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Book Review :: A Little Piece of Light

This is really an amazing story. My review of Donna Hylton’s A Little Piece of Light: A Memoir of Hope, Prison, and a Life Unbound first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers. I am posting it here today with their permission. As a side note, this story is in development for as a film staring Rosario Dawson.

I was three years old, barefoot against the chilled concrete floor in the back of a pub on William Street in my birthplace of Port Antonio, Jamaica, surrounded by blue lagoons, white sand beaches, waterfalls, and caves.

A Little Piece of Light by Donna HyltonIn her emotionally startling memoir, activist Donna Hylton takes readers from humanity’s dark evils to its shining inspirations. And the two exist opposite where most people expect them to thrive.

The first half of Hylton’s story is heart breaking and difficult to consume. There is a complete lack of love and safety in her life: an unstable mother who sells Hylton as a young girl, adoptive parents who abuse her, people who violate her trust, raping her body and soul. The realization that such horrors can and do happen in the United States is alarming and unsettling. But A Little Piece of Light shines a brilliant beam directly on them.

As a result of her tumultuous youth, a nineteen-year-old Hylton winds up in the middle of a kidnapping that ends in murder. A jury convicts Hylton for her part in the crimes, and she’s sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. But behind the barbed wire fences and cinderblock walls of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, Hylton finds the family she’s so desperately desired. Caring for a fellow inmate with HIV, creating a program to consul and educate prisoners about AIDS and participating in a domestic violence group, Hylton finds meaning in her life. While the compassion and kindness of those around her allow Hylton to blossom and realize her potential.

A Little Piece of Light is a big reminder of how people share much more in common than not. Even more importantly, it’s a beacon capable of leading others out of the darkness that Hylton endured.

A Little Piece of Light is available from Hachette Books in hardcover and ebook. It’s also available as an audiobook from Blackstone Audio, narrated by Donna Hylton.

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White Fragility

Book Review :: White Fragility

My review of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers as a starred review. I’m posting it today with their permission. I wish this could be mandatory reading for Americans. Granted there are a lot of people who would get nothing out of it because they’ve already put up walls, but I think there are a great many people, like me, who can benefit from this amazing reading experience. I hope you’ll check it out.

The United States was founded on the principle that all people are created equal.

White FragilityThe author of the term “white fragility,” antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo, dissects the phrase and its cultural implications in her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. DiAngelo explains that white fragility–or the defensive reactions of white people when they are challenged racially–is “triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement.” 

Carefully breaking down many of the myths created by the white race such as color-blind claims, meritocracy and the belief that humans are objective beings, DiAngelo explains that racism is embedded in the culture. It isn’t just a black and white issue of explicit hate or violence. All people are now born into this institutionalized system of racism and have no say whether they will be affected by it. They are, however, responsible for owning their role. And for the white populations, this is unsettling; it disrupts the white equilibrium. To defend themselves from racist implications they react with anger, denial and withdrawal, instead of examining their behaviors and attempting to change them. This protective instinct shuts down the conversation and stops any advancement in race relations.

DiAngelo handles this potentially explosive topic with care and tact, even using examples of her own racist actions, but she is also forthcoming about its complexity and challenges. Efforts to make white people “comfortable” in the conversation only erect further barriers to change. White Fragility is a book everyone should be exposed to. With any luck, most who are will be inspired to search themselves and interrupt their contributions to racism.

White Fragility is available from Beacon Press in trade paperback and ebook. It’s also available as an audiobook from Dreamscape Media, narrated by Amy Landon.

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Us Against You

Book Review Monday :: Us Against You

My review of Us Against You by Fredrik Backman first appeared in Shelf Awareness for the Professional Trade (so it’s a little longer than most of my Shelf reviews). It was then a starred review in the Readers edition. I’m posting it today with their permission. 

First line: “Have you ever seen a town fall?”

Us Against YouWith each new book, Fredrik Backman, author of A Man Called OveBritt-Marie Was Here and Beartown, manages to raise the stakes of exceptionalism. Through Backman’s astute examination of humanity, Us Against You will elicit snickers and full-blown belly laughs. It will rip out hearts, then replace them stronger than before. Most of all, it is sure to prompt readers to examine their lives in order to be better people, if only in microscopic ways.

The depth of this sequel to Beartown seems endless, encouraging several readings. Just one is insufficient to luxuriate in Backman’s splendid style and still catch the multitude of wise gems nestled into this dynamic novel masking itself as an enchanting tale of a hockey team and its community. 

Backman’s omniscient narrator, a resident of Beartown, explains a major theme: “The truth about most people is as simple as it is unbearable: we rarely want what is best for everyone. We mostly want what’s best for ourselves.” Through a series of events involving a range of believably flawed characters and a struggling hockey team, this theme is reinforced repeatedly.

Peter, the club’s general manager, was forced to make an unimaginable decision at the conclusion of Beartown. The fallout from that decision opens Us Against You: the town’s hockey program is dangerously close to bankruptcy; its demise appears inevitable. That is, until an anonymous new sponsor offers to save the team–with certain stipulations.

