Monday, September 22, 2014

book review: An Age of License by Lucy Knisley

The backstory: Lucy Knisley is perhaps my favorite graphic memoirist. I've thoroughly enjoyed her first two graphic memoirs: French Milk and Relish.

The basics: In An Age of License, Knisley recounts her European book tour.

My thoughts: An Age of License is somewhat reminiscent of French Milk, as it's a travelogue and takes the form of her travel diary. While food is a frequent theme in this graphic memoir, as it is always is in Knisley's work, the emphasis here is more on life and reality. Even as Knisley enjoys her trek across Europe, there's a seriousness, and even a darkness, to this memoir.

Knisley's most recent long-term relationship recently ended. She still loves him, but she wants kids (one day), and he doesn't. As someone who didn't want kids for many years, and then was ambivalent about having kids for many more, I fully appreciate this tension. Disagreement about children trumps love. As Knisley rebounds from the end of this relationship, she tries to date again, and she writes with a frankness about love, sex, and attraction that I respect and appreciate.

Another theme in this memoir is her financial stress. As such a successful cartoonist and graphic memoirist, it's sobering to see Knisley struggle financially. Again, she writes (and draws) about her financial issues with a frankness I admire and appreciate. This trip isn't an escapist vacation travelogue of excess; Knisley doesn't leave her problems or stress behind on this journey, yet there are beautiful moments of joy, hope, and relaxation that make this memoir not be a stressful one to read.

The verdict: I adored An Age of License, as I have adored all of Knisley's work. It's fascinating to watch her grow as a writer as I continue to live vicariously through her graphic memoirs. My favorite moments of this one may be her explaining her need to write and draw about her experiences, and how that impacts those who are in her life.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 208 pages
Publication date: September 22, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy An Age of License from Amazon (no Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Lucy Knisley'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, September 21, 2014

Sunday Salon: One month

The Sunday Salon.comOne month old!
Last weekend Hawthorne turned one month old. Six days later, I managed to actually take his one-month photos. This one is my favorite, even though his feet moved out of the frame:

Thanks to my parents watching Hawthorne for a few hours on the weekend, I can write my blog posts for the week and not think about them during the week, when things seem crazy busy despite Mike having two days off and me still being on maternity leave. Alas, time is flying, and in a few weeks I'll be back at work and wondering what I did with my maternity leave. Coming up on the blog this week: reviews of An Age of License by Lucy Knisley, Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, and Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. Here's a preview: I only liked one of them.

I'm still reading sporadically. Some days are great. Others are not. Mostly my ability to want to spend my downtime reading depends on how much sleep I've gotten. Thankfully, when Hawthorne has a low sleep day, he responds by sleeping a lot the next day (so far.) Today I hope to finish How to Be Both by Ali Smith. Then I may treat myself by starting the forthcoming Michael Connelly, The Burning Room (it's out November 3rd.) I think a fast-paced mystery is called for after Ali Smith. I'm off to enjoy the rest of my baby break with books. Happy reading!

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, September 19, 2014

book review: The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly

this review may contain spoilers from previous Mickey Haller novels

The backstory: The Gods of Guilt is the fifth Michael Connelly mystery to feature Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller. For my reviews of the previous novels (and all of Michael Connelly's novels), please see my Review Database.

The basics: Mickey Haller gets called to defend a man accused of murder. The victim, Gloria, a prostitute and former client of Mickey's, told him if anything ever happened to her, he should call Mickey. Gloria's death haunts Mickey, and as he prepares to defend her accused murdered, he also investigates her death and fears his own actions defending Gloria many years ago may have played a role in her death.

My thoughts: I've raced through all of Michael Connelly's novels this year. While I enjoy the Harry Bosch novels more than the Mickey Haller novels, Haller, like Bosch, is a fascinatingly flawed character. When we last left Haller, he was planning to run for D.A. Between books, his campaign crashed and burned when a drunk driver he got off on a technicality again drove drunk and killed a mother and daughter. To further complicate matters, the daughter went to school with Mickey's daughter, and his relationship with her, and her mother, is once again fractured. Mickey himself seems more broken.

The case at the center of this novel is a fascinating one. The story jumps several months at several times, to keep pace with the timing of the trial itself. I appreciated this insight into the pace of justice, but it meant that other storylines not related to the case were mostly absent. As is typical in Haller novels, there is a lot of time spent at trial and in the details of the trial, along with Mickey's explanations for why he's strategizing the way he is. While I enjoy the legal strategy, it makes the pace seem somewhat slow for a mystery.

