Tuesday, December 30, 2014

#AMonthofFaves / Top Ten Tuesday: Resolved

It's that time of year, time for thinking about next year's reading.  That's right, it's time for bookish (and bloggish!) goals for the new year.  This year's goals are brought to you by (and also informed by) A Month of Favorites and linked up with Top Ten Tuesday

1. Read more books in translation - This one I'm choosing to blame on Bellezza and how she's always tantalizing me with her posts about reading excellent books in translation.  I don't read very many but I know that I like them and have a bunch on my shelves.

2. Read more non-fiction - I've also got a ton of quality non-fiction on my shelves that I'd love to get to, but non-fiction books, like chunksters, are books that I've allowed myself to become afraid of in my book bloggerly life.  Non-fiction can often take me extra time, and I've become afraid of taking extra time on anything since I've been blogging and measuring myself against an impossible standard of quantity of reading that so many of you are capable of and I am not.  I want to become more well-read in history, in memoirs, in science and religion and current events, but that'll never happen if I don't kick my fear of investing some extra time in books that are worth it.

3. Keep reading those chunksters - This was the year that I started letting go of enough of my blogging neuroses and chunksters started to make it back onto the reading menu.  I love them, and I missed them, and I definitely don't want to miss the opportunity to read some more this year.

4. Be ruthless with my DNFing  - I was pretty ruthless this year, casting aside books within the first 50 pages if they weren't grabbing me or even later if I found myself not caring much either way about the outcome.  As the absurd amount of books in my house grows even more absurd, there is less and less time to be forgiving of books that aren't worth my time.

5. Care about quality, not quantity.  - Kind of all of the first four resolutions culminate in this one.  I want to get away from having goals about reading a specific number of books and measuring myself against other readers and start just reading and enjoying really good books at my own pace.

6. Put down the iPhone  - Do you know how much reading time this thing is stealing from me?  I need to dedicate myself to putting some space between me and Facebook, Instagram, and stupid games and put much of that extra time into reading the really good books.

7. Keep up with reviews  - There is an embarrassing amount of books stacked on my desk that I have read and enjoyed long ago and yet failed to share with you all in any meaningful way.  It makes me crazy.  In 2015, I have to keep up with my books read instead of allowing them to overshadow my computer with their stack of guilt. 

8. Read the Bible - All of it.  This one shows up on my list pretty often. I've read a lot of the Bible, but still not all of it.  One of these years will for sure be the year that I actually read the whole Bible, in one year.  Talk about chunksters, right? ;-)

9. Up my commenting game - There are days when I really try to respond back to all the comments you guys so generously leave me, and others where I at least try to visit you back when you've visited me, but all too often I fail at this whole commenting thing.  I appreciate them so much, I want to give more to all of you, but I'm going to have to be a bit more purposeful and committed to achieve this one.

10.  Stop buying so many books - Oh, you guys.  I am the worst about the book buying, the worst.  I read a stunningly few ebooks every year, but I buy them cheap with the reckless abandon that signifies a true addict.  Okay, okay.  I do the same thing with paper books, too.  I have very loose plans to move in 2015, and packing up these books to go is going to be a maddening, back-breaking task.  Also, they've escaped the "library" and are setting about overtaking my bedroom.  Soon I will have to remove the bed and sleep on a pallet composed entirely of books.  So yes, the book buying.  It's gotta stop or at least slow significantly.

What are you resolving to do in your bookish life in 2015?

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?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Three Story House by Courtney Miller Santo

Three Story House is the story of three cousins who are closer than sisters. Each is stumbling through her own life on her way to an uncertain destination. First, there is Lizzie, professional soccer player and would-be Olympian, but another knee injury has threatened to sideline her for good. Then there is Elyse, whose bold aspirations accumulate a mountain of failures. Lastly, there is Isobel, a has-been sitcom actress whose true self, if she could find it, might be wrapped up in restoring houses. When Lizzie discovers that her grandmother's oddly shaped Memphis mansion has been condemned and is in danger of being sold at auction, the three cousins drop everything and head to Memphis to see if the house can be rescued and whether it holds the answers to all of Lizzie's questions about her missing father.

All in all, I was disappointed with Three Story House. I loved the idea of the three women finding healing for themselves while restoring a house to its former glory, but the execution was a little bumpy. Don't get me wrong, there's absolutely nothing wrong with Santo's writing. It flows well, does a good job of describing the house the three cousins are trying to save, and Santo puts a good effort into drawing out her three protagonists. The problem is, I didn't particularly like them or dislike them or feel much of anything for them at all. They wavered between seeming less than genuine and making me feel weirdly uncomfortable, neither of which is great when it comes to relating to characters. Lizzie was almost too vulnerable, crumbling at the least provocation. Too much of the cousins' bond seems to revolve around protecting overly fragile Lizzie from the difficult stuff life has to dish out. The heart of Elyse's storyline was so desperate and selfish that I was mostly embarrassed for her. Isobel alternates between being the strong and supportive ring leader to being staggeringly self-centered, and I felt that Santo struggled to get at the heart of her character.

