Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: The Thing About Great White Sharks

The Thing About Great White Sharks and Other Stories
Rebecca Adams Wright
Little A
paperback, 170 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

I think we'll be hearing more from Rebecca Adams Wright, author of a debut story collection The Thing About Great White Sharks. This dazzling collection of stories received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and I can't think of when I've encountered a collection so quirky, original, witty and unique.

Wright has a very distinctive voice, and it gives her collection a nice sense of cohesion. Other than Wright's witty, edgy voice, not much else unifies the stories in this collection, except that they are all of our world, but just slightly strange or other-wordly. The stories take place across several continents and galaxies, in our own time period or slightly in the future; and one story takes place during World War II. I've been trying to come up with writers to compare these stories to, and it isn't easy--which gives you an idea of the originality of the work. Maybe a bit of Ray Bradbury, with some Octavia Butler and a little Margaret Atwood mixed in?

The first story in the collection, "Sheila," drew me in immediately. In this story, a retired judge is very attached to his beloved Brittany Spaniel--who is twenty-five years old, and a robot. The decision he faces about Sheila's fate, and the surprising choice he makes are an interesting doorway into the world of Rebecca Adams Wright. I loved some of these stories more than others, but there wasn't a single one in the collection that didn't at least entertain me.

"Orchids" and "Tiger Bright" both feature ghosts or voices from the beyond. In "Tiger Bright," a husband muses about the full-grown Bengal tiger he and his wife have inherited from a friend, and how the tiger has helped them overcome their grief at the loss of a child. In "Orchids," a rather spunky seventy-something widow communicates with exotic plants and solves a mystery.

"Storybag" blends genres: horror, fairy tale, and adventure story. In fact, blending genres is something at which Wright excels. Most of the stories in The Thing About Great White Sharks have at least an element of science fiction, often with a fantasy aspect. The title story is probably my favorite in the collection, just for sheer audacity. Imagine a world where everything, plants, insects, animals, even blades of grass, is gripped with a fever that causes everything to attack and destroy all human life. Now imagine that a few human beings are detached enough to survive, and that they are test subjects at the "Kierkegaard Institute." Weird, yes, but somehow Wright makes it not just believable, but also funny, witty, and profound. I love the scene in the story when the main character, the blandly named Jennifer, coolly faces a hammerhead shark.

The thing is, life is strange. The stories in The Thing About Great White Sharks give the reader just the right blend of strange and recognizable. Highly recommended.

The author's website: http://radamswright.com/write-a-thon/

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Review: Scent of Butterflies

Scent of Butterflies
Dora Levy Mossasen
paperback, 288 pages
Sourcebooks Landmark
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

Scent of Butterflies is an intense and dark psychological novel that drew me in almost against my will. The main strengths of this novel are the incredibly textured and intricately woven writing, and the glimpse into Iran both before and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

As Scent of Butterflies opens, Soraya is on an airplane headed to Los Angeles after having discovered her husband and her husband in her own bed. Her discovery, however, in unknown to her betrayers. Soraya goes to California on a pretext--she tells her husband that it is her work as a photographer that necessitates her journey. And she has to tell her husband something, because she needs his written permission to leave the country.

Soraya is depicted as an artist and an independent woman. She is also Jewish; all of these things make Soraya an unusual woman. Her relationship with her husband is unusual too: twenty years into a childless marriage, the two seem to have an unusually deep and erotic connection. One of the things that makes Scent of Butterflies both dark and obsessive is Soraya's extreme reaction to her husband's infidelity and her friend's betrayal. The character of Soraya is not one most readers will find sympathetic, although as the novel progressed, I rather admired her unhinged obsessiveness.

Soraya moves into a Bel Air mansion--she is of the entitled and wealthy elite, a fact that informs much of her decision-making. She starts to cultivate a large garden, and plants eucalyptus trees on the grounds of the estate. Meanwhile, Soraya's husband and best friend, still back in Iran, remain unaware of Soraya's activities, and of her dark plot for revenge on both of them. Parvaneh, Soraya's friend and betrayer, is revealed to be a smaller, weaker version of Soraya--a sort of doppelganger. In childhood, Soraya was Parvaneh's protector and confidante; the two women even married two men who are friends and business partners.

