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Read Women 2014: The Recap

I first wrote about the Read Women 2014 campaign last February. My year spent reading only books authored by women was easy. I was surprised by how easy. At the beginning, I read a book or two that I had read before but I soon decided that I would only read new books so I could make my experience as broad as possible. I wasn’t as successful in only reading authors I had not read before but I don’t feel at all bad about that.

I read a wide array of styles: biography, mystery, noir, literary fiction, history, memoir, horror, suspense, creative non-fiction, young adult, short story collections- whew! I read e-books, new books, used books, paperbacks, hardbacks, and one audiobook. I read books set in Shanghai, Los Angeles, Oxford, Baltimore, London, Baghdad, Dublin, Boston, and scores of other locales. Action occurred on land, on sea, in the air, and in parallel worlds. Characters included men, women, girls, boys, criminals, lawyers, fugitives, soldiers, gangsters, world explorers, murderers, ghosts, police, doctors, artists, musicians, and ice skaters. Scenes took place in mansions, tents, concert halls, graveyards, ships, farms, nightclubs, crematoriums, schools, offices, orphanages, hospitals, shearing sheds, and lots of bars. And the time periods! All over the place from contemporary 21st century to Victorian England to World War I to the swinging ‘70s and dystopian futures.

Most of the books were at least okay. I really liked a lot, loved a few, didn’t finish a couple. The ones I didn’t finish I didn’t add to my list. That was hard for me- to not finish a book. But as I get older and realize I will never be able to read all the books I want to, I’m less inclined to waste time on ones that either bore me or are filled with errors. Some books I read for pure escapist fun when I need a break from real life, some I read to learn a little something, all I read because they interested me in some way.

Some books took me by surprise- one of the best World War I books I have read so far is Maisie Dobbs, a detective story not even set during the conflict but in the interwar period. Some books took me much longer to read than others- a massive historical account will naturally take more time than a breezy mystery- and I didn’t read as many books as I thought I would but still ended up with a respectable showing.

The authors were of various nationalities and ethnicities and religions. I didn’t do any research on them to determine these characteristics but some were evident from the subject matter or previous knowledge of the author. All the books except one were originally written in English, the exception being The Murder Farm, which was translated into English from its original German.

My biggest problem with my Read Women 2014 quest was the same one I face when reading without any limits- how to read all the books that I want to read. For every book I read on my list I would add three more. Conservatively. And while I was on my year of reading only female authors my list of books to read by men has grown to gargantuan proportions. My bookshelves, real and virtual, are filled with books by men and women I have yet to read even while I buy more or add more to my “to-read” list. Cutting out all male authors for a year did nothing to curb this tendency, I just added more and more books by women.

And here’s the crux of Read Women 2014- there is absolutely no valid reason to not read women authors. Really. If you cannot find any book by a woman that you want to read it’s because you’re not only not trying but actively resisting all the great books out there. Men often seem to be resistant to female authors, suspicious of romance novels and the odiously nicknamed “chick-lit.” I have not met a man who has read (or admits to having read) Jane Eyre. Their loss. No wonder George Eliot used a pen name. If S.E. Hinton had used Susan Hinton, The Outsiders probably would have been dismissed as a teenaged love story between wrong-side-of-the-tracks Ponyboy and rich girl Cherry. Guys would’ve thumbed their noses at the tragic Dallas and scoffed at the book as “one for girls.” So my point is, if you don’t read any (or few) female authors, you’re losing out. This isn’t to dismiss or diminish male authors in any way, but if you have a whole world to explore, why would you arbitrarily limit yourself to just one hemisphere? You have an entire world, damnit, go read!

Here’s my list of books in the order that I read them. Let me know what books you read this year.

