The 2015/16 Book Group Reading List

New and improved! Now with more fiber! And extra cleaning power!

I’m in a mood.

These are the titles we’ve selected for this year. I’ve decided to note my preconceptions about the books, then I’ll come back after reading them to see how reality matches up with expectations.

October              Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty (Can’t wait to read this. Sounds quirky and fun. I don’t know how a crematory works, but I will after I read this.)

November          The Readaholics and the Falcon Fiasco: A Book Club Mystery by Laura DiSilverio  (I’ve already read this, and I’m eager to see what the rest of the group thinks. Crossing my fingers that we might be able to get the author to join us for our discussion.)

December          Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral by Mary Doria Russell   (I’m actually fairly neutral about this one. Not opposed to a Western. I suspect it will either be well done or over done.

January               Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich (I think I would read anything she writes. There was some discussion about whether or not to read it in December, but some people thought it would be anti-spiritual. I disagreed, but I don’t really care when we read it.)

February             Death by Food Pyramid: How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Have Ruined Our Health by Denise Minger  (My initial reaction was: Yawn. I feel like this is a subject I already read a lot about, and people are constantly talking about, and I get enough of it outside of book group.)

March                 Mink River by Brian Doyle  (I voted no on this book, simply because it’s not very available (the library has 0 copies and the paperback is $18) and whoever wrote the book description should be taken out and flogged. It’s just a list of words, items that we’ll encounter in this fictional small town. I lived in a small town. They really aren’t that interesting. One of our members said she didn’t want to limit the books by what was available. I countered that I didn’t want to have to purchase all the books on the list. Since I know who recommended it, I suspect the writing will be beautiful.)

April                    We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh  (Neutral. Must be popular, because the wait for hard copies or ecopies at the library is hella long. Family drama. The American Dream.)

May                    Lila: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson   (This one intrigues me–homeless girl meets and marries a minister– but only 1 copy at the library and not out in paperback. Yes, ease of acquiring the book matters to me. But this one I’m willing to work to get my hands on.)

June                    The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Set in England between the world wars, it could be interesting. My great-grandparents ran a boarding house, although I never heard many stories about that. Color me curious.)

July                     Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth  (Hard to get and I completely don’t care. Saw a little of the TV series based on this book and fell in love with it. When I saw this on the list of books, it was the first one I knew I was going to vote for.)

August                All We Had: A Novel by Annie Weatherwax   (Sneaky me, I’ve read this one already. I hope it will prompt some good discussion with the group. The storyline itself is not unfamiliar, but it’s not set in the 1950s or in a dysfunctional southern family. Sometimes I think there’s an unwritten rule that coming of age stories must be set in the 50s or 60s. Did we stop having seminal experiences that defined our transition from children to adults? Or are the bygone years tinted with the amber patina of nostalgia?)

September         The Choosing   For those new to this part of my life, over the summer the members of our book group submit possible books for the coming year. Prior to the September meeting, a list is sent out with title, author and description for each book. The meeting is a lot of fun; we eat (it’s a potluck), talk about the books, and vote.

And can anyone tell me why we have to append “: A Novel” to so many titles now? Is the general reading public really too stupid to figure that out?

Have you read any of the books on this list? Do you want to? Do you think I’m on target or way off base on any of these?

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Top 100 Horror Books: 999

Along with fearless friends DeAnna Knippling and Shannon Lawrence, I am making my way through “Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books.”

“999” is an anthology of tales by some of horror’s greatest writers, edited by Al Sarrantonio.

I’m not the ideal audience for a book of short stories. I know this. It’s my shortcoming, has nothing to do with the stories themselves. I read to escape, and short stories are not generally long enough for me to escape into.

I like “Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue” by Kim Newman, because there was a lot of cleverness in both the zombies and what ends up driving them.

“The Ruins of Contracoeur” by Joyce Carol Oates was a little marvel, warping a seriously gothic sensibility with modern technology. And an ending that I won’t soon forget–it was squicky. Gave me a little shudder.

“The Owl and the Pussycat” by Thomas M. Disch is good for a few nightmares. When you finally figure out where the story is going, it’s like an asteroid rushing toward the earth in a big-budget movie–you can’t look away.

