Tag Archives: chick lit

Celebrating Black Women’s Writing

One great part of being a grown-up is that you can, if you want, educate yourself on everything you didn’t learn in school. This year I’ve been reading my way through the For Harriet blog’s list of the 100 books by Black women they believe everyone should read. After spending so much time with powerful fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, I have to say, it’s the perfect syllabus for the best class I never had.

There’s a point of entry in the list for every reading type and temperament, and many of the works are thematically linked, so you can pretty much jump in anywhere and learn a lot no matter where you start. Here are a few suggestions to inspire you.

photo courtesy of Getty Images.

photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Daughter: A Novel, asha bandele. Aya, a college student, is shot by a white police officer bandelewhile out jogging,  in a hideous case of mistaken identity. Miriam, Aya’s mother, is left to cope not only with the current tragedy of losing her child, but the unhealed trauma of her past relationship with Aya’s father. As the story moves between present and past, we learn how carefree young women become cautious and hard, at the expense of their own ability to cherish the men they love and the children they bear. A timely, sobering pick that’s sure to spark spirited book club discussions. Available in print only.

3carter2 Candles, Ernessa T. Carter. Davie’s favorite teen movie was Sixteen Candles, but unfortunately, she couldn’t get her own high school crush to give her the time of day. Years later, she runs into him again by chance, and sparks fly. Too bad she sort of forgets to tell him who she is, and that they already know each other, a decision that comes back to haunt her just when happiness is in her grasp. Solid chick lit about childhood dreams, adult deceptions, and — romance fans take note — hard-won happy endings. Available in print and as a digital audio book.

Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson. Ti-Jeanne lives with her grandmother, and has hopkinsonlearned a wealth of healing lore from her. However, she’s going to have to learn some things she hadn’t counted on in order to face down the evil spirit that stalks Toronto. Heavy on Caribbean legend and lore, Hopkinson’s first novel is a gripping foray into dystopian speculative fiction (long before we started calling those things by those names) partially influenced by Derek Walcott’s play, Ti-Jean and his Brothers (which has been anthologized in various collections). A good beginning for teens and adults looking for heroines of color in their SF/F.* Available in print, digital audio, and — for you intrepid late adopters — book on cassette.

sistercitizenSister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry. Of all the great non-fiction on this list, Harris-Perry’s stands out for its clear explanations of concepts that might be unfamiliar to you, as well of a history of images and events of which you might not be aware. Harris-Perry explains what obstacles have prevented Black women from fully participating in democracy, using statistics, stereotype analysis, political theory, anecdotes of women’s lived experience, and other tools to make her case. She also references some of the other non-fiction works mentioned in the For Harriet list, which may help you to decide where to go next in your learning journey. Available in print and as a digital audio book.

homegirls & handgrenades, Sonia Sanchez. You get the sense, reading this collection of sanchezpoems, that what Sanchez really wants to do is take you by the hand and lead you through her universe, saying, “Look. Listen.” Her speakers often function as observer-outsiders in many of these poems, implying that the teacher often functions as the student, even when the teacher knows her subject very well. Poems like “Bubba” and “Traveling on an Amtrak Train Could Humanize You” are fine examples of this: Sanchez telling stories that have broadened her speakers’ minds, and, hopefully, our own. Poetry for people who think they aren’t ready for poetry, but are willing to give it a shot. Available in print only.

The list of 100 also contains the authors you’d expect to be there (Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, etc.), but I deliberately chose less familiar selections to demonstrate just how much depth and breadth we’re dealing with here. If you’re intrigued, I hope you’ll try one of these selections, or others from the list; maybe this is an area you’re familiar with already. If so, I hope you’ll suggest additional titles, and share your own reading experiences in the comments.

Leigh Anne

* This is a particular reading interest of mine so if you’re ever in the library, come find me and let’s talk about it. A great place to start your research is Bitch magazine’s series of blog posts on girls of color in dystopia, written by Victoria Law.





