Tag Archives: Beth Kephart

Reflections on the New Year and My Best Books of 2016 (part 1)

Books Transform in Hourglass

Happy New Year, friends. The beginning of another journey around the sun, a time for reflecting on what has gone before and what the future holds. Given the state of the world, this particular year brings a heightened level of uncertainty. It probably goes without saying that I’m right there with you if you’re feeling a bit (or a lot) apprehensive and anxious about the days ahead and not wanting to embrace the usual spirit of hope and new beginnings that typically marks this day. 

I get that. I don’t tend to make resolutions anymore, preferring to embrace the practice of choosing one word (or three) as a touchstone for the year. (I’m currently vacillating between two words.) I also like the idea of using this time to release those regrets, disappointments, mistakes — and yes, unrealistic resolutions or goals — that we may have carried with us into the new year. Sunday’s service at our UU congregation was “Letting Go” where we did just that with a Burning Bowl ceremony, also known as Fire Communion. In this ritual, you write down on a piece of paper a word or a phrase that represents something you want to release and let go of for the new year. It was all very meaningful and cathartic, especially on New Year’s Day itself. I loved it.

I had much weightier concerns to let go of, but as far as book blogging goes I’m going to try and forego setting a goal for the number of books to read this year. I don’t even think I’m going to join the Goodreads reading challenge. I mean, I read 43 books in 2016 and somehow I feel like that was a lousy reading year because I didn’t meet my self-imposed, twice-revised goal. That’s not a healthy mindset when you consider that the typical American only reads four books a year. Given that, 43 books is an exceptional year and that’s how I choose to look at it. Maybe I’ll change my mind — who knows?

What I do know is that among those 43 were some excellent fiction and nonfiction. In this post, I share my picks for the Best Fiction of 2016, alphabetical by author’s last name. (I’ll do my selections for Best Nonfiction in a separate post, hopefully later this week.) I don’t limit my selections to works published in 2016, however in the case of my fiction selections all but one was released this past year.  I also don’t limit my annual list to a specified number of books (i.e., my top ten). If I loved all 43 books, I would be highlighting every one.

So, without further ado,  I recommend for your reading pleasure the five works of fiction (among them two novellas) that I consider to be the best that I read in 2016. Links take you to my full review, if I wrote one.

I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, by Jennifer Finney Boylan
In this novella, the dysfunctional Riley family is en route to Washington D.C. where their teenage son Otis, a violinist, will be performing at the legendary Ford’s Theatre. The road trip is symbolic of each family member’s individual journey. The characters — especially Alex, a transgender teen — are brilliantly rendered and with its suspenseful plot, Jennifer Finney Boylan creates a dark-humored gothic mood reminiscent of the best of Flannery O’Connor. (SheBooks, 2014, 81 pages)

Whiskey, Etc. by Sherrie Flick
Flash fiction tends to be accompanied by the assumption that it’s easy to write. Dash off a few sentences, a handful of paragraphs, and a story miraculously appears. But the brevity can be deceptively hard. In this collection of “short (short) stories”, Pittsburgh author Sherrie Flick gives her reader enough details in a sentence — or a phrase — to make a story feel complete while still eliciting curiosity about what happens next or the backstory that led up to the situation. With succinct, tight sentences, Flick tells all that’s needed to know (His divorce settlement reads like an episode of Dallas), using food as simile (Snow covered the ground like a thick milkshake) and hooking the reader with more memorable opening lines than a frat boy. My full review, here.  (Queens Ferry Press, 2016, 224 pages)

This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart
Water defines life in Haven, an island shore community off the New Jersey coast. The residents, among them teenage Mira Birul, her mother, and brother, live among the shore’s natural beauty but know that with it comes the potential danger of storms. With their emergency kits and plans, they’re prepared — until the day they’re not. During a hurricane, everything that Mira knows is questioned as circumstances are altered. Mira must figure out how to reorder everything — or, if not, to figure out how to live and understand and accept her new reality. This Is the Story of You, Beth Kephart’s twenty-first book, uses extreme weather and the topography as metaphor for the major storms of life. It’s about the resilience inside everyone, regardless of age, physical capabilities, or resources. More of my review here. (Chronicle Books, 2016, 264 pages)

