stamped on your psyche.  I became a real reader at this age, with the loving and supportive help of two very literary teachers. Interestingly these fine ladies, upon retirement, took jobs at the local library.  I can’t think of a better suited job for either of them, seeing as they introduced me to my own love of reading. 

As a young girl I read everything I could get my hands on (sound familiar?) and read at the speed of lightning (again, any surprises there?).  In my opinion reading begets reading.  It’s The Neverending Story come to life – as soon as you finish one there is another hovering in the wings.  You don’t want to stop, you might missing the next adventure.  This is also the place in my life where reading became how I made sense of the world.  When you are a young adult, navigating the confusing new currents of adolescence, processing the end of childhood and the anticipating the looming seriousness of the world of adults, fantasy has special something to offer.  At a time when you feel most impotent and insignificant, confused and lost, stories of seemingly ordinary kids doing extraordinary things is a welcome escape.  Who can forget poor Wart, who doesn’t even know that underneath all those skinny limbs and dirty clothes he’s a KING!  It doesn’t get any better.

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I feel sorry for Ms. Morgenstern.  What, you say, that’s crazy!  She got an almost obscene advance for her very first novel  with nary a writing credit to her name.  The movie rights have already been sold (were sold before the book was published) to the makers of the Twilight movies.  Rumor has it Harry Potter’s simply magical David Heyman will produce.  What’s to feel sorry for?

Two reasons: 

A) According to the Wall St. Journal, publishers, book sellers, movie producers, marketing gurus everywhere, and (not incidentally) readers, all think that The Night Circus will be the next  Harry Potter!


B) I’ve read 49 pages of  Night Circus.  It’s not Harry Potter.

Hold up, wait a minute (put a little boom in it. . .).  This is not a bad thing.  Or a good thing.  It’s just, well, a different thing. 

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Forgive me, readers, for two things.  One, for being absent for so long, and two, for being self-indulgent and explaining away my absence.  Humor me, it’s relevant (sort of).

Toward the end of the summer I took a new job and simultaneously, somehow, and totally on purpose, I found myself knocked up (no oops there, but I do wonder at my timing). So between the working, the throwing up, the commuting, the being exhausted and the studying for the MBA which suddenly seems much less important, I haven’t had time to crack a book for enjoyment since.

This, I have discovered, is a very unhealthy place for me to be.  My body is having a hard enough time keeping down food (like some women, I’ve lost weight in my first trimester).  This is no time for my soul also to be lacking in (literary) nourishment.

This baby may not end up being a reader, though with nature (on both sides) and nurture (on all sides) I don’t see how that will be possible.  Regardless of how he or she turns out, it will not be from lack of a steady diet of stories.

Starting now.

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King Arthur may well be the ur-fantasy story.   The ur-hero story even.  This story has been told countless times, in many forms including, quite notably, Monty Python’s version (you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!), one of my personal favorites.  There is even much academic debate about whether a real Arthur or Merlin existed. While that is mildly interesting, and I have been known to read a treatise or two about what might have happened, I’d much rather read pages and pages (and pages and pages) of stories about what could have happened.

The Arthurian legends were certainly my first foray into “fantasy” and it’s the one story I never tire of, no matter what the medium.  I daresay I’ve read them “all” – The Mists of Avalon, the Sword in the Stone, The Once and Future King, even Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.  I have a grand copy of Le Morte d’Arthur, almost too beautiful to read (or at least that’s my current excuse for not reading it). 

I love this story (or should I say stories) so much that I took an entire class in college about King Arthur (me, a science major!), in which we read the older texts based on the oral legends (where Gawain was the hero, not some pretty French dude).  They aren’t as flowery as the Lancelot versions with their courtly love, chivalry and the round table, but it is those gritty older texts that, in my humble opinion, have spawned the best modern Arthurian works.  As my high school English teacher always told us “Arthur was a peer of Beowulf.”  Which means, though he likely carried a sword, his armor was made of leather instead of metal, and he probably didn’t joust.

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twilightWith some extreme exceptions (Harry Potter for one), I’m generally opposed to book “phenomenons.”  If I see everyone reading it on the subway I like to flatter myself that I’m above it all.  I tell myself that I read “real” books (which as any reader of this blog can see, is not entirely true).  I hate when non readers tell me I *HAVE* to read such and such book.  It irritates me.   Worse yet are the books that are made into movies, causing an explosion of books into the population, mostly non readers.

The Twilight series is one of those phenomenons, tween girls are crazed about these books (and the subsequent movie).  But it’s not just kids, plenty of young adult women have been trying to push the series on me.  I successfully resisted, until one of my best reading friends literally put the stack in my hand and said, “Read them, they’re fun.”

I think it was the fact that she didn’t fly into rhapsodies about how amazing and impressive they were that made me take them from her.  Still, they sat on my bookshelf. I had no intention of reading them, I figured I would just hold them for an appropriate amount of time and then return them with a disclaimer that I was “too busy” to get to them.