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Outside Activities

I wasn’t very good at summer as a kid. I have fair Irish skin (I have ALL of the freckles and wear SPF 50 sunblock marketed to babies). Getting dirty was not my idea of a good time. My neighborhood was the typical super hilly affair found all over our region, so riding bikes was more of a chore than fun. My idea of playing outside was reading on the back porch. I was outdoors, what more did those people want?

An accurate depiction of my childhood. Photo via Historic Pittsburgh.

Little has changed. You’re very surprised, I’m sure. Here’s a few of the books that will be keeping me company on the back porch for the rest of the summer:

Girls at the Kingfisher Club – A spin on the Twelve Dancing Princesses tale, set in Jazz-Age Manhattan. Need I say more?

We Were Liars – This is a pick from my book club, but I’m excited to dive into E. Lockhart‘s new one (I really loved The Disreputable History of Frankie Laundau Banks). Two generations of families who vacation together. A mysterious accident. Supposedly a doozy of an ending. I can’t wait.

Hidden – What happens when the wife and the “work wife” finally meet? In the hands of Catherine McKenzie, I’m sure it’ll be good.

Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line – My non-fiction selection. I like being able to peek behind the curtain and check out jobs I’ll never hold. Chef in a fancy restaurant is certainly one.

– Jess



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Punny Side Up: Clever Titles, Fun Summer Reads

The only thing better than a good pun is a bad pun, the kind that leaves you doubled over, groaning. When you spot a pun in a book title, it usually means you’re in for a good time, reading-wise. And since it’s summer, why not put aside the ponderous reads for a while and take a chance on something silly? Here are a few titles to try on for size.

apocalypsecowApocalypse Cow, Michael Logan. Everybody takes it on the chin in this snicker-worthy, satirical horror tale about a government experiment gone horribly wrong. The cows of Scotland have turned zombie, and the virus responsible leaps quickly to other animal species. Look out humanity: now you’re the snack! As the country descends into chaos, three extremely unlikely heroes–a teenage math geek, a slaughterhouse worker, and an inept journalist–do their best to save the day. Which pretty much means humanity is doomed, but you’ll have a lot of fun watching the train wreck. Terry Pratchett enjoyed this book enough to give it a prize in 2011, so now that it’s available in the U.S., you should check it out, too; I expect you will find it very moo-ving.

Sleeping With the Entity, Cat Devon. Daniella just wants to open a cupcake shop; is that so wrong? Nick, the head of the local entitybusiness association, doesn’t want Daniella or her cupcakes anywhere near his neighborhood, which actually serves as headquarters for Nick’s vampire clan. Somehow immune to Nick’s mind control techniques, Daniella barrels on ahead with her business plan anyway, which leads to peril for her, exasperation for Nick, and plenty of sexual tension smoldering between them both. Devon’s paranormal romance is as fluffy and luscious as buttercream frosting, and once you’ve savored it, continuing on to The Entity Within will be a piece of cake.

hexHex and the Single Girl, Valerie Frankel. Unlike Devon’s novel, which is slightly silly and mostly steamy, Frankel’s tale of a matchmaking witch is a full-out wacky romp. Emma has used her psychic gifts to hook up countless happy couples, but despairs of ever finding a love of her own. Enter William, a wealthy software developer, who finds Emma utterly fascinating. Too bad Emma’s trying to fix William up with one of her clients…especially since she finds him pretty interesting, too. Replete with bad puns and composed of a cast of colorful New Yorkers (magical and otherwise), this is a screwball romantic comedy that will scramble your brain in egg-actly the way a summer read should.

Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth, Tamar Myers. Tart-tongued Magdalena Yoder and her sister Susannah converted their family farm into a crooksbed and breakfast after their parents died. Now the Mennonite siblings, with the help of some of their Amish friends and neighbors, run the PennDutch Inn, a popular stop for folks touring Pennsylvania Dutch territory. The only thing is, there’s a corpse on the bed, and it’s ruining Magdalena’s quilt, and this simply will not do. Add in a shady politician on vacation, a pack of vegetarians who are driving Magdalena’s cook crazy, and enough food descriptions to give George R.R. Martin a run for his money, and you have a nice cozy-folksy mystery–part of a series!–that also contains recipes (the broiled bananas dessert looks particularly ap-peel-ing).

