2018: My year in books

2018 has had its ups and downs… but one thing has remained constant, and that’s the joy of spending time with great books. Here’s a look back at my reading life in 2018.

I love the little words of encouragement from Goodreads! My 202 books reads this past year include novellas, children’s books, audiobooks, and graphic novels, in addition to novels and a handful of non-fiction books. It’s always fun to mix things up.

 

Goodreads stats as of 12/31/2018:

I don’t particularly like that Goodreads uses “least popular” in this context. Maybe it should just be “least read”? In any case, Rat-Catcher is a story set in the Toby Daye world, I loved it immensely, and I think more people should read it!

According to my average rating, I’ve been pretty successful this year when it comes to choosing book that appeal to me:

Star rating used most often: 4 stars (83 total)
Star rating used least often: 2 stars (4 total — and I didn’t give any books only 1-star. I think if I thought that little of a book, I just DNFd.)
DNFs: 3 – I gave up on three different books this year — one science fiction, one fantasy, and one historical fiction. With the historical fiction, I just wasn’t in the mood at that moment (and needed to return it to the library). For the other two, the tone of the writing simply didn’t work for me, and I decided not to push myself to continue something I wasn’t enjoying.

First and Last on Goodreads:

Interestingly (or not), my first and last (and bunches of others) were re-reads. I’ve definitely become fond of re-reading the previous book in a series right before the newest gets released. What can I say? I value a good refresher.

Highlights from my series reading:

2018 was the year of the series for me. I started the year with some idea of a few series I wanted to try — and was happy to discover that I picked some great ones! My best series reads this year were:

The October Daye series by Seanan McGuire: 12 novels, plus all sorts of related novellas and short stories.

Newsflesh by Mira Grant: 4 novels and a collection of stories.

From the world of Tortall by Tamora Pierce: I read three quartets and a duology (and am now reading the first book in a trilogy), for a total of 14 books set in Pierce’s amazing fantasy world.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi: 6 novels

Eye-candy covers:

Let me just take a minute to appreciate some of the most beautiful and/or eye-catching covers from my reading this year… because who doesn’t love a great looking book?

 

But wait! What were my favorite books of the year?

It’s too hard to narrow down! It’s like choosing my favorite child! But, okay, if I must… I’m working on my Top Ten list for tomorrow, when I’ll finally have my list whittled down to just 10 (or so) books that I loved to pieces in 2018. Stay tuned!

2017: My year in books

As 2017 comes to an end, it’s time to take a look back at the year’s greatest hits in books! It’s been another great reading year, with so many new favorites and new authors to swoon over. Here’s a summary of what I read, and what really stood out for me during a year of some truly excellent reading.

[Note: Click on the links to see my reviews if you’re interested!]

Goodreads stats as of 12/31/2017:

Give In To The Feeling is a novella by a wonderful writer and blogger — check it out, people!

I think I’ve gotten more generous with my ratings over the years — or else I’m getting better and better at choosing books that I’ll end up loving.

Star rating used most often: 5 stars (78 total)
Star rating used least often: 2 stars (7 total — and I didn’t give any books only 1-star. I think if I thought that little of a book, I just DNFd.)
DNFs: 2 – I only put aside two books this year: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones. Two very different books, but I just couldn’t get through either one.

First and Last on Goodreads:

Bests & Other Stuff of Note

Note: Not necessarily published in 2017 — these are the books I especially enjoyed reading in 2017!

Best young adult: Geekerella by Ashley Poston and Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
Best contemporary: Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin
Best fantasy: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Best historical fiction: Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford
Best book club book: The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes & Jo Piazza – A come-from-behind surprise. This light and breezy book wins for being a great way to wrap up the year and for generating a really fun conversation.

Best new volume in an ongoing series: I’m always thrilled when Patricia Briggs releases a new book. In 2017, it was Silence Fallen, the 10th volume in the Mercy Thompson series, which I just love to pieces. Another glorious new book in a favorite series was Less Than a Treason, the 21st Kate Shugak book by Dana Stabenow, starring my favorite private investigator in one of my favorite settings (Alaska). 

Best start of a new series: Binti  and Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor. The third and final book, The Night Masquerade, is due out in January.

Best end to a great series: End of Watch by Stephen King — the final book in the Billy Hodges trilogy.

Best in ongoing series: I love the Themis Files books by Sylvain Neuvel, and can’t wait to get my hands on #3 in 2018.

Best return of old friends: Unequal Affection by Lara S. Ormiston, an under-the-radar reimagining of Pride and Prejudice that surprised me in all the right ways.

Best use of illustration to tell a story: Thornhill by Pam Smy is an eerie, haunting story told in words and pictures. I borrowed it from the library, but really need a copy for my own shelves.

Author of the year: Georgette Heyer! I’ve been hearing about her for years… but finally decided to give her a try. Two audiobooks, two paperbacks, and I’m hooked! I’m looking forward to reading lots more in the years to come.

High volume award: I read 28 volumes of The Walking Dead comics this year, pretty much all in a row, right after starting my binge of the TV show. That’s a LOT of zombies.

(Non-zombie) most read: I went through 7 works by Philip Pullman and 8 works by Gail Carriger, and loved every moment.

Best classic read: My two favorite classics both came to me via Serial Reader this year: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. My nervous expectations were far exceeded… I loved them both!