I'm okay with an ending that leaves some matters unresolved, but Three Story House seemed like it wanted to tie everything up, but finished with a lot of ends that were still pretty loose. Instead of giving Elyse and Isobel proper endings for their story lines, Santo allows the end of the story to meander back to tying up Lizzie's loose ends leaving the other cousins' stories to peter out unsatisfactorily. Three Story House touches on some big themes but doesn't dig quite deep enough to fully unearth them, leaving the book marooned in the uncertain territory between fluffy women's fiction and something a little more profound.

(I received this book from the publisher for review consideration.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Month of Faves: Books with Kick-@$$ Girls

A Month of Favorites continues today with five favorites in our choice of a theme.  I wasn't going to do this one, actually, because I didn't think my reading really fit any certain themes this year, but then I spied on the list of examples, "Books with Kick-ass Girls."  As it so happens, I've read oodles of books with strong female characters this years, so many that they easily surpass the five called for in the post prompt.  So here are 5 books with female characters that prove that they can be vulnerable and afraid but not overcome, in fact, they are the stronger for conquering their fears in their own unique ways.

Divergent by Veronica Roth - Here's an obvious one. Yes, I finally read the Divergent trilogy this year. I realize I'm behind the curve, but Tris is pretty fierce, no?

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi - Hashimi's story of two girls in Afghanistan who triumph in a culture that threatens to rob them of control over their own lives and destinies was one of the highlights of my year.

Say What you Will by Cammie McGovern - Despite the hype, this book wasn't one of my favorites this year, but it definitely has one tough girl. Amy has cerebral palsy, computer to talk, and can't eat without difficulty, but she refuses to let her disability define her or stand in the way of her dreams.

Beauty by Frederick Dillen - Carol grew up on the mean streets of Detroit, holding her own among all the boys on her block. She grew up to shut down failing factories for a living, but where she really proves her strength is in saving a factory and its town and herself in the process.

The Mapmaker's War by Ronlyn Domingue - Aoife is a girl who never accepted the place that was set out for her. Rather, she becomes her kingdom's mapmaker, discovers a new settlement, and risks her life to warn them of danger from her own kingdom. Facing exile, she finds the courage to start over and raise a daughter who is even more kick-ass than she is.

Who's the strongest female character you read about this year?

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Month of Favorites: Introduction

Happy December, everyone!  You may recognize this month as being the (or, um, another) month in which I unintentionally let my blog go dark while being swept away by either the busy-ness or the lethargy of life.  This year, with the help of a few clever bloggers and one fun December event, I'm hoping to reverse the December curse.  This December the lovely ladies at Estella's Revenge, Girlxoxo, and Traveling with T have brought us a fun December event all about sharing our favorite things from this year, bookish and otherwise.  In between my blundering through my back log of reviews before the first of the year, playing along with The Month of Favorites seems like a fun and easy way to up my blogging this December.  Check out the link if you want to see all the post topics and join the fun!

Today, we're introducing ourselves and sharing a little about our reading this year.  I'm Megan, and I've been blogging here at Leafing Through Life for 7 years now.  Yes, this is the year that my blog hit it's lucky seventh birthday, and I can't believe I'm still at it.  If you're new here, you haven't heard me go on and on about what a slow reader I am.  I'm definitely not working with a high quantity of books read for the year, but it's still been a banner year for reading in other ways.  Here's how...

  • This is the year that I finally started getting over my fear of chunksters.  I was never afraid of a book 500+ pages long before I started blogging, but being a slow reader and a blogger mix poorly with the reading of chunksters.  This year I stopped putting pressure on myself to finish more books and started just reading.  It's paid off wonderfully, considering I've read the same amount of books as last year at this time, but way more pages.  Good chunksters aren't scary - they're awesome!
  • This is also the year that I really started to embrace not finishing books.  I've never been the sort to force myself to finish books I'm not enjoying, but this year, I think I've done a particularly good job of recognizing when it was time to call it quits on a book that just wasn't doing it for me.  Life's too short for mediocrity, right?
  • Finally, this is the year of the Readathon.  I've always been a big fan of Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon, but I've never sampled any of the other readathons cropping up around the book blogosphere.  This year I did the Bout of Books twice and loved having a low pressure readathon that went on for a week and helped me refocus on reading instead of life's many distractions while staying plugged into the book blogging community.  
Does your inner stat hound care about my stats?  Mine kind of does, but only in the loosest kind of way.  So breaking it down in a nutshell, my reading has been...

1/5 chunksters, about half review copies and half from own collection (this is very excellent!), definitely skewed toward female authors (think 60/40ish), predominantly composed of new to me authors, almost all paper books rather than ebooks (sorry, Kindle), mostly fiction (1 non-fiction book for every 7 fiction books, yikes!), and had a generous sprinkling of YA among the "grown-up" books (a welcome departure from my YA lacking recent past).

So, yeah, it's been a nice year, a different sort of year for reading and blogging.  Low pressure, higher page counts, and more fun in general.   I'm going to wrap this up for now, but I'm looking forward to sharing some of this year's favorites as the month marches on, and I'll hope you'll join the fun!

