Byrd-standup.jpgThe first time I read anything about Kim Church’s debut novel Byrd was on Largehearted Boy. She put together a playlist for that blog’s Book Notes series, and I liked the playlist. While I’ve discovered many new bands through Largehearted Boy and the Book Notes series, sometimes I feel as though authors go to an awful lot of trouble to list the most obscure musical acts possible (with the exception of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Nick Cave, who all seem obligatory for about every third list…not that there’s anything wrong with that). Here were artists and songs I knew from childhood: The Allman Brothers, The Doobie Brothers, Nina Simone, Carol King.

As much as I liked her playlist, I was also intrigued by her explanations of how the songs connected to her novel. When I saw it was available on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to get a review copy. Byrd is a book about unrequited love, but also something deeper than that, because Addie Lockwood’s real unrequited love–if it can be called anything as simple as that–is her love for the son she gave up, a boy she calls Byrd, and the ideas and ideals she gave up with him. This story of a mother giving up her child for adoption is an unusual one because Addie is 32 when she decides to give up Byrd for adoption. Not to say that any story of giving up a child for adoption is typical, but Addie is at an age when a lot of married women start having children—or worrying about having children, with that proverbial biological clock tick-tocking, so her point of view is different than say, a high school or college student in the same position.

I picked up Byrd late on a Friday afternoon and I finished it the next day. I haven’t read a book that quickly in years. The book begins with Addie and her not-yet love interest Roland Rhodes, the book’s central figures, in 1965 when they are in the fourth grade. Told from various characters’ third-person point of view (including Addie and Roland), we catch glimpses of them alone and with each other as their relationship evolves (and then dissolves) over the course of their lives. Although Addie and Roland’s relationship is the central relationship in the book (well, besides Addie’s “relationship” with Byrd, which is one-sided, as Addie writes letters to him over the years), we also experience Addie’s relationship with her parents and friends, and Roland’s relationship with another woman and with the son they have together. The chapters that are devoted to other characters—Addie’s mother and father, her brother Sam, and Roland’s girlfriend Elle, are some of the most poignant in the novel, and they add a depth to the characters that we would not get if the story simply alternated between Addie and Roland, or stayed with only one of them.

I might as well cut to the chase. I am not much of a crier, but when I got to the end of Byrd (and maybe a few times before that), I cried. For about an hour, I cried. I wasn’t sobbing, but I continued to well up, and even now if I think about certain scenes in the novel, it brings tears to my eyes. And the beauty of it is that nothing in this novel is overworked or melodramatic. It’s the hush, the lonely hopefulness, the complexity of love and disappointment that drive the narratives of everyday life that really shine here. I highly recommend it, with 5/5 stars.

Byrd is a quiet book. Most of the time I don’t mind that my blog is not more popular, but when I find a book like Byrd, which was published by the terrific independent publisher Dzanc Books, I wish I had a wide readership so that I could help it build the attention it deserves. (Thanks goodness for Largehearted Boy, which will hopefully give it a wider audience.)

Read an interview with Kim Church here.

I received my copy of Byrd from NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Not For Nothing

NotForNothing-Standup.pngWhen I find myself wide awake in the middle of the night, to lull myself back to sleep, I work on on a blog post in my head. This happens at least once a week, and when it does I never get out of bed and actually bother to write anything. I always think I will remember everything in the morning, but of course that line of thinking also assumes that the first thing I will do when I get out of bed is go to the computer, or at the very least grab a pen and a notebook, and capture everything from the night before, the way one would record a vivid dream for later analysis. Me? I play with the cat, drink a glass of water, get up and make the bed, go downstairs for coffee. By the time I am on my second cup of coffee, The Today Show has usually obliterated most of the original or interesting thoughts that might have remained from the night before. Ah, the perils of morning television.

