Wednesday, June 29, 2016

audiobook review: The Assistants by Camille Perri

narrated by Jorjeana Marie

The basics: The Assistants, Camille Perri's debut novel, is the story of Tina Fontina, a thirty-year-old who serves as the executive assistant to Robert Barlow, the CEO of Titan, a media conglomerate. What begins innocently soon spins a big scheme to falsify expense reports to pay off the student loans of assistants throughout the company.

My thoughts: As I wrote the basics above, I kept trying to come up with a description that made it sound like a book I would actually want to read. I didn't know much about this novel when I downloaded the audiobook from my library, and I think that's the way to go into it. It's a quick listen, and I found it entertaining, funny and surprisingly insightful. In that way, the book sneaked up on me. I was enjoying the story, as it was clearly diverting from reality into delightfully reckless fictional insanity, when I found myself wowed. Perri has absolutely written an entertaining novel, but it packs a wonderful punch without feeling like an idea novel.

Audiobook thoughts: Jorjeana Marie was a delightful narrator. At first, I found her voices for other characters to be slightly over-the-top, particularly Robert, but I soon grew to enjoy them. She reads in a somewhat confessional tone, and I thought she captured Tina perfectly. The tone of this novel is key to its enjoyment, and Jorjeana Marie delivers.

The verdict: I love novels that entertain me and make me think, and The Assistants does both. It's the perfect balance of light and deep, and I enjoyed the time I spent with it. I listened compulsively, but it's biggest gift is how much I'm still thinking about it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 7 hours 49 minutes (283 pages)
Publication date: May 3, 2016
Source: library

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

Want more? Follow Camille Perri 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, June 28, 2016

book review: Chronicle of a Last Summer by Yasmine El Rashidi

The basics: Yasmine El Rashidi's debut novel is set in Cairo in three pivotal summers in modern Egyptian history: 1984, 1998, and 2014.

My thoughts: I admit, most of what I know about contemporary Egyptian politics comes from watching the documentary The Square, which is harrowing and amazing. El Rashidi has the daunting task of writing a novel about a time and place readers may or may not be familiar with. She attempts to address this problem through her narrator. We meet her in 1984 when she is a child trying to filter the different things she hears from friends and family members to make sense of them. Child narrators don't often work for me, but this one was successful. She served as a filter for the reader to learn the state of things, and this section also sets the stage to offer contrast to the coming sections (if you know anything about Egypt, that is not a spoiler.)

The second section was my favorite. I partially attribute it to the fact that the narrator, and perhaps El Rashidi herself, are about the same age. To see the summer of 1998 unfold was fascinating in three ways. In some ways, it's the most interesting piece of the puzzle of Egypt, as I knew the least about this time period. I am also drawn to narratives of college as a vehicle for deep thinking--to have that experience against that political backdrop moved me deeply. To view Egypt and our narrator in the year of 1998, which was such a pivotal year for me personally, as I graduated high school and I entered college, made me critically examine the world in 1998, including my own place in it. El Rashidi writes about this time beautifully:
"There isn't a language for what we are living. We need our own vocabulary, not just new forms of literature and art. He is teaching himself Russian because he thinks he might find answers, a language that speaks to all he feels about the politics of our times."
"She doesn't use the term Middle East because it is a creation of the British. To use it is to remain colonized. I used Middle East all the time. I nodded and made a mental note to be careful."
When the action shifts to the last summer, 2014, I was excited. I knew the most about this time, and I thought El Rashidi had set up the story beautifully. In some ways, this section disappointed. It was certainly a fitting end, but it felt less fully realized in some ways. Perhaps because we are still so close to the events, it did not offer the historical insight the other two pieces did. In a sense, the whole book is saying that: even if we understand how we got here, how did we get here? There aren't answers, of course. As I ponder why the third section felt like I let down, I think it tried to do much; it felt too convenient. Most of the novel felt like it was the story of one woman first and her country second. In the third section, I didn't feel as connected to our narrator. So many people and places get an ending, and I found myself wanting more of her present and future.

Favorite passage: "It seems that politics is at the foreground and background of everything yet not something that can be impacted in any way."

