Sunday, January 29, 2012

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry

Agh, has it been a week since I finished this?  Am I already failing at my New Year's Resolution to not neglect my reviews for weeks or months?  I can't let it happen - not yet!

When Boyet "Boy" Hernandez moves to New York City from his native Phillippines, he's certain he's entered the land of opportunity. Boy, who has a passion and a talent for designing women's clothing, knows the only place to hit it big is in New York. His dreams are filled with Bryant Park's Fashion Week tents, and he's more than eager to get down to making a splash in the New York fashion scene. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as it looks. Finances exile Boy to Bushwick rather than the hipper Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, and Boy is left to labor on his line in obscurity until he makes the acquaintance of his sketchy downstairs neighbor. Ahmed Qureshi spends his time at home clad in a dishdasha and aqua shoes, but he's an important fabric importer who wants suits that will make a splash in society, and he thinks Boy is just the one to produce them. From then on, despite some reservations about Ahmed's character, the two are in business together. Little does Boy know that his naive willingness to adopt Ahmed as the chief investor for his women's fashion line will eventually land him in a world of trouble.
Gilvarry's novel takes place in the wildly paranoid post-9/11 world. With Guantanamo Bay slurping up would-be terrorists indiscriminately, and the Patriot Act making it easy and legal to monitor even the most innocent of conversation and correspondence, Gilvarry's entertaining satire featuring the hapless Boy is both ridiculous, yet not so far from the truth about the United States in the wake of the attacks. In Boy, Gilvarry has created a unique character that plays perfectly in his tale.  Boy, an adamantly straight women's fashion designer, is so single-minded in pursuit of his dreams that he's willing to believe with only fleeting doubts that the fast-talking Ahmed really just is a Canadian businessman with all the right connections.  
Boy, who thinks that a fertilizer bomb sounds like something made up, hardly blinks an eye at Ahmed's apartment filled to the brim with the stuff until he finds himself detained at Guantanamo Bay for his association with terroristic activities.  Ahmed is obviously trouble but then, he is also an enthusiastic, charismatic and most entertaining terrorist who drives around in a ZipCar (a Toyota Prius to be exact), makes paninis for lunch, and dishes about his home in Nova Scotia where the sun stays up for six months at a time and everyone comes out of their huts and igloos to watch it go down before their six months of night.  Ludicrous?  Maybe.  Hilariously incongruous?  Definitely.  Twisted though it may be, if I had to name my very favorite part of the book, it would most likely be Ahmed and his antics.
From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant (FtMoaNEC) is a smart, funny, and vaguely frightening picture of  the post-9/11 U.S. where an agent named Ben Laden, an apartment with a storage area turned bedroom called a "sleeper cell," and a liason with a guy who's making a deal with the ASPCA seem harmless enough but are enough to put an innocent away in Guantanamo Bay.  Admittedly, the book drags a little through the parts where Boy laments his unfortunate detention, and it seems as if Gilvarry is trying to add drama where no drama needs added, but the parts where Boy recounts what led him to this unfortunate turn of events really pop.  At the end of the day, though, FtMoaNEC evokes and harpoons the Big Brother-esque age of the Patriot Act so well that the very act of posting this review, chock full of buzz words like terrorist, Guantanamo Bay, and fertilizer; seems like an act of bravery.
(Thanks to the publisher for the review copy!) 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Debuts

This week is freebie week for Top Ten Tuesday with The Broke and the Bookish.  Participants get to choose their own top ten topic or re-visit an old one we didn't get the chance to participate in.  Having not participated in all that many Top Ten Tuesdays and being lacking in a certain amount of creativity, I've elected to choose and oldie but a goody -  best debuts.  I love reading a new author's work first published work and discovering a potential favorite.  Actually, I think discovering authors' excellent first works before the rest of the world has a chance to tell you how great they are is one of blogging's greatest pleasures for me.  So, I give you some of my very favorite debuts!

1. The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips  - I fell in love with the characters in this novel.  I'm so excited to read Phillips' new book, Come In and Cover Me

2. After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell -  I have never cried harder at a book than I did the end of this one, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  I was so surprised by how O'Farrell's style of writing had wrapped me up so tightly with her main character that I felt so strongly for her by the end.  It totally sneaks up on you, but it's incredible.

