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Review: The House on the Cliff, by Charlotte Williams

The House on the Cliff, by Charlotte Williams. Bourbon Street Books, 338 pp. $14.99

If you follow lifebythebooks on any sort of a regular basis, you’ll have already realized I reviewed The House on the Cliff earlier this year. I don’t want to re-review it, at least not in the same way I’ve already done. But in reading other goodreads reviews on this book, I wanted to go a little deeper into an element that has been getting mixed thoughts.

The House on the Cliff is written in first-person POV by way of Jessica Mayhew, the main character. She’s a therapist, and a good portion of her life is spent untangling the psychological web in her clients. She’s used at approaching a situation in a psychological way, and Williams’ writing shows her dissecting her own life the same way she would dissect a clients.

I really liked this part of the character. I thought it helped flesh her out a bit. We were able to understand her better because we were able to understand the way that her mind dealt with a situation. She’s very analytical, and that showed through the writing. I don’t know what experience Williams has in psychology, but I thought her development of Jessica’s character through her training and career was a great move.

I understand, however, why other readers might not have liked the added touch. Some felt it was too complicated, too hard to wade through Jessica’s thoughts into what was happening in the story. The thing is, though, that the book is told through Jessica’s eyes. We get her account of the story, and her thoughts regarding that account. That’s the entire point.

I noticed the psychological element to the story more perhaps because it’s something I found unique to this book. Using a character’s career, and training, to help move through the plot happens on occasion, but rarely as well as this. It wasn’t forced, and it wasn’t undervalued. Jessica would have thought through things in this way, as a psychologist, and it helps us connect with her when we also learn to understand things in this way.


Review: Calling Me Home, by Julie Kibler

Calling Me Home, by Julie Kibler. St. Martin’s Press.

I think I read Calling Me Home in two days. Setting aside the fact that I read quickly, I imagine this book is still extremely readable to those who don’t read three books a week. It’s compelling, it’s interesting, and it’s got a good love story to carry you through (Who doesn’t love a good love story?)

There are really two stories at play here. One involves 89-year-old Isabelle asking her hairdresser to accompany her on a road trip from Texas to Cincinnati. She has to go to a funeral, and while she won’t reveal whose funeral she’s attending, she doesn’t want to go alone. So Dorrie, her hairdresser and close friend, agrees to go with her.

The second story is still Isabelle’s. She’s much younger, in 1930s Kentucky, and she’s fallen in love with the son of her parents’ housekeeper. She’s white, he’s black, and this is a problem. They’re in the heart of segregation, to the point that he’s not even allowed in her city’s limits after dark.

We’ve all read Romeo & Juliet-esque stories before. We’ve all read stories about racial tension. But I like how this story approaches the difficult subject. For one, it’s a lot more realistic than the other stories tend to be. In the others, the characters’ love for each other seems to transcend all other hardships they may face. As long as they have each other, nothing will get in their way.

In Calling Me Home, there are consequences. Whether we agree with them or not, 1930s Kentucky has some pretty strict rules regarding inter-racial relationships. And as much as Isabelle and Robert want to be together, the consequences of these rules don’t disappear once they profess their undying love. They follow them, and the result is heartbreaking at times, but it makes sense.

In addition, the modern-day element adds another level to the story. The entire novel is told in first-person. Isabelle’s portion recounts her younger years, and Dorrie’s portion brings us back to the present. Essentially, Isabelle is using this road trip to tell Dorrie of her life, which comes full circle once we find out who the funeral is for. But the present-day section also serves another person: it examines the current state of race relations. We see, through Dorrie’s eyes, what has changed in the seventy-or-so years this novel covers. We also see, however, what has not changed.

Calling Me Home is now available in paperback. Read an excerpt of the novel, and check back tomorrow for an interview with Kibler.

Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

2013 10 21 Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. Picador, 288 pp. $15

Growing up, I remember hearing phrases about books bringing readers to a magical place. And I completely believe it, I have since I was a child. But I have not yet read a book that so vividly brings these phrases to life than Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

Clay Jannon walks into the bookstore a little timidly at first. When he read the “Help Wanted” poster in the front window, he approached the opportunity cautiously. On the one hand, he needed a job. His previous employer, a San Francisco-based bagel company called NewBagel, was his “first job out of art-school,” and could have lead to great things had it not slowly gone under with the economic downturn.

On the other hand, “I was pretty sure ’24-hour bookstore’ was a euphemism for something, It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town.” The location itself was a bit questionable: directly next door to an establishment featuring neon legs named Booty’s.

But the need for an income wins out, and he begins working as the night-clerk at the bookstore. For the most part, the job is what you would expect for the graveyard shift at a bookstore–relatively slow. But every so often someone would come in looking for a strange book, and his job shifted from ordinary to confusing.

Is this a book club? How do they join? Do they ever pay?

These are the things I ask myself when I sit here alone, after Tyndall or Lapin or Fedorov has left. Tyndall is probably the weirdest, but they’re all pretty weird: all graying, single-minded, seemingly imported from some other time or place. There are no iPhones. There’s no mention of current events or pop culture or anything really, other than the books. I definitely think of them as a club, though I have no evidence that they know one another. Each comes in alone and never says a word about anything other than the object of his or her current, frantic fascination.

With nothing else to do at night, Clay begins to investigate these unusual people that come to his bookstore. He looks into their actions and the books they check out–books he’s never heard of before. And the more he digs, the more he realizes he’s just scratched the surface of something much larger than he ever expected.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an adventure. Even though I had read the short story first, I was still turning pages and wondering what came next. The books the unusual patrons ask for are what trigger Clay to investigate the bookstore, and its owner, and they’re what keep him moving forward through the story. Books are what drive him forward.

But books aren’t the end-all. Sloan does a good job of bridging the often push-pull discussion of books and technology. Instead of a “one is better than the other” tone many take, he proposes that the best result can be achieved when both are used. Some situations require paper and ink, some are best handled with technology. But, above all, the content is what matters. How the content is delivered is, while important, often a separate conversation.

And it makes sense that he would take this stance: Sloan has spent a lot of time in both technology and writing. He’s worked at Twitter and Current TV, yet he also started a literary journal, Oats, while at Michigan State. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, now available in paperback, spent time on the New York Times bestseller list, was chosen as a “Top Book of 2012” by the San Francisco Chronicle and was New York Times Editor’s Choice.

Review: The Affairs of Others, by Amy Grace Loyd

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The Affairs of Others, by Amy Grace Loyd. Picador, 288 pp. $24

I read this book last month, but I honestly needed these few weeks to process it. When I began reading, and at least until halfway through the novel, I wasn’t sure about it. Especially coming off of Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In, this isn’t a very fast-paced book, and much of it is quite depressing.

Celia Cassill is still searching for closure from her husband’s death five years ago. She owns a small apartment building that seems to operate symbiotically as a little ecosystem between the tenants. The neighbors are all very tidy, very quiet and unlikely to intrude on the lives of the others living in the building. Celia wanted this, and so every tenant is carefully selected.

When one tenant leaves for a bit, and convinces Celia to let him sublet the apartment to his friend, this well-oiled machine of an environment starts to fall apart. First, this temporary resident doesn’t bother to hide her rather aggressive, and loud, sex life from the other tenants. Soon after, another tenant goes missing.

The further I read, however, the more I appreciated this novel. As much as The Affairs of Others is a look at the lives of the tenants in Celia’s building, it’s a tour through the final stages in her coping with the grief of her husband’s death. This book is told in first person: when we feel depressed reading it is because Celia is experiencing depression in her own life. The Affairs of Others is an incredible book, one that lingered long after I finished reading it. Loyd’s talent for character development is the true charm here, the emotional drive of her characters that push others away and, subsequently, draws them back in.

