Friday Bookbag, 1.19.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week was an absolute fiction palooza for me, and in putting together this list, I noticed that my tastes have run toward the darker and weirder of late. Hmm.

Let’s dive in!


9780143127550Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I adored Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere (my review)so when this book was on deep sale at Barnes & Noble, I couldn’t resist. Everything I Never Told You is Ng’s critically acclaimed debut about a Chinese American family whose daughter, Lydia, is found dead in a lake.

Bonus: this book is on its way to becoming a movie, which is perhaps part of why Barnes & Noble had it out on the sale tables!

9781501112331In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: This book is yet another book purchase I can attribute to my abiding love of thrillers, especially ones with a literary edge, and most especially ones whose tension hinges on femininity and sexism. I don’t know much about the plot, but based on its marketing, it’s going to be right up my alley.

Another bonus: Like Everything I Never Told You, this book is also being adapted into a movie!

9780307341556Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: It feels a little bit like cheating to put a book I’ve already read in my bookbag, but Gillian Flynn is one of my favorite authors of all time and I very stupidly purged my copies of Sharp Objects and Gone Girl between freshman and sophomore year. Sharp Objects is a creepy crime thriller about murders of young girls in a small town full of some incredibly toxic secrets. After snagging this on sale, I’m just happy to have one of my precious babies back on my bookshelf again. (Regretfully, I still haven’t replaced Gone Girl yet, and I have yet to read Flynn’s other novel, Dark Places.)

Yet another bonus (and I promise this is the last one): I absolutely cannot wait to see the HBO adaptation of this book, which premieres this summer!

9781936787579A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I’m trying to do better about reading works by authors outside the U.S. and U.K., and A Loving, Faithful Animal is by an Australian author, Josephine Rowe. It’s a novel about an Australian soldier who returns from conscripted service in the Vietnam War and the trauma and healing his family endures, which sounds really interesting to me. It’s been also well-reviewed, its cover design is lovely, and it’s quite a small, short book–always pluses. I’m hoping it will be a bracing palate-cleanser that I can squeeze in between some of the longer books on my to-read list.

9780374100261The Answers by Catherine Lacey

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Why I’m excited: I don’t quite understand the premise of this novel–a woman who is flat-broke from medical bills ends up being paid to participate in an experiment to uncover the perfect recipe for a romantic relationship, I think? –but I don’t need to be clear on everything to know that it will be delightfully bizarre. Part of the premise is that the protagonist suffers from chronic pain–something I’ve dealt with for years–so I’m excited for that aspect, as well.

9781510720671The Last to See Me by M Dressler

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Why I’m excited: This novel is a ghost story set in a California mansion, and while ghost stories are not usually my thing, the marketing compares Dressler’s style to Kazuo Ishiguro’s, which will sell me on a book every time. (Maybe that makes me a sucker?) I did really love Larissa Pham’s recent ghost story, too, so maybe I’m less averse to ghosts than I think. This feels like the riskiest book I acquired this week, but at least it’s a library loan, so I’m not out any money if it turns out to not be my thing.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Short Story Roundup, 1.17.18

Short Story Roundup

Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.

I was short on time this week, so today’s list is actually only one story–but it’s a good one!


A Cat Called Grievous” by R. L. Maizes

  • genre: literary/realistic fiction
  • publication: Electric Literature
  • publication date: January 10, 2018
  • why I loved it: This story, about a cat who “adopts” a couple struggling with infertility, is chilling, and located squarely at that porous boundary between real and unreal. If you, like me, adore cats but are also a tiny bit afraid of cats, this story will hit the spot.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed lately? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!

Where do you buy your books and why?

arranged-1842261_1920
image source: pixabay

Avid readers tend to have strong feelings about how they acquire their books, and inspired by a recent comment Infinite Text made on last week’s Friday Bookbag–about spreading out book shopping between multiple stores–I’ve been thinking a lot about the rationale behind my own book shopping habits.

I used to shop for books almost exclusively at independent bookstores or online via IndieBound.org. I still love indies, but I’ll admit I’ve softened my stance a bit in recent years. The bulk of my book shopping now happens at either Barnes & Noble, for physical books, or in the Kindle Store, for e-books.

(Side note: If you’d told me 5 years ago that a Kindle would be among my most treasured possessions, I’d have laughed in your face. It’s amazing how far e-reader technology has come, and my Paperwhite is a far cry from my old dinosaur of a Nook.)

While it makes sense that I shop in the Kindle Store for, well, Kindle e-books, there isn’t any special reason why I gravitated towards Barnes & Noble; it has more to do with the fact that there are several tempting er, prominent locations nearby, so it’s convenient to drop in.

Since I’m not made of money, I also check out tons of books from my local library. It’s great to have a chance to try out books I think I’ll like, but that I’m not ready to take a $25-$30 risk on. (I often buy my own forever copies of awesome books I first read at the library!)

And all that is to say nothing of my love of used bookstores; I often scour the bookshelves at my local Goodwill, and I’ve also found some great books–especially nonfiction gems–at Midway Book, a giant used and rare bookstore in my neighborhood.