Last night as I lay awake I wrote a post in my head about Not For Nothing by Stephen Graham Jones. I finished the book a few weeks ago, but I have been thinking about it a lot. Here’s some of what remained of my thoughts when I awoke this morning:

  • If Larry McMurtry wrote crime fiction in the second person, this is the kind of book he would have written.
  • In cities, there are jobs. In small towns, there are simply things that have to get done. Somebody has to run the car wash, the burger stand, or say, the storage unit facility.
  • People who leave small towns are resented and admired in equal measure. People who come back from the big city are generally considered to have come to their senses, but also viewed with some suspicion. (And remember, the “big city” is relative. When you’re from a town with less than 1,000 residents, one with 100,000 residents seems huge.)
  • Someone is nodding on almost every single page in this book. I’m afraid that readers will think this is an author’s tic. Because I am from West Texas, I know very well that people there actually communicate this way. A nod can mean many things: an agreement, a disagreement, a laugh, an apology, an expression of love, an ending to a conversation or even a relationship. (See again McMurtry, Larry, Horseman, Pass By or The Last Picture Show. See Hud starring Paul Newman. If you must, see Friday Night Lights, only watch it with the sound off at least half the time. You can’t get away with all that nodding in television drama.)
  • If people pick up this novel because they are curious about the second-person narrative, I hope they stay for the story. Even though it has a mystery with all the requisite (but not expected!) twists and turns, I found it to be much more than a crime novel (see yet again, McMutry, Larry).

Not For Nothing is the story of “you,” one Nicholas Bruiseman of Stanton, Texas. You went to school with the same kids all the way through your junior year of high school. You were a fat kid, and it earned you the nickname St. Nick. You had a case of sticky fingers in your later years. You had a secret, sweet moment with a girl in high school that left an indelible impression on your mind and heart. Nobody thought you would amount to much, but you went to Midland and became a cop. And then you had to come back to Stanton because being a cop doesn’t always mean being smart. It doesn’t mean who you are or meant to be won’t catch up with you sooner or later, as everyone is happy to remind you when they see you. You have a darker side, but you also have a wry sense of humor and know not to take yourself too seriously when you can help it. You take a job as caretaker for storage units, and one day that girl you were sweet on through high school, maybe longer, shows up. She wants to hire you to watch her husband, the football hero who made your life hell as a kid. And then the football hero shows up later, after she’s gone. He wants you to watch his wife.

And the rest is about you trying to figure out what game they’re playing, to understand why people are disappearing or dying. But also the rest is you trying to get through the day to day of the life you live now and to figure out how you can help other people you see hurting who don’t need a wannabe private-eye but a friend. And that’s the most interesting part of the book, and Jones does such a seamless job of telling Nick’s story, your story, that you willingly go along. And in fact you will forget you are reading in second person, most likely, because you’ll be able to smell the hot air, see the big sky, taste the chopped barbecue sandwich or the stale burrito from the convenience store. I highly recommend it, with 4/5 stars. (The novel, that is–not the convenience store burrito.)

I admit I might be a bit prejudice in the novel’s favor because I spent my first thirteen years going back and forth between Lubbock and Odessa, and through Big Spring and Sweetwater every other small town on I-20 on the way to Dallas when I went there to visit family. I haven’t been to West Texas in 20 years—I haven’t even lived in Texas since 1999—but I still see it and feel it vividly. It’s a place that once it’s in you, it’s always in you.

If you’re interested in why Jones chose to write the novel in second person, you can read his blog post about it at the Dzanc Books blog.

If you’re interested in what real Texans look like as opposed what y’all think they look like, then you should check out sponglr.

I received my copy of Not For Nothing through NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Things I Want That Aren’t Books

For today’s Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, we are supposed to list the top ten bookish things we want to own that aren’t books. The truth is, I am really interested in trying to reduce the amount of stuff I have, not add to it, and when it comes to bookish things, the thing I want most is more books. But in the spirit of things, I’ll play along as well as I can, without showing you something really original, like say, ten different bookshelves or a bunch of t-shirts with catchy book things on them. (Hi, I like to alienate people.)

1. A trip to the library at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The Reading Room and Special Collections at the Rijksmuseum mostly contain books on art history. I am not an art historian by any means but just look at all the treasure in this room in my favorite museum in my favorite city. Even better, when I leave the museum and walk around Amsterdam, I see book stores on every street. Heaven.