Loved “Good Friday” by F. Paul Wilson. There was enough story there to allow me to root for the characters. Well, some of them.

My very favorite was one I had read before, “Mad Dog Summer” by  Joe R. Lansdale, who can do no wrong in my book. Perhaps not classic horror, but the story will chill you even while the writing has you sweating along to the east Texas summer heat.

The last story in the book was “Elsewhere” by William Peter Blatty (yeah, wrote a little book called The Exorcist, you might have heard of that.) I did not see the first twist coming until he wanted me to see it coming. And the note upon which the story actually ended had me pondering for days after reading it.

For my own sanity, I need to give myself more time to read anthologies instead of trying to read them as quickly as a novel. Great way to give myself mental whiplash. I do wish, though, that this Top 100 list had fewer anthologies on it.

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The Chutney Challenge

Go ahead. I dare you. Take the chutney challenge with me.

Featured image

Go to your kitchen cupboard or your pantry. Throw it open. Reach into the dark recesses and pull out that jar at the back that’s been sitting there, neglected, since you bought it on a whim.

Open it.

Use it.

Tell me what you did with it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m going to list the many such jars residing in my own pantry. And then, over the next few weeks, I’m going to list how I use them while I refrain from buying any more. (That last part could easily be a lie. I am powerless over delicious-sounding condiments. I just bought chow-chow at a distillery in Palisade from a drunk New Jersey native who was quoting Hunter Thompson at me. True story.)

I have:

Red Dragon Asian Sauce and Dressing (maybe for Asian chicken salad?)

Moroccan Dipping Sauce. Or maybe it was Grilling Sauce. (I don’t have any Moroccans that need to be dipped. Or grilled.)

Wasabi Ginger Sauce (I bet I can make a slaw with this.)

Red Curry Cooking Sauce (Sounds like an easy one.)

Spicy Bulgogi Barbecue Sauce (I can probably make bulgogi, but I know I’m too lazy to make all the side dishes. Good thing I know where to find the Korean grocery store with the best deli.)

Tikka Masala Sauce (I believe I also spotted a box of naan bread mix.)

Pad Thai Noodle Sauce (so, yes, I could make Pad Thai)

Green Curry Paste (This scares me.)

Roasted Red Chili Paste

Harissa Sauce (Supposed to be fiery and delicious. But can it replace Sriracha sauce in my heart and on my table?)

Salsa Verde (2 large jars, which is good planning on my part because I use this all the time)

A bottle of dry barbecue rub

Three kinds of couscous (regular, whole wheat, and large/Israeli)

I also have dried fruit so old and gnarled that I’m not sure what fruit it started out as. If anyone has an idea how I can refresh that and use it, I’d love to hear it. I suppose I could make a very large amount of fruitcake. (Haters: shut up. Good fruitcake is a revelation and a delight.)

And I do have a bottle of the Major Grey’s, pictured above. That one isn’t a challenge, it goes into a dish I make called Curry in a Hurry, which uses any leftover meat (or none, for the veg-heads) and pretty much any combination of vegetables you want to put into it. Takes about 15 minutes to get it ready, not counting cooking the rice you’ll want with it.

How many of these items can I use on chicken to be grilled? How many can I slip into butternut squash soup? How many can be used to make slaw? Warning, we could have some very funky pizzas coming up.

If anyone is still reading, I’ve started a Pinterest board where I’ll try to keep track of the recipes I’m going to use or will consider using. The green curry paste will be a challenge, since I’m not altogether sure I even like it.

What are YOU going to do for the chutney challenge? Or would you like to trade something for my curry paste? Please?

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Top 100 Horror Novels: Nightworld

Along with fearless friends DeAnna Knippling and Shannon Lawrence, I am making my way through “Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books.”

This time out, I read Nightworld, a Repairman Jack novel by F. Paul Wilson.


My only complaint is that this is the last book in the Repairman Jack series, and now I have to go back and read them all, even though I now know how they’ll ultimately end.

Oh, who am I kidding? By the time I circle back around to the rest of the series, I will have forgotten most of the important bits.