Around the world in a book: My reading took me to some amazing places this year…

globe-32812_1280Nigeria: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Russia: The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
England – Birds of a Feather (Maisie Dobbs, #2) by Jacqueline Winspear
Ireland – The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
India – Prudence by Gail Carriger
Egypt – Imprudence by Gail Carriger
Kenya – West With the Night by Beryl Markham
Scotland – The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan
Israel – Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Norway – The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Antarctica – South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby

 

Best speculative/science fiction: The sci-fi works I enjoyed most were:

The Power by Naomi Alderman
Six Wakes
by Mur Lafferty

Grab the hankies: I cried my eyes out over Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies by Michael Ausiello and 180 Seconds by Jessica Park.

Oh, the horror! I adored the terrifying killer mermaids of Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant.

Best use of animals in unexpected roles: River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow feature feral hippos in the American South. Simply amazing.

 

Best bookish TV events of 2017:

Most eye-catching covers:

 

Quirkiest titles:

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Makenzi Lee
Geekerella by Ashley Poston
The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

Best non-fiction: True stories that I enjoyed immensely:

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
Spaceman by Mike Massimino
The Day the World Came to Town by Jim DeFede

Bookish delight, all year long:

All the many, many books which, for whatever reason, I can’t quite categorize but still really enjoyed (plus a few that are probably better off forgotten). It’s been a great year of reading. I can’t wait to see what treasures I’ll discover in 2018!

What were your favorite books of 2017? What surprised or excited you the most? Please share your top reads and recommendations in the comments!

2015: My year in books

2015 reading

As 2015 comes to an end, it’s time to take a look back at the year’s greatest hits in books! Earlier this week, I did a round-up of my favorite graphic novels and audiobooks from 2015. Today, I’m widening the focus to include the year’s reading as a whole. Here’s a summary of what I read, and what really stood out for me during a year of some truly excellent reading.

[Note: Click on the links to see my reviews if you’re interested!]

Goodreads stats as of 12/30/2015:

Total number of books read: 148
Total number of pages read: 46,616
Star rating used most often: 5 stars (57 total)
Star rating used least often: 2 stars (8 total — and I didn’t give any books only 1-star. I think if I thought that little of a book, I just DNFd.)

Longest book read: A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon, 1439 pages (a re-read)
Shortest book read (excluding graphic novels and novellas):
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, 120 pages

 

Bests & Other Stuff of Note

Best children’s (middle grade): The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair by S. S. Taylor and Katherine Roy
Best young adult: The Cure For Dreaming by Cat Winters
Best contemporary: Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Best graphic novel: Alex + Ada (trilogy) by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn
Best fantasy: Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Best historical fiction: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Best domestic drama: Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

Best new volume in an ongoing series: I’m always thrilled when Patricia Briggs releases a new book. In 2015, it was Dead Heat, the 4th volume in the Alpha & Omega series (which stars one of my favorite supernatural couples, Charles and Anna).

Best start of a new series: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher

Best end to a great series: Winter by Marissa Meyer

Best in the “late to the party” category: Years after the first books were released, I started two terrific ongoing mystery series: The Kate Shugak series by Dana Stabenow and the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear.

Best return of old friends: Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore, the sequel to A Dirty Job, which brings back all sorts of favorite characters, including Minty Fresh, Charlie Asher, and the squirrel people.

Best use of illustration to tell a story: The Marvels by Brian Selznick is a gorgeous book to look at, using pictures as part of the plot, rather than just as decoration. Runner-up: I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, which mixes comics with text to create a thrillingly tense novel.

Author of the year: Jane Austen! I revisited the works of Austen this year by listening to the audiobooks of her six main novels. I also read three Austen Project retellings, watched the BBC version of Northanger Abbey, and even saw a musical production of Emma!

Best classic read: I loved reading North and South with my book group, and watching the mini-series was the cherry on the sundae!

north_and_south_img

Around the world in a book: My reading took me to some amazing places this year…

globe-32812_1280Ethiopia: Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein
New Guinea: Euphoria by Lily King
Portugal: The Day of Atonement by David Liss
Australia: Silver Bay by Jojo Moyes
Luxembourg: The Expats by Chris Pavone
Canada: Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder
Italy: A Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
India: Prudence by Gail Carriger
UK: After You by Jojo Moyes (and plenty of other books too!)
France: A Little in Love by Susan Fletcher

 

 

Journeys through time: I traveled to many different eras via terrific books; most notably…

time-travelColonial America: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Antebellum South: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
World War I: Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear; The Uninvited by Cat Winters
World War II: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown; All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
1950s: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

 

Best speculative/science fiction: The sci-fi works I enjoyed most were:

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Oh, the horror! The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy was truly icky, but I just couldn’t look away.

Biggest let-down: I loved The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey, but I was so disappointed by book #2, The Infinite Sea, which just did not deliver, in my humble opinion.

Best sports books for people who don’t usually read about sports:

Breathe, Annie, Breathe by Miranda Kenneally (running)
Winger (and its sequel, Stand-Off) by Andrew Smith (rugby)

Best use of a grandmother: I loved the narrator of The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant.

Best return to childhood: I reread The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and loved them both all over again.

Best author event: I had two awesome author experiences this year, hearing talks by Neil Gaiman and Felicia Day and then getting my books signed!

Best bookish TV events of 2015:

Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, based on the book by Philip K. Dick:

MitHC

PBS’s Poldark, based on the books by Winston Graham:

poldark 3

And (because I can’t leave it out of a “best of” list), the 2nd half of the first season of Outlander, after a long six-month Droughtlander!

