Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Brewster by Mark Slouka

I'm the backwardest of persons, truly, I am.  I mean, think about it.  When you unconsciously decide to become an undependable blogger for the better part of a year and coast along at the brisk rate of two posts a months, a thinking person would more than likely review the books they like the most.  I, on the other hand, being of unsound mind and questionable judgement cropped up on my blog mostly to post reviews of books I found to be on the high end of mediocre.  In the meantime, what fell by the wayside?  Um, many of the books that I loved from last year.  The fabulous guilt I feel about just this problem has kept three most excellent books taking up space on my desk, since last year.  I have, since, I am sure, mentioned these books in a few Top Ten Tuesdays with glowing regard, but alas, if I don't at least attempt to review them properly, I fear they will linger on my desk until I'm grey and old.  Therefore, today, on this otherwise most unremarkable of days, I intend to do something about this.  And that something is....reviewlettes!

First up - Brewster!  For starters, let's check out the cover.

It is the perfect cover for this story.  Okay, yes, it's kind of bleak, but you know what else is?  The book.  It's a little on the bleak side, but happily for me, I like bleak books, especially when they are as powerful as this one. 

 Only Ray and Karen understood, Karen because she could hear what you were saying even when you weren't, because she could see exactly how f--ked up you were and care for you anyway, Ray because he had his own storm, twice as black and twice as loud, and recognized the look.
It's why we were friends.  I'd disappeared the day my brother died.  He dreamed of nothing more.

Jon Mosher is sixteen in 1968, living in a household rendered silent and loveless by the childhood death of his older brother.  He's learning to run track, and yearning to escape the town he's growing up in.  He's a good friend, but he doesn't have many, and the one he does have, has more problems than a household that forgot to stop grieving.  When Jon meets Ray Cappiciano, he knows they don't have a whole lot in common other than a keen desire to escape a no account town.  Wandering the streets of Brewster, fixing up the car they dream will deliver them from their town and their problems, and listening to music in Jon's room where Ray takes refuge from his unpredictable, abusive father, the two forge a bond that is stronger than even they imagine.

Brewster is a book that struck me as unique with its quiet intensity.  It's not action-filled, and what foreshadowing there is, is hardly overbearing, rather the whole story, even during the good times, leaves a sense of some big bad about to happen.  Slouka's writing is powerful even when restrained, making would-be ordinary moments fraught with emotion and tension.  He renders the friendship between the two boys well on the road to becoming men in a way that is startling in its realism, leaving plenty unsaid but just as much understood.  All the time, though, Slouka's holding just enough back that when the story's climax comes, and he unleashes the full power of his writing prowess on the plot that's been slowly building, it's enough to wrench your heart out of your chest and leave you raw with emotion.

I was so, so impressed with this book, that, as you can see, I couldn't really keep it to an acceptably sized reviewlette (though pretty concise for me), so into its own post it goes, with the promise of more "throwback reviewlettes" to come.

It's the music that brings it back, brings it alive.  Dylan and Creedence, the Beatles and the Stones.  It would take us back down where the cool water flows, Karen smiling, the three of us nodding to the beat, doing our best John Fogerty imitations, Ray stalking the embankment in his cutoffs, leaning back to play that invisible lick, then whipping forward, wet hair falling in his face --- Let me remember things I don't know.  In July there would always be that one night when the air was warm as the water and the water like velvet and you'd swim out and dive and come up into the dark and a soft wave of fields and honeysuckle would wash over you and you'd say to yourself, because you could, because you were young, I could die right now and it wouldn't matter.
(I received this book from the publisher for review consideration.)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen

Ugh, I have been such crap at reviewing books for the last, oh, year and a half, that I am really letting some good ones get away from me.  I have a stack of great books sitting here on my desk that were great, that I meant to review, but instead are sitting here gathering dust while I forget the finer details that made me appreciate them.  I miss reviewing books and reviewing them well, and I tell you, it's hard to do when you read them months and months ago.  This is all a lead-in to say that I am about to try to do just such a thing.  Here's hoping an exceptional amount of rambling will get me to my destination.

I read Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen a few months ago after either Random.org or the recently discovered "choose a random book of yours" feature on LibraryThing ordered me to rescue it from bookshelf oblivion.  For some reason, this almost always pays off for me.  Maybe it's because I buy a lot of great books and then ignore them for years, so when Reading at Random resurrects them, it's like getting a great new book all over again, except this time I actually read it.