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Set in England, this decadent novella takes place in 1924 and centers on Jane Fairchild, a maid to the wealthy Niven family. They are friends with the Sheringhams, whose son Paul is engaged to marry Emma Hobday.  That small detail doesn’t stop Paul or Jane from having an affair. The entire story unfolds over a few hours, making this the perfect book to read over the same amount of time. In fact, I’d say that this should be required to be read in one sitting, as I did. It’s resplendent and luxurious, sexy and suspenseful, with hints of Virginia Woolf and reminders of Mrs. Dalloway.  I loved every word and every minute I spent immersed in this one. It’s also a tribute to the power of book bloggers because I would have never have known of this one if it wasn’t for JoAnn from Lakeside Musing’s enthusiastic review. (Knopf, 2016, 192 pages)

Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer
At 13, Madelyn Branch arrives in Reliance with her mother, Rebecca, who has answered an ad in the Matrimonial Times in hopes of a better life. But because Madelyn has a port-wine birthmark covering half of her face and continuing down one side of her body, Rebecca purposefully declines to mention Madelyn in her response to Mr. Lymon Dryfus, her future husband. Instead, she passes Madelyn off as her sister. Although Madelyn agreed to this deception, that doesn’t lessen her hurt and shame. Mary Volmer gives her reader more than a few characters to keep track of (but not too many that you get lost), several side stories that are connected, and a well-developed plot. Set in 1874, this historical fiction novel covers a lot of ground — women’s suffrage, reproductive rights, love and betrayal — all within the context of a fraught mother-daughter relationship. It’s a solid read that echoes the themes of a changing time. Read my full review here.  (Soho Press, 2016, 354 pages)


In an upcoming post, I’ll share my favorite nonfiction books of the year.




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celebrating two writer friends, celebrating two new books


Linvilla Orchards - Big Book

Pumpkinland at Linvilla Orchards, Media, PA Photo taken by me, September 2007

I’m thrilled for two of my writer friends this week, both of whom announced news of upcoming books. Melissa Sarno‘s middle grade novel, Next to Nothing, will be published by Knopf Books for Young Readers in 2018. I’ve known Melissa’s work through her blog for awhile now and there’s a reason why her blog is one of my must-reads. She writes beautifully and I’m looking forward to reading her book.

I know Melissa through Beth Kephart, so I nearly did a double-take when the very next thing I read was Beth sharing her news that that she, too, has a new book deal. A two book deal, in fact. Wild Lines is also a middle grade story and also scheduled for a 2018 publication date. You all know how much of a fan I am of Beth’s books — and Beth herself.

All this felt kind of serendipitous. Two of my favorite writer friends, two middle grade books. And can we get a shout out for middle grade books in general?  I believe they are so important to young readers as that impressionable age seems to be such a pivotal one, and I’m so glad that both Melissa and Beth are among the excellent writers adding their talents to this genre.

Congratulations, ladies!

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #64 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 


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Book Review: This Is the Story of You, by Beth Kephart (15/99)

This Is the Story of YouMira Banul lives in Haven, an island shore community off the New Jersey coast.  A year-round resident with her mother Mickey and brother Jasper Lee, Mira and her friends know every inch of their six mile-long, one half-mile-wide town. They know the weather, the people, the stories.

“We knew what mattered most of all was us, and that we’d be there for us, and that we would not allow the outside world to actually dilute us. Like I said, we knew our water.”

Water defines life in Haven. As with any coastal town, the ocean is a constant presence.  The residents live among the shore’s natural beauty but know that with it comes the potential danger of storms. With their emergency kits and plans, they’re prepared.

Until the day comes when they’re not.

On a random September day, a superstorm (think Hurricane Sandy) unleashes its fury on Haven, and the results are catastrophic for the barrier island.  Even worse, Mira is alone. Her mother and brother are miles away on the mainland for what was to be a routine doctor’s visit, as Jasper Lee has Hunter syndrome, a lysosomal storage disease.  Mira speaks of her brother’s condition (he was “born with no iduronate-2-sulfatase enzyme, which means he couldn’t recycle mucopolysaccharides…”) using the jargon of someone who understands medical complexities because her family lives it.