Ana, a teenager who lives with her father in Beartown, feels more comfortable in the forest than anywhere else. Her father’s alcoholism demands she assume the responsibilities of an adult long before any child should. And her best friend’s struggles with posttraumatic stress disorder require Ana’s empathy, support and love. She regularly gives of herself, but in a moment of weakness triggered by hurt and embarrassment, Ana makes a choice that throws the town into violent turmoil.  

Richard Theo is a politician who presents himself as an advocate for his constituents but is ultimately and deceitfully advancing his own agenda. He knows that “political elections are simple: when everything is going well, when people are happy, then the establishment wins. But when people are angry and arguing, people like Richard Theo win. Because for an outsider to win power requires a conflict. But if there’s no conflict? Then you have to create one.” Theo creates more than one.

Backman juggles these characters, as well as four teenage boys who battle to bring together the Beartown hockey A-team, and a gang of supporters who aren’t opposed to violence to get what they want. His balancing act is masterfully executed with empathy, humor and ingenuity, emphasized by the pitch-perfect portrait of a tired, crumbling small town. Fans of Backman will not be disappointed. His work continues to amaze and captivate, enlighten and thrill. Those unfamiliar with his novels need to pick them up posthaste; Us Against You is a perfect one to grab.

Us Against You is available in hardcover and ebook from Atria Books and audiobook from Simon & Schuster Audio. And if you haven’t read Beartown, that’s now available in paperback.

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jennifer forbus - camp unleashed


First of all, I can’t believe it’s July already. And my last post was in February. Oh good gracious. In a slight bit of defense, I have made updates to that last post. I hope if you haven’t taken a look at the recommendations I offered, you will do so. I plan to update it as I find other books about those issues worth reading.  I think they will be very important in future elections.

In the meantime I’m trying to organize myself to give this blog a bit of a reboot. I’m planning to return to my new photo Fridays. So stop by and take a look at those. I’m sure there will be plenty of sports since I’m continuing to shoot about 3 games a week for the Morning Journal. But there has to be room at least for pet photos, too.   And I’m working on senior portraits for my niece, so you may see some of those as well.

I’m still reviewing regularly for Shelf Awareness, so I’m going to push myself to get those reviews up here, too. And probably throw in a few on audiobooks I’m listening to now and again. The goal for those will be Mondays–the first tomorrow. 

I’ll take the middles of the week as they come. I should start back off slow so as not to overdo and wind up going five months without a post again. 

O.k. so to wrap this post up, I just wanted to share a few things from around the web that I particularly like:

  1. I just finished reading Maeve Higgins’ book that’s coming out next month, Maeve in America. She’s now on my list of sheros. I think maybe we were besties in another life. Anyway, I love this opinion article she wrote about her dog. There’s been a lot of negative talk about emotional support animals–some of it warranted because stupid humans try to abuse it–but she talks about the calming effect her dog has on her. I can attest to the same thing. My Rufus is not certified as an emotional support dog, but he performs the role everyday for me. Anyway, check out Maeve’s article.  
  2. My amazing friend Rochelle Staab has been walking trails in and around Los Angeles for a couple of years. She has chronicled them to an extent on her Facebook account, but now she’s put together a blog to keep an archive of her experiences–Hiking Los Angeles. I was so fascinated by all the pop culture AND history throughout that area. Check out her blog when you have a chance. It’s a kick! 
  3. Of course if you’ve spent much time around here, you know Rufus and I look forward to our Labor Day vacation each year at Camp Unleashed. They were mentioned in this fun article, Three Camps for Adults You Can Enjoy With Your Dog. If you’re up for it, join Rufus and I this year!

jennifer forbus - camp unleashed

Beyond the Messy Truth

Positive Channeling

It’s been awhile since my last post and I apologize. Beside the craziness of work, photography, pets and general home demands, the insanity of our country has been weighing on me quite a bit lately. But I’ve decided I’d like to channel that in a positive way through the blog, among other places.

Reading and researching to educate myself has shaped my belief system into what it is today. There were times when my viewpoints on topics like abortion, immigration, the death penalty and safety net policies were vastly different. There were times when I didn’t feel as strongly about some of the issues as I do today. Arming myself with facts has changed the way I look at the world and my fellow humans in it; I believe for the better. So today I’m offering up a list of books that I think are great in our current political climate. I have fiction titles (with thought-provoking themes, and don’t forget reading fiction helps foster empathy), but this is mostly a non-fiction list divided into several different categories.

I hope you find this to be a helpful resource either for yourself or to pass along to others who might benefit from it. I will continue to add to it as I read and find others worth sharing. I’m linking to my review (if I covered it), the Goodreads page if you’d like to add it to your lists and where you can buy it if you’re so inclined. But your local library or bookstore can probably help you out as well.

2016 Election

Beyond the Messy TruthMy first category is simply books about the 2016 election. It stunned so many and there are a slew of books hitting the shelves now. These are ones I read that left me with great insights as to how we got to this point. All the Truth is Out isn’t about this election, but I do believe it was a turning point that ultimately brought us to where we are today. It’s definitely worth a read. 

  • Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus by Matt Taibbi (review | buy | Goodreads
  • Fever Swamp: A Journey Through the Strange Neverland of the 2016 Presidential Race by Richard North Patterson (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together by Van Jones (no review | buy | Goodreads)

Income Inequality

The American Way of PovertyThe growing divide between the haves and the have nots is really integrated into all of the issues but these books look specifically at those who are struggling each day just to have enough to eat and a safe place to live. Of all the things happening in this country, this is what we should be most embarrassed about. These books face down the myths and stereotypes; it’s easy to pass judgment from ivory towers, it’s much more difficult to understand the realities. They are incredibly eye-opening:

  • The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives by Sasha Abramsky (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert Reich (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged American and the World by Jeff Madrick (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Healthcare by T.R. Reid (no review | buy | Goodreads)


Balls: It Takes Some to Get SomeThis category is going to include books I’d recommend on gender, race, sexual orientation, any kind of diversity. If you can take anything away from the books below, I hope it’s a greater sense of empathy. I know I did. The list could be twice as long, but here are some of my favorites:

  • Balls: It Takes Some to Get Some by Chris Edwards (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage by Phoebe Maltz Bovy (review | buy | Goodreads
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Project Fatherhood: A Story of Courage and Healing in One of America’s Toughest Communities by Jorja Leap (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It by Lisa Bloom (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That are Funny, Complicated and True by Gabrielle Union (no review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss and the Fight for Trans Equality by Sarah McBride (review | buy | Goodreads
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (no review | buy | Goodreads)
  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Maeve in America: Essays by a Girl from Somewhere Else by Maeve Higgins (review coming | buy | Goodreads)

General Issues

Lies, Inc.These books cover multiple issues well. All are alarming, but also hopeful. We can improve our country, but not in the way we are currently moving. The more people are educated on the facts (not alternate facts) the stronger we are and the more possible change becomes. I recommend all of these:

  • Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America by Bob Herbert (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics by Ari Rabin-Havt, Media Matters for America (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline by Jonathan Tepperman (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World by Daniel Goleman (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies by Chris Kluwe (review | buy | Goodreads


Another Day in the Death of AmericaMost people who know me, know what a hot-button topic this is. The extent of mis-information, misleading information and downright lies that propel the NRA and its supporters is abysmal. Ignoring or denying global trends and evidence is simply burying one’s head in the sand. And as a result, the number of needless deaths due to murder, suicide and accidents in this country remain unacceptable. We should be arming ourselves with the truth, not tools designed specifically and only for killing. The following share overwhelming information about guns and their realities, but you’ll also find content about guns in several of the titles in the General Issues category. Sadly this issue permeates so much of our society. 

  • Bullets Into Bells ed. by Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, Dean Rader (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives by Gary Younge (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey in the World of Firearms by Iain Overton (review | buy | Goodreads
  • Do Guns Make Us Free? by Firmin DeBrabander (review | buy | Goodreads)

Criminal Justice Reform

Incarceration NationsSadly, there are so many problems with our system that’s supposed to provide justice to its citizens. Without question there is institutional racism and our penal system, which is supposed to rehabilitate criminals, is laughable. It’s only created a revolving door. Recidivism rates are out of control, and even when we say a person has served their time–they’re fit to re-enter society–we throw up every roadblock imaginable to allow them to do so. In addition, we seem to have lost track of the idea that if you treat people like animals, they will behave as such. Why is anyone surprised when that’s exactly what happens? Finally, the fact that we have an overwhelming need for the Innocence Project should scare us all. The following list offers some evidence of our broken system, and it also offers solutions if we’re open to learning: 

  • Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • A Stone of Hope by Jim St. Germain (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman, Jr.  (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World by Baz Dreisinger (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders by Chris Hoke (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted by Ian Millhiser (review | buy | Goodreads)
  • The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington (review coming | buy | Goodreads)
  • The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton and Lara Love Hardin (no review | buy | Goodreads)
  • A Little Piece of Light: A Memoir of Hope, Prison and a Life Unbound by Donna Hylton and Kristine Gasbarre (review | buy | Goodreads)


Stay tuned for updates!

Favorite Books: Beartown

Favorites of 2017 – The Rest of the Story!

It is the last day of 2017. I sort of feel like “where did it go?” and then I sort of feel like, “dear God, please get us out of this year already.” It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride, for sure. So here’s hoping we all have a much better 2018. To try to get myself in a positive frame of mind, I’m finishing my favorite books lists from 2017. At least these were a shining spot of the year.

First, my favorite non-fiction. I’ve really started to enjoy reading non-fiction again. I find so many great books on topics I’m fascinated with and want to learn more about. I had a good crop this year and here are the best of the best for me:

Favorite Books: Garden of the Lost and AbandonedGarden of the Lost and Abandoned – I was so inspired by the story of this beautifully selfless woman who finds the best in those who are “lost and abandoned.” If you need a faith-in-humanity story, this is a perfect choice. And it’s stunningly written by filmmaker Jessica Yu. I reviewed this book for Shelf Awareness and also interviewed Yu. 

