Monday, August 31, 2015

Enthralled: Paranormal Diversions ed. by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong

July was the month of weird reads.  Honestly, I was moving and terribly busy and stressed both at home and at work and the usual things that have no problem holding my attention were well beyond my mental capacity for most of July.  Happily, a couple of books rose to the challenge of keeping my over-stressed mind from melting all over the floor while still serving as a good distraction from the madness.  One was Enthralled, a book of YA paranormal short stories that I picked up at my first BEA (which was ever so long ago now).  It's sat patiently on my shelves waiting for one of those moments when I decide I'm into short stories again.  Short stories, especially of the YA variety, were just the ticket for this crazy summer.

Enthralled features a wide variety of paranormal situations from a bunch of pretty big name YA authors.  Obviously, some stories were more to my taste and others less, but overall I found Enthralled to be an enjoyable collection.  Some of the authors' pieces were supplemental to their other published works and offered up a good enticement to dig into the authors' novels.  Melissa Marr's piece about the fairy Winter Queen taking a vacation with her (now mortal) beloved promises to lure me back to finish her Wicked Lovely series, for one.  Jeri Smith-Ready's selection drew on her characters from the Shade series and convinced me that I should give that series another shot since the short story, "Bridge," was among my favorites.  Another of my favorites was Carrie Ryan's "Scenic Route" which is set in the same post-apocalyptic world as her Forest of Hands and Teeth series, a world that I'm now ready to dig into sooner rather than later. 

Other stories stood alone, and I was sad to see them end and disappointed to find there wasn't more fiction out there with the same worlds and subjects that I could dash out and buy.  Ally Condie's selection, "Leaving" was one.  In just a few short pages she managed to create a captivating dystopian world and a couple of characters that made me hunger for more of their story.  "The Third Kind" by Jennifer Lynn Barnes was another great story about a pair of sisters unwittingly being swept into an otherworldly war that I'm certain would make a compelling novel.

A few of the stories left me cold, particularly the ones that were looking on the "lighter" side of paranormal but came off more ridiculous than funny. However, by and large, Enthralled was an excellent collection of diversions that proved to be the perfect opportunity for me to dip back into the waters of paranormal YA that I'd been missing without realizing it.

(Thanks to the publisher for giving away copies at that long ago BEA.)

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Loose Leafing: Bouts of Books and Broken Ankles

Have you heard the one where I spent all of early summer getting ready to move to a new apartment and finally actually moving out of my parents' house?  Then the one where I spent most of mid-summer working like a dog at my job while the lab I work for got moved into its new quarters?  Then maybe the one where mid-August rolled around and I was thinking maybe I can breathe again, read more books, take up blogging again, go on vacation and enjoy myself a little before my favorite season slips away in the blink of an eye?  This weekend I thought there was totally a light at the end of my tunnel.  There was.  Unfortunately, it was a train.

On the very first night of the glorious long weekend I was about the take, I was rescuing a baby from a kidnapper ... I mean, I was rescuing a kitten from a tree... Okay, fine, I was badly underestimating how many stairs I had left to descend to arrive at the bottom of my new apartment's staircase while taking out the trash when I took a tumble and broke my stupid left ankle.  So, here I am with 6 or more wretched weeks stretching out before me of wearing a splint and hobbling around on crutches and generally being a massive invalid, and that's probably the best case scenario.  I feel stupid and in pain and kind of hopeless about the whole thing, and the stairs are no longer just a danger to the clumsy but practically an insurmountable obstacle between me and the wide world.

Happily, my family and friends have already begun to pitch in, bringing me food and medicine and otherwise assisting me in my time of infirmity.  So that's what I can see if I try to look on the bright side.  If I keep looking, I realize I have a million books here to read, and blogging is one of the few things I do that doesn't require much walking, so while vacation and, you know, actual happiness might be slightly beyond my reach, finally rejuvenating the blog (albeit a little morosely) and participating in next week's Bout of Books (how perfectly timed!) seem much more attainable.  So, here's my official letter of intent to participate...

Bout of Books

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda @ On a Book Bender and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, August 17th and runs through Sunday, August 23rd in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 14 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. - From the Bout of Books team

So I'll be trying to do a little more reading next week instead of a little more binge watching TV series on Netflix while hosting my own pity party.  Wish me luck!