Anyhow, as you can see, I'm procrastinating because I barely remember the book, but it's time to get serious now.  Whistling in the Dark is the story of sisters Sally and Troo O'Malley and the revelatory summer that changes their lives forever.  Sally is ten years old in 1959, recently moved to Milwaukee with her mom and no-good stepfather after the death of her father in a car accident that left her uncle severely brain-damaged.  During the summer of '59, she and her younger sister's lives are thrown into turmoil when her mother reports to the hospital for gallbladder surgery that ends in a staph infection that keeps her hospitalized, in fear for her life, for much of the summer.  With their mother hospitalized, their stepfather on a more or less permanent drunken bender, and their older sister too occupied with her boyfriend and beauty school to care, Troo and Sally are free to run wild in their Vliet Street neighborhood. To add to the perils of the summer, a murderer and molester is still at large, one who has already killed two girls.  Sally, known for her overactive imagination, is sure she knows who the killer is and she's also sure of one other thing - he's coming for her next.

Even though it sounds like one of those books that is an unrelenting downer, there is so much to love about Whistling in the Dark.  First, there's Sally, whose precocious, over-imaginative narration staves off the darkness that threatens to overtake the book.  Sally's strong in a way she doesn't realize yet, and her narration, carefully pitched between her laughable imaginings and the true seriousness of the situation, is really what makes this book live and breathe.  Then there's Troo, Sally's little sister, who seems both younger and older than her years, a tonic to Sally's overactive imagination, fiercely competitive, and an engine behind the clever ideas that make the pair's summer go.  Finally, there's the pair's Vliet Street Milwaukee neighborhood in summer, a place that Kagen brings to life with an abundance of entirely three-dimensional supporting characters as well as the endless days on the playground, staying up late, and competing in sack races and bike-decorating contests at the community's Fourth of July block party that make a kid's summer days go by. 

Whistling in the Dark is a book that defies categorization or generalization.  Looking at it from one direction, it's a thriller.  There's a murderer at large lurking in an otherwise picturesque neighborhood, and Sally's overactive imagination constantly working to conjure up who it might be gives the book an urgency.  It's not just a thriller, though, it's a story about sisterhood, one about strength, trust, and loyalty.  It's a book that provokes nostalgia with its characters that become the stuff of hometown legends.  Most of all, though, it's a coming-of-age story for Sally who learns that sometimes clinging to that childhood "overactive" imagination can be a saving grace to us all.  

Highly recommended.

(Behold, this book came from my very own collection.  No disclaimer for you!  Muah!)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday Goes TV

This week The Broke and the Bookish's Top Ten Tuesday is taking a detour from its usual bookish matter to look at the other the stories we love, the ones that come to us by screen.  Without intending to, I've made a list that consists entirely of TV dramas.  I do like the odd sitcom or few, but for some reason, when I'm hashing out my absolute favorites, it's all dramas all the time.  Some are shows I discovered (or rediscovered) via the wonders of Netflix streaming (ah, it's a beautiful thing!).  The rest are just straight up network TV.  So, see below to find out about some of my biggest distractions from reading.

Thank you, Netflix.

1. Breaking Bad - I came to Breaking Bad late after hearing everybody rave about it.  I watched the first few episodes, and thought, eh, it's okay, but somewhere between the melted bathtub and the port-a-potty incident I was totally hooked.  I mean, what great characters.  Turns out I like both books and TV shows with flawed characters, most especially when the writer can make me care about them both because of and despite their flaws.  Breaking Bad does just that with mad skill.

2. Orange is the New Black - Listen to this, for, like, the first time ever I was ahead of the game on something.  When Orange is the New Black came to TV, I was like, "Hey, I loved that book!" because I had the book, I read it, and I even reviewed it well before it was a craze (instead of my usual, "I have that book, I should read it some day" MO).  The show definitely doesn't match up with the book quite the same, but both are definitely great.  
3. The Walking Dead - Because who doesn't want to know what will happen to the survivors in a zombie apocalypse?  All the things you might expect, and a lot of the things you wouldn't.  Plus, this last season even featured, like, character development.  Can't wait for it to come on again in the fall!

4. The Tudors - My parents started watching this, and then I got sucked into it partway through the first season.  For most of it, I felt conflicted.  I mean, I'm not that keen on watching people being tortured and beheaded, and a lot of that kind of thing goes on.  Enter more characters that are deeply, profoundly flawed and are rendered surprisingly sympathetic.  King Henry VIII?  He's a bad, awful dude, but as I was watching the last episode, all the sudden I found that I was feeling for the guy and had been for a while, that I maybe understood why he was such a wretched, evil mess.  So I felt for him and all the unfortunates who made the mistake of getting too close to him, and it's all very well done and well acted, and, except for all the lost heads, I like that kind of thing.  (Also, it doesn't hurt that Henry Cavill is blazing hot, but that's beside the point.... or is it?) 