OUT_116-20140827-ND_0372.jpg

Most eye-catching covers:DepthUprootedI Am Princess X

 

Quirkiest titles:

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Intro to Alien Invasion by Owen King
Twittering From the Circus of the Dead by Joe Hill
You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day
Working For Bigfoot by Jim Butcher

Best getting-thrown-for-a-loop: Books with twists or plots that took me by surprise:

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
Winger by Andrew Smith

Bookish delight, all year long:

All the many, many books which, for whatever reason, I can’t quite categorize but still really enjoyed (plus a few that are probably better off forgotten). It’s been a great year of reading. I can’t wait to see what treasures I’ll discover in 2016!

What were your favorite books of 2015? What surprised or excited you the most? Please share your top reads and recommendations in the comments!

Blog Tour & Book Review: The Uninvited

The Uninvited

I admit, I had seen a ghost or two.

I’m delighted to be participating in the blog tour celebrating The Uninvited, a new novel by Cat Winters. This is the author’s first book for adults, following two successful YA releases. Thank you, TLC Book Tours, for inviting me to participate!

Synopsis:

Twenty-five-year-old Ivy Rowan rises from her sickbed after being struck by the great influenza epidemic of 1918, only to discover that the world has been torn apart in just a few short days.

But Ivy’s lifelong gift—or curse—remains. She sees the uninvited ones—ghosts of loved ones who appear to her, unasked for and unwelcomed, for they always herald impending death. On that October evening in 1918, Ivy sees the spirit of her grandmother, rocking in her mother’s chair. An hour later, she learns her younger brother and father have killed a young German out of retaliation for the death in the Great War of Ivy’s other brother, Billy.

Horrified, she leaves home and soon realizes that the flu has caused utter panic and the rules governing society have broken down. Ivy is drawn into this new world of jazz, passion, and freedom, where people live for today, because they could be stricken by nightfall. She even enters into a relationship with the murdered German man’s brother, Daniel Schendel. But as her “uninvited guests” begin to appear to her more often, she knows her life will be torn apart once again, and terrifying secrets will unfold.

My thoughts:

The Uninvited crept up on me, little by little, until I was completely hooked. I wouldn’t say it has a slow start, because there’s certainly nothing about the pace to criticize. What I mean, really, is that it’s subtle and quiet to start with. The author sets the story in small-town Illinois, which should give the book a quaint, peaceful feel — except for the particular place in history chosen as the setting.

It’s October of 1918. Anti-German (and more generally, anti-foreigner) sentiment couldn’t be higher. The American Protection League is busy harassing outsiders into isolation and flight, spying on “good” Americans to make sure they’re behaving correctly, and inciting anger and violence in formerly friendly neighbors. While families lose husbands and sons to the Great War overseas, the horrible and deadly influenza pandemic strikes without warning, and the death toll mounts unbelievably quickly.

Ivy, the main character, is a young woman raised on a farm, frightened by her alcoholic, violent father, in mourning for her brother Billy, killed in the war. Hatred and fear are the overriding emotions all around her, but once she flees her family home to start fresh in town, she encounters friendship, passion, and love that she never expected. Ivy is an unusual character, really well defined, who seeks independence when she realizes how intolerable her family has become. She sets out to make a difference any way she can, and ends up driving an ambulance on a rogue mission to rescue the poor and unwanted flu victims who aren’t white or American enough to merit treatment in the one good hospital in town.

I loved Ivy’s backbone. She goes where she needs to go, stands up to creepy APL members, and chooses connection and physical intimacy despite all the reasons to stay away. She’s drawn to the wild jazz music she hears every night, which represents freedom and a new kind of society to her.

From setting the stage at the beginning, the author builds the tension and stakes as the story progresses. And then, bam! By about 3/4 of the way through the book, I suddenly found myself gobbling up every word, unable to look away.

Something happens along the way which changes the meaning of everything that came earlier, but I won’t say more than that. It’s enough to say that this is one of those books that’ll make you want to start all over again from the beginning once you’ve read it, to see what you missed the first time around and look at events from a different angle.

The Uninvited is a curious mix of historical fiction and ghost story, and the combination really works! The setting and time could not be more dramatic, and I loved the cast of characters, including memorable supporting characters (such as the frightened Red Cross volunteers and Ivy’s ex-suitor) in addition to Ivy herself and her sexy but aloof love interest Daniel.

Absolutely recommended for anyone with an interest in the time period, as well as anyone who enjoys well-developed characters and a plot that informs, moves, and surprises the reader. Okay, basically, recommended for everyone! I plan to read Cat Winters’s YA books as soon as I can, and I do hope she’ll continue writing more for adults as well.

Find out more:

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Purchase Links: Amazon | IndieBound | Barnes & Noble
 

About the Author:

Cat WintersCat Winters’s debut novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, was released to widespread critical acclaim. The novel has been named a finalist for the 2014 Morris Award, a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013, and a Booklist 2013 Top 10 Horror Fiction for Youth. Winters lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two children.

Find out more about Cat at her website, and follow her on tumblrPinterestFacebook, and Twitter.

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The details:

Title: The Uninvited
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Publication date: August 11, 2015
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours

tlc logoFor further information, stop by TLC Book Tours to view other blog tour hosts.

 

 

Blog Tour & Book Review: Second Life

Bookshelf Fantasies is participating in the blog tour for the release of Second Life, author S. J. Watson’s second novel following the huge hit Before I Go To Sleep.

Second Life

Synopsis:

From the New York Times bestselling author of Before I Go to Sleep, a sensational new psychological thriller about a woman with a secret identity that threatens to destroy her.

How well can you really know another person? How far would you go to find the truth about someone you love?

When Julia learns that her sister has been violently murdered, she must uncover why. But Julia’s quest quickly evolves into an alluring exploration of own darkest sensual desires. Becoming involved with a dangerous stranger online, she’s losing herself . . . losing control . . . perhaps losing everything. Her search for answers will jeopardize her marriage, her family, and her life.

