Angie’s 2021 books by the numbers

By: Angie Haddock


Well, another year gone, and another year to obliterate some Goodreads goals. I finished 67 books in 2021, according to Goodreads. But, I wanted to delve a little deeper than that:

Not too terrible on reading some of the books I own! But that is one I want to do a little better at in the coming year.

Do you set reading goals? What are some of yours for 2022?

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“Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead ” by Emily Austin – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Gilda, a twenty-something lesbian, cannot stop ruminating about death. Desperate for relief from her panicky mind and alienated from her repressive family, she responds to a flyer for free therapy at a local Catholic church, and finds herself being greeted by Father Jeff, who assumes she’s there for a job interview. Too embarrassed to correct him, Gilda is abruptly hired to replace the recently deceased receptionist Grace.

Goodreads


This one came out earlier this year, and immediately intrigued me. I’m not one to ruminate about death too much myself, but the idea of a lesbian atheist pretending to be Catholic was too funny for me to pass up.

Like with “The Midnight Library,” the only complaints I’d seen online about this one were about how depressing the lead character is. So, if you’re not in the mood for that, don’t pick this one as your next read.

Admittedly, Gilda is weird. And depressed. She goes for long periods of time without washing a single dish or cup in her apartment, until they’re stacked so high they end up toppling over. She sits on the edges of bridges while contemplating death. There are a lot of reasons to be worried about this character’s well-being.

But she’s a good person at heart, and I’d even say she’s probably an overly sensitive person who sees/feels everything going on around her. She is worried that her younger brother drinks too much, and angry that her parents don’t see it. She is worried about a neighborhood cat that has gone missing.

She takes a job at a Catholic church, replacing the old secretary who passed away – and is concerned for her friends who will miss her, even though Gilda herself never met the deceased.

But her time at the church was amusing to me, a practicing Catholic. She contemplates religion as a whole, and some of the specific practices she learns while at her job. Some quotes that made me laugh out loud:

“Organ music reminds me more of Halloween and demons that it does of heaven and cherubs.”

“I bet that baby would be absolutely baffled to hear why she’s enduring this. Imagine someone forced you to wear a miniature wedding gown, dunked you underwater in front of an audience of your loved ones, and then explained that their rationale for doing so was so that when you die your spirit would fly to the clouds. If I were this baby, my first words would be ‘fuck off.'”

So, yea, entertaining observations such as these are why I enjoyed this book, despite a lot of it being a bit morbid.


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“An Ocean of Minutes” by Thea Lim – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In this novel America is in the grip of a deadly flu pandemic. When Frank catches the virus, his girlfriend Polly will do whatever it takes to save him—even if it means risking everything. When she finds out there’s a company that has invented time travel, she agrees to a radical contract: if she signs up for a one-way-trip into the future to work as a bonded laborer, the company will pay for the life-saving treatment Frank needs. Polly promises to meet Frank again in Galveston, Texas, where she will arrive in twelve years.

-Goodreads


Amazingly enough, this book came out in 2018 – as in, before our current pandemic. And it was on some “books of the year” lists at the time, but I had not heard anything about it! (I wasn’t on bookstagram yet, so there’s that.) So I happened upon it by chance, but I was immediately taken in by the story, which is both mesmerizing and frustrating.

The story takes place during a pandemic. Time travel is invented, initially to try and stop the pandemic, but that doesn’t work. Instead, people in the beginning years of the pandemic are recruited to jump forward to the post-pandemic era, when there is a dire need for workers. One benefit offered is medical treatment for a loved one in the current era – including expensive, life-saving treatment from the disease ravaging the country.

Such is the situation with lovebirds Polly and Frank. They are in their twenties, and far from home when the outbreak happens. (They’re from Buffalo, but find themselves stuck in Texas now.) When Frank becomes ill, Polly agrees to leap forward 12 years. They agree to meet at an area landmark as soon as she “arrives.”

Unfortunately for Polly, she arrives to a world that is totally foreign to her. The country split into two – the United States and America. She is basically an indentured servant to the time travel company, or whoever they loan her out to, until she works off her expenses. She can’t travel north without a passport, as it’s now a different country. And the hotel she was to meet up with Frank at is now a port, with tight security.

