Front Page, Musings

Weekly Musing: Unforgettable Reads of 2016

Last week I went over the books which made my list of Regrettable Reads of 2016. This week I focus on the books which stuck with me throughout the year either because they captured me emotionally or were just plain fun to read.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: A pick by my book club, this is a beautiful book revolving around The Night Circus, an ethereal, magical circus unlike any other. At the center two magicians trained under rival magicians for the purpose of competing against one another. The fathers of the two magicians have been rivals for centuries, engaged in a continuous battle to prove who the best is.

What I loved about this book were the characters from the protagonists to the supporting cast of circus performers.

I loved the circus itself since it isn’t the kind we are used to. There are the more traditional acts one finds at a circus from a fortune teller to animal tamers to acrobats, but all of it is tinged with real magic. The color scheme of The Night Circus is black and white which should have presented a hindrance to Morgenstern to make the circus vivid, but she does a wonderful job presenting unique, gorgeous visuals for the reader.

I also loved the romance which developed between the two protagonists. It is developed slowly, subtly over the years and comes across as natural and not overdone. You actually root for them to fall in love because they mutually respect each other’s gifts and realize how dangerous and pointless the rivalry set in motion by their fathers is.

The Ming Storytellers by Laura Rahme: First let me start off with a warning. This book was self-published and is riddled with typos, formatting issues, and could have used another editing pass. That being said, I’m still putting it on my Best Of list because the story, characters, and prose were that compelling.

Set in the early days of the Ming Dynasty, it’s an epic historical fiction story. We follow several characters from a trusted naval general, who happens to be eunuch, as he falls in love with one of the Emperor’s concubines to the concubine herself to an unsavory government official to a Persian merchant and a mysterious storyteller.

All the characters were intriguing and fleshed out along with each of their stories. What I loved was the stories sometimes were directly woven into other stories and other times not, however, Rahme makes sure all the stories serve the larger story of the novel.

I loved the setting descriptions and felt like I was in this time period; key to historical fiction. Again, with a little bit more editing a book which is already pretty special could have been spectacular.

Drinking From a Bitter Cup by Angela Jackson-Brown: I previously reviewed this book and still find myself haunted by it. Doesn’t help that I finished it the day a particularly emotion wrecking episode of “Game of Thrones” aired. I don’t recommend reading this book if you’re watching that show. You’ll be ruined for days.

A Skeleton in the Family by Leigh Perry: Another book I previous reviewed.  I’ll simply add that what I loved most about this book is how much of a fun it is.

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George: A charming book set in Paris, it follows Perdu, a bookseller whose shop is a boat. He believes books are medicine, a literary apothecary, and recommends book to people to “heal” people simply by looking at them. He lives in an apartment nearby and at first the book starts off as a possible romance with a neighbor. Like him, she is lonely, suffering from heartbreak yet wishes for love. An event causes Perdu to leave Paris in his floating bookstore and travel the Seine River to the town his long dead one and only love lived. Along the way he picks up an interesting cast of characters including a young author not dealing well with sudden success.

Though ultimately a romantic love story, it is also a love story to books and the impact they have on us. It’s also a love story to living life and taking chances.

Perdu is an empathic and compassionate soul whom the reader roots for him to be truly happy and let go of the past. The cast of supporting characters I loved for their eccentricities and varying views on life and for being at different stages of their lives.

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson: One more book I reviewed previously. I’ll only add that I’ve read the second book in the series and look forward to reading books three and four in 2017.

The Last Adventure of Dr. Yngve Hogalum by D.L. Mackenzie: A self-published Steampunk novella, The Last Adventure of Dr. Yngve Hogalum is the first in a series. It’s a breezy read revolving around the assistant to the now deceased Dr. Yngve Hogalum, Phineas Magnetron, who assembles a crazy batch of scientists to go on a daring adventure.

Like A Skelton in the Family, this book is a fun, delightful read. The characters are insane in a good way and it’s not dark like some Steampunk novels tend to be. It knows what it is and Mackenzie shows he was inspired by late Victorian era science fiction.

I’m also impressed by how well Mackenzie accomplishes so much in fifty-three pages without sacrificing any elements. I loved the writing style and look forward to reading the next two novellas in the series.


So there you have it. My favorite reads of 2016. While these books are all over the place in terms of genre, they all share compelling characters and wonderfully individual stories I completely immersed myself in. They represent to me the kind of writing I wish to do in that they elicit a joyous response in the reader.