3. Spilling Clarence by Anne Ursu - Actually, I read Ursu's other book The Disapparation of James first, but this one is better.  It's all about a pharmaceutical accident that causes all the people in a town to remember all of their memories, the ones they'd forgotten, the ones they've repressed, all of them.  I love how Ursu uses off the wall ideas like not being able to repress memories or the actual disappearance of a kid at a circus to explore serious themes. 

4. The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty - I read Laura Moriarty's second novel, The Rest of Her Life, first, but this one appealed to me on a much more visceral level.  I saw parts of myself in the narrator that made this hit weirdly close to home even though the narrator's life bears little resemblance to my own.

5. Sweetsmoke by David Fuller - For some reason, I always forget Sweetsmoke when I'm making lists of great books.  This book makes the Civil War South and life on a slave-holding plantation leap off the page, plus it's got a great main character and an intriguing mystery angle, too. 

6. The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue  -  I love books that can tell a compelling story and get you to really think about things, too.  I loved this story about a changeling and the boy he replaced that is so much more and makes you think about childhood, memory, music, art...  Great stuff!

7. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray - I loved this so much that I can't believe that I haven't gotten around to finishing the rest of the series.  The boarding school, the magic, the atmosphere plus page-turning suspense made this one a hit with me.  Too bad I suck at series, the rest of this one is lurking on my TBR shelf.

8. The Gendarme by Mark Mustian - This was a debut that I picked up at BEA a couple years ago.  It's great historical fiction told in flashbacks about a Turkish gendarme who falls in love with an Armenian deportee during the Armenian genocide.  I really liked how the story was told in retrospect, and I'd love to see more from this author.

9. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff - This book was full of stuff I don't normally like - no quotation marks, random capital letters, and a bit of incest.  And it was great, super great, too.  I'm looking forward to Rosoff's latest, There is No Dog.

10. The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister -  I loved how Bauermeister gave equal attention to all of her many characters, how she showed food's power to change their lives, and the descriptions are downright delicious.  Plus, I'm happy to report that her second book, Joy for Beginners, is very nearly as excellent as the first. 

What are some of the best debuts you've discovered?  


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Loose Leafing: Where AM I?

Have you ever had one of those weeks where you feel like you were never home?  I mean, I know I've been home this week but sparingly, very sparingly, so sparingly it seems like since last Sunday morning I've been home for a grand total of four hours that wasn't spent sleeping, because sleeping time totally doesn't count, right?  I've been working, working late, working out, eating out, buying books at the winter library book sale (Bad Megan!), but I've hardly been home, and when I have been, I've been doing chores and paying bills and doing all sorts of things that leave me feeling like I've hardly had a few minutes in a row of downtime.  That said, it's nice to be enjoying a much more easy-going weekend.  We've just had our first real snow storm of the winter, and it's delightful to be inside catching up on the blogging I've been neglecting and getting into my latest read, The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin while the world outside is all pretty and white., which is picking me books from my own shelves this year, apparently feels like I should be getting in touch with my YA collection. First it was Tiger, Tiger and now The Rules of Survival, which is, so far, an excellent novel about three kids who are looking for a way to escape or at least survive being abused by their mercurial mother.  I have a feeling I'm definitely going to like the book, but I'm kind of twisted because I sort of hoped would pick me a few that wouldn't pass the 50 page test so I could get down to this clearing my shelves thing.  Oh well.  I guess I'd win either way!
In between all the working and the other working and the more working, I managed to finally finish off Alex Gilvarry's From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant.  This was a review copy offered to me by the nice folks at Viking accompanied by this entertaining trailer (be warned, though, the language is not quite all PG) ...