Ghost of an Innocent Man – This is a heart-breaking story of the cancer that continues to plague our “justice” system. It is also an incredible story of determination. I reviewed this book for Shelf Awareness.

A Stone of Hope – Another book that deals with the criminal justice system, but in this case a lucky twist of fate kept Jim St. Germaine out of the adult prison system and in a program that rehabilitated him. He’s now an incredible young man making a difference in the lives of others like him and advocating for programs similar to the one that changed his life. Inspiring! I reviewed this book for Shelf Awareness.

Favorite Books: A Stone of HopeClimate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet – Environmental issues are a high priority to me. I’m always interested in ways I can live a life that’s kinder to the Earth and will help ensure it’s around for future generations. This book presents both the liberal and conservative viewpoints as it’s written by former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg and former head of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope. Together they show how doing what’s best for the planet is actually best for everyone, even financially. I reviewed this book for Shelf Awareness.

Born a Crime – This one was also on my favorite audiobook list. And as I mentioned over there, it actually came out in 2016, but I didn’t stumble on it until this year. I can’t say enough about it. It’s funny, it’s serious, it’s insightful, it’s smart. It’s just plain wonderful. I disliked my next three books after this one because they didn’t make me feel all the emotions this one did. I’ll have to revisit those books at some point, I think. But Born a Crime will definitely stay with me for a very long time. This was a rare title I managed to squeeze in outside my reviewing. 

Hope was a dominant theme in my favorite non-fiction this year. Go figure.

Next my favorite crime fiction. Since this wasn’t as large a percentage of my total reading this year, I’m keeping this list to five as well. Here are my faves:

Favorite Books: The Western StarThe Shimmering Road – Hester Young mesmerized me with her debut, The Gates of Evangeline, so I was excited for this new title. It’s very different and still amazing. It touches on some immigration themes but never gets preachy. First and foremost it’s a great mystery. Love this one. I reviewed it for Shelf Awareness and did a mini-interview with Hester Young. 

Righteous – Another sophomore title. This one is the follow up to Joe Ide’s IQ. I’m hooked on this series. It’s fun and fresh, a hero I can cheer for, smart humor, sharp dialogue. I can’t wait for the next one! I reviewed Righteous for Shelf Awareness.

The Western Star – I show absolutely no signs of tiring of this series. Each book is distinctive in plot, but rich in all the strengths of Craig Johnson’s talents: brilliant humor, crackling dialogue, empathetic characters–and colorful characters–atmosphere that carries you away, rich themes. It’s acutely evident that Johnson loves storytelling. And for me, I love listening. I reviewed this one for both Shelf Awareness and AudioFile Magazine.

Favorite Books: The WantedBluebird, Bluebird – Attica Locke ranks among my favorite contemporary writers. Her works have all captivated me and Bluebird, Bluebird was no different. The internal conflict within her characters is as fascinating, if not more, than the conflict defining the plot. She allows us into their psyches and we’re able to understand them at an intimate level. Locke’s writing style has subtle flair and she makes the amazing complexity seem simple. Timely, rich themes wrapped in a gripping suspense novel. First-rate! I reviewed Bluebird, Bluebird for AudioFile Magazine.

The Wanted – This one slipped in under the wire. Elvis and Joe’s return is a most welcome one. I missed Scott, Maggie and Starkey in this one, but Robert Crais made it up for it with a superb crop of supporting guests and a fascinating plot. While I had nitpicks with the audiobook recording, I was still glued to it with excitement. I’m so thankful that the series that hooked me on the crime genre still makes my heart race. I reviewed The Wanted for AudioFile Magazine

And finally, I have my list of favorite general fiction. This is the largest percentage of my reading these days but not by much. It’s almost an even split between these three categories once the kids and YA are removed, but since this is a slightly larger percentage, I’ve chosen six titles instead of five. And you’ll see that some of the titles in this list could fit into other identified genres (fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, etc), but I don’t read enough collectively in any of those genres to pull out a complete list of favorites. So from the remainder of my reading, here are my favorites:

Favorite Books: BeartownThe Refugees – I don’t read a lot of short stories, but it seems like when I do, they’re amazing. I should really read more. And Viet Thanh Nguyen’s collection is a great motivator to do so. The Refugees is timely, and it’s an incredibly moving look at the individuals, not collective groups we can dismiss but individual people, human beings. And Nguyen’s writing is something to luxuriate in. He does in a short story what some writers aren’t able to accomplish in a novel. I reviewed this book for Shelf Awareness.