What's something unique about your year in reading?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller

It doesn't happen often, but every once in a while I can be caught reading some Christian non-fiction, I always thought that if I was going to be reading a book by fairly prodigious Christian author Tim Keller, it would be The Reason for God. Instead, I ended up reading Counterfeit Gods with a few of the other ladies from my church. It ended up being a very fortuitous time for me to be reading such a book, and I liked it quite a lot.  It's Sunday, so what better day to post a little post about a Christian book, amIright?

In Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller explores the danger of idols for Christians. Maybe at first thought when you hear the word "idol" you're thinking of a statue or even an American Idol, but Keller's book is about all the good things in our lives that can go wrong when we desire them more than we desire God. Keller's book breaks down the ways we can idolize everything from love to success to money and power and beyond. None of these things are necessarily bad in and of themselves, that is, until we would give anything to have them.

This book is about a very important topic, especially for Christians who are worried they might be falling too much in love with the things of this world. I loved how Keller reasons through his topic, not necessarily starting with point A and passing through points B and C to get to D, rather choosing a main point and circling to get to it, if that makes any sense at all. It requires a little extra work on the part of the reader, but the payoff, in my opinion, is enormous. Keller's chapters are packed with examples of idolatry from history both recent and distant as well as a biblical example that manages to both illustrate his point about the idol in question while successfully speaking to the Bible's relevance through the ages as we pursue the same idols our Biblical forbears struggled with. This is a great book for a Christian who wants to grow closer to God by revealing and blotting out the many things we chase after that can't satisfy us in the way only God can.

(No disclaimer.  This one's from my stacks.)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol

I'm going with the one trick pony approach to blogging this week and reviewing a book from the collection I posted the giveaway for on Tuesday.  Oddly enough, I cracked open the Christmas books even before breaking out the Christmas music that I've diligently been avoiding despite my inclination to start listening to it a couple weeks ago.  I always peak too early with my Christmas music love, and by the time the holiday rolls around I'm kind of over it.  As for Christmas themed books?  It's probably never too early for a busy person who reads at a snail's pace to start reading them, so here I go!

First, another moment of honesty. This, of course, is one of the five Penguin Christmas Classics I was sent for review.  I may or may not have chosen this one at this early date because A.) it's the shortest (clocking in at a brief 65 pages) and B.) I kinda thought I wouldn't like it as much as the other ones.  I'd heard it's a little offbeat and not quite Christmassy enough for the Christmas club, if you know what I'm saying.  Neither thing that I'd heard is necessarily false, but in all actuality, I quite liked this short tale of Christmas Eve in a small village in Ukraine.

The day of Christmas Eve ended, and the night began, cold and clear.  The stars and the crescent moon shone brightly upon the Christian world, helping all the good folks welcome the birth of our Savior.  The cold grew sharper, yet the night was so quiet that one could hear the snow squeak under a traveler's boots from half a mile away. Caroling hadn't yet begun; village youths weren't yet crowded outside the windows waiting for treats; the moon alone peeked through, as though inviting the girls to finish up their toilette and run out onto the clean, sparkling snow.

Gogol's story opens on Christmas Eve with the scene of a witch and a devil who are up to no good.  The devil has in mind to foil the plans of devout local blacksmith, Vakula, to pay court to the village beauty, Oksana.  Oksana is as dreadfully vain as she is beautiful, and has chased off all her many suitors, mistreating them and playing hard to get, not to mention spending  more time with her mirror than with them.  Frustrated by the continual rebuffing of his advances, Vakula has nearly given up on Oksana and life itself, when he comes up with one last risky gambit to win her affections. 

I'll say no more for fear of giving away overmuch, but I was thoroughly charmed by Gogol's remote village where carolers traverse the town on a cold, crisp Christmas Eve, singing for treats from the townspeople.  Besides the witch and the devil and the unfortunate Vakula, the town is populated by a cadre of important men made laughable by their foibles, a crowd of fierce housewives, and gaggles of laughing girls.  Despite the less than traditional Christmas content, I found Gogol's story to be a delicious and humorous little folk tale of his own creation and a welcome departure from the Christmas norm.

If you'd like to read this book plus four more holiday classics from Penguin, the giveaway is open until Monday evening, so stop by the post and enter! 

(Disclaiming: Yes, I received this book for free from the publisher for review consideration.)

Do you have a favorite Christmas story to read around the holidays?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year! (Giveaway)

Greetings one and all!  The holidays are very nearly upon us, as you may have noticed.  I know there is one place my blog very often comes up short of late, and that would be giveaways. (If you said "content," I'm scowling at you right now, even though it's funny cuz it's true).  Since the season of giving is arriving, I, with great enthusiasm, have taken up Penguin on their very generous offer to let me give away a set of all five of their super-pretty (!!) Christmas classics.

They're compact, short on pages (long on Christmas spirit!), and (I may have mentioned with many exclamation points) super-pretty!