So, fellow book lovers: what say you? Where do you shop? Do you primarily buy new books, used books, or both? Are you a heavy library user? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments!

Book Review: THE RED by Tiffany Reisz

The Red is a stand-alone erotic novel that follows a year in the life of Mona St. James, who swears to do anything to save her late mother’s art gallery from bankruptcy–but when a mysterious stranger offers to purchase a year of sexual carte blanche in exchange for a million dollars’ worth of priceless art, Mona’s definition of “anything” is put to the test. In The Red, Tiffany Reisz has created a near-flawless piece of erotic fantasy that dances right up to the edge of taboo while still maintaining a wickedly funny (and sexy) highbrow sensibility.

Read my full review below–and be aware that because The Red is a work of erotica, my review might get a little, er…spicy. I’ll do my best to keep it PG-13.


9781537217765.jpg

The Red by Tiffany Reisz

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: 8th Circle Press
  • publication date: May 7, 2017
  • isbn (trade paperback): 978-1537217765
  • length: 248 pages

I delight in fiction that mixes the highbrow and lowbrow, but I’ve never encountered a novel quite as cleverly subversive as The Red. If you’ve ever wanted a book where Manet and Picasso are referenced as often as the protagonist’s c**t, then this is it.

The novel’s premise is more daydream than reality: Mona St. James is a stunningly beautiful art gallery proprietor whose mother’s slow decline and death have driven the gallery–known as The Red–to the brink of bankruptcy. In the first few pages, all seems lost, but of course it is not; the tension serves only to ensure that when the dashing, British, and fabulously wealthy Malcolm sets foot in the gallery late one night, there’s no doubt as to whether or not Mona will agree to his offer to make her his “whore.”

Brooding BDSM billionaires are a dime-a-dozen in the post-Fifty Shades erotic landscape, but The Red gets to the heart of why the archetype is so appealing: with unlimited money comes unlimited safety as well as wish-fulfillment: safety from debt, safety from crummy jobs and unpleasant tasks, safety to follow our dreams.

Reisz mines every drop of erotic power from dynamics of safety and un-safety, whether it’s physical, financial, emotional, or all three. Malcolm is unfailingly caring toward Mona, meaning the sex can get rougher without seeming abusive or exploitative; when Malcolm beats Mona 100 times with a riding crop, it is foreplay for the most tenderly consensual sex scene I’ve ever read, and when he “auctions” Mona off to an audience of strange men, the act feels soul-searching instead of foul.

Why is playing at sexual submission and subservience so erotic, The Red seems to ask, when real-world oppression and chattel slavery are unquestionably horrifying? Of course, this question is secondary to the searingly hot sex that encompasses most of the novel, but its subtle presence ratchets up the tension.

The only false note here–and it’s a very minor one–is the way that The Red’s paranormal element concludes, which is speedily. The paranormal element came as a surprise to me to begin with, so the incomplete-seeming resolution gave me mild whiplash. That said, I can’t feel too jilted, as I do think Reisz was wise to keep the plot to a minimum and the sex to a maximum. On one hand, I was left with a few unanswered questions; on the other, I was rewarded with a novel so tightly strung that even a paragraph or two of extra detail might have spoiled the tension.

Guilt and shame characterize the American relationship to the erotic, but The Red pulls the ultimate magic trick, transforming these forbidden desires into a potent exploration of the human heart. This novel is a marvel. 5/5 stars.


I purchased my own copy of The Red and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 1.12.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.


9781101906118The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I don’t know why the idea of this book–an allegorical story of sexism, violation, and self-denial about a Korean woman who decides to become a vegetarian–captured me so intensely, but ever since its appearance on nearly every “best of 2016” list out there, I’ve been dying to read it. I managed to snag one of my library’s e-book copies, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in Kang’s devastating world–during the daytime with the lights on, of course.

Bonus: The Vegetarian’s English-language translator, Deborah Smith, has an excellent essay in the LA Review of Books this week titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation.”

9780307476074Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Goodreads | Amazon Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: Hiking is such a healing, cleansing activity for me that I can’t wait to read this memoir built on that exact premise: When Cheryl Strayed lost everything, she embarked on a solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail–one of the most brutal hiking trails in America. Though this book has been a smash success for years (especially after the release of the movie adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon), I’ve never read it. As of this Friday morning, the Kindle e-book is on sale for $3.99, if it sounds like your cup of tea.

9780812988024The Girls by Emma Cline

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: The Girls was another Kindle e-book on deep sale this morning, but I’ll admit this was more of an impulse purchase than Wild, which I’ve had in my sights for awhile.

