Monday, December 4, 2017

#AMonthofFaves - This is How We (Don't) Read (Much)

Mon. | Dec. 4 – This Is How We Read #AMonthofFaves – eg. Number of books read so far, genre you read the most from, picture of favorite (or most often used) reading location, most read author, % eBooks, hardcovers, paperbacks and/or audiobooks, hint at what your favorite read of the year is (let us guess), types of books you wish you read more of, month you read the most and least

This should be an entertaining post considering I'm too filled with shame to own up to my reading statistics this year and, well, most of the other years. But especially this year, the year of the "DNF I spent too much time on." I started and labored through a number of books this year, investing more than 50 pages in many of them before reaching that point where I was pretty sure I just didn't like them or was not interested enough to continue, so my DNF stack is high, but it didn't save me much reading time for other worthier books. I attribute this to my year of general book and life slumpery where, at numerous times, I couldn't differentiate between whether the books I was reading were really not any good, really were not for me, or I just, like, was so slumped that I just didn't like books anymore. Of late, I've been more inclined to blame the books and jettison them with impunity and have found that that's lead to a much more enjoyable round of reading.

I would tease some of my favorites in this post, but I'm starting to think I'm only just getting to them.

End of Year Reading Status: I have read *redacted* books so far this year which, in my more optimistic moments, I hope will end up equaling the value of the amount of books I read last year which was...*redacted.*

Favorite Genre: I read most from the genre I typically read the most from, which would be literary fiction. However, it seems my favorites this year fell into the sub-genres of literary horror, literary historical fiction, and literary "books with plucky southern heroines."

Favorite Reading Locale: Meet my couch. This is my favorite place to read books I don't like with occasional interruptions for reading books I actually do like. In the warm weather months, I occasionally read books I don't like that much on the balcony which is also pictured. I have taken the photo in this style to obscure my current read, which is likely to be one of my favorites which you'll have to wait to the end of the month to have revealed unto you.  No, really, I just took a really bad picture and am too lazy to take a better one. Focus on the nice view outside. Blogging is hard.

Most Read Author of the Year: Well, this is weird, it's a three way tie. Normally I'm hard pressed to read more than one book by the same author in single year, this year Justin Cronin, Stephen Kiernan, and Courtney Summers all qualify for this honor, which is especially honorific considering I've only read *still redacted* books this year!

Favorite Disregarded Gadget for Reading: My poor Kindle Paperwhite. It is a lovely reading tool crammed to bursting with enticing reads I've purchased for $2.99 or less over the years I've owned it. I've read only 2 e-books on it this year which, while it may be a significant portion of my redacted reading total for the year, it is also about .0031% of the amount of e-books housed on said neglected device. Oh wait, but I did DNF one e-book after spending too much time on it, so that totally counts as a third, right?

Favorite Book Format: Trade paperbacks. Far and away my favorite is the trade paperback. Hardbacks are too heavy, e-books aren't pretty and pagey enough, and mass markets are lucky if they can even retains their spots on my shelves, I'm usually so averse to them. Ironically, however, one of my favorites from this year actually was a mass market. There, I've duly teased a favorite.

Reading Accomplishment of the Year: Reading the longest book I've read since I read The Stand in 2012. Even at close to 800 pages, it's one of my favorites of the year. And it reminded me of The Stand, only I think I might have liked it better. Another favorite teased!

So that's my reading year to date. I'll be sharing my favorite books of the year at the end of the month (you know, after I've finished reading them), so stay tuned!

How was your reading year?

Friday, December 1, 2017

#AMonthofFaves - The Year That Was

I'm going to take a hack at doing Traveling with T, Estella's Revenge, and Girlxoxo's #AMonthofFaves again this year, despite the fact that writing 4 posts for it will easily double the amount of posts this blog has seen this year.  I miss writing, and this year has been a sort of slumpy year in blogging, reading, and life.  This first post prompt is for general favorites of the year, but I think I'm going to tweak it a little and get a little reflective on you, but it's okay, lots of a favorites are involved in my reflection.  No books, though, there's plenty of other book-centric prompts!

