Wednesday, November 25, 2015

book review: My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life

The basics:  "In the fall of 2009, the food world was rocked when Gourmet magazine was abruptly shuttered by its parent company. No one was more stunned by this unexpected turn of events than its beloved editor in chief, Ruth Reichl, who suddenly faced an uncertain professional future. As she struggled to process what had seemed unthinkable, Reichl turned to the one place that had always provided sanctuary. “I did what I always do when I’m confused, lonely, or frightened,” she writes. “I disappeared into the kitchen.”"--publisher

My thoughts: I am not typically someone who reads cookbooks. I may skim through and read recipes, but I have never before read a cookbook cover to cover. Admittedly, My Kitchen Year is not a typical cookbook. It is filled with recipes, but there are also lots of other things in it: breathtaking photographs (of food, nature and city), memoir vignettes, and Tweets (yes, Reich's actual tweets.) It feels like more of a memoir than a cookbook, but with 136 recipes, it's hard to argue.

I suppose if you're looking for just a memoir, this one might be a little thin, but I adored the chronological journey with Reichl. I felt as though I started it at the perfect time: autumn, when the book begins. The day before I ventured into Reichl's autumn, Des Moines got its first snow of the year, and it suddenly felt like winter. When I reached spring, I was tempted to stop reading and wait for spring, but I was enjoying myself too much. Part of the fun for me was knowing Recihl's country house is where Mr. Nomadreader grew up. The familiar faces and sights were an extra special delight to see in this book.

Reichl cooks the way I like to cook, except she has a lot more time and patience for it than I do. We both value local, seasonal and fresh ingredients. We share very similar kitchen staples. Most of the recipes in this cookbook wouldn't require me to go to the store. Yet as much as I liked the kind of food, I was most enchanted with how Reichl writes recipes. They're in paragraph form, and I learned so much from them. She carefully (and succinctly) explains the why in each recipe. This book made me enjoy reading recipes because they weren't merely lists of instructions. Perhaps most importantly, Reichl often offers multiple suggestions for igredients in a single recipe. These recipes aren't rigid--they're about highlighting superb seasonal ingredients and taking ownership of your home kitchen:
"Most cookbooks, I though as I reached for an orange and began to squeeze it for juice, are in search of perfection, an attempt to constantly re-create the same good dishes. But you're not a chef in your own kitchen, trying to please paying guests. You're a traveler, following your own path, seeking adventure. I wanted to write about the fun of cooking, encourage people to take risks. Alone in the kitchen you are simply a cook, free to do anything you want." 
That description might strike fear in the hearts of some. It energized me. My Kitchen Year is filled with delicious recipes, but it's also a cookbook to make your own. I've never been a big fan of baking, and I realize as I continue to find my voice, that I don't like the science of it. I like the uncertainty of cooking without recipes or cooking from recipes you're modifying even though it's the first time. Not every meal at our house is a success, but the joy when one is is worth any mediocre bites.

The verdict: My Kitchen Year is unlike any cookbook I've read. I loved the recipes, and I read each one. I loved the candor Reichl uses to talk about a difficult professional situation. I loved the pictures in the book, both of the recipes and nature. And I even loved the tweets placed in the same chronological timeline as the recipes. My Kitchen Year might be a cookbook, but it reads like a food magazine, and I'll definitely be asking for my own copy for Christmas.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: September 29, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Ruth Reichl's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

audiobook review: My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

narrated by Debra Winger

The basics:  "Gloria Steinem had an itinerant childhood. When she was a young girl, her father would pack the family in the car every fall and drive across country searching for adventure and trying to make a living. The seeds were planted: Gloria realized that growing up didn’t have to mean settling down. And so began a lifetime of travel, of activism and leadership, of listening to people whose voices and ideas would inspire change and revolution."--publisher

My thoughts: I've been fascinated by Gloria Steinem for a long time, as she was one of those public figures I just always seemed to know about. Yet I remember when I discovered she was born in 1934 and couldn't believe it. Not only did she seem younger, but it made her achievements that much more impressive; she was that much more ahead of her time. For someone I feel like I know so well, for the sheer number of years she's spent in the spotlight, when I heard about this memoir, I realized how little I actually knew about Steinem.

