Monday, December 22, 2014

Race Across the Sky by Derek Sherman

Race Across the Sky is the story of two brothers.  The elder, Caleb, was once a well-off successful consultant in New York City who abandoned his life to join a mountain commune dedicated to ultramarathoning.  The younger, Shane, is changing careers from pharmaceutical salesman to biotech salesman as he and his wife are expecting their first child.  Caleb has found solace in severing all ties with the outside world, including his family, to live a regimented life of running with the commune under the leadership of the radical Mack, that is, until a young mother shows up seeking healing for her sick child.  Caleb does the forbidden and falls in love with June, and soon his carefully structured life is crumbling beneath his new love.  When he asks Shane for help finding a cure for June's terminally ill baby, Lily, both brothers embark upon a dangerous journey upon which hinges life and death.  

I had mixed feelings about Race Across the Sky.  On the one hand, Sherman has crafted what I found to be a startlingly unique book delving into two subjects that interest me greatly that haven't turned up in much fiction that I've read.  Sherman's glimpse into the world of ultramarathon running is fascinating.  I've always wondered what makes a runner want to participate in such a punishing sport, and Caleb's life offers an interesting perspective on that and what happens when it's taken to far by Mack and becomes downright cultish.  At the same time, Sherman tackles the field of genetic research, revealing a world where there are diseases that can be cured but never will be according to the laws of capitalism.  Shane's storyline might occasionally wander into the far-fetched, but the exploration and explanation of the biotechnology industry is extremely enlightening.

Debut novelist Sherman does an enviable job of juggling his two unique topics without shorting his characters and without resorting to unrealistic information dumps.  Caleb is a fascinating character, driven to find a life that means something in the wake of 9/11.  Shane is a sympathetic new dad who would do anything to win back the brother he has always idolized.  The only place that Sherman failed, which unfortunately proves to be too memorable in book that is otherwise likeable, is in the quiet moments with his newborn when Sherman attempts to capture the universality of feeling that prompts Shane to risk his career, reputation, and possibly his freedom to help a stranger's baby.  Sherman doesn't quite hit his mark with this crucial point, and it leaves a lot of Shane's story to feel, at best, foolish, and at worst, completely ungenuine.  Despite this failing, Race Against the Sky is a unique, well-paced, and interesting first novel from Derek Sherman, and I'll be looking forward to what he comes up with next.

(I received this book from the publisher via LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

#AMonthofFaves / Top Ten Tuesday: Best of the Year

The day has finally come!  It's time for my top ten favorite books of the year in conjunction with #AMonthofFaves and Top Ten Tuesday.  I don't really like doing this before the end of the year proper, but my current read is definitely not in danger of unseating any of these, so I think I might be clear to divulge my top ten even before the year is fully over. Drumroll, please!

1. One Hundred and Four Horses by Mandy Retzlaff - This year's reading started off truly dreadfully.  I DNFed two books before I even made it halfway through January.  Just when I was starting to get really bummed out that my reading year was starting off as such a bust, Mandy Retzlaff rescued it with her memoir about saving the horses left behind in a hostile Zimbabwe by their white owners who were being forced off the land by Mugabe.  Retzlaff's writing reminded me of getting letters from an old friend, and her story would definitely appeal to any animal lover.

2. Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen - Kagen's novel has a really great precocious narrator, Sally O'Malley, who lightens up what is really a pretty dark story of a murderer/molester on the loose during a summer when Sally's mother is in the hospital, apparently near death.  Kagen's great narrator and her perfect descriptions of the essence of childhood summers, not to mention her great picture of the bond between Sally and her sister Troo almost make you forget how dark the story is without compromising the tension leading up to the final climax.

3. The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis - Okay, so, my mom sells used books through Amazon, and when I spotted this one in one of her piles to go out, I couldn't help sneaking it away for a few minutes to read it, kind of as a cheater book to kick off my Bout of Books with an early success.  Sis's graphic memoir of his growing up in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War really got me.  It's got great art that really shows the transformation of a kid and a country reawakening after being squelched beneath Soviet communist rule.  I was totally captured by how Sis reveals the resurgence of the human spirit that longs for freedom and color and creativity.