Favorite passage:  "Your father always called the jurors the ‘gods of guilt.’ You remember that?” “Yep. Because they decide guilty or not guilty."

The verdict: The Gods of Guilt is a fascinating murder mystery combined with a compelling legal thriller. This combination works well, but the emphasis on the trial slows down the pace of the novel before the climax. Haller once again shines as a complicated, flawed antihero of sorts.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 401 pages
Publication date: December 2, 2013
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Gods of Guilt from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Michael Connelly's websitelike 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!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

first thoughts: 2014 National Book Award (fiction) longlist

Thanks to Twitter, I learned the National Book Foundation announced their Fiction longlist twelve hours earlier than expected (thanks for letting me sleep in, National Book Foundation!) Here are this year's ten longlisted titles:

  • An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
  • The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol (my review)
  • Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • Redeployment by Phil Klay
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken
  • Orfeo by Richard Powers
  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  • Some Luck by Jane Smiley
My first thoughts: 
  • The judges seem to like short stories more than I do. This year's longlist has three story collections, and two are by debut authors (Antopol and Klay). If all three make the shortlist, I'll be surprised.
  • Cheers to the Iowa Writer's Workshop...and Iowa! Four authors have strong Iowa ties: McCracken, Robinson, Smiley and Darnielle. (John Darnielle has lived in Iowa.) 
  • The longlist is a nice cross-section of young talent and established talent, including one former winner (Powers) and two former shortlisted authors (Smiely and McCracken). I'm curious how the shortlist will look.
  • Richard Powers made the Booker Prize longlist but not the shortlist. Will he fare better here?
I doubt I'll be reading all ten, although I've already read one (hooray!) I do hope to make time Station Eleven and Some Luck soon, as I intended to read both before their longlist honors. I will attempt to read all five shortlisted titles. The shortlist will be announced October 15th.

Now tell me: what are your first thoughts about the longlist?

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!

book review: Inside Madeleine by Paula Bomer

The backstory: After thoroughly enjoying Paula Bomer's debut novel, Nine Months (my review), and her debut short story collection, Baby & Other Stories (my review), earlier this summer, I was excited to read her newest collection of stories, Inside Madeleine.

The basics: Inside Madeleine includes eight short stories and the titular novella.

My thoughts: When I read Bomer's first collection of stories, I said, "When I do enjoy short stories, I like a boldness of story telling: use the medium for its benefits. Bomer did not disappoint." Yet Inside Madeleine is even more bold than Baby & Other Stories. I even think it's more bold than Nine Months. Bomer has emerged as one of my favorite writers this summer, and I'm surprised to say I enjoy her short fiction as much, if not more than, her novel. She's an astonishingly brave writer.

I thoroughly enjoyed each of the stories in this collection, but "Inside Madeleine" really takes this collection to another level. We meet Madeleine as a child, and the novella covers most of her life, obviously with some parts receiving more attention than others. It's at times shocking, sad, and heart-wrenching, and heartwarming. But, like all of Bomer's stories, it's always authentic. She has a gift for writing gritty tales of young girls and women, and if the collection has a single theme, it's that. For once, the themes weren't what kept me eagerly turning pages in a short story collection. Bomer's writing and her characters shine throughout this collection. They are fully alive, honest, and true.

The verdict: There's not a bad story in this collection. While there isn't a single theme to unify the collection, several themes run through its stories. Bomer writers about young girls and women, growing up in the 1980's to the present. They live in the Midwest (Bomer is from South Bend, Indiana), Boston, and New York (where Bomer now lives.) They do not shy away from bad decisions, many involving men and drugs. There's a rawness to both Bomer's writing and her characters. The titular novella that ends this collection is a literary tour de force. It packs as much punch as a full-length novel, and it's one I won't soon forget.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 241 pages
Publication date: May 13, 2014
Source: library

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

Want more? Visit Paula Bomer'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!

Monday, September 15, 2014

book review: The Dog by Joseph O'Neill

The backstory: The Dog is on the 2014 Booker Prize longlist.

The basics: The unnamed narrator leaves New York for Dubai to work as the family officer and go-between for the very rich Batros family.

