Chicagoland Top Sellers

So after a six-month break at blogging (how’d they go by so fast?!), I’m easing back into the game with a quick post on local best sellers, thanks to our friends at Shelf Awareness

Top-Selling Titles in Chicagoland and Milwaukee Last Week

The following were the bestselling books at independent bookstores in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas during the week ended Sunday, November 13:

1. Inheritance by Christopher Paolini
2. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
3. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
4. Blue Nights by Joan Didion
5. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
6. Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin
7. That Used to Be Us by Thomas Friedman
8. Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright
9. Mastiff by Tamora Pierce
10. Deliriously Happy by Larry Doyle

The reporting bookstores and their handselling favorites:

Anderson’s, Naperville and Downers Grove: Inheritance by Christopher Paolini
Book Cellar, Lincoln Square: Deliriously Happy by Larry Doyle
Book Stall at Chestnut Court, Winnetka
Book Table, Oak Park: A Natural History of the Piano by Stuart Isacoff
Books & Co., Oconomowoc: We the Animals by Justin Torres
Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee: The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg
57th St. Books, Chicago: China in Ten Words by Yu Hua
Lake Forest Books: Inheritance by Christopher Paolini
Next Chapter, Mequon
Read Between the Lynes, Woodstock
Seminary Co-op: Music and Sentiment by Charles Rosen
Women and Children First, Chicago: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

[Many thanks to the booksellers and Carl Lennertz!]

Also, a shot of books (read) patiently waiting to be reviewed:Image

And a shot of books patiently waiting to be read: 


I’ve clearly got my work cut out for me! Eek! And all of this in the middle of National Novel Writing Month

Room, by Emma Donoghue


Room, by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown and Co., 2010), was like nothing I’ve ever read before. Like The Book Thief, Room is narrated in an unusual way. The story is told through the eyes of 5-year-old Jack, a little boy who’s spent his whole life in an 11’x11′ room with his Ma. Hearing the story of a young woman’s kidnapping and confinement through the filter of a 5-year-old gives the story a new depth and constantly throws you into a new, unusual perspective.

If you’ve spent much time talking to 5 year olds, you’ll know that they haven’t quite mastered the nuances of our tricky English language. Those sneaky pronouns, irregular past tense verbs and complicated sentence structures get in the way when Jack tells the story, but, like reading in a foreign language, once you get used to the patterns and “Jack-speak”, the book’s narrative flows much more smoothly, allowing  you to get swept into the story.

Jack and Ma (we never do learn her “other two names”, as Jack deems them unnecessary because Ma already has a name: Ma) have a daily routine in Room. (Jack personifies a lot of inanimate objects, and considers them his friends) Jack’s whole world is in Room, his friends are the five picture books he can read by himself, Bed, Duvet, Wardrobe, Rug, Plant, Egg-snake under the bed, and his TV friend Dora. When Jack begins to outgrow the confines of Room, Ma breaks down, tells him the story of her kidnapping and “unlies” the truth of Outside. They plan a scary, brave (“scrave”) escape and I don’t feel like it’s a spoiler if I tell you that they are successful because…

The second half of the book focuses on Ma and Jack adjusting to life in Outside. We meet Jack’s grandparents and, through Jack’s very real child’s perspective, get a glimpse of how the fringe characters had adjusted to Ma’s disappearance.

While the events in this story are horrifying to think about: kidnapping, repeated rape, a child growing up in a tiny, 11’x11′ space, they are told with a contrasting attitude of normalcy and a perspective that will keep you turning pages. Jack’s voice and point of view keep the story light and straightforward. Any “oh, how awful it must’ve been” voices are all on the periphery, mostly from the outside world after the big escape.

What really stood out to me in this story is the bond between Jack and Ma, the courage and creativity she used to create as normal of a life as was possible for her little boy in their confined space, and the fierce protectiveness Jack and Ma feel toward each other. Rather than being a depressing Debbie Downer, Room was full of hope and life.