4. The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi - This is the first book I read this year that I knew would go on my end of year best list.  I loved this story of two courageous Afghani women separated by decades who refused to let fate and destiny and men determine the outcomes of their lives.

5. Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert - Here's to William Morrow for delivering some great debuts from new authors this year.  Hashimi's book is one, and Last Night at the Blue Angel is another.  This story of an old school night club singer in Chicago, her daughter, and the man who is in love with her totally broke my heart (in a good way?).  It shifts points of view between the steadfast daughter and the mercurial mother and what emerges is a story of a misunderstood woman on the cusp of fame and a daughter desperate for love that she can count on.  A little sad and a lot powerful, this is a captivating debut.

6. Divergent by Veronica Roth - I finally read this book after hearing all the hype and seeing the movie version, and I loved it.  Roth's strictly delineated dystopian world of factions is well-built, and Tris is a powerfully sympathetic character, and Four is tinged with just the right amount of mystery.  Divergent was everything I expected.  Too bad the rest of the series flagged and didn't quite live up the standard set out by the first book.

7. Something Like Normal by Trish Doller - This is another book that I saw a bunch of YA book bloggers raving about that absolutely lived up to the hype.  Travis is a young marine who has returned home from a tour in Afghanistan.  His struggle to fit back into his old life with struggling with PTSD and his slow budding romance with a girl he wronged in the past are pitch perfect.  Loved.

8. The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood - This is the second book by Marwood I read this year, and I think I really like her style.  Her books are ostensibly thrillers/crime fiction, but Marwood digs a little deeper and provides some really penetrating character studies, too.  People looking for fast-paced semi-brainless page-turners will probably find themselves disappointed, but if you like good character-driven stories with a touch of suspense and mystery, check out Marwood's books.  Excellent for fans of Tana French's books, I'd think, and fans of Criminal Minds on TV.

9. Gonzales and Daughter Trucking Co. by Maria Amparo Escandon - This is a different sort of book, kind of a mix of Orange is the New Black and a quirky modern fairytale.  Libertad grew up living the life of a long haul trucker with her father who is perpetually fleeing the dangers of a (probably) forgotten crime from his past.  Libertad longs for a home that's not on wheels and freedom from her overprotective father and, well, freedom itselfHer story is delivered from the Mexican prison where she is incarcerated with a pack of weirdly lovable inmates and a corrupt, if unexpectedly decent, warden.

10. The Mapmaker's War by Ronlyn Domingue - I should have read this book a while ago, and I'm glad I finally did.  It's been forever since I've read anything that could be considered fantasy in its purest sense, and I'd missed it.  This entire book is told in the second person by a woman exiled from her kingdom for treason who finds refuge among a mysterious (and pretty awesome!) people.  This is a unique (Did I mention that it's written in the second person?  And how that's so cool?) and powerful story with a decidedly feminist bent that I adored. 


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Reviewlettes - The Great, the Good, and the Meh

You guys, it's already mid-December.  Can you believe it?  This year has flown by ridiculously quickly.  As ever, I'm facing the end of the year with a stack of unreviewed books cluttering up my desk.  In the interests of getting through them a little quicker, it's time for some reviewlettes.  Now, let's see if I can actually keep them short. 

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo - Li Lan comes from a family that used to be wealthy but has crumbled in the aftermath of her mother's death.  When finances get tight, her father brings up the possibility of her becoming a ghost bride for a wealthy family who has recently lost a son.  Being a ghost bride would ensure a life of luxury for Li Lan in the Lim mansion, but spending her life married to and placating a haunting ghost of the family's spoiled son is not what Li Lan hopes for her future.  When Li Lan herself comes too close to death for comfort, what ensues is a tale populated with conniving vengeful ghosts, shadow worlds that imperfectly mirror reality, and a mysterious figure who could be the only one who can help Li Lan's spirit return to her body before its too late.  Choo's book offers a compellingly drawn window into Chinese culture and views of the afterlife.  It smacks of a modern day folk tale.  There are parts of the story that really shine, but I also found it overlong and draggy in places.  In fact, it took more than half of the book for me to become truly invested in Li Lan's story and wandered dangerously close to my "did not finish" book pile before sucking me back into Li Lan's vaguely terrifying sojourn through the Plains of the Dead.  Not a bad book, just requires a little extra patience. 

