Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck

I think somebody might have recommended this book to me at one point.  If not, then I read it entirely based upon a misconception.  I read and loved A Day No Pigs Would Die when I was in junior high, and I fully thought up until moments of writing this post that Richard Peck was the author of both that and this.  As it turns out, Robert Newton Peck was the author of A Day No Pigs Would Die (now I remember!), and this Richard character is a totally different guy.

Good news, my failure to differentiate between authors came out all right in the end as I'm sure I'll remember A Long Way from Chicago equally as fondly.

Joey and Mary Alice Dowdel are growing up in Chicage during the 1930s, the age of gangsters, bank robbers, and the Great Depression.  One would think they would see all there was to see in Chicago, but as it turns out, their more interesting life experiences come from the week they spend with their grandmother in a small town south of Chicago each summer.  According to a much older Joey looking back on those life-altering August weeks, Grandmas was as large as life, if not larger.

Now I'm older than Grandma was then, quite a bit older.  But as the time gets past me, I seem to remember more and more about those hot summer days and nights, and the last house in town, where Grandma lived.  And Grandma.  Are all my memories true?  Every word, and growing truer with the years.

A Long Way from Chicago consists of a short story for each year that Joey and Mary Alice visit Grandma.  Each year, the kids grow up a little more and grow to understand Grandma a little better.  Each year, Grandma's antics make for the kind of family stories that become almost mythical in the telling and re-telling.  With a strong sense of justice, a veiled capacity for kindness, and a clever way of putting people in their place when they need it and helping people out when they can't help themselves, Grandma proves herself to be nothing if not a person of action.  As Joey and Mary Alice grow older they go from not quite knowing what to expect from their stern, practical grandma to always expecting that she'll be up to something.

A Long Way from Chicago is an immensely enjoyable little book about a grandma that's tough as nails on the outside but, on the inside, is the sort of decent and resourceful ally you'd want in your corner.  It's obvious that beneath her rough exterior she loves both her grandchildren fiercely.  Whether you're young or old you'll get a kick out of Grandma's way of handling her town's busybodies, but if you're looking closely, you'll also find a story subtly woven with a grandmother's love, never more profoundly shown than in the last chapter, which brought me to tears. 

Glad I read it now that I'm older.  I'm a way bigger softy now than I was when I was this book's target audience.  ;-)

(Look Ma, no disclaimer.  My own hard-earned dollars bought this book!) 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Anticipating 2013

It's been a few weeks since I've managed to do a Top Ten Tuesday, but this week we're doing one of my favorite things - anticipating all the great books to come next year.  Here are a few books I'd love to get my hands on in 2013.  You can see everybody else's lists at The Broke and the Bookish and get even more excited for the bookish year to come!

1. The Lost Art of Mixing by Erica Bauermeister (January 24/Putnam) - I can't tell you how excited I was when I saw there would be a sequel to The School of Essential Ingredients.  Erica Bauermeister gets a chance to cement her place in the top 10 favorite authors discovered since starting to book blog.  ;-)

2. And the Mountains Roared by Khaled Hosseini (May/Riverhead, I think) -  Is it weird to be looking forward to the new book from a really well-loved author you have actually never read?  My parents are always on my back to read The Kite Runner, which I haven't, but I'm curious about Hosseini's new one just the same.

3. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (May 7/Hogarth) - This stems more or less from my growing interest in Hogarth as an imprint.  Plus, it just sounds good - "In the final days of December 2004, in a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa hides in the woods when her father is abducted by Russian forces. Fearing for her life, she flees with their neighbor Akhmed--a failed physician--to the bombed-out hospital, where Sonja, the one remaining doctor, treats a steady stream of wounded rebels and refugees and mourns her missing sister. Over the course of five dramatic days, Akhmed and Sonja reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal, and forgiveness that unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate."

4. A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri (January 31/Riverhead) - They're calling this "a magical novel about a young Iranian woman lifted from grief by her powerful imagination and love of Western culture."  Yes, please.

5. The Mirage by Matt Ruff (February 7/Harper Perennial) - This one in Harper's catalog caught my eye a long time ago.  It's alternate history that imagines the U.S. as a struggling third world nation, and Christian fundamentalists are attacking the United Arab States.  Could be interesting and provocative, no?

6. Sever by Lauren DeStefano (February 12/Simon and Schuster) -  Okay, so maybe I haven't read the middle book of DeStefano's Chemical Garden trilogy yet.  That shouldn't stop me from salivating over this one, should it?

7. Red Horse by Alex Adams (August 20/Atria) - This is a continuation of Adams' post-apocalyptic trilogy that started with White Horse which I read and loved this past spring.  Can't wait to see where it goes!