A tense and unrelenting novel that explores the secret lives people lead; and the dark places in which they can find themselves, Second Life is a masterwork of suspense from the acclaimed S. J. Watson.

My thoughts:

In Second Life, Julia is a part-time professional photographer married to a successful surgeon named Hugh. Julia and Hugh have adopted the baby son born to her sister Kate, now grown into a teenage boy, Connor. Life is good — until Julia gets the horrifying news that Kate has been murdered, apparently the victim of a random mugging.

Distraught and wracked with guilt, Julia decides that there’s more to the story. She begins to dig into her sister’s life, uncovering bits and pieces of a world that her estranged sister never shared with her. Kate lived a free and easy life in Paris, and was an active participant in the “hook-up” lifestyle, meeting men online for cyber and real-world sexual encounters.

Julia decides that Kate’s hidden life must hold a clue to her murder, and begins to explore. But at some point, the exploration stops being about Kate, as Julia gets sucked into an online flirtation with a stranger that turns sexual, and before long, Julia is consumed by the affair she’s stumbled into.

We know early on that Julia has a history of addiction, involving both alcohol and heroin, and the temptation of a drink is ever-present in Julia’s mind as she deals with her guilt and grief over Kate’s death. It’s easy to see that she’s channeled her out-of-control emotions into yet another addiction, her obsession with the online world — and the seemingly perfect and sexy man she meets there.

Second Life spends a great deal of time detailing Julia’s headlong rush into an affair, and unfortunately, the emphasis on the seedy details of Julia’s seemingly willful endangerment of her marriage and family takes center stage for far too much of the book. For large sections, the mystery of Kate’s death is almost an afterthought. Julia throws herself completely into the affair, and the book bogs down in the sexual encounters and hotel trysts.

After a somewhat slow start, the book picks up momentum by about the halfway mark, as Julia starts to realize that her perfect lover is hiding all sorts of secrets from her, and as her affair starts to overshadow everything else in her life that she values. Eventually the pace quickens and the plot becomes more intriguing, as the dangers closing in on Julia become connected back to Kate, as well as to Julia’s hidden young adult past.

I hate to say it, but Second Life overall didn’t really work for me. The main plotline was highly unappealing, with its voyeuristic emphasis on the details of Julia’s infidelity. I understand that Julia was acting out her grief and loss, giving in to her addictive tendencies and flirting with danger to numb herself in some way from the pain of losing her sister. But I just couldn’t sympathize, and felt that her horrendous choices were so clearly illogical and bad for her family (including the son she claims to love so much) that the plot teetered on the edge of becoming completely implausible.

As my own personal bias, I think it’s only fair to add that a book about infidelity had better have a lot of other compelling elements going for it if it’s going to appeal to me in any way. Otherwise, it’s a turn-off — and that was the case for me with Second Life.

I did find myself hooked for the last 100 pages or so… until the abrupt and unsatisfying ending. I won’t say more about it, but the answers to the mystery were fairly prediction, and what’s more, the final scene was a lousy payoff for the tense build-up.

I really enjoyed Before I Go To Sleep and ended up recommending it to lots and lots of reader friends. Sadly, Second Life does not live up to the promise of the earlier book.

I usually try to find a reason to recommend or praise a book if I’m participating in a blog tour. While Second Life didn’t work for me, I could imagine that readers who are into thrillers and aren’t bothered by the subject matter the way I was might enjoy this book. If you read it and have a different opinion, please share your thoughts!

Find out more:

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Purchase Links: Amazon | IndieBound | Barnes & Noble
 

About the Author:

S-J-WatsonS. J. Watson was born in the Midlands and lives in London. His first novel was the award-winning Before I Go to Sleep, which has sold over four million copies in more than forty languages around the world. It was recently adapted into a major motion picture starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, and Mark Strong.

Find out more about S.J. at his website, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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The details:

Title: Second Life
Author: S. J. Watson
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: June 9, 2015
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours

tlc logoFor further information, stop by TLC Book Tours to view other blog tour hosts.

Blog Tour & Book Review: The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

The Bookseller (2)I’m delighted to be participating in the blog tour celebrating The Bookseller, a debut novel by Cynthia Swanson. Thank you, TLC Book Tours, for inviting me to participate!

The Bookseller is the touching and intriguing story of one woman living two lives.

As the book opens, we meet Kitty, a single career woman in 1962. 38 years old, she and her best friend Frieda own a small bookshop in a no-longer-thriving neighborhood of Denver. Kitty lives alone with her cat Aslan, enjoys the sister-like company of her friend, and thrives in a loving relationship with her devoted parents. She’s happy, and really doesn’t regret the life choices she made that brought her to this point in her life.

But when Kitty goes to sleep, she wakes up in a strange bedroom in a lovely home, beside a loving man names Lars who refers to her by her full name, Katharyn. It’s 1963, and she appears to be married to her soulmate, living in a comfortable house in a newer Denver neighborhood, a stay-at-home mother to triplets.

Kitty is absolutely confounded by this dream world of hers. When she wakes up again, she’s haunted by how realistic this imaginary world seems, and is struck by the thought that she’s encountered the unusual name Lars before. She remembers that in her real life, she’d almost had a first date with a man named Lars eight years earlier, but he stood her up and so they never met.

Each time Kitty goes to sleep, she crosses from one world to another. Her dream world is vivid and distinct. She discovers an enormous depth of feeling for her husband Lars, and she loves her adorable children, despite being confused and somewhat frustrated by her son Michael, who is, apparently, autistic. Sadly, in this dream world, Katharyn and Frieda have fallen out years earlier, although she has no idea why.

