Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Acquisitions Department Strikes Again

Okay, so, there really should have been no reports from the bookish Acquisitions Department so early in the year.  In the spirit of one who is trying to save some money and also trying to avoid accumulating more boxes of books that will need to be moved when I (hopefully) move this year, I was totally going to give the Friends of the Library book sale a wide berth (even though I'm totally their poster child and everything).  My resolve lingered until Monday evening when I was chugging along at work and thinking about how nice it would be to have an evening off and how it would just be so easy to take a few hours off and go to the book sale.  A perfectly good excuse for a few hours off, right?  And I could go it easy, right?  Only get the *really* good ones, right?

Well, the good news is, I did actually get fewer books than usual.  The bad news is, I usually get a ton.  This library happens to have a pack of readers who donate who read just the kinds of books that are right in my wheelhouse.  So, I scaled back and got only, like, twenty-some instead of thirty-some.  So, go me, right?  A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step or something like that.  We all knew I couldn't just, like, quit cold turkey or anything.

Oh Hell, enough rationalizing, we all know you just want to see the books, amIright?

(click to embiggen)
The Run-down (with selected commentary)...
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (There's always a "big find" of the book sale.  This is it.)
The Truth About the Henry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker (Because why accept a book for review when you can just buy it later?)
Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye (My mom has The Gods of Gotham so we've got the series so far now)
The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani 
The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (I'm pretty sure all the bloggers really liked this one.)
The Taste of Apple Seeds by Katharina Hagena
Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster
The Promise of Stardust by Priscilla Sibley
The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas
Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami (All the bloggers heart Murakami.  Maybe I will one day, too!)
French Leave by Anna Gavalda (It's a Europa.  Whenever I have the luck to find a used Europa, I snatch it right up.)
The Smile by Donna Jo Napoli

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
The City of Ember/The People of Sparks/The Prophet of Yonwood by Jeanne DuPrau
The Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly
The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison
Land of a Hundred Wonders by Lesley Kagen (I'm kind of on a Kagen kick lately, it would seem.)
An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor (Eva told me I should try this author.  So I shall!)
The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
The Alphabet Sisters by Monica McInerney
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks
Flyboys by James Bradley (Okay, maybe my dad just gave me this one)
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (I secretly think this sounds as boring as heck, but it's J.K Rowling, so you know...
The Violets of March by Sarah Jio (not pictured, because I was not doing so well with the braining last night when I was taking the pictures)

The theme of this sale's haul?  (There always is one, and it's not usually intended.)  Books in translation!  (An excellent unintended theme if I do say so myself)

There they all are, to my (mild) shame.  Once again, I have exhibited my great feats of willpower.  If you're lucky I'll break out my Book Outlet Boxing Day haul pictures one of these days and amaze you with yet more impressive displays book buying discipline.

But, anyhow, where should I start?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Resurrection of Tess Blessing by Lesley Kagen

After witnessing her father's death at a young age and spending the rest of her childhood in the shadow of her cruel and unpredictable mother, it's no wonder that Tess Blessing and her sister Birdie carry with them a life of trauma and fear.  Even into middle-age, Tess is riddled with paranoia and hassled by the cynical voice of her now dead mother that haunts her thoughts.  Lately, it seems like it's even harder for her to cover up her tendency toward unexpected panic attacks and irrational fears, especially as she suspects that her husband Will's extra time spent running the family diner might actually be spent having an affair, her daughter Haddie leaves for art school while struggling with an eating disorder, and her formerly sensitive, lovable baby boy, Henry, turns into a sullen teenager.  When Tess is feeling at her most hollow and helpless, life deals her another blow - a diagnosis of breast cancer.  The Resurrection of Tess Blessing gives us the story of how Tess, facing the possibility of her own imminent mortality, must set out to repair her family and herself before the cancer can claim her.

Once again, I've managed to read an entirely Lesley Kagen book and yet only realize while paring it down to its summary what a very dark, depressing book it appears to be.  It seems Kagen is a master at dealing with devastating topics with a light touch, and The Resurrection of Tess Blessing highlights that talent yet again.  Part of the way Kagen accomplishes that lightness is with her unusual choice of a narrator.  The story is told from the perspective of Grace, Tess's imaginary friend, who's always around but only shows herself in times of extreme need.  As Tess undergoes treatment and chisels away at her pre-death to-do list, Grace is always there to add a little levity and a sympathetic inside look at Tess's life thus far.