The verdict: Chronicle of a Last Summer is a beautiful glimpse into Egypt from the 1980's to the present. El Rashidi skillfully straddles the line of knowledge and emotion in a way that this book could be enjoyed by readers who know little about contemporary Egypt as well as those who know quite a bit. I'm drawn to short novels that do a lot, and Chronicle of a Last Summer is just that. El Rashidi showed immense restraint to tell such a large story in this way, and it makes me quite excited to see what she'll write next.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: June 28, 2016
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Chronicle of a Last Summer from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Follow Yasmine El Rashidi 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, June 27, 2016

book review: Blood Defense by Marcia Clark

The backstory: I thoroughly enjoyed Marcia Clark's prior mystery series, featuring Los Angeles prosecutor Rachel Knight: Guilt by Association, Guilt by Degrees, Killer Ambition, and The Competition. Blood Defense is the first in a new series featuring Los Angeles defense attorney Samantha Brinkman. (It also signals a change in publishers for Clark.) And yes, as her Twitter handle says, she's that Marcia Clark, who is still most famous for prosecuting O.J. Simpson for murder.

The basics: Blood Defense introduces Samantha Brinkman, a defense attorney struggling to make a name for herself. She appears as a defense expert frequently on a new talk show, but her office is in the heart of gang territory, and she lacks high profile, paying clients. That changes when she takes the case of Dale, an LAPD detective charged in the double homicide of Chloe, a starlet and his girlfriend, and Paige, Chloe's roommate.

My thoughts: The mystery at the heart of this novel is who killed Chloe and Paige. The mystery drives the narrative and offers insights into Samantha's interior monologue. There are other small storylines featuring other clients on low or no-profile cases that offer a nice glimpse into the working life of a defense attorney, but the murders of Chloe and Paige is the focus. It's clear why Dale looks guilty, but it's satisfyingly murky if he actually did. There's plenty of circumstantial evidence, of course, but that leaves plenty of room for reasonable doubt. Samantha and her investigator, a hacker and former client, work hard to find other theories of the crime. Samantha struggles to both find another theory she can use in the courtroom and to figure out if Dale actually did it or not.

The verdict: I was ambivalent about Samantha as a character for most of this novel. I found the primary mystery quite compelling, but the final pages found me sitting with my jaw open, followed by squealing and immediately pre-ordering Moral Defense, the second novel in the series, which will be published November 8, 2016. I'm fully, ecstatically on Team Brinkman, and I cannot wait to see what she does next.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 400 pages
Publication date: May 1, 2016
Source: personal copy

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Blood Defense from Amazon (Kindle edition is only $5.99 and free for Kindle Unlimited readers!)

Want more? Visit Marcia Clark'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!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday Salon: Two Weeks in Review

The Sunday
Hello from hot and sunny Orlando! I'm here for the American Library Association's Annual Conference, which is once again proving to be an exciting and exhausting mix of work, fun, networking, book events and reading. My schedule calms down considerably tomorrow, so I hope to spend time drafting some of those reviews I keep meaning to write.

What I Read Last Week The Last Two Weeks
1. Since my last week in review, I finished Blood Defense by Marcia Clark. I am impatiently awaiting the second book in this series, Moral Defense, but I'm excited it's out in November. Two books a year? Yes, please!
2. I also finished The Assistants by Camille Perri on audio, which was entertaining and perceptive. It surprised me. I keep pondering it--in a good way.
3. I picked the new novel from one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, to read on the planes to Orlando, and I'm so glad I did. Commonwealth isn't out until September, but it is a masterpiece.
4. I'm currently devouring Wendy Walker's psychological thriller, All Is Not Forgotten, which comes out July 12th. Thanks to many shuttle rides between meetings and events (did I mention it's hot in Orlando?), I read half of it yesterday. I'm also listening to The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. It's fascinating, and I'm learning so much about Chinese cooking and culture.

What I Watched This Week
1. I'm almost done with season 2 of Grace and Frankie on Netflix. I really enjoy this show and its complex characters.
2. ALA is an exhausting conference, and by the end of the day, I want to lay in bed and watch a little tv to unwind from all the library and book talk. Watching the first two episodes of my long-running summer guilty pleasure Big Brother has been the perfect way to end my evenings. I'm disappointed at the identities of three of the returning players, as I read a report that included four very different people, but I am really excited about this year's twists (so far) and the new houseguests. 
3. On the plane to Orlando, I took a break from reading and watched the first two episodes of Blindspot. It was fascinating and entertaining. Unfortunately, the rest of the season isn't available to stream currently, but I hope it shows up somewhere later this summer.