So, how's everyone's summer been while I've been slaving away at my life?  Have you ever broken a bone and lived to tell the tale?  ;-) 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

From the Stacks Reviewlettes

You guessed it, everyone, it's time for more reviewlettes so I can get rid of a few more books before I move!  I've been trying to be better about occasionally forsaking my abundance of review copies to sink my teeth into books that have been looming on my own prodigious stacks for too long.  Often, I let the randomizer pick one for me, just so I don't waste a lot of time on decision-making.  When you have as many books as I do, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the choice of what to read next, so I don't even bother giving myself the choice.

We'll kick off with The Martian by Andy Weir, a recently well-loved book slated to soon be a movie featuring Matt Damon.  What can I say about The Martian that hasn't already been said?  The answer is, not that much.  The story starts off with Mark Watney, the botanist/mechanical engineer in a team of astronauts investigating Mars, being accidentally abandoned there during a windstorm that his team believes took his life.  The rest of the book is the story of how the enterprising and entertaining Watney creatively solves the problem of being stranded on Mars while NASA tries to cook up a way to get him back safely.  The Martian is the true essence of science fiction, in that there is more legitimate sounding science in this story than I can ever recall being exposed to in a book of fiction.  In fact, there was so much science and math that it took me a while to get into the book, and I feared I would be bored enough by it to put the book down.  Happily, the intrepid Watney has a winning sense of humor and the suspense of wondering what he would do next when near-catastrophe after near-catastrophe befell him kept the pages turning.  Occasionally it seems as if Watney becomes a little bit of a "Marky Sue," the perfect astronaut, always knowing what to do next and greeting setbacks with ingenuity and unfounded optimism, however, there's no doubt that he's a lovable character and The Martian a very enjoyable book.  I very much look forward to seeing its movie!

Next up, there's A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton.  A Map of the World is an old Oprah's Book Club book that's been languishing on my shelf for (be still my heart) a decade or more.  I surmise that the randomizer was feeling snarky when it chose this one, since the book is around 400 pages, but if the print in my copy was a rational size, it would probably be more like 600.  In short, it's a real morale buster for the reader who is trying to slough off as many books as possible before moving.  However, and herein lies the "problem." I really liked the book.  The beginning finds hapless housewife Alice Goodwin waking up on her Wisconsin farm for the last normal morning before tragedy strikes.  Within the first few chapters, her neighbor and friend Theresa's daughter has wandered off to the farm's pond and drowns in the few minutes it takes Alice to hunt down a swimsuit and discover that one of her charges is missing.  I thought this incident would be the crux of the book, but as it turns out, the drowning is just the tip of the tragic iceberg that strikes the Goodwin family that year and changes their lives forever.  Admittedly, A Map of the World is a bleak book, however Hamilton is a wizard with words, bringing forth two equally compelling narrators in Alice and her husband Howard, expertly depicting the tumble-down farm and the daily struggle it takes to keep it going.  A Map of the World is a dense and introspective account of a family temporarily torn asunder that explores big themes like guilt and forgiveness while at the same time contemplating human connections that are strikingly universal but too easily threaten to give way under pressure.  A Map of the World takes a little extra time to dig into, but for readers who appreciate a good character study with a plot to back it up, it's definitely worth the effort.

(No disclaimers!  These books are all mine!)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory by Stacey Wakefield (review)

In early May, I totally hurt my back.  I was pretty much out of commission for the better part of a week.  This is the sort of thing that has started to happen to me with too much frequency, and also the sort of thing that only a few good books can make bearable.  It was just my luck that I had just started Stacy Wakefield's The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory when my injury befell me, and said book was of the most absorbing variety possible.

It's 1995 when Sid arrives in New York City determined to follow her dream of joining the thriving NYC squatting scene.  She imagines reclaiming a piece of a derelict, abandoned building to have a certain romance to it, and she shows up ready to take her place among the anarchists and punk rockers who have colonized the Lower East Side.  Unfortunately, she's a little late to the movement, the established squats of the Lower East Side are full, and it's already midsummer - not much time to make a home she hasn't found yet habitable before winter comes on.  It seems the only choice for Sid and the guy she wishes was her boyfriend is to move their search for a squat to Brooklyn where they throw in with a group of different sorts of squatters in an old bread factory in Williamsburg.