If you haven’t thrown up your hands in despair and moved on to looking at cute cat photos, you are clearly the target audience for more puntastic goodness. Terry Pratchett, Piers Anthony, Diane Mott Davidson, and Donna Andrews are just a few authors who dabble in groan-worthy titles; you’ll find these and other suggestions via this Goodreads list. My personal favorite title at the moment is Giles Smith’s  Midnight in the Garden of Evel Knievel, which I plan to acquire and read despite having less than zero interest in sports (anybody that punny deserves my consideration).

Your turn: does a punny book title send you to the checkout counter, or running for the hills? Have any fun examples you’d care to share?

Leigh Anne

also currently giggling over Polar Bolero


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Hitting All the Keyes

I am a huge fan of Marian Keyes. She’s an Irish writer who early in her successful career wrote humorous books about the lives and loves of Dublin-based career women, interested in fashion and popular culture. Keyes was unfortunately pigeon-holed in the fiction category of chick lit, “a genre concentrating on young working women and their emotional lives.” The reviews of her novels often refer to her “quirky characters,” droll dialog, wordplay, and madcap antics, but her books are so, so much more.

Although she has also written eight stand-alone novels–the best of these being This Charming Man–Keyes has a terrific extended series, begun in 1995, about the five Walsh sisters of Dublin. What is especially engaging about Keyes’s books is that there is usually a problem or issue at the core of the story that said “chick” confronts. Despite the serious themes, Keyes’s realistic approach to life is often reflected in downright funny scenes and glib conversations. The empathy this style engenders draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. You not only care about these characters but you feel personally invested in their arriving at a successful outcome, though not necessarily a “happy” ending. The Walsh Sisters series includes:

watermelon  Watermelon. Clair Walsh is abandoned by her husband in the maternity ward as she is giving birth to their first child. So she goes home to her dysfunctional family in Dublin to try to start over.

Rachel’s Holiday. When Rachel Walsh’s family stages an intervention for her serious recreational drug use, Rachel agrees to rachelsholidayenter rehab at the Cloisters, an exclusive treatment center. Rachel finds she is not on a “holiday” at a posh retreat but rather a true rehabilitative respite where she must confront her addictions.

angelsAngels. Maggie Walsh discovers her husband is unfaithful and she’s about to lose a job she loves, so she runs away to Hollywood to visit her best friend…and soon discovers that this may be the place she’s meant to be.

Anybody Out There. Anna Walsh’s PR career in New York unravels when tragedy strikes, and she seeks solace from her family outtherein Dublin while trying to find answers to a devastating loss.

The most recent in this series was published this past April in the U.S. It’s called The Mystery of Mercy Close. More about it in a bit…

As an obsessive-compulsive reader, I keep a calendar each year to track when my favorite author’s new books are expected to be released. Patricia Cornwell is late fall, Harlan Coben is spring, Mary Balogh is late summer, Elin Hilderbrand and Elizabeth Lowell are both early summer, etc.

Keyes wrote The Brightest Star in the Sky in 2010. When her next book didn’t show up in 2011, I thought, check again in six months. When I searched again, there was still nothing. I was vaguely aware that the author’s personal encounters with addiction and depression contributed to the autobiographical nature of some of her plots; Being the good librarian that I am, I Googled Keyes and located her personal website. There I found Marian’s newsletter, where she was painfully recounting her most recent depression and the accompanying writers’ block. It saddened me greatly that she was suffering so when she was responsible for so many funny and profound insights in her clever, poignant stories.