Anyhow, they're great quick reading to get you in the spirit during a busy holiday season, probably most excellent for gift-giving (if you're not going to totally hoard them for yourself like yours truly), and they're also good for cuddling with creepily (if you're that weird book lover - don't forget to quietly murmur to them how pretty they are while you're at it.  I don't do that, though.  Okay, yes I do).

Here, we'll let Penguin do a better job of describing them, you know, minus the Ghost of Christmas Creepy thing I've got going on in this post.

Penguin Christmas Classics honor the power of literature to keep on giving through the ages. The five volumes in the series are not only our most beloved Christmas tales; they also have given us much of what we love about the holiday itself. A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Charles Dickens) revived in Victorian England such Christmas hallmarks as the Christmas tree, holiday cards, and caroling. The Yuletide yarns of Anthony Trollope popularized throughout the British Empire and around the world the trappings of Christmas in London (CHRISTMAS AT THOMPSON HALL: And Other Christmas Stories) . The holiday tales of Louisa May Alcott shaped the ideal of an American Christmas (A MERRY CHRISTMAS: And Other Christmas Stories). THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS (Nikolai Gogol) brought forth some of our earliest Christmas traditions as passed down through folk tales. And THE NUTCRACKER (E.T.A. Hoffman) inspired the most famous ballet in history, one seen by millions in the twilight of every year.
Beautifully designed—with foil-stamped jackets, decorative endpapers, and nameplates for personalization—and printed in a small trim size that makes them perfect stocking stuffers, Penguin Christmas Classics embody the spirit of giving that is at the heart of our most time-honored stories about the holiday.
Enough talk, it's time to enter to win the lovely books.  If you want to win and have a US mailing address (sorry international friends), fill out the form below.  One entry per person, please.  No hoops to jump through, and I promise not sell your e-mail address for extra holiday cash.  Flattering comments will get you somewhere, but probably not closer to winning.  ;-)  Get your entry in by Monday, November 24th before 10:00 PM EST

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman

I read Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman at the very beginning of the year.  It was one of these hidden treasures that the randomizer rescued from the depths of my bookshelves that I really ended up liking.  Unfortunately, this validates that "I should give this a chance" point of view that keeps lots of books on my shelves taking up space for way, way too long.  Anyhow, it's been a while, so I don't actually remember it that well, but let me take a stab at some thoughts anyway.

Love triangles. We love them, we hate them. Falling Under has one, and it's a doozy. Mara Foster is a troubled artist, making a career of producing stock paintings of geometric designs to decorate peoples' offices. She used to paint other things, but other things awaken her emotions, and she's decided that her emotions are better off stifled. Mara is riddled with fears and anxieties that plague her whenever she dares to leave the safe confines of her house. Her parents' acrimonious divorce left a profound mark on her that leaves her terrified to love, so when she meets Hugo and dares to imagine a normal life with a normal guy, it threatens to undo her. Soon, she's painting for real and all that real painting is bringing the demons of her past close to the surface. She flees instead to Erik, the bad boy with baggage, the one she has plenty in common with, including a desire to eschew love for sex that will chase those demons away for a night.

Younge-Ullman, according to the author bio, is also a playwright and it shows. Falling Under is filled with fast flowing, excellent dialogue. Mara's past is brought to light in the immediacy of second person narration and easily draws readers' sympathies. There's a plot twist that actually surprises and supporting characters that fill out Mara's story while being their own people. I even liked the love triangle. It was so believable and viable that even I couldn't choose a guy for Mara. As far as I know, this is the only novel Younge-Ullman has written, but I hope she writes another, because I'd definitely be interested in reading more from her.

Miraculously, he loves you back. Though you're not quite sure he would if he really knew you, if he
knew the things you've done and the family you have and the sad, dark, panicky places that come out and haunt you at night. He would never understand how being happy makes you sad. How the happier you are the more you know the sky is about to explode into tiny, sparkling shards of glass that will pick up speed as they fall to the earth and slice right through you leaving your skin with little holes in it, leaving your heart bleeding.

(No disclaimer required for this one, either.  I'm pretty sure I won it from another blogger.  I can't remember who, but thanks who ever you were, it was excellent reading!)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Slam by Nick Hornby

It's November, I'm back, and I brought books (or, um, book reviews - you know what I mean)!

Nick Hornby's Slam is about Sam, the teenage son of a single mother who had him too young.  Sam, unfortunately, in the course of book, is about to follow in his mother's footsteps.  Sam's a pretty normal teenager, into skating (that's skateboarding for the uninitiated), preparing for the possibility of studying art at college, and, of course, spending all kinds of time with his superhot girlfriend, Alicia.  Everything is going along quite nicely, that is, until Alicia gets pregnant.

Slam's kind of a weird book.  Sam himself is, for the most part, a very normal teenage guy.  When faced with the staggering revelation of his girlfriend's pregnancy, he doesn't really know how to be supportive and kind of irrationally just wants to run away from the whole thing.  In short, he's inarticulate, obsessed with Tony Hawk, and he's kind of irritating - just like you would expect him to be at his age.  Then there's this weird plot thing where he consults with a poster of Tony Hawk for tidbits of life advice, which are tangentially related quips from Tony's book reproduced by Sam's overactive imagination, and the part with the supposed time travel (dreaming?) that reveals to Sam the various courses his life might follow as a too-young dad.

