Just Giblets

It's what's inside that counts

10th February 2015
by Michael

2014, the Year in Books, #1

My top book of 2014 snuck up on me. I read it early in the year, and while I loved it, I wasn’t really expecting it to be at the very top of my list this year. But as I reflected back, I realized that it totally deserved that top spot, for it’s imaginative creation of a society that is based on science and nature, for the intricate plotting, for the gorgeous characterization… and all of that done with a hive of bees.

]The Bees#1 – The Bees by Laline Paull

Accept. Obey. Serve.

Laline Paull takes us into the life of a beehive in her extraordinary novel, The Bees where we learn what it means to live that mantra. Flora is a singular hero, born to Laline Paullthe lowest caste in the hive hierarchy, there is something special about her. It’s something that’s valued by some of her sisters, and feared by others.

As Flora moves about the hive, transcending her class, we learn all about how the colony operates, all the while thrilling to the search for food by foragers, the defense of the hive from predators like wasps and other fearsome threats, and navigating the internal politics set in motion to insure the hive’s survival. Suspense, intrigue, romance, heroism, mystery, drama, humor… this one has it all.

posted in 2014, Authors, Books, Year-end lists | at 5:36 pm | 0 Comments
8th February 2015
by Michael

2014, the Year in Books: #’s 2 & 3

Whoops! Sorry about that. I got sidetracked by a vacation in Costa Rica and never finished my list of the top books read in 2014.  I’m back with #’s 2 & 3, which come from an international, best-selling author, and a debut, indie novelist respectively. These books couldn’t be more different, really, and I’ve jockeyed back and forth on their positioning, yet while Houck’s novel is more consistently great, Mitchell’s novel has more stumbles, but reaches higher, so it manages to eke out the #2 spot.

Yield#3 – Yield by Lee Houck

Yield really took me by surprise. When I read the jacket copy and found out that the novel revolved around a young hustler in Manhattan, I inwardly groaned. It felt slightly cliched, and oh-so 80’s gay fiction, but I gave it a try. I quickly noticed the quality of the writing, and the care and (yes, I’ll say it) authenticity that permeated this novel. Not a tale of disaffected youth cutting off the world around him, but a coming-of-age story, in the best meaning of that phrase, where a young man slowly opens himself to life and all the joys and pain that comes with it.

Simon does indeed work as a part-time hustler in Manhattan, but he also files medical reports at St. Vincent’s hospital, which is the job that actually leaves physical scars, the endless series of paper cuts along his fingers. The hustling leaves scars as well, although not the type you can see. More like scar tissue, increasingly dulling Simon’s ability to feel and even experience living. When one of his close circle of friends is beaten in a violent gay bashing, Simon is shaken, and when he starts to fall for the hot guy who lives across the street from him, a door deep inside of him that was securely locked, starts to open.

Lee Houck has created a beautiful voice with Simon. He’s emotionally reserved, and frankly, terrified of his own capacity to feel, but there is nothing cliche about Yield, in fact the journey Simon takes is universal and ageless. It’s nice to read a book like this every once in a while, to remind you how rewarding fiction can truly be.

The Bone Clocks#2 – The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

David Mitchell hit the big time with his book, Cloud Atlas, and his latest tome, The Bone Clocks is the follow-up. It’s a big sprawling novel that begins in the early 80’s and unspools all the way to the mid-21st Century and the collapse of modern technology to a dystopian future. The Bone Clocks chronicles the war between two factions of immortals, benevolent psychics who are continually reincarnated, and spiritual vampires who casually take the souls of innocents to extend their lives in perpetuity. Central to this story is Holly Sykes, who starts the tale as a teenage runaway, and ends as hardened matriarch who helps to save humanity… just to see the technological infrastructure collapse. It’s a new age, science fiction epic that’s great fun to read, most notably for the moments in between the crazy stuff. And this is where Mitchell excels. The novel cycles through a handful of narrators, each telling their part of the story, while our central character, Holly Sykes, treads through all of them. I loved the small, individual details of the lives of each of these narrators that Mitchell carefully and lovingly reveals as time marches inexorably on. It’s also fun to start the novel in the past, albeit the recent past of the 1980’s, and jump a decade or so ahead with each narrator, ending up in the middle of the 21st century. For such a sprawling epic, Mitchell does a masterful job keeping things personal. Some of the more fantastical elements come across a little hokey, but all in all it works well. And despite its heft, it moves right along providing hours of entertainment.

