Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books Read in 2013

What a great year of reading!  Seriously, it's been such a good year of the reading, the likes of which I haven't had in a while.  I read very few books this year that I outright disliked.  Now, you would think in a year where I read nearly all books that I liked it would be tough to pick a top ten for this lovely meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  Much to my surprise, this year it wasn't at all.  Among all the good reading this year there were still exactly ten stupendously extraordinary books that stood head and shoulders above the rest.  They did all the things that I want my books to do- they helped me escape from the humdrum moments of my daily life, they helped me learn things about history and want to know more, they made me think, they engaged my emotions profoundly, they often featured narrators that I could relate to almost completely, and helped me understand people and life itself more deeply.  Here they are in no particular order - the best of my reading year!

1. The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin - This is definitely the year that historical fiction found its way back onto my reading menu, and I'm so glad it did.  This book is about Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  It's got a brilliant first person narration from Anne's perspective, and Benjamin did a beautiful job of humanizing these famous historical figures. 

2. The Grave of God's Daughter by Brett Ellen Block - I think after you've been book blogging for a while, you fall into this mistaken belief that every book that's worth reading, you will have at least heard of from some fellow blogger (or maybe that's just me), but The Grave of God's Daughter proved that such a notion is ridiculous.  My parents bought me a copy at some long ago book sale, and it was rescued from the stacks just this year, and it is so good. It's a historical fiction coming-of-age story about a girl growing up in a hardscrabble western Pennsylvania town where there are a lot of secrets to be learned, some of which are closer to her and her family than she ever would have expected.

3. Angelfall  by Susan Ee - Angelfall was a book I never would have purchased but for the good opinion of bloggers, and I'm so glad I did.  It's YA fiction about a girl trying to keep her ragtag family together after the, um, angel apocalypse, we'll say.  The girl, Penryn, is a very strong character, and when she rescues a wounded angel who, she hopes, will help her find her angel-abducted sister, you know that's going to lead to some interesting situations.  I was totally absorbed, and I actually pre-ordered the second book in the series, which I never do.  I can't think of a stronger recommendation than that.  ;-)

4. World War Z by Max Brooks - This took me about an eon to read while I was on my tour (read: "slew of tiny vacations") this summer, and that usually sets the odds against my liking a book.  Not so with World War Z, which was so not what I expected.  I was thinking "juicy book about zombie apocalypse."  What I ended up with was a juicy book about the zombie apocalypse that also served as incredible social commentary about life as we know out and how easily it could change.  This truly is the thinking person's zombie novel, and I liked it that much more because of it.

5. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - What can I say about The Fault in Our Stars?  I was untroubled by the only loosely realistic dialogue because I loved how snappy and intelligent it was.  I cried like a baby even though I knew I was supposed to cry like a baby which can often preclude crying.  I loved that John Green basically said at the outset that a story can be fully fiction but still totally communicate profound truths and then totally proved it. 

6. Brewster  by Mark Slouka - This is officially the book I feel like the biggest poop for having failed to review this year. It's kind of the age old story about a few teenagers coming of age in a small town they can't wait to leave behind, except it's got way more layers.  The narrator, Jon, is a budding track star whose brother died when he was a kid, and his parents have been emotionally distant ever since.  The narrator's best friend is a guy that can't say no to a fight whose tough exterior is covering a really, really bad home life.  Slouka captures the tension of the pivotal moment of a track race in a way that just about makes you hold your breath and nails that bittersweet feeling of a memory in the making, the perfect moment that you know won't last even as you're living it.  Plus, the climax of this book, when everything clicks for Jon and what he does and everything is probably the most emotionally wrenching (in a good way?) scene I've read in a long, long time.

7. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles - And this is first runner up in the "books I feel like crap for not reviewing this year."  First of all, it's New York City in 1930s, which is right in my wheelhouse.  Katey Kontent, the narrator, and her friend Eve meet a handsome well-to-do gentleman in a nightclub on New Years Eve.  Only he's not exactly what he seems and there is some tragedy, and then Katey's alternating between being a bookish loner and a skilled social climber, and it's a cool picture of the whole New York City mythology in which you can be whatever you want to be, but not without a certain amount of sacrifice.  For some reason, I felt a super-strong connection with Katey.  Her sense of humor and her tendency to be the odd one out made me totally pull for her when she risks it all for a chance to be somebody.  And also there is the handsome gentleman with all the secrets?  Yeah.

8. Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden - This is such a good example of really good "thoughtful" fiction.  By and large it's an exploration of the narrator's thoughts and memories for a day as she rattles around her best friend's house trying to come up with ideas for her next play to write. There's not really much action happening, but the narrator's inner life is so well-populated that you hardly notice. Madden makes the narrator's thoughts flow so naturally and comes out with some brilliant commentary about how fiction can be a profound vehicle for truth (which is something I'm apparently an especially big fan of this year). 

9. The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak - What can I say about The Book Thief that hasn't already been said?  I loved it as much as everyone else seems to have done, which is no surprise.  World War II-set books have always been a favorite of mine.  The only surprise here is that it took me so damn long to read it!

 10. I Shall Be Near to You  by Erin Lindsay McCabe - This is more of a 2014 preview (January 28th), and I lucked out getting a copy from Read it Forward.  It's the story of a girl who joins the Union Army during the American Civil War to be with her new husband.  Honestly, at first I thought I wouldn't like it, the book jumps right in without much background, but by the end, I was cheering for, Rosetta, the narrator, as she transforms from a naive girl into a strong, courageous woman.  It's definitely the sort of historical fiction that makes you want to know more - I'll definitely be seeking out some more reading about women who secretly served during the Civil War.

Runner-Ups (which totally wouldn't be in a lesser reading year!):

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Indiscretion by Charles Dubow
Come In and Cover Me by Gin Phillips

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas! 
Hope your day is filled with fun, family, peace, joy, and maybe a few good books!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Paperboy by Tony Macaulay

Tony Macaulay spent his formative years growing up in the working class neighborhood of the Upper Shankill in Belfast during the Troubles of the 1970s.  On the one hand, Macaulay's youth is typical.  He's eager to follow his brother into an early career of delivering the nightly Belfast Telegraph, he wears the dreadful clothes that were all the rage during the 1970s, gets picked on by his brothers, lives to steal kisses from the lovely Sharon Burgess at the disco, and is in love with the Bay City Rollers, but in a totally "manly" way.  On the other hand, Macaulay's youth is spent in a Belfast divided by Peace Walls, plagued by acts of terrorism afflicting everything from bus routes to phone booths, and is fiercely divided between Protestant loyalists to the British government and Catholic supporters of a united Irish Republic whose differences don't seem all that distinct to Macaulay or to us, for that matter.

And yet, as you will learn in these slightly less fragile pages, I was happy with my calling.  I was a good paperboy.  I delivered.