Chances-  Jackie Collins
Divergent– Veronica Roth
How to Create the Perfect Wife– Wendy Moore
Unbroken– Laura Hillenbrand
Haunting of Hill House–  Shirley Jackson
Carthage–  Joyce Carol Oates
Pavilion of Women–  Pearl S. Buck
The Wicked Girls–  Alex Marwood
Alena: A Novel–  Rachel Pastan
Legwork–  Katy Munger
Die a Little–  Megan Abbot
Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations–  Georgina Howell
Night in Shanghai–  Nicole Mones
A Whole New Ballgame–  Caryn Rose
After I’m Gone–  Laura Lippman
Liar’s Club–  Mary Karr
You Should Have Known–  Jean Hanff Korelitz
A Man Lay Dead–  Ngaio Marsh
The Ghost of the Mary Celeste–  Valerie Martin
The Three–  Sarah Lotz
First Comes Love–  Marion Winik
The Murder Farm–  Andrea Maria Schenkel
America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops–  Christine Sismondo
Complicit–  Stephanie Kuehn
Blue Monday–  Nicci French
All the Birds Singing–  Evie Wyld
Bones of Contention–  Jeanne Matthews
The Care and Management of Lies–  Jacqueline Winspear
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots–  Deborah Feldman
Lighthouse Island–  Paulette Jiles
Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives–  Sarah Weinman (ed.)
Demon Camp–  Jennifer Percy
Maisie Dobbs–  Jacqueline Winspear
In the Woods–  Tana French
Their Eyes Were Watching God–  Zora Neale Hurston
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory–  Caitlin Doughty
The Paying Guests–  Sarah Waters
Monday Mourning–  Kathy Reichs
Voyage of Strangers–  Elizabeth Zelvin
Queenpin–  Megan Abbott
The Knife Man–  Wendy Moore
Everything I Never Told You–  Celeste Ng
Gaudy Night–  Dorothy Sayers
The Sculptress–  Minette Walters

Read Women 2014: July

Wow, is the summer going by fast. I swear it was just last week when I posted about June’s books. Got a little more reading done this month which is always a great thing. Enjoy.

Book #25: America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops- Christine Sismondo

First of all, because of this book I discovered there is a profession called “saloon historian” and when I found this out I realized all the wrong paths my life has taken because this is not my job. Sismondo’s well researched story has great tidbits (a number of battles of the Revolutionary War were named for taverns) and overwhelming evidence to support the foundational nature of taverns, bars, etc. in American culture. The rise of the cocktail giving way to the age of temperance caused a pang in my heart like I was there myself. Damn you, Carrie Nation! And now I want to open a bar named Carrie Nation just to jab a thumb in her long dead eye. Who’s with me?

Book #26: Complicit- Stephanie Kuehn

I want to say thank you to Stephanie Kuehn though I’m not sure exactly why I should be thanking her for two mornings in a row when I woke up groggy because I had stayed up late reading her twisty tale. That’s not something I encounter very often anymore, the not-being-able-to-put-a-book-down feeling that makes me look at the my nightstand clock and think, “just one more chapter, one more paragraph, I swear!”

You know from the beginning everything is not quite like it seems, this family is too messed up for that. I was a tad bit disappointed that I discerned a bit of the ending but felt better when I realized what I had gleaned was only the tip of the iceberg. Great twisty ending that makes you glad you don’t live in the same town as this family. Or at least I hope not…

Book #27: All the Birds Singing- Evie Wyld

This story might be disconcerting to some as it goes back and forth in time with little notice. I didn’t have much trouble following the movements, Wyld’s writing was natural and fluid and I was easily carried along by the current. The writing is spare, no florid emotions or superfluous descriptions. The main character, Jake, is living on an island in the English channel (I think, not sure if it ever specifically mentions the channel) in present day but the story shifts around her past life in Australia as well. Jake has a bit of a checkered past and just wants a bit of peace and quiet and to be left alone tending her sheep. Everything goes along just fine until something starts to kill her sheep and a stranger shows up on her doorstep…

Unfortunately, you don’t get a lot more closure than that. The ending comes like a slap in the face and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I loved Jake as an anti-hero and hero at the same time. In other words, a normal person. Wyld’s style was lyrical and bare and it kept me reading right along until the brick wall of the ending.

Book #28: Bones of Contention- Jeanne Matthews

Jeanne Matthews has a great way with a phrase. In the opening scene, her character Dinah Perkins is flying in a two-seater plane described as a “flimsy tin cricket.” It’s a great beginning to a fun mystery centered around Dinah and her, let’s say, challenging family. Dinah is an American but the story takes place in Australia and Matthews has a lot of fun sprinkling in Australian, or ‘Strine, slang and references throughout. Dinah’s responds to her eccentric pilot’s assertion that he was “as harmless as a rubber ducky and that’s the dinki-di” by thinking “if he imagined she could relax he was dinki-delusional,” and I laughed out loud.

