Monthly Archives: August 2016

Judging books by their samples: a new approach to my to-read list

I have a really big “to-read” list on Goodreads (over 1600 titles) and it never stresses me out that this list is so long, especially as I own only a small amount of them. However, a list that long doesn’t always help with the “what should I read next” decision. Recently, I decided to download samples of thirteen listed books onto my Kindle. While on a plane trip last week, I read all thirteen samples in a row. Below are my initial impressions of each:

Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen

The sample describes a newlywed couple starting their new life in a ramshackle cabin in 1930’s Minnesota. The writing is good, but I wasn’t immediately invested in Emil and Eveline, the newlywed couple. Re-reading the full synopsis of the book reaffirmed my interest in it because it implies the story is more about the couple’s children who are separated in their youth but reunited as adults. Still to-read but no rush.

Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik

Sofia Khan is a young Londoner, the only practising Muslim in her immediate family, and she’s just broken up with her boyfriend. The writing is very rom-com and at first I thought it was laid on a bit thick, but by the end of the sample, I was warming up to her style and to the character and was curious about where the story was going to go. Sometime soon, perhaps.

Youngblood by Matt Gallagher

In the prologue, the narrator reflects how hard it is to talk about Iraq to his family and friends and hints at a tragedy involving a woman left behind. After the prologue, there’s some interesting scene-setting, as the narrator – a junior officer in the U.S. Army – leads his platoon on a routine recon tour. A note of uneasiness is introduced in the form of a new staff sergeant who seems to be challenging the narrator’s authority. I didn’t like the prologue as I don’t care for the whole Something Bad Happened gambit being thrown in at the beginning of a book, but I liked the writing fine. So still to-read but no rush.

Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

I dunno. I think there was a phase where I was more open to the world-building of urban fantasy novels. In my current reading tastes, I just find the whole Named Things and rule explaining shebang to be tiresome. So I’m thinking: Nah, but could be convinced by a fan of the book.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

When the author recalls reading aloud Wittgenstein and sending a passage of Roland Barthes to her lover, I’ll admit the word “pretentious” sneaked into my head. But when she describes having her friend Google her lover’s name to find the preferred pronoun, because she feels it’s too late to ask now, that level of vulnerability helped dispel my initial impression. Also when she marvels over the tininess of a three-year old’s clothing, I felt that here was a writer who would be accessible among all the philosophical trappings. I see the book is pretty short so Sometime soon, perhaps.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

A lonely widow asks her neighbor, a widower, if he would sleep next to her at night for the company. Honestly, the sample was so brief that I couldn’t get a bead on whether I would like the novel or not. The first two short chapters didn’t tell me more than I already knew about the book. The writing style is simple and spare, which could mean that it needs more time to work its power on the reader. Still to-read but no rush.

The Alaskan Laundry by Brendan Jones

A young woman arrives in Alaska to take up a job and to escape from her past. Clearly another Something Bad Happened beginning of a book. And she’s also playing a little into the Naive Newcomer trope (thanks TV Tropes!), which is not my fave. But the Alaskan setting is intriguing, so I’m willing to continue with it someday, but I have my doubts.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

1939 London. In the span of this novel’s sample, a young privileged woman volunteers to help with the war effort, thinking she will soon be involved in intrigue. Instead she is assigned to help with schoolchildren. I liked the young woman, Mary North – very witty and charming, even if rather spoilt. The pace of the beginning was perfect and I was immediately drawn in. So this book has moved to the top of the list.

The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

The sample includes a foreward written by Jaffe about how she came to write the book, based on her own experiences of being a young working woman in 1950’s New York City. In the foreward, Jaffe mentions that when the book was being typed up, the women in the typing service were calling her because they had only read the chapter they were assigned to type and couldn’t wait for the book to finish before finding out what happened next for the characters. And I’ve got to say, Jaffe gets the novel off to a rousing start with the introduction of Caroline Bender who is a newcomer to the working world but thankfully not a naive one, as she possesses a fair amount of natural savvy. There is another character introduced before the sample ends who is a little more clueless, but even she is not completely lacking in self-awareness. Also now moved to the top of the list.