The Best Thing I Bought This Week
In a clear sign of "I obviously spent too much money on Kindle books for awhile," my settlement from the Apple ebook case was almost $200. My jaw hit the floor. I decided to treat myself to a Kindle Paperwhite. I adore my Fire, but I don't always love it for reading text-based books. And I don't love having to charge it every night. My original Kindle is collecting dust on a shelf somewhere, and the Paperwhite is everything I miss about it and more. It's the perfect combination of e-ink and backlight. 

The Best Thing I Ate This Week
In a sign I don't remember many of my meals, I did say yes three times to the passed shrimp ceviche with avocado cream at a reception at Cuba Libre last night. I would have said yes again, but they stopped coming around.

What I'm Looking Forward to This Week
1. Hawthorne snuggles and kisses! I miss him so much, but this trip he is both aware I'm gone and asking for me. During a video chat with him Friday, He put his arms up indicating he wanted me to pick him up, and then he cried when I didn't. While I enjoy having some time to myself, and I love the excitement of this conference, I cannot wait to be back home with my boys.
2. While I'm here, however, I am excited to enjoy a few more loops on my hotel's lazy river. It is so relaxing, and it helps cool me off in this miserable heat.
3. This morning I'm off to hear the daughter of Margaret Mead speak. I'm fascinated by Mead, not only because Euphoria, Lily King's novel inspired by her, is one of my all-time favorites.

Your turn: tell me something great you watched, read or ate this week.

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, June 12, 2016

Sunday Salon: Introducing The Week in Review

The Sunday
Hi, there! It's been awhile. I'm reading some, listening to audiobooks more, and writing reviews not at all. I've also been pondering some new ideas for this space I love. As I've shifted away from prize list reading to reading whatever strikes my fancy, I find I'm almost always reading books not yet out or books published in the last month. I love this impulsive reading, but when publishers ask you to hold reviews, there's been a disconnect between when I read the book and when the review posts. I don't want to stop doing reviews, but I do want to find a way to talk about things as I'm reading them. I do some of that on Twitter, but I want to find a way to carve out more of me in this space.

Thus, today I'm launching The Week in Review, which is inspired by Maris Kreizman's The Maris Review (you should subscribe to this Tiny Letter. It's awesome.) I like the idea of keeping track of books, tv, movies (in theory), articles I've read, food, and Hawthorne's antics. This week will also see the return of reviews. Some reviews will be in my traditional set-up, but I'm also playing around with different types of reviews.

What I Read This Week:
1. I finished Maestra on audio. It was a fun listen, but it reminded me Hawthorne is old enough I need to be more mindful of my audiobook choices. I do not need my 22-month old learning the c-word, which is used plentifully in that novel. Review to come.
2. I've been reading Marcia Clark's new novel Blood Defense. It's the first in a new series (and with a new publisher.) I loved her Rachel Knight series, so I had high hopes, and I like it, but I think I've been reading it for three weeks already. I pledge to finish it this weekend.
3. My current audiobook is The Assistants by Camille Parri. It's fun and sometimes funny. I'm over half-way through, and I keep wondering if it's just going to keep going at this pace. It's fine, but I hope it goes somewhere. And that I can finish before my library download of it expires in three days.

What I Watched This Week:
1. I hearby declare my love of The Bachelorette. I wasn't sold on this season, but this week's episodes were delightful. There was romance (that hot yoga date--swoon!), there was comedy, there was drama, and there was a two-on-one date, which provides the joy of leaving someone on a mountain and someone coming to awkwardly collect the luggage. I've been back on The Bachelor/Bachelorette bandwagon since they cast Iowan Chris Soules as The Bachelor, and I'm ready to publicly admit I like the show, even as I abhor so much of what is stands for. It's damn entertaining.
2. I started the six-part series The Vanishing Women on Investigation Discovery. As filmmaking, it's not very polished, but the story is fascinating: in the span of one year, six women disappeared from Chillicothe, Ohio (population 25,000). Four have been found dead. Two are still missing. The first episode went in depth into the disappearance of the fourth woman to go missing. It relies too heavily on unnecessary reenactments, but the story is a compelling and haunting mystery. I'll keep tuning in.