At times I found Parvaneh (whose name means "butterfly") almost more sympathetic than Soraya. Even when every secret is revealed, Parvaneh's behavior is somehow seen by the reader as part of a series of complicated psychological forces, not acts of malice. Soraya (who begins calling her friend "Butterfly" seems the irrational one. In California, along with her collection of plants, Soraya cultivates butterflies, which she seems to take great pleasure in killing.

The weird and unsettling patterns of Soraya's thinking actually become sort of beautiful, and this is because of the artistry of Mossanen's writing. She develops several intersecting patterns of imagery that work beautifully at drawing the reader in to Soraya's disturbed thinking. Soraya has a brilliant mind, and there is much that is appealing in her independence and her wit--even as she is on a path of destruction.

Without giving too much of the plot away, I loved the twisted, dark nature of this psychological novel. There was also so much that was fascinating in the depiction of daily life in Tehran, both before and after the Islamic revolution. The feeling of the novel is claustrophobic--I think the novel I was most reminded of was Laura Kasischke's Mind of Winter. I think this is because both novels were so dominated by one woman's disturbed mind.

I recommend Scent of Butterflies to readers who are interested in life in Iran, and especially the restrictions placed on women by the Islamic regime. Readers who like complex, intricate writing and ambiguous endings will find Scent of Butterflies enthralling. And the writing is lush, beautiful, and remarkably controlled.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Book Love

Happy Valentine's Day, book people! I hope you got to spend at least part of the day doing what you really love: reading!

Okay, I know, it's the day after Valentine's, but close enough.

This week I'm working on the massive (over 1,000 pages) A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. I'm enjoying this book very much, although I'm only halfway through it. There's a Macbeth allusion, among other attractions.

This is my thirteenth book of 2015, and with the exception of ARCS, every book I have read this year has been from my TBR collection (sorry, can't technically call it a stack or a pile). Thus, I am doing quite nicely on the TBR Double Dog Dare hosted by James Reads Books.

For a class I'm teaching, I'm reading The Narrative of Frederick Douglass for probably the fifth or sixth time. It's still completely mesmerizing and inspiring. At the end of 2014 I bought a hardcover copy of Colum McCann's Trans Atlantic so that I can read it again. I got an ARC from LibraryThing, and I loved the book so much (it actually made me cry, and not just a few tears). The time Douglass spent in Ireland is and important part of Trans Atlantic, and it is one reason I loved the book so much.

Other books I'm reading right now are mostly for school or for my writing practice. I seem to pick books up, read a chapter, and then put them down for a while far more than I ever used to.

I wish I were better about writing reviews as soon as I finish a book. I'm really behind in writing and posting reviews, even of books I really liked.

Share your book love in the comments: are you working on your TBR pile? Do you have a book that you read and loved recently? Share the book love....

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Love, Hate, and Romance

Top Ten Tuesday is a bookish meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week's list is the top ten things you like or dislike when it comes to romance in books.

Romance happens. When it does happen (in a book) it should feel real, convincing; love should develop naturally out of the lives of the characters--not a contrived and unconvincing fantasy. Here are nine things I like when it comes to romance in fiction. And one thing I don't like.

Things I Like:

1. Complicated relationships that begin in mystery, take a twist with a layer or two of deceit or discovery, and end with self-discovery. For example: Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters.
2. Romances where a plain girl prevails, and a handsome man is changed by suffering. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.
3. Anything by Simon Van Booy. His stories have a sweet sadness, and romance always comes with redemption. Love more than romance drives Van Booy's work, but when romance happens, it is delicate and sweet.
4. Second chances: Middlemarch by George Eliot.
5. Second chances, the spinster prevails (okay, so Anne Elliot is only 27, but that was a spinster in Austen's time), Jane Austen's most perfect book: Persuasion.
6. Wit and sauciness. A woman who reads books. Pride and Prejudice, of course.
7. An unexpected romance that leads to a long and happy marriage, as in Dale Kushner's The Conditions of Love.
8. Whatever that magic is that John Green has. Smart girls. Needy boys. Books and love. Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns, The Fault in Our Stars.
9. Romance that takes a long time to develop because the female protagonist is busy building her own life. The Divorce Diet.

