Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Hard is Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What books do you find especially hard to read?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I Need More Of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Out of the Blue by S.L. Rottman

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

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

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

(Review copy received from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Underrated Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Tyrant's Daughter by J.C. Carleson

My brother is the King of Nowhere.

So starts Laila's story.  She's recently been relocated to an apartment with her mother and brother in Washington D.C. suburbia.  Her six-year-old brother is the would-be heir to power of the country they fled shortly after Laila's father was killed, and his brother assumed power by force.  Now, instead of living ensconced in a Middle Eastern palace, Laila is struggling to understand her new life and new culture as she attends her new American school.  As if that's not hard enough, her eyes are being opened to the many horrors that occurred under her father's rule, and trying to reconcile those with the loving father she knew is no easy task.  Laila is amazed at the freedom her new life affords her; a life without veils, a culture where casual kissing isn't forbidden.  At the same, though, she feels the pull of her home country, hates the treachery of her despotic uncle, and can't shake the feeling that something has to be done to discover and rectify the secrets that are buried deep in her homeland.

The Tyrant's Daughter is a story headed in two different directions, mostly because Laila herself is headed in two different directions.  There's the Laila who is striving to make friends, understand a culture that mystifies her and fit in with people whose biggest problem is a nasty break-up.  This Laila is learning to cut loose at the school dance and what it feels like to fall in love with a guy that's not chosen for her.  The other Laila is still deeply embroiled in the struggles of her home country.  A CIA agent keeps lurking around her new home, and some expatriates from her country that her family never would have associated with in her old life are visiting frequently.  She knows her devious mother is up to something, and a lot hinges on what Laila, her family's "Invisible Queen," can find out and act upon.

I loved the premise of this story but felt that the execution left a lot to be desired.  It's not difficult to imagine this scenario happening.  Laila's country is an amalgamation of several Middle Eastern nations and it's not much of leap to imagine the high-stakes politicking Laila's family becomes embroiled in.  Laila's discovery of the atrocities happening in her country and her discovery of the power her family wields even at a distance are the high points of this story.

My country makes shameful lists:  Worst countries for women.  Worst countries for human rights.  Worst countries for press freedom.  It's never at the top, but it's often close -- it's the runner-up in a devil's beauty pageant.

However, Laila's interactions with her new American culture and struggle to fit in seemed to me to be woefully inauthentic. I never quite bought Laila's romance with Ian of the leonine eyes, and her bubbly friend Emmy seemed to be a caricature of a typical happy mostly problem-free American teenager created mostly to stand in stark relief against Laila's overburdened worldliness.  When Laila in her first person narration tosses off observations about her new culture relative to her old one, it's more like hearing Carleson's voice, not Laila's, and that voice occasionally feels just the slightest bit condescending (Like, how could you silly, pampered Americans with your #firstworldproblems possibly understand the magnitude of Laila's struggles?).  All in all, the first person narration itself wasn't quite successful.  The short chapters and the Carleson's tendency to tell much more than show left me feeling disengaged from Laila for much of the book.

The Tyrant's Daughter might prove to be a good starter book for young adults to gain a better and more meaningful understanding of the Middle East and the struggles it faces through Laila's story.  However, if you're a little older and a little more well-read on the issues and cultures of the Middle East, you might find this book to ring a little hollow, as it did for me.  Perhaps part of the problem is, yet again, that I'm reading a book that's just a little too Y for my A.

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.)