2. A dedicated room for my personal library. Actually, I go back and forth on this one. I see pictures of other people’s personal libraries and like any book lover I drool a little bit. But then I think, if all my books are in the library, and not in the living room or piled all over the house as they are now, how will people know I am a reader? What if all they see if the television and the XBOX? No no no. Books everywhere, library too! (And yes, I said I don’t want to accumulate stuff. Books aren’t stuff! They are books!) This one in Belgium looks nice, and I could easily pop over to Amsterdam when I felt like it.

3. I want my goddam books back. Sorry to go all Holden Caulfield on you, but seriously, I want back the books I have loaned to friends over the years. (Not talking about family. At least I know where those books are.) Yes, it is my own fault for trusting people who say they love books and love to read and yadda yadda. Now, when I borrow books from people…*side-eyes bookshelf* *dies of embarrassment*

4. The Riverside Shakespeare. Yes, I know this is technically a book, but really it’s a collected work. Of plays and sonnets and whatnot. That just happen to be in book form. This was the text for my university Shakespeare class in the age of Nirvana, and I sold it back because I needed the money. Maybe you all could live on words, but I needed ramen. I have always regretted selling it, and while I don’t exactly loll around reading the Bard all day, it would be wonderful to have a trusted reference nearby for when I want to look up a line, or just peruse for the hell of it.

The Riverside Shakespeare

This cover is much more attractive than versions with a giant Shakespeare head.

5. The Oxford English Dictionary. Because it’s not a book (or books) it’s a dictionary and it’s for my personal library, duh. It’s a REFERENCE TOOL. Seriously, though: right now I am reading The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon, and this fantastic dystopian novel is all about etymology and the philosophy of language and the ways technology is changing communication, and it has reminded me of the joy of looking up words and understanding their history, how their meanings have changed over time. If you are a reader and you are not interested in WORDS, then something is wrong with you.

The Oxford English Dictionary

6. Page numbers on my Kindle books. I think I had an option on my old Kindle to display page numbers instead of percentages (at least for some books), but now I am using the Kindle app on my Android tablet and I am back to seeing percentages. It also shows me how much time I have left to finish the book at my current reading pace, which makes me feel like I am in training and need to speed up. It’s like RunKeeper, only for reading. ReadKeeper. Reading is supposed to be relaxing, FFS!

7. And while I am on the subject (sort of) of my Android tablet, I would like to have a pretty tablet cover. no, it doesn’t have to look like a book. I have a Nexus 7. Apparently nobody who owns a Nexus 7 except for me would like an attractive cover. Apparently only iPad and Samsung Galaxy owners want pretty covers. It also would have been nice if the cover I ended up with hadn’t emitted a sickening chemical smell for the first two weeks that was so bad I couldn’t use it and had to keep it in the garage. Do you think I should be worried about the faint glow in the area where it sat while it aired out?


What I’d like…


What I’ve got…smell isn’t so bad anymore, really. You get used to it.


8. Electronic copies of my books. I would happily pay a higher price to get an electronic copy of any physical book I buy. For one thing, reading in bed or sometimes in other places I won’t mention here is so much easier on an e-reader. For another thing, when I travel for work and I am in the middle of reading a physical book (especially a chunkster), I have to leave the book behind, which means that I have to start another book on my Kindle. This upsets me greatly. I am not good at serial reading. Not good at all.

9. Disinfected, clean library books. You know what I mean. Water damage. Unidentifiable stains. Skeevy-looking library patrons with head colds who look like they might take out a bag of Funyuns and a melty bar of chocolate and start eating over the pages of an open book any second. Take the money from all those ten cent late fee fines and buy some sanitizer, people. (Seriously, library, hold patrons accountable for wrecking books. MAKE THEM PAY.)

10. Time. What do you mean I can’t own time? I want it. We all want it, I know. More time to read ALL THE BOOKS.

I’m All Out of Love

Have you ever fallen out of love with an author? Recently on NetGalley I requested a book of stories by a writer whose stories and novels I used to love. I have read at least five of this author’s books (three collections, two novels), and one collection in particular I have recommended many times to people who were interested in reading short stories but were not sure where to start.

