Monthly Wrap-Up: February 2018

MonthlyAnother month, another wrap-up. Because of my Reading From Home challenge, in which I’m trying to pick up my own books rather than borrowing from the library, this post will again be divided by source: library books above, owned books below. (Spoiler alert: I did not maintain a very good balance this month). In February I also embarked on a monthly challenge: to read books by and about people of color. Books that met this challenge are marked with an (*) asterisk.

Library Books

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The Power by Naomi Alderman (2017). The buzziest book I’ve read in a while, all puns intended. Alderman’s speculative novel imagines a world in which women have the upper-hand over men, after developing the power to shock (and kill) at will. Alderman’s book explores the structure of the resulting world, in which women quickly begin to censor, punish, and even rape and kill men in retribution for past injustices. This book was sleek, intelligent, and endlessly thought-provoking, with a plot that kept twisting in new and surprising ways. A great work of fiction, but don’t take my word for it: The Power won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize in 2017. 4Star

 

1*Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose (2017). This collection of essays from a Montreal-born writer was highly lauded in 2017, and I can sort of see why: Chew-Bose can write. Actually, she writes a little too well. These essays were beautiful, lyrical and unexpectedly insightful, but they often felt a bit heavy-handed. Her subjects loop around and fold in on themselves in a way I normally love, but it didn’t feel effortless; I saw too much of the puppet-master and not enough of the show. I connected to several passages deeply, but then whole pages would leave me cold. Still, this writer’s talent is undeniable — the definition of a hit or miss book, I suppose. 2Star

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*Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016). [Audiobook narrated by the author]. A book I picked up in audio format, and liked much more than I expected to. Noah’s narration was a big factor for me; his various accents and dialects made the story come alive. Noah had a fascinating albeit impoverished childhood, and he relates his memories with a degree of insight that surprised me. This memoir has sparked my curiosity about Apartheid in South Africa, a topic I hope to read more about. Also, on a side note, one of the daily doubles on Jeopardy this week featured a question about townships in South Africa, and I totally got it right. Thanks, Trevor. 3Star

1Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz (2016). [Audiobook downloaded via Hoopla, narrated by the author].  A quirky, intensively-researched book that is ostensibly about dogs, but really explores the sense of smell as many different animals experience it, including us. Horowitz is a hands-on learner, and takes on several experiments in this book that I wouldn’t recommend replicating (though I did stare at my dog’s nostrils with alarming intensity one night). Still, this was an enjoyable listen and I learned quite a bit. I already knew that dogs were amazing, but the studies here confirmed it: canines are simply too good for this world. 3Star


Owned Books

20342617*Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (2014). After reading Ghost of the Innocent Man by Benjamin Rachlin last November, I was interested in learning more about incarceration in the US. This book, a highly-lauded recent release, fit the bill. While Stevenson’s stories are clearly and sympathetically presented, I found the experience of reading this book incredibly frustrating — not because of any failing on the author’s part, but simply because the stories are so relentlessly bleak (I was also shocked to discover that six states are still using the electric chair). Stevenson, a lawyer who works to combat prejudice in death penalty convictions, presents a moving testament to these victims of our justice system. 3Star

1Germinal by Emile Zola (1885). One of the longest-standing books on my TBR. I picked this up in February because many of the books I had picked up were simply not working. Germinal tells the story of a group of coal miners living in extreme poverty in industrial France, who fall under the influence of an upstart revolutionary named Etienne. Together, they embark upon a daring strike to demonstrate their value to the penny-pinching fat cats who run the mines. I haven’t technically finished this one so I’ll hold off on a rating, but so far I am really enjoying this. It’s long –just over 500 pages–but it moves quickly. Despite its age, this is an immensely readable classic and one that I regret putting off for so long. I should wrap this up in the next few days.


Progress

Reading From Home Challenge
Books Read in February: 6
Owned Books Read: 2 (5 total)
TBR Remaining: 88

Next Month

February was a difficult month for me, reading-wise: many of the books I’d planned to read were DNFs. I hope March goes a bit more smoothly, but I’ve given myself plenty of leeway to abandon books that just aren’t working. I’m also starting a course in children’s and young adult literature this month, which will definitely effect the TBR. We’ll see what happens.

My first monthly challenge went…okay. Two of the books I’d planned to read never arrived at the library, and a few others were abandoned partway through, so I had trouble getting this off the ground. I still like the idea of having a monthly focus every so often, though, so I plan on trying again in the spring.

Best Book of the Month:
That would be The Power, surprisingly. It reached me at the right time. What were your favorite reads in February?