Gradually, the lines begin to blur. Each world feels real and seems to want to claim her. The more time Kitty spends in her dream world, the more memories come back to her… but so much still remains elusive. Finally, Kitty has to sort out which is her real world, where she truly belongs, and which life is the one she must let go.

… And let me just pause here from providing plot summary and say — wow. What a book.

With hints of Sliding Doors as well as certain points that reminded me of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer, The Bookseller asks us to pass from dream world to reality and back to dream world right along with Kitty. Both lives are rich and detailed. Both are filled with people who matter to her. Could she really have forgotten a life in which she’s a wife and mother? But how can all of her memories be about her life in the bookstore with Frieda, if her other life with Lars feels equally real?

I loved the construction of this emotion-packed novel. We flow right alongside the main character as she shifts abruptly, never entirely sure of when or where she’ll wake up in a different life, sometimes in the middle of a scene, so to speak, already under way. The writing is matter-of-fact, yet startling at times, as when Kitty gazes into the face of her dream husband for the first time or is suddenly struck by the knowledge that she has children.

The 1960s setting works magnificently here. The author weaves in all sorts of small details that make the time period seem real, from the admiration of Jackie Kennedy’s fashion sense to the fears of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the simple joys of listening to Patsy Cline and checking out the newest books by J. D. Salinger and Katherine Anne Porter.

It’s also a marvelous tribute to the choices available to a woman at that time and the courage needed to chart her own course. Staying single, owning a business — these are not easy paths, and certainly not common or expected. Likewise, the challenges facing a young mother are daunting. Despite being well-off and with a supportive husband, dealing with three children is all-consuming. The medical world was only just waking up to the meaning of autism at the time, and the only resources Kitty can find on the subject pin the “blame” squarely on the mother, with no guidance available on finding ways to connect with the child or even how to provide him with an education.

The Bookseller had me hooked from the first chapter, and I truly loved the main character. Her two lives, as Kitty and Katharyn, each offer her something special — but each is missing some key element that makes the other life hard to turn away from. Her confusion and pain feel real, as does her love for Lars and her children, her parents, and Frieda.

I highly recommend The Bookseller. Its shifting reality twists will absolutely keep you guessing! With an engaging yet mysterious plot, a well-earned resolution, and emotions that ring true, this book should appeal to anyone who enjoys stories about strong women confronting unusual and unpredictable challenges. Check it out!

Find out more:

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Purchase Links

Amazon | IndieBound | Barnes & Noble

About the Author:

Cynthia SwansonCynthia Swanson is a writer and a designer of the midcentury modern style. She has published short fiction in 13th MoonKalliopeSojourner, and other periodicals; her story in 13th Moon was a Pushcart Prize nominee. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband and three children. The Bookseller is her first novel.

Find out more about Cynthia at her website and connect with her on Facebook.

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The details:

Title: The Bookseller
Author: Cynthia Swanson
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: March 3, 2015
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours

tlc logoFor further information, stop by TLC Book Tours to view other blog tour hosts.

2014: My year in books

book stack best ofI started working on a big end-of-year wrap-up post, with snazzy graphics and statistics… and realized that I just didn’t feel like it this year. So, skipping all the bells and whistles, here’s a quick peek at what I really loved in my bookish life in 2014:

[Note: Click on the links to see my reviews if you’re interested!]

Goodreads stats as of 12/27/2014:

Total number of books read: 145
Total number of pages read: 45,345
Star rating used most often: 4 stars (57 total)
Star rating used least often: 1 star (only 1 this year!)
Number of five-star ratings: 51

Longest book read: The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon, 1443 pages (a re-read)
Shortest book read (excluding graphic novels and novellas):
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, 180 pages

 

Bests & Other Stuff of Note

Best children’s (middle grade): Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede
Best young adult: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
Best contemporary: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Best graphic novel: Serenity: Leaves on the Wind by Zack Whedon
Best sci-fi/fantasy: The Martian by Andy Weir
Best love story: Anything by Jojo Moyes! (Including One Plus One, The Ship of Brides, Me Before You, and The Last Letter From Your Lover)
Best historical fiction: I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe
Best urban fantasy: Skin Game by Jim Butcher
Best domestic drama: The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Best new volume in an ongoing series: Big surprise — it’s gotta be Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon.

Best end to a great series: The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

Best book that defies categorization: Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

globe-32812_1280Around the world in a book: My reading took me to some amazing places this year…

Botswana: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
Yemen: Henna House by Nomi Eve
Iceland: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Australia: Hello From the Gillespies by Monica McInerney
Spain: The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Laurel Corona
France: The Splendour Falls by Susanna Kearsley
Syria: City of Jasmine by Deanna Raybourn

Journeys through time: I traveled to many different eras via terrific books; most notably…

American Revolution: Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon
Civil War: I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe
World War II: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Ship of Brides by Jojo Moyes, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Speculation and science fiction: The medical sci-fi thrillers I enjoyed most were:

Archetype and Prototype by M. D. Waters
The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan

Oh, the horror!

Best subtle creepiness: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Best horror/love story: Horns by Joe Hill
Best horror/furniture catalog: Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix
Best horror involving huge insects: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Best new obsession: The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer

Biggest let-down: I finally got around to reading The Unwritten graphic novel series by M. R. Carey… and found it increasingly incomprehensible (and unenjoyable) the farther along I went.

Best return to childhood: I reread the D’Aulaires books on Greek and Norse mythology, and loved them all over again.