The Best Thing I Ate This Week:
A frosted sugar cookie (okay I had two) from The Bake Shoppe. A rare indulgence, but they are so, so good.

What I Avoided This Week:
The outside. It's that terrible time of year in Iowa when I don't want to go outside. It's too hot. And the ten-day forecast shows more of the same. I'm trying to embrace the heat more for Hawthorne's sake (although he seems to share my dislike of it), but it's going to be 98 today. That is too much.

What I'm Looking Forward to This Week:
1. A Tuesday off with Mr. Nomadreader and Hawthorne. To use the last of my vacation days by the end of June (as is required), I'm taking Tuesdays off so we have a day off together as a family. It's been delightful thus far this summer.
2. The last play of Stage West's season (we have season tickets) is Thursday night: Mothers and Sons by Terrence McNally.
3. I bought Hawthorne a few new books in preparation for our trip for a family reunion next month. I hope some of these edge out the ones I'm a little bored of reading to him over and over again.

My Favorite Photo of Hawthorne This Week:
My phone tells me I only took videos and Snapchats. I'll work on that for next week. He turns 22 months old tomorrow (!)

Your turn: tell me something great you read, watched or ate this week

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, May 11, 2016

book review: Something New by Lucy Knisley

The backstory: Lucy Knisley is one of my favorite comics artists. My reviews of her earlier books: French Milk, Relish, An Age of License, and Displacement.

The basics:  "DIY maven Lucy Knisley was fascinated by American wedding culture . . . but also sort of horrified by it. So she set out to plan and execute the adorable DIY wedding to end all adorable DIY weddings. And she succeeded."--publisher

My thoughts: Lucy Knisley and I share a love of food and travel. After reading Something New, it's clear we also share complicated views about weddings and the associated traditions. I still love to talk about my wedding. I still think fondly of my wedding. And I loved revisiting so many of the conversations I had about my wedding while reading about Knisley's. At the time, it felt like I was constantly justifying and defending my decisions (no engagement ring, matching simple wedding bands, not wearing white, walking down the aisle with Mike, etc.)

But this review is about Something New, which is lovely in so many ways. Knisley chronicles her own journey in love (parts of the beginning will be familiar to readers of her earlier work) and marriage, but along the way, she takes the space to reflect, question, and engages the reader in a thoughtful conversation. It's lovely.

Favorite passage: 

The verdict: Something New is my favorite Knisley yet. Knisley beautifully tells the story of her wedding planning, but she also explores complicated ideas about weddings, gender roles, and social customs. It's a book I wish existed when I got married, but I'm so glad it lives in this world now. Even better: Knisley is expecting a child and has a book deal for one about pregnancy, motherhood and reproductive medicine. 2018 is entirely too far away.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: May 3, 2016
Source: publisher

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

Want more? Visit Lucy Knisley's websitefollow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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, May 10, 2016

book review: The Last Good Girl by Allison Leotta

The backstory: The Last Good Girl is the fifth title in Allison Leotta's mystery series featuring D.C. D.A. Anna Curtis. This series is one of my favorites: starting with her debut mystery Law of Attraction, continuing with the e-short story Ten Rules for a Call Girland the novels Discretion, Speak of the Devil, and A Good Killing.

The basics:  "Emily, a [first-year student] at a Michigan university, has gone missing. She was last seen leaving a bar near Sigma Pi, the prestigious and secretive fraternity known on campus as “the rape factory.” The main suspect is Dylan Brooks, the son of one of the most powerful politicians in the state. But so far the only clues are pieced-together surveillance footage of Emily leaving the bar that night…and Dylan running down the street after her."

My thoughts: Leotta jumps into the campus sexual assault crisis in a major way with The Last Good Girl. If you've read Missoula (my review) or seen the documentary The Hunting Ground, or read stories in the news, you'll recognize threads from highly-publicized cases and well-documented statistics infused into the story. Still, Leotta introduces some other fascinating fictional elements around the familiar ones: "She rolled out the notorious "one in five" statistic--but she added something I hadn't heard before. She said six percent of the boys commit ninety percent of the rapes on campus." Like many readers, Anna Curtis comes into this case with some knowledge of the current epidemic of rape on campus, but she, and thus the reader, learn a lot more about it over the course of this novel.

