Reading Nonfiction in 2017

I read fiction for pleasure and relaxation. Even if the stories are dark and twisty, I can sink into them and remove myself from life’s realities for awhile. Case in point, one of my all-time favorite novels that I still can’t resist recommending:

Whenever I pick up a work of nonfiction, though, I feel caught in a kind of hyper-reality, always aware of the time and place of its narrative. I read a lot of history for work: research, course prep, book reviewing. I can’t set aside my training as a historian even when I pick up a nonfiction book for leisure reading. My critical senses are always tingling.

Of the many nonfiction books that crossed my desk and/or found their way into my book bag in 2017, there are a couple–one old, one new–that stand out.

Malcolm’s book is a modern classic, a fascinating analysis of the life of Sylvia Plath told through an examination of the various biographies written about Plath. It’s a near perfect meditation on the struggle to control the meaning of a life.

I rarely read memoirs or true crime stories, but I was intrigued that Marzano-Lesnevich chose to combine both in this inventive hybrid. She is such a talented writer that both parts of the story are almost equally strong, with the whole book a compulsive page-turner.

On Facebook and Twitter, I co-moderate Nonfiction Fans, a discussion group that launched in early 2017. (Join up and/or follow to get some of the best nonfiction recommendations, especially ones by and/or about women.) Because of that group, I’ve read some wonderful books, including:

Hindley has written a terrific story and a stellar work of history.

Though I rarely read true crime stories, if they are set in the past, I can’t resist. Cox’s book is especially valuable for its emphasis on race.

Finally, a few other works of history I liked in 2017:

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst

I have memories of this event, and Toobin recounts it with compelling precision.

Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War

Most of my World War II reading (and writing) focuses on the Pacific theater, so I enjoyed expanding my knowledge of the European theater with Olson’s book.

Ties That Bound: Founding First Ladies and Slaves

An absolutely fascinating slice of early American history.

The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City: Spectacle and Assassination at the 1901 World's Fair

Anyone who loved The Devil in the White City should definitely read Creighton’s tale of the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.

The Rival Queens: Catherine de' Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom

Renaissance rivalry among French queens. A great examination of the monarchy through the experiences of women.

And that’s a wrap of my 2017 reading.






Reading History of the Hidden Corners

It’s that time of year for the deluge of “best” book lists.

Image result for piles of booksLitHub photo (2015)

Many of these lists separate fiction and nonfiction. (In a few weeks I’ll be posting my own fiction favorites here.), however, compiles a list of history books! This year it includes a few of the “big men” biographies (Richard Nixon, Ulysses S. Grant, Muhammad Ali) that remain so popular with many readers. But is also includes several that illuminate hidden corners of history.

Marjorie Spruill’s Divided We Stand is about the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston that provoked a counter-conference organized by Phyllis Schlafly. Anyone interested in women’s rights issues should read this book.

Preview thumbnail for 'Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women's Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics

In The Jersey Brothers, Sally Mott Freeman delves into her own family history to tell the story of the Pacific theater in World War II. While there are lots of books about World War II, I think the Pacific is still a neglected area.

Preview thumbnail for 'The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family's Quest to Bring Him Home

And of course, Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann’s gripping tale of the murder of Osage Indians in the 1920s is on many “best” lists, and deservedly so.

Preview thumbnail for 'Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

If you’ve missed these 2017 books, take some time over the holidays to get caught up on your reading. (Hint: put them on your holiday gift wish list and/or buy them as gifts for the favorite people in your life.)



Nonfiction Recommendation: Goat Castle

If you’re a fan of true crime stories, don’t miss this wonderful historical one by Karen Cox, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Goat Castle

According to the University of North Carolina Press website, the book tells this story:

In 1932, the city of Natchez, Mississippi, reckoned with an unexpected influx of journalists and tourists as the lurid story of a local murder was splashed across headlines nationwide. Two eccentrics, Richard Dana and Octavia Dockery—known in the press as the “Wild Man” and the “Goat Woman”—enlisted an African American man named George Pearls to rob their reclusive neighbor, Jennie Merrill, at her estate. During the attempted robbery, Merrill was shot and killed. The crime drew national coverage when it came to light that Dana and Dockery, the alleged murderers, shared their huge, decaying antebellum mansion with their goats and other livestock, which prompted journalists to call the estate “Goat Castle.” Pearls was killed by an Arkansas policeman in an unrelated incident before he could face trial. However, as was all too typical in the Jim Crow South, the white community demanded “justice,” and an innocent black woman named Emily Burns was ultimately sent to prison for the murder of Merrill. Dana and Dockery not only avoided punishment but also lived to profit from the notoriety of the murder by opening their derelict home to tourists.

