Monday, February 23, 2015

Reviewlettes of Yesteryear!

There is some part of me that can't let a decent book go completely unreviewed, even if it's already been going unreviewed for quite some time.  Instead I let the half decent books accumulate dust on my desk while they glower at me in a completely guilt-causing way.  Every time I finally decide I'm going to just bypass the books that I waited too long to review, and send them on their way to new happy homes, that tiny voice in the back of my head pipes up, "Maybe just some reviewlettes!  You can do it, Megan!"  So I'm going to try, and if it doesn't work, I'll pass them on into the world.  Well, I'll pass them on either way, but if it works I'll much less guilty about it.

The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett - The Hollow Ground is an excellent debut from author Natale Harnett.  I was first attracted to this book because it's supposedly loosely based on the towns of Centralia and Carbondale, two Pennsylvania towns not so far from my own, that were stricken by coal mine fires.  One managed to extinguish its fire, the other one continues to burn.  The two towns in the book, Centrereach and Barrendale, are about as thinly disguised versions of the real towns as you might imagine given their names.  The bleak settings of these two communities on fire serves to accentuate young Brigid's story, as she moves away from the dangers of Centrereach only to find another coal fire steadily advancing upon her grandparents' house in Barrendale.  The towns, the families who are broken and sickened by lives in the mines, and the superstitions of Brigid's Irish family which believes itself under a curse from a priest are all realistically and atmospherically rendered.  Brigid is a sympathetic character, just a kid, upon whose shoulders is falling the responsibility to keep her family together and the one who holds the secret that could tear it apart.  I'll definitely be looking forward to whatever Harnett comes up with next.   (Review copy provided by the publicist.)

The Girl Who Came Home by Hazel Gaynor - The Girl Who Came Home is a member of a genre of sort of over-popularized historical fiction that I stumble upon once in a while, that features a dual narrative that explores history and present day, all while putting off a vibe that is not quite off-putting, but is occasionally over-saccharine and contrived.  Gaynor's tale of Maggie Murphy leaving her Irish home for a better life on the Titanic, intertwined with the story of her great-grandaughter struggling to put her life back together after the death of her father is a good story and a very readable one, but I often found myself wishing that it would dig deeper beneath the surface of its lovelorn Irish girls and its simply solved modern storyline.  Don't get me wrong, I actually did quite enjoy The Girl Who Came Home.  It had lovable characters, (obviously) an action packed storyline, and captured very well that treacherous last night on the Titanic when too many friends and family had to be left behind in the crush of tragedy.  For me, it had strong parallels to Titanic the movie, which I happen to be a big fan of.  It's a good story told well, but instead of feeling like serious reading, it felt more like a guilty pleasure for someone, like me, who apparently has over-lofty expectations of historical fiction.  However, it was a pleasure, on the whole, so I, at the end of the day, duly quit whining and recommend this book for readers of "lighter" historical fiction.  (Review copy provided by the publisher.)

Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith - Okay, these are running too long, but one more, real quick.  Bright and Distant Shores definitely falls into the category of heavier historical fiction.  Smith's writing is beautiful and does such a fantastic job of fleshing out late 19th century Chicago and the wilds of the South Pacific, that his characters actually play a distant second fiddle.  I was completely captivated by Smith's poetic, all-encompassing writing and scene setting that I barely remember the plot - only that it involved the unlikely romance of an independent and wealthy woman and the barely-scraping-by son of a building demolisher as well as a sister and brother who are transplanted from the South Pacific to make a new life for themselves, only starting by playing savages for a rich man's spectacle.  There's a lot going on in this book about adventure, exploration, wealth, and love.  It's all almost too much to digest, but there's no denying that the picture it paints of a decade where so much is changing is as compelling as it is genuine. (I got this one from a long ago Atria Galley Alley.)

There they are - I did it!  My desk and my self are both breathing sighs of relief!  Do you have any books that you waited too long to review dogging you?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: My Bookish Problems

I stopped over to check out the week's prompt for this week's Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), and I giggled a little when I realized that all I needed to do to list my top ten book-related problems was to take a brief walking tour of my house.  Most of my book related problems have to do with having an overabundance of books and an underabundance of time.  So, that inspired me to share with you a quick photographic tour of my "book problem."  I mean, pictures are worth a thousand books, right?  ;-)

1. Without even moving from my desk, I can spot one problem - the stack of books that have been read and are awaiting my review...

2. A few steps away, my second book problem - my mom's books.  Which are like mine except I won't have to take them all with me when I move...

3. Advancing upstairs, we find these piles of books which are creeping steadily across what remains of my bedroom floor....

4. And this snapshot of just the most recent crop of review copies...

5. Don't even get my started on the Kindle problem.  Yes, that number says 510.  It should be noted that I probably read about 4 ebooks last year.  Yeah, that's definitely a book problem.  (Also, *mumbles* I might have bought a couple more today.)

6. Moving on to the room we fondly refer to as the "book room" as if all the other rooms aren't book rooms, you can spot these poor boxed titles that can't even fit on the overloaded shelves....