As someone who works in higher education, I'm fascinated (and horrified) by these events. Leotta does a fine job navigating and exploring the landscape of higher education. As the child of a former college president, I quibbled with a few minor details, but mostly I was impressed with how Leotta portrayed and explained higher education--in positive and negative ways.

As fascinated as I was with the setting and focus of this novel, I enjoyed the mystery the most. I'm fascinated by missing person stories, particularly ones like Emily's, when so much is in question. The evidence seems to point in one direction, but there are so many possibilities, even if there is one probability. As Anna explores them all, I found myself assuming the most likely solution wouldn't be the ultimate solution. In fact, I hoped it wouldn't be, as this novel wouldn't be much of a mystery. Knowing Leotta is responsible for one of my all-time favorite plot twists ever (in any medium), I couldn't help but wonder how she would end this novel. In short: I wasn't disappointed that I was surprised.

Favorite passage: ""You're hysterical" is what men say to women when they don't give a shit and think you shouldn't either."

The verdict: The Last Good Girl is both a page-turning mystery and a critical examination of how colleges handle rape cases. That Leotta can fuse these two disparate threads together so seamlessly is a testament to her writing and pacing skill. While Emily's case could be enjoyed as a stand-alone, the stories involving Anna's personal and professional lives include major spoilers from the previous four books, and I recommend you read this series in order, starting with Law of Attraction.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: May 3, 2016
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Last Good Girl from Amazon (Kindle edition.Better yet: start with Law of Attraction. Buy it from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Allison Leotta'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!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

book review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

The backstory: Curtis Sittenfeld is one of my favorite authors. I've thoroughly enjoyed all her novels, Prep, The Man of My Dreams, Sisterland and my all-time favorite novel, American Wife

The basics: Eligible is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. It's set in contemporary Cincinnati.

My thoughts: I begin this review with a confession: I have never read Pride and Prejudice. Unless you count the BabyLit version, which I have read to Hawthorne more times than I can count. Despite never having read it (or seen any of the film adaptations), I am quite familiar with the plot. I debated whether or not to read Pride and Prejudice before or after Eligible. I spent months, in fact, with a copy of Eligible on my Kindle debating. So I finally read it, and I'm glad I didn't read Pride and Prejudice first. Sittenfeld writes in a way that is thoroughly modern and authentic, but I was able to guess the actual events of Pride and Prejudice (confirmed by two friends who read both) quite well. There was one exception: I didn't surmise that Wick and Ham were the singular character of Wickham in the original, but I think the choice was inspired.

The title of the novel shares a title with a Bachelor-like television show. I was apprehensive about this element of the plot (even though I admit I do watch The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Bachelor in Paradise), but it worked so perfectly...and provided a lot of humor. It's the perfect update to everyone in Cincinnati knowing who Bingley is and that's he's looking for love.

Some of the most humorous moments were smart updates on comedy of manners:
"Fred!" the nurse said, tough they had never met. "How are we today?" Reading the nurse's name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, "Bernard! We're mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?"
In this sense, Sittenfeld manages to entertain and offer fresh social commentary, both in the present, and by tracing a line at how similar, yet different, our social mores are from Austen's time.

Favorite passages: "You're a gossip fiend who tries to pass off your nosiness as anthropological interest in the human condition"

"Your talent for gosip is a large part of why I enjoy your company." He was regarding her with an expression that both appraising and tender. "I've never met anyone with your interest in other people. Even when you're juding them, you do it with such care and attention. I can never predict who you'll like or dislike, but I always know your reasons will be very specific and you'll express them with great passion."

The verdict: Eligible is a delightful and intelligent romantic comedy. It's dialogue rich, and I kept imagining it as a play or a film. It's a delightful mix of high brow and low brow that will appeal to many different types of readers. There's humor, warmth, plot twists, and delightful feminist social commentary.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 512 pages
Publication date: April 19, 2016
Source: publisher

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

Want more? Visit Curtis Sittenfeld'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, April 12, 2016

book review: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

narrated by Nancy Wu

The backstory: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding was longlisted for the 2016 Baileys Prize.