Okay, so the absolute best thing about Paperboy is that Macaulay is hilarious.  I can't remember the last time a book made me laugh out loud so often. For this reader, humor is hard to hit spot on in a book.  Many authors, I find I don't quite get their sense of humor or their efforts seem forced.  Not so in this case.  Macaulay's humor easily encompasses both the laughable foibles of his young career as a paperboy as well as the decidedly more serious points of living in a dangerously divided Belfast during the seventies.  The easy hilarity in the stories of young Tony jumping fences in his coin-stuffed platforms and parallels to achieve paperboy seniority, waiting for the last guitar lesson of the night behind a girl whose parents were hoping for her to be the next Tammy Wynette (thereafter referred to as "Pammy Wynette"), and kicking a member of the Bay City Rollers as the only "manly" way of expressing appreciation for the band is the stuff laughing out loud is made of. Still extra giggles are reserved for the low income things that shouldn't be funny but are - like all the home improvement projects completed by his dad with supplies he "borrowed" from the foundry where he works and the many would-be affordable things purchased for a weekly fee from the Great Universal Club Book.

Paperboy is an appealing book that's more about Macaulay's youth and career as a paperboy than it is about the Troubles that plagued the city of his childhood.  That it deals with the Troubles as more of a sideline ever-present reality in young Tony's life rather than as a focus is more a blessing than a curse.  Macaulay does a fantastic job of capturing his own childlike perspective in that he's learned to live with being searched for weapons when entering a store, expecting that milk bottles will soon become petrol bombs, and  not being able to get home because paramilitaries are bombing buses and have vandalized every phone booth for a couple miles. 

I sometimes looked through the employment pages to see what I might do when I graduated from newspaper delivery, but there was never anything.  Then I noticed that there were always more death notices than job advertisements in the Belfast Telegraph, so I came to the comforting conclusion that by the time I was eighteen years old, enough people would have died for me to get one of their jobs.

The downside to dealing with the Troubles on the side, of course, is that if readers go into the book mostly ignorant of the conflicts driving the Troubles, they might well emerge similarly ignorant. Macaulay scores some points for how he successfully immerses readers in his life in 1970s Northern Ireland, but doing so perhaps assumes that readers understand more about recent Irish history than they do, and the conflict, which is probably more or less bewildering to people in the know is mind-boggling to the more ignorant.  Macauley's book definitely gave me incentive to dig into the historical background, but some of the book might be lost on people who aren't interested in doing a little extra legwork to set the scene, so to speak.  

Overall, Paperboy is a laugh-out-loud funny read about one pacifist paperboy's childhood in the scary streets of 1970s Belfast.  It's a childhood that might well remind you of your own in spots but for the bombs and the barricades, one that might inspire you to discover more Irish history, and might also remind you that we wouldn't all be so different from each other if we weren't hiding behind the real and imagined walls of the uncompromising ideologies we've created.

(E-galley provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review)

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart

Liz Crane grew up departing the city for idyllic summers at her Uncle Stanley's orchard on the Canadian shores of Lake Erie.  Summers for Liz are times for endless games with her cousins, young love, and worshiping at the feet of the charismatic Stanley Butler.  Uncle Stanley was a forward-looking farmer, the first to try a new crop or a new method of growing, and most definitely the first to "import" workers from Mexico to help with the summer fruit harvest.  However, his deep connection to the past meant that Liz and her family's summers were littered with the re-telling of the stories of the "old Great-Great's" of the Butler family who tended lighthouses in Ireland or split from the rest to farm on either the Canadian side or American side of the Great Lakes or even made a dangerously unflattering, if mostly anonymous, appearance in a Stephen Crane short story.  As Liz, from a distance of years, reflects on her uncle's fate, her young love for the son of one of the migrant workers, and her family mythology, it soon becomes all-too-apparent that painful secrets ran deep beneath the summers of her youth, secrets with the power to tear a family apart.

While I greatly anticipated reading Sanctuary Line, I'm afraid I didn't love itIn fact, I almost gave up on it shortly past the fifty page mark.  Liz's narration, while rife with beautiful prose, seemed to be so wooden and lacking in emotion that I had trouble engaging with it.  When an author chooses to use a first-person voice for their narration, readers might be inclined to expect a deeper understanding of and stronger emotional connection with the narrator, but Urquhart's densely poetic prose did more to interfere with that connection than it did to promote it.  

Despite my issues with the narration, Urquhart's prose is undeniably evocative.  In her hands, the Butler farm comes to life, full of warm evenings filled with dancing, games and storytelling, as does the windy peak of an Irish lighthouse where tragedy waits to strike, and the early days of the farm that would one day belong to Uncle Stanley.  Even the house where Liz rattles around recalling the distant past is imbued with a haunting melancholy that contrasts sharply with the vitality it held during her childhood.

The high point of Sanctuary Line would have to be the stories of Liz's Great-Greats which are woven easily into her nostalgia.  Indeed, one of my favorite things about much of Canadian fiction that I've read is the deeply felt connection to distant family members, and how their enduring mythology permeates the present as it does in Sanctuary Line.  The stories of the farming Butlers who divided from their brethren, the lighthouse-keeping Butlers are compelling, maybe in part because they offer a brief escape from the heavy-laden first person narration, but mostly because they have that air of stories passed down verbally through a family's history until they became legends of a sort.

All told, Sanctuary Line is a beautifully written book, and one with many good points but one which I found ultimately disappointing.    Sanctuary Line's good points never lined up to create a cohesive whole, and the result is a book that had the potential to be heartfelt, but lacked in its ability to emotionally engage its readers.

(This book was provided to me by the publicist in exchange for my honest review.)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Loose Leafing: Reviewing Books is Hard

Here we are on the first morning of the last month of the year, and despite the fact that I read at a glacial (Glacial, I tell you! But not as glacial as last year.  It must be the global warming.) pace, I am woefully behind on book reviews.  I have come to the conclusion that this is a result of a few things.  One, I work too much and too hard at my soul-sucking job (Did I say "soul-sucking"?  I mean busy, secure...okay, it's a mixed blessing).  Two, I never get any peace and quiet in which to assemble a few coherent thoughts and/or I am a big procrastinator that doesn't take adequate advantage of peace and quiet. 

And finally, three, book reviewing is just freaking hard.  Let me tell you why, in case you don't already know.  For starters, when you've been chipping away at your book blog for six years, everything you have to say starts to sound the same as everything you've already said...several times. (ETA: In case you were wondering, this is another one of those posts I like to write with the confused voice where "you" means me but maybe actually you too, and "I" is, well, also me...and still maybe you too?  Oh, well, you know what I mean or, um, I know what I mean. Huh.)  Also, you will find that not only do you feel like you've already described ten other books with the same words you're using to describe the current victim of your lack of writing prowess, you will find that you're tortured over how you're boring yourself and your readers by reviewing your books with the same overused format and even sentence structure of yesteryear (lots of lists and even more inexcusable parentheses!).  You will find that it's a struggle to change any of that too radically without violating your strong conviction about "what a book review is," which is impossible to define much less articulate.  You just know it when you go to cross-post your review to LibraryThing and find that it just doesn't...work. 