I've always been a fan of asking "where are you from?" I love to hear people's origin stories. Part of it is because I've always felt somewhat nomadic. We moved around what felt like a lot in my childhood, and I continued to move around a lot in my early adulthood. I've also been blessed to travel a lot all of my life. I love to make connections with people and places. (The modern equivalent: seeing mutual friends on Facebook, delights me when unexpected friends also know one another or find one another.) So a memoir about Steinem's 'itinerant childhood' and her life on the road seemed to combine three fabulous things. And it is all of those things, but it was also surprisingly dull at times.

Even as I listened, I felt early on this memoir would be inconsistent, and it was. As I tried to figure out why, I didn't think it was all because of my high expectations. I imagined listening to this memoir as someone mostly ignorant of Steinem and her work, and I imagined that person would ask, "but why should I care? Who is this person?" As a reader, I gravitate more toward fiction than non-fiction, so I don't need fame or glory to be interested. I do, however, need the details. At times, it felt like there wasn't enough Steinem in this memoir. She told stories, but I wanted more insights into her thoughts and reactions. The structure of this memoir is also somewhat odd. At times it felt more like vignettes than a cohesive narrative. I don't believe memoirs need to chronological, but this one jumped around too much, and the reasons weren't always clear. What most kept me from loving this memoir, however, is the lack of name dropping. Steinem rarely shared names or even any identifying details (to make the guessing fun.) These stories needed the context to make them more interesting.

The verdict: I know I'm being hard on My Life on the Road; it's a good book, but how could it not be given the subject and Steinem's writing chops? I can't get over my disappointment that it wasn't great. It had moments that delighted me, but it had too many moments that bored me.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 9 hours 27 minutes (304 pages)
Publication date: October 27, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy My Life on the Road from Amazon (Kindle edition.) 

Want more? Visit Gloria Steinem's website, like HER on Facebook, and follow HER on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, November 23, 2015

book review: Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy

The backstory: Liars and Saints was shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize.

The basics: Liars and Saints is the story of the Santerre family. Over four generations, the novel covers World War II to the present (when this book was published in 2003.)

My thoughts: For years I've been saying I want to read all of the Baileys Prize longlists, but I don't actually do it, so I started a new project to at least make some progress to that lofty goal. (If I actually continue to make progress, I'll write a post about my plans.) Liars and Saints reaffirms why I have that goal. It's a book I had never heard of, by an author I somehow never heard of. Once I started reading it, I discovered she is someone so many of my bookish Twitter celebrity people adore. And with good reason. I'm such a fan, I checked out her other three adult books (one novel and two short story collections) from library when I finished the first chapter. (She also writes the Apothecary series for juveniles.)

From the moment I heard this book is a four-generation family saga and saw it's less than three hundred pages, I was curious. I gravitate towards books that are ambitious in scope but relatively short. Meloy more than delivers, and she does so in quite an interesting way. Even as I finished, I awed at how much Meloy includes in this story. I felt so connected with each of the Santerres, even as time passed and there were more of them. I adored both Meloy's writing and storytelling here. Her writing is succinct and stunning. There's an urgency to her writing that made me want to read this novel compulsively. To cover so much time in so few pages, choosing the moments to share and those to not is critical, and I never felt as though I was missing out on what anyone was doing. In that sense it felt like an actual family saga. After all, how many moments in our lives would be worth noting in a family history?

Perhaps my favorite part of this novel was how Meloy wrote about faith. The Santerres are Catholic, and through different characters, Meloy was able to show the Catholic church and modern Catholicism from a variety of angles. Meloy made me both understand why and how people are devout Catholics and question the church in complicated ways. This duality is hard to pull off, and I admire Meloy's ability to embrace complicated ideas in a way that invites the reader to wrestle with them.

Favorite passage: "Clarissa had always had a sense of possibilities, of many versions of life available to her, and now she seemed to be stuck with the one."