By turns bizarre and painfully realistic, Slam makes for some interesting reading.  Hornby seems to be spot on when he digs into the issues of teenage parenting, how unprepared kids are for the responsibility, how the parents eschew helping for debating over which kid ruined the other's life, as well as how quickly kids can age when they are forced to take on big responsibilities.  I liked these parts.  I liked that even though Sam's very colloquial narration reveals a character that, from a female perspective, is, on the whole, kind of aggravating, Hornby doesn't shy away from a creating a character who has very real and believable reactions to a very real and drastic turn of events in his life.

I could very well have done without all the weird Tony Hawk stuff, but even that, kind of points to Sam's immaturity that obviously doesn't go away just because he's about to become a father.  On the whole, being inside the head of a character I often couldn't decide whether I'd like to give a hug or a shove made it a little difficult to love this book, but Slam is definitely an interesting and rare look inside the male perspective on teenage pregnancy.

(No disclaimer today, friends.  I, like, bought this book - and read it, too!)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Currently: It's October?!?!?

It's too late on Sunday afternoon/evening for comfort, and I am coming to you more or less live from the wreckage of my overcluttered desk.

Listening\  To Train's new album, Bulletproof Picasso.  I became a colossal Train fan, like, two albums ago, and I continue to be.  The last track, Don't Grow Up So Fast, may or may not have made me cry.

Making\  Plans.  (Ha! No I haven't taken up knitting or cross-stitching or anything, and the world breathes a sigh of relief.)  I've been contemplating seeing Straight No Chaser on tour for a few years now.  Their a cappella awesomeness makes me smile.  They'll be in Hershey this year.  Maybe I will be, too?  I just need to find a some poor sucker to take with me.  In the meantime, I'll be serving as my dad's "poor sucker to take with me" as we make the journey to Pittsburgh to see the first NFL game I'll ever see in person, and his, too.  He's been an Indianapolis Colts fan for as long as I can remember and probably a lot longer than that.  So, we'll be a couple of Colts fans in hostile territory, but I'm looking forward to it anyway.

Hating\  Fall.  I know, I hate myself for hating fall, but I do.  You see crisp, colorful leaves.  You feel refreshing cooler temperatures.  Pumpkin spice lattes, bonfires, high school football games, hot cups of tea, reading books while wrapped in fuzzy blankets.  That stuff is all nice, don't get me wrong.  Unfortunately, I have to build a fort of distraction around myself to stop from fixating on the coming 6 months of undiagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder, not to mention cold and flu season which has already started at my house.  *sniffles*  All this potential misery amplified by my rapidly forthcoming shift change which will call for me to rearrange my life schedule right before the dreadful winter months set in.

Returning from\  The first of two October trips to Boston (see above re: Fort of Distraction).  My college BFF and I took Boston last weekend.  We stayed in a beautiful inn in Cambridge that served a full breakfast and afternoon tea everyday, wherein we were decidedly *not* the target demographic, which, okay, was awesome.  We stayed in a room with two twin beds like a 50s sitcom married couple and dined every morning in the presence of older couples from foreign countries with grown or semi-grown children living in the area.  We also rode the cool Greenway carousel and spent a rainy day observing penguins, seals, and sea turtles at the New England Aquarium to skew our age group back the other way.  We also, of course, ate lots of delicious food including the ubiquitous Mike's cannoli, went book shopping at Porter Square Books, paid a quick visit to my old neighborhood to enjoy some Indian food, and enjoyed the best entertainment the basement of a CVS has to offer at the Improv Asylum (hilarious!). 

Going to\  New York City for the day on a bus next Saturday.  It'll be my cousin's first time in said city, and I'm looking forward to showing him the sights, one of which will surely have to include The Strand, right?  I mean, you can only tolerate the top of the Empire State Building and Times Square for so long before you need to be soothed by vast amounts of books, am I right?

Missing\  Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon.  So sad to have booked something over it, but alas, I seem to be on tour this month.  I guess I'll have to read on the bus in honor of Dewey and all the dedicated participants. ;-)

Reading\  I just finished Allegiant thus wrapping up the Divergent series.  Roth definitely made an interesting choice about how to end her series.  I guess I didn't hate it with the vitriol that some people have, but, on the whole, I think the first book was the best and the series very slowly declined from there.  Nonetheless, I was kind of in a reading funk, so I'm satisfied to have simply finished a book that was moderately absorbing.  Now I'm on to The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood whose Wicked Girls I enjoyed earlier this year.  Lately, books written for grown-ups haven't really been working out for me, but I'm pretty sure The Killer will be the one to break that trend. 

Watching\  I finally saw The Fault in Our Stars movie.  It was good, but not as good as I wanted it to be.  Oddly, in text Green's main characters' precocious pretentiousness was the stuff dreams are made of, on screen, I'm afraid it all just irritated me the slightest bit.  Still good, still cried, but I don't know, something just wasn't quite right.  I also saw the movie version of This is Where I Leave You.  I haven't read the book because I'm seriously sucking at getting to the book before the movie lately, but the movie was great.  It was one of those that gets you laughing and crying at the same time (which is different from crying with laughter, if you must know), very well cast, and most satisfying. 