posted in 2014, Authors, Books, Year-end lists | at 12:58 am | 0 Comments
18th January 2015
by Michael

2014, the Year in Books: #’s 4 & 5

Top five time… and the authors of the two books represented at #4 and #5 have both appeared on my top lists of the year before. This is Thrity Umrigar’s second visit to the Top 5, with her sublime novel The World We Found coming in at #4 in 2011. Marilynee Robinson came in at #2 in 2008 with Home, the second of the Gilead trilogy, for which this year’s #4 book of the year is the conclusion.

The Story Hour#5 – The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar

Forgiveness is a topic too often left unexplored. In Thrity Umrigar’s beautifully drawn domestic drama, an Indian immigrant, who harbors a life-altering secret rashly attempts suicide and finds herself in the care of an African-American therapist who is harboring a secret of her own. As the two women become unlikely friends their lives become entangled, but when these secrets are revealed/discovered, the limits of their friendship and their capacity for forgiveness will be tested.

Thrity’s work at spinning domestic, cross-cultural drama is elegant and powerful. Characters shift across reader sympathies, and with the exception of one character who is decidedly one-dimensional, they all reveal hidden depths that make them seem all too real.

Chalk up another strong novel from best-selling author Thrity Umrigar!

Lila#4 – Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Lila is the third in Marilynne Robinson’s exquisite Gilead trillogy that began with Gilead and Home. Lila revisits the Reverend John Ames, late in his life, but is centered around Lila, a wandering woman, taken as a child by the mysteriously scarred woman known only as Doll. For as long as she can remember, Lila’s life has been a hard one, although she wouldn’t describe it as such, being the only life she has had. After her life with Doll is ended, she reaches her lowest point before finding herself living in an abandoned shack in the outskirts of Gilead. It is there that she makes the acquaintance of Reverend John Ames.

It is there that Lila’s life makes a turn. While she struggles with her thoughts, and her beliefs as she reads the bible, she also slowly learns the trust Reverend Ames, who grows to love her.The two eventually marry and start a family, but it is Lila’s journey from harrowing pragmatism to joy and hope that makes LILA beautiful. Marilynne Robinson is a master storyteller, and her words carry with them a spirituality that transcends the religious.

posted in 2014, Books, Year-end lists | at 11:06 am | 0 Comments
15th January 2015
by Michael

2014, The Year in Books, #’s 6 & 7

Other than being written by women, there’s not a whole lot in common with the sixth and seventh books on my list. One is from a well-known author that I’d never read, but she so charmed me at a Random House author breakfast, that I thought I’d give her work a try. The other was from an author whose previous novel was #5 on my list of best reads in 2012!  Interesting side note: my #6 novel could be considered similar to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life which I found tedious and couldn’t even finish. Obviously, I would disagree.


Lucky Us

#7 – Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Lucky Us is a new coming-of-age novel set in the 40s and 50s by best-selling novelist Amy Bloom. Eva is a young woman left by her mother at the home of her estranged husband, Edgar, on the day of his new wife’s funeral. There Eva meets her new big sister, Iris, with whom she runs away with as Iris seeks stardom in Hollywood. There they befriend Franciso, a gay hair and make-up man who helps Iris on her way up and subsequently down the Hollywood ladder before a surprise reunion with Edgar leads all three of them to Brooklyn where Eva settles into her life.

For the first half of the book, Eva is mainly a spectator in her the life of her family. Too young to work, unable to attend school, Eva helps her sister try to achieve her goals while carefully observing the vagaries of life. A series of sudden tragedies push Eva into a more active role in her own life, as she finds herself without a support system and people who are dependent upon her.