7. Next up, this neglected shelf lurking in the uh, non-"book room."

8.  This place is a major book problem.  I have all these books, and this place wants me to spend 40+ hours a week there, not reading books.

9. When I'm not coughing up my 40+ hours for the man, you might find me in front of this problem that takes me away from my books....

10. And finally, it's probably important that I disregard the creeping book piles in favor of demonstrating my trivia prowess to total strangers, right?

So ends my photo tour of book-related problems.  What's your problem?  ;-)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Rest of "Me": Redemption

Okay, so you might remember that one time at the beginning of last month when I shared with you my *ahem* less than positive reaction to the opening book in Tahereh Mafi's Shatter Me series, in which I was comically rageful about how disappointing it was...until it wasn't.  Despite my distaste for a large percentage of the book, I found myself oddly engaged by the book's ending.  Ergo, instead of chalking up this series to a severe departure of my tastes from those of the masses who appear to have loved it and abandoning it after the first book without looking back, I plowed on into the second book, Unravel Me.

I don't usually bother myself with commenting on whole series of books because I figure I'm bound to accidentally spoil something and draw the ire of the spoiler-haters everywhere, not to mention who really wants to read reviews of books that are second and third in a series when you haven't read the first?  (This is usually the case with myself reading reviews.)  On this occasion, however, I figure that since I, a little too gleefully perhaps, gave the first book a public shaming, I should come forth having finished the series and confess that I, um, actually ended up really liking the rest of the series quite a lot.

(BTW, I'm not going to dish out summaries and spoil Unravel Me and Ignite Me, but I'm not guaranteeing this to be spoiler free when it comes to Shatter Me.  You've been warned.)

Anyhow, Mafi's outrageous hyperbole that aggravated me so much throughout Shatter Me is still present, but it's muted beneath the action of the plot and the development of main characters who I, at last, began to like.

I mean, there's still stuff like this little nugget that made me giggle at a tense moment when you're probably not supposed to be giggling -

"...and I feel my face flush so fast that for a moment I'm surprised I'm not standing in a toilet." 

But then, there's also this one which I actually thought was clever...

"The silence between us has slaughtered a thousand innocent seconds and when he finally speaks his voice is barely audible, raw with disbelief."

And then there's the end of this anecdote, which is hyperbole free, which so impressed me with how it cut right to heart of a major character (which is kind of a veiled spoiler if you happen to be familiar with the major characters, you could probably....guess)...

"And then she took it off, slipped it on my index finger, and said, 'If you hide your heart, he will never be able to take it from you.'"

(Spoilery?  See, I hate this.)

I also whined about main character Juliette's foolish wimpy-ness, and I'm happy to report that since she started out so foolish, wimpy, and generally insipid, she has plenty of room to grow in the latter two books and she does.  In fact, her transformation turns into the cornerstone of the book, even overshadowing the romance angle (at times).  Watching Juliette discover both her physical and emotional strength is definitely one of the highlights of the final book.  

(Not so spoilery...)

Anyhow, the bottom line, before I wander (too far) into spoiler territory, is that this series worked just like you hope a good series will.  It might have started off kind of, well, lame, but it got better and better.  I loved the romance I wasn't expecting.  All the characters I felt conflicted about in the first book, most especially Juliette herself, grow and change and transform into the characters I hoped they could be, strong and vulnerable in equal measure, but ultimately courageous enough to face their dystopian world head on.  Admittedly, the first book takes a little extra tenacity on the part of the reader, but, in my opinion, the second two books definitely make it worth the effort.

(Between the two of us, my mom and I bought these, all of them!  Ergo, no disclaimer!)

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson

Who had the Fen Tiger's heart that could continue to pump like the wind-pump with its steady inexorable task when all life from the body was gone?  I knew anyway, knew without asking.  William Beamiss the elder.  Dear Pa.  Now launched into all eternity.                                                                       
As Jill Dawson's The Tell-Tale Heart begins, we meet Patrick Robson, a professor and philanderer who has just had the good fortune to have a successful heart transplant.  As he recovers, he becomes transfixed not only by his donor, Andrew Beamish's life, but with the more distant history of Drew's ancestors, farm laborers and shoemakers who were implicated in the Littleport Riots of 1816.  As Patrick rediscovers the life he had been in danger of losing, the stories of Drew Beamish and Willie Beamiss entwine with his own, in a way that is distinctly difficult to explain but which make for a compelling novel.