Book Reviews

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Drinking From a Bitter Cup by Angela Jackson-Brown

Drinking From a Bitter Cup by Angela Jackson-Brown is the author’s debut novel that came out in 2014. Set in the late ’70s/early ’80s in Louisville, KY before switching to rural Alabama, the story is about Sylvia Butler. The story begins when she is 10 years old and living in Louisville with her mentally ill and alcoholic mother. They are poor and Sylvia has no friends except her mother, a neighbor, Miss Cora, and her mother’s sometimes-boyfriend Uncle Ray. Her life is incredibly rough yet it isn’t lacking in love and Sylvia thrives academically.

Unfortunately Sylvia’s life is about to become more difficult as her mother’s mental illness is accelerated by an unexpected death. Shortly thereafter her mother gives up completely and kills herself by overdosing on sleeping pills. A few days after her mother dies Sylvia is introduced to her father whom she only has seen through a picture her mother kept tucked away. Her father had no idea Sylvia existed until contacted by Miss Cora per the instructions Sylvia’s mother left behind.

The day after the funeral Sylvia is whisked away to Alabama and is immediately resented by her father’s wife. Mother Viv, as she makes Sylvia refer to her, is so angry with her father for cheating on her that instead of hashing it out with her husband, she takes it out on Sylvia. Her father does his best to get to know and love Sylvia and for the first time in her life, she has an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins, in addition to financial stability. With the exception of Mother Viv, her life improves drastically. But this brief period doesn’t last as tragedy once again strikes Sylvia with even more horrible consequences.

In addition to the prose, the strength of Drinking From a Bitter Cup is Sylvia. She is a smart, brave, and compassionate person. One of those people that you don’t want anything bad to happen to because they don’t deserve it. And yet the bad keeps getting piled onto Sylvia. She doesn’t need any more tests in life because by the time the book ends, she’s already gone through a lifetime of them. From the start you immediately root for her and just want to hug her and keep her close. It’s also clear she is a realist and has learned early on to rely mostly on herself. It doesn’t help that many of the adults around her hurt her in some way.

Ms. Jackson-Brown does a solid job developing all the characters including the two main villains of Mother Viv and Uncle Charles. While they are horrible people, one more so than the other, they aren’t not written as one-dimensional. It’s hard to empathize with them and they are the kind of people you’d like to scream at for being cruel to a child.

I also liked how the author brings ups such complicated issues such as untreated mental illness, poverty, death, religious belief, and various forms of abuse. Because of its setting both in time and place, those issues are a reminder to the reader that society still struggles with how to handle those issues. In some areas we’ve gotten better and more understanding, but in others we’re still failing.

One thing I thought was interesting was Ms. Jackson-Brown’s usage of symbolism. The big symbol in the book is The Wizard of Oz movie. Sylvia and her mother both loved it and the themes in the movie help support what happens in the book. From the idea of what is home to what is family to reality vs. fantasy are all touched upon. For example, one of Sylvia’s favorite memories of her mother is how they would dress up as characters from the movie and act scenes out at home. Yet those happy times of living in a fantasy world are contrasted with harsh realities of Sylvia’s mother’s depression.

Another symbol, one that is more explicitly discussed between characters, is her mother’s bed. Her mother tells her it’s where she was conceived and it’s also where her mother died. Once Sylvia inherits it becomes the scene of a lot of horrible, ugly tragedy. Yet somehow it is looked upon as a place where Sylvia will also conceive her own children and comfort them at night. I wasn’t completely onboard with that connection because it does stand for the extreme dichotomies in Sylvia’s life.

While I enjoyed the book, the one thing I didn’t care for was the ending. It’s rushed and although at least one of the villains gets it in the end, for once I’m not completely okay with a book ending on ambiguity. Normally I like open endings since I enjoy speculating and life rarely has clean, definitive endings. In Drinking From a Bitter Cup it is definitely left up to the reader to decide if Sylvia’s rosy outlook, almost bordering on delusional, on life is justified. I’m of the opinion it isn’t and I can see the cycle being repeated. I guess that’s why I have a problem with it. It saddens me to think of this very special person being stuck when she has kind of personality to break it. The ending also disappoints me because the author uses a plot device I cannot stand and think is cheap and overused. I can’t state what it is since that gives away part of the ending.

Drinking From a Bitter Cup is one of those books that is incredibly difficult to read because it pulls out of the reader all kinds of emotions. Overall I give it 4 pencils out of 5. It’s very gut-wrenching and one to be read with a box of Kleenex nearby.