‘Afterparties’ Explores the Intersections of Class, Ethnicity, and Sexuality

Ever since I joined Bookstagram, I’ve noticed a trend. Popular books will pop up on my feed for weeks at a time, their aesthetically crafted photos alongside multi-paragraph reviews by various readers. 

Sometimes, these books are mediocre, at best. Other times, the Goodreads synopsis can’t even capture my attention for more than a few seconds. But every so often, there’s a book that truly does “live up to the hype” and deserves every staged photo and shoutout it gets. The late Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties was one of them.

Let me preface this by chatting a bit about the author. As a gay Cambodian American man, he didn’t exactly fit the traditional expectations of his culture. He graduated from Stanford and completed an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse, before going on to fulfil various teaching positions. And of course, penning these wonderful short stories. 

Afterparties is a collection of So’s best work. Many of the stories take place in his hometown of Stockton, California or the San Francisco Bay Area, and tackle salient (and more subtle) aspects of his culture. 

The Cambodian genocide of the 1970s underscores the pain and intergenerational trauma many of his characters face, and he highlights the generational gap that occurs as a result of immigrant parents being at odds with their American-born children. 

So also criticizes the idea of the American dream, that all who flee violence and threats to their existence don’t necessarily find abundant promise in their newer, safer lands. 

As he says in one of the stories, most Cambodian Americans “… fixed cars, sold donuts or got on welfare.” His stories carry this overarching concept of class consciousness. 

The first story, “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” was first published by The New Yorker. It features an overworked mother and her two daughters during their graveyard shifts at a family donut shop. 

A mysterious man begins coming to the shop for fritters after 12 A.M., but remains taciturn and unwilling to dig into his baked good, spawning the girls’ curiousity. The mother, muddled by a messy past including an unfaithful husband and unpaid debt, remains defensive. 

When the true intentions behind the man’s visits to the store manifest, the reader is hit with a gasp-inducing twist.  

One particular piece I liked was “Human Development”, in which the main character, Anthony, finds himself in an unlikely Grindr romance with a fellow Khmer man. 

As their intimate entanglements deepen, Anthony must face the dissonance he feels over his simultaneous commitment to and distaste towards his lover. This story underscores the convoluted feelings about what it means to be Southeast Asian in America. 

There was much to learn about Khmer culture in each story. So throws in Khmer words and provides insights into religious and traditional norms, which also help us understand where he is coming from. I liked that So took risks in terms of the ideas he shared, and also wasn’t afraid to throw in a little cringe factor here and there. 

He tackles deep situations and historical events without sugarcoating, but balances out the seriousness with ample humor. I found myself LOL-ing many times throughout. 

I also appreciated So’s writing style, which was succinct and conversational, easy to follow and eloquent. As I wrote in my last post, I’ve rekindled my appreciation of short stories, and this was an excellent read to continue that literary quest. 

There’s a lot to be explored within shorter forms of fiction, and I think it takes a skilled approach to create a meaningful story within a confined framework. Perhaps we will see more short story collections like these, which bring to the forefront struggles that marginalized groups in society face. 

Unfortunately, Anthony Veasna So passed away in December 2020, at the age of 28, due to an accidental drug overdose. His partner Alex Torres shares more about So and their relationship in this heartfelt Buzzfeed post. It’s sad that we won’t get to see So take off on his literary career — which would have been immensely lucrative, I’m sure — but he has left ripples of influence behind. 

Let’s continue the book chat! You can find me on Instagram, Twitter, or Goodreads

‘The Ends of the Earth’ Will Make You Wonder How Much You Would Do For Love

Disclaimer: Please note I received a copy of this book as part of a blog tour, in exchange for my honest review.

When I spotted The Ends of the Earth on Twitter, my first thought was “sweet, I could use a light romance”.

But then I read the premise and was even more intrigued. This is a story I, personally, have never encountered before. A romance where one partner is nowhere to be found but may still possibly return? Sign me up.

On the surface, this is a gripping tale of will he, won’t he, but on closer analysis, it’s here to make you question just how far you would go for love.

The trope isn’t necessarily new, as there is a lot of pop culture around that covered the disappeared lover prompt in one way or another. If you’ve ever watched the movie Cast Away, do you remember your feelings when Tom Hanks’s fiancee turned out to have married in the four years that he was stranded on the island?

I remember the conflict of ethics in my own mind: if she had married and had a child while he was disappeared or believed to be dead, had it meant that she lost hope after a mere one or two years?

Would I have lost hope so soon? Is one year even soon?

This is what The Ends of the Earth explores but over a much longer period of time, and that’s where it’s nothing like the other approaches to this trope. Mary, the protagonist, has been waiting for her partner Jim to return for seven years.

Now that’s dedication.

From the publisher

Mary O’Connor has been keeping a vigil for her first love for the past seven years.

Every evening without fail, Mary arrives at Ealing Broadway station and sets herself up among the commuters. In her hands, Mary holds a sign which bears the words: ‘Come Home Jim.’

Call her mad, call her a nuisance, call her a drain on society — Mary isn’t going anywhere.

That is, until an unexpected call turns her world on its head. In spite of all her efforts, Mary can no longer find the strength to hold herself together. She must finally face what happened all those years ago, and answer the question — where on earth is Jim?

My thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed this story and how heartwarming and at the same time tremendously heartbreaking it was. 

There are glimpses of the past throughout the book, detailing how Mary and Jim met, fell in love and their chemistry, which I thought was very well described and built.

I believe in the power of chemistry between two people and seeing how much the plot played on the strong and almost instantaneous connection between the two protagonists made me believe in Mary’s dedication all the more.

The characters are all flawlessly built, but especially Mary truly strikes you as the realistic, relatable and profound woman she is made out to be. Her faith, determination and courage to keep holding on to the hope that Jim will return showed a lot of strength.

On the surface, it may seem like Mary is weak for refusing to move on, but when you get into her reasoning and see how much she is ready to sacrifice just to get Jim back, it becomes obvious that she is a resilient character who hasn’t lost it all.

I would recommend this story with all my heart. It’s emotional, empathic, sweet and very romantic, an excellent twist on your usual fluffy love story.

The Ends of the Earth comes out tomorrow, 6th January, from Century, an imprint of Penguin. You can pre-order it here.

Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

50 Books of 2021 and Their Underrated Meaning in 1 Phrase

We’ve reached the end of one of my best reading years to date. I set myself the challenge to read 50 books this year and I succeeded with flying colours and time to spare.

Reading adds incredible value to your life, sometimes in the most understated ways. As a writer, reading is what I count on to keep my mind running wild with content every day.

I’ve experienced the disappointment of hearing people around me dismiss reading as just a waste of time. “Why would you like staying still and in complete silence, staring at words telling a story that’s not even real?”

There’s great potential in reading and it quite literally can change your life. Books add to your life more than you can think of, from the possibility of living thousands of stories, the power of deep empathy, the happiness of laughing when you feel down or the hope that love and kindness still shine through all the heartache.

I’m not a harsh reader. I know people who hardly ever rate a book 4 stars or above, and who mostly lurk in the 1- and 2-star ratings because they’re so picky. I don’t like to be a picky reader. Instead, I love looking for value in everything I read.