My thoughts: The narrative voice of our mysteriously unnamed narrator grabbed me immediately. He's quirky and weird, and a dark humor inflects the narrative:
"In Switzerland they eat dog sausages, and I cannot say the Swiss are stupid. Cold, yes. Greedy, yes. Stupid, no. But eating tigers for medicine? Very stupid. Maybe this should be our focus, the fight again stupidity. It's a very serious problem. There is a lot of stupidity in the world. It does much harm. You must understand this very well, coming from the United States."
Early on, I quite enjoyed this novel. The narrative voice was fresh, interesting, smart and funny. It brimmed with interesting commentary and observation, both about himself and the world. As he (and thus the novel) moved to Dubai, I was further intrigued not only by the descriptions of life and normalcy in Dubai, but about how the narrator's observations of the city also reflect on his own thoughts and opinions.

About halfway through the novel, however, I found myself wishing for more action. Despite quite enjoying the first half, I thought the descriptive and detailed scene setting would lead to more plot development. I found the presumably intended surprises in the plot to be telegraphed for much of the novel, and the second half of the novel fell somewhat flat for me.

A lot in The Dog reminded me of fellow Booker longlisted (and now shortlisted) novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. The young male narrators are similar in many ways, and the way they (and thus O'Neill and Ferris) tell the story is often similar. Both novels had strong writing, an intriguing narrator and set-up, but both ultimately left me wanting more. I'm not surprised, however, that both books would appeal to the same type of reader.

Favorite passage: "Children are natural snitches and squealers and accusers. This is because adults are natural policers, prosecutors, fact finders, judgers, punishers, torturers, hangers, electrocuters, gravediggers, and defamers of the dead."

The verdict: The Dog is at its best when the focus is on Dubai and its quirks and secrets. Unfortunately, Dubai wasn't always the focus of the story, and I found the Batros family business rather dull. I wanted either more plot or more of an emphasis on the Dubai setting.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: September 9, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Dog 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!

Monday, September 8, 2014

book review: The Ways of the Dead by Neely Tucker

The backstory: The Ways of the Dead is the debut mystery by Neely Tucker, a veteran journalist and memoirist.

The basics: Set in the late 1990's, The Ways of the Dead opens with the murder of Sarah Reese, the fifteen-year-old white daughter of a U.S. federal court judge. Veteran newspaper reporter Sully Carter, who like Tucker himself spent years covering foreign wars, notices a pattern of other dead young women on the same block, but the others are poor and not white. While the police actively pursue Sarah's death and mostly ignore the other deaths, Sully uses his contacts and press badge to follow the whole story.

My thoughts: I majored in journalism in college, and although I ultimately opted not to make my career in the field, I am drawn to tales of journalism, both in fiction and in non-fiction. As a journalist writing a novel whose main character is a journalist, Tucker brings great authenticity to the character of Sully. I loved the details of the news business, particularly how well steeped in the setting they were. I often have to remind myself how long ago the late 1990's were, but when presented with the antiquated technology Sully used, it was pretty obvious.

I typically prefer my mysteries to feature law enforcement, but the set-up of this mystery would be unlikely, if not impossible, to tell via a traditional investigation. It takes a journalist to see the patterns, and his neighborhood contacts, including those in law enforcement, share with him what they wouldn't share with others--mostly due to his long-established relationships with those contacts, but also to his reputation as a journalist. Tucker writes with reverence for the veteran journalist.

As much as I enjoyed the elements of journalism infused throughout this novel, it's much more than that. The mystery is superb, but what I most liked about it was the depth of character and social commentary that only served to enhance the mystery. The Ways of the Dead is reported to be the first in a series, and Tucker does a great job establishing Sully as a character, while also leaving many opportunities to continue to explore his past in future novels. So much of this mystery hinges on issues of race and class, and Tucker explores these social issues thoughtfully within the story itself.

The verdict: The Ways of the Dead is an astonishingly good debut mystery. Tucker tells a complicated mystery in a straight-forward way. The cast of characters is large, and the story covers a multitude of themes, but the narrative moves quickly and doesn't get lost in the details. Instead, as the case gets more complicated, these details make it ever more compelling. I'm already eagerly awaiting the next novel from Tucker.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: June 12, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Ways of the Dead from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Neely Tucker's websitelike 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, September 7, 2014

Sunday Salon: I am reading too many books (also my baby pouts adorably)

The Sunday Salon.comSome days, I spend hours and hours reading. Although it's been a few days since that happened. Not coincidentally, it's been a few days since Mr. Nomadreader went back to work (maternity leave is so much more fun with your husband home too) and since my in-laws went back to New York. Hawthorne and I are on our own for the most part, but we are surviving (if not necessarily thriving every day.) Hawthorne has developed an odd aversion to sleeping three hours at a time all day, every day (those were nice days, and I miss them.) Despite still having time to read, I am not in control of choosing when I have time to read each day. We are nowhere near a scheduled life around here, and it's a mystery to me each day how often Hawthorne wants to eat, have his diaper changed, sleep, and stay awake. If I could predict which naps would last ten minutes and which would last three hours, I'd be a very happy lady. Yesterday I was 0 for 5, which meant I attempted to nap with him many times when he woke us both up ten minutes later. It was not a day I did much reading because I was so very tired most of the day. (And my research on infant sleep habits and fussiness taught me it's only going to get worse until he's six weeks old, which is two and a half weeks away. Send help, baby sleep fairies!)