8. The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh (April 4/Amy Einhorn/Putnam) - I'm absolutely all in for a good story set in Africa, and they're pitching this as the South African Gone with the Wind - "The Fever Tree is a compelling portrait of colonial South Africa, its raw beauty and deprivation alive in equal measure. But above all it is a love story about how—just when we need it most—fear can blind us to the truth."

9. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (April 2/Reagan Arthur) - Neato premise much?  "On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization."

10. Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (April 2/William Morrow Paperbacks) - "The author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be delivers her most ambitious and powerful novel to date: a captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan-train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask."

What new books are you looking forward to reading next year?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Loose Leafing: Adventures of the Absentee Blogger

Unintentional disappearance take 10 zillion?

Life has been busy on the ranch these days, and the holidays are only just now truly upon us.  I keep thinking I'll have a few minutes to sit and bang out a few posts to schedule ahead so when I get busy I don't go totally dark, but that sort of advance work and planning is not really working out.  This week I'm live-in dogsitting for a friend of a friend who is out of town, and I'm hoping I'll have a few minutes of peace and quiet so I can review some books and make excuses for why I'm such an inconsistent blogger (in iPhone photos!).

For one, you maybe remember earlier this year when I mentioned the lovely new porch we had put on our house.  It was lovely until it got cold and my mom let her inner animal lover emerge victorious and start feeding the stray cats that have been going it on their own all summer ("It's cold!  They'll starve!  They'll freeze!").  So, first we had these two...

We'll call them Patch and Declan.

Not long after that, we discovered some very little kittens in our garage.  So obviously we had to feed the mama, too, so she could feed the kittens, with the hoped for outcome that we may soon be able to take her and stop the kitten-having madness, if you know what I mean. 

Now, we have these...

And our porch looks like a little Hooverville for cats.  They're all very sweet good natured cats, and we're hoping to have them fixed and find homes for at least some of them so that we can stop being the cat ladies of our town.  Until then, cuddling three fluffy kittens and attempting to flea treat outside cats has proven to be a bit of a distraction.

Soon after we adopted the local cat colony, I was off to visit a friend of mine from college.  We had a great weekend together, one day of which we spent in Philadelphia, where, despite being a Pennsylvanian, I've hardly spent any time that wasn't apart of a school field trip.  We ate yummy food,

discovered the ugly Christmas sweater shop (awesome!),

and yes, it was me that started the dominoes falling.  ;-)

This week, of course, was Thanksgiving.  I hope you and yours had a great one, if you were celebrating.  We definitely did.  We had more family and friends at our house than we've had at the holiday for a long time.  It was crazy but also a ton of fun.  Last year we had about half as many people and it felt all boring and sedate, so it was kind of nice to return to the normal chaos.  Odd how you kind of miss that when it's gone, isn't it?

My dogsitting charges are giving me some peace, so I'd better run and take advantage of the rest of this quality blogging time.  Happy Sunday, all!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Theory of Everything by J.J. Johnson

What is it we have here?  YA?  Wow, do any of you even remember back in the jolly good old days when I was reviewing YA here on the old blog?  This year has been stunningly lacking in YA, not intentionally, for sure, but lacking nonetheless.  The sad fact that I haven't reviewed a book that wasn't written for adults since March (horrors!) made the opportunity to read and review The Theory of Everything positively glowy with possibility.  Especially since it's got all the things about YA that I best love.

Sarah Jones is not the girl she used to be.  Ever since she lost her best friend Jamie in a freak accident at school, Sarah hasn't been herself.  She doesn't care about her grades or being social.  Her normal conversational skills have been lost to a "snark box" that alienates what few people aren't already to intimidated to talk to her.  She's riddled with guilt, and nobody seems to get how to handle her or understands what a gaping hole exists in her life.  When not attempting to sustain her fragile relationship with her boyfriend Stenn on the weekends he's home from private school, watching movies with her dog, Ruby, is about all Sarah's interested in doing. 

Things are about to start changing for Sarah when yet another bizarre incident occurs in the school gym where Jamie died.  The incident sets a wheel in motion that soon has Sarah becoming friends with a strange man with a possum for a pet and dodging her parents to go do backbreaking labor on a Christmas tree farm.  And, all the while, Jamie's brother Emmett desperately wants to know the circumstances behind his sister's death, and the only who can tell him is the only other person who was there - Sarah.