The Cider House Rules by John Irving - This year will go down in history as the year that I finally read a book by John Irving, despite having had a number of his titles on my shelves for a good many years.  The Cider House Rules is the tale of Dr. Wilbur Larch, his orphanage that also serves as an underground abortion clinic, and Homer Wells, the orphan that failed to find a home.  I loved Dr. Larch's character, equally committed to housing and finding good homes for orphans as he is to offering mothers a safe place to go for the less legal alternative.  He's a little rough around the edges but with a heart of gold.  The orphanage at St. Cloud's is populated by a totally rich cast of characters from the nurses that assist the doctor to the orphans themselves to (Spoiler alert?) the couple that comes seeking an abortion that is the family that will finally "adopt" Homer (Questionable spoilers averted!).  This book, to me, read a little like Dickens, with numerous well-drawn characters fanning out in all directions.  As in my experience with Dickens, The Cider House Rules gets a little slow in the middle while Irving is lining up his characters just right for the final denouement, but as with Dickens, the payoff is perfectly executed and beautifully satisfying.  I'm looking forward to reading more of Irving's work in the years to come.

I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe - I feel dreadful about this one, just dreadful.  Almost a year ago now (!!) it was like incredible historical fiction reading month for yours truly.  I Shall Be Near to You was one of the highlights.  It's the story of a girl who joins up with the Union Army during the American Civil War to stay with her husband, disputing the "fact" that her place is at home waiting for news, believing that her true place is at her husband's side even if that might put her in mortal danger.   McCabe brings the Civil War to life in all its confusion and horror.  Rosetta is a great character, determined, strong, and sympathetic; and she's as good a soldier as any.  Ironically, during her time posing as a man, her character makes an impressive transformation from an impulsive girl to a strong, thoughtful woman.  This is a great book that had me just about in tears while reading it in public.  Even though my review is pathetically belated, I highly recommend this book which was one of my favorites from last year.

(Disclaimer:  I received The Ghost Bride from the publisher for review consideration, won a free galley of I Shall Be Near To You from the publisher, and The Cider House Rules is mine all mine.)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Five (or so) Fave Movies of the Year (So Far)

Today, for A Month of Favorites we get to journey outside the bookish and share some other faves from this year.  My mom and I go to see tons of movies, and there were more than a few excellent movies to be seen this year, a lot of them based on similarly good books.  Here are the great movies that distracted me from my reading this year...

This Is Where I Leave You - I missed the boat on reading this book before it, but I loved the movie.  I love movies that can make you laugh and cry literally at the same time, and this movie about a dysfunctional family sitting Shiva for their father totally did it.  It was serious at times and sad at times and funny at times and sometimes sad and funny at the same time, and, in my humble opinion, it was brilliantly cast.

St. Vincent - I saw the preview for this one a couple times and almost let it pass me by because of the perpetual worry about comedies airing all their funniest moments in the preview and then having nothing to offer once you've ponied up your hard earned dough at the movie theater.  Not so here.  Weirdly, Melissa McCarthy's not the comic relief.  The kid that plays her son and Bill Murray, as the world's unlikeliest babysitter, definitely are, but here's another movie that's masquerading as a comedy but is actually touching enough that you'll be wiping your eyes by the time the credits are rolling.  I'm not going to spoil it because you should see it.

Fury - There are some movies you go into expecting to like.  There are other movies you end up going to instead of Gone Girl because your dad never wants to go to the movies but finally figures out one he wants to see.  Lots of World War II movies don't quite capture the full horror of war, this movie seemed to get that Germany by the end of World War II was a pretty dreadful place to be, especially in tank, and showed it.  It's definitely a testosterone movie of a sort, but with a bunch of A-list actors putting in time in a World War II tank, the ante is definitely upped.  I didn't expect to like it, but ended up thinking about it long after it was over.

Jersey Boys - There are other movies that you see because you meant to see The Fault in Our Stars but end up being too disgustingly late for the show because you were, uh, buying books at a giant yard sale next door.  This is that movie.  If you're behind the curve, it's the movie version of the musical version of the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  I seriously had to stop myself clapping after these guys finished their songs on screen.  Loved.  Loved much more than The Fault in Our Stars (the movie, not the book). 