Through it all, Bloom keeps things light, even when dealing with difficult situations. She’s a great writer, using language that is clear yet beautifully composed, and creating voices that are unique and sympathetic. I had the privilege of seeing Ms. Bloom talk about her at the time forthcoming novel at Book Expo America last May and found to be utterly charming, strong-willed, and hilarious.


#6 – My Real Children by Jo Walton

Patricia is feeling confused today. At least that’s what the note by her bed tells her. In fact, at her advanced age, in the nursing home where she lives, she often feels confused and forgetful, but what’s she remembers distinctly are the two lives that crowd her memory. One where she married Mark and raised four children in a world that is at peace and has a colony on the moon; and another where she spent her life with her beloved Bee and their three children, on a beleaguered planet suffering from nuclear detonations and fatal fallout.

Jo Walton, whose last novel, Among Others is my afore-mentioned #5 read of 2012, spins a straight-forward, subtle tale of a woman’s life, or rather, two lives, and how a single decision can propel that life into two very different paths. And could that one person’s quiet, unassuming life also have major repercussions across the globe? Just like the theory that the flap of a butterfly’s wing can cause a hurricane halfway around the world, Walton wonders if a single decision could make the difference between peace and violence. Which life would you choose if given the choice?

posted in 2014, Books, Year-end lists | at 7:24 am | 0 Comments
11th January 2015
by Michael

2014, the Year in Books, #’s 9 & 8

A local author creates a complex, character study masquerading as a thriller, and a inventive fantasy riff on a classic tale come in this year at #’s 9 & 8. These two books couldn’t be more different (except for their dark tone and intense female protagonists… okay, maybe there are more similarities than I first thought) and they appear on this list for different reasons. Elo’s book features strong, complex writing, and a deep exploration into character, while Paige’s book features an adventurous, inventive plot, filled with rich, vividly drawn characters. Just a peak into the variances of what makes a strong read for me.

North of Boston#9 – North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo

Boston-area author Elisabeth Brink has reinvented herself as Elisabeth Elo after an initial debut that focused on the interior life of a quirky heroine named Gillian Cormier-Brandenberg, in order to launch a dramatic series of suspense novels following the life of another woman with a somewhat complex name, Pirio Kasparov. That’s really where the similarities end. North of Boston certainly delivers on the suspense, but it is so much more than that weaving alcoholism, questionable parenting, the fishing industry, perfumery, complicated family relations, the questionable line between hunting and slaughter, and even the exploitation of indigenous cultures. It may seem like an everything but the kitchen sink approach, but in the skillful hands of Elo, it is in fact, a powerful, coherent story that resonates long after the final page is read.

I’m not a huge fan of the genre, but as I mentioned, this intricate story transcends simple characterization. What holds it together most effortlessly, is the character and voice of a bold new heroine. Pirio can be a little impulsive, and experience has taught her to withhold emotion, but she’s smart, tough and likable, and more than capable of carrying a novel, and as time will surely tell, a series.

Dorothy Must Die#8 – Dorothy Must Die by D. M. Paige

First in a series, Dorothy Must Die tells the story of Amy Gumm, another Kansas resident who finds herself dropped in Oz because of a tornado. Sadly, the Oz Amy finds herself in is a horrific reflection of the one we all grew to know through the wonder of the movies. This is Oz is ruled by a despotic hand, one that thinks nothing of torturing and killing anyone who displeases her. It is the hand of Dorothy, and the Order of the Wicked has decreed that she must die and that Amy must be the instrument that does it.

Expanding yet again on the universe of L. Frank Baum, Dorothy Must Die is imaginative, compelling, and yes, horrific. Billed as a young adult novel, I was surprised at the brutality faced by the characters in this book. Still it makes for a really strong read, and fans of fantasy, or the Oz books should give it a try.

posted in 2014, Books, Boston, Fantasy, Year-end lists | at 7:00 am | 0 Comments
10th January 2015
by Michael

2014, the Year in Books: #’s 11 & 10

Here’s a pair of books that really have very little in common other than the fact that their titles both begin with the letter “S” and they’re both excellent books that are among the best books I read in 2014! Neither are my usual fare either. #11 is a non-fiction science ebook, and #10 is Chick-Lit. Of course, the former is a book about bumblebees, one of my favorite animals, and the latter is written by a beloved soap opera, returning to writing, and showing off some top notch improvement.