The basics:  "When Amaterasu Takahashi opens the door of her Philadelphia home to a badly scarred man claiming to be her grandson, she doesn’t believe him. Her grandson and her daughter, Yuko, perished nearly forty years ago during the bombing of Nagasaki. But the man carries with him a collection of sealed private letters that open a Pandora’s Box of family secrets Ama had sworn to leave behind when she fled Japan."--publisher

My thoughts: I started this book on audio but switched to print about half way through.The reader, Nancy Wu, was good, and I appreciated her pronunciations of the Japanese names and words, but she read relatively slowly. The book is less than 300 pages, but the audio is over 11 hours. I reached a point where I wanted to finish more quickly than the audio would allow. It's rare for me to listen to half of a book and read the other half, and I find myself pondering how those different reading experiences come together in this novel.

The premise is an interesting one. It's rich with family secrets, history and mystery. Interestingly, I found the central mystery--is the man at Amaterasu's door really Yuko--the least compelling part of the narrative. Interspersed between that provocative beginning and the end are many more mysteries, and these smaller stories captivated me more. Throughout all of these mysteries there was a fair amount of foreshadowing, so some of the reveals felt inevitable by the time they appeared.

Favorite passage: "I am suspicious of nostalgia, pliable as it can be to our moods or needs, but sometimes I allowed the memories, however dubious, to take me to the bar before Sato, when the glow of the lamps was the only sign of time passing, or enery spent, or old jokes shared not just to fill the silence."

The verdict: Copleton attempts to tell the story of one family but also to tell the story of a generation and the impact of the war. I found the novel at times uneven, fascinating, captivating and dull. Overall, I preferred it more in print than on audio, but I'm glad to have had Wu's pronunciations to rely on as I read the last half.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 11 hours 9 minutes (299 pages)
Publication date: December 1, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Jackie Copleton'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!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

audiobook review: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

narrated by Graham Halstead and Julia Whelan

The basics: The first in a new young adult trilogy, A Study in Charlotte follows Charlotte Holmes, a descendant of Sherlock Holmes, and Jamie Watson, a descendant of Dr. Watson, as students at a Connecticut boarding school.

My thoughts: I typically file Sherlock Holmes under the "things I simply don't really like--but people with similar taste always seem to love." And I haven't read a young adult novel in several years. So what made me pick up a young adult Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery? Brittany Cavallaro's Twitter bio.

Despite not really caring for most adaptations or appropriations of Sherlock Holmes I've encountered, I really like the smart ways Cavallaro uses Holmes. Most importantly, she makes Holmes and Watson real people. Sometimes I have to remind myself my favorite characters aren't real people, and after so many years and iterations, doesn't it seem like Holmes and Watson were real? I also liked that Charlotte is a teenage girl. She's appropriately flawed, but she is also badass. She shares many of the traditional Sherlock Holmes traits, including his predilection for opiates. And it works.

While this novel is in many ways a fascinating character study with traces of a family saga for the Holmeses and Watsons, the mystery at the center of it is pretty clever. Someone is staging crimes to look exactly like the famous crimes the original Holmes and Watson solved. Someone is framing Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson. I suspect fans of Sherlock Holmes will spot the clues before they're explained, but those unfamiliar with them will make sense of them through Jamie and Charlotte's dialogue.

Audiobook thoughts: One small quibble--part of the reason I opted for the audio was because I find myself gravitating toward multiple narrators. I kept waiting (and waiting) for Julia Whelan to narrate. I don't know if I would've expected Charlotte to get a turn telling the story simply because I knew there was a female narrator or not, but we don't hear from Charlotte until the very end. It works well within the story, but as a listener, knowing there were two narrators made me wonder when the second narrator would appear.

The verdict: I thoroughly enjoyed this audiobook, and I'm curious to see where Cavallaro goes in the next two volumes in the trilogy. The story is engaging, the characters are cleverly constructed, and the mystery was compelling.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 8 hours 41 minutes (336 pages)
Publication date: March 1, 2016
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy A Study in Charlotte from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Brittany Cavallaro'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, March 30, 2016

audiobook review: First Ladies from NPR

The basics: NPR edited together stories about first ladies over the years, including interviews with the more modern ones.