Ginny Moon – I fell in love with Ginny Moon and you will too. This little girl with a mammoth personality and a bothersome disability is exquisitely drawn in the novel that bears her name. She makes you laugh and cry and worry and celebrate all as if she was .your own precious loved one. Ginny Moon is special and so is this book. I reviewed it and interviewed Benjamin Ludwig for Shelf Awareness

Beartown – Fredrik Backman continues to amaze me with his work. His ability to depict the most intimate elements of character, whether it’s a cantankerous old geezer or a troubled, teenage girl or a young, gay man, is astounding. He understands human nature and that’s universal. He’s funny as hell and despite his deprecating remarks to the contrary, he’s a smart cookie. You can’t go wrong with any of his books, but Beartown’s darker theme will especially appeal to my fellow crime fiction lovers. If you haven’t given Backman a try yet, what are you waiting for? I reviewed Beartown for Shelf Awareness.

Favorite Books: The Color of Our SkyBeasts of Extraordinary Circumstance – This fantasy novel entranced me with the magical beauty of the story and the enchanting writing. The book’s charm made its fantastical elements believable. Instead of saying, “that would never happen,” we WANT it to be able to happen, so somewhere it must be happening. And that somewhere is in Ruth Emmie Lang’s world of Weylyn Grey. I reviewed this gem of a debut for Shelf Awareness.

The Color of Our Sky – Another amazing and powerful debut novel. Amita Trasi created such a compelling tale of female friendship amid extraordinary devastation. Whereas Beasts is fantasy, The Color of Our Sky is realism at its finest. It’s weighty but so very worth it.   I reviewed this book as part of a TLC Book Tour.

This Is How It Always Is – I listened to Laurie Frankel’s book on audio and while I wasn’t over the top about the narration, I adored the story itself. The struggles of a family to protect their own, do the right things and make the right choices are potent. But having the best intentions doesn’t always create optimal results. This Is How It Always Is portrays that in all its splendor. And I reviewed it for AudioFile Magazine

So that’s it for 2017. I lapsed on my recording keeping this year so I don’t have exact totals on what I read, but I’m planning to get back on track for 2018. I’ve already set up my spreadsheet. I miss not knowing those details. I do know I reviewed 73 books for Shelf Awareness and 28 books for AudioFile Magazine. I also participated in 7 book tours. So at the bottom end of what my total could be this year I read 108 books. 

Here’s to at least as many in 2018! I don’t have much in the way of reading resolutions for 2018 except to continue trying to better myself. Non-fiction provides me with education and fiction feeds my capacity for empathy. So I can’t lose unless I don’t read!

I hope your 2017 was a good year for reading. Feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments for everyone to see. And have a very happy (and safe) New Year!

Trevor Noah - Born a Crime

Favorite Audiobooks of 2017

Oh geez, I had grand plans to have this post done last week. Well, the best laid plans…

I had considerable ups and downs with audiobooks in 2017. There were the ones I loved, loved, loved. And there were equally as many that I hated, hated, hated. Incidentally, two happen to be on the New York Times notable books list. And I didn’t hate the audiobooks because of their performances, so as always remember, I’m just one opinion and “best of” lists are always subjective. But for those who care to know what I loved listening to this year, here’s the list:

Favorite Audiobooks: Jenni Walsh - Becoming Bonnie  Favorite Audiobooks: Ian Rankin - Rather Be the Devil

5. Becoming Bonnie – I’m not sure how much creative license Jenni L. Walsh employed in this book, but it was FUN. And Susan Bennett did a top-notch job narrating it. I especially appreciated her portrayal of Bonnie’s friend Blanche. You can read my review of the audio for AudioFile Magazine here.

4. Rather Be the Devil – I am a late convert to Ian Rankin, but boy am I glad I finally got there. And James MacPherson is so perfect for Rebus. He’s had many books to perfect the character and it seems as though he understands the curmudgeon inside and out. Love the series, love this installment and you can read what I said for AudioFile Magazine here.

Favorite Audiobooks: Attica Lock - Bluebird, Bluebird

3. Bluebird, Bluebird – Attica Locke isn’t a book-a-year author, but when her new titles come out, I snatch the chance to read them–or in this case listen. And I’m glad I listened. JD Jackson’s rich voice added generously to a story that already had considerable heft. AudioFile also picked this as one of their top mystery/suspense audios of the year. You can see how it reviewed the narration here.

2. The Western Star – Walt Longmire, George Guidall, need I say more? Thirteen doesn’t appear to be an unlucky number for Craig Johnson. The series has not soured for me at all; Guidall continues to pick up all the nuances, the shifts in tone, the humor, the gravity, the compassion…all. of. it. This is hands down my favorite series on audiobook. Craig Johnson and George Guidall continue to deliver pure bliss. My review for Audiofile Magazine is here.

1. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah narrates his own book. Sometimes this can be a dicey situation, but since Noah is a performing artist in his regular job, he had nothing to worry about. This memoir is nothing short of amazing. I wanted there to be more. The end came way too soon. I laughed and cried. I was dumbfounded and awed. I learned and did I mention I laughed? Noah is, of course, a comedian, so in his book, he does what he does best–make people laugh. He takes some of the darkest hate and presents it as consumable for his audience. Which isn’t to say he dismisses it or treats it casually. This is his story after all. He simply finds the humor that helps so many survive the darkness and the absurdity that often causes humans to scratch their heads or scrunch their noses in bafflement. Trevor Noah is a tremendously talented story teller and he has an unforgettable life story. If you haven’t listened to this one yet, please don’t miss it. You’ll be glad you didn’t.