Bottom line: If you are looking for a unique, perspective-changing, thought-provoking book, I definitely recommend Room. If you’re still not sure about it, check out this great review by The Guardian’s Nicola Barr. Or this interview with author Emma Donoghue: 

The Meowmorphosis, by Franz Kafka and Coleridge Cook


Before I picked up The Meowmorphosis (Quirk Books, 2011), the newest mash-up from Quirk Books, I wanted to get to know Kafka a little better. He’d been on my “to-read-someday” list just about forever, so I dove straight into The Metamorphosis. The story—too short to be a novella, too long to be a short story—starts out well enough, with poor Gregor Samsa waking up one rainy day to find he’d turned into a giant beetle during a night of fitful dreams. After that, the story goes downhill. Slowly. With a little more talking and a lot less action. Kafka also relies heavily on long, unending, rambling sentences. For example:

“Hardly had his sister noticed the changed aspect of his room that evening than she rushed in high dudgeon into the living room and, despite the imploringly raised hands of her mother, burst into a storm of weeping, while her parents—her father had of course been startled out of his chair—looked on at first in helpless amazement; then they too began to go into action; the father reproached the mother on his right for not having left the cleaning of Gregor’s room to his sister; shrieked at the sister on his left that never again was she to be allowed to clean gregor’s room; while the mother tried to pull the father into his bedroom, since he was beyond himself with agitation; the sister, shaken with sobs, then beat upon the table with her small fists; and Gregor hissed loudly with rage because not one of them thought of shutting the door to spare him such a spectacle and so much noise.” 

And that was one of the exciting scenes… So finally having finished the entire Metamorphosis, I picked up The Meowmorphosis with some trepidation. I’d been impressed with how closely Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (also a Quirk book) had stuck to Jane Austen’s style, and I had no reason to think Meowmorphosis would be any different.

I am happy to report that Meowmorphosis is about a million times more adorable than the original, and I had a much easier time sympathizing with the thoughts and emotions of a giant kitty than I did a giant insect. It is still the same basic plot: unexplainable change after a night of fitful dreams, alienation and resentment from his family, and the same final conclusion, which I won’t give away if you haven’t read Kafka. To make Meowmorphosis novel length, Coleridge Cook took the liberty to add an escape scene where Gregor actually roams the streets of Prague and comes into contact with some very long-winded kitties indeed. (One paragraph carries on for five entire pages!)

Cook plucked characters from other Kafka works and kitty-fied them, weaving them into the streets of Prague. Josef K., the protagonist of The Trial, morphs into the aforementioned longwinded tabby and, ironically, arrests Gregor and holds him on trial for a crime that we never fully understand. Kafka’s A Little Woman begins with a description of a woman who is “quite ill-pleased” with the narrator; Cook crafts the excerpt into a description of Gregor’s sister upon his return home. Even Gregor’s dream, the night of his meowmorphosis, is part of another Kafka short story, Investigations of a Dog.

Bottom line: Much as I expected, The Meowmorphosis stuck fast to Kafka’s own literary style and favorite themes. This patchwork of Kafka was interesting on the grounds of its unusual nature and much more fun to struggle through than the original, but I have a feeling that if I’d been better-versed in Kafka, I would have enjoyed it much more.

Check out the trailer for The Meowmorphosis:

Algonquin Books + Lagunitas = Free Beer Tour

Hey boys, listen up. Two of your favorite things, books and craft beer, are coming together this summer in the form of an ingenious book tour. The best news of all? As a Chicagoan, there are not one but two events within reasonable driving distance. The tour kicks off at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville and the next night the authors are throwing one back in Milwaukee’s Boswell Books.

What: The Algonquin Free Beer Tour stops in Naperville, Milwaukee, Oakland, Boston and Austin, bringing these lucky cities entertaining authors with guy-friendly reads and beer to match. Each of the three new books featured on the tour is paired with a craft brew from Lagunitas Brewing Company.

Who: Algonquin Books showcases authors Josh Wilker (Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale), Pete Nelson (I Thought You Were Dead) and David Anthony (Something for Nothing)

6/1, Anderson’s Bookshop, Naperville, IL
6/2, Boswell Books, Milwaukee, WI
6/9, Diesel Books, Oakland, CA
6/16, Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, MA
6/30, Book People, Austin, TX

Why: Algonquin said it best: “It’s an evening of pairing great books with great beer—and it sure as hell beats cutting the grass after work.”

For more info on the event, go to

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

via Algonquin Books,

Water for Elephants is a book I have wanted to read for a very long time. Unfortunately for me, it has also been one I’ve managed to avoid buying for a very long time, too. Something to do with all the hype surrounding it—sometimes I just don’t want to read something everybody and their mother is already gushing about. But, speaking of mothers, mine had gotten a copy from the library and spent a good part of a freakishly warm Chicago spring day snorting and laughing on the front porch while she read. I had no choice.

I wasn’t sorry. Chapter One introduces us to our main character, Jacob Jankowski in the present day from the hallway of his nursing home; “Either there’s been an accident or there’s roadwork, because a gaggle of old ladies is glued to the window at the end of the hall like children or jailbirds.” As it turns out, there is a circus setting up right outside. The presence of the enormous canvas tent sends Jacob’s mind reeling to a time long past, and thus begins our story.