Review: How the Light Gets In

photo from macmillan

How the Light Gets In [Chief Inspector Armand Gamanche, #9], by Louise Penny. Minotaur: August 27, 2013. 416 pp, $25.99

I’m generally picky when it comes to genre fiction. I’m skeptical when I read book jackets that begin “Another fabulous [insert character name] adventure from #1 New York Times bestselling author [insert author name]!” I’m not necessarily saying this is how every single genre fiction novel begins, but it seems to be the general consensus.

In fact, I think the main reason I picked up Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In is because it earned a Kirkus star.

How the Light Gets In revolves around secrets. They all do, don’t they? A woman was finally ready to open up to her closest friends, but on the eve of her important visit she’s killed. Later it’s revealed she is one of the first surviving naturally-conceived quintuplets in Canada. As young girls they were seen as a symbol of hope amid the Depression.

Though it’s not in his jurisdiction, Inspector Gamanche chooses to investigate because those close to the victim are also close to him. At the same time, something strange is happening within the bureau itself, and he needs to inconspicuously find out what’s going on before all hell breaks loose.

In How the Light Gets In, secrets are what threatens the lives of the victim, Inspector Gamanche and his family and friends. Sometimes more than their content, the secrets themselves are destructive. The murder investigation leads Inspector Gamanche to a small town called Three Pines, a dead zone in the digital age. Cell phones refuse to work in the city limits. Internet is non-existent. Without common methods of communication, you’d think this place brews secrets.

But, while secrets may be destructive, I want to believe Penny sees their value, even in just the writing of this book. Three Pines is–digitally speaking–a wasteland, but it contains the true heroes of the novel. Everyone is kind and welcoming, and they manage to create lives for themselves without the incessant capabilities to tweet each waking thought.

In How The Lights Gets In, the one true secretive place is the one with the fewest secrets. It’s the oasis of the book, the idyllic setting. This, in turn, begs the question: Which is worse–the information kept too close or the information not kept close enough?

Is it just me or did Lena Duchannes remind me of that girl from ‘Sky High’?


I’m at a point, I think, where I can actually start reading for fun.

Not that reading isn’t always fun, but when I do read I usually end up reading something that will turn into a book review for Friday’s paper. And I’ve read a lot of really great books this way. But, it’s still work.

I read four books in one week though. Four. Though most of them were relatively skinny, and I was pretty exhausted after the week, I ended up being able to work a few weeks ahead of schedule. Enough so that I decided to take on Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures.

Nic and I really liked the movie. I was a little apprehensive at first, because it just seemed like another Twilight (which I also really liked, as a single entity that doesn’t necessarily need a flock of copycats). I was surprised when I found Ethan, the main character in Creatures to be a cool, grounded, interesting character. And so I checked out the book

[Note: I think I’m competing with the entire teen and tween community of my town. When the book finally came back to the library, I darted over there, before work, to check it out before it was gone again. Not the finest moment for my 25-year-old self.]

The book is large, peeps. And, after my four-book week I felt a little sluggish turning these pages for three weeks on end. It’s pretty good–I liked the historical dips here and there and the southern cultural references. I guess I was just expecting more.

I was kind of expecting the romantic vacuum that Twilight had. That book was practically all panting and anguishingly-long separations (like a day and a half). In this one, Ethan tells us over and over how much in love with Lena he is, but I didn’t really buy it.

That, and Lena kind of reminded me of that girl from Disney’s Sky High. The main character’s best friend/love interest who makes vines shoot out at the villain. I had this weird morph going through my head. Half the time I was reading, I pictured Lena as Alice Englert; the other half, she was Danielle Panabaker.

I still want to read the other three in the series: Beautiful DarknessBeautiful Chaos, and Beautiful Redemption. I may need to wrestle down some summer breakers to do it, but we’ll see.


Ethan Lawson Wate is caught off guard when Lena Duchannes, the niece of the elusive Macon Ravenwood, moves to town to live with her uncle. The entire small town of Gatlin, South Carolina knows the Ravenwood family is strange, and ostracizes Lena as a result.

What Gatlin doesn’t know, however, is that the Ravenwoods are supernatural beings. Lena is a witch, and on her sixteenth birthday she will be Claimed for either the Light side or the Dark. 