Blogging\  Wait...what's this blogging you speak of?  I haven't been, and I'm pretty sure I missed another blogiversary in there, too.  That means Leafing Through Life just (very unceromoniously) turned....7? Yeah, 7, I think.  I know this month has been kind of a bust because I've kind of been "on tour," but other than that I was happy to see my desire to blog come back for a lot of this year.  It's been fun being a part of things again, and I've pretty well sunk into the groove of blogging when I want, and not blogging when I don't feel like it, in a way that has been largely guilt free.  This, I'm pretty sure, is the mark of the mature B-list (okay, C-list) blogger. Expect more of this guilt-free slacker blogging to continue while I spend several more weekends away from my desk enjoying the last few weeks of passable weather before the SAD kicks in.

So, what have you been up to while I've been distracted?  Reading great books?  Having exciting adventures?  Blogging bookish content that isn't linked up to Top Ten Tuesday?  Tell me!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Hard is Good

This week's topic for the Broke and the Bookish's Top Ten Tuesday is books that were hard to read for any reason.  Turns out, hard is good.  With the exception of #9, I liked or even loved all of these books regardless (or because of?) the extra difficulty in reading them.

1. House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III - This the first book I ever read that I think I ever considered hard to read in a "good" way.  The plot centers around an Iranian family and a mistakenly evicted woman fighting over the house she was evicted from, and oh, how very frustrating it was to read about their stubborn resistance to each other when if each side could have given a little bit, their conflict might have been resolved.

2. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh - Trainspotting is hard to read in a bit of a different way.  It's written all in Scottish dialect which is just difficult to comprehend without a lot of effort, and then there's all the pretty raw depiction of junkies in downward spiral.  Tough to read, but still a good book!

3. A Wolf at the Table by Augustine Burroughs - Burroughs' loveless, disturbed, occasionally abusive father is definitely hard to read about. Reading the book causes kind of a horror-movie tension, where the creepy music crescendos and you know something horribly dreadful is about to happen, but you can't quite look away. 

4. Schindler's List by Thomas Kenneally - I've read a good few Holocaust stories and memoirs in my life, but this one, for reasons I can't quite figure out, was one of the harder ones to read.  Keneally definitely doesn't flinch from the untold horrors of the Holocaust from survivors' stories, oh, but I wanted to.

5. The Stand by Stephen King - Is there anybody that can read the beginning of this book with all the plague raging across the United States and the world and not worry immediately that they too are falling ill, like, right now?  Likewise, can you read it without thinking King's depiction is just all-too-possible

6. The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty - I'm not sure how many similarities I actually have with the main character of this book, but I can tell you, when I was reading it, it sure felt like a lot.  I was so wrapped up in this character, that when she was struggling, I was crushed right along with her. 

7. One Hundred and Four Horses by Mandy Retzlaff - I'm a huge animal lover, so animal stories tend to be hard reads for me.  This one is filled with the triumph of saving a massive herd of horses from a hostile Zimbabwe.  Retzlaff gets you all attached to her beloved horses, but in such a dangerous situation, you know it can't all be good news.  Alternately, uplifting and heartbreaking, this one is tough read for any horse lover.

8. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink - Fink's account of Memorial Medical Center is an absolute page-turner, but reading about the failures in communication, how unprepared a major medical center can be for disaster, the loss of life both by natural causes and apparent euthanasia make this one as hard to read as it is hard to put down.

9. The Wentworths by Katie Arnoldi - This is one of those books where the characters are just so utterly reprehensible and most of the things that happen are similarly disturbing that it proved almost impossible to read and completely impossible to like.

10. The Blue Notebook by James Levine - And then there's this book about a child prostitute in India.  Shockingly, this also makes for hard reading. 

What books do you find especially hard to read?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I Need More Of

This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic with The Broke and the Bookish is a super-easy one for me.  They're only asking for 10 authors I've read only one book from, but need to read more of but I've probably got about a million.   Here's a few authors that I definitely need to read more of, and soon!

1. Simon Van Booy - I thought Everything Beautiful Began After was unique and fantastic.  I've got a copy of The Secret Lives of People in Love awaiting me on my Kindle, and I'm eager to try out some of these short stories that also come highly recommended.

2. John Green -  I know, right?  I've only read The Fault in Our Stars, which was quite fantastic, if heartbreaking.  I enjoyed Green's style, and I'm looking forward to getting to Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns which are both waiting on my TBR pile.

3. Jennifer Donnelly -  I loved A Northern Light, and Jennifer Donnelly happens to have been the very first established author to have commented on my blog away back in the olden days.  I've got both Revolution and The Tea Rose on my shelves, and it's about time I read at least one of them!

4. Meg Rosoff - I loved How I Live Now, but somehow no other books by this author have made their way onto my shelves.  This is a situation that needs to be rectified. 