This year was a mixed bag, which is better than I expected of it.  I cried driving home from my New Year's Eve celebration last year.  For the first time that I could remember, I didn't expect the new year to be a new start, a chance at doing life better, enjoying things more.  My job was, and in many ways continues to be, a train wreck burdened with too many projects in too little time for an organization that sometimes seems to take on big moves just to be able to say it's not standing still. 

In a way, I was right. This year was a struggle, but certainly not one worth crying over.  In the midst of struggle at work, I found my voice in my career in a way I never have.  I've gotten to know my co-workers better than I ever have.  Outside of work, the year hasn't been even half bad. I found plenty to enjoy in a year full of challenges, and plenty of events and things to call my favorite.  Here are some:

"Favorite" Work "Event" - Go-live palooza.   I work in lab IT.  Occasionally, our health system sees fit to merge with another hospital and then after a time, we go there and make them switch to our lab applications.  When we do, we go on site to ease the transition/become ambassadors of goodwill, or something.  We did a big one this spring, full of 10 hour shifts and too little staff and trying to keep the wheels on the bus.  It was challenging.  It was also like 2 or 3 weeks of "summer camp" with your co-workers, staying in a comped hotel room and eating reimbursable  meals.  Even after working a 10 hour second shift, we eked out time to eat and drink together every day, and I remembered why I took my job and how much I enjoy my co-workers.  Sub-favorites Discovered at Said Trying Work Event: Bully Hill Riesling and Bonefish Grill's Bang Bang Shrimp.

Favorite Sport - Baseball!  I am an unapologetic Yankees fan *ducks the flying rotten vegetables*, and it was positively awesome watching the new generation of Yankees already showing such promise.  I'm a hundred percent in the Aaron Judge fan club and was downright gleeful watching him win the home run derby and otherwise being awesome.  This year's team was the most fun team to watch since I first became a fan in the 1990s.  Also, I went to more minor league baseball games than ever this year (mostly AAA Yankees in Scranton Wilkes-Barre with a brief diversion to City Island in Harrisburg to watch the Harrisburg Senators).

Favorite Throwback Vacation -  My dad and I went to Cooperstown, NY (home of the baseball Hall of Fame also ground zero for adorable, affluent small town America) in July, and it is perfect.  There's the Hall of Fame, of course, but also a gigantic beautiful lake, delicious places to eat right on said like (hello, Blue Mingo Grill), and all the baseball themed crap you can buy.  And my dad and I can buy a lot of baseball themed crap.  Sub-favorites: Life is Good clothes, ahi tuna "nachos" from Upstate Bar and Grill, the incredible burgers from the ambiance-less Council Rock Brewery (oh, such burgers), clothing with obscure baseball references (any takers on "6+4+3=2"?), and planning a return trip with rented lake house.

Favorite Gift - My oldest friend sent me a copy of the illustrated Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.  It's beautiful and signed and an especially meaningful gift for us.

Favorite "Living Your Best Life" in Small Town America Moment - Actually consistently going to my town's small farmer's market that is getting a little bigger and a lot better all the time, buying and trying things when they're actually in season, chatting with the guy who grows the best cherry tomatoes.  Sub-favorite:  Raspberries, cantaloupe, tomatoes, and Caprese salad (even a culinary incompetent like myself can make it).

Favorite "Staycation" - My bestie from high school came to hang out at the end of July and we road tripped to Philadelphia.  We did Reading Terminal Market and the Franklin Institute and Rittenhouse Square and a little bit of Old Town and took the most enjoyable selfie-littered 20,000 step whirlwind tour of Philadelphia, a city I spend startlingly little time in despite living in its state.  Sub-favorite: Cuba Libre food, trains that save me from city driving/parking, the Franklin Institute's super-trippy mirror maze.