Despite its clever telling and its light touch, I struggled a little with The Resurrection of Tess Blessing because it took me a long time to actually start liking the characters.  The husband that glibly drops his wife off for a lumpectomy and then heads to work, the prickly daughter with her hostile responses to her mother's efforts to get her to eat food, and the typical teenage boy who can't be bothered by those around him but requires a certain amount of babying all the same are necessarily aggravating because, of course, they have redeem themselves with flying colors at some point, right?  Tess herself with all her groundless fears, quirks, people-pleasing tendencies, and paranoia was a hard character for me to love, too.  I feel as if she is the sort of character that moms everywhere will see parts of themselves in, but for the rest of us who aren't moms and just have one, this book gives us plenty of reasons to feel guilty about the dozen tiny ways we might hurt our own mothers ever day. 

On the whole, though, The Resurrection of Tess Blessing is a sweetly told tale of a woman's life flashing before her eyes at length.  Characters that rub the wrong way at first are all part of a touching payoff that's totally worth it.  By the end, you will be rooting for Tess to overcome her fears, see her family members for who they really are, and rediscover the life she'd imagined.

A side note on the editing - I wish I didn't have to mention this, but if I'm being honest, as I always strive to be, it has to be said.  I found the copy-editing of this book to be very shoddy.  From what I can tell, the book I received from SparkPress via BookSparks PR, is a final finished copy, and, if so, it could have used a (more) thorough going over before heading to press.  The book is, unfortunately, littered with small errors and a few pretty noticeable discrepancies in names (i.e. Tess's father is referred to with her married name rather than her maiden name on at least a couple of occasions).  So, fair warning to those who are bothered by these sorts of things as I, unfortunately, definitely am.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated 2015 Debut Novels

I love good debut fiction.  I really do.  It's might even be on the shortlist of things I like most about being a blogger, the potential to discover a great book by a new author before everybody else has.  It happens that I've gotten a jump on things and already read a great 2015 debut by a new author.  In conjunction with Top Ten Tuesday at The Broke and the Bookish, here are ten more debuts I'll be excited to get my hands on this year. 

The Cherry Harvest by Lucy Sanna (William Morrow, June 2nd)
A memorable coming-of-age story and love story, laced with suspense, which explores a hidden side of the home front during World War II, when German POWs were put to work in a Wisconsin farm community . . . with dark and unexpected consequences.

(In my head, this is Summer of My German Soldier for grown-ups.)

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper (Simon & Schuster, Jan 29th)
I've gone. I've never seen the water, so I've gone there. I will try to remember to come back.  Etta's greatest unfulfilled wish, living in the rolling farmland of Saskatchewan, is to see the sea. And so, at the age of eighty-two she gets up very early one morning, takes a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots, and begins walking the 2,000 miles to water.

I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them by Jesse Goolsby (HMH, June 2nd)
In this powerful debut novel, three American soldiers haunted by their actions in Afghanistan search for absolution and human connection in family and civilian life. Together, three men face an impossible choice: risk death or commit a harrowing act of war. The aftershocks echo long after each returns home to a transfigured world, where his own children may fear to touch him and his nightmares still hold sway.

In a World Just Right by Jen Brooks (S&S Young Readers, April 28)
High school senior Jonathan Aubrey creates worlds at will. In Kylie-Simms-is-my-girlfriend, he’s given himself everything he doesn’t have in real life-–the track team, passing grades, and his dream girl–-until one day he confuses his worlds and almost kisses the real Kylie Simms. Now his girlfriend Kylie and the real Kylie are changing, and Jonathan must solve the mystery of his own life to save his love from a gruesome fate.

The Lost Boys Symphony by Mark Andrew Ferguson (Little, Brown and Co, March 24th)
A startingly original, genre-bending literary debut in which a lovesick college student is abducted by other versions of himself from the future.

Paperweight by Meg Haston (HarperTeen, July 7th)
Haunting and visceral, Paperweight follows seventeen-year-old Stevie’s journey as she struggles not only with a life-threatening eating disorder, but with the question of whether she can ever find absolution for the mistakes of her past...and whether she truly deserves to.