The book is an entertaining mix of the funny and the sad as it follows the hapless Boy Hernandez while he tries to make it as a designer in the New York fashion industry, but has his rise to fame interrupted in a most unusual way. It definitely nails the post-9/11 terrorism hysteria satire, and Boy is unique character with a convincing voice, but I have to admit that the book dragged a little for me, so I'm looking forward to a quick YA read.  Watch out for the full review of FTMOANEC (the title is long!) later this week, in accordance with my blogging resolutions.  ;-)

Also be on the lookout for my Bad Megan acquisition post, since my trip to the library book sale was, as usual, quite fruitful indeed.  I came away with 22 new (used) books to add to my collection, most of which are trade paperbacks, my most beloved of all book formats.  I'm totally over hefty hardbacks, and while I love the size of mass markets, I hate how they don't hold up well to use.  Ah, but the trade paperback, is there anything better?

No, seriously, is there?  What's your favorite book format?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Open Wounds by Joseph Lunievicz

Cid Wymann has hardly been out of his apartment until the day he secretly follows his grandmother to her Saturday church services. Little does 7-year-old Cid know that this small feat of daring will open up a whole new world, because, you see, his grandmother isn't bound for church at all, but to the matinee of Captain Blood. On this day, Cid falls in love with the world of film not to mention that of swashbuckling sword fighters.

Life isn't easy for Cid, though. His father is a drunk, and his grandmother is so strict she hardly lets him out of the house. Just as Cid is making his first friends in Siggy Braun and Tomik Kopecky who band together to battle the bullies in their Queens neighborhood, Cid's father disappears and his grandmother dies leaving him orphaned. When Cid ends up an orphanage, he learns that he can't count on anyone and that the easiest way to solve problems is with his fists. Cid's on a long road to nowhere when his badly wounded World War I vet cousin, Winston "Lefty" Leftingsham shows up and makes of himself an unlikely hero. A former Shakespearean actor, Lefty takes Cid under his wing and introduces him to acting and soon enough has him practicing fencing with a down on his luck, drunken Russian fencing instructor, who once taught fencing to the Tsar's court but now finds himself in exile.

Open Wounds is one of my favorite YA reads of the year, nay one of my favorite reads of the year period. Lunievicz brings Depression/World War II Era New York City vividly to life. You can feel the cold wind buffeting Cid and his grandmother when they come up from the subway where a sign cautions to "hold your hat." Everything from Cid's hard-up Queens neighborhood where his neighbors on the verge of eviction mount a last stand against the police to the "Jewish Quarter" of the Lower East Side where Siggy ends up trying to make ends meet by selling pickles is perfectly detailed.

Lunievicz's characters leap off the page. They are perfectly unique, fierce on the outside but with hearts of gold that render them hugely sympathetic as their histories are revealed. Cid is lost and damaged after a childhood of being abused and abandoned. He's grown a tough outer shell, but his childhood love of movies and his dreams of fencing are still alive. Lefty is not the savior every kid dreams of, rather he is a badly disfigured eccentric veteran whose morphine habit and rough exterior make him hard to get close to, but he's much more than that as Cid (and readers!) get to know. Cid's fenching instructor, Nikolai Varvarinski, is a sloppy drunk, but a gifted teacher, and even he is more than what he seems. Each character has a carefully drawn backstory, which is slowly revealed, that informs their actions.

Readers will find themselves unable to resist rooting for this misfit crew as they prepare Cid for an ultimate fencing showdown that will resolve much unfinished business from his past. I was utterly captivated by this redemptive coming of age story. There's struggle and triumph, laughter and tears. Lunievicz has crafted a story that it's easy to get lost in, full of characters that should be unlovable or even downright repellant, but who feel like family when the last page is turned.

(Disclaimer: I met Joe Lunievicz at a BEA event, where we enjoyed a lovely evening at Serendipity 3 compliments of JKS Communications. He is super-nice, and I picked up a copy of the book from the Book Blogger Con swag pile with some trepidation because, for some reason, I worried I might not like it and would have to write a "meh" sort of book review, which I would have done, because that's what I do when the book calls for it. But I need not have worried, and really, *you* need not worry, because I am in no way compromising my reviewish integrity by saying I loved this book because I really did. Is this overkill on the disclaimer front?)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Waiting on Wednesday: The O'Briens

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

The O'Briens by Peter Behrens

Pantheon, March 6, 2012


An unforgettable saga of love, loss, and exhilarating change spanning half a century in the lives of a restless family.