My thoughts: American Wife, a fictionalization of Laura Bush's life, is my favorite novel, and I'm fascinated by the unlikely journeys we take in life. I think the journey to first lady (or first gentleman, one day) is one of those that is the biggest leap, and is the most fascinating. When I saw this one available at my library, I eagerly downloaded it. It wasn't quite what I expected, but I enjoyed it.

For such a short audiobook, I feel as though I learned a lot, but it was somewhat uneven. I wished for more first ladies to be featured, but because NPR was pulling from their archives, they're somewhat limited. The early first ladies were featured in interviews with their biographers, and I was eagerly adding to my TBR as I listened. As we move through history, I was glad I opted for audio, as some news stories featured historic recordings of the first ladies. It was fascinating to hear their voices. The more modern first ladies were all featured in interviews they gave, and I appreciated that.

Because I am a frequent NPR listener and have been for many years, I'd heard some of the stories before. Some, however, were from more than thirty years ago, and it was nice to see them get new life in this way. While I enjoyed the in-depth interviews with Barbara and Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama, I feel as though I already know them so well, and I found myself wishing for less of them and more of the first ladies I don't know as well. I could say the same about Roslyn Carter, the only first lady I've had the privilege to spend a day with, but her interview was so frank and thoughtful, I was glad it was included.

The verdict: First Ladies is a nice collection of stories about many first ladies. It inspired me to seek out more information about many of the women featured, as well as information on those who weren't.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 3 hours 35 minutes
Publication date: Feburary 3, 2015 
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy American Chronicles: First Ladies from Amazon (no 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!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

book review: Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear

The backstory: I started reading the Maisie Dobbs series in 2010 (it began in 2003), and it's one of my favorite mystery series. The last title, A Dangerous Place, was a bit of a departure for the series, and it my least favorite in the series, so I approached Journey to Munich with cautious optimism it would delight me.

My reviews of other Jacqueline Winspear novels: Maisie DobbsBirds of a FeatherPardonable LiesMessenger of TruthAn Incomplete RevengeAmong the MadThe Mapping of Love and DeathA Lesson in SecretsElegy for EddieLeaving Everything Most LovedThe Care and Management of Liesand A Dangerous Place.

The basics: It's 1938, and the German government is willing to release a particularly valuable British prisoner to a family member only. Coincidentally, the prisoner's daughter looks a lot like Maisie, so she's enlisted to travel to Munich and retrieve this stranger.

My thoughts: This series has been slowly progressing toward World War II for quite some time, and the first time I saw this cover, it took my breath away. The thought of Maisie in Hitler's Germany is intriguing, and I was willing to forgive the perhaps too convenient coincidence that this man's daughter looked like Maisie. (To be fair, Winspear does make a strong case through her characters that no other women are trained and able to do the job other than Maisie, which does make sense in its time and place.) There is an immense amount of tension that builds as Maisie heads to Munich. Much of the novel feels like a spy caper or a thriller.

One of my favorite things about this series has always been the balance of mystery and character development, and Journey to Munich excels at it. After the last two in the series (and the time jump in between), part of me felt as though I needed to get to know Maisie again, and Journey to Munich provides that opportunity. Maisie is still a changed woman, but there are some lovely flashes of the old Maisie in this new one.

Favorite passage: "She was surprised at how easily she was finding her way around, as if the geography of a place were another language and she was developing her ear for the sounds, oft-used words, and the way in which movement echoes speech."

The verdict: Journey to Munich was a triumphant return to the Maisie Dobbs I know and love. Not only is it a satisfying mystery and thriller in its own right, but it sets the stage for an intriguing next step, both for Maisie and the world, as World War II looms. Perhaps I most appreciated the pacing of this novel, as Winspear seems to have one mystery be the heart of this novel, when really, there's much more at play than I first suspected.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 309 pages
Publication date: March 29, 2016
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Journey to Munich from Amazon (Kindle edition.) Haven't read this series yet?--start at the beginning with Maisie Dobbs.

Want more? Visit all the tour stops, visit Jacqueline Winspear's website and like her on Facebook.

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, March 21, 2016

book review: The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

The backstory: The Book of Memory is on the 2016 Baileys Prize longlist.