Matthews gets a bit carried away with her Australian landscape and takes some unnecessary detours that don’t add to the story and slow down the pace. However, I enjoyed this mystery overall and am looking forward to the next Dinah Pelerin adventure.

Book #29: The Care and Management of Lies- Jacqueline Winspear

Winspear is deft at recreating life in pre-war (and during-war, what’s the word for that?) England. The story of the soldier in the trenches might be familiar to many but the portrait of life back home is less common and is a valuable trait in this novel. The novel follows Kezia Brissenden (formerly Marchant) and best friend Thea Brissenden through the beginning of World War I. Kezia marries Thea’s brother Tom shortly before the war begins and the dynamic among the three shifts even as the build up to the war promises even greater changes ahead.

Tom enlists shortly after the war begins (and shortly after his marriage) and Thea volunteers to serve as an ambulance driver while Kezia is left to manage the family farm, a challenging task for a vicar’s daughter. The three perspectives of the war are fresh and authentic and Winspear’s unadorned, flowing writing helps ease the reader into the futility of the Great War.

Book #30: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots- Deborah Feldman

I bought this book after browsing through Main Street Books in Frostburg, MD while on a getaway weekend for some relaxation time (including lots of reading and writing). If you are anything like me you cannot go into a bookstore and come out empty-handed. I was very strong and only bought two books and once I started reading this one I had no regrets (like I ever do about buying books). This story fascinated me. The Hasidic community is hidden from the lives of most and the glimpses offered by Feldman make this one of the most interesting memoirs I’ve ever read. I had to keep reminding myself this wasn’t written decades (or centuries) ago, the author is still only in her twenties. Rituals and rules and rigidity form the foundation of the author’s life and the courage it must have taken to leave (and then write about it) astounds me. I read this book in two days. I was on a little mini weekend vacation while reading it so that helped but Deborah’s story was gripping and I couldn’t stop reading. The ending where she leaves her husband and gets a divorce feels rushed and I could imagine an editor pressing Feldman to hurry up and finish so they could get the book out. I hope in her next book (and I definitely hope there is a next book) this part of her life is examined again and we get the level of detail she brought throughout the rest of her life thus far.

Read Women 2014: June

It’s July already and that means with June’s post I’m halfway through Read Women 2014. The pickings are mighty slim this month. I spent a lot of time on a book I finally decided not to finish and after Blue Monday I began a lengthy nonfiction history that I’ll have to finish up for July’s post. I think it’s odd that many people seem to read more in the summer (all of those beach reads I guess) but with the nicer weather I find I read less as I spend more time outside riding my bike or swimming or going to festivals and baseball games.

Book #23: The Murder Farm- Andrea Maria Schenkel

The Murder Farm is based on a 1922 murder of an entire family plus their maid in the German countryside ala In Cold Blood. However, this murder was never solved. The Danner family wasn’t well liked in their community and Schenkel’s portrayal of them doesn’t lend much sympathy to the adult Danners (father, mother, and adult daughter). The murders of the granddaughter and maid evoke greater pity. Schenkel offers several viewpoints in the recounting of the murders including the maid’s sister, the adult daughter’s lover, and the granddaughter’s friend. The murderer is included in these narratives along with a few red herrings. It was a fast read and an interesting story although I felt a bit cheated by the ending and the revelation of the culprit. It felt like it was just plopped out on the page by the author as she tried to wrap up the story. She spent a lot of time with the varying viewpoints and motives and it finished with a “oh and by the way it’s this person.” Since the actual murder is still unsolved it is interesting to wonder whether she was correct. I’m not so sure…

Book #24: Blue Monday- Nicci French

Blue Monday is a thriller (first in a series) with more twists than a French braid. It opens with the abduction of a little girl and then fast forwards to about twenty years later when a similar abduction of a boy takes place. Therapist Frieda Klein and Chief Inspector Malcom Karlsson work together after Frieda begins to suspect one of her patients is involved in the latest abduction. Frieda has her own problems she’s dealing with but has to set those aside in her efforts to save the little boy. The glimpses of her personal life were probably my favorite part of the story, her flaws and uncertainties help make up for some of the vigorous stretching of belief you have to perform to swallow some bits of the plot. The final twist had me saying “Oh hell no!” both in a “Wow, I didn’t see that coming” and a “Yeah… no, that would never happen” way. I still enjoyed the book and its thrills and will have to read the next one soon.