Of the 50 books I’ve completed this year, I had one 1-star rating, one 2-star rating, seven 3-star ratings, 24 4-star ratings and 17 5-star ratings. 17! All of them had a lesson for me though, and I’ll share those with you in a snappy phrase for each book.

1. ‘Written on the Body’ by Jeanette Winterson

Finished: 1 Jan 2021; Rating: 1 star

Key takeaways: Love doesn’t always mean closeness and it can work even when it’s not a perfect fit.

2. ‘How to Sleep Well: Everything You Need to Know About Getting a Good Night’s Sleep’ by Dr Chris Idzikowski

Finished: 12 Jan 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: Insufficient sleep won’t damage your health as much as your own anxiety caused by insufficient sleep, so trust your body more that it can adapt to your changing circumstances and stop worrying so much.

3. ‘Red, White and Royal Blue’ by Casey McQuiston

Finished: 22 Jan 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: A classic story of impossible love across political ideologies with an entertaining presidential election sub-plot; always a feel-good book I return to.

4. ‘Why Is Romania Different?’ by Lucian Boia

Finished: 30 Jan 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: As a Romanian, I know the shared feeling that something about us is off, like we’re doomed and can’t get over it, which Boia analyses from a cultural and historical perspective and gives logic to a gut feeling shared by an entire nation.

5. ‘Every Heart a Doorway’ by Seanan McGuire

Finished: 25 Jan 2021; Rating: 2 stars

Key takeaways: An atmospheric novella with dark academia vibes and quirky characters who are all disappeared children who travelled in alternative worlds; too short for the promising premise, so it didn’t deliver for me.

6. ‘Beyond Mars and Venus’ by Dr John Gray

Finished: 20 Feb 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Understanding our contrasting traits is key to mitigating conflicts within couples; this is a useful book that explains relationship dynamics and how to make them work.

7. ‘The Cheerleaders’ by Kara Thomas

Finished: 12 Jan 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: A gripping multiple-death mystery told through the grief of a high school student who doesn’t believe her sister took her own life.

8. ‘Sadie’ by Courtney Summers

Finished: 3 March 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: A stunning disappearance mystery with an investigative podcast element and very well-handled multi-perspectives, showing the lengths to which a child can go to for justice.

9. ‘The Music of What Happens’ by Bill Konigsberg

Finished: 20 March 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: This YA romance shows that young relationships aren’t always superficial, but formative and profound too; a great lesson in parenthood and friendship.

10. ‘Act Your Age, Eve Brown’ by Talia Hibbert

Finished: 25 March 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: The last Brown sister did not disappoint in this steamy, wholesome and relatable romance that shows life has the right thing for us set aside and no matter how much we struggle, we’ll see the light sooner or later.

11. ‘What Happens in Tomorrow World’ by Jordan Gross

Finished: 1 Apr 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: A short and sweet fable that depicts all kinds of human reactions and how we can adapt them to everyday situations to maintain our peace and happiness.

12. ‘The House in the Cerulean Sea’ by T.J. Klune

Finished: 4 Apr 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Don’t underestimate the power of kindness and connection, even if it comes from the Antichrist.

13. ‘The Hating Game’ by Sally Thorne

Finished: 6 Apr 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Classic hate-to-love trope, handled pretty well, with some good, believable characters — I’m so over the small woman, big, gym-fit man scenario, though.

14. ‘Uzumaki’ by Junji Ito

Finished: 10 May 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: A very original horror depiction of spiral elements, with disturbing plot development and hypnotic art.

15. ‘Nothing to Lose’ by Clare Lydon

Finished: 18 May 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: A sweet, lesbian romance with more mature characters and a great representation of getting over trauma and coming to terms with yourself.

16. ‘Into This River I Drown’ by T.J. Klune

Finished: 25 May 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: Trust T.J. Klune to make you grieve, cry, hope, scream in excitement and believe in an angel-human romance all in one book.

17. ‘Call Me By Your Name’ by Andre Aciman

Finished: 30 May 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: A heart-breaking story of wrong place, wrong time, and an excellent portrayal of the short-span, flame-like qualities of love that still lingers.

18. ‘Daisy Jones & The Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Finished: 3 June 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: Great intersection between fame and family life and an amazing discussion on ethics and female traits in rapport with career, motherhood, society and love.

19. ‘M Is for Mother’ by Alexandra Antipa

Finished: 4 June 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: Motherhood really is something you have to experience for yourself and cultural bonds shine through candid stories.

20. ‘Away With the Penguins’ by Hazel Prior

Finished: 5 June 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: It’s never too late to fight for a cause you believe in and make an unexpected change in your life.

21. ‘Soho’ by Richard Scott

Finished: 9 June 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: Double-check around you and within you for internalised homophobia — or any other kind of discrimination; we don’t live in such a tolerant world as it may seem.

22. ‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller

Finished: 18 June 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: Love can transcend prophecy and deity intervention, but especially war and aversion.

23. ‘Why Buddhism Is True’ by Robert Wright

Finished: 19 June 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: Negativity, fear and anger are altered mental states, otherwise delusions, we can remove ourselves from.

24. ‘Radio Silence’ by Alice Oseman

Finished: 21 June 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: This is an incredibly real account of how the one-size-fits-all nature of the education system can break young people.

25. ‘Where the Stork Flies’ by Linda C. Wisnievski

Finished: 9 Jul 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: Female strength shines through generations — a wonderful time-travel plot that reinstates the importance of women supporting women.

26. ‘The Gravity of Us’ by Phil Stamper

Finished: 10 Jul 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Came for the internet journalist trope, stayed for the wholesomeness: another cute romance with a very unique setting and plot.

27. ‘You And Me on Vacation’ by Emily Henry

Finished: 14 Jul 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: It’s important to make the first move if the connection you’re trying to salvage is worth it.

28. ‘Pansies’ by Alexis Hall

Finished: 15 Jul 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: This is a very steamy and apparently superficial romance, but the character analysis really just shows how important it is to be yourself in the face of aversion.

29. ‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett

Finished: 26 Jul 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: There are many layers to the discussions about race; a stunning and insightful family and identity drama everyone should read.

30. ‘The Summer of Everything’ by Julian Winters

Finished: 5 Aug 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: This is the perfect book for geeks and it just felt very familiar and comforting; the romance is adorable.

31. ‘Sometime After Midnight’ by L. Philips

Finished: 15 Aug 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Music is everything; if you want a romance with musicians who just click through their art, read this.

32. ‘The Extraordinaries’ by T. J. Klune

Finished: 17 Aug 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: Representation is vital: finally finding a protagonist who thinks and acts like me showed me that maybe I’m not just clumsy, rushed, annoying or unfocused.

33. ‘Flash Fire’ by T. J. Klune

Finished: 26 Aug 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Keep loving with your whole, entire heart and believing in yourself and those who matter.

34. ‘Eliza and Her Monsters’ by Francesca Zappia

Finished: 11 Sept 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: There are people out there for you, no matter how hard you’re finding it to fit in. Also, keep creating and protecting your craft.

35. ‘Cemetery Boys’ by Aiden Thomas

Finished: 26 Sept 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Traditions are worth breaking to protect identities and love can transcend death.

36. ‘Beach Read’ by Emily Henry

Finished: 5 Oct 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Writers go through a lot to make a story good — and not everything works, sometimes a change of perspective is necessary.