Best author event: Hands down, my biggest bookish thrill this year was traveling to Phoenix, Arizona for an appearance and book signing by Diana Gabaldon.

DG 011

She’s signing my book! She’s signing my book! She’s signing my book. (Um, yes, it was a bit exciting.)

 

Best bookish TV event of 2014: The debut of Outlander on Starz!

Claire and Jamie!

Claire and Jamie!

 

Most eye-catching covers:

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Quirkiest titles:

The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore
Six Feet Over It by Jennifer Longo
The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

Best getting-thrown-for-a-loop: Books with twists or plots that took me by surprise:

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
The Girl With All the Gifts by Mike Carey

Books about bookstores…

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
The Moment of Everything by Shelly King
Goodnight June by Sarah Jio

Bookish delight, all year long:

All the many, many books which, for whatever reason, I can’t quite categorize but still really enjoyed (plus a few that are probably better off forgotten). It’s been a great year of reading. I can’t wait to see what treasures I’ll discover in 2015!

What were your favorite books of 2014? What surprised or excited you the most? Please share your top reads and recommendations in the comments!

2013: My year in books

best2013a2013 was a great year for reading. Bestsellers, hidden gems, older books, books-into-movies — I had a blast, and based on all of my bookish friends’ comments on Goodreads, Twitter, book blogs, and actual in-person conversations (*gasp* – yes, those still happen occasionally!), it sounds like everyone spent some quality time with noses in books.

It’s hard for me to pick a definitive set of “best” books, but here’s a selection of books that made an impression — for good, for bad, really for a whole slew of reasons. As with last year’s year-in-review post, my salute to the books of 2013 is a snapshot of what I loved, what I could have lived without, what made me laugh, what made me cry… and just about everything in between.

[Note: Included here are books that I read in 2013. Many were released in 2013, but some are older. Hey, it’s my list. Make of it what you will.]

[And another note: Click on the links to see my reviews if you’re interested!]

Goodreads stats as of 12/27/2013:

Total number of books read: 145
Total number of pages read: 44,569
Star rating used most often: 4 stars (57 total)
Star rating used least often: 1 star (only 2 this year — not bad!)
Number of five-star ratings: 51

Longest book read: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, 692 pages
Shortest book read (excluding graphic novels): The Ocean At The End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, 181 pages

Top Genres/Shelves:

GR chart 13

I’m not sure this actually means anything, since I have all sorts of additional weird shelves in Goodreads (twins! will make you cry! werewolves! etc.) that probably skew the numbers… and frankly, I got tired of sorting and resorting. Moving on…

Bests, Worsts, & Other Stuff of Note

Best of the Bunch! If I had to pick just one “best” for each of the the various categories in my handy-dandy chart, my choices would be:

Best children’s (middle grade): The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon by S. S. Taylor
Best young adult: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Best contemporary: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Best graphic novel: Y: The Last Man (series) by Brian K. Vaughan
Best sci-fi/fantasy: The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
Best love story: Letters From Skye by Jessica Brockmole
Best historical fiction: The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley
Best urban fantasy: Frost Burned by Patricia Briggs

Overall favorite: Gah! That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child. The book that really stands out for me as something truly special, a time-travel book with a compelling love story and excellent historical content, is The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway. Simply outstanding.

Moving on to slightly quirkier book highlights:

Books that make you want to grab a pedometer: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.

Best use of Venn diagrams: The Theory of Everything by J. J. Johnson.

Triumphant return of a favorite character: Mercy Thompson in Frost Burned by Patricia Briggs; Harry Dresden in Cold Days by Jim Butcher.

Going out on top: All hail Jane True! Tempest Reborn by Nicole Peeler wraps up the series in style.

Should have quit while she was ahead: Poor Sookie Stackhouse. Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris ends the series several years and several books past its expiration date.

Should have left well enough alone: Let’s just pretend certain sequels don’t exist. I nominate The Shade of the Moon (book #4 in the Last Survivors series) by Susan Beth Pfeffer and The Last Battle (Narnia #7) by C. S. Lewis.

Favorite graphic novel series (already complete) read in 2013: Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan is simply incredible. Absolutely loved it.

Favorite graphic novel series (ongoing) with new volumes in 2013: Where to begin? At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Fables by Bill Willingham is the best thing since sliced bread; for creepy fantasticness, can’t beat Locke & Key by Joe Hill; and in terms of a great beginning to what I hope will be a long-running series, I really enjoyed the first two volumes of Saga by Brian K. Vaughan.

Grrrl power: Let’s hear it for the awesome young women of fiction who inspired, rocked, and ruled, with special praise and recognition to Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.

Stuff of nightmares: Creeps and shivers galore! Best of the best: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill; Doctor Sleep by Stephen King; Parasite by Mira Grant.

Best book for Big Bang Theory fans: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion has the most Sheldon-like protagonist I’ve ever met… and just made me really, really happy.

Longest awaited sequel: Thank you, Stephen King, for giving us the amazing Doctor Sleep, 16 years after the publication of The Shining. Well worth the wait!

Most disappointing: I preordered Shadows by Robin McKinley months in advance… and couldn’t get past the first 100 or so pages.

Best twist on a familiar story: I loved Longbourn by Jo Baker, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view.

Best author who’s suddenly everywhere: 2013 has to be the year of Rainbow Rowell! I’m one of the many who gobbled up her two decidedly different (and decidedly excellent) young adult novels as well as her book for grown-ups this year.

Best author event: Rainbow Rowell and David Levithan gave a two-person reading that was hilarious and warm and engaging. Hearing them read passages from Fangirl together was priceless! Joe Hill’s appearance and reading of NOS4A2 was also a delight — he was friendly, funny, and just a little bit out there — just as you’d expect.