The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory is a strange and wonderful little book that I really enjoyed.  First, it's unique.  Wakefield really pulled back the curtain on an interesting time in New York City history that has gone under-explored.  Secondly, it almost has the feel of a very compellingly written memoir.  There's no clear theme or plot here, no preachy moralizing, just a zoomed in look at a very formative time of a very sympathetic narrator.  There's no clear beginning or end, no contrived-seeming progression of events.  Wakefield's novel feels very organic, and despite what would seem to be my comments to the contrary, it's a fast and engaging read with an ending that's not exactly final, but is satisfying nonetheless.  Sunshine Crust is gritty and real without being gross or off-putting.  It features a loveable narrator, one who's interested in falling in love but whose life isn't defined in terms of her love interest(s).     

The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory is the sort of book that I wish the New Adult genre had aspired to.  Wakefield perfectly captures that time in a young person's life when everything seems possible, when we still believe that with enough courage and sacrifice the lives we imagine for ourselves can become a reality.  Sid is perfectly idealistic, not looking to change the world necessarily, but believing that she knows what she wants, and that she can make it happen if she gives it her all.  What she gets as she follows her dreams, what we all get, really, is a lot of struggle, a lot of feeling like she doesn't quite measure up to the person she's trying to be, and a lot of loneliness punctuated with a few bright, shining moments where she really does feel like she's arrived where she'd always intended to be.  If you ask me, this is what it's really like being a new adult, finding the limits to the life you dreamed of, struggling to figure out who you are, what you're made of, and where you fit in the landscape of the real world when the safety net is torn away.

This is a great book and a perfect introduction, for me, to indie press Akashic Books (who generously provided me with a copy for review.).  Highly recommended for people who wish the New Adult genre would dig a little deeper and (and this is totally just a feeling I have rather than any rational reasons I can point to) fans of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

(Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for review consideration.)

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

If You Like This, Try That Reviewlettes

 Remember when I used to talk about books instead of frantically trying to get rid of them before moving?  I figure I can marry up these two pursuits by reviewing some books that have been spending a bit too long on my desk.  I've got two great books to tell you about today, both of which put me in the mind of a couple of my favorite TV shows.  If you like your books to occasionally complement your TV-watching habit, today's post is for you! ;-)

 If you like Orange is the New Black, try....

Gonzalez and Daughter Trucking Co. by Maria Amparo Escandon - Libertad Gonazalez, ironically, is in Mexican prison.  Even more ironically, it's the first time she's ever had female friends and a home that's not on wheels.  Finding an unlikely family in the cells of the Mexicali Penal Institution for Women with its bizarre class structure and warden with a heart of gold, Libertad still finds it difficult to tell the story of her life and crime to the women that surround her, so she unconsciously decides to read it to them.  Pretending to read the library's books to her fellow inmates at her newly established Library Club, Libertad shares the tale of her life with her father, a man on the run from the Mexican authorities who drives truck to keep them off his trail, even though they became an imaginary threat long ago.  Escandon weaves a charming, unique modern day fairy tale of Libertad's parents' love story, her rootless life on the road with an overprotective dad, and the love she found that made her so desperate to leave life on the road behind that she ends up in prison.  Gonzalez and Daughter is a clever read about a woman who has to go to prison to find freedom.  Bonus points because the prison community comes to life and definitely smacks of the uneasy camaraderie found among the inmates on Orange is the New Black.  Definitely give this one a try!

If you like Criminal Minds, try...

The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood - I thought The Killer Next Door was a fascinating combination of literary fiction and mystery with a super-creepy serial killer that only a Criminal Minds fan could love.  Marwood's book brings the denizens of sketchy South London house full of pay by the month flats dramatically to life.  There's an immigrant, a runaway, an elderly woman unwilling to part with her rent control, a woman on the run from a moment in the wrong place at the wrong time, and, oh yeah, there's the normal looking guy that's actually a serial killer hard at work mummifying the remains of his kills within the confines of his flat.  If you're looking for a thrill a minute, twisty sort of book that you won't be able to put down, this might not be it.  It's no difficult task to guess the killer.  However, The Killer Next Door is a convincing story of how a houseful of strangers with secrets becomes a family, united against their scumbag landlord, all with a side of perfectly twisted serial killer.  I loved these characters, was taken in by the fringe of society where they exist, and loved the black humor that added a little levity to a dark story that doesn't end up seeming so dark at all. I love Alex Marwood's unique deeper take on the traditional crime thriller and look forward to whatever she comes up with next.

(Thanks to the publisher for my copy of The Killer Next Door in exchange for review consideration.  Gonzalez and Daughter is from my own stacks.)