The verdict: Liars and Saints is an extraordinary novel about family, faith, and secrets. I loved the time I spent with the Santerres, and I can't wait to read Meloy's other books.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: June 17, 2003
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Liars and Saints from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Maile Meloy's website and follow her on Twitter

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

book review: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

The backstory: Nora Webster was on the 2014 Folio Prize shortlist, a 2015 Carnegie Medal finalist, and a 2014 New York Times Notable book. I previously liked The Testament of Mary by Toibin.

The basics: Nora Webster's husband dies, leaving her a young widow with four children, no job, and financial challenges in 1960's Ireland.

My thoughts: It's the second book I've read by Toibin, and only in hindsight did I realize both feature strong, conflicted female narrators. Nora Webster is a fascinating woman. As I think about it, my mind is filled with cliches to describe it: quiet, haunting, evocative. It is all of those things. It's a book I appreciated perhaps more than I enjoyed. There's a timeless, classic quality to it. It's set mostly in the 1960's, and Toibin captures the essence of the time and place so beautifully one might think it was written at that time.

Nora Webster is a character-driven novel. It's one I enjoyed the time I spent while reading it, but it wasn't one I thought about much when I wasn't reading. I dipped in and out of it and it took me almost a month to finish. The writing was strong, but I was surprised to find I didn't highlight a single passage. Perhaps because Toibin's writing was at its best in the quiet moments. For a novel about the death and aftermath of a young spouse, it's devoid of the theatrical grief. From inside Nora's world, the reader sees the small moments, such as struggling to find something to say to well meaning visitors, and making the financial decisions, more clearly than what she cannot process or move through initially. This duality is at the heart of the novel's power, but it's also what made me able to set this novel down for days on end in favor of other things. I always came back, and I enjoyed this novel, but it's not one with a narrative urgency.

The verdict: Nora Webster is a quiet, haunting novel of one woman at a place and time. She's a fascinating, complicated character, and I enjoyed glimpsing into her world.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: October 7, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Nora Webster from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Colm Toibin's website

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

audiobook review: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

narrated by Carrie Brownstein

The basics: Carrie Brownstein, a writer, musician, and actress, tells the story of how she got into music, her early experiences with bands, and her time with her best known band, Sleater-Kinney.

My thoughts: I used to own more than one Sleater-Kinney album. They were band I desperately wanted to like. I pretended I liked them because I thought they were so cool, but I'm older and wiser than I was in the 1990's as a teenager, so I'll confess: despite many attempts, I do not really like Sleater-Kinney's music. But I still like the three of them and would love to just hang out and chat. All this is to say, my interest in this memoir is not the music, so I was somewhat disappointed that it's mostly about the music. Despite this knowledge, I still really liked this memoir.

Brownstein is a wonderful writer. This isn't a revelation, of course. She's been writing songs for many, many years. She co-created and writes Portlandia. Still, she balances the tension of writing a memoir about her time with Sleater-Kinney beautifully to appeal to fans of a variety of levels. Those familiar with the music will appreciate the insights into how certain songs came to be and will revel in the details of specific shows. I was less familiar with the music (despite my attempts), but by writing so well about the music, Brownstein helped me clarify (and come to terms with) why I don't really care for Sleater-Kinney's music.

Audio thoughts: I'm glad I opted for this book on audio. Brownstein's narration shines throughout but there were many times I had trouble imagining a particular scene on the printed page instead. As a bonus treat for audio listeners, there's a lovely interview with the audiobook producer and Carrie at the end.

The verdict: Brownstein is a fine writer, and I admired her bravery in this memoir. Her insights into the life of a touring musician were fascinating, but it was her insights into her life that shined brightest for me. If you're a fan of Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia, feminist memoirs, or Carrie herself, make time for this one, even if it focuses mostly on the music. As I listened to this book, I found myself trying, yet again, to listen to Sleater-Kinney on Spotify. I still don't like the music, but I did appreciate listening to songs after hearing Brownstein's insights into them.