Secondly, there are, all told (at least in my perspective), only three "classes" of books when you sit down to review books, each of which is hard to review for its own special reasons.  I give you now the three classes of books and some excuses for why they're impossible to review:

The Sucky Book - This book was really just not that good.  It was good enough to finish, but only because you secretly hoped the end would redeem the rest of it.  It didn't.  Now you have to sit down and say something mean about some author's poor defenseless baby while trying to fair, balanced, and well, not...too mean.  So, you sit at your computer trying to divine the good points of a book you didn't like and trying to decide if your negative comments are snarkier than the book at hand deserves.  Because I'm a book reviewing freak of some kind, I find that the Sucky Book might well be the easiest to review. As it turns out, I can do a passable job of veiling my dislike in half-compliments without totally selling out and saying I liked books that I didn't.  Who ever said negative reviews were hard to write?  I mean, at least I did have a feeling about the book even if it was, well, not a very good feeling.  Not so the...

"Meh" Book -  This book was...well, it was okay.  It wasn't earth shatteringly wonderful nor did it irritate you or disappoint you enough to draw your ire.  It was passable entertainment for a few hours, but next year or maybe only a few months down the road, you will have forgotten it completely.  What does one say about a book which left you feeling little more than apathetic?  It had a beginning and an end.  It was interesting but not compelling.  Its characters were moderately sympathetic.  I vaguely cared about what happened to them but lasting impressions are not forthcoming.  Also, I lied about the categories as "Meh" Books can actually be sub-categorized into slightly less "meh" and slightly more "meh" books.  The slightly less "meh" books are reviewable, you can focus on good qualities and artistic elements quite easily instead of worrying about getting ensnared by the snark monster (see above) or devolving into a babbling buffoon (see below).  The slightly more "meh" are nearly impossible to review through the fog of apathy, but not so impossible to review as the...

Book You LOVED - This book is fairly self-explanatory.  You loved it.  No, I mean you really loved it with a fiery passion.  Surely this should be the easiest book to review, right?  I mean, come on, you loved it.  Now share your love with the world!  Easy peasy, right?  NO!  Not easy peasy.  Hard!  Here's the thing, when I LOVE a book, it's usually not for reasons that make sense that can be easily conveyed in writing.  It's not the fantastic plot, it's not the characters that leaped off the page and became my buddies, it's not the pacing, not the beautiful prose, not short chapters or long chapters or an authorial wisdom that reveals the truth in fiction.  Well, it's sort of those things but more than that it's my emotional connection to the book.  How do you review a book that you loved so much that it pried such a visceral emotional reaction out of you that you are reduced to a bumbling moron whose only explanation for loving said book is something about "feeling all the feels" punctuated by the occasional sob, sniffle, or irrational laughter? 

When I truly love a book it's becoming harder and harder for me to step back and talk about all the
good rational things like plot and characters and writing quality when all I'm thinking about is how the book is soggy with my tears or something because I was all like "sniffle, sob, sniffle, YES THAT!  EXACTLY! AUTHOR, I SEE WHAT YOU'RE DOING...AND I LIKE IT!! sniffle, sob, sniffle."  How exactly does one break that down into something that is going to sell someone on a great book when they are not you and perhaps do not feel all the same feels exactly the way you do? 

This year my plan of attack for reviewing such books was to...wait.  Wait until that visceral reaction mellows out a little and then attempt it.  Except I waited so long that I then forgot half the book except for that troublesome visceral emotional reaction.  Fail.  So now, here I am as the year draws perilously close to its end and half of my favorite books of the year I haven't even reviewed!  You probably all think that I, like, hate books because the only books, with a few exceptions, that I'm reviewing are either Sucky or "Meh."  Not so!  As it turns out, it is I that am sucky at reviewing books I loved because when I love them I love them irrationally and it's hard to channel irrationality into a good book review.  I've tried, with decidedly mixed results.

So, as I scramble to get all my reviews in under the wire so that I can spam the internet all December with them while everybody's too busy with holiday stuff to read them (er...FAILx2!), tell me, do you share any of these struggles?  If so, how do you write good book reviews despite the challenges? Or am I just over-thinking or engaging in the time-honored tradition of productive procrastination in avoidance of all the reviews I have to write? You make the call. ;-)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden

This fall I seem to be, unintentionally for the most part, reading a lot of the sorts of books where the first person narrator spends nearly the whole book alone rattling around an empty house lost in her thoughts and memories composing a novel that contains virtually no action and a lot of time in one character's head for better or for worse.  I have a great deal of real life book loving friends who would be bored to tears by such books.  As for me, I rather like them, as, it seems, do literary prize committees seeing as Molly Fox made the Orange Prize Shortlist in 2009 and Sanctuary Line (another recently read "thinky" book) got a long list nod for the Giller Prize in 2010.  Maybe it's because I spend rather a lot of time rattling around in my own head like said narrators so it's extra satisfying when their thoughts prove to be revelatory even if mine so often do not.

In Molly Fox's Birthday, the nameless narrator, a mostly successful playwright, is spending some time in the borrowed house of her friend, the famous stage actress Molly Fox, while she attempts to get a start on writing her next play.  Readers spend one day in the company of the playwright while she rattles around Molly's house casting about for inspiration for her new play and lost in her own thoughts of the past as she contemplates her relationships with Molly and an old college friend turned famed television art historian, Andrew Fforde.  The day in question, of course, is Molly's birthday, which also happens to be the longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice.  Obviously, there's not much action, most of which involves the narrator buying food, preparing food, and eating food while she contemplates her friends and the past during the heat of a beautiful summer day.
That night she was communicating something of her deepest self in a way that is only possible for her when she is on stage.  Is the self really such a fluid thing, something we invent as we go along, almost as a social reflex?  Perhaps it is instead the truest thing about us, and it is the revelation of it that is the problem; that so much social interchange is inherently false, and real communication can only be achieved in ways that seem strange and artificial.
Despite the lack of action, I was utterly taken in by the playwright's memories and musings. The narration seems tangential with the playwright first considering Molly and her ability to manifest a character in a play with her whole self then wandering to the playwright's past with Andrew whose serious studiousness she discovered late nights in the library at Trinity, and then her thoughts drift, as thoughts might, to a dinner she and Molly shared with the playwright's brother Tom, the priest, all told in a voice that is smart but never pretentious.   On it goes as thoughts do, meandering from one experience to the next until you find that you've been enveloped in a serious and unexpectedly focused contemplation of how identity is shaped by oneself, one's experience, and one's family and how truth and reality are often more accessible and tolerable in the fiction and artifice of plays (or books, I'm betting) than in the humdrum routines and conversations of our day to day lives.  Soon you'll realize you've been caught up in the story of an author who has an unusually keen perception of the bits and pieces of character that make up a person and an uncanny knack for putting them to the page and creating a focused theme that is compelling without being too serious or, dare we say, scholarly.   
"We were talking about her work and she said that there's a kind of truth that can only be expressed through artifice.  She said that what she wanted to convey to people through her work, more than anything else, was reality.  It was a question of showing something familiar but in a moment outside time; saying, 'Here's love, here's sorrow.  Do you recognise them?' I thought it was a good way of putting it."
I won't say I wasn't occasionally aware that the course of the narrator's reflection was subtly manipulating me toward the truths Madden was trying to illuminate with her story, but on the whole the playwright's meandering thoughts flowed in a surprisingly natural way with brief interruptions for the minutia of a day spent alone with the occasional happening that served as a natural redirect.  So taken in was I by the playwright's friends as magnified by her thoughts and the very true insights she seemed to easily arrive at through the course of the day that I hardly wanted it to end.  In Molly Fox's Birthday, Deirdre Madden manages to accomplish the rare feat of both telling us and showing us just how great a deal of truth there is to be found in fiction.  Highly recommended!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Loose Leafing: In Which I Love All the Things

Time:  5:35 p.m.  (And it's full dark!  The horror!)