5. Deirdre Madden - Molly Fox's Birthday was one of my very favorite books last fall.  I felt like it gave me a ton to think about.  Madden is definitely an author whose work I want to explore more, especially with the good things I've heard about her more recent release, Time Present and Time Past.

6. Trish Doller - I spent a lot of my time on the DC Metro during my last vacation-lette devouring Something Like Normal.  Loved it, and I'm so glad I've got Where the Stars Still Shine already waiting for me on my Kindle.

7. Tana French - I hadn't read any of French's Dublin Murder Squad series until I received a review copy of Broken Harbor, which I loved more than I expected to.  Now I'm not sure whether to start back at the beginning or dig right into The Secret Place which landed in my mailbox not too long ago.

8. Alice Hoffman - I read Skylight Confessions a good few years ago and really liked it.  It seems like I've got a million of her other titles on my shelves, but I haven't managed to read another one yet.

9. Patrick Ness - Because I'm the worst at reading series, I read The Knife of Never Letting Go and then never finished the rest of the series.  Now I'll have to start over at the beginning to refresh my memory and get it read for real this time.  Plus, there's plenty of Ness's standalone books that sound great, too.  Here's looking at you, A Monster Calls and More Than This.

10. Lesley Kagen - Whistling in the Dark was one of my favorite reads from this spring.  I'll soon have to tackle Tomorrow River which is waiting patiently on my shelves (among so many other books that are waiting patiently...).

 Who are some authors you're dying to read some more of?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Out of the Blue by S.L. Rottman

Stuart Ballantyne is used to moving.  His mother is a colonel in the Air Force, and as the story begins, she's about to take command of the Minot, North Dakota base.  Stuart might be used to moving to follow his mother's career, but this time it's just him and his mom after his brother departs for college and his father has to travel to deal with Stuart's grandmother's health issues. 

What attracted me to Out of the Blue is what it delivered, a different perspective.  I'd never read a story set on a military base, and I was interested to read more about the military families' different way of life.  Stuart, who's practically a pro at being a military migrant of sorts, is a good window onto the scene.  Rottman does an excellent job of portraying the ceremony and pride of country that go along with the setting, and also, the reluctance to meddle in the business of other military families despite their close quarters.

Stuart is a good, if confused and lonely, kid knocked off balance by facing this move alone and dealing with situations beyond his years without the safety net of his father and brother while his mother is off dealing with base business. He's a sympathetic but occasionally bland narrator.  Rottman's story offers an interesting perspective that doesn't seem to crop up in a lot of YA novels and a believable coming-of-age story to boot, but it's plagued by an unfortunate lack of memorability.  Worth a read, but not extraordinary.

(Review copy received from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Underrated Books

Okay, so, today's Top Ten Tuesday theme is the "most underrated books or authors in a genre."  I wasn't sure about doing this one, because I tend to be a bad judge of when a book is actually underrated, and also I couldn't really manage to pick a genre.  I guess these all kind of fit into some sort of historical or literary fiction mold, but generally I just went with books that I read and really liked that I guessed maybe you haven't heard of...?  Maybe?  Anyhow, here's ten good books that could use a little more loving, in my very humble opinion.

1. Glass Boys by Nicole Lundrigan - This is a dark read by a Canadian author about a feud between two families. Superb characterization, haunting prose, great story.

2. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute - On the Beach is this author's claim to fame, but this tale of an elderly gentlemen fleeing France during the early days of its World War II occupation with a troop of children unexpectedly entrusted to his care definitely deserves sooo much more attention. 

3. The Grave of God's Daughter by Brett Ellen Block - I was surprised when I read this one that I couldn't find a single book blogger review of it on the internet.  It's a great coming of age story about a girl growing up in an impoverished Pennsylvania town that is busting at the seems with secrets.

4. Spilling Clarence by Anne Ursu - Anne Ursu writes interesting books about what would be the real life reactions to fantastic events.  In The Disapparation of James, she dissected a family's psychological meltdown when their son actually disappears during a magic show.  In Spilling Clarence, a town is "poisoned" by a drug that unleashes all their memories good, bad, and ugly upon them, minus the buffer of time and healing.  It's an interesting look at memory, both how potent and how misleading it can be.

5. Falling Under by Danielle Young-Ullman - I read this one earlier this year and liked it a lot more than I expected to.  In it, troubled artist Mara has survived her parents' acrimonious divorce and her more recent troubled past to emerge to a more comfortable, if sheltered, life as an artist.  All that changes when she meets a guy in a bar and decides to take a chance on the love she stopped believing in a long time ago.  Just about every other chapter is a flashback told in the second person which is a great plot device for getting to know a character that might appear functional on the outside, but is actually deeply damaged by her history.  Great dialogue and a love triangle that I didn't hate. 

6. Losing Clementine by Ashley Ream - In keeping with the "troubled artist" tack, this one's about another troubled artist.  At the beginning of the book, Clementine is quitting therapy because she's decided she's really going to kill herself.  First she has a bunch of loose ends to tie up.  What materializes is a story filled with deliciously dark humor and a very well-drawn character with more reasons to live than she might have imagined.