Favorite Vacation - Cape Cod in the fall.  This is one of those vacations that I romanticized to death in my mind before finally recruiting a willing participant and making the trip.  Amazingly - amazingly it was everything I thought it would be.  We did all the Cape Coddy things - ate lobster, walked on boardwalks, sat on beaches, collected pretty beach rocks, waded through a flooded marsh (oops), saw the harvesting of cranberries, visited with wild seals, browsed an adorable bookstore and were generally just stupid lucky (like accidentally still being in the beach parking lot with a clear view when the harvest moon rose, getting off the beach with all the seals just as it started to pour rain, and also randomly picking a beach to watch the sunset where we were actually faced the right way to watch the sunset).  Sub-favorites: lobster roll, the beach in the off-season when I don't have to wear a swimsuit or deal with crowds, Titcomb's Bookshop in East Sandwich, the Earl of Sandwich Motel (where they have canopy beds, a "camp fire" every night, and the most reasonable of prices).

Favoritey Hodgepodge
  • Mint Lemonade from Pitango Bakery in Fells Point (Baltimore) - It's more refreshing on an unexpectedly 90 degree day in late September, even if that weather is *not* a favorite.
  • Six - the history channel's Seal Team 6 show
  • Hand soap from Bath and Body Works - I'm currently hooked on the Winter Cypress, but Ocean Citrus kept me smelling good all year.
  • Cards Against Humanity - I thought I wouldn't be able to find people to play this with me.  I was wrong.
  • Summer campfires (minus the camping) - Who doesn't love chatting over s'mores?
  • Litsy - I discovered it last year, but like it more this year.   I mostly use it to afflict people with quotes I find interesting and to quickly discover more books to add to my wish list (I'm LeafingThroughLife there if you want to look me up!

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

In a year when I have been just picky as hell about what I'm reading, DNFing things left and right, when the randomizer picked this one out for me, I was doubtful.  Yes, I pick many of my reads via the randomizer.  I own a lot of books.  It's far more productive than me trying to, like, make a decision and stick with it. 

Anyhow, The Train of Small Mercies was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book that has turned into a "years later" reviewers book on my shelves.  When I glanced through the reviews, I thought it would get its 50 pages and then land on the DNF pile in the company of many books I thought I'd like a lot more, but it defied my expectations and started a streak of books I've actually finished.  Mind you, I am not sure how this happened.  Train definitely is just the plotless wonder that all the naysayers described, not exactly the book you hunt down when you're in a reading slump, but something about it definitely appealed.

On the day Robert F. Kennedy's funeral train is slated to make its way from New York City to Washington, DC, the sun shines brightly on a nation in mourning.  In each of the states along the way, people are preparing to watch the train pass by and pay their respects to a man who had inspired an unusual kind of hope in politics.  In The Train of Small Mercies, author David Rowell spotlights a person from each state who will see the train and gives us a glimpse of their lives on that day.

First, there's Lionel Chase, following in his father's footsteps as a porter for Penn Central.  This day, of all days, is his first day on the job.  In New Jersey, 10-year-old Michael spends the day playing with his friends and planning to see the train from the treetops while trying to forget the trauma of being a casualty of his parents' divorce. In Maryland, the West family, whose son Jamie has returned from Vietnam missing a leg, waits for the train and also for the reporter coming to interview Jamie about his experience in Vietnam.  In Delaware, Edwin and Lolly turn the day into a party of sorts, celebrating their newly purchased pool with friends as a distraction from their struggles with infertility.  In Pennsylvania, disappointed housewife Delores evades her husband's political disapproval by dragging her youngest daughter Rebecca along on a stealth trip to see the train with a series of lies that may just end in tragedy.  In Washington, DC itself, Maeve, a prospective nanny for the Kennedy family waits for the train's arrival, realizing her job prospects have changed but still hoping for a new start.

Each of these narrative strands are touched upon in brief chapters labeled with the state in which they take place.  There is little to connect each to the others except for the expectation of the train itself and a pervasive sense of Americana.  In a beautiful early summer day shot through with the grief of the funeral train, Rowell draws out a little piece of each ordinary American's story.  Each story has its own heartbreak to go with the larger heartbreak of a nation, and each story seems, improbably, to hold the promise of better days for these Americans whose private griefs are mingled with the somberness of the day.  Somehow, though it doesn't always make sense and the bands of connection are thin, at best, Rowell manages to use these six stories to convey the feeling of a nation in flux, filled with people who, even after being knocked down, somehow dust themselves off and carry on. 