The O’Briens is a family story unlike any you have read, a tale that pours straight from the heart of a splendid, tragic, ambitious clan. In Joe O’Brien—backwoods boy, railroad magnate, patriarch, brooding soul—Peter Behrens gives us a fiercely compelling character who exchanges isolation and poverty in the Canadian wilds for a share in the dazzling possibilities and consuming sorrows of the twentieth century. When Joe meets Iseult Wilkins in Venice-by-the-Sea, California, the story of their courtship—told in Behrens’s gorgeous, honed style—becomes the first movement in a symphony of the generations. The O’Briens is the story of a marriage and a family moving through history—from the first flying machines, through two world wars, to the election of JFK—told with epic precision and wondrous imagination.

What are you "waiting on" this Wednesday?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Tiger, Tiger by Lynne Reid Banks

Come one, come all to the new year in Leafing Through Life book reviewing, wherein I attempt to perform the astonishing feat of reviewing the last book I finished before flipping the last page of my current read. In keeping with the new year, my very first book, Tiger, Tiger by Lynne Reid Banks came from my very own shelves (or maybe I mean "from a cardboard box that's become an extension of my shelves"). Actually, it was not quite the very first book of the year seeing as Greg Iles' Blood Memory and Massimo Carlotto's The Goodbye Kiss both got the axe before Tiger, Tiger finally passed the 50 page test with flying colors. Here's to at least making room for the books in the boxes. Oy.

Tiger, Tiger starts off with a bang as two young tiger cubs are torn from their lush jungle home and dropped into the unknown of Ancient Rome. One is destined to fight for its life in the Colosseum, the other is bound for a much cushier life as the showy pet of the Caesar's beautiful young daughter Aurelia. Little does Caesar know that his twin tigers will prove the catalyst for some most unusual and unwelcome happenings, and that when circumstances bring the two cats together again, the results could change an empire.

The tigers, who are important enough to the story that they command a portion of the narration all to themselves, are ultimately a backdrop for young Aurelia's story. Aurelia, daughter of the most powerful ruler of the most powerful empire, at 12 years old is already beautiful and even wise for her age. She knows that even though she is young, the effect of her power on servants and slaves is profound. She is too beautiful to be even be left alone with any man without her father's express permission, so when her new pet tiger comes with a young male keeper, the chain of events is not unsurprising, but young Julius is a slave, and Aurelia, while just within reach, is strictly off-limits.

Tiger, Tiger, though it tends toward the overly predictable, is still an enchanting piece of middle grade historical fiction that follows a princess as she comes of age in Ancient Rome. Banks' Rome is vividly portrayed both in its opulence and its barbarism. Aurelia's personal space is vast, and her tiger, Boots, is given a bejeweled collar even while slaves, gladiators, and Christians are sent into the Colosseum to be mauled to death by Boots' brother Brute all at simple thumbs up or thumbs down from Aurelia's father, the all-powerful Caesar.

Through Aurelia's eyes, the terrors of the Colosseum are revealed with happenings so awful and disgusting that Aurelia is left unable to so much as look her father in the eye with love. The love story is sweet, chaste, and ultimately more powerful than expected. Aurelia herself is a great character, gentle and caring and quite unprepared for the barbarism that sustains her father's empire. She possesses the perfect marriage of childish foolishness that has far-reaching implications and a wisdom beyond her years as she navigates her growing knowledge of the awful things her father's and her own power is built upon.

Tiger, Tiger is a captivating story of much more than just tigers that opens a window on Rome that will make ancient history accessible and even enjoyable to younger readers - and older ones, too.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Little Princes by Conor Grennan

I have a confession to make. For most of 2011, I was frightened of reading non-fiction. You may have heard the one about how I'm a slow reader, especially slow by book blogging standards. After a few so-so non-fiction reads that dragged down the pace of my already turtle-ish reading speed to a distinctly unenjoyable creepy crawl, you might be able to understand my reluctance to take a chance on anymore non-fiction that had the potential to easily derail my reading momentum.

