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The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

My mistake is also my good fortune. Travel to West Virginia was supposed to go smoothly from the San Antonio airport, through Dulles, to Rochester; but of course I ended up delayed, rerouted through O’Hare, with a half-day to kill at the airport before ever leaving Texas. I had packed more books in my checked bag, but ended up running out of available-at-hand reading material in Chicago. So I bought a book at an airport newsstand. Bad news: long travel day. Bad news: so many books at home (and in that checked bag) that I wanted or needed to read. Good news: a delicious, un-looked-for chance to read a new-ish Harry Bosch mystery.

Remember when I got to read genre mysteries for fun? Whew, it’s been a while (a little over three years). The Wrong Side of Goodbye finds LAPD’s Detective Harry Bosch retired from the force–forced into retirement, in fact, under a dark cloud (which will surprise no one who knows his genre-typical troubles with authority, despite also being an authority). He’s got a PI license, and has been moonlighting–unpaid–with the small-town San Fernando police force, in an “island city” in the middle of LA. His job with the SFPD is to examine cold cases, which is right up his alley. In the opening pages, Bosch has just received a pair of assignments. A multi-billionaire octogenarian hires him, with the utmost secrecy and confidence, to track down an heir who may or may not exist. And San Fernando is plagued by a serial rapist who appears to be escalating. With the help of Mickey Haller (whose fame began with Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer), Bosch tracks both cases. The first will take him into his own memories and traumas of the Vietnam War, and the second will take him into grave danger. But Bosch hasn’t lost his touch, no matter what the LAPD may think.

Classic, and good for the fans. Bosch’s daughter Maddie has grown up and is attending college. Bosch and Haller have a solid working relationship and more. Bosch retains his old skills. This was a nostalgia read for me. I found the same old, good old hero I remember. As I reflect, I’m not sure he shows the evolution of age that perhaps he should at this point in the series. Maddie has grown up, but Bosch feels the same. His professional status has changed, but I don’t detect much of a nod to aging, physically or in terms of his outlook on the world. This may be an element of unrealism in a mostly realistic series. But this is escapist reading for me, too, so I’m unbothered. If I find Bosch just as I left him, that’s okay with me. This is the Bosch I missed.

The mystery part of the book is as good as ever. I love this stuff, and I’m so grateful to Michael Connelly and to that newsstand at O’Hare for bringing me this joy. It was a rare pleasure. And now back to my studies.


Rating: 7 pre-rolled joints.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

A Brothers Grimm fairy tale recast in 1980s London features a single mother fighting against long odds for her place in the world.

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The Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Juniper Tree” features a wicked stepmother. A pious wife desperately wants a child; her wish is granted, but she dies just after giving birth to a son. Her husband buries her under a juniper tree and remarries, but his new wife, favoring her own daughter, cooks her stepson into a stew and feeds it to his father. Her daughter buries the boy’s bones under the juniper tree with his mother. He is reincarnated as a bird, who sings to the townspeople about his murder.

Barbara Comyns’s The Juniper Tree, originally published in 1985, bears an epigraph from the fairy tale: “My mother she killed me, my father he ate me,” but from there diverges sharply from the original. In 1980s London, Bella Winter has had a run of bad luck. Her pretty face has been badly scarred in an automobile accident. She has only recently escaped a manipulative relationship with a selfish man and withdrawn from her unloving mother. She has a young daughter of mixed race she calls Marline, born out of wedlock and fathered by a man whose name she didn’t catch. In the opening pages, she is jobless and homeless, but she is resourceful and unsentimental, and soon finds a home and vocation in a small antiques shop. The friendship of an upper-class couple, Bernard and Gertrude, completes her happiness, and she spends long, sweet afternoons with Gertrude sitting under the juniper tree in the couple’s garden. She even sees a fragile reunion with her mother. This contentment is shattered, however, when Gertrude’s longed-for pregnancy ends in both birth and death. Bella plays an increasingly large role in helping Bernard run his household with the baby, Johnny, and Marline becomes like a sister to the boy. When Bernard convinces Bella to marry him, however, her life takes a turn toward the Brothers Grimm.