Upon turning the last page, I had to agree with other reviewers that I hadn't managed to get my hands around the plot, if there was one, so I definitely don't think this book is for everyone.  That said, I don't think it necessarily needed a plot.  The compelling authenticity of the characters, the vivid snapshots of their lives, and the overarching connection of the funeral train itself were more than enough to create the feeling of sadness with the promise of hope for redemption that made this book an unexpectedly touching novel that has stuck with me.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Reviewlettes That Are Actually Short!

Often I jolly myself into thinking that I've written reviewlettes.  Unfortunately, all too often they are still too long to qualify.  Hope springs eternal, so I always just call them reviewlettes and hope that the reading public will agree.  The following may actually be short enough to qualify.  So short, in fact, that I have put all four into only one post.  Here in 2017, at the ripe old age of 33, let it be said of me that it is indeed possible for me to be concise.  Now....books!  

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is a powerful and so incredibly plausible dystopian story for adults that takes place in a United States where prisons have been abolished in favor a society where people wear their crimes in the shade of their skin.  I was entranced by this novel that is a clever futuristic retelling of The Scarlet Letter where megachurches rule and one girl wears her sin in the bright red of her skin, and being trapped in a body turned red might just be what sets her free.

World War II set stories are among my favorites, and Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum does not disappoint.  Trudy has always been bewildered by her mother, Anna, a taciturn woman who refuses to talk about her life during the war.  During a research project meant to discover the stories of ordinary Germans who lived through the war, Trudy stumbles across the remarkable story of her own mother, a woman who saved herself and her child from certain starvation or worse, but at what cost?  An excellent addition to the genre, Blum’s novel is a haunting exploration of the inescapable moral dilemmas that riddle lives torn apart by war.

After her father’s death, Liberty “Ibby” Bell’s mother deposits her on the doorstep of her grandmother, the occasionally crazy Miss Fannie.  Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal is a story of a few quirky characters living in Civil Rights-era New Orleans.  McNeal’s story is filled with eccentric characters, southern charm, and the battle to de-segregate, but it seems like she’s trying to do too much.  Too many characters have too many secrets.  Too many coincidental tragedies drive the plot until it all starts to collapse under its own weight.  A lot of people liked this one a lot, but it wasn’t a big hit for me.

I'm always a little iffy on middle grade books since I'm reading them as an adult. Once in a while, I find a total gem, but most of the time I find myself underwhelmed. Unfortunately, The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau didn't really light my fire (Light my fire?  Get it?  I’ll be here…sporadically throughout the next year). DuPrau's dying underground world is well conceived, and irrepressible Lina and serious Doon are certainly characters middle schoolers should have no problem rooting for. As an adult reader, however, I was disappointed with all the telling that took the place of showing, the adult characters that were mostly caricatures, and the slow plot that seems to rely too heavily on the coincidence of whatever Lina's unsupervised baby sister is getting into or gumming to death in any given chapter. Three stars because while it fell a little flat for me, I'm sure its intended audience would find it much more rewarding.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

24 Hour Readathon

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?

My comfy couch in sunny Danville, Pennsylvania.

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?

I'd settle for literally any of them at this point.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?

My snacks are pretty evenly matched, but I might just order delivery Italian food this evening.  Now, that is exciting.

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!

Let's see, I started my blog just a little prior to the first Readathon .  (That's right, my now much neglected blog has officially turned 10!)  I don't think I read for the first 'thon...but I recall being a pretty enthusiastic cheerleader (RIP official Readathon cheerleading), and I've been hooked on this blogging and 24 hour readathonning thing ever since.

I work in technical support for laboratory information systems at a hospital (nay, a *health system*), and I'm on call today, so I figured, hey, I have to stay home to be available for work anyway, might as well get some Readathonning out of it.  Unfortunately, on call has been demanding thus far, so I am participating in theory more than reality.  One 35 page short story from Stephen King's Everything's Eventual is all I've managed.

Also the Yankees are playing in ALCS Game 7 there's that.....

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today?

