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.)

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Loose Leafing: Currently

Happy Sunday, world!  It's been a while since we've met which, of course, is my fault, as usual.  Big life changes are afoot, so I've been preoccupied with lots of tasks that don't usually enter my purview.  Let's get right down to it...

Planning...   to move!  I've finally put down a deposit on a little apartment of my very own.  It's farther from most of my family (but still close enough to drop by with ease) but way closer to work and church.  I haven't signed a lease to make it official yet, but I'm expecting to be moving in mid-July.

Purging...  as much heavy stuff as I can stand to part with.  There's nothing like moving to make the stark reality of how much of an overabundance of stuff you have really sink in.  As you may have noted, the book problem is a big one.  I have a lot of them, and they're heavy.  I can maybe fit half of my present book collection into my new digs and hope that my parents will put up with storing a few.  However, I'm trying to unload as many as I can.  There are presently 9 boxes of books awaiting donation on the couch behind me, another probably box and a half waiting to be packed up upstairs, and that's really the tip of the "things I should be getting rid of" iceberg.  Weeding out all my stuff (from heaviest to lightest) is going to be the order of the day for the next month and a half.

Purchasing...  all the stuff I don't have.  Like furniture, kitchenware, a TV, etc, etc.  See, I have all the wrong stuff.  I'm already having some luck, though.  Living in rural Pennsylvania offers its occasional perks, one of which is the opportunity to pick up some decent starter (*ahem* used) furniture and stuff at local yard sales.  Yesterday, I bought a couple lamps, a small kitchen table with chairs, a coffee table, a lightly used Keurig mini that's purported to work, and a lightly used Dyson vacuum cleaner that definitely works - all for under $150.  My grandparents have a sleeper sofa that they're willing to part with, and I am breathing a sigh of relief at not having to spend a fortune up front on furniture and other necessities.

Poking fun at...  San Andreas!  My mom and I love to go to the movies and have got to see a disaster movie at least once a year to enjoy the special effects.  Also, they're fun to make fun of, and we love that, too.  See there are only two qualities of disaster movies: good bad and bad bad.  They are always cheesy, overwrought, and unrealistic, but if they have sufficient cool effects and action to counteract the cheesy overwrought dialogue/acting, they can prove to be very enjoyable.  I'm happy to report that San Andreas definitely falls within the "good bad" camp providing thrills a minute and plenty of opportunities to make fun of cheesy scenes and all those stereotypical disaster movie scenes.  Definitely a fun movie to see at the theater with friends or family that don't take these things too seriously.

Pondering...  announcing an official blog hiatus.  I'm an especially busy girl this summer both at work and at home(s), and I'm wondering if I wouldn't be better off taking a little official break from the action here.  So busy am I that even the outlook for taking a real vacation is decidedly dim.  However, there's a stack of books sitting here that I'd really like to get reviewed so I don't have to take them with me, ergo the jury's still out on this one.

Packing...  nothing yet.  I'm not ready!  There's too much stuff!  And no boxes!  Agh!  Moving stress is already creeping on me.  I'd love to stay and chat, but I have to go continue attempting to cut my belongings in half so that I can pack what remains.

(This post has been sponsored by the letter "P" who knows that when you spot a trend, sometimes you should just go with it.)

Hope you're having a more relaxing Sunday than I am!  What are you up to this week?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Happy Christian by David Murray

A few months ago, before the wretchedness of another freezing cold winter finally melted into the beautiful spring I see outside as I write this, I did something I don't do a whole lot of, I accepted a Christian book for review.  It probably doesn't make any sense for my blog, I don't share a lot about my Christian faith here, even though it undoubtedly means a lot to me and is at the heart of who I am (and want to be!), so I know I probably don't have a big audience for such a review here.  That said, I am a Christian, and this past winter I was struggling with unhappiness in a major way for no especially apparent reason, so when the pitch for The Happy Christian: Ten Ways to Be a Joyful Believer in a Gloomy World appeared in my mailbox, I suspected it could be just the sort of book I could benefit from reading.  I don't intend to preach at anybody, but I hope you'll bear with me while I share about a good book that's not my usual fare.

It's tough to be happy, even in a time and place where a lot of people have relatively more peace, more wealth, and more freedom than ever.  We live in a world where, thanks to the 24 hour news cycle, we can be bombarded by bad news literally all the time.  Time or distance no longer separate us from the pain of the world at large, which is great if we can pray and even physically lend a hand, but can also lead to sense of hopelessness as images of catastrophe and injustice come to us from all over the world.  Even without that, there's our own brains that start to work against us, trained from a young age to critique and pick out the bad and set about the project of correcting it, it's not always easy for us to zoom in on the good in any situation.  In our daily race against the clock to accomplish all the things on our to do list before another day is lost, it's all too easy to get down and depressed about all the things we're not doing and all the less than ideal situations we can't fix until pessimism is always the order of the day.  Murray observes all this in The Happy Christian and then gets down to applying gospel truths and modern positive psychology in a series of "formulas" meant to help us escape from the downward spiral of hopelessness it's too easy to get trapped in.

Murray's decision to marry up psychology with biblical teaching is an interesting and effective one.  Murray's chapters are filled with the scientific value of optimism, prescriptions for how much negativity can be mixed with positivity to still live a hopeful, happy life, and scientific evidence for the daily practice of more positive habits that can be exercised by Christians in conjunction with their faith.  In the course of it all, Murray makes a good case for how modern positive psychology is is right in line with God's will and promise for our lives.

Though I appreciated the psychology aspect, I was much more in tune with the chapters that leaned more on biblical teaching.  The chapter about our daily duel with our to-do lists that always ends in disappointment was cast in a different light when Murray reminds readers that Jesus's work, the hardest and most important, is already done.  Additionally, the chapter about taking more joy in our work by doing everything with passion and honesty to the glory of God, and how that can give meaning and purpose to even the most insignificant of jobs, really hit home.  Murray even closes with a very prescient topic for this day and age: diversity.  In this chapter he makes a great case for God's desire to reach all nations and for how diversifying our communities and our churches is key in future joy as we each stand to reap the benefits of plugging in every race and culture's strengths into a united church.

On the whole, I was impressed and encouraged by Murray's book and came away with some great insights.  Additionally, I was impressed that Murray, in addition to providing solid reasoning and theology, took the next step and provided readers of The Happy Christian with practical and often biblical ways to start introducing more hope and positivity into our lives, a practical aspect missing from too many Christian books.  I'd encourage anybody who is wondering why happiness seems to be a little too hard to hold onto, to give Murray's book a read and hope that it changes your perspective the way it changed mine.
Whatever you will complete or not today, rest in the only work that will never need to be done again.  Rest in the fact that Jesus has done the most impossible job in the world, done it perfectly, and made it available.  Take it.  Enjoy it.  Build your life on it.  Let it change your whole view of your life and work.  Use His work to put your work in perspective.  Believe His work is counted as yours.  Despite all that you fear and dread about the next ten hours - a critical boss, a vicious competitor, a looming deadline, a complaining customer, an impossible sales target, unrelenting children, monotonous drudge - you have Christ's perfect work credited to your account.  Yes, it is counted as yours, as if you did it.  Are you humble enough to receive it?

(Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a free copy for review consideration.)