The basics:  "Memory, the narrator of Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory, is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, after being sentenced for murder. As part of her appeal, her lawyer insists that she write down what happened as she remembers it. The death penalty is a mandatory sentence for murder, and Memory is, both literally and metaphorically, writing for her life. As her story unfolds, Memory reveals that she has been tried and convicted for the murder of Lloyd Hendricks, her adopted father. But who was Lloyd Hendricks? Why does Memory feel no remorse for his death? And did everything happen exactly as she remembers?"--publisher

My thoughts: The Book of Memory was one of the novels I most anticipated this year. The premise is downright beguiling. Gappah's background is as a lawyer, and I loved that she infuses law in this novel without writing from the point of view of a lawyer. The first few chapters of this book read like a crime novel. Gappah expertly reveals shocking details that made me aware of false assumptions I made and raised my curiosity about Memory and her story.

Soon, however, the novel slows down. Memory writes of her past and present well. She must dive into her childhood, of course, to understand her relationship with Lloyd, who bought her from her parents when she was nine. She must write about her life before Lloyd, as she struggles to understand why her parents sold her. This backstory offers wonderful insight into life in Zimbabwe, but some of the detail felt unnecessary. At times, Gappah didn't dig deep into the lives of the minor characters to make it seem essential to the story.

Memory uses sly humor discreetly. Casual readers may not pick up on Memory's misunderstanding of English language and its pop culture, but careful readers will delight in it. As a reader, I enjoyed these moments and appreciated their subtlety, but I also longed for a perspective other than Memory herself. I wanted a different perspective too.

The verdict: The premise of this novel is wonderful, and while it shines at times, the execution was uneven, and too many moments dragged. Overall, I found it to be disappointing because of its moment of greatness, but those moments have me excited for Gappah's next novel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: February 2, 2016
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Book of Memory from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Petina Gappah'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, March 15, 2016

book review: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The backstory: The Turner House was a 2015 National Book Award finalist, a finalist for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, a 2015 New York Times Notable Book and named a National Book Award 5 Under 35.

The basics:  "For over fifty years the Turners have lived on Yarrow Street. Their house has seen thirteen children get grown and gone—and some return; it has seen the arrival of grandchildren, the fall of Detroit’s East Side, and the loss of a father. But when their powerful mother falls ill, the Turners are called home to decide their house’s fate and to reckon with how their past haunts—and shapes—their future."--publisher

My thoughts: The Turner House is a book I expected to adore. The premise and setting excited me. I picked it for my book club, which meets later this month. And while I liked it, and I'm quite curious to see what Flournoy writes next, I wasn't wowed. When I sat down to write this review, I was surprised to see I didn't highlight a single passage. I knew I had complicated thoughts about this novel, but I hoped to have some passages to back up my claims.

The Turner House is at its best with its richly drawn characters. Each felt so real, which is impressive given the large family. Their interactions with one another were dynamic, and Flournoy skillfully lets this novel feel like it belongs to all the Turners, even as we spend most of our time with only a few of them.

Where The Turner House fell flat with me was the haint. It felt like part magical realism and part symbolism, but it didn't feel as authentic as the rest of the novel, and because it's introduced so early and featured so prominently, it's hard to avoid. I often struggle with magical realism, and the introduction of the haint had me rolling my eyes. It's hard to stay invested in fiction once my eyes start rolling. And yet, I did because other parts of the novel are so good.

After finishing this book, I was chatting about it on GoodReads. A very astute reader mentioned that she viewed the haint as symbolic of "the legacy of racism/slavery following the family through generations. The father tried to escape by moving north to Detroit, but it followed him there, and continued to torment his son. The father tried for a new start - "There's no haints in Detroit!" - but he was wrong. You can't escape the continued "haunting" of institutionalized racism, which continues to affect future generations." It's seemingly so obvious, I can't believe I didn't think of it, except I found the haint so distracting, I didn't take the time to think about it in this way. And I love this idea, but I also realize I prefer my symbolism to come from the narrative itself. I don't know which Flournoy intended, but I do know I would have a very different reaction to this novel if the haint weren't in it.

The verdict: There's a lot to enjoy and think about it The Turner House. I didn't love it as much as I hoped to, largely because of the haint, but Flournoy is clearly a writer to watch, and I'm excited to see what she writes next.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: April 14, 2015
Source: library

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

Want more? Visit Angela Flournoy'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!