But what I didn’t count on was that my foray into British history was coming to an abrupt halt with Roy Jenkins’ Churchill.  That book was painful; somehow he made Winston Churchill seem boring.  I had to give up, only halfway through.   It was disheartening, and  I just didn’t have it in me to start anything even remotely challenging. 

“They’re fun,” she had said, and so I reached for Twilight.

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I was looking forward to Christmas this year, unlike many years past. It is a children’s holiday after all, and this is the first year I had children in my life (small ones, not the tweens who don’t give a shit unless you give them electronics).  The spirit of giving was certainly overflowing, and I enjoyed every new gift (I mean, book, since, as Jesse noted, they make the best presents).  So what if I was buying them for babies, they need to get started on the right foot. Yes, even my unborn niece got some, the biggest stack in fact! 

Due to some health issues (mental and physical) I wasn’t up for huge amounts of family this year.  So despite my new found love for the holiday, Tim and I escaped to Vermont.  As I’ve mentioned before, whenever I travel it’s hard to know what books to bring.  I’ve been on a historical biography kick lately, but that isn’t very, well, Christmasy.  Perhaps it was all the time spent in the children’s section buying for the babies, but I wanted storybooks to read on my mini vacation.  But where to find just the right stories?  I had a tall order: they had to be  1) smart 2) funny and 3) engaging.   That just about rules out all adult books, so off to the YA section I went.

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Cover ImageI bought this book thinking of Jesse, and how it would be a great book to read together.  And then I remembered that Jesse is MIA, on this blog but also in real life.  No worries, he’s alive and well but apparently distracted from blogging for the moment.  I will send him this link and perhaps I can guilt, I mean, lure him back in.

This book was indeed the perfect book for us to have read together.  So much so that I will probably be mailing it to him with the demand that he read it, like, immediately and report back.  In the meantime I’ll be on to something else. 

In other words, exactly how we used to be about books.  I would recommend a book to Jesse and he would read it, many many months later, at which point I would have forgotten entirely what it was about or what my feelings or thoughts on it were.


I think it’s a neat phenomenon though, this idea of buying books with other people in mind.  It certainly broadens one’s experience to pick up a book that you would choose for someone else and to read it yourself.  I have done this with many times with Jesse and it has never led me astray (with other folks it has.  Beware, you have to chose your reading muses carefully).  It’s different too, than reading a book and thinking “So and so would like this very much.”  It’s sort of a premeditated book choice instead of a referral.

It’s another way that reading can be a social, communal activity, even though the other person might not even know you are thinking of them.  I’d advise if you do this, to let the other person know – “this book made me think of you.” 

Unless of course it’s something along the lines of Tuesdays with Morrie

That’s just mean.

MBGIf I were to create my idea of the perfect fantasy love child of, well, fantasy literature, I would take the best of Neil Gaimen and Clive Barker and meld them into one.  I would stir gently the darker tones of Clive and fold them into the fluffy yet dense snarkiness and black humor of Neil.  I would take the intimidating strength of Neil’s solid characters and plant them into Clive’s firmly rooted geography.

The result would likely be very much like this book.

Perhaps because I’m an atheist I can love stories about angels and demons without any of the resulting fear or guilt.  It makes for great story telling that is endlessly entertaining, particularly if you aren’t worried about your immortal soul.

Though this book was described as bone chilling I found it mostly amusing and even in parts, affecting.  Mr. B. Gone is a low class demon with a certain amount of charm.  He directly threatens, cajoles and otherwise manipulates the reader, all in an attempt to get you to burn the book.  In between such tirades he tells the story of how he came to be stuck in the book itself.

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SDThe pressures of Ms. Prose notwithstanding (yes, she has a point; she’s just sending me in the wrong direction), my goal with this blog was to slow down my reading. To allow myself to digest what I am reading. To pause and enjoy each story for itself, as a journey instead of a notch on my bookshelf. Though it may not seem like it, I have actually slowed down considerably.

I still read a lot because reading is what I love to do. It’s what relaxes me; it keeps me sane. It makes all that time spent inside my own head not only normal but productive. I used to think I was weird, but I’m beginning to realize I’m not abnormal. Just perhaps in the wrong profession. I’m sure I would love to hang out with popular fiction writers (except Robert B. Parker who is a notorious – and arrogant – non reader. Could be why his books stink). Earlier this week I read an article about J.K. Rowling and her words only solidified my love for her:

“I never need to find time to read. When people say to me, ‘Oh, yeah, I love reading. I would love to read, but I just don’t have time,’ I’m thinking, ‘How can you not have time?’ I read when I’m drying my hair. I read in the bath. I read when I’m sitting in the bathroom. Pretty much anywhere I can do the job one-handed, I read.”



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Jessica’s Reading

Jesse’s Reading

Jesse and Jessica are Both Reading

Devin’s Reading