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Monthly Wrap-Up: January 2018

MonthlyOne thing I hope to post with regularity this year (I know) is a wrap-up at the close of each month. I’m tracking my reading this year using an adapted version of this spreadsheet made available by Sophie at Portal in the Pages. which is amazing. It allows me to track not only how many books I read, but to chart information about the authors, page counts, genres, ratings and more. It’s a great resource if you’re looking to glean more information about your reading habits and trends.

I’ve also embarked on a Reading From Home challenge, in which I’m trying to pick up more of my own unread books rather than borrowing books from the library. I’m hoping to achieve a 50/50 split this year, so these wrap-up posts will be divided by source: library books above, owned books below.


Library Books

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Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga (2017). This book explores the deaths of seven Indigenous students in a ten-year-period, nearly all of whom were found drowned in the waters off Thunder Bay, Ontario. While piecing together the mystery surrounding their deaths, Talaga also investigates the shameful history surrounding residential schools in Canada, schools like the one all seven victims attended at the time of their death. A bleak but gripping account, Seven Fallen Feathers reveals the struggle Indigenous families still face in Canada, and the work the remains to be done. A powerful book, but one whose subject matter is, at times, gruesome and difficult to read. 4Star

32076678The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (2017). A book that combines enthralling true crime with an eloquent and insightful memoir. Marzano-Lesnevich was a law intern in 2003, assigned to a death penalty case determining the fate of Ricky Langley, an accused pedophile and child murderer. While attempting to recreate his backstory, the author comes face to face with her own family’s history of silence and abuse. She sets out to discover how much any of us are responsible for the lives we’re born into, and whether the law can ever really assign blame. This was a beautiful book; one of the best I’ve read in months. The author is no longer a lawyer but a writer, by profession, and it shows. 4Star

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Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker (2017). I wanted to like this so much more than I did. I’ve always been a terrible sleeper, and I hoped that this book would provide some insight into why I find it so difficult to stay asleep at night, or why I experience sleep paralysis so often, or why I remember so many of my dreams. Walker’s voice was grating — he inserted himself into the narrative too often, a trait I find hard to overcome in non-fiction writing. And though he provided heaps of supporting studies (too many, if anything), I didn’t really learn anything new about sleep except that I don’t get enough of it, and that this will probably lead to my imminent and premature death. 2Star

32768516Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence (2017). [Audiobook downloaded via Hoopla, narrated by Stephanie Spicer].  This short book is actually a series of snarky letters composed by Spence, a librarian, to some of her favorite books — and some of her not-so-favorites.  It’s touted as being laugh-out-loud funny, but while I did enjoy listening to a few of these letters, Spence’s relentless sass became annoying very quickly. I much preferred the last third of the book, in which the author provides annotated book lists and unique recommendations that did — as the author promised — add several new books to my TBR. 2Star


Owned Books

7304408Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow (2009). My first (and only!) fiction read of the year. Homer & Langley is a fictionalized take on the lives of the Collyer brothers, a pair of reclusive hoarders who became famous for their bizarre habits and isolated lifestyle. Doctorow took many liberties here, switching the brothers’ birth order, reassigning their professions, and extending their lives into the 1970s (the real brothers died, one after the other, in 1947). This was a short, enjoyable read about a sensational pair of siblings, but I almost wish that Doctorow had remained loyal to the real story — it’s pretty incredible in its own right. If you haven’t, I highly recommend researching this unusual pair. 3Star

7054123The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (2010). One of two books I gifted myself for Christmas, based on a glowing recommendation from Olive. The Poisoner’s Handbook explores the birth of forensic science in New York City during the 1920s, following a rash of unsolved murders likely perpetrated using poison. Blum explores multiple murders, suicides, accidental poisonings, trials and convictions in this book, all from the perspective of the new pathology lab at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. This wasn’t quite a page-turner for me, but I did enjoy learning about this period in history. Prohibition: never again.3Star

23346901H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014). A book that  needs no introduction. This has been on my radar for a long time, partly because I have a new affinity for memoirs and partly because I love reading about nature. By all measures this should have been a home-run for me, but it just wasn’t. The writing was beautiful, and I loved the blend of genres — Macdonald offers an insightful memoir about grief, a biography of T. H. White (who I actually thought was more interesting than the author) and a how-to manual on taming goshawks. At the start I was smitten, but quickly became bored. I had to push myself to finish the second half. But I don’t think it’s the book that failed — for whatever reason, I just totally failed to connect. 2Star


Progress

Reading From Home Challenge
Books Read in January: 7
Owned Books Read: 3
TBR Remaining: 92

Next Month

January was an experimental month for me: I planned every book that I was going to read ahead of time, down to the order in which I’d read them, and for once in my life I stuck to the plan. I completed all of the books I hoped to, and achieved the right balance between owned and library books.  I’m not sure that I’ll keep such tight control going forward, but having a blueprint was immensely helpful. I’ve planned my February reading with the same goals in mind, but I’ve allowed myself a bit more leeway.