Bella is a remarkable narrator and protagonist. Practical, independent, resilient, she builds a neat life for herself and her daughter, meeting all their needs and bothering no one. The friendship of the wealthier couple, which brings her such joy, turns out to be a curse, and Bella the tragic hero. Comyns turns the fairy tale on its head and complicates it with class and racial tensions, mental illness and the timeless struggle of a young woman to chart her own course. This is a richer, more relevant, modern rendering of the classic, heartbreaking in its fine attention to detail and its realistic, hardy heroine. While no knowledge of “The Juniper Tree” is necessary to appreciate this version, those familiar with the original will appreciate many subtle references. This edition includes a brief, helpful introduction by critic Sadie Stein, offering context within Comyns’s body of work. The Juniper Tree is a poignant, quietly disturbing novel for fans of strong female protagonists and dark fairy tales, and anyone who roots for the underdog.


This review originally ran in the December 21, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 magpies.

residency readings, part II

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


Continuing Wednesday‘s post…

I already reviewed Eric Waggoner’s assigned book, Line by Line. In a word, I didn’t find it a very interesting cover-to-cover read! More of a reference book.

Jeremy Jones‘s packet was, I felt, an ideal example of pre-residency reading. For one thing, I appreciate that it was brief! (I was asked to read some 400+ pages for this residency, including my peers’ work that required in-depth response, and watch three movies and view additional material online.) But also, I felt that the selection of works he assigned were an excellent overview to his topic, and read like an introduction to his seminar. This packet, for a seminar on “writing about other people,” includes essays on the topic from a more academic, instructive point of view as well as personal reports by writers with experience writing about close friends and family, and the fallout. The final piece is Jeremy’s own, and I am looking forward to his promise to “talk through changes [he] made and reactions the ‘subject’ had about drafts and the final product.”

I enjoyed that Richard Schmitt’s package was much like him: pithy and to the point. He assigned three enjoyable short stories by Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, and Ernest Hemingway, respectively. Richard’s seminar is about “the art of leverage,” or power shifts in narrative, and these three stories look like great examples of that. I can’t wait. Also, I love anyone who requires me to reread Hemingway.

Rebecca Gayle Howell is teaching a seminar on “the documentary imaginary,” and I have no idea at time of writing what that means. She assigned three movies, three websites, and several readings. (You’ve already seen the movies reviewed here.) As I moved from Deliverance to The True Meaning of Pictures, I noted my clear preference (not for the first time) for literal and explicated narratives. I’m thinking about the discomfort that poetry brings me, because I can’t understand exactly what the poet meant at all times; where I love a memoir or an essay in which the narrative voice tells me precisely what she’s up to. In the same way, I guess Deliverance as an assigned viewing offered lots of possibilities for what we’d be discussing in class. But The True Meaning said what it was about. It discussed what it wanted to discuss, right there on the page, if you will. I felt much more comfortable with that content. Sherman’s March was a different experience, as I’ve already said.

The readings that Howell assigned were intriguing. Let me repeat, at the time of writing these lines, I remain confused about the topic of her seminar. Some of this confusion has got to come from the fact that I am in the minority in this program (whose tagline is “write in the heart of Appalachia”) as an outsider to the Appalachian region. I read the first three chapters of a novel called Mothering on Perilous (what a title!!), and I enjoyed them enough to wish I had time to read the rest, although I knew no more than when I’d started about Howell’s seminar. And then I read an essay called “McElwee’s Confessions,” which I commented on briefly in the comments section of my review of Sherman’s March. This essay is an appreciation of McElwee’s work, and while it did not convince me, it does help me to acknowledge–somewhat grudgingly–that there is more to it than I found in the one film. The essay’s author is familiar with the whole body of McElwee’s work, which I’m sure helps. And not everything is for everybody.

Finally, Howell assigned three websites for viewing: an audio interview with James Dickey (poet and author of Deliverance the novel); a gallery of Doris Ulmann’s photography; and the project “Looking at Appalachia.” That last captivated me. I highly recommend taking a good chunk of time to look through these photographs. The concept is dear to my heart, something like what I was up to at Defining Place, which has gone dormant. “Looking at Appalachia” is my new favorite thing.

Finally, Vicki Phillips’ assignment of Jane McCafferty’s brief “Thank You for the Music” was a touching read. I’m still trying to decide which of the graduate seminars to attend in that final slot, and this lovely little story made it that much harder.


Obviously it was a full and enriching experience just preparing for all these classes. And nothing here reflects the fact that I also spent time preparing for workshop: I read about 20 pages each of four of my peers’ work, and submitted about 20 pages of my own, and during residency we’ll be doing in-depth small-group discussion of those pieces (and exchanging written responses and marginalia). It is an intense time, in every sense. Thank you for being patient with me. As of now, I’m back home and readjusting to home and work life, getting to know my little dogs again and doing laundry–and, of course, getting to work on assignments for the semester. I look forward to hearing from you and reengaging. Life is ever a whirlwind. Again, thanks for your patience.

residency readings, part I

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


I posted last month about the readings (etc.) I’d be doing to prepare for this upcoming semester and residency. As I worked my way through the assignments, I wanted to share a few highlights and my general impressions. Again, you can take a look at the readings and seminar descriptions here.