37. ‘In The Dream House’ by Carmen Maria Machado

Finished: 10 Oct 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: It’s about damn time we start talking about and documenting domestic abuse within queer couples.

38. ‘History Is All You Left Me’ by Adam Silvera

Finished: 11 Oct 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: Loss can mend and fill up the gaps between those left behind.

39. ‘One Last Stop’ by Casey McQuiston

Finished: 21 Oct 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: If someone’s worth fighting for, go as far as fighting the law of Physics to get them.

40. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde

Finished: 22 Oct 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Vanity can quite literally kill you.

41. ‘The Meaning of Pain’ by Nick Potter

Finished: 23 Oct 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: I haven’t lost against chronic pain, I still have a chance to redeem myself and regain control over my body.

42. ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of The Universe’ by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Finished: 23 Oct 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: Teenagers can be as profound and wise as any well-built character and deserve to be listened to. Also a great lesson in parenting.

43. ‘A Study in Scarlet’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Finished: 27 Oct 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Never underestimate the twists and turns of a good Sherlock Holmes story.

44. ‘The Queer Principles of Kit Webb’ by Cat Sebastian

Finished: 27 Oct 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Regency romance is much more entertaining when it’s queer and has a fierce female supporting character.

45. ‘Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World’ by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Finished: 31 Oct 2021; Rating: 5 stars

Key takeaways: It’s never too late for a coming-of-age story.

46. ‘How to Kill Your Family’ by Bella Mackie

Finished: 2 Nov 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Excellent characters come with heavy baggage and make you root for them…even if they’re a serial killer.

47. ‘Fear No Evil’ by James Patterson

Finished: 23 Nov 2021; Rating: 3 stars

Key takeaways: Political thrillers can be just as thrilling as your average crime story, sometimes even more so.

48. ‘These Violent Delights’ by Micah Nemerever

Finished: 29 Nov 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: The best villains are those who you could befriend if they were real.

49. ‘Underneath the Christmas Tree’ by Heidi Swain

Finished: 24 Dec 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: It takes courage to return home, but if you just take a step forward, you might be showered with surprises.

50. ‘The Christmas Murder Game’ by Alexandra Benedict

Finished: 31 Dec 2021; Rating: 4 stars

Key takeaways: Don’t underestimate festive family dramas and their gripping potential.

Eliza Lita is a freelance writer based in the UK. She covers books and reading, fitness, lifestyle, and personal development. For more of her stories, please consider signing up for a Medium membership through her referral link.

‘Five Tuesdays in Winter’:Has Lily King’s Most Recent Release Made Me Love Short Stories Again?

Psst. I have a confession to make. 

Are you ready for this?

I fell out of love with the short story. Not recently, but over the span of about fifteen years. As with a former flame, I moved on to bigger and bulkier things (in this case, novels and works of nonfiction), without so much as a glance backwards. It’s funny, though, because I wrote short stories for fun all the time as a kid. In fact, that’s where my love of writing was born. 

As I became aware of this, I knew I had to make a change. So, this year, I made it one of my bazillion goals to read more short stories. And I’m proud to say that I actually upheld this one. I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts and Dantiel Moniz’s Milk Blood Heat this past summer. 

There were even creative nonfiction pieces that piqued my interest. I realized how much I’d been missing out by overlooking an entire genre. And a mighty one at that. 

On a recent visit to a local bookstore, Lily King’s Five Tuesdays in Winter popped out at me. I’d never heard of King, but it seemed like a fitting final read of 2021 given the title and artsy cover. And it fell into the short story genre — bingo! 

In true hygge fashion, I lit my candles, buried myself under a blanket, and listened to the pitter-patter of the rain as I read most of Five Tuesdays in Winter. Here’s a lowdown on what to expect from this book, and a few of my takeaways. 


King is no stranger to the short story, having written multiple New York Times bestselling collections in the past. Her newest book is a compilation of stories that are new, alongside those that have been published in literary magazines. In it, she explores the parent-child relationship, forbidden romance, and loss — whether it be through death or divorce. 

She employs a tone that is morose and mysterious, making each narrative feel like a dreary winter day itself.

There’s the story of a teenage boy, left home alone with two college-age male babysitters while his parents jet off to Europe; a woman’s blooming obsession with her friend’s father after interacting with him at a bridge game; and a German widow who vacations with her daughter to the North Sea, hoping to break through her impenetrable exterior. 

King has the ability to take mundane events and charge them with layers of complexity, grief, and surprise. It’s through the slow unraveling of each story that we end with a bang, a burn, or a blow at the end, asking ourselves, “Wait what?!” 

She isn’t afraid to bend conventions or explore more taboo sides of the human experience. I had visceral reactions to certain parts of this book, just because she takes us to places that we tend to turn away from. 

Her writing breaks into poetic cadence at times, further easing the reading experience and relating us in some way to each situation. Even if we aren’t entirely conscious of what that may be. None of the stories seems to be set in the present day, further adding to their sense of distance. 

And with stories set in the coastal regions of Maine or the frigid environs of Northern Europe, we are transported into worlds that feel as remote as the characters that inhabit them. 

King proves herself to be one of those writers whose writing process would be fascinating to examine. How much does she draw from her own experiences? Does she have a ritual that brings her into her writing headspace? How does living in Maine impact the sorts of characters she conjures up? What helps her determine the direction she’s going to take in each story? 

Exploring the Short Story

As I read King’s book, I began thinking more about the concept of the short story itself. I noticed how this form of writing doesn’t necessarily need to give us closure. In fact, some of the best short stories I’ve read don’t have resolved endings. Instead, they leave us with more questions. 

Endless possibilities. And furthermore, the characters’ motivations, thoughts, etc. propel the stories more so than a concrete plotline. We become deeply invested in the characters, but also don’t quite understand their motives. 

Short stories require a careful level of precision — a way of fleshing out the narrative at hand without sharing too much or too little. They bypass a lot of the buildup we see in longer works and take us straight to the heart, the “Aha!” of what’s going on. 

Perhaps my falling out of love with the short story for so long has to do with these phenomena. For wanting happy endings, predictable characters, and easily navigable storylines. But, as we all know, life promises none of these to us. And I find solace in stories that give us a glimpse of the messiness and madness of this human experience. Stories that lead us to the realm of ambiguity. 

So, I’m here to declare that I’ve rekindled the spark that so long ago fizzled between myself and the short story. I’m making it my goal to not just read, but write, more short stories going into 2022. Because we, as readers and writers, know that there’s so much to explore and put to words. 

Deepening that relationship to craft can help us express feelings and questions we may be harboring within. It can make us more comfortable with visiting the depths of our emotional landscape.  

If you’re looking for a quick yet thought-provoking read this winter season (or summer, if you’re in the southern hemisphere), take a peek at Lily King’s newest. And follow your creative impulses, wherever they may take you. Happy reading and Happy New Year!

Want to continue the bookish conversation? Let’s connect on Instagram, Twitter, or Goodreads

What Books These 5 People Who Had Near-Death Experiences Want You to Read

Note: this piece is adapted from my Substack, Discovery Magazine, which focuses on the books and movies you need to read before you die.

Over the course of the year, I did something I didn’t think I was going to do.

I called people who had faced death—real death—and I asked them about it.

I talked to them about it. And I tried to tease out the intimate details that, at first, some of them didn’t even reveal to friends, family, and everyone else for years because, frankly, they thought it sounded absolutely insane.