When this book opens, if you’re unfamiliar with the series, then there are a million different ways it could go. It opens with the sun rising late one morning. Catastrophic climate change? Aliens? The end of the world? Black magic?

So the sun is rising late and setting early. Then these giant sinkholes open up, first in NYC but then around the world. And horrors start creeping out during the hours of darkness. Which, remember, are steadily increasing as the days get shorter.

One thing I unashamedly love is a good ensemble cast of characters. Hey, if it’s good enough for Buffy, it’s good enough for me! But even when you have a climax pitting one “good” person against one “evil” being, well, that person didn’t get there on his own. He didn’t get there without the help and luck and sacrifice of a lot of other characters. Damn it, now I really need to read the rest of this series so I can get the back story on all these people.

I am also a sucker for justice, especially on the small-scale. So if someone with questionable moral fiber hatches a plot to exploit or profit from the coming disaster, I enjoy seeing him get his ass handed to him. Especially if it’s a fate worse than death.

Good old-fashioned monsters. Yup, that’s what I like. Lovecraftian-influenced horrors that only come out at night, things with squishy bodies and too many teeth, slithering and flying (and swimming) about in the dark, tapping at your windows, scratching at your door.

Did I have any quibbles? As usual, the women are mostly minor players. They chiefly serve as the ones who need to be protected, although you will be slightly bludgeoned by the mother-child, mama bear stereotype. Repeatedly. I guess women can only be tough if they have a child to protect. That isn’t something that struck me while I was reading the book, but stuck out when I reflected back on the characters in the story to write this review.

Also, the world-wide implications of lessening daylight were somewhat glossed over. They were mentioned, but didn’t seem to really impact any of the main characters. Not that I think the author necessarily had time and space to put all that in, but I missed it. But I’m a fan of dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories, so a lot of questions occurred to me that might not bother other readers.

Onward and upward. This was a book that would make me look under the bed before shutting off the light at night.

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Top 100 Horror Books: The Red Tree

Along with fearless friends DeAnna Knippling and Shannon Lawrence, I am making my way through “Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books.”

I was excited to see The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan on the list, because I think women are underrepresented here. And I was over the moon to discover Sarah Langan.

Alas. This book did not strike home in the same way for me. At times, I felt like I was watching a Ken Russell movie. (Although I’m one of those people who loves Lair of the White Worm.)

I digress. Because I read some other reviews of this book, and what I gather is that I lack all subtlety and enough intelligence to really enjoy this book. Her fans cite the fact that they aren’t spoonfed a lot of details, and there are no crass horror tropes gumming up the beauty that is her work.


I’m fully willing to admit that this is not my style of horror novel. I want to be scared. I want to know there is something to be frightened of outside of my own head. I don’t like wondering if the action is all inside of the narrator’s mind. I have quite enough scary stuff rattling around inside my own skull. I find external horror both more terrifying and more reassuring, because I can fight the monsters that exist in the real world. I’m not so sure about the ones that inhabit my head.

The main character is running away from her life–her publisher, her agent, her dead girlfriend–and runs all the way to rural Rhode Island and an old house with a giant red oak growing on a corner of the property. She find a half-finished manuscript from the house’s last tenant, and discovers the supposed supernatural history of the red oak.

While I went into this book with an open mind, I just couldn’t find the tree scary. And since I’ve read Langan’s book, the mental illness as the instrument of horror doesn’t play for me. It seems frightfully old-fashioned, to me, to have someone’s “descent into madness” be the very thing that is supposed to chill my blood. Why can’t a woman come back from a tragedy? Give a sister a freaking break. She drinks, she smokes, she likes to fuck people she’s just met. In a man, that wouldn’t indicate mental illness.

Maybe I didn’t like the fact that there was no fight in the main character. She’s already circling the drain when we meet her, and we never get even a hint of a life-preserver or a broken tree branch that she could grab onto and save herself.

All that being said, there are a lot of people who really liked the is book and found it gripping. I’m able to concede that the fault could be all mine for not liking this one.