The Theory of Everything got off to a bit of a rough start for me.  It seemed that maybe Johnson was trying a little too hard, in the opening chapters, to create this quirky, troubled teen voice. Sarah's first few chapters of narration seem forced and a little unbelievable.  Thankfully, though, it doesn't take the narrative too long to hit its stride, and Sarah emerges as a likeable character who's struggling and failing to keep it all together.  She's snarky and damaged and frustrating to her parents, her boyfriend, and her brother but can't seem to emerge from the cloud of grief and anger that makes her feel too guilty and misunderstood to plug back into the world without Jamie.  As the pages go by, Sarah becomes more and more sympathetic as she finally starts down the path to healing.

I really enjoyed The Theory of Everything which reminded me of one of Sarah Dessen's books, The Truth About Forever, but with more creative flair.  Both feature a lovable main character struggling to recover from tragedy, strangers who turn up to lend a helping hand, and an odd job that provides a dose of clarity.  Both pack the emotional punch that makes the best contemporary YA hurt so good.  Sarah's a little more edgy than Dessen's Macy - she's got that snarky edge, is nerdily addicted to Star Wars movies, and has a talent for clever graphs and drawings that lead off each chapter proving to be both amusing and illuminating.

Like this one (click to embiggen):

If you loved The Truth About Forever, you'll definitely want to give The Theory of Everything a try.  If you haven't read either of them, but still enjoy some good contemporary YA fiction, you should probably consider reading both of these excellent novels. ;-)

Thanks to Emily at Peachtree Publishers for providing me with a copy in exchange for my honest review.  Check out Peachtree's blog to see the other stops on The Theory of Everything tour.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Bloggers Made Me Do It

It's time for another note from the acquisitions department.  Actually, there hasn't been one of these in quite some time.  That's because I've been trying to not acquire books, since I'm pretty well set on reading material until I'm somewhere in my mid-60s.  And by "trying not to acquire books," I, of course, mean, only acquiring about 10 a month and not spending money to come into possession of them.  I am, how you say, not good at not acquiring books.  I haven't tested this, but I'm pretty sure if you gave me a good shake a few books that I had no idea were there would fall inexplicably to the ground. 

Unfortunately, there are some obstacles to the non-acquisition of books, like, for example, all these mailing lists from online book retailers that I receive several times daily.  I'd been fending them off admirably until the Book Closeouts Scratch and Dent sale e-mail landed in my inbox.  Scratch and Dent basically means "good books at rock bottom prices if you don't mind if they're a bit banged up."  Can you blame me for having a look?  Then, the bloggers did most of the rest, because, naturally I came upon several books that book bloggers put solidly on my radar.  Sadly, I am a rotten blogger, and I have a hard time remembering just exactly which blogger to blame for each acquisitions, so I am forced to blame them all, as a unit. 

For example, The Singer's Gun by Emily St. John Mandel.  Now, in the little corner of the blogosphere I frequent, you'd be hard pressed to make it through with out getting bonked over the head by somebody recommending an Emily St. John Mandel book, so I'm more than a little pleased to finally have one in possession to read, when I turn 47 or 58 or whenever I get the chance, you know.

And The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.  You don't quickly forget the bloggers talking up the book about the 12-year-old map-making prodigy who journeys cross country to accept an award from the Smithsonian people who, of course, don't realize he's twelve.  Somehow I missed the part about how visually appealing this book would be, which I suppose, really should be obvious, what with all the nifty maps and everything.  Very excited about this one.

And The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate about the black, female marine biologist at Woods Hole.  More than a few bloggers recommended this one.  In fact, bloggers seem to be fans of Algonquin Books as a whole, so I threw Blind Your Ponies by Stanley Gordon West in my cart, too.  It sounds like one of those books where the whole community comes to life, and my mom and I both seem to love those sorts.

Rounding out the collection is Tomorrow River by Lesley Kagen.  Everybody seems to be always talking about Whistling in the Dark by this author, but this one, about a girl trying to crack her family's secrets sounds good, too.  And don't forget Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.  I've long been curious about Ferris's acclaimed portrait of the twisted office atmosphere. 

So, what should I read first or when I turn 36 or 52 or 63 after I shuffle off these other thousand books I can't seem to stop acquiring?  ;-)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Loose Leafing: The Lost Hour

Ah, the time change has flickered by us once again, sprinkling bonus hours on whom it will, but I am still thinking about my lost hour.  Something about the time change makes the truth of my hour that may well be lost forever come crashing home to roost again.  What?  I haven't told you the story of the lost hour?  Surely, you must be the only one I haven't told. 

You see, once upon a time when I was but a college student, which I would like to think was recently but is growing ever further distant, I went to England for spring break.  Spring break in England, you say?  I know, it's not very tropical and not very stereotypically spring break, but I've never been super crazy about the beach, and the party scene is not for me, so what better time to visit my studying abroad best friend than spring break?