The book bounces back and forth between Polly’s past and present. We learn of how she and Frank met, why they were in Texas, and the like. In the present/future, her situation goes from bad to worse several times, and she struggles with whether or not she should ever hope for more. There are a few turns that literally had me yelling, “No!”

The copy I have has an author Q&A in the back, in which Lim says she modeled Polly’s experiences after those of many illegal immigrants who constantly feel they have no choice but to do the crappiest jobs and live in the crappiest conditions. Sometimes their biggest barriers are not knowing the language or culture of the place they find themselves (or not understanding the rules).

Also of note is that the whole book takes place in our past. Polly and Frank meet in the late 1970s, and the world she finds herself thrust into is in the late 1990s. (Obviously, it is a very different 1990s than we knew!)

This is a very moving story. There’s a mild sci-fi aspect, in that time travel exists. And there is a moderate love story, although most of the book is spent with our leads being separated. But overall, it’s just a gripping tale of one woman trying to survive in a world she cannot understand.


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“Butterfly Awakens” by Meg Nocero – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Butterfly Awakens depicts the story of the extraordinary transformation of a forty-something Italian American attorney as she moves through unimaginable grief and sadness watching her beloved mother lose her battle to breast cancer. This tumultuous life experience shifts her world, causing her to question her life choices and opening her up to her soul’s calling. Nocero brings readers along on her journey through a dark night of the soul as she deals with the grieving process, a toxic work environment, and intense stress that results in depression, anxiety, and an acquired somatic nervous disorder called tinnitus. Through it all, she never gives up, instead looking for the help she needs to start to heal and find her light. In the end, like the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, this story is a beautiful love letter that honors Nocero’s mother’s legacy while detailing the awakening of her own.

Goodreads


This book came out in September, and I had heard of it around that time. I wasn’t sure I was up for a memoir on grief and loss, but I put it on my TBR for another reason: in her journey to find herself, one of the things the author tackles is El Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage, often taken people looking for religious or spiritual insight, has fascinated me for years!

Meg Nocero’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer while Meg was pregnant with her second child. The first 20 percent of the story tells of her mom’s diagnosis, battle, and death.

After that, Meg has some rough times. She eventually takes a brief leave from work, even, to try to get herself together. But still, she struggles. She starts having issues with stress-induced tinnitus – ringing in her ears – which also leads to insomnia. Going to work tired leads to more stress, so it’s a constant circle.

She eventually starts coming out of it by following advice from various friends and inspirational authors, speakers, etc. While this part of the book is often fun, it also feels a little muddled to me. She goes to big events and meets people like Oprah, Wayne Dyer, and Chris Martin (of Coldplay) – and these stories are definitely fun and inspiring! But she never really addresses whether or not she solved her tinnitus or insomnia problems. I assume they lessened eventually, as she found her new “groove” in life?

Meg even writes and self-publishes a book about finding your bliss! But all the while, she is still at her same day job, where she has been passed over for promotions for years. While she’s a lot happier than she was right after her mom’s passing, she is still kind of treating her own bliss as a hobby instead of a full time gig. And I get it to an extent – she has two kids to support, so there’s a financial aspect. But it does seem kind of ironic.

She eventually does quit, though, and plans a trip to hike El Camino in Northern Spain. The preparation and hike take up the last portion of the book. This part was fascinating to me – I loved hearing about the little towns they hiked through, the food, the old churches, and the history.

I enjoyed reading this book overall. There were definitely parts that were sad or frustrating, but there were also parts that were fun and uplifting. It was one in which I bookmarked a lot of the other inspirational things she read, so I can find them later!

I read this book through the Discovery platform, and my review will also appear there.


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“The Defiant Middle” by Kaya Oakes – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Women are expected to be many things. They should be young enough, but not too young; old enough, but not too old; creative, but not crazy; passionate, but not angry. They should be fertile and feminine and self-reliant, not barren or butch or solitary. Women, in other words, are caught between social expectations and a much more complicated reality.