Place:  Hunched over my desk (because my desk chair is the suck)

Eating: Low-fat string cheese (because the popcorn and candy at the movies wasn't quite enough).  But forget Sunday evening's sad string cheese and let's think back to yesterday evening when I went out with friends to a local fancy pantsy restaurant, Seasons on Main, where I splurged on a several course meal that included a perfectly done New York Strip steak and possibly the most delectable salted caramel cheesecake ever.  Extra points because it was such  a well-paced eating experience that I didn't even feel like I was going to pop by the end.  I could get into this fine dining stuff.  If my paycheck were bigger. 

Bored by:  How whenever I manage to write a blog post it's boring old book review (hence this imaginative post)

Watching:  Just came back from the movies where I wept my way through the end of About Time which I enjoyed absurdly much.  But don't you hate it when a movie makes you cry at the the theater?  Because you can't cry as much as you want to and you're embarrassed about crying as much as you did.  And I will watch it again sometime when I can cry as much as I very well desire. 

Reading:  For all my boredom with writing book reviews, I am really into reading books this year (said the book blogger, much to your shock, I'm sure).  I just finished and enjoyed Kristina Riggle's The Whole Golden World this week, and Random.org has since helpfully chosen Molly Fox's Birthday from shelf obscurity for my weekend reading, and despite the fact that it has no chapter breaks, which I usually find loathsome, I'm liking it very much.

Starting:  To explore using Good Reads.  I know I'm so late to the party, and judging from my experience so far, I'll always be a LibraryThing girl at heart, but I'm open to trying new things.  I think this is me should you want to befriend me.  Also, I'm finding the whole thing mildly perplexing and somewhat disorganized, so if you wanted to give me some tips and tricks and assorted supercool things to be done with Good Reads (that I'm probably missing) in the comments, please do, so I can stop feeling like a super-moron. You could also easily dissuade me from using it at all, if you're more that sort of person. ;-)

Promoting: The Literary Fiction Giveaway Blog Hop at Leeswammes' Blog.  I'm a total literary fiction nut, so I'm always excited to see what everyone's giving away and enter a few, too.  Someday, if I ever stop being a somewhat suckish blogger, I'm going to join up and give something away because I love it so much and I ought to give back even though I find giveaways to be a distasteful amount of work.  So much the more love I have for all you lit fiction bloggers who are giving away cool stuff!

Joining:  Agh, this week I joined the gym.  Okay, well not quite, but I purchased a half price 6 month membership voucher for the purpose of joining the gym.  My health insurance is supposed to reimburse me $100 toward it which will make it a mere $35 out of my own pocket which is just about the top of the range of money I would consider spending on a gym membership what with how I'm not a hundred percent sure I'll actually um, go, and get fit and all that.  Now that I've bought it, I'm rather a bit terrified about the whole endeavor what with how I've never joined a gym and am uncertain about working out in the presence of hordes of people.  Plus, I'll probably injure myself within the first few days.  *paces nervously*

Surpassing:  My total books read last year (already)!  You will be more impressed by this if I don't tell you the paltry amount of books I read last year.  Otherwise, you'll slap a pitying look on your face, shake your virtual head, and pat me on my virtual head in the patronizing way of someone who surpassed my total books read last year in, um....February.  Not that you'd ever really do that, but I fear you'd be sorely tempted if I were to divulge such information.

Dreading: The coming work week.  Last week was one of those weeks that I would have danced/skipped/shouted for joy my way down the hall by the end of my shift on Friday evening....if I only would have had a shred of energy left for such behavior.  Instead, I forgot where I parked my car, got off the shuttle bus two stops early, was vaguely humiliated, and walked the other mile or so to my car in the dark in a howling wind.  Yeah, can't wait to get back to work again.

And, I think that's all I have to say on the subject of this week. 

What are you up to this fine Sunday? 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman by Minka Pradelski

Young Tsippy Silberberg is more than a little surprised when her aunt in Tel Aviv passes away and leaves her an inheritance.  When she arrives to claim it, she's even more puzzled that it consists of an incomplete fish service in a suitcase.  As she sits in her beach-side hotel room trying to puzzle out the meaning of having silverware to serve something she refuses to even eat, her journey gets even stranger with a knock on the door.  Behind that knock is Mrs. Bella Kugelman, a Holocaust survivor like Tsippy's parents, who is determined to keep her hometown in Poland alive through stories that she insists on telling to Tsippy and anyone else who will listen.  Much to her surprise, it's this odd and persistent woman and her stories that will help Tsippy unearth the meaning behind her aunt's bizarre bequest.

To get to the heart of things, Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman is kind of a weird book.  Tsippy is a bizarre narrator prone to flights of fancy and impulsiveness that hardly make sense.  Her bizarre diet centers on frozen vegetables for reasons that aren't entirely clear.  The whole premise of an aged survivor materializing in her hotel room every day to tell stories of the old country regardless of whether Tsippy wants to hear them or not requires a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief.  It's easy to see why Mrs. Kugelman is probably not a book that everyone is going to like.  That said, I liked it quite a lot indeed.

Despite her oddities, Tsippy is an interesting character who has grown up in the shadow of her parents' silence over the terrible events of the Holocaust they survived.  Her bizarre eating habits seemed to be grounded in a desperate need to get her emotionally repressed parents to say anything even if it was just to scold her for her increasingly bizarre behavior.  I came to terms with odd Tsippy Silberberg as the story's primary narrator, but what I really loved were the stories Mrs. Kugelman came to tell Tsippy.  Determined to keep her Polish town of Bedzin and its denizens alive long after the Holocaust destroyed it, Mrs. Kugelman is happy to tell anyone who will listen the stories of her childhood and the many characters that populated it.  Her stories both satisfy Tsippy's hunger for some sense of her past and draw readers into the lives of mischievous kids, extremely religious adults, lovers, scam artists, businessmen, bakers and grocers and porters who populate an above-average small town that stood on the precipice of its own destruction and never knew.

Mrs. Kugelman's stories call to mind the sort of small-time legends that populate any town or even any one family, and Pradelski's choice to focus on the life of the town in its glory days before the horrors of the Holocaust came calling is a refreshing departure.  Minka Pradelski is a sociologist who has spent considerable time exploring the psychological effects of the Holocaust on survivors, and her depiction of the very willful disconnect Tsippy's guilt-ridden father has made between the painful past and the promising future he hopes for his daughter definitely seems to spring from that knowledge.  However, as Tsippy and Mrs. Kugelman's tale shows us, it might just be that the very stories survivors avoid are the ones that stand to heal a new generation.  Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman is unexpectedly touching novel that shows the value of knowing our past even as we plunge into the uncertain future, and one that I would highly recommend if you don't mind reading a book that's just a bit outside the box.

(Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for my honest review).

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Clarity by Kim Harrington

Well, this is bewildering.  Here I am having had my Kindle for almost a year, and I think....I think this is going to be my first legitimate review of an ebook.  LOL!  It turns out if books aren't taking up a significant amount of real estate on the surface of my desk, I kind of, um, forget to review them.  I managed to finish Clarity by Kim Harrington in the last moments before falling asleep during the Readathon, so I'm going to attempt to review it real quick before it falls into the sad abyss of (e)books I've forgotten to review.

Okay, so, Clarity "Clare" Fern has kind of an unusual family life.  You see, she, her older brother Perry, and her mother Starla all have some form of psychic gift, and they make their living selling readings to the tourists that frequent the Cape Cod town where they live.  Perry's a medium who can sense the presence of dead loved ones, Starla is a telepath who can read the thoughts of her customers, and touching recently touched objects communicates visions of the past to Clare herself.  It's a nice normal summer where Clare only has to worry about keeping her remorseful cheating ex at bay and Perry has only to consider which tourist girl to bed next, until tragedy strikes and Clare and her gifts are pressed into service in an investigation of the first murder to take place in Eastport in years, a murder for which her womanizing brother has become the primary suspect.

Wow, did I have mixed feelings about this book.  I'll start with the bad so we can end up on a good note.  The love triangle reveals itself within the first few chapters.  Meh, love triangles.  Suspension of disbelief is at a premium here, too, as we're supposed to believe that the mayor's son, Clare's ex Justin (hot, sweet, and still clamoring to have her back), the newly arrived detective's son Gabriel (hot, mysterious, and cynical about Clare's gifts but also, of course, totally attracted to her), and psychic Clare are practically independently being given the reins of a behind-the-scenes murder investigation.  Clare and Gabriel are poking around crime scenes and dead bodies all on their own with only a passing nod to the danger of the situation and very little consideration for the vagaries of, you know, procuring actual admissible evidence.  Also, I prefer my mysteries just a tiny bit less contrived, but maybe it all boils down to Clarity being just a bit too Y for my A. 

Enough complaining, though, because there are plenty of things I really liked about Clarity not the least of which is Clarity herself.  Clarity is a fierce heroine with a wicked temper on her.  She's loyal, protective, and not afraid to unleash an angry retort or a sharp elbow on somebody who's harassing her for her "freakdom."  She doesn't always make the best decisions, but she's usually got her heart in the right place when she's making them.  They mystery itself did have me absorbed, and Harrington does a great job of introducing her entire cast of characters such that any of them could be sketchy enough to be the sort that commits a murder or...they could be totally normal decent people!  Even Clare's sweet, if a little foolish, lady's man of a brother doesn't escape legitimate scrutiny.  Harrington had me going until the bitter end making me think it might be this person or this other person when really it was that person (er, behold the wonder of the spoiler free review! LOL), and I really didn't see it coming until a page or two before Clare saw it coming.   

All in all, Clarity had its weaknesses, including a kind of weak series-starter ending, because it's YA, of course it's part of a series, which I wish I would have remembered before I started because I am so bad at keeping up with series.  That said, I was totally involved in the mystery and *mumbles* maybe the love triangle, too *grumble, grumble, cough.* It made for a very quick and absorbing Readathon book, and I'll surely seek out the sequel, a few years after I've forgotten every important thing I need to remember about this book because I'm good like that ("Hi, my name is Megan and I suck at series books.").

(Muah!  No disclaimer, for I surely have purchased this during one of my cheap ebook buying sprees of which there are a great many!)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Readathon Wrap-Up

Read:  Clarity by Kim Harrington

It's been __149__ pages and __9__ cheers since my last update.

Total Cheers: 23

Cumulative Pages Read: 301

Books Completed: 1

Eating?: Probably more of those tiny candy bars.  They might be worse than crack, if only because they're so easy to acquire.  =P

Despite my lack of updates, I actually persevered almost through Hour 17 (I think?).  I actually finished Clarity by Kim Harrington despite my having already come to terms with how I probably wouldn't finish a book since I wasn't being very book monogamous and was cheering and may have gotten distracted by watching the last few episodes for The Walking Dead so I could be ready for the new season tonight.  So, I think, for the first time in my personal Readathon history, I actually did better than I thought I would, so here's to having lower expectations and having more fun on Readathon day.  In the end, it all works out!

And the end of a event meme, of course...

  1. Which hour was most daunting for you? - 17, I was definitely falling asleep, but I propped up my eyelids open with a few toothpicks and finished my book in the end. 
  2. Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year? - Clarity by Kim Harrington made for a great 'thon book.  Very quick read, engaging mystery, fun premise!
  3. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year? - Nope, I think I may have had one of my best 'thons ever this time around, so keep on doing what you're doing awesome organizers! :D
  4. What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon? - The cheerleading seemed to be very well organized to help every reader get at least a little encouragement, at least from what I can see - I hope it's true! 
  5. How many books did you read? - 1 and a....quarter? 
  6. What were the names of the books you read? - Clarity and some of Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
  7. Which book did you enjoy most? - Both were great, but Clarity's the only one I finished.  Neil Gaiman's short stories were great for an occasional change of pace.
  8. Which did you enjoy least? - n/a
  9. If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year’s Cheerleaders? - Um, keep being awesome?  All the cheerleaders I interacted with as a cheerleader and as a reader were very enthusiastic and committed.  I guess each cheerleading team had its own captain this time, and in my team (Go Team Fox!), Michael from Buried in Print did a great job getting us organized and keeping the participating reader list updated so we could maximize our time cheering.  My advice?  Sign up to cheer - it's fun and rewarding!  I "met" lots of people and lots came to visit me!
  10. How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time? - Extremely likely, and I think I'd sign up to be both again.  It was a nice balance!
Thanks again to the organizers of the Readathon for honoring Dewey and for giving us all a chance (or an excuse!) to do what we love together for a day.  And thanks again to everybody who stopped by to cheer me on while I was reading yesterday, you all made a great day even greater! 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Readathon Hour 12 Update

Reading Now:  Clarity by Kim Harrington and Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

It's been __85__ pages and __9__ cheers since my last update.

Total Cheers: 14

Cumulative Pages Read: 152

Books Completed: 0

Eating?: Oh, lots of junk.  Leftovers for lunch, potato chips, fun size candy bars, and a delicious shish-ka-bob and a few butter garlic wings for supper.  

I got a bunch more reading and cheering done this afternoon compared to my dysfunctional morning.  I read a few stories from Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman and continued on with my YA selection of the day, Clarity by Kim Harrington, both of which are great Readathon picks!

Took a break for dinner and to watch a little Walking Dead while I write up my post, then it's back to cheerleading and then back to reading!

Mid-Event Survey

1) How are you doing? Sleepy? Are your eyes tired? 

Doing pretty good.  Had a little nap this afternoon, so I'm going strong.

2) What have you finished reading?

Er, nothing.

3) What is your favorite read so far?

Both Clarity by Kim Harrington and Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman are treating me well.

4) What about your favorite snacks?

The big bag of Fun Size candy bars are quite delightful!  Mmmm, Twix. 

5) Have you found any new blogs through the readathon? If so, give them some love!