The thing is my reading past is littered with some extremely fantastic non-fiction reads, but for most of 2011 I let a few bad apples ruin the whole crop for me. Despite my irrational fears and probably against my better judgement, I requested a copy of Conor Grennan's Little Princes for review from William Morrow Paperbacks. When I'm not pathologically avoiding non-fiction, Grennan's story of rescuing trafficked children in Nepal is just the sort of non-fiction to which I'm drawn. Just my luck, it arrived in the mail just after I'd finished tearing through Mockingjay and was ready for something totally different. Something...perhaps non-fiction? I'm so glad that all the planets aligned, and I picked up this book for my last read of 2011 because I loved it and I think maybe, just maybe, it's broken through my foolish fears and opened up the world of non-fiction for me again.

Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal
by Conor Grennan
William Morrow Paperbacks

Conor Grennan's unexpected journey began with a trip around the world. To quiet the naysayers who thought spending his life savings on world travel was a touch on the irresponsible, self-indulgent side, some volunteering was in order. To his credit, Grennan didn't elect to spend his time comforting koalas, he signed up for a few months volunteering at an orphanage in civil war-torn Nepal. There he discovered that many of Nepal's orphans are not orphans at all but children trafficked away from their distant homes for the gain of men who would promise desperate parents a safe haven for their children. These parents, believing they could save their children from becoming drafted into the Maoist rebel army and have them be educated and fed in distant Kathmandu to boot, sacrificed everything to send their children to "safety." Safety, however, turned out to be more like slavery to the greedy men who were pleased to line their own pockets with the profits from begging children and destitute families.

Little did Conor realize how much he would come to love the kids at the Little Princes Children's Home in Godawari, kids who would pile on new volunteers at the least provocation, who good-naturedly ribbed culture-shocked Conor, kids who were so far from home and family but who managed to be joyful anyway. Little did he expect that after his year of world travel, he would find himself returning to Little Princes for another stint of volunteering. He could hardly have imagined that seven trafficked kids he promised safety would see him rejecting the luxuries of first world living in favor of returning to Nepal to start a children's home of his own and to attempt an improbable quest to reunite trafficked children with their parents in the distant, isolated region of Humla.

Grennan's story is downright inspiring. He draws out the kids' personalities vividly in his writing, and it's easy to understand how one could be passionate about saving them despite the odds. Grennan's memoir is peppered with humor, with suspense, danger, and even a surprising and genuine love story.

Most impressive, though, is Grennan's honest telling of his story and the transformation of his character from his first time stepping through the gate at Little Princes to who he became through working at the would-be impossible task of finding 7 missing children among thousands. Grennan tells it like it is starting with his not-so-honorable reasons for volunteering in the first place, giving us all the embarrassing details of trying to fit into a new culture with a bunch of kids whose names he can initially barely remember, and not shying away from the huge emotional attachment he had to these kids after only a few weeks. He makes no secret of initially using his volunteering in Nepal story to woo women at bars, is unapologetic about his non-interest in getting married and having kids of his own. By the time the last page is flipped, readers will feel like they really know Conor Grennan, that they were there watching as stopped being a something of a self-involved boy and became a passionate, self-sacrificing man. Readers won't be able to help liking him, despite and perhaps because of how freely he describes his failings alongside his triumphs.

Little Princes somehow manages to be a compulsively readable story about a painful problem, a tribute to children with spectacular resilience, and a portrait of an average guy who became a hero for children in Nepal.

And in even more good news, if you happen to buy a copy, not only will you have the pleasure of reading a fantastic book, part of the proceeds will go to Grennan's non-profit, Next Generation Nepal, to keep doing the good work that you'll be reading about in the book.

(Thanks to William Morrow Paperbacks for sending me a copy for review!)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Reflection and Resolution

Happy New Year, all! I hope you all enjoyed some New Year's revelry, or at least some quality long weekend reading time. I know I've enjoyed a good deal of both. But now, here at Leafing Through Life, it's time to get back down to business. For me that means reflecting on the reading and blogging of 2011 and then scheming about how to make 2012 an even better reading and blogging year. I'll be honest, I don't usually write one of these posts. For one, true reflection on last year's reading requires me to divulge the paltry amount of books I manage to read in a year. This is in comparison to all the especially voracious readers of the book blogging world rather than the general public, of course. Hopefully. I also usually take a hard line against any but the most vague resolutions because, you know, who likes to fail at publicly stated goals?