Read less than if I wasn't readathonning at all, if things continue as they have been so far.  (Er....hopefully not that......?)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Hummingbird by Stephen Kiernan

In a Nutshell:  Deborah Birch is a gifted hospice nurse experienced in guiding her patients and their families through the struggles of death and dying.  Barclay Reed is a disgraced historian turned ornery old man who has summarily dismissed numerous nurses before turning to Deborah to see him through his final days.  As Deborah struggles to care for the lonely, angry old man who challenges her to read the unpublished manuscript of the book that saw his career go down in flames, she also faces a challenge at home, that of her PTSD-afflicted veteran husband, Michael.  As good as she is at helping those facing the hardest struggle of their lives, it may be that only an angry professor on his death bed can help her reach her husband before it’s too late.

The Good: The professor’s book happens to cover a little-known piece of World War II history (spoiler alert!!!!) that is based on actual events. Though its appearance interrupted the rest of the narrative, the story was a compelling surprise to me. (Okay, that’s all with the spoilers.)  Deborah’s first person narrative of her successes and struggles as a hospice nurse is a unique window on what has to be one of the most difficult yet valuable professions.

The Bad: Deborah occasionally seems like a female character being written by a man, which... she is.  She and her husband’s pet name for each other is “lover” and the way she lusts after her husband comes off very ...male.  Also, I was consistently irritated that she was so attuned to her patients’ needs but so incredibly tone deaf to the “mood in the room” when interacting with her own husband.  Some of Deborah’s experiences in hospice, are bit too textbook-y, as if Kiernan read up on a bunch of manuals about how to practically deal with death and dying and plugged them into his novel in too close to non-fiction format. 

The Verdict: Somehow I’ve now managed to read Stephen Kiernan’s whole catalog so far, and I can tell you that The Hummingbird is my least favorite of the three.  The whole narrative seems a bit wooden at times which kept me from fully engaging with a book that should have been an emotional roller coaster.  The Hummingbird has its high points, but it didn’t feel genuine enough to really reel me in.

Review copy received from the publisher in return for review consideration.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Love Is the Higher Law by David Levithan

"One review a week, that's manageable, right?" Said the absentee blogger.
In a Nutshell: Claire, Jasper and Peter are teenagers in New York City on 9/11.  Confusion, grief, mourning, and learning to live and love again follow.

The Good:  Getting 9/11 from an insider perspective.  I never thought about two building’s-worth of paperwork fluttering into Brooklyn, re-lighting candles in the park in the rain, not being allowed to return to your downtown home.  There’s a great scene where Jasper and Claire are at MSG that October for a U2 concert that showcases music’s power to unite and heal.  It’s very cathartic.

The Bad: Levithan’s writing style.  I sometimes find it hard to take.  It’s like a breathless torrent of teenage “deep thoughts” mixed with over-jaded adolescent angst.  His teenagers seem too old and too young at the same time.  It may be wildly realistic, too, which is why most teenagers frighten me ever so slightly.  Also, there is a love story aspect that left me cold.

The Verdict:  I had high expectations going into this one, which is probably part of my problem with it.  I loved the parts from Claire’s perspective that seemed to focus more on the events and aftermath of 9/11 and disliked the ones from Jasper’s more confused, disconnected perspective.  I wanted more emotional kick from this and maybe for Levithan to spread out all the teenage profundities his characters’ internal narratives were constantly spewing.  Short answer: I wanted this book to make me cry.  Instead, all the words got in the way. 
My copy purchased from a store or someplace.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Baker's Secret by Stephen Kiernan

In a Nutshell: Vergers is a coastal French village occupied by Nazis who are using the beaches to fortify their claim over much of Europe.  Emmanuelle is a baker with no bakery, a girl alone with her grandmother whose mind is slipping, who ends up sustaining a village in shortage by her wits and an uncanny ability to reallocate sparse resources and secret favors to those who need them most.  The only thing Emma is short on is a little hope for herself, but a little hope might surprise her when she least expects it.

The Good:  A rich community of characters, a beautiful depiction of provincial France, the French perspective on a major World War II turning point, a writing style that makes France during the Nazi occupation seem somehow fairy tale-esque. 