Rating: 4 out of 5 
Length: 7 hours 4 minutes (256 pages)
Publication date: October 27, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl rom Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more?Follow Carrie Brownstein on Twitter

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, November 16, 2015

book review: All Dressed in White by Alafair Burke and Mary Higgins Clark

The backstory: All Dressed in White is the second in the Under Suspicion series, following The Cinderella Murder. The series follows Under Suspicion, a television news special focused on unsolved cold cases.

The basics: The cold case at the center of All Dressed in White follows the disappearance of Amanda White on the night before her wedding day. Did she run away or did something terrible happen? Laurie and her crew reunite the entire wedding party, plus Amanda's now divorced parents, at the same hotel in Palm Beach, Florida.

My thoughts: While I loved the concept of The Cinderella Murder and enjoyed reading it, I was disappointed with the resolution but curious to read the next book. I both enjoyed the reading experience of All Dressed in White more, but it's also a better mystery. There's a cozy element to this book, in that I never felt like anyone was in danger, even knowing that a killer might be among the group. Still, the mystery in this book is what makes it such a great read. The possibility of Amanda walking away leaves a certain hope alive, for some of her friends and family as well as the reader. As more details are revealed, Clark and Burke manage to keep the tension of both possible outcomes not only possible but likely.

The verdict: Although the resolution itself was somewhat unsatisfying, as there was no big shocking moment (which I like in a mystery), this book was a delightful page turner. I thoroughly enjoyed the wide cast of characters, the exploration of Amanda, a fascinating character, and the setting. If you're looking for a fun, escapist read, All Dressed in White is a great choice. If you don't mind the events of the previous book (and its precursor, I've Got You Under My Skin), being spoiled, you can jump right in with this book and enjoy it.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: November 17, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy All Dressed in White from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Mary Higgins Clark's website and like her on Facebook. Visit Alafair Burke's websitelike her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

audiobook review: Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

narrated by Karen Cass

The backstory: Crooked Heart was longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Prize.

The basics:  "When Noel Bostock – aged ten, no family - is evacuated from London to escape the Blitz, he ends up living in St Albans with Vera Sedge - thirty-six and drowning in debts and dependents. Always desperate for money, she's unscrupulous about how she gets it. Noel's mourning his godmother, Mattie, a former suffragette. Brought up to share her disdain for authority and eclectic approach to education, he has little in common with other children and even less with Vee."--publisher

My thoughts: Now that I spend almost as much time listening to audiobooks as I do reading print books, I often find myself wondering how much the format impacts my reaction. As I listened to Crooked Heart, I found myself thinking something I can't recall ever thinking while reading: I'd rather watch this story on screen. As in, I would gladly put down this book and watch the film or miniseries version instead. Would I have thought that if I read it? I can't know. Was it the audio production that made this story seem more cinematic than destined for the page? I don't know.

I liked this book. I liked the characters. I liked the story. I was engaged. But I felt like so many of the stories were incredibly visual. I had no trouble picturing it, but I wanted to see it. Perhaps its partially because this novel felt heavy in dialogue. At times, it felt like a script, and my mind kept picturing the Masterpiece adaptation. Reading about Noel and Vee wasn't quite enough for me--I wanted to see them interact with one another.

The verdict: Improbably, Crooked Heart is both wicked and heartwarming. It's humorous and naughty, and even as its characters are up to not good, there's an appropriate lightness. This novel doesn't shy away from the realities of war, but it does find the humor in it.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 8 hours 17 minutes (288 pages)
Publication date: July 28, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Crooked Heart from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Lissa Evans's website and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, November 2, 2015

book review: The Crossing by Michael Connelly

The backstory: Michael Connelly is my favorite mystery writer. Last year, I read all twenty-seven of his novels. I was thrilled to finally have a new one to read.

The basics: The Crossing features both of Connelly's long-running main characters: now retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch and his half-brother, criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller. When Haller's client is charged with the brutal murder of a woman, he suspects a set-up and manages to convince Bosch to solve the case as he would if he were still a homicide detective.