But the reason I found these people—and trust me, finding these people wasn’t, initially, an easy task—was so I could ask them what their literary suggestions would be. Basically:

‘What’s the one book you think everyone should read before they die?’

The truth is, time is short, and time is limited. We have a series of moments—brief moments—that add up in a string, and the string we call life has a finite endpoint.

Maybe there’s something on the other side—if we believe first-person accounts from some of the people you’re about to read, then it’s true—but either way, the point is: life is limited.

We only have so many books, movies, and things to do, and it’s best—apt—to think about our limited time. Asking people, “what’s the one book you should read before you die” might not end up in a book you read.

But the question forces the person to cut through the complexity and the distraction and the noise and get you closer to the books that’ll be worth reading.

Over the summer and year of 2021 for my own newsletter, I asked people with life-shattering experiences what their favorite books were.

Here’s what they told me.

Quotes edited for readability

1. Peter Panagore — experienced clinical death for a few minutes induced by hypothermia

Image provided by the author.

When I chatted with Peter Panagore, I realized you don’t get the idea—the real idea—of what he’s been through until you start talking to him.

But it quickly dawns on you that when you imagine what he tells you—going up a mountain, and then freezing to death—the point that always leaves people starstruck is the idea that he actually died.

Peter Panagore actually died on that mountain. He was clinically dead for a few minutes.

And after that, his life changed forever.

He saw, as he reports, a “darkness spread into infinity” and a type of “intelligence”. He calls that intelligence by the colloquial “angel” but the point is, the angel guided him back to life (he eventually got off the mountain), and for decades—because the experience was so insane, so nutty—he “kept [his] mouth shut for decades.”

When we talked about his favorite book (Ulysses, by James Joyce), he lit up like a Christmas tree.

“I tried to read it three times, and I could not,” he told me.

“I reached this place in the book where I did not understand what was going on, and I thought — this man has no idea what he’s doing. He’s completely lost it.

“And then finally I thought: I’m going to get it on Audible, and I’m going to listen to it as a story.

“[And] there’s this place in the novel that goes on for like pages and chapters of this incomprehensible — what seems to be — babble that’s being spilt on the pages. And you have to understand, this is a day in the life of one person. You’re inside his head and suddenly it becomes completely incomprehensible…And yet it goes on and on and on and on.

“And the language is obtuse, but it’s also beautiful….But the difficulty of trying to penetrate the meaning was impossible….

“And then — in a paragraph — all of that meeting was explained in an instant, and then all of the previous babble turned into not-babble….”

When I asked him how the book made him feel, he said something that struck me almost dumb. I remember being on the phone, and thinking, I’d love to quote this in the article one day:

“[The book] made me feel like I’m never going to be the greatest writer there ever was, for one thing. But it made me feel like art — the literary arts — are a high form of human communication that imparts beauty and humor, a humanistic understanding of psychology and relationships. It was — it was just the fullness of — it made me feel like I was part of the human race.”

2. Dave “Bio” Baranek — nearly died in a plane crash

Image provided by the author.

When I talk to Dave “Bio” Baranek, I always get a bit of thrill. He exudes the kind of integrity and honesty that’s distinctive of someone you imagine to be ex-military.

But with risk, comes death.

For Dave “Bio” Baranek, a Top Gun RIO (meaning, radar intercept officer), death came close. A series of events happened that, strangely, as he was explaining it to me, made me realize how technically and mechanically complex the situation was.

But the short version: when he was in the back of a Tomcat fighter squatron, his plane—after a mechanical malfunction—ended up crashing into the Indian ocean.

The plane was sinking, but through training, reflex, and ‘holy-shit’ survival mechanisms, they got out.

Switching gears, I asked him about his favorite book—and he made the point that it had nothing whatsoever to do with his experience.

“The book that I would read is called The Once and Future King by T.H. White,” he said.

“Now, I’ve got to qualify this. It’s not about wizards. It’s not about magic. It’s not about dragons. Even though there are wizards and magic and dragons — but they’re bit players.

“I mean, I don’t like that. I don’t like fantasy reading. That’s not what I read.

“This is a story about a kid who grows up to be a king, and it’s thrust on him and he is unprepared for it — but what he has, you know, his character, makes him prepared for it.

“But then all of the incredible, great things and the incredible tragedies that he experiences…I mean, the first time I read it, I was in high school.

“I did not appreciate it — but it stuck with me.

“I read it again a few years later and then I just read it for at least the third time or maybe the fourth time. And I just totally enjoyed it because it’s…[…]…it’s substantial and it’s just rich with characters and activity. And also the portrayal of life, you know, at least a thousand years ago. Daily life.

“But I think one reason that I like it is that it shows these people who are just the most incredible people — and yet they have to deal with the drudgery and tragedy of human nature.”

3. Nayano Taylor-Neumann — illness and how it teaches us to be aware of death

Image provided by the author.

When I got an email from Nayano Taylor-Neumann, she told me she was “aware of death”. I’ve always thought of death as something that was worth being aware of—if not in the direct sense, then in the peripheral sense, meaning we should think about the people we want to be with, the things we want to do, and the goals we want to achieve, all within the specter of the idea that we don’t have unlimited time. We only have right now.

For her, something similar had occurred. Due to inertia and life and all the little things that keep people in one place, she’d lived in Australia for far too long, even though she’d always wanted to move.

But when she was diagnosed with a critical lung disorder, it changed her mind. Life was limited. Time was short.

It was time to do something. She moved to the United States, and in the meantime, told me a book she’d enjoyed—though she had trouble with the question:

“I found that an impossible question to choose just one book when you frame it like that,” she said to me.

“But when I reframed it for myself saying what book can I really remember pleasing me, the first one that came to my mind was a pretty recent one. And it’s called A Gentleman in Moscow.

“Count Rostov [the protagonist] is a delightful character. When you see the world through his eyes, it is a delightful place. And the delight is in the details. How he looks at a tiny pair of embroidery scissors that used to belong to his sister. And how he describes those scissors is entrancing.

“And the way he speaks and the way he describes his life….I mean, it’s not a totally easy life — he can move anywhere in the hotel; he still goes to the incredibly fancy restaurants and so on — but it’s just delightful….”

She then goes on to impart some advice.

“Delight is all a creation of your own consciousness,” she said.

“You do not need anything outside of yourself, apart from whatever is in your everyday life, whatever that might be, to have delight. And so if you are confined at home, then the novel is a constant reminder to look and to actually see what is around you, and to hear what is around you, and to smell what is around you and delight in it.

“But you don’t need to leave the house to go on a journey of delight.”

4. Tricia Barker — experienced clinical death after a car accident

Image provided by the author.

I’ve been in a car accident before. Another person was driving, we were hit in the back—the car started to go off the road to stop—then both of the drivers talked to each other, it was brief, and that was that.

There are car accidents, of course.

Then, there are car accidents.

Tricia Barker was just a college student—she was rushing to a race that day—when she finally found herself hitting a car at 60mph. The series of events was dizzying, but she found herself on an operating table, then dying—actually dying (just like Peter)—and encountering a near-death experience.

An NDE is the common abbreviation, but it stands for people who face death, die, then come back to life. What they report on the other side of that death experience is, what seems to be, a tangible spiritual experience that feels alien and strange and incomprehensible to non-near-death-experience eyes like our own.