Coming up next…

Right now I’m reading America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops by Christine Sismondo and have so far gotten to the temperance movement that spawned the disaster of Prohibition. Cheers!

Read Women 2014: May

How did May go by so fast? I just posted April’s books! As usual I didn’t read nearly as much as I would have liked but that’s always the case. It’s been easy so far to just read women authors, I’m starting to feel a bit guilty for neglecting the fellows but then I come across another book I want to read and I get over it.

Book #19: Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific- Mary Cronk Farrell

I was so looking forward to this book. The first time I tried to buy it for my Kindle I got some weird message about a delay due to copyright issues. I waited a few weeks and tried again and voila! This book sounded so great. The previously untold story of brave and heroic nurses in the horrors of the Pacific campaign in World War II? Sign me up! I couldn’t wait to start reading.

As soon as I did the disappointment set in. The writing wasn’t great. The story stumbled along in short bursts and lacked cohesion. That’s okay I told myself. I want to know about these women, keep reading. Then I started to get down right irritated. Where was the editor? Was there an editor? I couldn’t blame the author all by her lonesome. Tidbits like the fact that nurses had to resign if they got married as well as the first person accounts that made the nurses’ struggles so relatable and real kept me going.

Then shit got real. Or really bad. The section describing the Battle of Corregidor had the date off by a year. THE WRONG FUCKING YEAR. Okay, okay, maybe a typo that damn editor missed. And then I turned the page. Again, wrong year. I felt like I was in Bizarro world. Was I wrong? I admit I couldn’t tell you offhand the exact date of the Battle of Corregidor but I damn well know when Pearl Harbor was and subsequent battles would have only happened after this. Not seven damn months before. I even double-checked to make sure I hadn’t gotten a wire crossed because it sure is embarrassing to have a rant and be wrong. Not one, not two, not three, but four incorrect references to the date before I stopped and put the book down. I wasn’t even halfway through.

I quit. I hate to not finish a book. But for a book that touts itself as a historical account you need to get basic things right. Like the goddamn year a battle occurred. I returned the book to Amazon. I’ve never done this before but damn. As interesting a subject as this was to me, this particular volume was not worth my money or time. So for any history majors out there looking for a thesis, this is a great topic that has not yet been given its due.

**So I went back onto Amazon and looked at the book listing again. I had not realized it was supposed to be for a younger audience (listed 10-16 years old). That might help explain some of the simplistic writing, although I read some young adult fiction that is much more sophisticated, but still doesn’t excuse the glaring errors.

Book #20: The Ghost of the Mary Celeste- Valerie Martin

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste weaves together several stories across decades with the ship Mary Celeste as its focal point. The Mary Celeste was one of those “ghost ships” that was found mysteriously abandoned with no clue as to what happened to its crew. The Mary Celeste was real. I have no idea what other elements of truth there are in the rest of the book (Arthur Conan Doyle is a recurring character) and I don’t care, it was lovely.

Book #21: The Three- Sarah Lotz

Dayyyummm. That was my reaction at the end of this book. I’m über sophisticated, no? I got the recommendation for this book from Chuck Wendig’s terribleminds blog, and as usual, Chuck knows what he’s talking about.

The Three begins with four catastrophic airplane crashes in the same day. Of the four crashes only three passengers, all children, survive. The stories of the children and the reaction of the world to their survival is the meat of the story but my favorite thing (besides the general creepy aura of the whole book) was the wonderful way Lotz made the different parts of the world the book takes place in come alive. The South African slum where one of the planes crashes was so vivid and authentic you’d think the author grew up there while online chats between Japanese teenagers rang equally true. The Three was an original and disturbing story and I’m glad I took Chuck’s advice.

Book #22: First Comes Love- Marion Winik

I recently discovered Marion Winik when I took a her session on memoir writing at the Maryland Writer’s Conference this spring. She was funny and honest and her life seemed so nuts I knew I had to read some of her stuff. She talked just briefly about her marriage to her first husband, a gay ice skater named Tony and all I could think was “How does that even happen?” First Comes Love is that story of how.