Favorite audiobooks: Craig Johnson - The Western Star  Favorite audiobooks: Trevor Noah - Born a Crime

That concludes my favorite audiobooks for 2017. Next up (no promises on exact date), my favorite non-fiction. Please check back and happy reading…and listening!

My Fairy Godmother Is a Drag Queen

My Favorites of 2017 – Part 1

Yikes. It’s been such a long time since I added anything new to the blog, I wasn’t sure I would remember how to log on. Just kidding. I’m not that old yet (plus I keep my passwords in a notebook next to my computer). Anyway…

I wanted to get my favorites lists ready for you in case you need some book ideas for the gift-giving season. My first post is going to be for kids and YA. I started reviewing in this realm for Shelf Awareness this year and it has been absolutely delightful. I admit that reviewing the picture books was a challenge at first, but I’m getting the hang of it, I think–they haven’t fired me yet, anyway. There is so much great fiction–and non-fiction–available for our young people (and those of us who are maybe not so young but still young at heart). I’ve been exposed to only a small segment, so I’m sure my list will be quite different from the average “best of” for children’s literature but from what I read this year, these are the books I’m most recommending.

For the tots:

5. Now – this is the first of two mindfulness-themed books for children on my list. Antoinette Portis wrote and illustrated this one focusing on the narrator’s favorite things–a breeze, a tooth, a smell. It’s a beautiful reminder of all the wonder in our everyday environment.  You can read my full review for Shelf here

4. The Little Book of Little Activists – This inspiring book from Viking Penguin is a collection of photographs featuring children taking part in events for women’s rights, diversity, immigration and more. The photos are accompanied by quotes from the kids, information about the First Amendment, definitions of terms like democracy and protest, as well as an introduction from one of the co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington and an afterward by the author of Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom. And as the title indicates, the book is small–a perfect size for little hands.

3. My Little Cities – I didn’t review these books for Shelf and I’m honestly not sure why they were sent to me, but Chronicle books sent me four small board books from this series–My Little Cities: New York, My Little Cities: San Francisco, My Little Cities: London and My Little Cities: Paris. All four were written by Jennifer Adams and illustrated by Greg Pizzoli. I had a blast going through them, and I can just imagine reading the sing-song text and pouring over the whimsical illustrations with someone who is learning about the world around them. Incorporating opposite concepts like “Moving fast, Moving slow” in NYC or “Travel high, Travel low” in San Francisco with famous locales such as Abbey Road in London or Notre-Dame in Paris makes for fun learning and exploration wrapped up in the joy of storybooks. The end of each book includes a listing of all the locations featured in the book with some context for each. I really loved everything about each of these books, but I think my favorite part came in the San Francisco book. Here, I’ll let you see for yourself:

2017 Favorite: My Little Cities: San Francisco

Fortunately, I have a good home for these books to go to. They’ll also be added to my list of new baby gifts. I’m very smitten with these board books.

2. Breathe Like a Bear – this is the second of the mindfulness books on my list. Breathe Like a Bear is written by Kira Willey, a kids yoga expert, and illustrated by Anni Betts. This is actually a collection of activities to do with kids–or for adults if you like–to work on being calm, focusing, relaxing, imaging and getting energized. They are simple activities you can do anywhere: in the bed before lights out, in the car on a long drive, waiting in line at the grocery store. They are great habits to start young and Willey presents them in an entertaining fashion, like “Snake Breath” where kids focus on their breathing and making hissing sounds in the process or “Listen!” where kids focus on being still and quiet so they can notice all the sounds around them. The accompanying illustrations are as mesmerizing as the activities. Gorgeous colors, patterns and textures on an array of plants and animals. This is a fun, interactive book that can benefit kids of ALL ages.

2017 Favorite: King Louie's Shoes1. King Louie’s Shoes – I absolutely adore this book! King Louie’s Shoes is a charming–and true–story about King Louis XIV and high heeled shoes. It’s smart and funny and engaging. The illustrations are magnificent. And at the conclusion, there’s additional historical information about the king who “was a shrimp.”  I rave more about it in my review for Shelf Awareness here

For the middle grade readers:

3. Locked Up For Freedom – I’m digging non-fiction lately and I love books that share important information with young people in a way they will enthusiastically consume it. They have enough textbook time and they tend to forget that content, but books like Locked Up For Freedom by Heather Schwartz imprint the atrocities of our nation’s past on the brains of their readers. Our young people need to know this and they need to remember it. The more educated and aware they are, the less likely they will be to carry on the biases and hatred that fueled events like the one resulting in these young Civil Rights protestors being locked up at Leesburg Stockade. You can check out my review of the book for Shelf here.