But when she experienced it—her own soul floating out of the room, family and relatives, and a peace and love that seemed, strangely, absent for much of her life—she felt it was real.

Something real on the other side was there, and the book she chose, strangely, dealt with her own exploration of spirituality, the other side, and living here, now, in this world:

“When people ask me what book I would choose (if you had to pick just one book) I usually say The Brothers Karamazov. Just because it shows — and not so much about the near-death experience — but it just shows the problem of taking anything to an extreme in this life.

“So if you take one of the brothers — the intellectual, the professor — the professor ends up losing his mind. The spiritual seeker becomes unreachable and unable to feel human love. He could only feel love for God. The brother who was more athletic and passionate is seen losing control of himself in bar fights. Any path that you take too far is a balance.

“So that taught me how to live. More so after the near-death experience, I had these moments of just wanting to go to an ashram and just meditate and not be anxious and just live in that space — and that wasn’t my calling. My calling was to be here in this world.”

“And sometimes this world is a mess. And sometimes, what you’re doing is you’re loving people and helping just a little in the middle of a big mess.”

5. Jose Hernandez — near-fatal allergic shock

Jose Hernandez was featured in the Netflix docuseries ‘Surviving Death’. His story is surreal and insane and all-encompassing—and, oddly, it all started when the man decided to take ibuprofen.

It was for breaking his ribs, which quickly turned into an allergic reaction.

He’s at the hospital, suffocating, when it happens—just like Tricia, just like Peter, a near-death experience.

Through this experience he meets—and makes peace—with his dead father, he sees memories flash before his eyes and feels his soul leave his physical body. I remember he was telling me all of this, and just hearing him talk—it’s hard not to believe someone when they’re telling you a nuanced, intricate account of something over the phone for something that felt like over an hour.

The phone call was emotional, but when I asked him about his favorite books, it tied directly with his experience:

“There is a book called Spirit Walker…It was a book that was gifted to me by my new wife. And — I was still — although I had embraced my experience — what if…what if it wasn’t real? Right?

“That book helped to anchor me and said, you know, we live in a world where we know so little — and yet we think we know so much.

“And we do have a lot of answers.

“But — when we look at the big picture — we have very, very few answers.

“I know the world’s gonna think I’m crazy. But this fantasy story — which [laughs]…sometimes I wonder if, maybe it’s real? Maybe you think you’re writing a story, and you’re writing a story that you’re creating — but maybe you’re just retelling a story you already lived.

“I look at it like that. [The author is] just recreating a story he already lived — 5,000 years in the future. It helps me to make sense of today. Even though most people would say the opposite — that’s a way of not making sense.

“But it’s the peace of being open, and saying, you know, I don’t know a lot of things.”

Bonus Book Recommendation—’Family Life’, by Akhil Sharma, recommended by Mohnish Soundararajan

When I was thinking about this, it was hard to pick my own favorite book recommendation.

What if I was picking the wrong book? What if—deep down—my fascination with this book was just a“phase” and the book that I picked wasn’t apt?

All of a sudden I was facing the artificial microscope I’d put on Nayano—basically: it feels impossible to pick a “one book everyone should read before they die” maybe because there’s something implicitly wrong with the question.

But the question, for all its constraints, is useful. It forces us to make a choice at a point in a time—a decision: what’s the book you want to talk about when you finally get the chance to?

And for me, that book is Family Life, by Akhil Sharma.

There was a moment when I was—right after having finished the book—just staring at something (I don’t remember what) in the room I was in. I was overwhelmed with emotion; that raw feeling you get after being devastated by a book.

It’s a moment in my own life that I remember, clear as day. I can see it in my head, right now.

And Family Life is the book that produced that kind of visceral reaction: it’s a book that’s defined by its emotional honesty, an elegant sense of simplicity (it’s less of a narrative, more of a fictional retrospective of a man’s life growing up), and I absolutely adored it.

It was “full of life”, as the author tried to do, and it was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

It was the thing that re-sparked my own fascination with novels, and it reminded me of what Peter said before—that books have a depth in understanding humanity that is hard to be matched with another medium.

That, I took to heart.

Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

Nourishing, Fulfilling and Wholesome: The Best Essays of 2021

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from Bloomsbury India. However, all opinions expressed are my own.

One of the best books I read in December, or rather, in 2021, was Ann Patchett’s latest — These Precious Days.

I had first come across the author’s work in The Dutch House, which had been yet another review copy that the kind people over at Bloomsbury had sent me. I had loved reading it then (late 2019), and the essence of it had remained in me for a long time afterward. 

I felt strangely in touch and in tandem with the emotions of the characters in a way that was unlike anything I had ever felt previously, for characters in ‘literary fiction’ works.

Flashforward to December 2021, I got the opportunity to reacquaint myself with Ann Patchett, and boy, am I glad! There is certainly a reason why this is one of my favorite reads of the year, as it was Barack Obama’s!


If I still haven’t convinced you enough, here is a synopsis from Goodreads:

“Any story that starts will also end.” As a writer, Ann Patchett knows what the outcome of her fiction will be. Life, however, often takes turns we do not see coming. Patchett ponders this truth in these wise essays that afford a fresh and intimate look into her mind and heart. 

A literary alchemist, Patchett plumbs the depths of her experiences to create gold: engaging and moving pieces that are both self-portrait and landscape, each vibrant with emotion and rich in insight. Turning her writer’s eye on her own experiences, she transforms the private into the universal, providing us all a way to look at our own worlds anew, and reminds how fleeting and enigmatic life can be. 

From the enchantments of Kate di Camilo’s children’s books to youthful memories of Paris; the cherished life gifts given by her three fathers to the unexpected influence of Charles Schultz’s Snoopy; the expansive vision of Eudora Welty to the importance of knitting, Patchett connects life and art as she illuminates what matters most. Infused with the author’s grace, wit, and warmth, the pieces in These Precious Days resonate deep in the soul, leaving an indelible mark — and demonstrate why Ann Patchett is one of the most celebrated writers of our time.

Essays and why I love them

There is something undefinably wholesome and at the same time, real, in the reading of essays. One knows there is an end, that arrives faster than a novel’s (which might even have a sequel); that is to say, essays are short. Unbearably so or gladly so? I cannot say for sure.

The compactness of the essay is something that has really pulled me towards essays, increasingly so in recent times. Perhaps I have evolved as a reader or I simply want to explore the shorter works of literature now — short stories, essays, and the like. But what I could not imagine when I had first started doing so, was how life-altering it would be.

Knowing that there is an end and that essays are often non-fictional works rooted in reality (in someone’s actual life), sobers me and at the same time, makes me fascinated. Is it therefore a surprise if I say that I connect more with essay writers than perhaps any character in a fictional tale?

Ann Patchett’s style

Now we arrive at the most arduous part of my review essay — to put into words the beauty of Ann Patchett’s writing. Even ‘beauty’ is too simple. 

And so I glance through the blurbs and see that words like ‘powerful’, ‘profound’, ‘kind’, ‘nourishing’ (too bad that I already used it in my title), ‘truth’, ‘pleasure, ‘master’, ‘forensic eye’, ‘humane’, ‘stunning’ etc. have been used in varying capacities to describe the way Patchett’s work made readers and reviewers alike, from all over the world, feel.