My thoughts: The titular crossing is meaningful on two levels. First, it comes from a piece of dialogue between Bosch and Haller:
"What's the biggest problem with the prosecution's case?" 
"Right now?" 
"Based on what you read." 
Bosch took a drink while he thought of an answer and composed it properly. "The crossing." 
"Motive and opportunity."
The crossing in this novel is particularly important and intriguing because it's so mysterious. It also signifies Bosch's crossing over to what he, and most of law enforcement, sees as the dark side: working for the defense. This struggle continues throughout the book, and it serves as an interesting source of tension between Bosch and Haller. It reinforces the central tensions of both men: working for the greater good, while not always being good, and in very different ways. All while seeing things with vastly different lenses.  

If you haven't already read these series, I wouldn't start with this one because you're missing so much backstory. Could it be read as a standalone? Yes, the mystery is that good. But the layers of intrigue between these two characters wouldn't be as meaningful. If you have the time, start with The Black Echo.

Favorite passage: "You know, she had this theory," he said quietly. "She always said that the motivation for all murders could be dialed back to shame." "Just shame, that's it?" Maddie asked. "Yeah, just shame. People covering up shame and finding any kind of way to do it. I don't know, I think it was pretty smart."

The verdict: The Crossing is classic Connelly. It's a brilliant police procedural filled with clues. It's a fascinating exploration of Bosch and his continued struggles with life, work, and fatherhood. As much as I loved the mystery, I was proud to figure out the last piece of the puzzle before Bosch. I also appreciated the camaraderie and struggles, professionally and personally, with Bosch and Haller. They're a fascinating pair, and I love seeing them together, even as I'm always glad when Bosch is the primary character.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 400 pages
Publication date: November 3, 2015 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Crossing from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Michael Connelly's website, like him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Introducing: My Reading Hall of Fame

For many years, I've thought of my 6-star reads as my Hall of Fame. Those are the books that are so good and that I love so much, I break my own rating scale and give them the off-the-charts rating of 6 stars. After finishing Lauren Groff's divine Fates and Furies, I realized there are quite a few authors whose work I have loved enough to rate more than one of their books 5-star reads, and that's perhaps more valuable to me than a single 6-star read. For years, I've loved following an author's career and reading entire backlists. So, I decided to keep track of these authors, who have written more than one book I've rated 5 stars (or 6 stars.) I'll copy this post and update it as needed on my new Hall of Fame tab, which also includes my 6-star reads.

Authors' names link to all blog posts about the author, including all book reviews. Titles link to my review of that title.

(in alphabetical order)

1. Burke, Alafair
As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Friday, October 30, 2015

book review: The Midwife's Daughter by Patricia Ferguson

The backstory: The sequel to The Midwife's Daughter, Aren't We Sisters? was longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Prize, but I wanted to read this one first.

The basics: The Midwife's Daughter is the story of Violet Diamond, a midwife in pre-World War I England. When she visits the orphange her twin sister works at and spots a young orphan who bears a striking resemblance to her dead daughter, Violet adopts the girl and names her Grace. The key difference, as the cover indicates, is that Grace is black.

My thoughts: The Midwife's Daughter is a lovely piece of historical fiction. It is a character driven story featuring fully formed people, but it's also a fascinating insight into midwifery at a critical point in its history, as the advances in medicine are making fewer use midwives. As World War I looms, there is even more uncertainty for these characters and their lives.

Ferguson tackles a lot of themes in this novel. She is a trained nurse and midwife, and that expertise is felt in the story. The issues of race are interesting too. Ferguson shows many different experiences Grace faces over time and in different places.