Solemn by Kalisha Buckhanon

A young girl named Solemn lives in a Mississippi trailer park and the beginning hints that she saw a neighbor’s baby thrown down a well. The poetic writing style is a little rich for my tastes, but a re-read of the book’s description makes me want to continue with it someday, but I have my doubts.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

1937 England. The book centers on the Cazalet family, their servants, and other people in their orbit. The narrative jumps easily from character to character, and each person is well-drawn and distinct even in the short span of the sample. Have already placed on hold at the library.

Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart by Christena Cleveland

I’ve read some of Cleveland’s writing and have watched a great video of her and Richard Rohr talking about diversity in community. The sample doesn’t get much past introducing what the book is going to be about, so I felt like I hadn’t reached any meat yet. I was already motivated to read the book anyway based on my previous familiarity, so this book remains as a Sometime soon, perhaps.

Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future by Elizabeth Esther

In the beginning of this memoir, the author describes an example of what it was like to live in a family that preached the end of the world on street sidewalks around the United States. I feel lukewarm about the writing. I think you can tell it’s her first book? It’s like solid college writing, if that makes sense. Still, I remain curious about the story itself, so I’ll mark this as to-read, but no rush.


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Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart: yay local history and single ladies of fiction

Girl Waits With Gun

2015. Houghton Mifflin. ebook. 416 pages.


In Girl Waits With Gun, Amy Stewart gives us a fictional story based on a real woman and real events. The year the story starts is 1914. Constance Kopp and her two sisters – one of them a teenager – live together on a farm in New Jersey, despite their brother’s wish that they live in town under his “protection”. One day, their buggy is overturned during an accident involving a careless driver of an automobile, who happens to be a local factory owner by the name of Henry Kaufman.

When Constance boldly presses Kaufman for compensation of the buggy, in a way that pokes his easily bruised ego, Kaufman escalates matters. The sisters soon become the targets of intimidation by Kaufman and his cronies. With the help of the local sheriff, Constance seeks justice and safety for her family. Additionally, Constance is moved to help a young factory worker whose son she had by Kaufman has gone missing.

One of the things I loved about Girl Waits With Gun is the historical specificity. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but enough to realize that many novels in that genre try to connect their story to an uber-narrative of that era, some widely understood concept of that time period’s role in the greater story of the United States or Great Britain etc. (For example: the Roarin’ 20’s and all the shorthands for that decade that have made it into cultural memory.) The uber-narrative is not always a bad thing, but it can be if used lazily. Girl Waits With Gun dodges the uber-narrative, mostly because Stewart keeps her novel at a local history level, which is a territory that feels rather refreshing. Smoothly incorporated local history tidbits make the novel’s setting feel really lived-in and real.

Stewart wisely makes few deviations from the true story of the Kopp sisters’ conflict with Kaufman. I think some authors would have been tempted to put a 21st century spin on that storyline, which would have just made it bland. When I read the afterword, I was surprised and pleased to find out just how much primary source material made it into this novel. I’m guessing that Stewart’s judicious use of her research stems from her extensive experience in nonfiction writing (The Drunken Botanist, Wicked Plants).

Girl Waits With Gun jumped to the top of my to-read list when it was recommended to me as a book that featured a never-married female protagonist who has no romantic interest during the course of the novel. I have been on the lookout for books fitting that description ever since posting my review of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. (So has Teresa of the blog Shelf Love – she wrote a post on Book Riot about it. And we have a list on Goodreads.)