I toured some of London and some of Scotland and had the time of my life little knowing that an hour of my life would soon be robbed from me.  You see, apparently, and much to my surprise for some reason, the whole daylight savings time switch doesn't always happen concurrently between countries.  As it so happened, when I was in the UK the time changed, and the next weekend when I'd gotten home again, we sprang forward again.  Normally, you can console yourself with the loss of your springtime hour with the promise of getting said hour back again in the fall, not so with the extra hour you lost while springing ahead twice

And can I just say how great it is to deal with jet lag and the loss of an hour?  Not to mention, the pain of sitting squashed up in your middle seat between strangers on the plane ride home (where the time change has not yet occurred) not knowing what in the heck time it really is anywhere so having no way to gauge whether you'll have to play Dr. Mario on your Virgin Atlantic seat screen for only two more hours or whether it will be a whole three before your plane cruises into the gate at Newark.  Not that there's anything wrong with Dr. Mario, I find Dr. Mario to be an extremely enjoyable way to fritter away hours and was delighted to discover it available on my flight.  In fact, I find Dr. Mario so enjoyable and diverting that I almost feel sad for those of you who are thinking, at this moment, "What is she talking about?  Is something wrong with her?"  "Her" of course meaning me, but I digress. 

Most people in my neck of the woods are happy and grateful for that glorious extra hour of sleep this weekend afforded, and I'll admit to some passing joy in it, too.  I'm still a glass half empty kind of a girl, though, and every time we change the clocks I'm reminded of that silly hour that I misplaced between countries that I'll never get back in the fall.

Anybody else ever been a victim from this sneaky thief of time?  And just exactly how obvious is it that I am just now avoiding the pile of books beside me that wants reviewing?  ;-)

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Broken Harbor by Tana French

Tana French is one of those authors that everybody likes that I've been meaning to try and meaning to try forever and ever.  Enter one of the perks of being a book blogger.  While I was busy being a lazy slacker not reading all the books I should be and mean to be reading right now, I was getting an e-mail offering me a copy of French's latest, Broken Harbor, part of her series about the crime-fighters of the Dublin Murder Squad.  Usually I'm a stickler for reading series books in order, even when everybody says you don't need to, which is why it often peeves me so much to be pitched a book that is, oh you know, fourth in a series. Sometimes I can get past that whole "series in order" rule, and I'm glad I did this time around, because Broken Harbor stood well enough alone, though I'm sure there were extra tidbits that I could have picked up had I read the previous books. 

When Pat and Jenny Spain bought their house in the up-and-coming development in Broken Harbor, they were sure they were taking the first step to living the dream, and for a while it seemed so.  Pat and Jenny had what looked, to outsiders, like a perfect life - two kids, a good job, a fancy SUV, and a nice well-kept house.  Then came the financial collapse that took Pat's job and stopped construction on the luxury development leaving it a crumbling, underpopulated shell of the dream community that was intended.  The Spains grow more and more isolated trying to keep up appearances despite the odds until the day when Jenny's sister discovers the whole family brutally murdered in their home.  Broken Harbor centers on by-the-book detective Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy and his rookie partner Richie Curran as they attempt to unearth the secrets surrounding the heinous murder of a whole family.

Kennedy is a compelling character.  Gruff and a little pompous on the outside with his every action calculated to portray the right image, Kennedy's doesn't at first appear to be a very lovable guy, but his by-the-book approach does put criminals in jail.  The case in Broken Harbor brings out the demons of his past that won't stay buried.  As he tries to deal with his sister, who, he says, is "crazier than a bag of cats," initiate his new partner to the job, and capture a brutal killer, Mick's coming apart at the seams and French's book allows us a good look inside a character who is much more than meets the eye.

I loved Broken Harbor.  I loved that it didn't oversimplify what's involved in solving a crime.  It gets down into the nuts and bolts of the investigation instead of glossing over them in search of a few cheap thrills and twists.  It reminds us that there are tactics to interrogation and that sometimes solving a crime involves more sleepless nights of fruitless stakeouts than it does exciting breakthroughs.  Just the same, it doesn't get bogged down in too much detail. Rather, it explores an elaborate mystery with several unexpected dynamics that keep pages turning and readers guessing as it becomes apparent that there's no simple or obvious solution to what when on at the Spains' on that fateful night.  Even better, though, is the fact that French takes what could be "just" a murder mystery and turns it on its head to draw out a rich character study that puts the investigating detective front and center among the very vivid and varied cast of characters that populate the rest of the novel. 

I heartily recommended Broken Harbor, and if this is what I can expect from French's work, I can't wait to crack open the other books in the series!

(Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for my honest review)