2. Pablo and Birdy – The diverse and idiosyncratic characters in Alison McGhee’s charming tale about an orphan washing up on an island off the southern tip of Florida make Pablo and Birdy a delight to indulge in. There are elements of mystery, adventure and coming of age. There are human and animals beautifully co-existing. In this day and age when people so irrationally fear the “other,” Pablo and Birdy is a glowing reminder of everyone’s value. The overarching theme of family is also a strong selling point on this illustrated novel. You can read my review for Shelf here.

2017 Favorite: Older Than Dirt1. Older Than Dirt – I’ve experienced graphic novels for the first time this year and Older Than Dirt is phenomenal. I’m especially fond of this book because of the societal (or at least part of society) disregard for science of late. Older Than Dirt tells the history of the planet in terms middle graders can access while making it a boat load of fun with humorous conversations between a groundhog and a worm. I loved the art, loved the dialogue, loved the content–I was reminded of many things I’d long since forgotten and even learned some new tidbits–and I’ve been raving about the book ever since. I now want to check out Don Brown’s Drowned City. Read my review of Older Than Dirt for Shelf here.

For the young adults:

5. Thick as Thieves – This was the book that opened the door to children’s/YA for me. It was a strange situation and I happened to be in the right place at the right time when Shelf needed someone to cover this last minute. It was fun and engaging and made me want to read more YA. This book actually ties into Megan Waylen Turner’s world of the Queen’s Thief, but I was unfamiliar with all of it and still found myself lost in her stellar fantasy. You can read what I had to say about it here.

4. Without Merit – It still makes me laugh to think of the people who wrote me with disbelieving questions. Is that romance? Did you read a romance? Colleen Hoover is traditionally a romance/new adult author and Without Merit was published by her regular publisher, Atria Books. The problem is Atria doesn’t publish young adult and Hoover is best known for her new adult novels. So that’s the way Without Merit was marketed. It’s really a young adult novel, though. There’s a sub-plot that is sort of romance like, but it can’t hold a candle to some of the romantic suspense out there that are being marketed as thrillers, so no, I don’t believe this is romance novel. I handed the book off to my teen niece. The protagonist is a high school teen with a wacky family who live in an old church still endowed with a crucified Christ statue. I loved the family dynamics and the struggles Merit, the protagonist, battles with.  You can find out what else I had to say about Without Merit here.

2017 Favorite: Beasts Made of Night3.  Beasts Made of Night – I’m slowly becoming a fan of fantasy and Beasts Made of Night is evidence of that. I was in awe. I desperately want to know what’s coming next in this world created by debut novelist Tochi Onyebuchi. I think one of the major things that pulls me into magical fantasy like this is the complexity. Onyebuchi was influenced by Nigerian folk lore and from that built an entire world with rules and guidelines. He mixed in heavy themes and seriously conflicted characters. I can’t imagine picking this book up and not being completely enchanted by its beauty. You can see what I said about Beasts Made of Night for Shelf here.  

2. You Bring the Distant Near – This book you may actually see on other lists. It was longlisted for the 2017 YA National Book Award. You Bring the Distant Near is Mitali Perkins’ multi-generational story of the Das women. I love the diversity, not only in race but in personality. The women in this brilliant novel are so well drawn and lovingly flushed out, it’s a challenge to remember they’re fictional and not your friends who will show up at your next gathering. You can read what I wrote for Shelf about You Bring the Distant Near here.

2017 Favorite: My Fairy Godmother Is a Drag Queen1. My Fairy Godmother Is a Drag Queen – I finished this debut from David Clawson (in one sitting) and wanted the whole world to read it. It was so. much. fun. A modern twist on Cinderella, the protagonist is a young, gay teenage boy living with his step-family after his father dies. The “prince” is an up-and-coming politician whose family bears a striking resemblance to the Kennedys. And the fairy godmother is, yes, a drag queen. A flamboyant, hilarious, smart, compassionate, complex drag queen. I wanted this guy to show up as MY fairy godmother. The dialogue in this novel is fantastic, the characters are pitch perfect, the plot is ingenious. This is not just my favorite YA book, it’s one of my favorite books of 2017, period. You can read–no, I HOPE you read–my gushing about My Fairy Godmother Is a Drag Queen for Shelf here.


Whew! That’s it for the kids. If you read some children/middle grade/YA, what were your favorites? Tomorrow I’ll tackle my audiobook faves. Check back!

The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes

Book Review :: The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes

First line: “The Silver Fox was waiting for me in a back booth at Wan-Q, the retro nonchic Cantonese restaurant that was two doors down from the rear entrance to the Essex House on West Fifty-Sixth Street.”

The Girl With Kaleidoscope EyesAfter a twenty-year hiatus, ghostwriter Stewart Hoag and his four-legged side-kick Lulu are back. Full disclosure: I haven’t read any of the eight earlier books in this series, but now I want to hunt them down and explore the early years.

Stewart “Hoagy” Hoag is a ghostwriter. Years ago he wrote his own bestselling novel but then the well ran dry. Now he’s helping others get the notoriety, and his agent has a new job for him–one with personal connections. Reggie Aintree is a successful poet, Hoagy’s former flame and the woman he dedicated his single novel to. She also happens to be the daughter of Richard Aintree who also wrote one novel. The difference between Richard and Hoagy is the fact that Richard’s novel is taught in all high school English classes. Well that and Richard vanished after his wife’s suicide; he hasn’t been seen since.