 Quite a few, but The Overstuffed Bookcase  is the one that's sticking out to me at the moment.  =)

Keep on keeping on fellow Readathonners! 

Readathon Update Hour 5

Reading Now: Some amalgamation of The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen, Clarity by Kim Harrington, and Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman (Indeed I am fraught with indecision.)

It's been __67__ pages and __5__ cheers since my last update.

Total Cheers:5

Cumulative Pages Read:67

Books Completed: 0

Eating?: Raspberry Jam and PB toast for breakfast.  Then a couple of those aforementioned salted caramel chunk cookies.  More recently a couple of fun sized candy bars.  Methinks it may be time for something salty.

Okay, yeah, so I'm off to a stellar start.  My computer mysteriously restarted itself while I was working on the kick-off meme.  After that I was interrupted ad nauseum.  Shortly thereafter I decided that The Revisionists, while a very promising read in general, is probably not a good Readathon book.  Then I pored over my YA-filled Kindle for a while until I chose Clarity by Kim Harrington and read about 40 pages of that.  I think it'll work for the rest of my day probably, so I'm letting Kindle charge while I update and check in with all the unfortunate souls I'm supposed to be cheering for. 

I swear, I will get this train back on track, right after I hunt down something salty to eat.  And I'm totally going to take a picture to put in my next update. 

*wanders off distractedly*

Keep up the great reading, readers!

Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon!

Greetings, all!  It's time for the greatest of October traditions, Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon (what, you thought it was...Halloween?  Nope!).  On this day on a nearly yearly basis I stun all my subscribers by posting more posts in a day than I have in the last...month or so?  So...uh, sorry about all that.  I promise the abject chaos won't last but hopefully a more consistent blogger will emerge in its wake.  I mean, one can hope.  Anyhow, that's enough chatter, I need to be reading or cheering or something, so take a gander at this kick-off meme while I get down to business!

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

Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania

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

Actually, I didn't even make a stack this time because usually I end up reading one book and then having to put the rest back.  I'm starting out with The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen that I was already reading, and I think it shows great promise! Though it will probably turn out to be too long and, you know, not YA enough....  

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?

I got these new Chewy Chips Ahoy salted caramel chunk cookies and they are just perfect for Readathonning.

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!

Let's see, I'm almost 30, my TBR pile surpasses one thousand, and I am slow reader.  Does not compute.   I've been book blogging for just over 6 years (!), and the very first of Dewey's Read-a-thon is where I met a bunch of my earliest blogging buddies. :)

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?

Actually, this is the first time I've signed up officially as both a read and a cheerleader for the same Readathon, so that should be interesting.

Happy reading, all!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Non-fiction?  Who let non-fiction into the reading pile?  Well, it was bound to happen, my little Random.org trick that I use to choose my next read finally chose for me a non-fiction book from my collection.  What's more shocking, though, is that I didn't cheat and say "eh, not that one, maybe I'll just try and draw another number.  No one has to know."  Nope, I actually read the non-fiction book Random.org chose from my LibraryThing.  And I read it relatively fast.  And it was really good, if a little outdated because I should have read it years ago (but probably still truer than ever).  Thanks to Barbara Ehrenreich for showing me, yet again, that there's a non-fiction lover lurking within me!

Nickel and Dimed is a work of investigative journalism in which author Ehrenreich travels to a few different American locales under contrived circumstances to discover what it's like to live on the almost poverty-level wages many American workers earn at their occupations.  During stints as a waitress in Key West, a maid in Maine, and a Wal-Mart "associate" in Minnesota, Ehrenreich discovers that even given an edge of a lump sum of cash to start with and a car, living on the poverty-level wages millions of Americans are expected to subsist on is no easy feat.  Lodged in pay-by-the-week motels, suffering from the prodigious aches and pains that accompany low-wage labor, sometimes with hardly enough food to get by, and often even in fear for her safety, Ehrenreich offers a very enlightening look into the lives of the working poor.

The book itself is compelling.  Ehrenreich's writing style is extremely engaging and has such a great flow to it that it's actually hard to put down, a quality I'm always looking for in non-fiction and rarely finding.  The book is also peppered with footnotes elaborating on Ehrenreich's experience in the low-wage world with hard data related to low wage workers both in the locales in which she works and across the United States.

As for the content, some of it is truly eye-opening while some of it is borderline offensive to anybody who is working or ever has worked a low-wage job.  Ehrenreich exposes the pitfalls that come with having to take a job that is nearby even if it pays peanuts because you don't have a car (and likely never will at the wage you're making).  She reveals that many low-wage workers, because they don't have a month's rent and security deposit can't ever get a real apartment and are forced to rely on flea-bag pay-by-the-week motels, sometimes cramming whole families into a motel room or even a car if funds for the motel run out.  She shows how hourly employees are subject to the whims of mostly useless middle managers who demand a level of work that is practically slavish.  She delves into the demeaning world where drug tests are required, there is constant (often unwarranted) suspicion of worker drug use and theft, and worker belongings are subject to search when they are on the premises all for a paltry $7.00/hour, if that.  Ehrenreich discovers that low-wage workers are virtually invisible to the people they're serving as waitresses or maids and almost hopelessly trapped in a hamster-wheel of never having enough to get by, much less any savings to rely on in times of crisis.

On the other hand, PhD-holding Ehrenreich seems to need her book as much as any of the rest of us privileged folks.  If you've ever had to take a job as a waitress or a maid or a big-box store employee in your life, you might find yourself more than a little offended by Ehrenreich's surprise at the fact that "even" low-wage workers are smart, capable, and take pride in their work.  While it's easy to relate to Ehrenreich's bewilderment that a co-worker is continuing to work despite injury, she's obviously looking at it from the perspective of someone who has a cushion to fall back on rather than a worker who faces the very real possibility of being out on the street if she can't recover enough to keep her job.  Especially irritating to me, however, is Ehrenreich's account of her time working at Wal-Mart, where she flounces in, attempts to stir up some pro-union sentiment, suggests that low-income women all have the same sad haircut, engages in some vaguely patronizing speculation about the lives of the customers who frequent her department, and then seems to more or less glibly return to her life of privilege.    

Despite its flaws, though, Nickel and Dimed is a very compelling book and one that everybody in a America whose income allows them some measure of comfort and safety needs to read. If nothing else, it will make you think twice about leaving that bigger tip, not taking the maid that cleans your hotel room for granted, and maybe not wreaking thoughtless havoc on the shelves of the store where you're shopping.  More than that, Ehrenreich's book helps us to become re-acquainted with the people our incomes allow and encourage us to ignore and is the kind of book that can and should drive change in a "prosperous" country that is leaving a huge segment of its population behind.

 (No disclaimer required - I bought it!)  

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Hey, I Think It's My Blogiversary

Not that I deserve a blogiversary.  I'm pretty sure blogiversaries are for people who actually blog, and it would be generous to say that I've blogged, uh, sparingly this year.  That said, today marks six years worth of blogging for me, and considering I'm still surprised that I made it past the first year, it seems a shame to let it go by without any fanfare at all.  Not that the first year was bad or anything, I just have commitment issues when it comes to saying I'll do something next week, much less, you know, three years from now.