Goodreads


I had read one of Oakes’ books before (“Radical Reinvention”) and loved it, so I was excited to get on the advanced reader list for her newest book! The title refers to both being middle-aged, and also being caught in between society’s expectations of a woman and the life choices you want to make.

There are so many juicy bits in here, I found myself highlighting a LOT. But it’s bad form to quote an ARC directly, so this will be a challenge.

Each chapter examines an idea that society holds about women: they may be seen as too young, old, crazy, barren, butch, angry, or alone. She weaves in stories of her own life and ones from history. She examines how women of a certain ilk may have been treated in different times, religious sects, or in pop culture.

Also of note, Oakes writes with religion in mind – specifically Roman Catholicism. I think that the stories will appeal to anyone interested in women’s issues, though, even if they are not of this (or any) religion, because this is only one lens she uses to examine the issues at hand.

To offer one example that might appeal to my writer friends: in the chapter on women being labeled as crazy, Oakes laments that, as a student, most women authors she had to study in school carried that label (Dickinson, Plath, Shelley). She argues that some of them may have had other legitimate issues, but nevertheless, even as an MFA student in writing, she was told over and over again that women writers were all crazy.

She spends some time on trans women, and even offers a couple examples of trans women in history – women I definitely had not learned about before. (Like the Universal Friend.) She also discusses the idea that you do not have to have kids – or even the ability to carry them – to be a woman (as anyone with a hysterectomy can attest to).

I think this book would appeal to women of all stripes – women with or without kids, women in or not in relationships, women with or without an interest in religion. I have definitely already recommended it to multiple friends!

This book hits shelves today, November 30th. I was able to read in advance thanks to the author, Kaya Oakes.


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The LitenVerse by Nino Cipri – Review

By: Angie Haddock


When an elderly customer at a big box furniture store slips through a portal to another dimension, it’s up to two minimum-wage employees to track her across the multiverse and protect their company’s bottom line. Multi-dimensional swashbuckling would be hard enough, but our two unfortunate souls broke up a week ago.

-“Finna,” on Goodreads

To test his commitment to the job, Derek is assigned to a special inventory shift, hunting through the store to find defective products. Toy chests with pincers and eye stalks, ambulatory sleeper sofas, killer mutant toilets, that kind of thing. Helping him is the inventory team — four strangers who look and sound almost exactly like him. Are five Dereks better than one?

-“Defekt,” on Goodreads


This is actually a series of two (so far) novellas, “Finna” and “Defekt.” They both take place in the same root location, which is a fictionalized/surrealist version of Ikea. Specifically, these stories take place at a store – LitenVarld – outside of Chicago. They also take place on overlapping days. But we’ll get to that…

“Finna” was released in 2020, and centers on Ava and Jules. Ava, much like the famous line from Kevin Smith’s “Clerks,” “wasn’t even supposed to be here today.” She had arranged her schedule specifically to avoid seeing her recent ex, Jules, at work. But, a character we don’t meet in this book named Derek has called out, and so Ava heads through the cold MidWestern February to do a job she hates.

A customer comes to the service desk saying she can’t find her grandma, and Ava inexplicably feels for the young lady. Then things get weirder, as she learns that it is not entirely uncommon for wormholes (maskhals) to open in LitenVarld. It happens frequently enough that there are policies in place – and Ava, as the employee with the least seniority, has to go into the wormhole to find the missing grandma. Unfortunately for her, Jules volunteers to go with her.

The two go into various parallel universes looking for the missing grandma. In some, they are in different versions of the store. But they also find themselves in a jungle, and in the water. They encounter threats from other beings, as well as from things that should be inanimate objects (in our own universe, at least).

I won’t give away the ending, but let’s say… different people return than the ones who went in.

“Defekt” allows us to finally meet Derek, and we even learn why he called out on the day Ava came in for him. He spends most of his day off asleep, but then comes back to work the next day – the day after the wormholes had opened – to find a whole new slew of issues at the store.

Specifically, a specialized team has been called in to eliminate defective merchandise – furniture that has come alive – and Derek is chosen to work with them. What’s even crazier is that everyone on the team is a different version of Derek. Are they clones? Is he manufactured to be a “company man?”

