Tag Archives: Jennifer Finney Boylan

Book Review: Long Black Veil, by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Jennifer Finney Boylan had me with that cover.

Actually, that’s not true.

Well, partially. But that cover is pretty kick-ass, isn’t it? I feel like making it my Facebook profile picture.

I was sold on this book simply because it’s written by Jennifer Finney Boylan. I’ve been a fan of hers for awhile now — loved her novella I’ll Give You Something to Cry About (one of my Best Books of 2016) and her memoir I’m Looking Through You: A Memoir of Growing Up Haunted (one of my Best Books of 2013) — and I admire her advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community. (She’s the outgoing co-chair of GLAAD.)

And it doesn’t hurt that she’s from Philly. Like me.

The dilapidated ruins of Philadelphia’s famed and creepy as hell Eastern State Penitentiary is  the setting for Long Black Veil. Darkly suspenseful, fast-paced, and character driven, this is told through alternating narratives that segue smoothly between 1980 and 2015. It accurately captures Philadelphia’s gritty essence from a bygone time. It’s about secrets, friendship, identity and authenticity.

You can read more of my review in today’s issue of Shelf Awareness.

(And yes, this one will be on my Best Books list for 2017.)

 

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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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Sunday Salon/Currently … October Surprises

Sunday Salon banner

So much to tell you this week.  First and foremost, though, my thoughts are with all who are being affected by Hurricane Matthew and his aftermath. I know several of our friends and family had some stressful days this week and others are still dealing with the storms. And Haiti–my God, what a heartbreaking situation.

Speaking of storms, I can’t even with the political storm surrounding Donald Trump’s 2005 commentary about being able to grope any woman he pleases because he’s “a star.” Why anyone is shocked by this is beyond me, because all one needs to do is reference any of his rants on women (or anyone else, frankly) to know this is the Republican nominee’s true colors. I’d considered writing a post about such, but you probably have a pretty good idea of my thoughts on the matter. If not, they’re summed up pretty succinctly by the “You’re So Vain” video by the Patriotic Artists and Creatives PAC, which marks the first time ever that the incomparable Carly Simon allowed “You’re So Vain” to be used for political purposes. It’s perfect.

And in the poetry realm, Pittsburgh poet Jeff Oaks (who I was honored to read with at Acquired Taste) pens “The God Abandons Donald Trump: a dream”.  (“Now the smoke of sharpening scythes clings to your ties; the voices of the women you thought you’d smothered in gold are rematerializing.“) A great poem.

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YA author panel of Caleb Roehrig, Emma Mills, Anna Banks and Marissa Meyer being interviewed by Julie Hakim Azzam. October 4, 2016, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo taken by me.

We missed most of the Vice Presidential debates this week (Good God, was that just this week?) because we were at the Fall 2016 Fierce Reads Tour featuring YA authors Marissa Meyer, Anna Banks, Caleb Roehrig, and Emma Mills.  The Girl loves Marissa Meyer’s books, so she was the main attraction for us, but all of the authors were incredibly funny and entertaining. We especially enjoyed Caleb Roehrig, who we talked with after the event. His first novel Last Seen Leaving was published that same day and I started reading it while in line to get our books signed. I can already tell it is one I’m likely to enjoy.

the-literary-others-an-lgbt-reading-event-oct-2016There’s an LGBTQ storyline in Last Seen Leaving, which makes it a fitting edition to The Literary Others.  I’m participating in this LGBT Reading Event which is being hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader in honor of LGBT History Month. This week I read I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, a novella by Jennifer Finney Boylan about a family on a road trip trying to find their place in each other’s lives and the world. I loved this story, just as I loved her memoir I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted about living in a haunted house (on Philadelphia’s Main Line!) and her journey as a transgendered person.

I’m currently reading Just Kids by Patti Smith (we’re doing an event at work with Patti tomorrow night, and I’m really hoping to finish this in time) and in the car, I’m listening to The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle by Lillian Faderman.

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Writing … 
So grateful to my friend Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan, also a Pittsburgh blogger, who mentions my very short Halloween story “Extractions” in her post “Writers in Pittsburgh Are Going to Be Busy.”  This came as quite the surprise, especially since the Google Alert I have on every version of my name didn’t pick it up. Thank you, Elizabeth!

judy-blume-paperback-of-in-the-unlikely-eventblurb-in-the-unlikely-event

Another surprise was discovering that my review of Judy Blume’s In the Likely Event was blurbed (with my name!) in the paperback edition!  I can’t believe it. This was a review I’d published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in June 2015, and I had no idea about this until The Girl showed me last night. Crazy!

 

OK, time for a little reading before making the popcorn for tonight’s presidential debate and whatever surprises await us then.

 

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