The secret to her Claiming lies in part with Ethan and in part with a mysterious locket that holds a key to the past for both Ethan and Lena, and for the mystery that threatens to separate them as her birthday looms closer.

World Book Night: The Alchemist

the_alchemist_cover_4I’m so excited to be part of World Book Night this year! For those who don’t know, World Book Night is an annual event to encourage people to read. Around the globe, readers are distributing free copies of recently published or well-established books to completely random strangers. The idea is to ignite a spark in those who don’t read or who read “lightly.”

This year, I will be distributing copies of Paulo Coelho’s modern classic, The Alchemist. This novel is loved by so many and currently holds the Guinness World Record for most translated.

Santiago is a shepherd boy who spends his days and nights caring for his flock of sheep in Andalusia. One night he has a dream, and when he asks for an interpretation a gypsy woman tells him about a treasure waiting for him at the Egyptian pyramids. What follows is a journey, both physical and emotional, as Santiago travels to Egypt to locate this mysterious treasure.

This book is perfect for people who are in a transition in life. I kept thinking of graduating seniors as I was reading it. For those who don’t read regularly, if at all, this book is short and written in a way that’s easy to understand.

But more than that, this book is about finding your purpose in life, which is a message we all need to face from time to time. The Alchemist, a character as well as the title, helps Santiago understand why he was chosen to travel to Egypt, and what true treasure waits for him.

If you’re in northwest Iowa tonight, stop by the Southpark Mall in Spencer to see me. I’ll be distributing copies of this delightful book. If you’re not in northwest Iowa, keep an eye out for a World Book Night Giver in your area.

The Devil Inside

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Nick Tosches. Me and the Devil. Little, Brown. 387 pp. $26.99

If E.L. James had written Fifty Shades of Grey from Christian’s perspective and with a measure of literary intelligence, I imagine it would read something like Nick Tosches latest, Me and the Devil.

Nick, the main character who coincidentally — or not — shares at least a first name with the author, is an aging writer who cannot seem to find inspiration in any part of his life.

That is, until he spends a night with Sandrine, a woman whose single sexual experience seems to “awaken” him to senses he never before knew existed.

From here, Nick begins to experience life through a perspective between elevated human being and vampire. He begins to eat well, both in quantity and in quality, and he starts to crave the blood of the women he picks up in bars, though he notes frequently to the reader of his triumph against alcoholism.

Though Me and the Devil is written quite well, the plot struggles to go anywhere after this first encounter. Even after waking the next morning and reveling in his almost euphoric breakfast and coffee, he doesn’t seem to notice much change. At the very least, he doesn’t seem plagued by it. There is no internal struggle to speak of, though the story is told in the first person and the reader spends much of it within Nick’s head. There is no external struggle, either, though Nick seems to fall in love with a woman while still sleeping around. His lover seems to have no qualms about their revolving-door relationship. In addition, every girl Nick picks up is ready and willing for the sadomasochistic torture he has in store for her. They all have dungeons of their own, and they invite his fetishes.

Additionally, although Nick grasps each sense with acute awareness, the only things he truly indulges in are food and sex. On those matters, Tosches goes into great detail, though he never mentions so much as the sounds of a lowly, talented street performer. Nick, the character, lives in New York, surrounded by enough culture to appease every sense available, and he manages to avert his gaze, ears, and nose from everything that will not fill his stomach or satisfaction.

Me and the Devil appears almost as an expression of Tosches himself, as if his own Freudian id has struggled until now for release. Perhaps the title is to suggest the devil alongside Nick, though perhaps the demonic hold goes much deeper.

Once upon a disposable camera


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Charlotte Street, by Danny Wallace. William Morrow, 408 pp. $14.99

Jason Priestley — definitely not the actor from the original 90210 — is perfectly fine with his life. He lives above a video game store, run by his flatmate, Dev, and he write appeasing reviews for a free newspaper more often picked up than actually read.

He is comfortable in his mundane existence.