All of this minutiae of baby life is to say: I thought I was a moody reader while pregnant (and also quite tired, but in a very different way.) I am an even moodier reader while caring for an infant full-time. Here's the breakdown of what I'm currently reading, most of which are due to this adorable baby's influences on my ability to read different types of books at different times of day:

  • The books I started when I was pregnant and still haven't finished: I started two new books by two of my favorite authors before they were March (The Fever by Megan Abbott and The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear.) I am about half-way through both. I like them enough to not abandon them, but I do not, apparently, like them enough to ever actually pick them up. Yet Goodreads keeps reminding me I'm currently reading them. I really need to commit to finishing them this month...or officially abandon them.
  • The Booker longlist: With the shortlist announcement coming this week (hooray!), I'm still attempting to finish the longlist. Thanks to the Book Depository and publishers, I have a copy of each title on the longlist. I was making good progress and reading one a week, until I started The Wake the night before my water broke. It's written in Old English (or an approximation.) It's nearly impossible to read while sleep deprived or while also trying to pay attention to a baby. Each time I pick it up, I end up re-reading each paragraph multiple times. It is slow going for me. I'm also reading The Dog by Joseph O'Neill, which I'm quite enjoying so far, but it is dense enough that I cannot read it in the middle of the night when I'm up with Hawthorne (there are some exceptions to this rule when he allows me to get one four-hour block of sleep before requesting my services in the night.) So I spend as much daytime as I can with it. And it's also pretty short, and as I get farther into it, I can see myself being able to read it while very tired.
  • The nonfiction: I've been reading Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach (I unsurprisingly adored her memoir Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman, which I read while traveling across Europe alone in 2004) since February. It was my bathtub paperback, which was great when I was pregnant and it was winter, and I took a bath every night. I need to transition it to my primary book, as I adore it, and I've been reading it too long. Although it is almost bath season again. I've also been enjoying re-reading Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier. It was a delight to pick up in the last weeks of pregnancy, as I am probably feeling more female than I ever have before. And it's good, but it is sometimes too dense and scientific for reading while tired, so I keep plugging away at it slowly. 
  • The Sparrow: Trish is hosting a read-along for The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell this month. It's a book I've been meaning to read for years because it seems to be universally adored. I haven't technically started it yet because I've reading so many other things, but I hope to start it soon. And finish it shortly thereafter. 
My mission: finish (or officially abandon) all of these seven books by the end of September. Wish me luck!

And I totally intended to insert book covers so this post is more visually appealing, but I've been writing it in ten-minute intervals while Hawthorne naps this week--and that seems to be today's theme too--so I'll leave you with this adorable picture of Hawthorne pouting instead of taking the time to insert book covers. Enjoy!

Friday, September 5, 2014

book review: The Black Box by Michael Connelly

The backstory: The Black Box is the eighteenth Michael Connelly mystery to feature LAPD detective Harry Bosch. My reviews of the previous seventeen (and Connelly's other mysteries) are listed in my Book Review Database.

The basics: Twenty years ago, during the L.A. riots, Harry Bosch and his then partner were called to help investigate murders during the riots, when that precinct had too many murder victims to handle alone. With only a few hours at the crime scene of Anneke Jesperson, a young Danish photojournalist, Bosch knew then the crime wouldn't be solved. Now, in 2012, a ballistics match gives a new lead to the puzzling mystery of why a young, white foreigner found herself shot execution style in South Central L.A. during the height of the L.A. riots.

My thoughts: The titular black box is a powerful metaphor for Bosch's sense of justice and purpose:
"He believed that every case had a black box. A piece of evidence, a person, a positioning of facts that brought a certain understanding and helped explain what had happened and why. But with Anneke Jespersen, there was no black box."
As this mystery unfolds, it's hard to believe it can be solved. There are so many pieces that don't fit and don't make sense, but there are so few pieces of evidence to begin with. And the case is twenty years old. It's a fascinating investigation to see unravel, and, unsurprisingly, Connelly includes more than one jaw-dropping revelation over the course of the novel.