So I continued to check on her from time to time and gratefully watched her begin to show signs of joy in life again. Last summer she published a cookbook, Saved By Cake: Over 80 Ways to Bake Yourself Happy. In the preface she describes the onset in 2009 of this dark mood while she was publicizing Brightest Star. She writes:

But I didn’t feel depressed; what I felt was very, very afraid. I felt like I’d been poisoned, like my brain had been poisoned. I felt like there had been an avalanche in my head and I’d been shunted along by some awful force, to some strange place, off the map, where there was nothing I recognized and no one familiar. I was totally lost.

Keyes considered suicide, and was beyond the reach of her loved ones. Then the simple act of baking a birthday cake for a friend provided a focus: identify a recipe, gather the ingredients, follow the directions, and voila. The science of baking, the trial and error, the eating and the giving of cake–and cupcakes and cookies–supplied the delicious “magic” she needed to go on. To that, all I can say is, thank heavens!

If you don’t know this part of Keyes’s personal story, you will not fully grasp the depth and realism of the last Walsh sister’s struggle.  Helen, the youngest of Mammie Walsh’s daughters, fights her own demons in The Mystery of Mercy Close. Helen has lost her income and her apartment. Hard economic times in Ireland have impacted her lucrative job as a private investigator. As a dark mood descends on her, Helen is hired by an ex-boyfriend to locate a suddenly missing member of a ’90s Irish boy band, The Laddz, who are just about to stage a big comeback. The systematic process of the search for Wayne Diffney provides Helen with the focus she needs to climb her way back and reclaim her own life.

If you know, or have known, someone in your life who has struggled with mental illness, and you have been frustrated and saddened by what they are going through, and you just want to shake your fist at them and say, “Can’t you just get over it?,” you will have a deeper understanding of why that’s not so simple by reading this story. And you will see how it is hope–whether it’s for solving a mystery, baking a great cake, or finding the reason for just getting on to what is next–can make life worth living. Marian Keyes’s deeply personal story in The Mystery of Mercy Close is moving, funny, and well worth reading. And yes, it is about the emotional life and loves of a career girl, steeped in popular culture. But “chick lit” it is not; it is much more.

Be well, Marian. Your voice is important.



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A Book Club of a Different Color

We like to offer our readers as many different voices as possible from the Carnegie Library system. Please welcome our newest contributor, Jess, who will be joining us monthly from now on.

At the beginning of February, Irene blogged about using Goodreads to track what books she’s reading this year. I will freely admit to being a Goodreads super-fan. I’ve been an avid user of the site for the past three years or so, and as a result, my “To-Read” shelf has gotten a little out-of-control. Like, hovering-around-620-items-out-of-control.

Early last summer, I decided to do something about it.

A knitting hero of mine, The Yarn Harlot, found that forcing a self-imposed sock club on herself was helping to keep her yarn stash in check (most knitters will tell you that a controlled stash is the impossible dream). Knowing a good idea when I see one, I figured a self-imposed book club might be an excellent way of knocking out some of the books on my list that I had long forgotten about.  I use an online random number generator and let fate decide one book (as long as I can easily get it from the library and isn’t in the middle of a series) that I must finish by the end of the month. Today I’m going to share four winners from my list – and one dud.

allunquietAll Unquiet Things, Anna Jarzab.  This YA book is about the aftermath of the murder of seventeen year old Carly. A former good girl who turned self-destructive in months before her death, there are still plenty of lingering questions about her downward spiral. Her ex-boyfriend, Neily, and her guilt-ridden cousin, Audrey, become reluctant allies as they try to work through what really happened to Carly. This is a solid mystery that reminded me a lot of Veronica Mars in tone.

 Love Walked In, Marisa de los Santos. I had this book on my list for three years, which goes to show that this experiment of mine just might be working. While it may appear to be just another chick lit book (and I’ll admit that there are a one or two minor “first book” missteps), de los Santos, a published poet, writes such beautiful prose that it elevates this story of family and unexpected love to something special. The sequel is just as lovely.