Dawson's flawed characters are ordinary, at best, but on the whole generally unlikeable, yet she portrays them in a gentle, sympathetic way that allows readers to look past their unpleasant surfaces and understand their hearts.  In fact, her male narrators are so utterly convincing that, at times, it's easy to forget that the author is a woman.  Patrick is a prickly sort,  a womanizer who had a child with another woman while still married to his wife.  He's curious, but not terribly sentimental about the origins of his newly acquired heart.  He's grateful with a sense of not deserving a new lease on life.  He doesn't believe all the hype about a new heart changing his preferences or his personality. The surgery and its aftermath are well handled, in that, while that Patrick doesn't change utterly, it's obvious he's going through something profound that's working a slow, realistic change in him. He's discovering things about his new life that he never bothered to consider in his old and finally seeing his past from a perspective other than his own. 
What did that feel like, to be a girl like Helen, unguarded, straightforward, who had allowed me to unpeel her like a mollusc from its shell, only to find that the exposure was devastating?  That entrusting yourself entirely to someone can make you want to die?  Helen, does it mean anything at all that I'm thinking these thoughts?  That I'm able to remember and construct things differently?  That for the first time I glimpsed it there from your point of view?  Does it mean it's all over for me, for the old me?
Drew, the heart's donor, is a sexually frustrated miscreant of sorts who just lost his father to a farming accident and is attempting to romance his much older teacher.  He's haunted by the story of his distant ancestor who was caught up in the Littleport Riots of 1816, whose story Dawson also weaves into her novel.  He's definitely not a very lovable character in his own right, but as his world crumbles a little more each day under the hopelessness of a future eking out a living in the Fens just like his father and his father's father and so on, even he becomes a character that we can understand and even relate to as he fails to outpace the frustration that pursues him that even he can hardly put into words.

The Tell-Tale Heart is no warm, fuzzy sentimental story about a heart that makes its way from tragedy to renewal, rather it is a much more penetrating look at interconnectedness between a boy and his forbear, between a man and the boy whose heart gives him a chance to carve out a more meaningful life.  It's a story about patterns repeating, about love that dooms and love that saves.  The Tell-Tale Heart takes aim at the heart's ability, both literal and figurative, to sustain us, and it definitely hits the mark.

The Tell-Tale Heart hits U.S. shelves on February 10th.

(Thanks to the publisher for providing me a copy in exchange for review consideration.)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Loose Leafing: Lately

Time/ 10:16 AM (Saturday, this is totally a scheduled post)

The Scene/ My book cluttered desk, flooded with sunlight that hasn't been making much of a regular appearance lately.

Awaiting/ My chiropractor appointment.  I'm starting to feel like my spine is curling inward like in all those reverse evolution photos with the monkey/man hunched over his computer, but it's probably more of a result of yesterday's brief bout of snow shoveling.

Foolishly hoping for/  A "real" snow storm.  Here in Northeast PA we keep getting glancing blows from nuisance snowstorms that clip us and then go on to dump real inches of snow elsewhere.  My crazed inner child, for some reason, cannot be dissuaded from craving at least one major snowstorm a winter, even if my outer adult (who works in a place that's in no danger of ever declaring a snow day) dreads having to deal with the snowy consequences.  Sounds like I might get my wish with the snow coming in tomorrow (, but it could totally still be a major bust.

Rooting/ For the Seahawks good commercials in the Super Bowl.  Okay, if I have to root for a team, it'll have to be the Seahawks, the lesser of two evils in my opinion, but I don't like either Super Bowl contender this year, especially not the Patriots who squashed my dad's beloved Colts.  Mostly, I'll be eating yummy food at my aunt's party and hoping to get some laughs out of the infamous Super Bowl commercials.

Grateful for/  Great books!  It's so refreshing to start out the year reading really good books.  Everybody, including myself, talks a big game about hitting the ground running in the New Year, reading more books, buying fewer books, writing about the books, enjoying the books, but I've had a hard time doing that the past few years because the books I kicked off my year with were, at best, mediocre.  Starting off your bright, shiny new year with a massive reading slump is hideously discouraging.

I'm happy to report that for the first time in a few years, I didn't ride into the New Year on a tide of fictional mediocrity.  As a result, it would seem, I've read double the amount of books I would read in a typical January, and it feels so good.  (Even if that double amount of books hardly puts a dent in the overwhelming book problem that exists at my house)

Reading/ Just finished Hillary Jordan's "dystopia for grown-ups," When She Woke, and loved it.  Now I'm getting started on Tom Cooper's tale of a collection of bayou miscreants on the hunt for lost pirate's treasure, The Marauders.  I'm closing in on the 50 page mark, but I'm still on the fence about this one.

Watching/ Just finished watching the History Channel's Sons of Liberty miniseries.  Sure, it's rife with historical inaccuracies and dialogue that would never have passed between the lips of the patriots.  That said, I liked the series.  If you're looking for a fact based documentary, look elsewhere, but if you're looking for an exciting re-telling of history (with a little more action and sexier patriots *ahem*) with enough truth about it to actually inspire people to be curious about the real story, Sons of Liberty is a good watch.

Dreading/ The bookshelf cull that will inevitably have to take place this year.  The books are overtaking everything.  It's time to say goodbye to some old friends that will probably never get read (by me), but oh how it pains me to send them off unread...

Eating/  Crispy M&Ms!  They're back!  Now if I could just have a nice snowstorm with a bag of Crispy M&Ms in hand, my inner child would have a total field day.

Failing/ To blog regularly.  Honestly, I've been busy reading.  Also, having a computer based job definitely does nothing to make you run gleefully to your computer after eight hours of computing.  That said, I've got a few great books to review this weekend, so hopefully I can turn this blogging ship around.

So, what have you been up to lately?  Kick the year off with any great books?