Things I Don't Like:

10. Wish-fulfillment fantasy romance. "The world is not a wish-granting factory" (John Green)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Review: Of Things Gone Astray

Of Things Gone Astray
Janina Matthewson
hardcover, 288 pages
The Friday Project/Harper Collins
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

We've all lost something. A watch, a pin, a jacket, a memory. We can lose our hearts, our minds, our sense of direction. Of Things Gone Astray is about all these kinds of loss and more.

I'll be perfectly honest. I expected to like Things Gone Astray very much. This was based on something vague, like mutterings on twitter. Also, look at that book cover. It's gorgeous. It promises so much. So I began this book with a high sense of expectation. And at first I found it....irritating.

But all is not lost. Of Things Gone Astray is an exceptional book--it really is. It defies expectation. It is "our world, but strange." It took a few chapters before I oriented myself to the narrative structure of Of Things Gone Astray; the book is composed in very short chapters, and in the beginning, the characters are introduced one after the other, without giving the reader much sense of how they are linked.

As I read, I recalibrated. As it turns out, that's one of the themes of the book--the way we human beings lose things or have our lives changed and shifted, and we somehow recalibrate and carry on.

The characters in the novel are all connected through loss and geography. Mrs. Featherby wakes up one morning to find that the entire front wall of her house has disappeared overnight. Robert goes to his job one morning to find that his job has disappeared. An entire building has vanished, and this puts a new spin on the phrase "job loss." Cassie goes to the airport to meet her lover, Floss, and the lover never shows. Delia has lost her sense of direction (and her vocation, and her sense of autonomy). Marcus, a gifted musician, loses the keys to his piano (one he built himself by hand).

And Jake. Jake has lost his ability to see and be seen by his father.

The sense of loss in  Of Things Gone Astray can be deep and cavernous, or it can be comic. Or both at the same time.

Of Things Gone Astray is magical in the way of those tales where a character walks through a doorway or a wardrobe....there is a world in this book that is our own, but more magical, more strange. A world where women turn into trees, rooted to the spot where their longing began. A place where a little boy compensates for the largest loss of all by collecting other people's lost things. "Nothing can be found that is not lost" says a sign in a shop without a name.... In Of Things Gone Astray, people lose themselves to find themselves, and sometimes they find each other.

Of Things Gone Astray is simply a beautiful book. The writer I was most reminded of was Rachel Ingalls, author of the magical book Mrs. Caliban. The author, Janina Matthewson, names Susannah Clarke, Andrew Kaufman, and Neil Gaiman as influences. Readers who like those authors will undoubtedly enjoy Of Things Gone Astray. I also think readers who love Simon Van Booy's books would be receptive to Janina Matthewson's writing. But I would recommend this book to anyone--it is enormously appealing, deeply human, and luminously written.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sunday Coffee: On Reading, Writing, and Notebooks

First, Gratitude

1. It is an absolutely glorious day here in South Carolina. The sun is shining, there is a slight breeze, and a few buzzards circling in the sky remind me that nothing lasts forever.
2. The neighbor's boy just got his training wheels taken off of his bicycle. I happened to drive up just in time to see the expression of pure joy on his face as he sped past on two wheels.
3. Smart and funny women friends make everything better. I had a blast on Friday and Saturday at the South Carolina Council of Teachers of English Conference. It was one of the best conferences I've attended, with great speakers (Penny Kittle, Releah Lent, Kelly Gallagher). But it would not have been nearly so much fun without the companionship of colleagues and friends.
4. One word can make such a difference: if I lived in South Dakota instead of South Carolina, I would have been looking at snow, and not a placid lagoon this past weekend.
5. It was really nice to come home to my loving husband.


At the conference this weekend I presented on the use of writer's notebook. I vaguely remember typing my proposal at the end of a long teaching day. I'm not sure how or why I came up with this title: Using Writer's Notebook to Transform Teaching and Create a Community of Writers. It seems a little wordy now, even if it does sum up what I hoped to say. Then I had a blurb that was about two sentences! Lol. Next time I'll work on that.

I was nervous about so many things: would anyone want to hear about this topic, would anyone actually show up; did I really have anything original to add to the conversation? I presented in the very first session, so no matter what happened, at least I would be able to relax and enjoy the whole conference afterward.