This year has been kind of sad year for me, blogging wise.  I've seen my own interest in blogging wane quite a bit in favor of travel, television, and spending more time with friend and family (er, not necessarily in that order).  In fact, there are days that I don't even turn my computer on, much less concern myself with a blog post.  My job sucks up a lot of my energy, and after a full day spent with a computer, the thought of looking at the computer yet more is less than alluring.  Blogging has changed a lot, and so many bloggers are stretched so thin over about a zillion types of social media that the community is very different than the one I enjoyed so much as a "young" blogger.  That and so many of the people whose blogs I've been reading forever seem to be actively throwing in the towel or just slowly fading away from the blogs I've loved for a long time.  I've been reluctant to change with the times, and I am nostalgic for the old ways, if you will, but I'm still hanging in there (despite the fact that this is a more or less melancholy blogiversary "celebration").  And, as ever, I thank all of you who are still hanging in with me! 

I'm as enthusiastic about reading as ever.  I've set a fairly good reading pace (for me, the turtle reader) this year.  Plus, I'm on a great reading streak, and I really need to share some reviews of those titles with you.  I mean, Brewster by Mark Slouka?  So heart-breakingly fantastic.  Rules of Civility by Amor Towles?  The narrator - best ever.  1930s New York - pitch perfect.  I'm getting into books I loved so much that they're hard to talk about with any coherence.

Recently, I took my commitment-phobe self over to Twitter to see if I should participate in next Saturday's Dewey's Readathon, and was strongly informed that I (obviously) should participate on both the reading and cheerleading fronts.  I'm a big people pleaser, so obviously I've since signed up for both.  I'm looking forward to re-connecting with some old friends and discovering some new (to me) blogging faces, and, obviously, getting in some good reading.  I hope to see your face at the Readathon.  It'll be that much more fun!

So, what's new with you?  Will you be Readathoning?  And if you're getting to be an oldie blogger like me, how has blogging changed for you?  (I'm very inquisitive today.  ;-))

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A to Z Bookish Survey

Jamie over at The Perpetual Page-Turner cooked up this fantastic survey which I spotted the other day, or a few weeks ago, or whenever.  It looked like a fun way to mix things up around here in between sporadic book reviews, so voila!

Author you’ve read the most books from:

Almost certainly Stephen King.  I looooved Stephen King in high school, and I spent a lot of lazy summer days devouring his books.  Last summer I finally read The Stand, and the SK love continues! 

Best Sequel Ever:

Hmm, I don't know.  I'm good at starting series, bad at continuing them.

Currently Reading:

I let Random.org pick me a book just so I'd read something I've had for more than, like, 3 months, and it chose for me Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.  I was thinking I might blow off Random.org to read The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, but then Rules of Civility just sucked me right in.  You're next, Coldest Girl! 

Drink of Choice While Reading:

I've pretty much changed over to drinking mostly water whether I'm reading or not, so probably water!

E-reader or Physical Book?

Physical book forever.  I've recently grown to appreciate my e-reader and it's cousin the Kindle app, but nothing can replace the feeling of turning pages. Plus, what would I do if I couldn't go on used book buying sprees?

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School:

Wes from The Truth About Forever

Glad You Gave This Book A Chance:

Angelfall by Susan Ee.  I saw this one for sale in the Kindle Daily Deal, and I had some reservations, but I read the sample and took a chance.  And I loved it.  And I can't wait for the sequel!

Hidden Gem Book:

There's a bunch, but how about one from this year?  The Grave of God's Daughter by Brett Ellen Block.  My parents bought this for me many moons ago at a used book sale thinking I might like it.  I tried my Random.org trick earlier this year and it plucked this one from the obscurity of my shelves, and jeez am I glad because it's so good and nobody seems to know about it!

Important Moment in your Reading Life:

Just before I started my blog, I was chosen to take part in Elle Readers' Prize several times, back when it was still in the magazine and not just web content.  They'd send you 3 books, you'd read them and write short reviews of them and they'd choose a few of those reviews to appear in the magazine, so my reviewlettes have appeared several times in the pages of Elle magazine.  It was the first time it dawned on me that writing about the books I was reading might be fun and maybe even prove valuable to someone other than me.  So, then I started a book blog and the rest is history.

Just Finished:

Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman by Minka Pradelski.  It's got the weirdest narrator and a different sort of story within a story structure, but I ended up liking it a lot. 

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read:

Erotica, (and on the totally other side of the spectrum) cheesy inspirational fiction, and books where I can't begin to guess at the pronounciation of the names of the major characters

Longest Book You’ve Read:

Not sure, but The Stand by Stephen King is by far the longest book I've read recently, clocking in at 1100 or so pages.

Major book hangover because of:

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

Number of Bookcases You Own:

Er, 6.  More needed.

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times:

I know this is two, but Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson and The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen may be the only books I've *ever* re-read willingly.  And that deserves a mention, right?  Plus, I think one day I would even re-read them again!

Preferred Place To Read:

The front porch when it's nice out.  My bed when it's not.  A cafeteria table at work in a pinch. :)

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read:

"Today I am bothered by the story of King Canute. (...) The story is, of course, that he was so arrogant and despotic a leader that he believed he could control everything - even the tide. We see him on the beach, surrounded by subjects, sceptre in hand, ordering back the heedless waves; a laughing stock, in short. But what if we've got it all wrong? What if, in fact, he was so good and great a king that his people began to elevate him to the status of a god, and began to believe that he was capable of anything? In order to prove to them that he was a mere mortal, he took them down to the beach and ordered back the waves, which of course kept on rolling up the beach. How awful it would be if we had got it so wrong, if we had misunderstood his actions for so long." - From After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell

Reading Regret:

I regret that I don't read more and faster!

Series You Started And Need To Finish(all books are out in series):

The Chemical Garden Trilogy by Lauren DeStefano.  I loved Wither, but I suck at keeping up with series likes I should!

Three of your All-Time Favorite Books:

The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien, After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell, and The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene.  And three is so so so not enough.  I'm already rethinking these choices.  :-P

Unapologetic Fangirl For:

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen.  Also City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell. 

Very Excited For This Release More Than All The Others:

Cannot answer, too hard.  So many great authors coming out with new stuff this year that I can hardly conceive of an answer to this question!

Worst Bookish Habit:

Continuing to acquire them even though I'll probably be dead before I can read all the books I already have!

X Marks The Spot: Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book:

That would be The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold.

Your latest book purchase:

What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang the e-book is on sale for $ 2.99 at the moment and what with how lots of bloggers are crazy for it, I couldn't very well not buy it, now could I?

ZZZ-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late):

The Fault in Our Stars by John Greene.  I surely couldn't finish it at work, you know?  I mean, all the weeping would probably be a little awkward.

Have you done Jamie's survey?  If you have or if you do now, I'd love to see your answers so leave your link in the comments!  