The Bad:  Needs more exposition.  In a book full of “are things as they seem?” with the small and large acts of resistance from the occupied villagers, I was dying for a little more “this is the rest of the story on X character.” 

The Verdict: I like Stephen Kiernan’s books, enough to give them four stars on Goodreads, but there’s always just a little something missing that keeps me from all-out loving them.  I loved all the parts of this book but, as a whole, it just falls the tiniest bit short.  That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Baker’s Secret. It’s a welcome addition to the World War II historical fiction genre I love so much.
Review copy received from the publisher.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

When one of my best friends heard I was traveling to Italy - more specifically, to the Cinque Terre, she enthusiastically recommended Beautiful Ruins, a book that takes place in a sixth, more isolated, village Walters imagines for his story.

Beautiful Ruins opens with a beautiful film actress arriving in Porto Vergogna, Italy in 1962.  She was in the film production of Cleopatra but now she's sick and being sent away to await her lover in this obscure coastal village.  There, blue-eyed Pasquale Tursi is carrying on his father's legacy, imagining his forgotten village and his dead father's hotel will someday attain the tourism fame of the Cinque Terre. 

As Dee Moray settles in at Pasquale's hotel, the oddly named Hotel  Adequate View (yes, there's a story there), I was convinced I would love this book.  Walters paints a beautiful picture of a quiet village still dominated by fishermen and memories of the war.  Pasquale's earnest attempts to cater to his beautiful American visitor and the tenuous friendship the two form are enchanting.  The village and the story has a nice bit of quirk that complements the sweetness of Dee and Pasquale's fumbling relationship, such as it is.

Then along comes Richard Burton and the fictional Michael Deane, erstwhile film producer and all-around self-involved douchebag, accompanied by a jump in time to modern day California and the whole thing came off the rails for me.  Walters departs from his promising beginning to introduce us to Deane and a pack of less than lovable losers including Deane's development assistant, Claire, who came to work looking for the next big film and ended up working on some garbage reality show called Hookbook.  There's Shane, who has a tattoo of a made-up Bible passage that he spent his whole life living by until it failed him catastrophically, until he heads to Hollywood to pitch his terrible movie idea to Michael Deane.  Finally there's Pat Bender, washed-up frontman of a band everybody forgot, a screw-up who lost the good things in his life to drugs and bad decisions.
This is all to say that I loved the flashbacks to 1962 Italy and ensuing hijinks, but grinding through the present day with Walter's over-quirked, generally unpleasant West Coast set who are alternately trying to get ahead and right past wrongs left me cold.  All that said, Walter does manage to bring things full circle in a way that tugged gently at the heartstrings as one character starts to redeem himself and in so doing sets a lot of wrongs right. 

Walter is undoubtedly an excellent writer.  Beautiful Ruins is packed with perfect description that captures Italy's incredible coast and quaint villages.  The dialogue is fast-moving and realistic.  Even the structure of the story itself is admirable, peeling itself off in layers to reveal what Dee and Pasquale and Richard Burton, and even the unlikeable Michael Deane started in 1962.  Walter's biggest problem is his characters.  At times their exaggerated qualities chip away at their humanity and leave caricatures in their places, which makes Beautiful Ruins a little hollow on the inside.

"...but true quests aren't measured in time or distance anyway, so much as in hope.  There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant - sail for Asia and stumble on America - and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along."

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Short Takes: This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

In the interest of clearing off a few more 2016 reads from my desk, where my combined good intentions and lack of blogging have left them marooned, I believe some reviewlettes are in order.  As you may well know, I am wretched at being concise, alas my vague memory of some of these books leaves me unable to truly review them at length, so this is always a fun exercise.  Combining them together in one post always seems to make them too long, so I'm trying a new tack and posting them individually. 

Let's kick it off the endeavor with This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki.  I'm not a huge graphic novel reader, but when I happen upon the genre at used book sales, I usually snap them up anyway just because I know they're hard to come by cheaply and everyone else seems to love them so much.  This One Summer pretty much sums up its storyline in its title.  The book captures one summer in the life of Rose and her friend Windy who spend summers together on Awago Beach.  This one summer is the one where the pair start to come of age. 