The novel begins in 1992, when Harry first arrives at the crime scene. Connelly has written about the L.A. riots many times, and I always enjoy his attention to this time. He captures the chaos so well. After the historical prologue, the story moves to the present (2012), and the tone shifts dramatically. If I didn't know better, I might think Connelly wrote the prologue twenty years ago.

Favorite passage:  "There were a lot of words used to describe jazz music. Bosch had read them over the years in the magazines and in the liner notes of records. He didn’t always understand them. He just knew what he liked, and this was it. Powerful and relentless, and sometimes sad."

The verdict: The Black Box is Michael Connelly at his very best. It's a gripping, complicated mystery that spans twenty years. It's a riveting cold case that offers Bosch an avenue to reflect on his memories of the case and a chance to redeem the investigation today. It incorporates the rich, disturbing stories of the riots and how they led to the Los Angeles of today. Mostly, though, it's about how things are not always what they appear, and the mystery's depth and breadth are one of the most riveting cases Bosch has solved.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 413 pages
Publication date: November 26, 2012 
Source: library

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

Want more? Visit Michael Connelly's websitelike 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!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

book review: The Amateurs by Conor Stechschulte

The basics: The Amateurs, the debut graphic novella from Conor Stechschulte, is the story of two butchers who arrive at work to find an empty shop and have no memory of how to do their jobs.

My thoughts: I'm still not quite sure what to make of The Amateurs in its entirety. As a reading experience, I quite enjoyed it. It's dark and funny, a winning combination for me, and I was enchanted with the hilarious attempts the butchers made to try to fill meet orders when there was no meat, only one cow and one pig. Along with their memory, these two also lost their common sense.

Over all, The Amateurs is bizarre. There appears to be much more going on, and while I enjoyed and appreciated the horror and humor, I wanted more of a resolution, even an ambiguous one. The ending came abruptly in my opinion, and I felt myself saying, "that's it?"

The verdict: While I enjoyed the experience of reading The Amateurs, I wished for more of a finale than it had. Still, Stechsculte is a talent to watch, and I'll be quite curious to see what he writes and draws next.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 72 pages
Publication date: June 8, 2014 
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Amateurs 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!

Friday, August 29, 2014

book review: The Drop by Michael Connelly

The backstory: The Drop is the seventeenth title in Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series. I've read and reviewed them all.

The basics: Harry Bosch has just learned he has 39 months left before being forced to retire again. Eager for a new case to throw himself into, he gets two in one morning. First, a cold hit on a 1989 rape and murder matches a then eight-year-old; is it a crime lab mistake or could this sex offender really have started so young? Then, the police chief asks Harry to look into the alleged suicide of Irvin Irving's son at the Chateau Marmont.

My thoughts: The Drop features two mysteries, and both were intriguing. Bosch juggles them well, and it never felt like one was the main storyline. This equality, however, led to a somewhat unsatisfying pacing and climax. Both storylines were set in the past and present. It was interesting to see Irving appear again, and his history with Bosch is a key part of the storyline. In quite a different way, the cold case storyline was more deeply set in the present. Connelly used a clever technique to frame the nature vs. nurture debate of 'where does evil come from?' The questions of morality and fault echo throughout both storylines well.

The verdict: With each mystery having its own revelations and climaxes, the last portion of the novel in particular had an odd flow. While both storylines received satisfying resolutions, both were simpler than Connelly's resolutions typically are. Both were good, but this novel was not greater than the sum of its parts. The Drop is a solid mystery, but when judged against the rest of Connelly's backlist, it wasn't quite as strongly executed.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 401 pages
Publication date: November 28, 2011
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Drop 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!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

book review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

The basics: Set over the course of one year and told entirely in letters of recommendation from Jason Fitger, a curmudgeonly professor of creative writing at Payne University, a second-tier Midwestern school, Dear Committee Members is a satirical look at the current state of academia, particularly the humanities and English.