Dragonfly in Amber, Diana Gabaldon. So far, this has been the only exception to my “no middle of a series” rule, since it is book two in the Outlander series and the next one I needed to read. It’s impossible to talk about the plot without giving too much away about the first book, but I never thought I would learn so much about Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite uprising from a work of fiction. Gabaldon’s dedication to research in her books is kind of amazing and I can’t recommend this series enough.

All Other Nights, Dara Horn. Not to sound like SNL’s Stefon, but this book has everything. Spies. Romance. Civil War battles. Assassinations. More spies. But maybe the thing I liked best is that Horn offers up a perspective rarely explored in Civil War-era novels – that of the Jewish soldier. The main character, Jacob, uses his religion and his family’s standing as big-time New York shipping merchants to leverage many of his spy assignments – including working for Judah Benjamin, the Jewish Attorney General for the Confederate states. The blending of fact and fiction is handled smartly and if you’re like me, you’ll spend the few days after you finish the book researching all of the real people and events.

Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design, Faythe Levine and Cortney Heimerl. Hunka-hunka, stinky cheese – the cheese stands alone. I’m sure there is an audience for this book, but it wasn’t me. I went into it with the expectation that it would be more of an exploration of the socio-economic reasons behind the crafting explosion of the last decade (Hi, where do I get my Nerd Card punched?). Instead, it is basically a collection of profiles on crafters and artisans across the country, with five longer essays that don’t  add very much.  I don’t want to knock these folks or their art, but it just wasn’t what I was looking for. I may give the Craft in America documentary a try, however.

How do you keep your to-read list under control?



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Sweet and Sour Chick Lit

Today I am wearing ridiculous shoes.

By “ridiculous” I mean “high-heeled,” which is normally not my style.  Alas, my favorite comfy shoes have finally worn out. And because you can’t run around barefoot in a public building — or, at least, you shouldn’t – I’m forced to navigate between the Scylla of wearing the one pair of fancy footwear I own, and the Charybdis of shoe shopping.

Thus is life for a certain type of broad, er, dame.  She doesn’t wear makeup, she doesn’t carry a purse, and, under most circumstances, she refuses to wobble around the library like a bad imitation of Grimm’s “The Little Mermaid.”

[Oh, quit that laughing.  Especially you menfolk with your consistently sensible, yet stylish, footwear!]

While the trappings of a certain kind of femininity don’t appeal to me in real life, I find them fascinating when they turn up in books.  In fact, I think I get a bigger kick out of reading about characters who are nothing like me; one of the primary reasons for reading, after all, is to learn more about who we are by examining who we are not.

Still, I reach what I call a “sugar point” in a book if the heroine is too pretty / perfect, or if her biggest problem in life is which of her many outfits she should wear to her glamorous job.  I like my chick lit with a bit of a twist, just enough doom and dismay to keep things interesting.  Here are a few examples from the county’s extensive collection.

The Late Lamented Molly Marx, Sally Koslow.  Molly is extremely wise, witty MollyMarxand stylish.  She’s also quite dead, and, justifiably, a bit miffed about it.  After all, if your corpse were found in a public park under mysterious circumstances, you’d want to know what happened and why.  With her newly-discovered post-life powers, Molly reviews her life to unravel the mystery around her death.  Designer clothes, dual infidelity, and a sexy angel named Bob add punch and pucker to this Manhattan mystery.

On My ListThe Next Thing On My List, Jill Smolinski.  June Parker drove the car that Marissa Jones died in, so of course she feels just awful about it, even though the accident was in no way June’s fault.  To make matters worse, Marissa’s “bucket list” turns up, a plan for all the fun and wonderful things she intended to do with what she thought would be the rest of her life.  To atone for her guilt, and what she perceives as her crime, June decides to complete the items on Marissa’s list, even though she finds some of them downright scary.  As June stumbles outside of her comfort zone, her life changes for the better in delightful, albeit sometimes difficult, ways, which makes for a page-turning treat.