The storm throws everything that Mira knows into question.  Her somewhat predictable life in Haven becomes anything but as people go missing and another arrives, rather suddenly and mysteriously.  Circumstances are altered and it’s up to Mira to figure out how to reorder everything — or, if not, to figure out how to live and understand and accept her new reality.

This Is the Story of You, Beth Kephart’s twenty-first book, uses extreme weather and the topography as metaphor for the major storms of life. It’s about the resilience inside everyone, regardless of age, physical capabilities, or resources.

Another symbol for inner resilience is found in Jasper Lee’s extensive collection of sand, Kephart’s acknowledgement to Superstorm Sandy which bestowed catastrophic damage on the Jersey shore but didn’t defeat the people and families who call it home.

“Think about it,” Jasper Lee said. “The more you knock around a grain of sand, the smoother and more polished it becomes. The heavier the wave, the more powerful the crystal. Trample it, pound it, toss it, scrape it, dig it, build it, crush it, but what have you done? You cannot defeat sand. Sand is victorious. Sand washes in, sand washes out, sand goes its own which-ing way.”

This Is the Story of You may be Mira Birul’s story, but in reality, it belongs to everyone.

This Is the Story of You 
by Beth Kephart 
Chronicle Books
264 pages

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is Post #15 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 






This post is also pReviewathonart of #WeekofReviews hosted by Estella’s Revenge. 


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sunday salon/ currently … to the limit

Sunday Salon banner

“So put me on a highway
And show me a sign
And take it to the limit one more time ….” 

“Take It to the Limit” ~ Eagles  (written by Don Henley, Randy Meisner, and Glenn Frey)

According to the reminder sent from the place that keeps our family Facebooking and blogging and YouTubing and Netflixing and Spotifying, we’ve been taking our allotted Internet consumption to the limit.  Give or take a few more bytes, bits or however one measures such things, and we’ll tumble over the edge of Way Too Much.

This happens every so often in our house — actually, it happens a lot, more often than is probably healthy.  A sign of modern times, perhaps, but also a sign to unplug, pull back, take a walk around the neighborhood, shoot a few hoops in the driveway, do some actual writing, talk, play a game, listen to the birds, read a book, cook some meals, clean the house.

OK, maybe not that last one.

This Is the Story of YouIt’s a gorgeous Sunday, one made for relaxing on the deck with a book. I’m eager to finish This Is the Story of You, my friend Beth Kephart’s gripping new novel set on the Jersey shore that we both love.  (If I can’t be there in person, Beth’s words can take me there.)

I started this a few nights ago and then, an hour after falling asleep I was awoken by a coughing fit. No matter what I did, I couldn’t stop. So I made myself a cup of tea and sat in the kitchen reading for another hour. If I didn’t have to go to work the next day I would have stayed up longer to finish it because right when I felt ready to go back to bed I hit one of the most dramatic points of the story.


Yesterday was a rehearsal for Pittsburgh’s Listen to Your Mother show, which is less than three weeks away (!!!!) and which you all know I’m in. If you’re able, I would love for you to come see the show. (Ticket information is here.)  Having heard these stories a second time, this is going to be something special that you won’t want to miss. It’s so, so good.

OK, I’ve been on here long enough for this beautiful day that seems to know no limits.


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Book Review: No Such Thing as the Real World: Stories About Growing Up and Getting a Life

No Such Thing As the Real WorldNo Such Thing as the Real World: Stories About Growing Up and Getting a Life
An Na, M.T. Anderson, K.L. Going, Beth Kephart, Chris Lynch, and Jacqueline Woodson
247 pages 

Imagine you are invited to a small, intimate dinner party being given by an author friend of yours. You eagerly accept because you’ve been to previous dinner parties at this friend’s home, which is how you know your friend is a fabulous cook.

Tonight’s get-together is a potluck. Five other writers will be joining you and your friend. You’ve heard of a few of these folks, but three of them are brand new to you. You go to the dinner knowing that you’re going to find something wonderful on the menu (your friend’s offering) and because they are peers of your friend, something new to surprise you. Chances are, you’ll make at least one new friend as well.