I was excited about this new story collection. (And I’ll confirm that I am not talking about Lorrie Moore’s Bark, which I own in hardback but have not even opened yet.) The first story was one I had already read when it was published elsewhere. I remember thinking it was okay. On second reading, I was even less impressed.

This author does tend to visit the same themes over and over again, but a lot of authors (Alice Munro, for example) do that successfully over the course of an entire career. I can appreciate this, as long as I continue to see the author handling certain themes or subject matter in new ways—when I can see the author has turned the thing this way, and then again that way, and realized that perhaps long-held ideas were misguided, or the result of pride or vanity or anything, really.

What I found in this new collection was that this author seems to have stopped seeing things through the prism of age or changing culture or world events and is instead viewing them through a single lens, one with an old prescription. I feel as though I have seen these characters before, in these same situations, responding in the same ways, and it leaves me thinking, “Really? Again?” It’s like watching an old friend repeatedly make the same mistakes. Or maybe it’s the way I’m reading? My expectations were too high, perhaps?

I am being purposely coy and not naming names (or even revealing gender) because I feel that I can still recommend the author’s past books. But I’m afraid I won’t be reviewing this one, and I’ll never suggest it.

The Tie That Binds

The Tie That Binds CoverKent Haruf is not a writer for everyone. For example, if you have no interest in what goes on, say, outside of Brooklyn, or anywhere in between New York City and San Francisco (or Los Angeles or Seattle), then Kent Haruf is probably not an author for you. Or if you have no interest in stories about real families dealing with real struggles, not in a sensational, reality TV, Duck Dynasty or Honey Boo Boo sort of way. (I don’t know, what other reality TV families are there? Ah, the Duggars. They probably should have had a guest spot on True Detective.)

The Tie That Binds was Haruf’s debut novel, and it introduces readers to the small, fictional town of Holt, Colorado, where all of his subsequent novels are set. An 80-year old woman, Edith Goodnough, has been charged with murder. As the novel opens, a journalist from the Denver paper has come to town to get the story. When the journalist arrives at the house of Sanders Roscoe, who has lived next door to Edith for his whole life, he’s told in no uncertain terms to mind his own business and get the hell out of town. Sanders is our narrator, and after he banishes the journalist he turns his gaze directly to us, the readers, and begins to to tell the story of Edith Goodnough, her brother Lyle, and her father, Roy.

“Most of what I’m going to tell you, I know. The rest of it, I believe.”

Sanders starts at the very beginning, when Roy and his wife Ada traveled to Holt from Iowa, before Edith and Lyman were born. Sanders has learned the history of the Goodnough family from his father, John, who lived with his mother, the county midwife, on the property next door.

On Roy: “He was a mean sort of private man. I know from personal experience with him, and more muleheaded even than he was private. He hated like the very goddamn to be dependent on anyone for anything.”

What follows is a mystery of sorts, and also the simple stories of lives lived on the plains. What Haruf shows in his spare yet rich prose is how often those can be one and the same thing. After her mother dies, even though she is courted by John, Edith chooses to remain unmarried. Her brother Lyman, on the other hand, hotfoots it out of town for the next several decades, leaving Edith alone to care for their ailing, angry, abusive father.

Any other writer might feel the need to give Edith a dark secret to explain her choice. In short, she feels duty-bound. Lyman sends her postcards from all the places he visits across the United States, and she pins them to the living-room wall, an armchair journeyman awaiting his return. Eventually Roy dies, Lyman returns home, and for a while things are good:

In the end that’s what Edith Goodnough had: she had six years of what you may call fun. Or good times. Or better, just the day-in, day-out mean rich goodness of being alive, when at night you lie down in the warm dark pleased with your corner of the world, and then you wake up the next morning still pleased with it, and you know that, too, while you lie there for a time listening in peace to the mourning doves calling from the elm trees and telephone lines, until finally the thought of black coffee moves you up out of bed and down the stairs to the kitchen stove, so that once again you begin it all afresh, with pleasure, with eagerness even. Because yes, Edith had that for a while. During that period it was written all over her face. Her brown eyes shone and snapped for six years.

And then life interferes for the worse. An accident happens, and it changes the nature of the life that Lyman and Edith built together in that short six years. In the end, it leads Edith to murder.