I wasn't so much in love with the artwork of This One Summer.  Most of the characters, even the youngest, looked old to me, and I was a bit bothered by that.  However, I was captured by the tenderly told coming of age story.

In a place where the two girls spent their entire childhoods, they are suddenly bumping up against adult situations, wondering what the future holds, and speculating about whether next summer they'll have big boobs.  The book does a beautiful job of capturing the essence of lazy childhood summers with a wistful nostalgia while at the same time interrupting that idyll with Rose's anticipation and fear of what growing up brings as she encounters horror movies, parental problems, a boy to crush on, and a girl whose unexpected pregnancy causes her to do something desperate. 

Again, for some reason, I am surprised and impressed by the many layers a story told mostly in pictures can have. I should clearly know better by now since I think this about every graphic novel I chance upon. Anybody who loves *any* kind of coming of age story should definitely give this one a try.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Hidden Gems

It's been an age since I did a Top Ten Tuesday with The Broke and the Bookish, and this week's prompt is near and dear to my heart, since I never seem to be reading the same much-loved books as everyone else, but I still think I read a lot of great books. 

Here are ten of what I think are the most underrated books I've read in the past few years.  I hope you'll give some of these gems a chance!

1. The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory by Stacy Wakefield - This book was my first experience with indie publisher Akashic, and I love it.  I haven't been a crusader/evangelist for any particular book in a while but for this one.  It's about a girl coming to NYC to be apart of the thriving squatting scene.  It's not action packed or anything, but I loved Sid, the un-stereotypical punk rock girl who's a little on the chubby side and looking for a place where she fits.  The book is a totally organic, vivid snippet of her life, and I was so taken with it!    (My Review)

2. Paperboy by Tony Macaulay - It is decidedly rare to find a book that I find both laugh out loud funny and marginally educational.  Macaulay's memoir of growing up in Belfast, Ireland during the Troubles of the 1970s wouldn't at first strike you as a belly laughing sort of book, but somehow Macaulay blends his life as a typical kid with the darker moments of the Troubles in a way that is (at times darkly) hilarious.  (My Review)

3. 104 Horses by Mandy Retzlaff - I'm always going on about this memoir of the Retzlaff family's terrifying time in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.  Their idyllic African life is shattered when the movement to restore land and property to Zimbabwe's black population from the white descendants of the former colonizers turns violent.  As Mandy, her husband, and children flee the country, they find they can't do so without their beloved horses and, as it happens, many others' horses that were in danger from the violence.  A heartwarming, heartbreaking memoir that reads like a letter from a friend.  (My Review)

4. The Mapmaker's War by Ronlyn Domingue - I have so many regrets of not reviewing The Mapmaker's War when it was fresh in my mind, such that I feel like I need to re-read it.  What I do know is this is high fantasy written entirely in the second person and it made me long for all the high fantasy that I'd been missing in my life. 

5. In a World Just Right by Jen Brooks - I'm so sad that this book didn't get more attention.  It's got all the good YA stuff that makes for good YA.  Jonathan Aubrey was the only survivor in his family of a horrific plane crash that left him alone with his uncle with only the magical worlds he can conjure to protect him from cruel realities, that is, until his fantasy world where's he's got the girl of his dreams collides with the real world in a kiss.  Then, strange occurrences and questions start piling up in Jonathan's life until the truth comes out - packing an impressive emotional wallop.  (My Review)

6. Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden - This may be the slowest paced book I have ever loved with a passion. An unnamed female playwright narrates her lazy, introspective day at her friend Molly's house in Dublin.  It's the Summer Solstice (also Molly's birthday, of course), and the narrator has a long, beautiful summer's day to herself and spends it reflecting on her past, on art, and on friends and lovers who might have been.  I thought it was profound and also a glowing portrait of a perfect, languorous summer day to boot.  (My Review)

7. Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones - Here's a book that definitely should have gotten more attention.  First of all, it's a perfect amalgamation of horror story with a more literary coming of age bent.  Second of all, the narrator who's coming of age might be a werewolf....or not.  Finally, his aunt and uncle who are raising him are werewolves, but not the werewolves of fantasy, more the werewolves of gritty reality who are normal folks trying to eke out a living that end up perpetually on the run to avoid the suspicion of their true natures.  Jones' imagining of real, modern life with werewolves is perfectly explained and achingly realistic. (My Review)