Both stories explore the ideas of belonging, finding your “people,” and sacrificing your life – or deciding NOT to sacrifice your life – to your job. Overall, it’s a zany surrealist satire that does not hold back on its disdain for minimum wage corporate jobs that demand assimilation to the corporate culture.


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“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell – Review

By: Angie Haddock



Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

-Goodreads


This was a book that had been on my radar for a while, and I finally put myself on the wait list for it at my library. It was well worth the wait!

The facts of William Shakespeare’s son’s death are not known. The author, having dug up what little info she could find, started ruminating on a thought she had… Shakespeare lived during the time of the plague, yet never mentioned it in his plays. (It had to affect him, at least in the professional sense, as theatres would sometimes have to close when outbreaks were high.) So, she contemplated.. what if he avoided the topic because it was too personal?

From this one thought, and the other scant information she found on his wife and family, she built a whole novel.

While we are introduced to Hamnet and his siblings right away, the real focus of the book is Agnes (William’s wife and Hamnet’s mother). The story shifts between two eras of Agnes’ life – the time of Hamnet’s sickness and dying, and the one of her meeting and marrying her husband.

Agnes came from a farm family, and was adept at making medicinal concoctions from herbs and plants. While many sought out her help, there were also some who thought she was extremely odd (maybe even a witch?).

Because she is so often called on to help others cure their ills, it crushes her even more that she could not save her own son. We sit through her mourning and contemplations, both during his death and burial and in the years after. There is so much sadness, as the reader is going through this from Agnes’ perspective. In the time after, it is obvious to a modern reader that Agnes is dealing with severe depression. In her own time, some of her family members grow tired of her inability to move on.

William and Agnes basically lead separate lives, with him in London or touring with his players and her raising the kids in Stratford. His parents make their home feel unsafe and claustrophobic for him, which is part of why he wanted to leave. Eventually, when he is making good money, he buys her a house away from his parents. Thankfully, she can rely on her oldest brother to have a level head. He is always willing to help her, and William sometimes goes through the brother to get to Agnes when she is being distant.

In the last section of the book, her brother actually goes with Agnes to London to confront William about writing a play with their dead son’s name in it – Hamlet. This is her first time seeing London, and his work.

This is a sad and beautiful story. Read it if you’re in the mood to be faced with big feelings.


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“The Watchers: The Tomb” by Carl Novakovich – Review

By: Angie Haddock


John Gideon, a former homicide detective turned P.I., has dug too deep and discovered the truth about the world while searching for the only family he has left. John and his new partner, Beth May – a spell-wielding demon who has turned her back on Hell – are humanity’s last hope to stop a collective of Fallen Angels known as The Watchers and a hierarchy of demons from breaking the first of the Seven Seals of Revelation.

-Goodreads


This was a quick and easy-to-read romp through an alternate version of current day Chicago – a version that includes a few demons and fallen angels, and the havoc that they can create.

Chicago P.D. detective John and his partner, Walter, are initially working on a missing persons case. There are a bunch of them from the past few years, and they have something in common – the missing person seems to have little to no history. So, finding leads has been hard. They finally catch a break, and bring in a suspect linked to one of the victims – but then Walter starts acting funny. Before that night is through, both Walter and the suspect are nowhere to be found.

John quits the force, and opens his own private investigation firm. But it’s mostly an excuse for him to spend all his time looking for Walter. A friend who still works at the P.D. gives him a lead that allows John to find the missing suspect again. He ends up finding a lot more, including people who seem to wield inhuman/magical powers.

Enter Beth, who has secretly been keeping an eye on John for years. She is actually over 100 years old, and first started protecting the city with the help of John’s great-great-great grandfather. His family line is important to protecting the demons from unleashing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who are imprisoned underneath a city water pumping station.

The POV shifts around within the book, which I found a bit odd. But, not hard to follow. The action is quick and keeps the story moving at a good pace.

This book is the start of a series, which the author intends to eventually be seven books long. He independently published this one in January, and then re-released it with Next Chapter Publishing in September. Currently, he is writing the third book while the second one is being edited.