A Sting in the Tale#11 – A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson

Bumblebees are among my favorite creatures, and Dave Goulson’s book is simply delightful. Packed with fascinating scientific and historical facts about bumblebees, Goulson also fills the book with charming anecdotes, and droll humor. As a British scholar, the focus of Goulson’s research is understandably centered around that country, and the once-ubiquitous English gardens that allowed the bumblebee to thrive for so many years. Goulson does follow the research far and wide, from South America to Tasmania. He also peppers the book with related informational tidbits on honeybees, butterflies, badgers, martins, echidnas, wasps. and all sorts of other creatures.

Goulson wraps up his popular scientific narrative by talking about the BBCT, or Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a charity devoted to the Bumblebee, that he started several years ago. He adroitly makes the larger connection of the importance of the bumblebee, and all the pollinators of the world, and our planet’s success.


#10 – Scared Scriptless by Alison Sweeney

Scared Scriptless is Alison Sweeney’s second novel set in Holllywood featuring a female protagonist who is involved in the entertainment business. You could label it chick lit, romance, or beach reading, and you would be correct, but its easy, comfortable and warm style really transcends genres and puts a smile on your face while you’re reading. When I’m reading Sweeney’s novels, I feel like I’m listening to her tell a story. I’m on the set of a busy television show shoot; I’m pitching a reality show to hard-nosed executives, and on a date with an impossibly handsome, incredibly popular television/movie star and dealing with all that entails. The details that Sweeney infuses into her novel, which can only come from her first person experience, translates to beautifully and seamlessly into the story that I really feel like I’m spending time with the author herself.

The plot is engaging enough without the Hollywood touches. Maddy Carson is the script supervisor (have you ever read anything about a script supervisor?) on a hit TV show — but is not comfortable with the Hollywood entertainment business life. She’s a down home gal, with deep roots in her family’s hometown in the mountains. When an opportunity presents itself to help her family and home community by pitching a reality show about her town, she’s tentative, but throws herself into the project, alongside her boss, Craig, who she is secretly dating. Then there’s this gorgeous actor who has just joined the show how is not so subtly pursuing her despite her “no actors” policy. Can the uber-organized Maddy reconcile her discomfort with Hollywood to become a real force to be reckoned with in the business? And will she figure out her love life despite her protestations against grand romantic gestures? And how many movie quotes will I catch as Maddy and her colleagues toss them about throughout the novel?

If you’re not looking for something serious and full of literary allusions, and you’re curious, even a little, about the mechanics of creating a TV show, give Scared Scriptless a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.

posted in 2014, Books, Year-end lists | at 10:41 am | 0 Comments
8th January 2015
by Michael

2014, the Year in Books: #’s 13 & 12

The next two books on my top list are both new authors to me, and are the first two of several high-end speculative fiction titles on my list. It was a good year for me with science fiction. It was also a really good year for women authors, with 10 in the top 15 (and 13 in the top 19.)

duplex#13 – Duplex by Kathryn Davis

This is one unusual book. Kathryn Davis merges the tropes of science fiction (robots, sorcerers) with 50’s domestic drama. Mary’s neighborhood is populated by boys who play sports, and girls who trade cards. The robots who live next door are curious, but most of the time they retain their human shape. When the sorcerer drives down the street one day, Mary’s life, and the life of her neighbors, is changed forever. Then there’s that house by the ocean, where all sorts of confounding events occur. And just what happened to her school crush anyway?