5. The West Wing - I loved The West Wing so much when I was in high school that it actually influenced my choosing of a college major. I guess I wanted to be all articulate and passionate like the characters in this TV show.  Unfortunately, I'm, uh, not...but this show is still tops in my book.  Aaron Sorkin, you know, what a guy.  I loved revisiting this show in its entirety last year so much that I could just about start watching it again this year.

Network TV?  You're not so bad yourself.

6. Grey's Anatomy - I've been watching this show since I was in college, when my mother derisively referred to it as "Bed-Hopping With Doctors" until she started to like it.  Its season finales have a higher main character body count than The Walking Dead has in a whole season.  It's had its ups and downs but mostly ups, and happily Shonda Rhimes has a great knack for making you care so much about the current characters that you almost forget about all the characters that you loved who got killed off in the last finale. 

7. Nashville - Okay, so it's kind of like a country music soap opera that plays in the evenings.  However, the music is great, and I love Hayden Panettiere's character.

8. The Black List - This one was new last season.  While its not always the most believable show, I loved how it kept me guessing all season and look forward to seeing where it goes in its next season. 

9. Criminal Minds - I've been watching the BAU hunt down serial killers for the longest time.  Admittedly, it seems like it's trying to cater to two very different audiences in recent seasons: the audience that loves really, really sick twisted freaky killers and the audience that is more fascinated with the whole process of profiling and unpacking what makes really messed up people tick.  I'm definitely more of latter, so I often find myself thinking, "What in the heck am I watching?" Nonetheless, it's very satisfying because (spoiler alert?) they pretty much always catch the killer in the end.

10. Elementary - Sure, the Sherlockian deductive reasoning is always fun, as is the quirky crap Sherlock is always getting up to, but what I really like is Sherlock and Joan's relationship and how she helps him get in touch with his less prickly side while he's helping her get in touch with her logical side. 

So, what are you watching when you should be reading?  ;-)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Blogging Confessions

This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic at The Broke and the Bookish is a little scary.  They're looking for my top 10 blogging confessions.  There's some definite dirt behind the scenes here, but hopefully airing my dirty blogging laundry will prove cathartic.  So, here they are, true confessions of the book blogging kind.  Only promise me you won't think less of me, will you?   ;-)

1. I am the the slowest reader.  I know I'm always saying this, and maybe you don't believe me, but I truly am the slowest reader.  I feel like that didn't matter so much when I started book blogging, but now that there are so many book bloggers and they all read vastly more than me, it's something I worry about a lot.  And I shouldn't.  Because it's not about how many you read, right?  It's about how much you enjoy the reading.......right?  *looks nervous*

2. Chunksters started to scare me.  As a book blogger and a slow reader, the prospect of reading a chunkster has been increasingly scary.  Me reading one book for three months = the death of a book blog.  This is a shame, because in my pre-blogging days I really loved chunksters.  I forget sometimes that I can read a really good chunkster way faster than a short, mediocre book, though, so I'm trying to unravel my inclination to avoid the thicker tomes on my shelves.  Progress has been made in this area this very year.

3. I almost quit blogging a lot.  I don't mean the random disappearances that have always been my MO.  I mean, like, write a farewell post kind of quit.  For much of last year, I didn't want to write posts, and so I just didn't write them.  I hate forcing myself and my posts suck when I do.  I figured I should probably write a post and say an official goodbye, except I can't picture myself not blogging again ever, so I just let it languish.  In the end, I'm glad I didn't quit completely.  Makes it easier to come back when I change my mind.  Again, and again, and again....

4. If I don't get a few posts written on the weekend, there will be no posts.  I don't write blog posts on weekdays.  I just don't.  I read blogs and comment on them if the mood strikes, but I never write a whole post on a weeknight.  I spend all day working on a computer, and by the time I get home, I'm not interested in putting my hands on a keyboard.  Plus, there's never enough peace and quiet on a weeknight either.  Ergo, if I have a busy weekend, the blog unfortunately goes dark because it's hard to get ahead when you only write posts one or two days a week.

5. Sometimes I feel like an outsider.  This might not be true, but I often feel like all the bloggers seem to have their extra special buddies and their Twitter conversations that spawn brilliant blogging ideas.  They know who their roommates will be at BEA practically without having to ask.  They've visited each other's hometowns or have quarterly meet-ups with local blogging friends.  I feel like I have some good blogging "acquaintances" and that it's easy to talk to even bloggers I don't know well at events like BEA, but I still feel like I'm missing this whole aspect of blogging that everybody else seems to be plugged into.  Alas, maybe to make better blogging buddies, I need to be a better blogging buddy, but ya know.  Where do you start?