You can find this book on Amazon, in both digital and paperback.


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“The Guncle” by Steven Rowley – Review

By: Angie Haddock



Patrick, or Gay Uncle Patrick (GUP, for short), has always loved his niece, Maisie, and nephew, Grant. But in terms of caretaking and relating to two children, no matter how adorable, Patrick is honestly a bit out of his league… when tragedy strikes, Patrick finds himself suddenly taking on the role of primary guardian. Quickly realizing that parenting—even if temporary—isn’t solved with treats and jokes, Patrick’s eyes are opened to a new sense of responsibility, and the realization that, sometimes, even being larger than life means you’re unfailingly human.

Goodreads


This is the third novel by Steven Rowley, and it came out this spring. His first, “Lily and the Octopus,” had me bawling in my car at the end. (Hint: it’s great on audio, but maybe not while driving a car.) After that, I considered myself a dedicated fan.

This one did not disappoint. Patrick is a former TV star who has been out of the limelight – and LA – for a handful of years now. He’s suddenly thrust into the role of caretaker for his niece and nephew while their dad is in rehab. It’s their summer break, so there’s no school or anything like that to distract them. What a perfect time for them to spend 3 months at Patrick’s house, right? With his pool, maid, and gay neighbors.

The kids are already reeling from the recent loss of their mother, and not totally understanding where their dad had to run off to. So, initially, Patrick just tries to keep them distracted with fun. He orders pool floats and bikes, introduces them to the wonder of brunch, and eventually even gets a dog.

People sometimes question why Patrick is “hiding” in Palm Springs, and not pursuing new work in LA. Patrick has also suffered a major loss – although it was years ago – and perhaps he isn’t really over it. Eventually, he and the kids learn to face their grief together.

And yes, I cried again. (For those who’ve read it – it was the cake scene.)

The kids also teach him about Youtube. And start a little spark in him that eventually leads him back into the world of a working actor.

Since it takes place in the summer – and a lot of it takes place poolside – I’d consider this a great summer read. But the heart of the story can be appreciated anytime.


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“Small Changes” by Alicia Witt – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Alicia Witt isn’t here to dole out lists of dos and don’ts. But she is here to share her own journey to forming better habits and show the ways that adopting the small changes philosophy has allowed her to find balance, eat better, and feel better physically and emotionally.

Goodreads


Many years ago, I wrote for a blog about independent music. During that time, I interviewed Alicia Witt, who is both an actress and a musician. She was coming to Nashville to play a show at the time – but now, she lives here.

So of course I was interested to see that Witt was putting out her first book! The full title is “Small Changes: The Easy, No-Rules Way to Include More Plant-Based Foods, Peace, and Positivity in Your Life,” – which is a lot.

There are only a handful of chapters here, but they are each pretty substantial. In the first one, she recounts her history and career. That part was fun, honestly, even though I knew parts of it already. She also gets into her philosophy of making small changes over time.

As the full title implies, Witt is vegan – or, as she admits, mostly vegan. But she comes back often to the idea that if you do have a thing that you love, or can’t give up – don’t live in constant guilt over it. It’s not worth beating yourself up over. I like this part of her philosophy.

This book has a lot about food in it, but it also touches on other subjects including exercise, beauty products, having pets, journaling, and just going with the flow in general.

While I do like her approach from a mental standpoint, there are some things that didn’t sit right with me. For example, she repeatedly recommends gluten-free alternatives – but really, no one needs to be gluten-free unless they have an allergy. (I get the feeling that, for Witt, it’s more about cutting the carbs in general than the actual gluten in them.) She also advocates giving your pets “human grade” pet food. If you are into getting high-end pet food because your dog or cat likes it, go for it. But human-grade has always felt like one of those marketing/labeling ploys to me. (Here’s a brief piece on it.)

There are a bevy of recipes in the back, and gorgeous pictures of the finished products. (I feel like there is a zero percent chance my attempts would come out looking like these – but if you love ogling food pictures, these are worthy!)

This book comes out today from Harper Horizon, and I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley. Also, as part of the book launch, Witt will be doing a virtual panel at the Southern Festival of Books later this week.


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