Karen’s southern Gothic story has even earned a blurb from John Grisham: “Goat Castle is a highly entertaining story about a long-forgotten murder. It is also a reminder of the racism and intolerance found in southern history and of how difficult change has been. It’s a terrific read.”

Karen stopped by the Nonfiction Fans Facebook discussion group to talk about Goat Castle and her writing process. Take a look there for more fascinating tidbits about the book.

And if you’re already thinking about holiday gift giving, you should put Goat Castle at the top of your book-buying list.



Final Entry: Best Books I Read in 2016

In this list of the last three of my best books from 2016 are an old favorite author and two stories that were outside my reading comfort zone.

The first was:

As Good As Gone

Ever since I read and adored Montana 1948, I’ve eagerly awaited each of Watson’s novels. This, his tenth, is set in 1963 Montana, and focuses on the Sidey family. Bill asks his estranged father, Calvin, to move in and watch his children while he takes his wife Marjorie to Missoula for surgery. Watson layers in some good family secrets, both past and present, to create a truly effective domestic drama.

Outside of my comfort zone was:

I normally don’t read stories about children in jeopardy. I’ve grown tired of seeing the word “Girl” in book titles. But this one came with a blurb from Celeste Ng, which was enough to persuade me to give it a try. Hamer deftly negotiates a story that is the stuff of every parent’s nightmare: during a public outing, a child goes missing.

Finally, a contemporary crime story (not something I usually read) I wouldn’t have picked up if it hadn’t been for two things. First, other readers whose opinions I trust were raving. Next….

Angels Madison

early last year it showed up in a book display with Angels of the Underground.

Nicholas Petrie’s debut novel The Drifter introduces Peter Ash, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who looks into the death of a friend from the Marines. The next installment in the series, Burning Bright, is out this month, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

So, that’s my 2016 reading roundup. Until this time next year, my posts will be less about novels I’ve read and more about history and writing. I hope everyone’s year is off to a good start.


Part VII: Best Books I Read in 2016

I keep up with a lot of mystery series. Some of them are historical, some are contemporary, all feature strong female characters.

Unfortunately, 2016 was devoid of new entries from two authors I really, really look forward to: Sara Paretsky and Elizabeth George. Paretsky writes the marvelous V.I. Warshawski series, set among the muck of Chicago politics. Her latest, Brush Back, was published in 2015, as was the most recent of George’s Inspector Lynley stories, A Banquet of Consequences.

Another long-running series with a new entry in 2016 was:


Quite a startling title, considering Mary Russell is the main character of the series, which also features Sherlock Holmes. I liked the earlier books much better, but this is one of King’s more recent books that I’ve found interesting again. Lately there haven’t been too many stories in which Russell and Holmes are actually together solving a mystery, and that happens here as well. But King has taken a mostly successful risk in centering the plot around the beloved Mrs. Hudson. For that, the book is worth checking out.

An even better addition to a historical mystery series was:

Journey to Munich (Maisie Dobbs, #12)

The Maisie Dobbs series has been consistently strong because Winspear has been willing to grow and change her main character as she moves through the interwar period. In this novel, Maisie is still reeling from some devastating personal losses when she takes on a case that brings her face to face with the evils of fascist Germany.

I read the two most recent Chief Inspector Armand Gamache books in 2016. (The first was published in the summer of 2015, but I didn’t get to it until early 2016.)



Penny’s novels are set in a small Canadian village called Three Pines, but the stories are never provincial. Both of these deal with the devastation of events that cannot remain buried in the past. I’m a late arrival to this series, so I haven’t read it from the beginning, but you really don’t have to in order to appreciate Penny’s fine writing skills.

I’ll wrap up this 2016 reading roundup tomorrow.