The Giver - Hey, I did read this book before I saw the movie.  A looooong time before I saw the movie.  I hear the movie's nothing like the book, but that didn't bother me so much because I read the book when I was, like, 12, and I am nowhere near twelve anymore.  I loved the story of humans learning to feel again, even if feelings make for an "imperfect" society.  It translated to the screen very nicely in the opinion who read the book more than 15 years ago.  ;-)

I may have mentioned that I saw a crap ton of movies this year, so here's 5 more good ones for luck...

Gone Girl - Here's another book I totally failed to read before seeing the movie.  Ben Affleck was good, even though I've never really liked him all that much, but Rosamund Pike, could she have been any more perfectly freaking creepy?

Interstellar - Downgraded to runner up for making my brain hurt with all this talk of complex physics concepts.  I mean, ouch, my brain.  Other than that, this was yet another high quality mind*bleep* from Christopher Nolan, bringer of films such as Inception and Memento, wherein you don't quite know what is happening or how it's happening, but you find in the days following the viewing you can't stop thinking about it and being impressed that somebody could make so many different plot strands and difficult concepts work together to make a movie people still want to see.

Divergent - Er, I finally read the book right after seeing the movie.  Another book fail.  But it says something that I enjoyed the movie depiction of dystopian Chicago enough to finally plunge into this series.  Loved Shailene Woodley and Theo James cast as the main characters. 

The Lego Movie - A token animated contender.  I love cartoon movies that throw in some humor for the grown-ups.  Also, who spent most of the late winter with the "Everything Is Awesome" song stuck in their head?  Who has it back in their head now?  You're welcome.

Mockingjay (Part 1) - Loses because the first part is the draggy part of Mockingjay anyway, and then they stretched it out to feature film length.  Still has that Hunger Games awesome though, and I can't wait to see the conclusion!

Frighteningly, there are still plenty of contenders to kick these ten off their pedestals.  I mean - Unbroken, The Hobbit, and Into the Woods are ending the year with a bang and definitely stand a chance to unseat some of the top five ten.

What's the best movie you saw this year?

Check out Estella's Revenge for more miscellaneous favorites today! 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

#AMonthofFaves : Year in Books Timeline

And I'm back with #AMonthofFaves stuff today.  Bookish timelines are the order of the day today, so here's a brief look at my year in books...

January - Started the year with not a bang, DNFing two historical fiction titles that definitely didn't live up to their 2013 predecessors. While I'm failing to actually read any books, I become the unwitting poster child for the Friends of the Library book sale when a picture of me appears in the local newspaper clutching a stack of my new (used) acquisitions. I am the picture of bookish irony.  Literally.

February - The month when I was ready for summer to come. I blame Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen and her very convincing Milwaukee summer.

Is it summer yet?

March - Doesn't look like the month I read the least, but probably is. I turned 30 and changed jobs. I was busy eating a cake every week and discovering that lunch break reading was a thing in my past, leaving little time for the mediocre reading that marked this month.

April - My book group ruined Ender's Game (which I finally read!) for me with, like, all their intelligent ethical qualms about Ender's character. D'oh.

May - This is the month I remember that I have a blog and start posting on it which some regularity again. I attempted my first Bout of Books leading to an excellent five book month.

Blogging, I does it.

June - It takes until June for me to read a book I know will end up on my top ten for the year. I think I'll keep the title under wraps until next week, though. ;-)

July - My records say I only read one book. My brain knows I was digging my way through John Irving's substantially long and dense The Cider House Rules (which I finally read!).

August - Bout of Books take two on the year results in an even bigger reading month than May. I finally start reading the Divergent series after years of meaning to.

September - I read the best YA book I read this year. Nope, not telling til next week.

 Nope, really not telling. Yet.

October - Marks something else I never do - read a second book by an author I'd read earlier in the year that's not part of series. Maybe I'll eventually even get around to reviewing it.

November - Is when I start reading Christmas books, for once achieving the aim of actually reading Christmas books during the holiday season.

December - I trade reading a lot for blogging way more dependably than usual. I imagine I can do it all and still finish a few more books this month even while writing 70% more posts than usual (and forget all that extra commenting!).  Endeavor seems destined for failure on one front or another...  To be determined.

I love you, you little thief of reading time.

What's a notable event in your year in books?