The verdict: The Midwife's Daughter is an engaging historical novel. Despite the title, I found myself slightly more invested in Violet than Grace. Their relationship was fascinating, but Violet is the one I wanted to spend more time with. Still, I read this novel quickly, learned quite a bit about midwifery in England at the time, and I enjoyed the time I spent with these characters.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 390 pages
Publication date: October 30, 2012 
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Midwife's Daughter from Amazon (no Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Patricia Ferguson's website.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

book reviews: Ms. Marvel Vols. 2 & 3 by G. Willow Wilson

After enjoying the first volume of Ms. Marvel: No Normal, I was eager to continue with the series.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 2: Generation Why
If  the first volume had a weakness, it was a necessary one: Wilson had a world to build. Generation Why is able to pick right up where the action left off, and it covers a lot of ground. These collections feature several issues of the comics bound together. As someone who has never read traditional comics, I find the pacing interesting. Many of the issues end of cliffhangers, as the first volume did, but I was pleased this collection's ending felt like a satisfying end for a volume that's part of a continuing series.

Readers familiar with comics will find many familiar faces (I confirmed some with Mr. Nomadreader), but as relative Marvel neophyte, I never felt lost. Wilson manages to write for new and old fans simultaneously. Wilson also packs a lot of action into this volume. Thankfully, there is also a lot of character development. I enjoyed this one immensely.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Source: library

Ms. Marvel Vol. 3: Crushed
Crushed collects several volumes of Ms. Marvel as well as one volume of S.H.I.E.L.D. featuring Ms. Marvel. I was skeptical about the inclusion of something besides Ms. Marvel, but I found myself loving its inclusion (it comes last) and seeking out the first volume of its collection. (Does this make me a comics nerd?)

This volume begins with a Valentine's Dance. I appreciated the emphasis of distinguishing between Kamala and Ms. Marvel, particularly in terms of the rules Kamala's parents have for her. What could seem juvenile doesn't.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: library

Convinced? Start with Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal. Buy it from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

book review: How It All Began by Penelope Lively

The basics:  "When Charlotte Rainsford, a retired schoolteacher, is accosted by a petty thief on a London street, the consequences ripple across the lives of acquaintances and strangers alike." -publisher

My thoughts: I find myself drawn to novels that address the unlikely connections between people, so the premise of How It All Began appealed to me immensely. Lively uses the premise to trace connections of various levels that all begin with a mugging. As each new character was introduced, I was fascinated to guess the connections. Promising as this premise was, I didn't find all of the characters particularly interesting. And even the interesting ones got bogged down in odd subplots at times.

Despite my questioning of some of Lively's storytelling choices, her observational prose frequently took my breath away:
"Time was, long ago, pain occasionally struck--toothache, ear infection, cricked neck--and one made a great fuss, affronted. For years now, pain has been a constant companion, cozily there in bed with one in the morning, keeping pace all day, coyly retreating perhaps for a while only to come romping back: here I am, remember me? Ah, old age. The twilight years--that delicate phrase. Twilight my foot--roaring dawn of a new life, more like, the one you didn't know about. We all avert our eyes, and then--wham! you're in there too, wondering how the hell this can have happened, and maybe it is an early circle of hell and here come the gleeful devils with their pitchforks, stabbing and prodding.
Except that life goes on in parallel--real life, good life with all its gifts and graces. My species tulips out and blue tits on the bird feeder and a new book to look forward to this evening and Rose ringing up and a new David Attenborough wild life program on the telly. And the new baby of Jennifer next door. A baby always lifts the spirits." 
As I looked back over my favorite passages to write this review, I realized all are from Charlotte's point of view. This realization makes sense, as in retrospect, Charlotte was the most interesting character. Her insights into old age moved me, and her narrative never lost its way.

Favorite passage: "She’s odd these days--some Rose I don’t know has surfaced. But who knows their own child? You know bits--certain predictable reactions, a handful of familiar qualities. The rest is impenetrable. And quite right too. You give birth to them. You do not design them."

The verdict: Despite a strong premise and often exquisite writing, How It All Began wasn't executed well enough to make this a great read. It felt like an idea book, but it was executed as a character book. I just never felt as though any of the people other than Charlotte were real, so the conveniences of the story felt trite instead of clever. Still, Lively's observations on aging and her prose make this one worth reading.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: January 5, 2012
Source: purchased (at Parnassus Books!)