For the sake of my own peace and the feeling of accomplishment that will definitely be there if I believe I am able to describe my own emotions about the collection well, I shall at least try.

Ann Patchett writes about life. But what is special is that she brings the reader in — you are now her friend, and maybe you are penpals, the width of a country between you; maybe you are a girlfriend sipping on long island peach teas on a Sunday as you catch up, or maybe you are the favourite relative. 

You are now a cherished part of Patchett’s life and in return, you cherish being given that place of honour. I laughed, cried, felt bittersweet, inspired — but most of all, I felt understood because Patchett’s work is humane. There. I just had to use the word.

I cannot possibly not talk about this other aspect as well — how Patchett’s words are so evocative, they fill my mind’s eye. Her sentences are cozy and often quite calming in how they are delivered. The reader is at home and finally at peace.

My Favourite Essays

From the 24 pieces in this collection (yes, I shall count the Introduction and Epilogue in it), I resonated on a greater level with some of them. This was because of various reasons, including but not limited to my own journey in life — living today as I am, my convictions and ideologies, my aspirations, my relationships, and so on. Maybe you will resonate like me, with all of them, but in most probability, you will have a completely different selection (which again reflects the varied nature of the humane in Patchett’s work!)

So the essays I resonated the most with, are:

  1. The First Thanksgiving
  2. My Year of No Shopping
  3. How to Practice
  4. How Knitting Saved My Life. Twice
  5. Tavia
  6. A Paper Ticket Is Good For One Year
  7. The Nightstand
  8. A Talk to the Association of Graduate School Deans in the Humanities
  9. Two More Things I Want to Say about My Father

And here I end

I shall end my attempt at this review essay, by simply believing that a friend is reading this. So here goes:

Consider this book a gift from me to you. Think of it as a reflection of the depths of my heart, my feelings (because this book is now a part of me and I am a part of this book).

And I give you my heart, Dearest One.

Nayanika Saikia graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and was also a Dean’s List student. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree and is also a Booktuber and Bookstagrammer. She can often be found on her Instagram account Pretty Little Bibliophile. You can support me by Buying Me a Coffee.

The Best Non-Fiction Books for Heritage Lovers

Disclaimer: I received the review copies of these two books from Rupa Publications. However, all opinions expressed are my own and in no way influenced.

Every once in a while, a non-fiction book falls into the hands of a hardcore fiction reader/lover and it changes their perspective. I know this for sure because it happened to me recently, all thanks to the magnetic city of Delhi wherein I have made my new home.

Having moved to the national capital recently for my studies, I was obviously very intrigued to check out the multitude of historical monuments that dot the Delhi skyline. I even have a list of the places I wish to visit and slowly I am making my way through it. 

And so, getting my hands on both of these books has been a boon! They have invoked the sense of history in my mind as well as made me understand the profound diversity in culture that existed even in this very tumultuous history. It has been an exciting journey — reading both these books one after the other.

Delhi, in Thy Name: The Many Legends That Make a City

By Adrija Roychowdhury

Picture provided by the author.

The first book that I picked up from between the two books that I shall share today, was this one. I had first come across this book on bookstagram (the Instagram community for books) and had been totally intrigued! Add to the fact that I was a new resident of this historical city, my interest was piqued. I reached out to the publishers and they were kind enough to send me a copy of the book.

Now, one may ask, as they obviously should, what this book is about. For the best description, I think this synopsis from Goodreads does justice:

To tell us the story of Delhi, journalist Adrija Roychowdhury takes a deep dive into the legends behind the names of its many streets. ‘Delhi, in Thy Name’ is a compelling account of the many emotions, aspirations, desires, identities, histories, and memories that went behind the naming of places in the national capital of India. From the crevices of Chandni Chowk to the arcades of Connaught Place and the quarters of CR Park, the book delves into the little secrets that went behind naming Delhi, as recounted by the people of the city.

Exhaustively researched and passionately told, the book is an attempt to decode what the act of naming and renaming means both to those in power and to those being governed. The book provides a key to Delhi, opening its doors to the readers in the very way that the city likes to think of itself — as alluring, energetic, infuriating, lyrical, nostalgic, frustrating, unforgettable, magical.

I thought that getting to know Delhi via the way the different places are named, and the histories behind the very naming of each, was a unique way of telling the story of this city. Like I have also repeatedly mentioned, I am new here and so I am gobbling up every fascinating fact I can! From Chandni Chowk, and Connaught Place, to Chittaranjan Park and Shaheen Bagh (and many more), this book explores the nitty-gritty of the naming histories of these iconic places. 

While one imagines that non-fictional writes lack the imaginative essence (and I am guilty of it), it was truly not so in this case! Roychowdhury proved me wrong! For, to weave the words as she did, bringing up the image of Mughal Delhi, Delhi under British Era, post-Partition Delhi, and the Delhi of today, require great skill, and the author has certainly delivered. I was taken on a journey both in terms of the temporal, as well as the spatial. I was amazed but I also of course learned a lot.

In school books, Indian history often ends at Partition. What happened after that — to the refugees? How and where were they re-established? Did the places and cities we know now, exist back then too? Or were they newly formed? These questions often arose in my mind (but unfortunately, I did not seek any definite answers), and as I read this book, many of those questions were answered.

The author also has shared the information (or rather, the stories) that were shared with her, by the various inhabitants of these places — and it is always interesting to see how views today can differ. People are often possessive when it comes to their histories, and religion and culture often influence the way a history is claimed by a community. That was definitely an interesting aspect I could make out from the stories that people shared.

I also visited the Jama Masjid finally! It had been on my list of places to explore in Delhi, for the longest time, and this book finally gave me the push. I also tried to recreate the cover and had a ton of fun doing it! I have thoroughly enjoyed (and learned from) this book. And I shall definitely recommend you to pick it up! 

By Rana Safvi

Picture provided by the author.

Another fabulous book I read this month is this glorious compilation of the histories of some lesser-known historical monuments in India. The reason I was initially interested and requested this book from the publishers was because of the author!

In late 2019, I had read another book by Rana Safvi — City of My Heart: Accounts of Love, Loss and Betrayal in Nineteenth-Century Delhi and I had simply fallen in love. It was perhaps the first non-fiction history book (about Delhi and its history, as well as history in general) that had made me realize how much I wanted to move to Delhi and explore it. And perhaps this realization transformed into a subconscious manifestation and fast forward to 2021, here I am in Delhi.

Nevertheless, I had ‘discovered’ Rana Safvi and I knew I would explore more of her works. This year when I saw this book and read its synopsis, I knew it was for me. And I am glad the team at Rupa sent it to me! Before I share more of my reading experience, here is a synopsis:

In ‘A Saint, A Folk Tale and Other Stories’, acclaimed author Rana Safvi takes the reader into secret, hidden parts of India beyond the usual tourist destinations. The often-overlooked monuments of India are rich with history, architecture, and scenery begging to be explored. The book takes you back in time and on a journey to explore the vast architectural heritage of India.

Discover the secrets that Khusrau Bagh hides in its heart, marvel at a Queen’s forgotten resting place, listen to the folk tales and fables embedded in the structures and walk down the poetic path to some of the places where the great poets sleep, with the hope that the book sets the reader off on a journey of their own.