6. I have a conflicted relationship with review copies.  A lot of the time I want to be free of the heap of obligation that comes with them, but I'm addicted to getting shiny new books in the mail.  I want to be one of the first to read that next "big" book.  The new books are a great perk, and I occasionally credit review copies with keeping me from throwing in the book blogging towel long enough to realize I don't want to throw in the book blogging towel, but, you know, with great new shiny books comes great responsibility.  ;-)

7. I hate when people try to lend me books almost as much as I hate lending out my own books.  If you want to borrow books, go to the library.  I'm not lending you a book I haven't read yet.  You might split the spine or lose the dust jacket or spill your coffee on it or something that will cause an irreparable rift in our relationship.  Also, as much as I want to hear about how great the book you just read was and might probably want to read it someday as a result, please don't lend it to me.  I don't want to feel obligated to drop everything I'm reading to blog about to read your pet book, because just because you loved it doesn't mean I will love it, I hate reading on a schedule, and I have about a million of my own books to read. 

8. I have to be in the right kind of mood to write a book review.  Posts like this are easy to type up on a whim.  Writing book reviews is a little more challenging.  When I'm in the right mood, book reviewing is quick, easy, and results in a post that is worth reading and that even *I* might want to read over again someday.  When I'm not, it's almost easier to pluck my teeth out one by one than write a review anybody would want to bother reading.  I hate writing a review that sounds forced and hate even more trying to force myself into that review writing mood.  So, yeah, book reviews?  They're hard!

9. I hate hosting giveaways.  They're a ton of work.  Rigging up a form, packing up/shipping/acting as go-between with the winner and publisher supplying the copy, publicizing it to actually get a few entries, tracking down the winner who doesn't respond to the e-mail, tracking down a different winner when I can't find that first winner.  I hate it when people demand people follow the blog to enter because I don't think those are "real" followers, but it does feel like you should get something for all the trouble. 

10. I'm awful at e-mail.  I'm that person that aggravates you by seeing and reading your e-mail, thinking yes, I'll have to respond to that, and then disregarding it for an unseemly amount of time.  I pretty much only respond to e-mail on Sunday nights when I'm panicking about how my e-mail account is overrun.  Even the juiciest review copy can't tempt me to reform my ways.  I don't respond at all to e-mails pitching me books that don't strike my fancy, most of which the publisher could have saved themselves the time and effort of sending me an un-replied to e-mail by reading my review policy or, you know, looking at the kind of books I review.

What's your deep, dark blogging secret?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Loose Leafing: Featuring the Bold Return of...

No, not me.  I've been here all week thankyouverymuch. 

No, it's the bold return of "Some people read, some people just buy books."  Library book sale season has finally come to an end, not with a bang but a whimper, you might say, if you were of a literary bent which I presume you are.  Here in the bookstore-less wasteland I call home, there remains one saving grace for the book lover who likes to own books but needs a break from compromising their bookish values to further fatten the coffers at Amazon.  That saving grace, is, of course, the month of June when all the local Friends of the Libraries throw their big yearly book sales (where you can snap up, at a very deep discount, all the books other people probably bought from Amazon) at which time I buy a psychotic amount of books and then return home for the rest of the year to marinate in guilt, shame, back pain, and the occasional actual enjoyment of the acquired books.  This year is no different, except...*casts eyes downward, mumbles semi-incoherently*...I uh think I bought more than the absurd amount I usually do.

The amount of books I bought in the month of June, not even counting the books I acquired by other means (No, not those other means.  Is that really what you think of me?) is so absurdly large that even I have begun to panic and demand a complete moratorium on book buying of myself (Note: this never works.).  Happily for you, while I cower in a corner with my shame and a book I should be reading very quickly (but am probably not, because that's not how I roll), I've also elected to put my house-collapsing array of bookish sins on display for you this very day.

OK, enough talk.  Now, (very low quality) book photography by Megan with the help of the iPhone I should have replaced last summer.  Click on the pics to make them bigger.  Of course, you'll want to see the titles, won't you?  (P.S. This post from here on out will probably look extra-ridiculous in a feed reader.  My apologies.)

Look upon my great piles of new (used!) books and despair!  I mean, look upon my great piles of books and tell me which ones I should definitely get to reading within the next ten years, and the ones that I probably should donate directly back to the library with all haste!