The book follows Marion and Tony from when they first meet until he commits suicide while suffering from advanced AIDS. In between they fall passionately in love, do lots of drugs, have children, have marital problems, the normal stuff in life but engaging and witty and dramatic when framed by Winik. Wow, is the word I kept thinking to myself. The honesty was compelling, some of the best bits were when Marion admits her own flaws and describes some of her less than stellar actions. Marion and Tony are imperfect and real and that makes their story compelling and entertaining. I’ll be reading more of her work for sure.

Read Women 2014: April

I finished my last book of March while listening to the first ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game of the year so what would be more appropriate to begin my April booklist than a story featuring baseball? Nothing, that’s what.

Book #14: A Whole New Ballgame- Caryn Rose

I enjoyed this book because I could see myself in a much of it. The fledgling fan who becomes obsessed with the sport, the confused girlfriend whose boyfriend convinces her to become serious only to cheat on her the moment she decides to give it a shot, and the fan who can’t understand why a game can mean so much and how people have endured heartbreak season after season and still come back for more until it happens to her. A Whole New Ballgame was a nice diversion and perfectly timed for the start of baseball season. Let’s go O’s!

Book #15: After I’m Gone- Laura Lippman

I’ve long been a Laura Lippman fan so it was easy to pick her latest book for this list. Her books are all set in or around Baltimore (at least all that I’ve read so far) and that’s an added bonus for this Baltimorean. After I’m Gone follows the story not so much of illegal bookmaker Felix Brewer but those of the people he leaves behind when he flees federal charges and years of jail time. His wife, daughters, and girlfriend (who ends up disappearing mysteriously ten years after Felix’s flight) all are affected deeply by his actions. A bit of a twist at the end is nicely satisfying.

Book #16: Liar’s Club- Mary Karr

This is a great book. I guess I somehow missed it when it first came out and it hit the bestseller’s list, blah, blah, blah. But damn. Mary Karr writes about growing up in east Texas with alcoholic parents, add a bit of mental illness, some sexual abuse, a horrible grandmother, and bam! You’ve got a memoir that is touching, funny, familiar in a way you wish it wasn’t, and a book I could barely put down. In one scene Mary describes how she decided to picket a family’s house so no one would with play with the kids she had a beef with. She figured, reasonably enough in that hardcore, hardscrabble union town, every kid in the neighborhood knew better than to cross a picket line. That bit alone is enough reason to read this book. Mary’s family is not one of white picket fences and mothers who wear pearls. Or maybe the mother did wear pearls- she liked her furs and designer clothes when she got a chance to buy them. This family is not perfect but it is real. So much more so than any ‘50s sitcom or hazy ideals we tend to imagine existed back in “the good old days.” Mary and her sister are tough, don’t want your pity, and don’t make any excuses for their family. The guts it must have taken to write this memoir takes my breath away.

Book #17: You Should Have Known- Jean Hanff Korelitz

I read a glowing review about this book in the Washington Post and decided to give it a go. Suspense, murder, intrigue, sign me up! It was… okay. It was hard to feel too much empathy for the poor little rich girl Grace who is wealthy enough to own an apartment in Manhattan and send her son to a $45,000 a year private school when she got snubbed by another parent who was even wealthier. The snub consisted of a mega-rich mom telling merely rich Grace that she could get the doorman to call her a cab. Grace knows that, she lives in Manhattan too! She knows doormen call cabs for spoiled rich women! Seriously, that was such a momentous affront Grace goes back to it over and over throughout the story. She really has worse things to worry about. Other authors have written about wealthy women without making me hate them (like Mary Higgins Clark) but by the time I finished the book my annoyance with Grace had overshadowed the genuinely terrible things that happened to her. The final straw (spoilers) was when Grace and her neighbor begin a romance. Because that’s exactly what she needed two months after finding out her whole life with her husband was a lie- his numerous affairs and fathering of several children with different mistresses, his theft of money from her father, the brutal murder of his most recent mistress, and his flight while leaving her in the lurch and even suspected of helping in his crimes. But, TA DAH! She meets a new man and everything will be OKAY! Whew.

Book #18: A Man Lay Dead- Ngaio Marsh

If you’re looking for a classic English manor mystery, this one’s for you. A house in the country, a murder mystery game gone wrong when one of the players is actually murdered, a slew of suspects, infidelity, and even some mysterious foreigners thrown in for good measure make this a nice, traditional whodunit. Probably best read whilst sitting in front of the fire with a nice cocktail.

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