To address some gaps in my reading, I’ve decided to implement some monthly challenges for myself in 2018 — probably not every month, but hopefully every other. Using Sophie’s spreadsheet, I noticed that I read almost exclusively white authors in January — February’s challenge, chosen to coincide with black history month, will be to read books by and about people of color.

Best Book of the Month:
Definitely The Fact of a Body — not much of a contest. What was your favorite read this month?

Year in Review: Reading in 2017

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I’m taking my cue from Adam at Roof Beam Reader this year, and presenting my 2017 review in the form of a big, bookish survey. It wasn’t the most prosperous year in terms of reading, but I wanted to revisit a few of the books I found and loved along the way.

The Big, Bookish, Year-End Survey

Number Of Books Completed: 45
Number of Re-Reads: 2
Fiction / Non-Fiction: 19 vs. 26
Library Books vs. Owned Books: 38 vs. 7

Best Book(s) You Read In 2017?

Fiction:
Tinkers by Paul Harding
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Non-Fiction:
Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
Traveling With Ghosts: A Memoir by Shannon Leone Fowler
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs

30753783Most surprising (in a good or bad way) book you read? I picked up Shannon Leone Fowler’s memoir, Traveling With Ghosts, based solely upon the cover. I never thought I’d actually finish it, but it ended up being one of my favorite books of the year. I also picked up an audiobook again this year, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and I’m loving it. I am not an audiobook fan, in general.

Favorite new author you discovered? Yaa Gyasi, Becky Chambers, and Lindy West were all pleasant surprises.

23399020Best book from a genre you don’t typically read? I am not generally a fan of science-fiction, but I really enjoyed Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. The world-building and character development were both intricately designed. I  liked it so much that I followed it up with another sci-fi entry (and a YA one, at that), Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman’s Illuminae. 

Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year? That distinction might belong to Illuminae, actually — I raced through that one.

4957350Book you read in 2017 that you are most likely to re-read? I am a big fan of re-reading, but I didn’t do nearly enough of it this year. Of this year’s selections, I would love to read several again: Paul Harding’s Tinkers, Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, and Jean Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

28256410Favorite cover of a book you read in 2017? As I mentioned, I picked up Traveling With Ghosts simply because of the cover, which has an iridescent outline that doesn’t show well in pictures. I also loved the covers of Nine Island by Jane Allison, and Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde.

Most memorable character of 2017? Willie Grimes from Benjamin Rachlin’s Ghost of the Innocent Man will certainly stick with me, and he happens to be a real live person. I’m also a big fan of Alfred Borden, one of the dueling magicians (the better one, obvs) in Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, and Eleanor Oliphant is another character I won’t soon forget.

33296278Favorite passage from a book you read in 2017? “Hell is the absence of people you long for.” — found in Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (similar to another quote I love: “Desire, a venerable teacher had once told him, is this: To wait beneath the stars for someone to return, alive, from the field of battle.” From Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni.)

Did you complete any reading challenges that you had set for yourself this year? Nope! My original goal was to read 60 books in 2017 (I completed 45), and to read twenty of my own unread books ( I completed 7). Double failure. It’s almost impressive how bad I am at this.

Book(s) you are most anticipating in 2018? I’ve got a few on my listmostly backlist: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga, and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, to name a few.

One thing you hope to accomplish in your reading/blogging life in 2018? I need to pick up the pace with my reading, and find a more enjoyable way to blog about it or give up the gig altogether. I’m going to aim for sixty books again in 2018 and more if I can manage it, and I’ll try to make sure that half of them are my own. Aside from that, I’m up for anything.

What were your favorites of the year? Any plans for 2018?

 

A Reading From Home Challenge & A Tour of the Unread

I mentioned earlier this month that I don’t plan to take on too many challenges next year. Aside from a year-long readalong of Les Miserables, I have only one other project on the horizon: an endeavor to read more of the books I have at home.