***Spoilers*** While Girl Waits With Gun certainly belongs on that “single ladies of fiction” list, one of the central emotional throughlines of the novel is based on the (real-life historical) fact that Constance’s youngest sister Fleurette is actually Constance’s biological daughter, born from Constance’s teenaged tryst with a traveling salesman. Fleurette is ignorant of her true parentage, but Constance still struggles with her maternal feelings for her daughter. It is a fascinating layer of the story, don’t get me wrong, but I realized that I’m especially longing for “single ladies of fiction” books that have a protagonist who has no children as well as having no romance. ***End Spoilers***

All in all, I really enjoyed Girl Waits With Gun, and plan on reading the next book in the series.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

A Work in Progress – “Girl Waits with Gun is a fun story, mostly very light-heartedly presented, but an interesting look at early modern America.  If you are wary of historical fiction, this is a story that wears its details lightly.”

living read girl – “Girl Waits With Gun does have the flair of such fictional feisty female crime fighters such as Miss Phryne Fisher, who I think Constance would get along well with, even if she’s not as much of a party girl. Both ladies share a keen set of wits and plenty of savvy to deal with trouble at their doorstep, despite what the men about them might think”

loudlatinlaughing – “The most delightful and entertaining fiction I’ve read in a while, with an ending that doesn’t drag and drag but that is ultimately perfect, you read to the last drop on the page.”


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Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor

Writing My Wrongs

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison

2016. Convergent. Hardcover. 268 pages.


In the memoir Writing My Wrongs, Shaka Senghor describes the events that led up to committing murder in 1991 Detroit at age 19. In alternating chapters, he also describes the arc of his nineteen years in prison, as he gradually transforms himself through education  and religious conversion. He takes the reader into his mindset at these different points in his life.

I had a mixed opinion about this book, but I definitely think his story is worth hearing. What came through clearly for me was his emphasis on the psychological and emotional scars that drove his young self onto the wrong path. Among other things, Senghor’s parents separated when he was a teenager, and his mother sent him to live with his father, a move which felt like rejection to him. When she took him back later, she dealt with his rebellious behavior by beating him. He began to have suicidal thoughts, and made one attempt. Later, while selling drugs, Senghor was shot in the leg and was subsequently filled with rage. He began carrying a gun himself. Senghor definitely takes personal responsibility for his wrong actions – especially the murder. However, it’s also clear that he had no outlet for addressing the emotional tumult of his life, and no one around to help him out of his downward spiral.

It reminded me of This American Life’s episodes on Harper High School in Chicago, where in one year 29 current or recent students of that school were shot. No one is immune in an environment of violence. It will take its toll.

I thought Senghor’s story was hampered at times by some of his writing style choices. I thought he too frequently injected his current self’s understanding into his description of past events. Take this excerpt:

Within a few weeks, I had immersed myself fully in my life as a hustler. The money came quick, but I found ways to spend it quicker. I decked myself in the latest gear, and I felt proud, walking around with a wad of money in my pocket. But in truth, I was overcompensating for the things that had been missing in my life – the most important of which were love and acceptance, things my new life couldn’t give me.

On the one hand, Senghor is reminding us of the emotional wounds that hid behind his tough exterior. However, the way he expresses it is so on-the-nose diagnostic – and he adds this kind of retrospective analysis throughout the text.

Indeed, a few pages later, he describes watching customers hallucinate and crawl around and adds: “At the time, I was ignorant about their plight and the seriousness of addiction, so I laughed at them until my stomach felt like it was going to burst. I didn’t realize it then, but I was growing desensitized to the suffering of others and developing a warped view of adults and authority.” I kept wishing he would let the story alone and let it speak for itself, at least for longer stretches. I think the retrospective analysis has its place, but here it just seemed to keep me from getting immersed in his narrative.

All that said, Writing My Wrongs displays Senghor’s thorough processing of his life, an honest reckoning of his own failings as well as the failings of institutions, especially the prison system, which I didn’t really touch on in this review, but is certainly a large part of the book. Today, Senghor works for #cut50, a criminal justice reform initiative that aims to “safely and smartly reduce the U.S. prison population in half by 2025.”

I first heard about the author and this book from Emily at Books, The Universe and Everything. Shortly after that, I saw it was available to request from Blogging for Books so that worked out nicely.


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