8. The Marauders by Tom Cooper - This is a book that got disturbingly little attention in the book blogosphere, and honestly it was a book I didn't expect to like much less love.  I did love it, though.  The Marauders is populated with would-be unlikeable down on their luck misfits and miscreants that call the Louisiana bayou town of Jeannette home in the wake of hurricanes and oil spills and various misfortunes.  Usually a crop of deeply unlikeable characters can sour a book, but somehow Cooper manages to tell a rollicking good story with wild twists and humorous wrong place wrong time encounters that also reaches beneath the surface to illuminate a whole way of life and engender our sympathies and appreciation for a community that keeps pulling itself up by its bootstraps, whatever life throws their way.  (My Review)

9. Dreamland by Kevin Baker - Kevin Baker doesn't get much blogger attention either, but I fell in love with this epic tale of the immigrants, gangsters, factory workers, crooked politicians, and well-meaning socialites who populated early twentieth century New York.  New York, even when riddled with crime and poverty always seems to have a unique glow of possibility.  I love this era of history, and Brown captures it wonderfully, capturing the contrasts of a city when both overcrowded tenements and Coney Island amusement parks were in their heyday.  (My Review)

10. Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert - I never got around to reviewing this one, but I was enthralled and touched by Rotert's debut which features a 1960s jazz club singer who escaped her small town seeking both the acceptance and the adoration she could never hope for at home.  Her childhood and journey are set alongside her ten-year-old daughter's perspective on life and her larger than life mother.   The pair's relationship is fraught with all the many things each needs and the other can't provide.  The family they create for themselves is full of unique and lovable characters, and when the flashback backstory meets up with the present, this story attains a startling clarity that leaves you caring for these characters more than ever. 

What are some of your favorite underrated books?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

I don't keep books after reading them, as a rule, unless they are books that I love so much that I want to lend them to everyone.  However, I do hold on to them until I've reviewed them.  Now, you may have noticed that in 2016 I didn't review a whole of heck of a lot of books.  Good news!  (Er, nope) That's in part because I didn't read a heck of a lot of books! 

That said, the ones I did read are still on my desk, and it's time to take action.  We'll start, in no particular order, with the one that comes most immediately to hand, and that is....Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri.  Unaccustomed Earth was, as most books that aren't expressly sent me for review, was chosen from my shelves at random.  It has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the first whole book of short stories by a single author I have read in my entire life.

If this isn't your first time at my blog, you probably know that short story collections are something that I desperately want to like, but the sad reality of the matter is that I all too often find them uneven and unsatisfying.  I am happy to report that Unaccustomed Earth broke the mold.  Despite my being at the peak of distraction with a tizzy of unwilling workaholism and frantic international vacation planning at the time of my reading, I found each and every one of Lahiri's stories compelling, populated with characters split between cultures, the children of Bengali parents who carve out their identities in places that aren't exactly foreign and aren't exactly home - Seattle or New England or Rome.

Just picking up the book again reminds me of Ruma welcoming her father to stay at her new house in Seattle, for the first time without her mother, and agonizing over whether she should invite him to live out his days with her and her family.  There's Sang who daily fields phone calls from Bengali suitors wishing to marry her but who is in love with a philandering Egyptian professor.  Usha is captivated by a friend of her parents' who became like family when he sought out his Bengali roots in Boston but who broke her mother's heart when he married an American girl and embraced a new culture.  Finally, the collection finishes with a few interlinked stories of Hema and Kaushik, whose parents' friendship brings them into each other's orbits only occasionally during their childhoods in Massachusetts and who are surprised to find a home in each other as adults in Rome, a place that is hardly home to either. 

In Unaccustomed Earth, while the characters themselves may still be striving to carve out a place for themselves between generations, readers are treated to fully realized people whose lives and struggles are distilled into only a few powerful pages that leave a lasting impact. 

I think I might be able to get into this whole short story thing after all.