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I attempt to do something like this every year, but I seem to keep moving further and further from the goal. In 2017, only 7 of the books I read were ones I owned (a measly, weasly 15%). I know that I’ll never be able to cut out library books entirely, but I think I can achieve a slightly better balance than that. Currently, I have 100 unread books at home, and some of them have been languishing for five years or more. It’s time for me to put up, or shut up.

In 2018, I’m going to attempt a 50-50 split — to read, in other words, one of my own books for every library book I read. I’m also going to cull books from my collection more often. I just donated fifteen books this week, books that I no longer have any interest in reading. I hope to do this more frequently; to make sure that my collection reflects my current reading habits and intentions, not the ones I had ten years ago. I’ll also be much more restrictive about purchasing new books. With clothing, I have a one-in, one-out policy because of limited space; I think that’s a good model for reading, too.

To put this more succinctly:

  • In 2018, I will try to achieve a balance by reading 50% library books, and 50% owned books. This means reading one of my own books for every library book I complete.
  • I will try a one-in, one-out policy: I won’t add another book to my collection until I’ve read one I already own.
  • I will cull books more frequently, donating books I am no longer interested in reading.

This will be a low-key challenge in terms of blog engagement, but if you want to follow along with my progress, I’ll be listing the books I complete right here!

a tour of the unread(1)

Just for fun, I thought I’d highlight a few of the unread books in my collection. Most of them have been sitting around for 3-5 years, a few even longer than that. Without further ado, my TBR.

The Five Books I’ve Owned the Longest:

Oldest

Five Books of Non-Fiction:

NonFic

Five Books I’m Most Excited To Read:

Excited

The Five Newest Books On My Shelves:

Newest

This is just a sampling, twenty of the nearly 100 books I own, but I think it’s a good indication of the collection. A lot of non-fiction, a bit of literary fiction, and a few classics mixed in. I’ll definitely be tackling Les Miserables as part of my readalong, and H is for Hawk has been on my nightstand for a month. As for the rest, we’ll just have to see.

Reading Plans in 2018: A Year-Long Readalong

In general, I don’t like to begin the new year with a whole bunch of reading plans. I am usually able to focus my energy on one or two projects at a time, and not much more. To that end, I’ve chosen to participate in only one reading challenge in 2018: a year-long, chapter-a-day readalong of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

Les Miserables

The Les Miserables Readalong is the brain-child of Nick at One Catholic Life. He noticed, while reading David Bellos’s The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Miserables, that there are exactly 365 chapters in the famous book — one for each day of the year. He decided to read the book in just this way; to build a daily routine that included time spent reading the book, savoring each chapter slowly, and intentionally stretching the experience over a full calendar year. He explains his reasoning much more eloquently below:

“Imagine getting up early each morning and as part of your daily routine opening up one of the truly great books of the world and spending a little time with unforgettable characters like Jean Valjean, the Bishop of Digne, Fantine, Javert, and little Gavroche. Or imagine settling in each evening before going to sleep, losing yourself in the world of 19th century France: galley slaves, the sewers of Paris, the battle of Waterloo, the barricades. And finally, imagine waking up on December 31, 2018, knowing that you are about to finish the last chapter of one of the longest and most profound books ever written. This is the extraordinary adventure of the Les Misérables Read-along.”

I was drawn to this challenge for a couple of reasons: firstly, because Les Mis is a book I’d like to read but can’t quite stomach the size of, and secondly, because the idea of spending an entire year absorbing a book sounds immensely appealing right now. It forces me, firstly, to address my daily routine with more intention. It also falls right into line with efforts I’ve been making to read (and live) more mindfully.

Part of the challenge, for me, will be carving out a regular space in my daily routine. Another challenge will be keeping the pace: neither falling behind nor moving ahead, but savoring the story one chapter at a time. I’m actually excited to read with this much intention — it’s not something I do much of anymore.

This challenge will run from January 1 — December 31, 2018. If you’re interested in joining, you can download Nick’s daily schedule here!

Nonfiction November: Added To My TBR

Nonfiction November

Nonfiction November is coming to a close. Though I didn’t get as much blogging done as I’d hoped to, I was able to complete four nonfiction books this month, which is as many books as I read during all of September and October combined. I only hope I can keep the momentum going.

This week’s prompt, hosted by The Emerald City Book Review, asks bloggers to highlight new nonfiction books on their TBR. For me, that’s quite a list. Some of these choices were inspired by bloggers participating in this month’s event, but others I found while scouring for books to read. I’m including just a fraction of them here (my TBR list, at this moment, tops 270 books. I’m afraid to dig too deep.)