I absolutely loved the diversity that was this collection of monuments! As someone who cannot possibly travel much due to the pandemic (and to be honest, due to my status as a financially broke student), this book provided much-needed solace to my restless heart. I took this book everywhere — I read it on the metro (and almost missed my station), I read it while lounging in the winter sun, and I read it while cozying up under my quilt. Many of the stories shared in this collection were actually of places (and people) that were previously unknown to me. I did not know about the existence of some of these people, but most of the time, I had no knowledge of the historical places associated with them.

Rana Safvi’s writing mesmerized me in 2019 and it has mesmerized me now again! I wanted to visit all of the places she did mention but there was only one place that was accessible to me. And so, one fine day I made my way to Sultan Raziya’s Tomb in Delhi. In the first place, I had never explored this part of Delhi before — the arteries and veins of Old Delhi. But thanks to this book, I did! And I will never forget it!

History as well as historical politics — this book included it all and has a really fascinating intertwining of these two aspects. 

I end today’s review, by reiterating that if you are interested in any of these areas, you will greatly benefit from these two books that ought to be treasured. I certainly will, and perhaps in a year, will go back to re-discovering these places. One day, I will also perhaps visit some of these places (all over India as well as within Delhi) and think of the imagery that had been invoked for me by two talented and such knowledgeable authors (and their magical pens) at the end of 2021.

Nayanika Saikia graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and was also a Dean’s List student. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree and is also a Booktuber and Bookstagrammer. She can often be found on her Instagram account Pretty Little Bibliophile. You can support me by Buying Me a Coffee.

‘The Holiday Swap’ is the Hallmark Movie Read-alike You’re Looking For

(Full disclosure: Book links below are Bookshop.org affiliate links. If you’re a US or UK resident, purchasing via these links will earn me a small commission, at no extra cost to you. Bookshop.org supports independent booksellers.)

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like more and more readers are getting into the spirit of reading holiday-themed books this year. December is ripe with a number of festive winter holidays to choose from, but here in the U.S. Christmas does tend to be the primary focus in retail spaces and Bookstagram feeds.

I personally grew up celebrating Christmas, and in our house, that meant a handful of things. But most of all, it meant Hallmark Christmas movies. Mom and I would sit in front of the TV to enjoy the ridiculous, over-the-top holiday magic.

Like many traditions, as I’ve grown up and moved away, this one has shifted a bit. Mainly, it now includes the Hallmark Movie Drinking Game, a hilarious way to have fun noticing the ever-present tropes.

This game was in the back of my mind as I sought a wintery read that would satisfy the same itch as a Hallmark Christmas movie, in book form. While my first holiday read of the season, The Santa Suit, did technically fit the bill, it wasn’t quite my personal brand of magic (more on that here).

The Holiday Swap definitely delivered on this Christmas craving for me. Let’s break down what makes it warm and cozy as your favorite mittens by analyzing the Hallmarky tropes the writing pair known as Maggie Knox bring to the page.

The Trope: City Girl Goes Back to Small Town

Nearly ubiquitous in the Christmas movie genre is the premise that a city girl returns to her small hometown over the holidays and re-discovers the magical spark of Christmas.

We get this trope in Goodwin twin Charlie, who’s been living in L.A. as the star of a baking TV show, Sweet & Salty. When a head injury (we’ll get to this later as it’s my main issue with the book) forces her to slow down, she calls up twin Cass and asks her to take residence in her fast-paced city life to wrap up filming.

What I like about this book is that the twin setup allows us to explore the lesser-examined flipside of this trope — small-town girl gets to spread her wings and get out of said small town.

I enjoyed seeing how both lifestyles and locales had something important to offer to the twins who weren’t currently living them, and that the magic sometimes lies in stepping outside your familiar routines in order to see them from afar.

The Trope: Got a Twin? Better Swap!

For some reason, twins swapping lives has become a popular convention of the Hallmark-style movie (see: Switched for Christmas, The Princess Switch, The Princess Switch 2, etc).

It’s obvious from the title alone that this book plans to deliver on that front, and I enjoyed the silliness of this trope as always. I appreciated how some of the characters figured out the switch, which feels more realistic than even the closest friends and (former) lovers being hoodwinked entirely.

My main issue with the book is, however, related to the swap.

Content warning: I’m about to discuss medical concerns and non-compliance. Skip ahead to the next section of this review if you’d prefer to avoid this content.

The reason Charlie wants to swap lives is that she gets hit on the head and suffers a concussion. A concussion about which she proceeds to immediately lie to medical professionals, leaving out the very symptoms (loss of taste and smell) which cause her to require a work hiatus.

While I understand Charlie felt she couldn’t miss work and that sadly many of us face similar workplace pressures, this is a dangerous message to send. We see Charlie continue to suffer some of the aftereffects of her concussion but she never fesses up to medical professionals or follows the advice she’s been given.

While I understand this is a lighthearted read, I do wonder whether it’s wise to imply that ignoring the symptoms of your head injury will in any way be a good path to happily ever after.

The Trope: Holidays are Better with Hometown Baked Goods

One of the charms inherent in a small town, particularly according to your standard Hallmark Christmas movie vibe, are the local businesses. And what’s any town without a local bakery that goes all-in around the holidays?

As a lover of baked goods I am so there for this trope, and really enjoyed how we got to see Charlie and Cass in and out of their respective baking elements — the hometown bakery and the big-time baking show.

Baked goods distributed at a communal small-town holiday celebration? Also, check.

The Trope: Career Woman Realizes Career Not Everything

As any good Christmas movie does, the end of this book finds our protagonists re-examining their lives after a magical and surprising week around the holidays. Here, too, I liked the balance that seeing both twins’ perspectives gives to the usual message.

Rather than the obvious choice here being that a smaller town and slower pace are inherently better, the swap allows Cass and Charlie to see the places where their lives and careers had become stagnant. This allowed them to grow and change, determining what they really want their lives to look like and how they can get there.

Do both women wind up living in the small town? Well, that’d be spoilers, now wouldn’t it?

As you can tell, I really enjoyed reading The Holiday Swap. It’s definitely light, fluffy, and requires a little holiday suspension of disbelief with how some of it gets tied neatly into a bow by Christmas.

Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a Christmassy read that brings your favorite Hallmark movie tropes to the page, this is definitely a great pick for you!

Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

How Many Books Can I Read Before I Die?

TW: Mentions of disease.

Let’s do the Math

I’m only 56, which is probably too young to be thinking about dying, but nonetheless, here I am.

I’m on my third cancer, skin, with 4th cancer seemingly on the way. (The DR tells me I have an 80% chance of having Thyroid cancer, the tumor needs to grow a little bigger before they treat it.)

Side note:

I try super hard to be positive. Do you think I could be overweight because of the thyroid tumor? There’s always a positive side to everything, right?

Back to the Math

Oh, lest I forget, I also have two chronic conditions. One makes it much more likely for me to get sick, (COVID anyone?) and the other makes it much more likely to have cancer. Surprised?

The way I see it, living to 80 would be a splendid gift indeed.

Now, I also happen to be active on Goodreads. I’m obsessive about tracking my reading.

I’ve read 106 books this year and am currently working on two more.

Part of my job is to read books in my place of employment, the library.

I listened to a lot of audiobooks this past year. I love golf, and it’s a 45-minute trip to the course where I had my membership. Audiobooks make the trip fly by.