We are taken back to the end of Jacob’s final year at veterinary college, during the Depression, a time when his parents have mortgaged their house to pay for his education and are accepting beans and eggs in lieu of payment for their services as veterinarians. A gruesome accident takes both of Jacob’s parents just before his final exams, and unable to concentrate on the test booklet on his desk, he walks out of his exam and keeps walking until dark. He comes across a dark set of train tracks, and desperation prompts him to hop the train that comes barreling out of the darkness; the decision changes the course of his life. Discovered and taken in by some working men on the circus train, Jacob is introduced to the wild, transient life of the circus.

The story has its ups and downs as Jacob falls for Marlena, the wife of his psychotic, mercurial boss (Uncle Al), and she seems to return his feelings. Along the way, the show takes in an elephant who seems clever enough, but refuses to listen to the commands of Uncle Al, resulting in some gut-checking animal abuse. Jacob, like any decent human, can’t stomach the way Uncle Al treats Rosie the elephant (which, incidentally, is similar to the way he treats his wife Marlena). The circus drives on as Jacob falls more and more for the two very different girls, driving him to become more and more bold in his actions.

I am not going to give away the climactic ending, but I still haven’t told you everything.

The way this story is told may not be unique—a nursing home prisoner battles through the ghosts of his past—but the way Gruen narrates through the eyes of a sharp-witted man who sees his essence draining away in a land of Jello salad and ubiquitous pills makes you sympathize with Jacob and silently root for him to damn them all and escape to something better. He’s certainly feisty enough.

The characters in Water for Elephants are real and likable. A motley crew of rag-tag performers and laborers, each has his own place in the circus hierarchy. True, it may be a love story, but isn’t some lovey-dovey sap story that you read with a box of tissue. This is a story that has sex, violence, joy, misery and grit. I think part of this owes to the fact that our narrator is a young man in his 20s, as well as the fact that life on the circus route was rough.

Bottom line: I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that I didn’t love about Water for Elephants, with the exception that it concluded with a pretty convenient ending, which I know bothers some readers. The journey to get there, however, was one helluva ride. Don’t wait as long as I did. Go pick up a copy!

Maid to Match, by Deeanne Gist


My mum handed me Maid to Match (Bethany House Publishers, 2010) back in early February, right around the time I started this blog. I was working on other darker things at the time, so the fluffy romance got pushed to the back burner. I know romance novels (and their authors) often get a lot of grief for being what they are, but I’m firmly rooted in the camp that they have their place and purpose and are just as important as anything you’d find on the literary fiction shelf. For me, TRNs (trashy romance novels) are equivalent to dessert or a piece of Vosges Haut-Chocolate in the middle of a stressful work day. Sometimes I like picking up a book with strong female leads and sexy men and knowing that everything is going to turn out alright! (Though I have to amend right off the bat that Gist and Bethany House take the T out of the TRN!)

After finishing a dark, disturbing young adult novel, Maid to Match was exactly what I needed. Set in stunning North Carolina, on the Biltmore Estate in 1898, the story begins with the introduction of Tillie Reese, our immediately likable heroine. Tillie, the head parlormaid, is on the brink of becoming a lady’s maid to the Mrs. Vanderbilt. She craves the elite position and everything that goes with it; books, baths, fashionable dresses, travel and better pay (“so she could help her family and others in the community who were in need”). Tillie’s big heart and level head make her a shoe-in for the position, not to mention that Tillie’s over-bearing mama has been grooming Tillie for the position all her life.

Enter Mack Danvers, the rugged mountain man with a heart of gold. His handsome countenance, plus the fact that his twin is currently a Vanderbilt-employed footman, kick him right onto the fast track of servitude. After all, anyone in the upper echelon of turn-of-the-century society can employ a handsome footman, but think of the prestige that would come with employing a matching set.


The heavy responsibility of de-mountain-manning Mack somehow falls on sweet Tilly and of course, sparks (squeaky clean sparks) fly. Tillie does her best to avoid Mack’s advances because one does not engage in inter-service romance, especially if she wants to be come lady’s maid. However, the more time our hero and heroine are forced to spend together, the more Tillie learns about the real reason Mack has emerged from his mountain home and the more her heart softens toward him.

What I enjoyed the most about this book was that it introduced me to a setting and time in American history that, in retrospect, seems to be overlooked in the romance genre in general. Gist’s well-researched storyline waltzes the reader through the lush Biltmore Estate with its modern swimming pool and bowling alley, shady orphanages run by dodgy characters, and the beautiful Carolina mountains and their clans. Gist outlines in her author’s note just what was historically accurate and what she stretched for the sake of the story, which I thought was pretty cool.