7. Black & White by Dani Shapiro - This is a refugee from my pre-blogging days, which happen to be a loooong time ago now.  The story of a daughter estranged from her artist mother who saw her as more of subject for art than a daughter.  Clara fled her unwanted fame for a quiet life, but as her mother lies on her deathbed, Clara has to revisit her past, and it's a compelling story.

8. When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale - This author's English Passengers got a lot more attention than this little book that I read in the early days of my blogging that has one of the most accurate child narrators I've ever encountered that puts a unique spin on a not-so unique story.  It rates low on Good Reads and LibraryThing, which makes me kind of sad.

9. We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen - Whenever I try to summarize this book, it sounds kind of, well, soul-crushingly boring.  It's not!  It's a very thoughtful portrayal of the many children of a couple dedicated to a very fundamentalist sect of Christianity.  Some keep the faith, others turn away, but it all comes together to be a very thoughtful and balanced look at faith that makes for some good contemplating. 

10. Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith - I read this one earlier this year but haven't managed a proper review.  Smith writes beautifully and evokes both turn of the century Chicago and the islands of the South Pacific with equal skill.  Okay, I'll admit the plot isn't the most memorable, but Smith sets scenes you can really get lost in. 

Have you read any of these?  What are some books or authors that you feel are underrated?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

Okay, so, if you hang out with me at all here on ye olde blog, you probably know that I am paralyzed by making my own decisions about what to read next.  In the interests of not wasting a lot of time hemming and hawing over my next read (and also unintentionally ignoring the large swathes of my book collection that are hiding double-stacked behind other swathes of my book collection), I let LibraryThing do it for me.  Every book I own is listed there, and it now handily dandily has a "show a random book of yours" feature, so I could cut Random.org and get right into its latest choice for me, The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson.  This book has lots of buzz words that made it an obvious choice for my bookshelf.  Words like "family saga" and "sweeping" and "powerful" make my readerly heart just go pitter-pat, if you know what I'm saying.

Anyhow, I was mislead.  Sort of.  Imagine my crestfallen face when after reading the first two or three chapters I realized that the sweeping family saga was told entirely in interconnected short stories about the different members of an Iowa family in the waning decades of the twentieth century.  Again, if this isn't your first visit to my blog, you probably know that the term "short story" does not drum up excitement and anticipation in my heart of hearts.  But wait, here's the thing, and it took me a while to realize that while I was busy constantly toying with the idea of putting it down because, ew, short stories, I actually liked it.  Like really liked it, because here's the thing, this book manages to create a real family through its stories of its different members and their everyday struggles while at the same time actually delivering on the other promise of the jacket copy which says the book is "a moving meditation on our continual pursuit of happiness and an incisive exploration of our national character."

Thompson does an admirable job of bringing the Erickson family of rural Iowa to life in such a way that even though the characters are often unlikable they are also sympathetic.  First, there is Anita, who, while still young, got married to a banker and tried to make herself into the perfect stay at home mom without ever giving any thought as to whether that was who she wanted to be.  Then, there's Ryan who spends his elder sister's wedding day thinking about how he doesn't what to fit into the mold his family has set out for him, marrying, having babies, having a "small" mid-western life.  He might escape, but will he like the new him that he discovers?  Younger brother Blake is living the life that Ryan dreaded, but it seems to suit him just fine.  Little sister Tori, brimming with potential, becomes a target for tragedy and is bound to her childhood home where she tries the dedication of her faithful parents.  On the fringes of the Erickson family is cousin Chip who came back from Vietnam damaged and addicted to drugs and lightly deviant behavior. 

Thompson tells bits and pieces of their stories in chapters that focus on one character at a time until she's teased out what is essentially a microcosm of the American experience in recent history.  There's the guy that came home from Vietnam with his young life turned upside down who could never seem to turn it right again.  There's the woman caught on the outer fringes of an era when being the perfect stay-at-home mom and homemaker was expected.  She thought she wanted to be that, but maybe it's time that she can be more.  There's the guy riding the dot-com bubble to wealth, and discovering that wealth can't deliver what he really needs.  These are people living hollow lives, looking for something to fulfill them.  They're looking back on older generations in the glow of memory, respecting the work they did to give the current generation the resources and the privilege to go in search of themselves.  They miss that sense of hard work and purpose that permeated the lives of their elderly aunt and uncle, but these people can't be satisfied by that kind of life anymore for better and for worse.

As the book wears on, it gets to feeling a little hopeless and sad, but then something changes.  The characters find some of what they're looking for in their striving.  They might never quite arrive, but they come to an understanding.  The Year We Left Home is a slice of life book that is over before it's truly ended, but it's got one of the best last paragraphs I think I've ever read, a paragraph that starts out cryptic but then ties Thompson's whole accomplishment together with respect for the past and hope for the future.  This book demands a little extra time and a little extra effort when it comes to empathizing with the characters, but it's got a lot of true things to say about our lives and times in these United States.  Well worth a read.

(I bought this book for myself.  And then I read it, too!  No disclaimer needed, but I do think I deserve a pat on the back.  LOL!)