Alas, I currently have skin cancer, which means I will need to cut way back on time in the sun, which means less golf, and fewer audiobooks.

But when I retire, I’ll have more time to read!

Crunch the numbers, and I think 100 books a year is doable.

That means I’ll read 2,400 books before I die.

Does that number seem small? A little frightening, perhaps? It sure does to me!

What Should I be Reading?

Could I read fun books?

I found a lovely author, Rhys Bowen . She writes mysteries, and they are good mysteries if not great mysteries. Strong female characters, good plot. I like them. Her books are a perfectly pleasant way to pass a winter afternoon.

However, they are not great. They’re like air-popped popcorn, drizzled with butter and salt, a good snack, but not cream herring with raw onions.

Do you know what I mean?

Could I read the classics?

I read many of them when I was in college because I was a pretentious wanker back then. Nobody gives a shit if you’ve read War and Peace, even if it’s the longest book in the English Language.

I didn’t particularly enjoy them then, and I don’t feel like devoting that much time to them now.

I’ve always loved Fantasy and Science Fiction. I own 49 Conan the Barbarian and 33 Star Trek books.

I like this genre because I like the idea that the world could be a little bit better than it is. My kid is 12, and I worry a lot about what kind of world she will live in when she’s my age.

I could read books about writing books.

I’d love to write the kind of books I love to read. Books with a little bit of magic, a lot of hope and even more heart. Books that show what could be and not what is.

Sarah Addison Allen is one of my favorite writers. I’ve read everything she’s done and enjoyed absolutely all of it!

Guess what?

She took a break from writing when she had breast cancer. She beat breast cancer and is now back to writing!

Coincidence? I think not!

So… In The Final Analysis:

Read whatever the fuck you want. Read what makes you happy. Read books filled with magic, love, and emotions. Live!

Tomorrow will be here soon enough.

Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

I’m a Middle School Librarian. Here’s What Books Kids Want for Christmas

Books make the perfect present for, well, everyone, but especially for the little ones in your life.

There are three key reasons why that’s the case:

  1. They’re expensive, but not too expensive, making them the ideal indulgence.
  2. The more you read, the better you read, and the better you read, the better you do in school. Simply put, getting your kids to read is a battle well worth fighting.
  3. Books open us to possibilities. They facilitate dreams and teach empathy. Kids in the COVID era need the power of imagination.

Wouldn’t It Be Cool…

If you could buy a kid a book and know it’s a super-duper popular book, they totally want to read? And who wants to be the dorky uncle with the dorky gifts that just get tossed under the bed.

So, don’t be a dork! Read this article and protect your hard-earned status as the cool adult in your family.

I Have Your Back

I work in a school library. My school is for kids aged12 to 14, which is grades 6 to 8 in the States.

I have the perfect job. I interact with the kids checking books in and out all day. It’s my job to be in a good mood. Cool, right? I spend my free time building book displays and dreaming up new ways to get kids to check out more books.

And I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. For instance, everything is on computers, and lucky for you, I’m good at creating reports.

The information I’m about to provide comes straight from the maws of the computer and is hot off the presses.

When I talk about lists, I am talking about the books with the most check-outs over the last 90 days, one year, and two years.

This Is Where I Make Recommendations

The Top Book: ‘Ghosts’ by Raina Telgemeier

This is the top book in the library over the last 90 days, the previous year, and the last two years.

She’s written several other books that are extremely successful: Smile, Guts and Drama.

In fact, Smile has been the second most popular book over the last two years.

Guts deals with anxiety, and my daughter enjoyed it immensely.

You’ve been warned

We have multiple copies of her books, which will skew numbers, but that also means your kids may have read her books already.


These writers are all popular, and all are on the top 50 list of check-outs as measured over the last 90 days. The library owns one copy of most of these works, and my hypothesis is that they would earn circulation numbers comparable to Raina Telgemeier if we had more copies.

  1. Jennifer Holm: # 3

2. Shannon Hale: # 9

3. Victoria Jamieson: # 12

4. Terri Libenson: # 29

5. Hope Larson # 35


Don’t forget about the Baby-Sitters Club. They are popular year in and year out and have been turned into a Netflix show.

Book # 2: ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ by Jeff Kinney

There are a million titles in the series, okay, maybe just 12. Three ranked in the top ten over the last two years, the previous year, and the preceding 90 days.

I’m not going to list the books; use Google. It’s almost 2022. Trust me when I say your littles will like any of the books.

Besides that, our numbers lie, as we can’t keep a complete collection in stock.


These books are more than super-duper, out of this world, incredibly popular. So make sure you are buying something your kid hasn’t read.

I don’t have hard statistics, but my gut tells me they are more popular with boys than girls.


  1. Dav Pilkey — Dogman
  2. Lincoln Peirce — Big Nate
  3. Janet Tashjian — My Life as A…. series
  4. Rachel Renee Russell — Dork Diaries series. (This is about a girl and is indeed popular with girls.)
  5. James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

Book # 3: Anime and Manga

Oh my goodness, these books are so trendy. If I could run reports by category, these would by far be the most popular. They are not higher on the lists because we have so many series with lots of books in each series.

These are the books that you read backward. They are primarily in black and white. These books were first popular in Japan, and you can see that in the artwork.

I’ll be frank — I have yet to try one. I get a headache from trying to understand what’s going on. Maybe that’s why kids love them so much; adults struggle to read them.

The following are all wildly successful and highly sought after.

  1. Naruto
  2. Bleach
  3. Dragon Ball Z — We just added this series this fall. In the span of two days, all 18 books we purchased were checked out. There is also a TV series.
  4. Black Knight

5. Fairy Tails — “Tails” is not a typo.


Anime and Manga can be like opening the proverbial can of worms. Littles that like it, love it, which leaves you supporting the habit.

Book # 4: Actual Books

I know right, actual books are 4th on the list? What’s that all about? We have a great fiction section in the library, so I’m not sure what’s happening.

All I know is that the computer doesn’t lie.

  1. Stephenie Meyer:

Breaking Dawn # 19

Eclipse # 42

New Moon # 48

I know, I know. Whenever someone checks one of these books, I keep wanting to tell them about how he breaks into her bedroom and watches her sleep and ask if they don’t find that a little creepy. (He and her being main characters.)

It goes without saying that these are aimed at romance fans. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a boy check one out.

2. Jason Reynolds:

Any book by Jason Reynolds is a good book, but he has a series of 4 particularly great books. They follow four kids that run for a track team.





3. Kwame Alexander

Crossover checks in at # 26 on our list. We just purchased a graphic novel version of the book. Everyone seems to love this book. We have a teacher using the book in class, making all her kids read it.

4. Rick Riordan

Ever heard of a little series called Percy Jackson and the Olympians? The books did so well that they made a movie and then several other series.

If your kids like Fantasy, they may very well like these books. Only one checked in at #42 — on our top 50 list. I do think that’s because he has several series with several books in each series, all aimed at young teens.

5. Katherine Applegate

The One and Only Ivan is the very last book on our list. It’s only been checked out eight times during the previous 90 days, but that’s a whole lot better than a lot of other books. She’s a talented writer, and you will find her work in most libraries.


That’s it. Post if you have questions. Follow me for more book suggestions.

Most importantly, enjoy the Winter Holidays!