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Making More Progress on the Top 100 Horror Novels (Audrey’s Door)

Along with fearless friends DeAnna Knippling and Shannon Lawrence, I am making my way through “Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books.”

I’ve been reading ferociously lately, trying to get through more of the list and inspire my own writing. And then the real horror hit me–how behind I was in posting my progress and reviews. Oh, no!

Next up is Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan.

If I may be blunt? Fucking finally. It’s current. It’s written by a woman. And it’s scary.

For me, “scary” has been missing from a lot of the books on this list. Some I doubt  are even properly classified as  horror. But I blunder onward, always reading.

Classic haunted house story, but with so many interesting and diverting twists. The main character is mentally ill–that journey, alone, could have made an entire book. The romantic piece of the story could also have stood alone. But twine them together with an eerie old building that defies nature, and  you’ve got a cracking story that won’t let you go.

Some could, uncharitably, point out that I am never in favor of having a monster that is never actually seen in a book. Well, yeah, unless it’s done superbly. In this story, what lurks on the other side is never really fully seen, but I was so wrapped up in the story (and probably my security  blanket, two cats, a flashlight and a baseball bat) that I didn’t care.

One of the facets that riveted me to my chair was Audrey’s mental illness, and her history with it. How she thought about it. How she lived with it on a daily basis. How she perceived it. I think there’s a great deal of misunderstanding and unfounded assumptions about people who are mentally ill not being aware of their illness. This book lays waste to that theory. Audrey knows exactly what her problems are, and while she may not know how to fix them, she knows how to cope with them and work around them.

When I read this book, I could feel the influence of Rosemary’s Baby, and perhaps a hint of Lovecraft.

Yes, this is a haunted house novel. But it is so much more. It’s become one of my favorites from this list, and I can’t wait to read her other novels.  Although, of course, after I finish this list. THIS DAMN LIST. Wait, maybe I died and this is a form of purgatory? Well, that’s a story for me to write.


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Please Dress Appropriately

Does that even mean anything anymore?

Someone recently posited that if a person wore a neon pink micro mini skirt and leopard prints blouse while sporting a beard, then naturally other people were going to look  at them. And, furthermore, that person wanted to be looked at, or they wouldn’t dress in a manner bound to attract attention.

Um, maybe?

But can’t I just get dressed and go out of the house without worrying if somebody is going to make assumptions about my genitals, my religion, my politics based on what I’m wearing? Isn’t that an awful heavy load to expect one pair of plaid shorts to carry?

I am mad for plaid. Does that mean I’m preppy? A closet Scot? Does it suggest I have a thing for burly lumberjacks or mopey grunge musicians? I mean, I just like plaid and I don’t care if it makes my ass look wider than it absolutely has to.

When I get dressed for the day, I’m already thinking about the weather, what I’m going to do, if I’m going to work or not, if I’m expecting hot flashes, do I need pockets, have I shaved my legs recently or do I need to wear a long skirt and the hair on my legs is so blonde why do I even care? (I rarely have occasion to ask strangers to touch my legs, so the whole issue is moot.) Will I be presenting myself in a professional capacity, or can I wear yoga pants? Stuff like that.

But if I want to wear something shiny and blue, does it mean I feel theatrical and want everyone to look at me? Or does it mean the shiny blue thing has an elastic waistband and is clean and was on the top of the pile? Maybe it belonged to my grandmother, the world champion pole dancer, and I wear it every year on her birthday in her honor. Maybe I was so depressed when I woke up that putting on something shiny and blue was the only way I could stand to get out of bed and out of the house without self-medicating myself with vodka and Ho-Hos.

Are there any hard and fast rules any longer? I, personally, do not want to see your underwear. Not your bra straps, not your boxers, not the whale tail of your thong. I don’t want to see your vajayjay or your twig and berries. I do not want to see you in your pajamas at the grocery store.

I’d avoid wearing white to somebody else’s wedding unless specifically asked to do so. At a job interview, your clothes should be clean and without holes, and so should your shoes.

Other than that, ARE there any rules? Do we even need them? Do you need to know someone’s gender identity before you can admire their shoes (and perhaps ask, very politely, where they got them?)

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