Monday, September 2, 2013

Stargazey Point by Shelley Noble

Greetings one and all, and apologies again for my unpredictable disappearances.  This time around I was attempting to get a new job.  Alas, all I got for my efforts was a week of stressful interviewing, a near miss, a mega-dose of bitterness, and a growing conviction that working for my current organization is an untenable situation.  Well, I guess everybody needs a wake-up call to get off their butts once in a while.  I hope it's not too "pie in the sky" of me to imagine that there might be a job out there for me that is either really enjoyable (if low paying) or, you know, at least have a career path that doesn't immediately dead-end upon hire.  And yes, I'll probably delete this once I put my next application in, but first I need to re-learn all my lost and wandering Excel skills, so it can stay a while.  *sigh*

Anyhow, enough grumping, it's time for the ever elusive book review!

So, Stargazey Point by Shelley Noble.  You might perhaps remember my gushing over the pretty cover.

Exhibit A:

See....pretty, right?  Anyhow, my brain was apparently washed by all the pretty because I requested this off of Wm Morrow Paperbacks blogger outreach list without any sort of contemplation about whether I would, you know, enjoy things about the book that aren't the cover.  After reading the prologue which was so cheesy I may have actually rolled my eyes, I had a few doubts.  However, I figured since I am a jerk who apparently chooses her review books based on cover alone and have no one to blame but myself, I supposed I'd better at least give it the fifty pages I owed it.  As I suspected, it didn't magically transform into a breathtaking work of literature, but happily, it did turn into a sweet beach read (for the non-beach goer) with lovable characters and a sweet (if predictable) plot.

Documentary filmmaker Abbie Sinclair is deeply damaged after her latest project ended in tragedy.  Luckily for her, her best friend stateside has a few elderly relatives who are happy to host Abbie in their crumbling seaside mansion while she figures out what comes next.  Cabot Reynolds the Third is a man who gave up a promising career as an architect to return to the down and out South Carolina beach town of Stargazey Point to restore his uncle's carousel and, hopefully, breathe new life into the town before its natives are forced to sell out to developers.  The elderly Crispin siblings are Stargazey Point's old money, but their funds are quickly disappearing.  The three have fallen to selling off their belongings to pay off their taxes.  Despite their troubles Abbie finds a home with Millie, Marnie, and Beau, and before long she finds that she doesn't have to jet around the world to keep up with the deeds of her over-achieving, do-gooder family members, there's plenty of good to be done right in Stargazey Point.

What to say about Stargazey Point?  It's a stereotype in the best possible way.  It's a town that has been plunged into hard times by a few too many storms, where taxes are still sky-rocketing forcing natives out in favor of soulless, big-money resorts.  It's peopled by a pack of well-intentioned, incredibly meddlesome southern ladies who are at the ready when it comes to pushing this damaged stranger to rediscover her purpose.  All it takes is a little boost from a guy who favors his small-town roots to his big-city career and a woman who seems to know how to draw out the best in people even when she can only see the worst in herself, to give the struggling natives of Stargazey Point the incentive they need to embrace their town's heritage and make it new again.

The plot is a little too contrived, most of the characters are a little too saccharine, the "deep, dark" secrets are little too close to the surface, and the cynics are a bit too easily won over, but Abbie's story is addictive nonetheless.  There's always something compelling about a person finding healing, redemption, and love after tragedy, even more so when she's entwined in a town filled with exaggeratedly loveable characters finding its feet again.  The town of Stargazey Point jumps off the page, and Abbie's story is just the sort of easy-reading, satisfying tale that reads best on a lazy summer day.

(Thanks to William Morrow Paperbacks for providing me a with a copy in exchange for my honest review.)


Monday, August 12, 2013

Rutherford Park by Elizabeth Cooke

I feel like I'm always telling the same story.  You know the one about the book that somebody pitched me for review that I accepted, and once it arrived in the mail I had second thoughts and wondered what on earth had taken hold of me that I accepted it, and blah, blah blah and so on?  Well, I've done it again with Rutherford Park. I'm always in for good historical fiction, but not so much the Lords and Ladies cavorting about with their awesome wealth and occasionally scandalous problems.  I've never gotten around to cultivating an interest in Downton Abbey either (though I've been told in no uncertain terms that I should) which, apparently, would put me right in the demographic that would have this book marketed to them.  That said, despite it being the sort of book with the Lords and Ladies and scandals marketed toward an audience of a show I don't watch, something about Rutherford Park caught my eye and landed it on my doorstep.  Perhaps the fact that it takes place in the moments before the outbreak of World War I, perhaps it's just been a few minutes since I'd read any good historical fiction and I was feeling weak.  Happily, the story ends (as it usually ends) with my enjoying the book a good deal more than I expected to when I was busy second-guessing my decision.

Rutherford Park is the palatial home of Lord William and Lady Octavia Cavendish.  Nestled in the Yorkshire countryside, the peaceful-appearing estate is an island unto itself, but the secrets that run deep among the Cavendish family and their staff  and the coming of war threaten to fracture the idyllic, if suddenly fragile, life the aristocratic family has come to know.  As World War I looms on the horizon William struggles to maintain his family and their refuge at Rutherford Park even as his nearest and dearest seem to be moving beyond his grasp.

In Rutherford Park, Cooke allows us to sneak a peek beneath the proper and orderly surface of the Cavendish family and their estate.  William takes comfort in order and propriety, but his wife Octavia chafes at the bonds of what is considered appropriate behavior for the lady of the house.  She longs to show her love effusively, to walk barefoot in the grass, to cuddle her children instead of resigning them to the staff to raise, but William despite being well-meaning is embarrassed by her improper behavior.  The couple's children, Harry, who wants nothing more than to fly away from an indiscretion that ended in tragedy; na├»ve Louisa, who is about to make her debut in society, and Charlotte, the youngest daughter who might just be a budding activist for change are each slipping away from William and Octavia in their own ways.  As William rushes to gather his family back to himself and to the safety of Rutherford Park in the days before the war, past indiscretions and current scandals threaten to undo the life he and Octavia have built together.

In such a book as Rutherford Park, it might be tempting for the author to focus solely on the Cavendish family.  Their feelings and foibles certainly could a whole book make.  However, Cooke makes the wise decision to take on the estate as a whole exploring the lives of the many servants who keep the wealthy Cavendish household up and running.  From the housemaids, Mary and Emily who made their escape from the dangers of mill work only to come face to face with other heartbreaks, to the footman, Nash, who delights in the occasional book of poetry pilfered from William's library, to the farrier, Jack Armitage, who shared an unexpected and perplexing moment with one of the Cavendish daughters, Cooke breathes life into the whole breadth of characters that make Rutherford Park tick.  The result is a book that quietly explores the beginning of the end of a way of life through the co-mingled lives of a family whose wealthy way of life is becoming unsuitable and unsustainable and the people whose existence as mere servants is slowly drawing to a close.

Rutherford Park is an unexpectedly deep and wide portrait of not just a family but an entire estate's worth of people.  Rather than focus on drama and scandal, Cooke makes the excellent decision to zero in on her characters' inner lives.  As a result, characters both major and minor leap off the page, and much to Cooke's credit she manages to make very nearly all of her cast sympathetic to readers who might not agree with their actions but who might well commiserate with their feelings and motivations.  If you are a lover of historical fiction or can appreciate a few great character studies, you'll find much to enjoy in Rutherford Park.  Recommended!

(Thanks to the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group/Penguin, for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.)