But enough talk, I'm biting the bullet this year, and writing the recap and the resolutions. Go big or stay home, right?

Here it goes...

In 2011, I read a grand total of 44 books and 12,218 pages. While I'm busy making myself look bad, that books read number is actually higher than any one of the past 3 years. Which is good, but there's still some room for improvement.

Of those 44, I managed to review only 33 in the confines of 2011, though 2 more reviews are currently in the works.

Now for some wild disparities...

39 books read were fiction, only 5 were non-fiction. (Oh non-fiction, where have you gone? I miss you, but I find you kind of scary...)

A paltry 10 were plucked from my own shelves (10!!). (I will not tell you how many unread books are on my shelves. I want to retain some small bit of dignity by the end of this post.) The rest (34 books) of this year's reading were in some respect or another review copies (offered to and accepted by me from publishers/authors/publicists, requested from Shelf Awareness, or picked up at BEA). How did I not notice this happening??

And some less wild disparities...

This year the ladies ruled with 25 of my reads being authored by women and only 16 by men (3 more by both).

29 books written for "grown-ups," 15 for a younger audience - children's, middle grade, YA. (Finally, a breakdown that I find fairly acceptable!)

2011 was a fair reading year in terms of quality with a good balance between, 5, 4, and 3 star reads (But a few 2 star reads snuck in there, too. Yikes!). More importantly, though it was a big year for self (shelf?) discovery. I rarely truly crunch my numbers, so honestly, it's kind of shocking to see those huge disparities, and it's definitely something I intend to change up a bit. In other news, 2011 started off to be a good blogging year, but things kind of went seriously south in places, and I admit I was not feeling the joy of blogging so much as feeling the guilt of not being where I thought I should be. In the interests of a less disparate year and also a more guilt-free blogging year, I give you...resolutions!

I hereby declare that this year, I will attempt to...

Read more non-fiction. I like non-fiction. I will no longer let a few bad apples frighten me away from lots of non-fiction books I have the potential to really enjoy.

Read and/or get rid of more books from my own shelves. My shelves are long overdue for an overhaul. There are tons of great books that I haven't gotten around to reading yet for no especially good reason except for all the other shiny new books I've been reading. Additionally, there are tons of books that I'm probably ready to let go, but I can't seem to set them free without at least giving them a 50 page chance. This year I'd like to make at least every other book that I read be a book that I've had for more than, say, 6 months, and I'd like to use in conjunction with my LibraryThing library to make sure I'm picking up some of those books that I'm on the cusp of getting rid of.

Embrace the DNF. This is especially important in light of the previous resolution. I don't give up on books that aren't doing it for me nearly as often as I ought. This year, as I read from my own overburdened shelves, must be different. Bad or "meh" books will be given no quarter, they'll be given away. So far, so good. 2 days into the year and I've already DNFed two "no longer my cup of tea" books from my shelves.

Show some restraint. With review copies (and book acquisition in general). I'm a long way from giving up review copies. I love the new and the shiny and the delectable feeling of having found a great book early in its "life." That said, the time has come to stop "giving a chance" to books that walk the fine line between something I think I'll like and something I worry that I won't. Discernment needs to be the name of my game this year.

Write reviews within a week of finishing the book. This is going to be my loftiest goal, I think. I've always benefited from a little bit of "marination" between reading a book and writing about it, but this year it got out of hand and turned into downright avoidance of writing reviews once the week long window had closed, until it became months between the reading of the book and the subsequent reviewing of it. I end up feeling like a jerk because I actually have some great books that are still waiting for me to review them because my reviewing mojo wandered off sometime in the middle of 2011. I think not waiting too long to write my reviews will do wonders for my relationship with my blog which was, unfortunately, plagued by guilt for much of this past year.

There, I've done it, forthrightly admitted the extent of my turtle-y reading pace and even publically stated some goals. Is there anything you're looking forward to changing/improving about the way you read and blog this year?