Playlist for the Dead by Michelle Falkoff (HarperTeen, January 27th)
Here’s what Sam knows: There was a party. There was a fight. The next morning, his best friend, Hayden, was dead. And all he left Sam was a playlist of songs, and a suicide note:  For Sam—listen and you’ll understand.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes (Dial, June 9th)

The Kevinian cult has taken everything from seventeen-year-old Minnow: twelve years of her life, her family, her ability to trust. And when she rebelled, they took away her hands, too. Now their Prophet has been murdered and their camp set aflame, and it’s clear that Minnow knows something—but she’s not talking. As she languishes in juvenile detention, she struggles to unlearn everything she has been taught to believe, adjusting to a life behind bars and recounting the events that led up to her incarceration. But when an FBI detective approaches her about making a deal, Minnow sees she can have the freedom she’s always dreamed of—if she’s willing to part with the terrible secrets of her past.

War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Scribner, May 19th)
On a summer night, in the arty enclave of Capitol Hill, Seattle, best friends Mickey Montauk and Halifax
Corderoy throw one last blowout party before their lives part ways. At twenty-three, they had planned to move together to Boston for graduate school, but global events have intervened. As their lives move further away from their shared dream, Corderoy and Montauk keep in touch with one another by editing a Wikipedia article about themselves: smart and funny updates that morph and deepen throughout the year, culminating in a document that is both devastatingly tragic and profoundly poetic.  (Okay, I admit, it sounds pretty humdrum until you get to the part where it hinges on a Wikipedia article.  Than I get interested!)

We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach (S&S Books for Young Readers, March 31st)
Four high school seniors put their hopes, hearts, and humanity on the line as an asteroid hurtles toward Earth in this contemporary novel.

How about you?  Any 2015 debuts you're really looking forward to?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Wildalone by Krassi Zourkova

Cast your eyes upon a New Years miracle, dear readers!  If you spend time here with me at all, you may notice my penchant for reading books in a severely untimely fashion.  This penchant is only surpassed by my abysmal track record when it comes to reviewing ARCs on or before their release date like the good buzzy blogger publishers probably wish that I was.  So here it is the Sunday before the Tuesday that Wildalone by Krassi Zourkova is set to go on sale, and not only have I read the book, indeed, I am about to also review it.

Piano prodigy Thea Slavin has left her native Bulgaria for her freshman year at Princeton University.  She's struggling to adjust to a new American culture and dealing with a recently discovered family secret that haunts her new life at Princeton.  Her Greek Art professor is singling her out for reasons she doesn't understand, and before she can so much as take a class, her music advisor is pressing her onto the stage for an early recital.  As she plays Chopin before a full house, one guy with a white rose is all she can see, but he disappears before they can meet, and another takes his place as the love interest that competes for her attention.

Wildalone has two of the most handsome, most charming, most inexplicably moneyed, and morally ambiguous love interests that a book can offer.  Rhys and Jake live slightly off Princeton's campus in a house that has a name and a butler (or is he a manservant?  Either way, you get the idea).  Rhys is sexy, romantic, with a controlling streak he papers over with lavish displays of love, and absolutely the sort of guy that you would warn your best friend away from with great vigor in real life, but in fiction, he's tantalizing.   Jake, mysterious with his white roses and thoughtful gifts, seems to know Thea better than she knows herself, but his inexplicable dedication to his brother's happiness keeps him from speaking up for her.  Soon Thea is wrapped up in the mercurial pair's web of secrets, secrets that come perilously close to Thea's own.

This book.  It's so easy to get lost in but so hard to talk about, and even harder to talk about without spoilers.  Debut novelist Zourkova deftly juggles real life as a Princeton student with Thea's much more profound experience chasing her family secret down a veritable rabbit hole of magic and myth, untangling the mysteries of two brothers who are much more than meet the eye, and discovering a hidden world that lies just beneath the soaring Gothic architecture of Princeton's campus. 

Reading Wildalone, I was constantly reminded of Keith Donohue's The Stolen Child.  The stories aren't very similar at all, but the rich atmosphere is.  Like The Stolen Child, Wildalone manages to unite the humdrum with the extraordinary, the realistic and the fantastic, all of which is woven through with mythology, art and music.  I was completely transfixed by Zourkova's haunting, eerie romance which is so enriched by its exploration of art and music.  Wildalone is perfectly paced, dripping just enough mystery at a time to draw readers deeper and deeper into its pages, and even when you think you've figured out the impossible truth, Zourkova's got another plot twist up her sleeve.  Wildalone is truly an impressive debut, and Zourkova is definitely an author to watch.