Add into the Aintree family mix Monette, Reggie’s sister. Monette is a media mogul currently separated from her wildly popular actor husband, Patrick Van Pelt. And Monette believes she has just received a letter from her long-lost father. Enter Hoagy whose been summoned to ghostwrite the tell-all that could potentially arise from the return of Richard Aintree. Begrudgingly he packs his bags and heads out to Los Angeles, taking up residence in Monette’s beach house as they await the return of the infamous Aintree patriarch. Let murder and mayhem commence.

Set in 1992, David Handler takes me back down memory lane in The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes through new fangled mobile phones, references and allusions to the decade’s pop culture (90210 anyone?), and the emerging popularity of word processors. But the universal absurdity of celebrity chaos required me to regularly remind myself it was 1992.  Handler’s characters are as colorful as the book’s title and his humorous depictions of Lulu, especially her eating and sleeping habits, exude authenticity. As a dog lover, I appreciate that Lulu isn’t forgotten. If Hoagy’s eating on a restaurant patio, Lulu is laying at his feet. When he’s driving, she’s in the car. She doesn’t just vanish with no explanation of where she is or how she got there.

Some of the police procedure seems a little questionable, but I’m not an expert and the plot isn’t supposed to be a serious crime story. It’s light-hearted and fun with some weightier themes around drugs and relationships that are the real crux of the book.

Handler doesn’t leave his readers wondering what people or places look like nor what meals consist of. But as long as you can get past the excess detail, The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes is an enjoyable, fast-paced mystery chock full of Hollywood, humor and havoc. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m headed to find the earlier books in this series.

The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes is available in paperback and ebook from William Morrow.

Goodreads - Brown Dog Solutions

My review is the first of the TLC Book Tour for The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes. You can find out what others have to say about this fun mystery by visiting the tour page at TLC’s website. You can also find David Handler on Facebook.

Book Review - How to be Everything

Book Review :: How To Be Everything

First line: “If you’ve picked up this book, it’s probably because you’ve had trouble narrowing down ‘what you want to be’ to one thing.”

Book Review - How to be EverythingGrowing up, I knew for certain I wanted to be a teacher, a lawyer, an architect. When I started college, I was in a program for architecture. When I graduated I received a degree in English and sports medicine. I also was only a few credits away from minors in nutrition, psychology and religion. I just loved to learn. There were very few classes I took that I didn’t devour. And the classes I didn’t like usually had more to do with the instructor and how he/she presented it than the material itself.

Since college, I’ve worked as a cast member for The Disney Store, a receptionist/administrative assistant, a high school English teacher, a technical writer, a coordinator of online learning, a webmaven, a book reviewer and a virtual assistant. Whenever I had to go through the torture of a job search, I didn’t know what to look for. I have a lot of skills–good skills–but I never had a specialization that helped determine the job title I needed to enter in the search engine. Heck, I didn’t even know what that job title was. So when I learned about Emilie Wapnick’s book How To Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still)Don’t Know What They Want To Be When They Grow Up, I knew I had to read it.

How To Be Everything is a mix of therapy and self-help. Therapy in the sense that it’s reassuring to know there are other multipotentialites (someone with many interests and creative pursuits) out there. I’m not an alien. I don’t have career ADD–well, maybe I do, but others do as well, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, multipotentialites, in general, have some darn impressive superpowers: idea synthesis, rapid learning, adaptability, big picture thinking, and relating and translating. How To Be Everything is self-help in the sense that it provides exercises and activities to assist readers in identifying their goals and work styles and how to pursue them.

In true multipotentialite fashion, I have some characteristics several work styles: the Group Hug Approach–I’m definitely overwhelmed when there are too many disconnected projects–the Einstein Approach–there isn’t enough time for the hobbies I enjoy–and the Phoenix Approach–when I get obsessed with something, I want to know everything there is to know about it. The one that didn’t match my personality hardly at all was the Slash Approach. And ironically, that’s probably what best defines my current employment situation: webmaven/virtual assistant/freelance writer/….

How To Be Everything will hook any multipotentialite floundering for a foothold in a society that doesn’t quite recognize their strengths. It will provide direction for those grasping at job titles to enter in their search engines. Informally written but informationally-rich, How To Be Everything puts the audience at ease. And let’s face it, if you’re job searching, stress is probably at a pretty high level, so ease is welcome. Even if you aren’t job searching, having a sense of direction is reassuring; knowing you’re a member of the club is priceless. The reading goes quickly but to milk this gem for all it’s worth, bring your pencil and put some time into the questions and activities. I’m certainly discovering a rich pay-off.

How To Be Everything is available in hardcover from HarperOne.

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My review today of How To Be Everything is part of the TLC blog tour. You can discover what other bloggers are saying about it by checking out the complete tour schedule here.