I’m not sure I quite understand what Davis was getting at with Duplex, but I loved the tone and the structure of the book. The concepts are grand yet personal. It’s not the type of book where I necessarily needed to know exactly what was going on, but it was fascinating to read, and so entertaining, that I just let that all go. If you’re willing to trust you’ll have an interesting ride, you will want to give Duplex a try.

memory#14 – Memory of Water by Emmi Ita?ranta

A dark future, where potable water is scarce, and seventeen-year-old Noria Kaitio struggles to learn the secrets of the past to determine how the world came to be the way it is. While learning to become a tea master and eventually take over for her father, Noria learns of the dangerous secret that puts her at risk with the government. She also discovers old technology that reveals even more secrets that she finally must act upon in the hopes that knowledge will help to change the world.

Emmi Ita?ranta is a talented writer, weaving together sentences that create stunning visuals. Memory of Water weaves and falls like flowing water ultimately seeking it’s destination. This is a somber tale, filled with foreboding, but ultimately there is a hopefulness infused into the resolution. Noria is a wonderful character, both reflective and proactive, and the future Emmi paints is intricate and fascinating.

posted in 2014, Books, Year-end lists | at 6:00 am | 0 Comments
7th January 2015
by Michael

2014, the Year in Books: #’s 14 & 15

snowThe Snow Queen#15 – The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham is a talented writer, and his prose is always a joy to read, but in his latest novel, The Snow Queen, I felt the story wasn’t quite fully realized. There are some intriguing ideas — around life, death, love, siblings, success, songwriting, caring — but it’s unclear what it all amounts to. In fact, re-reading some reviews of The Snow Queen I find it difficult to recall the book being described; it just didn’t stick with me.

Still, despite a slow start, Cunningham’s latest novel builds nicely and the threads do start to come together nicely in the last quarter of the book. Sadly, a Michael Cunningham novel only comes along once every few years, so it’s disappointing when they don’t all reach the heights that his previous work does. Definitely worth a read.

this#14 – This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

This Dark Road to Mercy is a good book. I enjoyed reading it. It moves along nicely and tells a good story about two young girls in North Carolina, Easter and Ruby, whose mother has died years after their father has abandoned them. They end up in a foster home awaiting word from grandparents they have never met living in Alaska, when their father, Wade, a former, promising baseball player, shows up with an idea to get them back. Trouble is, someone is after Wade, and his intentions are not good. Wiley Case does a nice job building some suspense, Easter’s voice is particularly strong. But I am not really sure what he was trying to say about fatherhood, and the parent/child relationship, and the ending left me vaguely unsatisfied. Overall, I enjoyed it, but it was a little shy of being a great read.

posted in 2014, Books, Year-end lists | at 6:00 am | 0 Comments
6th January 2015
by Michael

2014, the Year in Books: A Few Honorable Mentions

There’s nothing arbitrary about the number of books I chose to spotlight for my year-end review. I stop there I feel there is a natural cut-off. This year that break does come in at #15, but even there, of the 38 books I read this year, there were a few more that I felt deserved a mention on the blog. Maybe they didn’t rise to the very top, they were still notable for one reason or another and great reads all the same. Here they are, in alphabetical order by author: the-books-that-didn’t-make-the-top-but-were-still-notable!


The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore – As a big comic big fan, a bigger fan of superheroines, and a long-time fan of WonderWoman, you know I wasn’t about to pass up a book that explores that character’s secret history. Add to that an author with a pedigree in feminism and history, and I was bound to find this a fascinating read. Then, I found myself sitting next to Ms. Lepore at a Random House breakfast at BookExpo America where she introduced this book to a bunch of librarians, and we bonded over my Wonder Woman cellphone cover. All that and I haven’t even mentioned what a great book this was. Lepore talks about how the Wonder Woman comic book came to be, and how it led the feminist charge through most of the previous century, but she also explores Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Martson and the two women in his life, Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne, who served as inspiration and even co-creators of the Amazon Princess.  Marston and his unconventional family make for fascinating subjects, and they were, but call me superheroine-centric, I just wanted a little more Wonder Woman.