As it turned out, I had a fantastic audience, and it was standing room only. My colleagues were respectful and enthusiastic (if you've ever presented in front of an audience of teachers, you know they can be a tough audience). Plus, I got to meet my nephew's favorite teacher, who was one of the attendees at my session. It was fun!

The Conference

It was amazing! I met some of my favorite, most-admired teacher-writers, including Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. I came home feeling inspired and invigorated.

Books Were Involved

Reviews will follow in another post, but I'll share a little about books I read before the conference, and books I brought home. My idol, Penny Kittle, was the keynote speaker the first day of the conference. She is a practicing teacher in New Hampshire, and I have read her book Write Beside Them all the way through not once but twice. I devoured her newest book, Book Love, this summer, and incorporated many of her procedures and ideas in my classroom this year. I've already written in this blog about how I'm incorporating choice in reading, with plenty of time for independent reading. So it was really exciting to meet and talk to Penny Kittle. Of course I brought my books with me for her to sign:

I definitely had a fangirl moment.

Kelly Gallagher was the keynote speaker on Saturday, and I also attended his session on Argument Writing. He's a charismatic speaker, and because he is also a practicing classroom teacher, his ideas are classroom tested. I walked out of his session with ideas I can take and use in my classroom.
Gallagher's book Readicide got me thinking about choice in reading for my classroom, and it is a book worth reading again and again. Readicide convinced me to begin building my classroom library.

One of the colleagues I traveled with, Lesley Roessing, has four published books to her name. She's the director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project, and has been instrumental in helping me make the journey from teacher to teacher-writer. One of her books, The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension, I've been using in my classroom for several years. And I just got Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core.
If you are a teacher, you really need to check out Lesley's books, which can be used at any grade level. She's worked with students of all levels, from elementary to high school. Her response journal forms worked beautifully with my sophomore level honors students.

Showing incredible restraint, I only bought two books at the conference, although I came home with a long list of books to find and buy or borrow. Here's what I bought:
Penny Kittle's The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching.
Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts by Thomas Newkirk.

Do you read for your profession, as well as for pleasure? How is that kind of reading different? What do you read, and how?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: The Divorce Diet

The Divorce Diet
Ellen Hawley
Kensington Books
paperback, 234 pages
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

We all know that food and love are intimately connected. We just don't always know how to manage that connection.

The Divorce Diet is a novel that blends humor, pathos, and the very real-sounding advice of an imaginary diet guru.  Abigail is forty pounds overweight and unhappy, but she doesn't really know that yet. She's married and staying home with her adorable baby, having put her cooking career on hold--just one of the things she's decided to give up for a life with Thad, her self-absorbed and snobbish husband.

The novel begins with Abigail at home, cooking a fabulous meal for her caddish husband, whose birthday it is. She's also just started a diet, and the guru-like voice of her diet book soon becomes the guru-like voice of her imaginary friend as Abigail realizes that she's being dumped. Suddenly single, without a career, friends, or much sanity, Abigail clings to the structure offered by her diet book: record every single thing you eat, and every time you exercise.

The Divorce Diet isn't as depressing as it sounds, although the protagonist is often depressed. Abigail is forced to pick up the pieces of her life and rediscover the passions that used to drive her. One of those passions is cooking. Descriptions of food, meals, and recipes are scattered throughout this novel, with an additional recipe section at the back. Hawley's writing is precise and charming; The Divorce Diet is funny, entertaining, and a bit wry. Hawley firmly avoids sentimentality or a too-serious tone through humor, and through Abigail's wry and self-deprecating voice. Although Abigail starts out as a bit of a marshmallow (in her inability to stand up for herself, for starters), she eventually gains insight, and her insights are earned and believable.

I really liked this book, and was surprised at the end by how touching it was. Abigail grew on me, and I was impressed by Hawley's technique. The way the author wove food and cooking into the story is appealing, and Hawley manages her narrative voice perfectly. The Divorce Diet would be an excellent choice for a book club selection: discussing this book over wine and some of the recipes in the book would be great fun. Recommended for book clubs, and for readers who enjoy humor and a good story.

Ellen Hawley's author website:

Ellen Hawley's blog: