Tag Archives: Mary Volmer

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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Book Review: Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer

Reliance, Illinois

Sometimes one discovers a novel that complements current events so perfectly that this literary serendipity only adds to the enjoyment of one’s reading experience. Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer is exactly that type of book. With its themes of women’s suffrage and reproductive rights, it’s a perfect read during this crazy election campaign.

It’s 1874 and politics are at the forefront of everyone’s mind in Reliance, Illinois. There’s an upcoming local election and the “woman question” (i.e., whether women should have the right to vote) is becoming part of many conversations in certain circles.

At 13 years old, Madelyn Branch knows all too well what it’s like to feel left out, unimportant and insignificant.  She arrives in Reliance with her single 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 who needed to accompany her at the last minute. (“Mama decided. We both agreed. Better to make explanations as they became necessary.”) Although Madelyn agreed to this deception, that doesn’t lessen her hurt and shame — another main theme of this historical fiction novel — as well as her mother’s betrayal, which never quite leaves her.

Almost immediately upon arriving at Mr. Dryfus’ home, Madelyn becomes smitten with William, a photographer and veteran of the Civil War who has some complicated issues of his own.  He becomes fond of Madelyn and soon arranges for her to live with Miss Rose Werner, the town’s wealthiest woman and strident suffragette who needs someone to read to her ailing father, Old Man. (Seriously, that’s what everyone calls him.)  In exchange for her service, Madelyn (like several others who live in Miss Rose’s mansion, including Madelyn’s arch-nemesis Violet) will also receive room, board, access to Miss Rose’s extensive library, and — most importantly — an education.

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 in her sophomore novel, with the second half being a bit stronger,  and more faster-paced. One of the highlights — and among the most amusing portions of the story — includes a cameo appearance from Samuel Clemens (yes, the Samuel Clemens) who visits when he is traveling along the Mississippi River. As one might expect, his are some of the best lines and conversations in the book, as evidenced by this scene with Madelyn, William, and Miss Rose, who are discussing how life has changed since Samuel Clemens met Old Man in 1857 or 1858 and how the near-centenarian once envisioned the town of Reliance as “a metropolis rising out of the bluffs … with steamboats and goods heading all ways of the compass.

“He didn’t count on the war, I guess,” said William.

“Or the panic,” said Miss Rose.  

“Or the railroad,” said Clemens.

The war, the railroad, the panic.  It was odd to hear talk of a time before these things, like hearing of a time before the moon and the sun and the stars.

“Not every visionary is a prophet, Mr. Clemens,” said Miss Rose.  “This country’s full of visionaries believing themselves prophets and demanding of others a great deal of misplaced faith.” 

(No, we don’t have any modern day references for that, do we?)

Samuel Clemens also has some ideas about the upcoming election that could sound as if they were straight from today’s headlines (or The Onion).

“Here’s what I would do… . Give men of education, merit, and property — give such men five, maybe ten votes to every one of your ignorant Joes. As of now, Joe can be made to vote for any cause by anyone who can persuade him through fear or profit to make his mark on the line, even if that cause does damage to him and his family.” 

“And women?” said Mrs. French. “Do you include women in the class of educated worthies?” 

“Well, now, that’s another issue.” 

“It is the same issue, Sam!” said Mrs. French. 

I spotted Reliance, Illinois on the new releases (May 2016) shelf at the library and picked it up on a whim without knowing anything about it or author Mary Volmer.  It pulled me in from the very beginning and it didn’t let go until the very end — which, without giving away any spoilers, I absolutely loved, loved, loved. Seriously, it is one of the most perfect endings I’ve ever read.

Yes, the politics and social issues of this period in history are an intriguing and important part of the novel (and Mary Volmer gives her reader an addendum with sources and references for many of the historical events and happenings) but make no mistake: the brilliance of Reliance, Illinois and the reader’s joy is found in watching Madelyn’s confidence, self-acceptance, and — as the title suggests, her self-reliance. This is a narrator who you can’t help but root for, because there’s a little bit of Madelyn in all of us.  We all have some aspect of ourselves that we’re ashamed of; each of us keeps part of our true selves hidden from the world, as Madelyn does with “her stain” by covering it with her bonnet.  Each of us has someone who wants to sabotage our happiness. Each of us wants to feel beautiful and worthy of being loved and accepted.

Madelyn’s struggles — and those of her contemporaries — are as real and relevant and timeless as those in our lives, making Reliance, Illinois a wonderful, highly-recommended read.

Reliance, Illinois
by Mary Volmer
Soho Press, Inc.
354 pages 


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