Nonfiction On My To-Read List

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Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker (2017). I didn’t have a chance to read this during Nonfiction November, but it’s still at the top of my list. I’m just waiting for my hold to come in at the library.

The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro (2018). This book was recommended by Angela at Musings of a Literary Wanderer, and it sounds like it’s right up my alley. I’ll be first in line for this when it comes out in January.

Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain by Lucy Jones  (2016). I saw this recommended on multiple blogs and at least one Booktube channel, and honestly the cover is what drew me in. Foxes are one of my favorite animals, and this sounds like a thorough and respectful study. I’m reading a similar book on animals and nature now — Craig Childs’s The Animal Dialogues — and really enjoying it.

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon (2015). Another book that has been on my radar for a while, but has been cast aside due to its (considerable) size. Now that this is available in paperback, I might be able to handle it.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper (2017). This book might as well have been designed for English-majors-turned-public-librarians. I’ve seen enough rave reviews to put this on my list.


Thanks again to the bloggers behind The Emerald City Book Review, Doing Dewey, JulzReads, Sarah’s Book Shelves and Sophisticated Dorkiness for hosting such a wonderful event. Nonfiction November has helped to kick me out of my reading rut, and I enjoyed each of the four books I read this month: All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister, Ghost of the Innocent Man by Benjamin Rachlin, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, and The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs. I’m so grateful I had an opportunity to participate, and I can’t wait until next year!

Nonfiction November: Recent Reads & Recommendations

Nonfiction November

November, for many readers and bloggers, is all about the nonfiction. In honor of this week’s prompt hosted by Doing Dewey, I thought I’d share a few of my recent reads in that department. I’m a big fan of nonfiction and probably read more of it than I do fiction, now, gravitating toward memoirs, biographies, and books about natural science, history and psychology. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed recently:

Recent Reads

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Traveling With Ghosts: A Memoir by Shannon Leone Fowler (2017). One of the best memoirs I’ve read recently. Traveling traces Fowler’s decision to take a long, meandering trip through Europe after her traveling companion — and fiance, Sean — is killed by a box jellyfish in the waters of Thailand. His sudden death, in the midst of one of their many trips, leaves Fowler staggering. Her decision to travel again is mapped in this memoir, along with her grief. In her travels, Fowler explores territories that have also experienced loss — war-torn Sarajevo, embattled Tel-Aviv, and many places in between.  As both a travel memoir and as a testament to Sean’s life, this book works beautifully.

1The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (2016). This is a book I knew almost nothing about, but wound up enjoying very much. In it, Olivia Laing tries to get at the root of loneliness — what causes people to feel so disconnected from others, how they overcome the feeling (or not, in some instances), and the shame associated with admitting to it. Laing explores the topic through the lens of art, and particularly the 20th-century art scene in New York City, where Laing finds herself living as a single transplant. The book is a hodgepodge in the best sense of the word: part social history and part memoir, with just the right amount of careful analysis to engage the reader.

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Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard (2015). Probably my favorite non-fiction read of the past twelve months, despite the difficult content. In Nagasaki, Southard does for the bombed city of Nagasaki what John Hersey did for Hiroshima: recreates the devastation that affected — and continues to affect — hundreds of thousands of lives. Southard spent years interviewing survivors of the atomic bomb, and focuses on the stories of five people in particular who survived the bombing as teenagers. Their movements are captured not only in the days and weeks following the event, but in the years and decades that have since passed. This is a beautiful, haunting book that explores an uncomfortable, but important, episode in history.

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All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister (2016). I can’t remember what led me to pick up this title, but I really don’t want to overthink it: I am definitely a member of Traister’s target audience. All The Single Ladies explores the emergence of a new economic, cultural, and political force in the United States: the unmarried woman. Though the book was a bit repetitive in places, it highlights the various obstacles still barring women from complete independence while tracing the progress that has been made. Over a period of five years, Traister interviewed hundreds of single women from all walks of life, and includes their stories here.

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Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin (2017). A well-researched, fast-paced book that reads like an episode of Law & Order. Rachlin is a native of my home state, and this is his first book. In it, he presents the story of Willie J. Grimes, a man wrongfully convicted of rape in 1988 who, despite repeated attempts to appeal his case, served more than two decades in prison. Rachlin also explores the origins of The Innocence Project, an organization that arose in response to repeated wrongful convictions being overturned, and which works to exonerate innocent victims that are imprisoned. Though the subject matter is bleak, Rachlin’s story is immediately gripping. Readers will quickly rally behind Grimes, who is worthy of all the effort that writing this book entailed.