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Rainbow Rowell and David Levithan

Loveliest writing: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. Beautiful.

Mind-bendiest timey-wimey weirdness: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer.

Not what it sounds like: The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan (not really a dictionary); The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker (not really a guide to magic).

Best use of f-bombs: Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn — see chapter 11. Brilliant.

Favorite quirky titles: Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn; Revenge of the Girl With the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg.

Best armchair travels via fiction: Scotland via A Small Death in the Great Glen by A. D. Scott; Africa via A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn; Egypt via Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell.

Most haunting apocalypse: Tumble & Fall by Alexandra Coutts.

Best alien encounter: The Humans by Matt Haig.
Worst (for humanity) alien encounter (in a terrific book): The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey.

Best history lessons via fiction: Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell; The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley; Gathering Storm by Maggie Craig, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel; Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield.

Worst to read with a meal: Parasite by Mira Grant. Ew.

Best for a geek-tastic laugh: Redshirts by John Scalzi.

Most eye-catching covers:

15819028The Love Song of Jonny Valentineshadowy

Biggest sources of guilt: Buying three books that I couldn’t wait to read — preordered the hardcovers, no less! — and never making time to read them: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.

Bookish delight on TV: Game of Thrones never fails to deliver. Brutal, beautiful, heart-breaking. “Red Wedding” says it all.

Bookish delights at the movies: I was once again quite pleased with the latest Hunger Games adaptation: Catching Fire was just as it should be. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing was pure bliss. And The Hobbit? Well, I liked the dragon. And Thorin Oakenshield is one awesome dwarf king.

Bookish delight, all year long:

All the many, many books which, for whatever reason, I can’t quite categorize but still really enjoyed (plus a few that are probably better off forgotten). It’s been a great year of reading! I can’t wait to see what treasures I’ll uncover in 2014!

What were your favorite books of 2013? What surprised or excited you the most? Please share your top reads and recommendations in the comments!

Book Review: The Returned

Book Review: The Returned by Jason Mott

The ReturnedThe Returned is a brand-new release by a first-time author — and fortunately for the author, it’s gotten a tremendous amount of advance buzz, perhaps in large part because it’s already been snatched up by Brad Pitt’s production company and is scheduled to debut in 2014 as a TV series (with the title Resurrection – see here for more information on the TV show).

Not a bad beginning! But is it worth the hype?

In The Returned, dead people start showing up all around the globe — not as zombies or creatures out of horror stories, but simply picking up where they left off at the time of their death. They come back, whole and healthy, and if they remember where they’ve been or know why they’re back, they’re not saying.

The Returned, as the formerly deceased are known, reappear suddenly and in random locations. In the central storyline, 8-year-old Jacob appears one day by a river in a small fishing village in China, and it is up to the Bureau — an international agency hastily funded to manage the Returned — to get Jacob back where he belongs. Where Jacob belongs is in the tiny, isolated Southern town of Arcadia with his parents Harold and Lucille, now in their 70s… who never really recovered from their son’s tragic death fifty years earlier.

What plays out in microcosm in Arcadia is happening everywhere. More and more Returned keep appearing, and what people first viewed as miraculous has now started making them nervous. Just how many are there? Will it ever stop? Where are we going to put them all? Eventually, the Bureau stops focusing on reunions and soon shifts its mission to one of containment. Before long, Returned are living in increasingly squalid camps behind wire fences and with soldiers on patrol — but as it quickly becomes apparent, no camps can ever be big enough for the never-ending flood of Returned.

In some ways, The Returned tells two very different stories. On the one hand, it’s an exploration of love, parenting, and family. We meet Harold and Lucille as two elderly, somewhat ornery but likeable folks, getting on with their lives, with their aches and pains, bickering and scolding as only a long-married couple can. As Jacob reenters their lives, they confront their losses over time, what it meant for them to lose their child, and how their lives might have been different if they’d had Jacob all along. They also must adjust to being parents of an eight-year-old at a time when they might more naturally be grandparents — and confront the inevitable question facing all families of Returned: Is this person really their son? Is he really a person? What does it mean to have him back? And is he back for good?

The chapters focusing on this fractured and then reunited family are touching in their small details — Lucille’s need to feed Jacob and check up on him whenever he’s out of arm’s reach, Harold’s resumption of the ordinary daily rituals that used to be a part of the father-son relationship, like swimming in the river and teaching him knock-knock jokes. By extension, we get to know more of the townspeople and see how the phenomenon of the Returned impacts all of them, for good or for bad, in some cases bringing up memories of horrible events, for others a longing for a lost loved one who hasn’t Returned.

On the other hand, as the book approaches its climax, the tone shifts into something a bit more action-oriented, focusing on the cramped quarters of the camp that has taken over the entire town and the enraged townsfolk who want to get rid of the Returned by any means possible. It’s a powder keg that is bound to explode, and the inevitable results are violent and sad. For me, these parts of the book reminded me in various ways of Under the Dome by Stephen King, Haters by David Moody, and The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta — and certainly , shades of Torchwood: Miracle Day (for those who appreciate the geeky side of TV). None are a perfect comparison, but bits and pieces and certain themes definitely brought these other books to mind.