That is, until he looks at his ex-girlfriend’s Facebook status: “Sarah is … having the time of her life,” changed quickly to “Sarah is … engaged.”

Looking at his own Facebook status, updated no less than a week ago, “Jason Priestley is … eating some soup.”

Not long before, Jason saw a woman, heavily laden with packages, unsuccessfully trying to get into a cab without dropping anything. When he helps her, she looks up at him and gives him a smile that makes him feel “all manly and confident, like a handyman who knows just which nail to buy.” Only when the cab begins to drive away does he notice she’s left a small disposable camera in his hand.

This disposable camera is the driving force of Danny Wallace’s latest novel, Charlotte Street. Jason will stop at nothing to find this girl back, to see that that smile again. And the disposable camera she leaves behind is his source for the clues he hopes will lead her back to him.

In the process, Jason and Dev embark on a wild adventure, searching for meaning in the photos. They travel to the town of Whitby, to see an abbey hidden in the background of one of the photos. He meets Damien Anders Laskin, a powerful man in PR who invites Jason to parties he only dreamed of attending.

But, the disposable camera also holds a powerful symbolic meaning in the novel, and in Jason’s journey. Unlike the now-popular digital cameras, which can capture every moment to be filtered through later, a disposable camera only has 12 frames. Twelve moments to savor. This means two things: a moment has to be chosen carefully, and a moment has to mean something.

Charlotte Street is a joy to read. At first, the style and initial plot may seem simple, better suited for an afternoon by the fire or a poolside. But, the further you read, the more you understand the nuances behind the story that make Wallace such a powerful author.

Danny Wallace is also the author of Friends like These, Join Me, and Yes Man, which was made into a movie starring Jim Carrey.

God is Justice

ImageThe Trial of Fallen Angels, by James Kimmel, Jr. Amy Einhorn, 372 pp. $25.95

Brek Cuttler wakes up in Shemaya Station wearing the silk skirt and shirt that she put on when she dressed herself that morning. Something is different, however. Brek Cuttler is dead.

Brek’s last living memory was of going into the convenience store with her baby daughter, Sarah. They would stop in quickly for milk before heading home for the evening. Even thinking back to her life, she doesn’t remember anything after that moment.

Shemaya Station is where all of the recently deceased go. They stumble off of the train, as tattered and beaten as they left the living world. Brek came to Shemaya with two bullet holes in her chest. Shortly after her arrival, however, the holes disappeared, both from her body and from her clothing.

In her life, Brek was an attorney, searching for the technicalities in an agreement that could benefit her client. In one of her cases, her client purchased stocks with a loan he’d already defaulted on. If the bank had been previously aware, they would be barred from suing her client to recover the debt.

In The Trial of Fallen Angels, justice is the only means of salvation. Shemaya is where the souls are sent to be judged. Their sentencing could take as long as thousands of years. Brek’s mentor, Luas, has been presenting Emperor Nero, Caesar, since he died.

Brek is assigned as a presenter. Her job is to enter the memories of the judged, to see their experiences and present them to God, who will make the final judgment.

Each of the souls she enters into, however, helps to further the answer to the one question she can’t leave Shemaya without answering: how did I die?

The Trial of Fallen Angels spins off of an excellent concept, though it isn’t as engaging as it could have been. Brek is a wonderful character, complete with her own secrets as dark as some of the souls she presents. However, Kimmel spends almost too much time on the experiences of others, and not enough on Brek’s experience in the overall Shemaya, instead of just the courtroom.

The book is intended to be extremely captivating, allowing the reader deep into the lives of the characters and situations. Kimmel, however, doesn’t offer the experience. Shemaya would be far more intriguing with more description.

The Trial of Fallen Angels is Kimmel’s debut novel. His success with Brek likely stems of of his own career as a lawyer, studying the connections between the law and spirituality.

Even without Brek’s profession, Kimmel’s experience shows very clearly in the novel. Justice reigns above all. The real test is to understand the different angles justice can take, and to make the decision accordingly.

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