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy How It All Began from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Penelope Lively's website.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

audiobook review: Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin

narrated by Madeleine Maby

The basics: Wednesday Martin is an anthropologist, originally from Michigan, who moves from the West Village of New York City to the Upper East Side and turns her anthropological training on Upper East Side mommies.

My thoughts: Since having a baby, I find myself drawn to narratives I might not have been before. I'm fascinated by how people raise their children, in this country, throughout different times in history, and around the world. (See also: How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane and Bringing Up Bebe.) As a mom, I find myself remarking, "these people are crazy!" as often as I do "I can't believe I think this is normal now!" So much of parenthood seems to be finding people with whom you agree and finding people whose choices make you feel better about your own. To that end, Primates of Park Avenue is both.

It's entertaining,  at times alarming, and informative. A few chapters dragged a bit for me (most notably the Birkin chapter, which felt overly long and dull, but I'm not one drawn in by fashion or purses.) There are things I could relate to in it, even as raising a single child in Des Moines is so different from raising children in Manhattan. But there are also plenty of outrageous rich people stuff to make me feel superior at times. In many ways, this book reminds me of why I so loved several of the Real Housewives franchises for many years: rich people doing crazy things they think are normal and finding the shared humanity in unlikely places.

There's also enough anthropology of both primates and other cultures to make me feel smarter about raising children in different cultures. I learned things about other cultures and creatures, I was able to gawk at rich New Yorkers, and I was able to find some common ground with both.

The verdict: I was surprised not only by how much I enjoyed Primates of Park Avenue but also by how much I learned from it. I was entertained and enlightened, and Maby's audio performance made me feel like I was gossiping with an old friend over wine.

The controversy: Shortly after I finished this book, The New York Post fact-checked it and found some inaccuracies. Some of the inaccuracies bother me more than others. While I still quite enjoyed the book, some of these inaccuracies are so completely unnecessary, I find myself baffled by Martin's motivations.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 8 hours 9 minutes (256 pages)
Publication date: June 2, 2015
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Primates of Park Avenue from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Wednesday Martin's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, October 26, 2015

book review: Women by Chloe Caldwell

The basics:  "Women is a novella about falling in love with a woman, about loving women, about being a woman. It is a novella about a mother and a daughter. A novella about female friendships that blur the line of romance. A novella about a woman who, after having her first sexual relationship with a woman, goes on a series of (comical) OK Cupid dates with other women. A novella about a woman in her twenties who doesn't know if she's gay or straight or bi. A novella about falling in love and having your heart broken and figuring out what to do next. The book is an urgent recall of heartbreak, of a stark identity in crisis."--publisher

My thoughts: Despite many people assuring me I couldn't possibly read as much once I had a baby (I hit 100 books for the year last week), I still read a lot. I read differently. I listen to more audiobooks than I used to. And I read in short spurts, with the exception of weekend naps. Despite still carving out a lot of time for reading, I find I miss one-sitting books. There's something magical about sitting down to read a book and finishing it before you get up again. So when I decided to read Women, I strategized. I wanted to read it one sitting. I picked a night when Mr. Nomadreader was working, and after I put Hawthorne to bed, I sat down with a glass of wine and this novella. An hour later, I paused because I didn't want it to end. This book had different ideas for me.

I put off writing this review for months. Sometimes when I love a book so much, I find I have little coherent to say about it. This novella made me feel like I was falling in love with a writer and a character. I confess to always being fascinated by what's 'true' and what's not, but in Women, I didn't really care. If Caldwell was writing about her own experiences or fictional experiences, it didn't matter. The emotions and actions on the page were so real, I felt comforted. This is a novella that made me feel like I wasn't alone in the world.

Favorite passage:  "There is so much out there I don't know, never knew, have to learn, will never understand."

The verdict: Women is a bold, honest, raw novella. It's ostensibly the story of one young woman and her experiences, but there's a universality to Caldwell's prose I could not shake. Women changed me. It connected me to this fictional character in a beautiful way.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 144 pages
Publication date: October 15, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Women from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Chloe Caldwell's website and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!