That’s what my experience was like upon seeing the short story collection No Such Thing as the Real World: Stories About Growing Up and Getting a Life in the teen section of the library. I knew beforehand that author Beth Kephart had a story included within, and I was highly anticipating reading “The Longest Distance” as I’m a big fan of her work. (Beth Kephart could pretty much write the same sentence repeatedly – like grade school kids once had to do as a punishment – and I’d probably still stand up and applaud its brilliance. I also, in the interest of full disclosure, consider Beth a friend.)

With that, it’s probably no surprise that, among the six stories in No Such Thing as the Real World, Beth Kephart’s “The Longest Distance” stands out to me as the strongest (and is my favorite). For Kephart fans, this story about the shock and aftermath of grieving one’s best friend has glimmers of all that we loved about Nothing But Ghosts. 

That’s certainly not to dismiss the other authors and their stories – quite the opposite, actually. Like the fictional dinner party example earlier, I came away from No Such Thing as the Real World especially wanting more after sampling the offerings of Chris Lynch’s “Arrangements” and An Na’s darkly written “Complication.” Along with Kephart’s story, these two were particularly memorable. I loved the first line of “Arrangements,” which immediately sets the tone of the story by stating:

“The thing to remember about a funeral is that it’s not about you. At least you hope not.” (pg. 175)

and continues with

“Dad insisted – insisted – on appearing at his own wake with a big smile across his face. Whatever the process is in the funeral business for freezing a toothy smile on a guy – probably involving toothpicks, since the undertaker was a local – they must have undertaken it, because Dad lit up the proceedings with this electro grin like the expression on a very fat skeleton head. Some people found the effect unsettling.” (pg. 176) 

I also liked K.L. Going’s “Survival” and Jacqueline Woodson’s “The Company.” M.T. Anderson’s “The Projection: A Two-Part Invention” was innovative in its structure, but came across as a little disjointed to me. (No worries, M.T.: I’m still planning to read your The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing series, so we’re all good.)

In all of these stories, issues of loss and disappointment figure poignantly. All of the characters – contemporaries of the target audience that publisher HarperTeen strives to reach with this collection – are wrestling with grown-up issues such as parental abandonment, the aftermath of incest, the sudden death of a best friend, unrequited love, and inheriting a business (and a reputation) after the death of a parent. Hence, the the title of this collection, which more than lives up to its name by showing that because young adults are dealing with very real issues, the real world is very much right here and now.


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The Sunday Salon: Yet Another Best Books of 2014 List

The Sunday Salon

All the cool kids have one. By the end of this blog post, I will too.

Unless you’ve been living under a literary rock, suddenly everyone who has read anything during the past year has popped up with their Best Books of 2014 List.

My initial reaction to that was somewhere between “Oooooh book lists!”  and “Bah freakin’ humbug.”

I mean, doesn’t it seem too soon for this? I know, I know … there are only 23 days left in the year (!!) and chances are that you’re I’m not going to read that many more books in that timeframe, even though I have 10 more books to go before reaching my yearly goal of 75 and dammit, I am going to try my damnedest to achieve that.

(It’s doable. Completely doable.)

So, a compromise. I’m still planning to do my annual Best Books I Read in 2014 lists, as I do. Those will include books published in any year. Look for those later in the month. In the spirit of things, however, here are my picks for Best Books I Read That Were Published in 2014.

Hope for a Sea Change

Hope for a Sea Change, by Elizabeth Aquino (SheBooks, 57 pages)
I met Elizabeth through the special needs parent blogger world, and her writing – honest, raw, quietly searing – knocks me out with every single post. Elizabeth is a fierce advocate for her daughter Sophie, who has a rare form of epilepsy.  Hope for a Sea Change is about the early days of diagnosis, the desperate search for answers from misinformed specialists, and the emergence of a mother’s strength.

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian (Doubleday, 288 pages)
In my review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I wrote that “it’s possible to view this novel “as sounding an alarm on the many disasters facing this generation: teenage homelessness, prostitution and sex trafficking, drug addiction, environmental and energy crises, school shootings, absentee parents. Like the [fictional] nuclear power plant [disaster in the novel], our world itself can seem in a perpetual state of meltdown.”