In order of appearance, and therefore the order in which I read and viewed them:

Because of my longstanding problem with poetry, the packet assigned for Diane Gilliam’s seminar on “reading as a writer” was fairly mysterious to me, though not unenjoyable–I just didn’t know what I was supposed to get out of it. Maybe I’m too much a control freak for poetry. Because the contents of her packet weren’t spelled out at the link above, I’ll just list the poets here. It included works by Louise McNeill, T’ai Freedom Ford, Theodore Roethke, *William Stafford, *Ross Gay, Eavan Boland (author of “The Black Lace Fan” that I remember studying in high school), Li-Young Lee, *Lauren Rusk, W.S. Merwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, *Audre Lorde, Charles Simic, and *Eleanor Wilner. (My favorite poems were by the *asterisked names.)

Jessie‘s assigned readings for “writing in the gaps” included an excerpt from Housekeeping (so at least I was a little familiar, if also ambivalent); a craft essay I really enjoyed by Andrea Barrett that had plenty of personal essay to it as well; and, among other things, Albert Goldbarth’s essay “Fuller.” That last was a reread, and I got so much more out of it this time. Jessie is smart, and deep, and I have no illusions that I am grasping the point of her seminar yet.

Next was Katie Fallon’s packet, which I loved and swooned over, although it was indeed hard emotional stuff. It begins with Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones,” a poem I felt I got. Brian Doyle’s “Leap” was a reread but an always-welcome one. “NeVer ForgeT” by Matthew Vollmer resonated with me in many ways, especially when he meditated on the distances we feel from tragedies close to home, and the different ways we mourn. And though I loved everything in between, the final piece, Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” always stands out. I’ve read it a number of times now, though I haven’t written much about it. I had such a wild time with it again on this reading that I had to amend my “best of the year” post to put it at the very top. I felt close to Katie as I read this packet, too, knowing her as my first semester’s advisor, and knowing from reading her Cerulean Blues of her own experience with trauma. I am very interested in her seminar on “writing personal responses to public violence,” and I imagine that teaching it will cost her something, but I also know she has a lot to teach.

Jacinda Townsend’s packet of magical realism blew my mind. I guess I should be reading more of this stuff?! I loved Byatt’s “A Stone Woman,” and then the next and the next and the next. This was not the first enjoyable reading of the residency assignments, but it was the first time I lost myself. Go find these stories immediately! Wow. I’m really looking forward to this seminar.


That’s all for now–this began as a single really long post but I’ve taken pity on you. Come back on Friday to read about the rest of my assigned readings for this residency period. Thanks for sticking around!

Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing by Claire Kehrwald Cook

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


This book was assigned for Eric Waggoner’s seminar on “prose technique” at this week’s residency. By the time this review posts, the seminar will have happened, but I’m writing beforehand. This review is time-traveling to the future.

Line by Line is a handy reference tool, but no kind of book to read cover-to-cover, and I’m a bit surprised that Eric assigned it as he did. I read the preface and flipped through the rest, interested to see how it handled, for example, the singular “they” pronoun as used by people who don’t ascribe to the gender binary, including a few of my favorite classmates (much discussion of the problem of “he” versus “he or she” versus a singular “they,” but no direct address of the binary-gender problem itself). I skimmed for examples (mostly colorful ones, and from real writing found in real life). It’s got a decent glossary of questionable usage (like affect/effect), although I was surprised to see “hopefully” included (should mean “in a hopeful manner,” rather than “it is hoped that”) and not “momentarily” (the same strict grammarians, I believe, would reserve this for “taking place for only a moment,” and not for something to happen just a mere moment in the future). Which just goes to show that any book like this can only do part of the job, and only from one grammarian’s perspective–obviously. On the one hand, then, why try? No, we do need books like this. But we need to know they are only ever a starting point.

As for readability, why on earth Line by Line when we have Strunk & White’s Elements of Style?? “Omit needless words,” they famously wrote; and that perfect sentence is oft repeated but not always obeyed. My favorite part of Strunk & White’s “little book” is how pleasant it is to read, cover to cover. This one, I will keep handy for consultation, especially for Eric’s seminar, but it will never win my heart like that other one did.