Let’s talk about S-E-X for a sec. Bethany House is a publisher of Christian fiction and romance, and when I started Maid to Match, I wasn’t aware of the fact. Being much more accustomed to the bodice-rippers of Stephanie Laurens and others like her, I felt a little, well, frustrated that all that sexual tension between Tillie and Mack never had an outlet, or rather, that the outlet was merely alluded to. It makes more sense upon my discovery that the book came from a Christian publisher, but was odd and, er, anti-climactic at the time.

Bottom line: If you are looking for a light-hearted romance with a sweet, likable heroine and some fascinating American history lore, Maid to Match is a good one to pick up. Just be aware that this is no titillating TRN!

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Dreadfully Ever After, by Steve Hockensmith

photo via Quirk Books

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the monster mash-up that started it all back in 2009, has inspired an entire sub-genre of literary classics (and the lives of the writers who penned them) that have been infiltrated by the dark side. Now, after a New York Times Best Seller prequel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Dawn of the Dreadfuls), Quirk Books delivers the actual chronological sequel to the original mash-up, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Dreadfully Ever After.

The beginning of Dreadfully Ever After picks up the story of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy four years after the original mash-up ends. The zombies (or as they’re referred to in polite Regency society: the dreadfuls, the unmentionables, the sorry stricken, or the zed words) are still terrorizing the country, but finding herself now the wife of a respectable gentleman, Elizabeth has hung up her katana and throwing stars to lead a life of quiet wedded bliss. It would seem, however, that our favorite kung fu couple are experiencing a problem of their own in the form of Elizabeth’s unshakeable, unplaceable discontent. Deep into a long walk and serious discussion, the pair run into a boy from the estate and fail to notice the “odd tilt to the boy’s head and the gray palor of his skin and the smell of death and feculence that drifted with him onto the road.” Consequently, Mr. Darcy is bitten and infected.

The warrior within dictates that Elizabeth should promptly behead her beloved and burn the remains. Instead she turns to her nemesis and Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, one of the most renowned zombie slayers in the country. We learned in the first book that Lady Catherine was working on developing an antidote to the evil plague. To help save her nephew (in spite of the fact that he once spurned her strange, sickly daughter), she sends grief-stricken Elizabeth, still-silly Kitty Bennet and a happily wife-free Mr. Bennet to a dreadful-infested London and the source of the fabled cure. Mary Bennet, unwilling to be left out of the excitement, shows up in London to join in the fray.

Add an eccentric, fiery tempered Scotsman with access to the cure and his handsome, idiotic dandy son to the cast, along with a mysterious Man in a Box, a couple of mangy dogs, a sneaky ninja with an eye for Kitty and a very important bunny, and you’ve got Dreadfully Ever After.

The story lines—both the Bennet family’s quest for the cure and the intrigue abounding back at the residence of Lady Catherine, where Darcy is being held, er, healed by his aunt and creepy cousin—moved at a clipping pace. Dreadfully Ever After spotlights characters who were previously thrust into the shadows, as Anne de Bourgh has a pivotal role in the book. I also really enjoyed the development of Mary and Kitty as they each broke from the static, typecast roles thrust upon them in the original, the mash-up and its prequel. I was impressed with how author Steve Hockensmith went beyond simply writing a goofy, fun monster mash-up to including actual character development and ending the book on, dare I say, a didactic note? I won’t give away the ending, but I will say it was one with an unmistakable moral lesson.

The creativity with which Hockensmith built up a Regency London society plagued with dreadfuls had me giggling, snorting and oversharing with my poor mother, who has absolutely no interest in anything dark or, well, dreadful. But as a die-hard snobby Brit-lit enthusiast, even she was chuckling at some of the excerpts I read aloud. For example, the book opens with Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, back-to-back, surrounded by a herd of recently unearthed unmentionables. “As his beloved Elizabeth shattered the nearest zombie’s skull with a perfectly placed axe kick, Fitzwilliam Darcy saw in her eyes something that had been missing for a long, long time: joie de vivre… Although one couldn’t say the creatures had joie de vivre, both joie and vivre being long beyond them, they were undeniably enthusiastic in their quest for succulent flesh.” Such little quips are sprinkled heavily throughout the narrative, making the book much more light-hearted than your average zombie infestation.

Bottom line: The newest book in a well-established series, Dreadfully Ever After, is undeniably fun, well-written and engaging. I definitely recommend it, even if you’re not typically a reader of zombie lore.