Glitter and Glue

Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan (Ballantine Books, 240 pages)
I read this memoir in less than two days. (It probably would have been quicker, had I not been recuperating from gall bladder surgery.) Glitter and Glue is a follow up, of sorts to Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place, the story of her having cancer at the same time as her father. Here, Kelly writes about her relationship with her pragmatic mother, her time as a nanny for a grieving family, and the life lessons she had to leave the house – and the country – to learn.


Gabriel: A Poem, by Edward Hirsch (Alfred A. Knopf, 96 pages)
In this book-length poem, Edward Hirsch opens the door into his shattered world after the death of his 22 year old son Gabriel. As a society, we don’t often talk about grief in the way that Edward Hirsch does in these 78 pages – and our grief memoirs are rarely left unresolved. We’re used to some big revelation of acceptance, of peace. That’s not this book. This is anger and sadness and disbelief (“I wish I could believe in the otherworld/ I wish I could believe in a place/ Of reunions outside of memory”) and it is haunting.


Perfect, by Rachel Joyce (Random House, 361 pages)
Maybe this doesn’t count as a “published in 2014” book because it was first published last year, but whatever. All that matters is that this novel is a work of art – except for the cover, which is absolutely ridiculous (it’s set in 1972, so that probably has something to do with it). The writing and the plot shines. And the characters … you won’t forget these folks for a second.

Nest. Flight. Sky.

Nest. Flight. Sky. On Love and Loss, One Wing at a Time, by Beth Kephart (SheBooks, 37 pages)
A book by Beth Kephart usually makes it onto my best of lists, and this one is no exception. I would have loved this memoir – which marks the first time in several years that Beth has returned to the form – even if I wasn’t reading it in the middle of the night, wide awake in a hospital bed while recuperating from the gall bladder surgery. This was a book that found me at the right time.

History of the Rain

History of the Rain, by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury, 358 pages)
Nominated for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, History of the Rain was among my favorite books this year. I still think it should have won the Booker, but I also didn’t read all the selections. Still, this story about an Irish family dealing with so much literal and figurative rain is spectacular.Along with the writing, Williams draws you in with unforgettable characters. Ruthie is so smart, so sensitive and insightful  (“Hope, you see, takes a long time to die,”) yet so sad without the ones she loves.

What about you? What books published in 2014 are going to make it onto your best-of list?

For those of you who (like me) can’t get enough of year-end book lists, Penguin Random House is compiling the ultimate collection of best books of 2014 lists on Tumblr.


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The Sunday Salon: On Poetry, Berlin, and Vietnam

The Sunday Salon

For whatever reason, I’ve been on a poetry bender. Almost half the books that I have checked out from the library are poetry collections. I’m also getting back into the habit of writing a few lines of my own. (Go figure: everyone’s in novel mode because of NaNoWriMo and here I am, all poetry all the time. Out of sync as always.)

School of the ArtsLast night, I finished School of the Arts by Mark Doty – you know how much I love him – and his sixth collection, Source, is next on the pile. I also have Everything Is Burning by Gerald Stern; Shattered Sonnets Love Cards and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities by Olena Kalytiak Davis; Gabriel, by Edward Hirsch; The Glad Hand of God Points Backward, by Rachel Mennies; The Nearness of You, by Carolyn Kizer (as well as Yin, Pro Femina, and Midnight Was My Cry) and all of Terrance Hayes’ books in the queue.

Going OverIn commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I want to spend some time today in the world of Ada and Stefan, the young lovers living on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall in Going Over by Beth Kephart.  It has been on my night table for awhile and today, moreso than any other, seems to be fitting to read this.

Her Own VietnamI’d also hoped to read Her Own Vietnam by Lynn Kanter for a Veteran’s Day post. Like Beth, Lynn is a friend and her novel about a Vietnam’s nurse’s memories about her wartime service has been high on my list to read for while.

DroodOn audio, I’m still listening to the ever-so-creepy Drood by Dan Simmons. I am in the minority with my fellow #Droodalong participants and am still invested and even liking this story; however, at page 560, it’s getting time to move on. I don’t have the patience to spend more than a month listening to the same audio book, even though this is fascinating and the research that must have gone into this is incredible.

(That said, part of me will be glad if the phrase “my dear reader” or discussions of consuming laudanum don’t enter my reading life for awhile.)


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