Overall, I liked The Returned quite a bit, although the climax and resolution didn’t entirely work for me. The parts of the book that deal with the emotional impact of the return of lost loved ones were evocative and emotional, and I truly enjoyed the lovely little moments at play as tentative new bonds are explored between family members separated by death decades earlier. The dilemmas the characters face seem realistic for people facing impossible situations and choices, and it’s easy for the reader to sympathize with their struggles and feel invested in their lives. Yet once the narrative becomes centered on the violent outcomes of the treatment of the Returned, the book in some ways became more ordinary for me. As an action story, it isn’t much that we haven’t seen before, in one shape or another. It’s the more personal moments that set this book apart and make The Returned such an interesting read — and I only wish that the focus had remained more on the relationships rather than moving into (dare I say it?) practically a dystopian set-piece by the end.

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The details:

Title: The Returned
Author: Jason Mott
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Harlequin MIRA via NetGalley

Book Review: The Humans

Book Review: The Humans by Matt Haig

The HumansThe Humans is full of such wonderful writing that I almost turned into one of THOSE people. You know the ones I mean. The super-annoying ones who interrupt you every five minutes to read you yet another quote from the book they claim is totally fabulous. Awful, right? Yet in this case, I would have been perfectly justified. The Humans is, in fact, fabulous — and absolutely loaded with quote-worthy lines and passages that practically beg to be read out loud to whatever audience is available.

What’s it about? In a nutshell, The Humans is the story of an alien from a world far, far away… and light-years ahead of Earth in terms of understanding technology. When an Earthling mathematician named Andrew Martin makes a startling breakthrough that could, unbeknownst to him, completely change life for humans in ways detrimental to the rest of sentient life in the universe, the Vonnadorians decide he must be stopped.

An alien impersonator is sent to assume the life of Andrew Martin, figure out how much damage has been done, and then wipe out all evidence of his progress — which means eliminating not just computer files and notes, but also his wife, son, best friend, and anyone else who may have learned of Martin’s leap forward.

Faux-Andrew (he doesn’t actually have a name) shows up in Cambridge naked as a jaybird and has but minutes to adapt to life on Earth. Almost inevitably, he ends up in a psychiatric ward diagnosed with a mental breakdown, then is sent home to recover. And it is here that complications arise. The real Andrew Martin was kind of a jerk: completely absorbed in his work, completely neglectful of his vulnerable teen-aged son Gulliver and his lovely but ignored wife Isobel. But faux-Andrew, in his quest to complete his mission, actually pays attention to the people around him as he tries to ferret out what they know and what real-Andrew has told them… and the results are interesting, touching, and not at all what the alien visitor expects.

The Humans shows us what we Earthlings look like from an outsider’s perspective, and it’s not terribly flattering, especially at first. To be frank, humans are kind of disgusting:

I was repulsed, terrified. I had never seen anything like this man. The face seemed so alien, full of unfathomable openings and protrusions. The nose, in particular, bothered me. It seemed to my innocent eyes as if there was something else inside him, pushing through.

More than appearances, it’s the humans’ behavior that confounds the alien. The emotions, the beliefs in consumerism, religion, the micro-focus on their own small worlds and concerns while ignoring the greater events of the universe — all of this is completely bewildering and leads the alien to consider humans to be devoid of any sense of values:

The news was prioritized in a way I could not understand. For instance, there was nothing on new mathematical observations or still-undiscovered polygons, but quite a bit about politics, which on this planet was essentially all about war and money. Indeed, war and money seemed to be so popular on the news, it should more accurately have been titled The War and Money Show.

However, as he spends time among humans, things start to change. Faux-Andrew starts to feel, and has to reconsider whether a world such as his own — without pain, without change, without death, and without flaw — is really the best life has to offer. When faux-Andrew starts to feel pain, he also starts to feel love, and to realize that pleasant and easy are not substitutes for the things in life that have to be fought for — like relationships with people who matter, who hurt and who can cause hurt, and for whom he’d be willing to sacrifice his own well-being if that’s what it takes to protect them.

Ultimately, as faux-Andrew learns more and more about the people of this planet, The Humans become a meditation on what it means to be human. It’s quite lovely, actually. As voiced by a true alien, the homilies and lessons learned come across as real discoveries, not just a recitation of truisms or wisdom for the ages à la Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Even in a chapter that consists of a numbered list of faux-Andrew’s pointers to Gulliver, entitled “Advice for a Human”, the words of wisdom avoid being treacly. Instead, the advice is concise, real, bittersweet, and often funny, and sum up a view of humans that we lack the distance and perspective to see for ourselves.  Some of my favorites:

6. Be curious. Question everything. A present fact is just a future fiction.

25. There is only one genre in fiction. The genre is called “book”.

33. You are not the most intelligent creature in the universe. You are not even the most intelligent creature on your planet. The tonal language in the song of the humpback whale displays more complexity than the entire works of Shakespeare. It is not a competition. Well, it is. But don’t worry about it.

37. Don’t always try to be cool. The whole universe is cool. It’s the warm bits that matter.

47. A cow is a cow even if you call it beef.

75. Politeness is often fear. Kindness is always courage. But caring is what makes you human. Care more, become more human.

I could go on and on… see what I mean about how quote-worthy this book is? I honestly can’t stop marking pages and lines that I think are just wonderful.

So maybe that’s where I should leave this review: by saying that The Humans is a wonderful book. The writing is an amazing balance of clever, funny, and a straight-to-the-heart emotional punch. The plot is smart and creative, and our first-person narrator, the unnamed alien, is more human than most actual humans by the end of the story.

The Humans is the third book I’ve read by Matt Haig, having previously read the vampires-in-suburbia novel The Radleys and the Hamlet retelling The Dead Fathers Club (my review is here). I’ve loved all three; at this point, I can safely say that I’ll be reading more by Matt Haig — much more, I hope.

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The details:

Title: The Humans
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Book 🙂
Source: Library book