If you’re fond of non-fiction that reads like fiction, you’re going to love Lorna couchMartin’s Girl On the Couch.  Martin has a great job, a great life, great friends, and a great boyfriend.  The only problem is, she can’t stop crying and she doesn’t know why.  Jetting from one cushy newspaper assignment to another can’t keep the demons at bay, so Martin reluctantly agrees to try psychoanalysis, with hilariously funny results.  Written in a dry, self-deprecating tone, this chronicle of the neuroses that can lurk underneath a polished surface will have you cheering as Martin learns to let down her defenses and change her self-destructive behaviors.

On a completely different, but no less complicated note, readers who like Iron_Duketheir romance novels both action-packed and bittersweet will want to check out Meljean Brooks’s The Iron Duke.  When the Horde ruled England, they used technology to enslave the populace; after the Iron Duke’s liberation mission, half-caste citizens like Mina can get a fresh start on life.  However, the “star-crossed lovers” plot that eventually unites Mina and the Duke is complicated by issues of racism, class warfare, and technological ethics.  If that sounds a bit too intelligent for a romance novel, let me assure you that the conventional romance parts are no less, er, arresting for all the high-falutin’ sentiments.

Your turn, Pittsburgh:  do you like your chick lit tart, or sweet?  Do you like to read about heroes/heroines who are just like you, or nothing like you?

–Leigh Anne


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Shelf Examination: Inspirational Fiction

I thought this series had just about run its course, but guess what? There’s a new fiction collection at Main Library! Today’s episode of Shelf Examination takes a quick peek at the New and Featured Department‘s latest contribution to readerly interests: inspirational fiction.

Like some of the other collections featured in this series, inspirational fiction spans genres from mystery to chick lit, with multiple stops at all points between. What unites this diverse collection of stories is the focus on Christian faith and positive endings, regardless of how many issues and challenges the protagonists tackle. If that sounds like your cup of tea, try one of the titles mentioned below.

"If only there were a Pittsburgh library blog that inspired me to read more..."

The book: Zora and Nicky: A Novel in Black and White, Claudia Mair Burney.

The plot: Zora and Nicky, two teens from different backgrounds, meet at a Bible study. They start out butting heads, and end up falling in love…but will their differences (and their parents) ultimately keep them apart?

Pick this up if you like: Frank discussions of racism, class differences, and sexual ethics; strong female protagonists; losing and finding faith; realistic parent-child conflicts.

The book: Perfecting Kate, Tamara Leigh.

The plot: Confused, insecure Kate feels like she needs an all-over makeover, especially after the love triangle she stumbles into inspires some serious soul-searching.

Pick this up if you like: Chick lit; the ongoing struggle between inner and outer beauty; protagonists of realistic size; stories where the girl gets the guy without losing herself; books with discussion questions included.

book jacket book jacket book jacket book jacket

The book: Thr3e, Ted Dekker.

The plot: The mysterious “Slater” wants Kevin to confess his wrongdoings, and subjects him to a series of puzzles and threats involving the number 3. The problem is, Kevin has no idea what Slater’s talking about…or has he simply buried secrets too painful to bear?

Pick this up if you like: Thrillers with plenty of plot twists, stories that grapple with both pride and the nature of evil, briskly-paced action, or long-buried secrets, revealed slowly and gradually.

The book: The Apostle Paul, James Cannon.

The plot: A fictionalized account of the life and times of Paul of Tarsus, later known as Saint Paul.

Pick this up if you like: Sweeping historical fiction, formal tone and sentence structure, large casts of characters, the writings of Taylor Caldwell.

Want more suggestions? Ask a librarian!

Intrigued? Ask a librarian about other available books and programs!

Unless there’s a new collection unveiled between now and my next turn in the blog rotation (and believe me, it could happen – we’re creative that way), we really will be saying goodbye to Shelf Examination. Tune in next time for a case of “last, but certainly not least” in the genre department, as well as a sneak preview of “Nonfiction Fix,” a series designed for people hooked on real-life reads.

–Leigh Anne

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