(Disclaimer: I received this book for review courtesy of the publisher.)

Friday, January 2, 2015

Shatter Me: A Rant With a Surprise Ending

Okay, so December, right?  December, for me and a lot of people I imagine, is not a month rife with excess reading time, ergo, I usually opt for Christmas season YA.  You know, something a little quicker and easier to read to squeeze in among the holiday madness.  This year I decided to start a series that everybody seems to have loved, a dystopian that sounded right up my alley - Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi.  This kind of backfired because, um, I hated this book, that is, until I stopped hating it so much.  If I had spent as much time reading this book as I did contemplating whether or not to finish it, I would have been done twice as fast.  Anyhow, I did actually finish despite my many reservations, so what follows is, in honor of the book, probably the most inarticulate, snarky commentary ever to show its face on my blog.    

Shatter Me is the story of girl, imprisoned in an asylum by the authorities in a dying world, unloved, unappreciated, untouched because, oh right, her touch is lethal.  She lives in darkness, eats formless gruel for every meal, and spends her endless minutes in her cell keeping a journal of her woes filled with the kind of overwrought nonsensical angst that should stay safely locked up in her head.  Then, a second prisoner shows up in her cell and everything changes.  Suddenly, instead of being shunned, Juliette is practically being worshiped by The Reestablishment that seeks to use her as a weapon as they attempt to remake the world and undo the mistakes of the past that wrecked the planet.  I would be more specific, but that's pretty much all the world-building readers are privy to in the early stages of Shatter Me.

So, Shatter Me has a pretty good premise, but oh, oh the execution.  First of all, why are all the YA haters out there so busy (still) whining about Twilight and failing to warn unsuspecting readers about the writing in this book?  I'm just going to lay it all out on the table here, and say that some of the writing in the early stages of Shatter Me is just beyond cringeworthy.  Sure, there's the device that the book takes the form of Juliette's journal, and she tends to cross out a lot of things and revise her thoughts.  That actually didn't bother me at all like it seemed to bother a random smattering of readers.  Rather, I wished that Mafi would have elected to strike through more sentences and spare me this continuous overabundance of overwrought hyperbole that often actually jolted me out of the narrative to either laugh, read it aloud to some poor innocent wandering through my field of vision, or pick up one of my eyeballs after it unceremoniously rolled out of my head.  But wait, how about I'll just show you?

Here's a quick sample of the sort of writing that makes readers like me go, "Wha??"

My heart is a water balloon exploding in my chest.  My lungs are swinging from my rib cage.  I feel as though every fist in the world has decided to punch me in the stomach.
Her heart is a water balloon.  Her lungs are, ouch, swinging from her rib cage.  Gross.  And fists!  Fists are personified and have better decision-making skills than I do.  Wait, I have another!  This one's my favorite, and I now occasionally bleat this at unsuspecting bystanders for my own amusement.
I'd like to cry into his eyes.

You what?  You want to cry into his eyes?  What does that even mean?

Okay, so maybe you're the sort of reader who can overlook the rampant hyperbole, but then you run into the problem of Juliette.  She's a sympathetic character, without a doubt.  I mean, she's a nice girl with a surprisingly fantastic moral compass whose parents essentially decided she was a monster and gave her to the government to do what they will with her.  When she wants to help people, she kills them.  Human companionship is not really available to a girl whose touch is dangerous.  She cares about strangers and loathes herself and the curse that she lives with every day.  However, throughout the course of the book, she reveals herself to be irritatingly reckless, her mouth just goes and goes when it should stay shut.  Her ramblings definitely fail to reveal even the slightest hint of the brave or thoughtful heroine you hope to materialize in a bleak dystopian world.  Indeed, she can't shut up long enough to make sensible decisions about who to trust.  Sure, she's sympathetic, but for someone whose touch can kill she's also a serious wimp.

Now for the surprise ending.  Finally at about the two-thirds mark, Shatter Me takes a turn for the better.  The action picks up and gets Juliette out of her own twisted head for a while to this reader's great relief.  Bravery and strength start to work their way into her character at the last possible moment, and it becomes apparent that she's only just scratched the surface of her power.  Then the book wraps up with a tantalizing plot twist and...well.  Then I, with just the barest hint of shame and self-loathing, pick up the second book in the series hoping against hope that this series will turn out the opposite of Divergent and wow me with the end instead of the beginning.

(No disclaimer, I bought this!)