The Tie That Binds is a novel where nothing much happens, yet I’m afraid of giving anything away. If nothing else, that shows how deep Haruf goes into ordinary lives to tell a story–or better, to show that these are stories worth telling. In this first novel I can see all the hallmarks of his later works. The only clue that he might be a less confident writer than in his later novels is how he uses the framing device of the journalist to introduce the real story to the reader. I suspect if this were one of his later novels, he might have found another way in. However, it doesn’t detract from the story, either.

I find it funny that the book synopsis includes this sentence: “As Roscoe shares what he knows, Edith’s tragedies unfold: a childhood of pre-dawn chores, a mother’s death, a violence that leaves a father dependent on his children, forever enraged.” If those things are Edith’s tragedies, then they are also the tragedies of thousands of people across the plains in the early Twentieth century, people living a rough and demanding life on the high plains or prairies of the nation’s middle states. I suppose Edith could be seen as a tragic figure, but for me she emerged as someone who made choices that mystified Sanders Roscoe but made plain, clear sense to her. Ultimately, that is one thing I love about Haruf as a writer: his characters might be ordinary, but they are never without mystery. Four out of five stars.

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A Land More Kind Than Home (and In-Defense of Three Stars)

A Land More Kind Than Home CoverWiley Cash got a lot of love for his debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, and rightly so. Told from alternating first-person points of view, A Land More Kind Than Home is the story of faith and religion gone awry. Adelaide Lyle is the town midwife, and she opens the story by explaining why she left the church that was home and family to her for decades in the tiny western North Carolina town where she lives. After another congregant in the church is killed during some….er, questionable worship practices (and the death covered up by the Reverend Chambliss and Adelaide’s fellow congregants), Adelaide decides she must shield the congregation’s children from things that are happening inside the church. She comes to an uneasy agreement with Reverend Chambliss that she will care for the children while the adults worship, an arrangement that seems to work until the day that Julie Hall decides to take her autistic son to the church.

The story’s other narrators are Jess, a nine-year old boy whose mother is one of the church’s congregants, and the Sheriff Clem Barefield. Through Jessie, we learn exactly what happens to his brother inside the church that later leads to his death. Sheriff Barefield rounds out the story by introducing more of the Hall family and its connection to a tragedy in his own family decades earlier.

The story is not a wholly original one, in that the reader can easily guess what is going to happen to Jess’s brother (nicknamed Stump) in that backwoods evangelical country church. But to Cash’s credit, he expertly paces the events surrounding what happens to Stump and Jess, weaving in the Sheriff’s backstory in way that shows us the ties that bind and those that have been torn. In addition, the ending is something of a surprise in terms of choices some of the characters make.

Cash easily could have been much more heavy-handed with all the religious material, but he does a good job of showing how good people can be caught up by a more powerful personality, especially when that personality is promising them everlasting salvation. Reverend Chambliss would have been right at home as a character in HBO’s True Detective, but that’s less because he’s a stereotype than because he’s a simple fact in some parts of the South. Not long after I finished Cash’s book, a news story broke about a preacher in Kentucky killed as a result of snake-handling.

Cash also does a good job moving between characters. In particular, the reader understands Jess’s distress and confusion as he tries to manage what he sees happening to his family due to his mother’s devotion to the church even after Stump’s death.

I hope it doesn’t seem that I am damning this book with faint praise by giving it three out of five stars. It is a solid, well-written debut, one that makes me eager to read Cash’s latest, This Dark Road to Mercy. I’m giving it three stars primarily because the story is not wholly original, and neither are the characters. The author has some characters make interesting choices at the end, but that doesn’t make the book ground-breaking in any way. That said, this novel is definitely worth reading, and Cash will be a writer to watch.