The Girls is (I think?) a novel about the Manson cult, but that’s not even the top draw for me: more importantly, it seems like a novel about female friendship and the costs of getting sucked into a bad, bad crowd. It’s set in California in the late ’60s, one of my very favorite settings, since hippie California’s truth is even stranger than its fiction. I’m looking forward to diving in.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: THE FALL OF LISA BELLOW by Susan Perabo

Susan Perabo has written a difficult novel–and I’m still unsure how I feel about it. The Fall of Lisa Bellow is the story of two middle schoolers’ encounter with an armed robber, but it’s also a novel about a marriage, dentistry, and cliques. The novel packs a punch but manages to also feel unsatisfying; Perabo uncovers remarkable truths of the human spirit while also leaving them utterly unresolved. My reaction to each page ranged wildly from speechless awe to eye rolls: really? I am sure of one thing, though: I can’t get this book out of my head.

Bear all that in mind when you read my full review, below.


9781476761466

The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • publication date: March 14, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-4767-6146-6
  • length: 352 pages

Mass shootings and kidnappings of beautiful white girls both loom large in the American imagination; Perabo relies on this inherent tension in The Fall of Lisa Bellow, though her masked gunman never actually fires a shot. Rather, as two middle school rivals lie terrified and facedown on the floor of a Deli Barn (a stand-in for Subway, as best I can tell), the reader realizes that this story isn’t about the gunman at all. It’s about the tension between the girl he chooses to take with him and the one he leaves behind.

The one he takes is Lisa Bellow, a middle school queen bee both loved and loathed by the student body. The one he leaves is Meredith Oliver, an awkward, quiet girl who is neither popular nor unpopular, but aspires to more. When Lisa is taken, Meredith becomes the new ringleader of Lisa’s clique, and unbeknownst to everyone else, Meredith also develops a strange psychic connection to Lisa, able to “see” and even participate in her new life with her kidnapper (and rapist).

Despite the novel’s riveting premise, the plot crawls along with agonizing slowness, invested in spooling and unspooling the dozens of ways the tragedy could have been altered or prevented–basically, if you’re expecting a literary thriller in the mode of Gillian Flynn, you won’t get it. While Perabo’s language is gorgeous and her eye for tension keen, the novel seems to actively deny readers any sort of catharsis, and it left me exhausted, confused, and surprisingly cold.

PSA: The next part of this review could be considered a spoiler, so if you care about that, you can stop reading here–I hope I’ve already made my complicated feelings clear. But they’ll be clearer if you read on.

The reader is eventually left with the conclusion that Meredith’s “connection” to Lisa might be–in fact, probably is–a one-sided way to understand a traumatic event, and not a psychic connection at all. It’s a revelation that’s both brilliant and cheap, believable and anticlimactic. Of course a bright and imaginative middle-schooler would forge that kind of bond with a girl she still feels guilty about hating. Of course.

It makes for terrible reading regardless, and left me asking: How else was I lied to? It’s the confusion of an unreliable narrator with none of the interest or excitement that the device usually supplies.

Spoilers over!

Compounding my feeling that Perabo doesn’t know quite what she wants to achieve with this novel is the array of side characters and subplots that range from only mildly compelling to outright annoying.

Meredith’s mother, Claire, is also a central character; the novel is told in close-focus third-person, alternating between them. We explore Claire’s complicated marriage, her complicated feelings about her son’s (Meredith brother’s) eye injury that will keep him from a once-inevitable career in baseball, her complicated feelings toward being a dentist, her complicated feelings toward her mother’s death and her stepmother, her complicated feelings toward an almost-affair she had 20 years ago, and her complicated feelings toward Lisa Bellow’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks mother, Colleen Bellow.

It’s all just complicated, something I would normally consider a good thing as opposed to flat clichés, but paired with Perabo’s stubborn refusal to satisfyingly conclude any of these subplots, it’s maddening. This novel has one of the most ridiculously inconclusive conclusions I’ve ever experienced, and it made me angry I’d wasted my time with it.

Sure, there are good times along the way–but The Fall of Lisa Bellow ends on a note so bitterly pointless that it poisons my memory of the rest. 3/5 stars.

P.S. While I’m here, let me also say that this novel commits a cardinal sin: it names the race of the few characters of color, but doesn’t explicitly denote the white characters. It’s sloppy craft that worsened the feeling of un-resolution.


My copy of The Fall of Lisa Bellow came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Short Story Roundup, 1.10.18

Short Story Roundup

Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.


A Few Nondescript Adventures of Some Consequence” by Maya Jewell Zeller

  • genre: beats me–but the closest fit is probably magical realism.
  • publication: Booth
  • date: November 3, 2017
  • why I loved it: This story is off the wall and I’m still not sure I understand it, but Zeller’s wordplay grabbed me on an intuitive and deeply enjoyable level regardless. “Office Girl” and “University Hero” embark on a kooky love affair that concludes in a surprisingly affecting manner.

Ghost Boyfriend” by Larissa Pham

  • genre: a blend of magical realism, realistic fiction, and allegory.
  • publication: Triangle House Review
  • date: late 2017 (in Triangle House Review’s inaugural issue)
  • why I loved it: A friend’s dead boyfriend rises from the grave, inserting major drama into the lives of a trio of artists. It’s a big concept, but Pham’s attention to small sensory details–whether it’s the way a penis looks in boxers, the taste of stale beer, or the soft green of pine needles–is what truly elevates this story.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed lately? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!