Rating: 5 future references.

2017: A Year in Review

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


This is a traditional annual post; you can see my past few years in review here: 2016; 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011.

For the very *best* books I’ve read this year, see last Friday’s post, best of 2017.


This year was markedly different than any that have come before, because I’ve been a full-time graduate student in creative writing, and my program is fairly reading-heavy. Unsurprisingly, my reading habits have changed a fair amount.

The biggest change: I’m down by nearly half in terms of the number of books I read, at only 70 this year. (There were a handful of individual essays in addition to what I added to the big list of “books read,” but that list also includes a few individual essays.) Of those 70 books:

  • 76% were nonfiction (54% last year), plus a handful of poetry, for less than 20% fiction.
  • an even 50% were written by female authors (40% last year); 40% were by men (51% last year), with the remainder being collections by multiple authors, or variously unidentifiable.*
  • I normally analyze the novels I read by genre, but this is such a small sample size that I’ll just say there was a general smattering of historical fiction, misc. or contemporary fiction, fantasy, drama, and one lonely thriller–a far cry from previous years where thriller/mysteries have been a major component of my fiction reading.
  • I read NO audibooks this year (last year, only 5 books out of 121, but in previous years a significant number).
  • nearly 70% of my reading was assigned for school this year, which I think explains everything else I see here.
  • corollary: the same 70%, almost precisely, I purchased. Another 25% I was sent for review, and those few left over were either sent to me in .pdf form (for school), or already owned. This is a big change, again, from last year, when 80% of the books I read, I read for paid reviews.
  • again, the big one: I read 70 books this year, compared to 121 last year.

I am unsurprised that there are big changes, but I certainly hadn’t realizes how relatively few books I’d read this year. And to think it nearly made my brain explode all the same! I guess that’s just an indicator of how much brainpower (stress, angst, energy, time) went into writing–something not obvious to you, my faithful readers here, I’m afraid. I am ready to share very little of what I write for school with audiences outside that small trusted circle (my faculty advisor, a few classmates). It’s a tender time, and I appreciate your patience.

I’m glad that I’m doing better at reading male and female authors* in more-or-less equal numbers, and I’m glad to be reading a lot of nonfiction, although I confess at this point–overwhelmingly skewed in the nonfictional direction–I do miss the ease and joy of fiction. I also find novels so much easier to review (partly because of all that brainpower already working for school), and I’m going to try to keep that in mind when requesting books for review from the Shelf.

In 2018, I’m afraid we should all expect more of the same trends… I’m entering the third semester of my MFA program, which is the critical essay semester, which means critical writing about my reading, ad nauseum… we’ll see if I can pull it all off! It’s head-above-water time these days. In fact, it occurs to me as I write this that I may have to consider a further slackening of the pace here at pagesofjulia. I’m in the final year of school. How would you all feel about seeing me even less?

And what did 2017 hold for you, and what do you see looming ahead? I’m always glad to hear from you, even if I have little time to respond.

As 2017 closes, I wish us all calm, relaxed, pleasurable, entertaining, enlightening, and inspiring reading lives (maybe not all at once!) and I’m glad to have you here. Love.


*I need to work on this label for the sake of non-gender-conforming or non-gender-binary values, which I support, but I guess I’m still mulling over how to represent this while maintaining the point, which I think is to recognize that I’m not reading only dudes, or that I’m trying not to.

best of 2017: year’s end

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


My year-in-review post will be up next week, as usual. But first, also as usual, I want to share the list of my favorite things I read this year.

Not as usual: none were audiobooks, because I read no audiobooks this year. Few of these are new releases (they are marked with an asterisk*).

I gave a single rating of 10, late in the game, to an essay I’ve read over and over, and it keeps getting better every time. I still have not written about this essay. I still think you should go into it blind.

  • “The Fourth State of Matter,” Jo Ann Beard – nonfiction

I’ve refrained from going back and changing any ratings that I gave at the time; but I have split the books that I rated 9 into two groups, as I judge them now. This list is overwhelmingly nonfiction, since that is most of what I’ve been reading this year.

So. The top three which received ratings of 9, are:

The rest of my 9-ratings, all wonderful reads:

I gave plenty of 8s–too many, perhaps–and I’ve gone through and compiled you a slightly shorter list of my favorites from those books.

I hope this lengthy list gives you some good ideas for your own reading! What are some of the best books you’ve read this year?

Come back next week to see a further breakdown of my reading habits in 2017, what’s changed and what’s a surprise. Happy holidays and happy reading, friends.

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