And on the three-star rating: Lately I feel I’ve been grading on a curve. I’ve been giving solid, well-written books four or sometimes even five stars. But some of those books weren’t great, and it occurred to me one day that there is absolutely nothing wrong with three stars. Lately, I think that three stars have generally come to mean, “Meh, it was okay.” To me, three stars means that author got most things right: the writing, the pacing, the character development, the story. But I’ve decided to save those fourth and fifth stars for books that sweep me away, that show me something wholly original, that make me marvel and wonder at the effort–or effortlessness–of the writing.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Just HAD to Buy…But Are Still Sitting on My Bookshelf

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish. For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, participants are asked to revisit any past topic, so I picked one with which I think many readers can identify—books I simply HAD to have at the moment, but that have consequently sat on my bookshelf untouched for months or even years.

First, the real books, hardback and paperback, that I just HAD to have:

  • The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins – When I first started this blog in 2009, everyone was reading Wilkie Collins, it seemed, and although I am not the biggest fan of Nineteenth century literature, I decided that this might be the book that would change my mind. And who knows, perhaps it would have, had I ever even bothered to read the first page.
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbary – This was another title, along with The Book Thief and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, that everyone seemed to be reading in 2009, so I HAD to have it. The only one of those popular titles I eventually read was The Book Thief.
  • The Gods of Gotham, Lindsay Faye – I bought this because Gillian Flynn promoted it on the Today Show when she was touring for her book Gone Girl. I’m a big fan of Flynn’s writing, and I’m always curious to know what my favorite authors are reading. I remembered that I had seen this at the grocery store, so I went that same afternoon and bought it. I’m sure it’s good. Gillian Flynn said so.
  • The Ambassadors (Penguin Classics) CoverThe Ambassadors, Henry James – Every now and again I get this idea that I am going to go back to being a Serious Reader, because being a Serious Reader will make me an all-around Better Person. I’m not a complete fool, and I know I will never read Ulysses (seriously, no desire) and probably will never make it around to reading Proust, so James seemed like the safe choice. No idea why I chose The Ambassadors over any of this other novels. (Full disclosure: The only works of Henry James I have read are Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw.)
  • Essence and Alchemy, Mindy Aftel – My first blog was a perfume blog. First I read Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, about the famed “nose” and perfume critic Luca Turin, and I had planned to read this. Turned out I was less interested in the mechanics and more interested in, as they say, the juice itself. I am sure this book is fascinating. Someday I might find out.
  • The Art of Eating, M.F.K. Fisher – A huge chunk of a book filled with Fisher’s essays about food and eating food. I bought this in the early days of my perfume blogging. I probably had some silly fantasy of becoming a real all-around asthete.
  • The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov – This was another book that so many book bloggers I follow and admired have recommended year after year. At least I actually own a copy. Baby steps.
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus CoverThe last three books on this list: Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, and David Goldfield’s America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, were all purchased at the beginning of 2013 when I decided that I needed to read more non-fiction. They are lined up on top of a bookshelf in my office, mocking me ever so quietly.

And also, as a bonus, five Kindle purchases:

  • All Things, All at Once, Lee K. Abbott – I bought this last year because I was reading an interview with Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn (which I just recently purchased an also have not read yet) and she was talking about what an influence Abbott was for her. I bought this story collection right away. All it takes is someone whose book I think I might like talking about books they liked…and I’m done for.
  • A Naked Singularity, Sergio de la Pava – Someone at The Millions listed this as a “favorite” read for 2012, and also, it was on sale. And also, I don’t read enough foreign authors. And clearly, I still haven’t.
  • Catching Fire (The Hunger Games #2) CoverCatching Fire, Suzanne Collins – I bought this in 2011 because I had read The Hunger Games and it was on sale. Now I’ve seen the movie, which I know probably isn’t exactly like the book, and maybe not even as good, but probably there’s no chance now that I will read it or Mockingjay. I am terrible about trilogies and series. I dont’ know why I bother. But while we’re on the subject, what’s going to happen now that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone?
  • Damage Control, Denise Hamilton – I read a review of this on NPR one day right before I was getting ready to go on a trip, and it sounded like a good vacation read so I bought it. This is sort of cheating because I actually did read part of it, but I lost interest very quickly and cannot really remember what it is even about.
  • The Hangman’s Daughter, Oliver Pötsch – It was on sale! I was sure I’d read a pretty good review of it somewhere! (This is actually the story of most unread/partially read titles on my Kindle.)

What books did you just HAVE to buy that you never actually got around to reading?

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