We Were Liars by E. Lockwood – This smash, young adult novel follows the lives of four teens as they spend summers on a private island off Martha’s Vineyard a la another famous, political family from real life. Seventeen-year-old Cady is our narrator as she looks back on the previous few summers on the island after a bizarre head injury robbed her of a season’s worth of memories. No one wants to tell her what happened, not her closest friends and cousins, not the little ones, not her mother, or aunts, and not even the boy who she thought was her boyfriend. All she knows is after the accident that robbed her of her memories, she stopped hearing from her fellow ‘liars,’ no matter how many e-mails she sent. We Were Liars is a engrossing read, with a nifty twist toward the end, but there’s only so much privilege I can read about before starting to roll my eyes. Fortunately, Lockwood is aware of this and rolls her authorial eyes in that direction as well.


The Arsonist by Sue Miller – I’d never read Sue Miller, but she was going to be a guest at an author panel I put together, and I always try to read the book of an author I will be hosting. Plus, the premise of The Arsonist appealed to me: a series of fires plague a resort town in New Hampshire, but the houses going up in flames only seem to belong to the summer residents; the year-round residents abodes seem safe. This is the backdrop of a family story where a woman returns from years working in Africa to find her aging parents having some difficulties. What starts as a family drama, a story about aging, and a backdrop of crime, evolves a little too much into a love story for me during the second half, but Miller’s a strong writer and I’m glad I gave this one a shot.



Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff – We lost one of our true talents in 2012, but he left us with a gift; his first novel. One that retained his sharp tongue, his sardonic wit, his discerning eye and his sympathetic heart. And the kicker? It’s entirely in verse! This is truly anoriginal and refreshing series of interconnected stories chronicling life, love and relationships throughout the 20th century. In addition to David’s poignant, acerbic, and witty storytelling skills, he has written the entire novel in verse, and included some beautiful illustrations by Seth. It’s a gorgeous design for a sweetly powerful novel by a talented writer who left us far too early.

posted in 2014, Books, Year-end lists | at 6:00 am | 0 Comments
5th January 2015
by Michael

2014, The Year in Reading: Graphic Novels

SagaIn preparation for my list of the best books I read in 2014, I wanted to call out a particular category that deserves mention, but didn’t feel right to include on the list proper, and that is the graphic novel, or more specifically, the collected editions of monthly comics. I’m a big comic book reader, and most of the reading I do in this genre is of individual issues on a monthly basis. Occasionally there is a title I’ve missed that I later catch up with when they are collected and published in bound editions. If I included these collected editions as part of this list, then Saga, Volumes 1, 2 and 3 would have made the Top 5.

The latest ongoing work by notable comic writer Brian K. Vaughan, with dynamic assistance from illustrator Fiona Staples, is a science fiction space opera cum Romeo & Juliet. A soldier and a rebel from opposite sides of two warring planets, fall in love and flee with their infant daughter with the governments of both factions, and a particularly a couple of wild bounty hunters on their tails. Saga is just that: a prose narrative of achievements and events in the history of a personage, family, etc. Sagas are all about heroism, and while there is something inherently heroic about Alana and Marko’s forbidden love and their refusal to follow the prejudiced and hateful viewpoints of their respective worlds, their heroism is shown on a much smaller scale, and that is they desire to raise their daughter despite the odds against them.

sagav1Vaughan, whose work in such comic titles as Y: The Last ManEx Machina,  Runaways and the stand-alone graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad, is known for this thoughtful explorations into the human condition, while telling a compelling adventure story, whether in the context of a dystopian society, a world of super-heroes, or against the backdrop of war.  His partner and co-owner of Saga is talented illustrator Fiona Staples, whose imaginative designs of alien races and starships lends both a whimsical fantasy and hard science fiction element to her work. Her gorgeous, hand-painted covers, and hand-worked lettering are also widely-praised by critics and fans alike.

If you’re a fan of high adventure, fantasy or science fiction, but not a comic reader, I would recommend you give Saga a try. If you’re a comic fan, but not so hot on the science fiction/fantasy elements, i would also suggest you pick up Saga, Volume 1. This is top notch work, and worthy of a place in my list of Top Reads of 2014. I only gave it a category all its own to make room for more books to spotlight.

posted in 2014, Books, Comics, Year-end lists | at 8:52 am | 0 Comments
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