My thoughts: I work in academia, and I have a fondness for novels set in academia. Julie Schumacher is a professor creative writing, and it's clear she knows academia well in this novel. I found Fitger's commentary hilarious, but as satirical as this novel is, it's firmly entrenched in reality:
"The LOR [letter of recommendation] has become a rampant absurdity, usurping the place of the quick consultation and the two-minute phone call--not to mention the teaching and research that faculty were supposedly hired to perform. I haven't published a novel in six years; instead, I fill my departmental hours casting words of praise into the bureaucratic abyss. On multiple occasions, serving on awards committees, I was actually required to write LORs to myself." 
At times I wished to read the actual responses to Fitger's letters or be privy to the conversations and emails he references, but Schumacher's dedication to only using letters of recommendation he writes provides a solid structure to this novel. Fitger is a character who is not afraid of saying (or writing) what is on his mind, even at inopportune times. In a few instances, I found myself asking, "but he wouldn't really put that in a letter of recommendation, would he?" As these moments of perceived implausibility passed, however, Schumacher found clever ways to reinforce them. Due to her well-formulated story and characters, the novel's premise works. It shouldn't be possible to tell a story through a single man's letters of recommendation, but Schumacher pulls it off, with humor and wisdom.

Favorite passage: "Sometimes when the year grinds to its end and the new term begins I feel I'm living the life of a fruit fly--the endless ephemeral cycle, each new semester a "fresh start" that leads to the same moribund conclusions."

The verdict: Dear Committee Members is a fast, smart read. It's laugh-out-loud-funny, assuming you get the somewhat inside jokes. It's also a biting commentary on current trends and issues in academia. Despite telling the story entirely through Fitger's letters, the reader grasps both his perspective on events as well as how others view the same events. This duality adds a depth to this slim novel; Fitger is an impressively well-developed character.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: August 19, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Dear Committee Members from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Julie Schumacher'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, August 25, 2014

book review: One Kick by Chelsea Cain

The backstory: One Kick is the first contemporary thriller in a new series from Chelsea Cain, author of the Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell serial killer series (my reviews: Heartsick, Sweetheart, Evil at Heart, The Night Season, Kill You Twice, and Let Me Go.)     

The basics: When she was five, Kick Lannigan was kidnapped by Mel. He changed her name and birthday, and she came to know him as her father. As Beth, she became a famous child pornography star. She was rescued after six years and returned to her family. Now 21, Kick obsesses over children who go missing and tries to track them down to save them from child predators.

My thoughts: I love Chelsea Cain for her bold, dark characters, particularly the female ones, and Kick Lannigan is certainly both. The novel's prologue details the day of Kick's rescue, then the action jumps forward ten years. Kick is, unsurprisingly, a deeply scarred woman, both emotionally and physically. But she's also a remarkably strong and fearless one.

Cain is a fearless writer, and as this novel explores the underground world of child pornography, it is predictably dark. Thankfully, Cain doesn't treat the subject matter in an exploitative or salacious manner, nor does she shy away from its realities. Still, I was surprised how Cain kept the tone of the novel from being too dark. I attribute her success to having bad-ass, rule-breaking characters fighting against the bad guys. Kick is the most notable example; she knows the secrets of how and where Mel kept her hidden for five years, and she uses this knowledge to help track and find others. As always in Cain's novels, she explores the tension between good and evil in fascinating ways that are beautifully complicated.

This novel is fast-paced in its action, but it's also a thoughtful exploration of Kick's psyche and life. Her interior monologue is a fascinating one. It's at times depressing and at times uplifting, but it's always honest and absorbing.

Favorite passage: "Kick's fear dissolved into rage, which was a lot more satisfying. Fear came with two options: fight or flight. Rage offered more shades of possibility."

The verdict: One Kick is an exhilarating, smart, adrenaline-pumping read. Cain has created another memorable, dynamic character in Kick Lannigan. The ending manages to be both satisfying and set up the second novel in this series perfectly. I'm already eagerly awaiting more of Kick's adventures.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 321 pages
Publication date: August 19, 2014
Source: publisher

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

Want more? Visit Chelsea Cain'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!

Friday, August 22, 2014

mini-book reviews: Nine Dragons, The Reversal, and The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly

I've been tearing through Michael Connelly's lengthy backlist, and I often find myself with repetitive things to say about them, so I'll mostly be doing mini-reviews of his titles, unless one compels me to write more deeply.

Note: these contain spoilers and references to prior Connelly books.

Nine Dragons is the fifteenth Harry Bosch mystery. When Harry and his partner catch the case of a murdered Chinese-American liquor store owner in South Los Angeles, Harry brings in the Asian Gang Unit to help. He also enlists the help of his daughter, Maddie, who lives in Hong Kong. Soon Maddie is kidnapped, and Harry's focus shifts to Hong Kong and saving her, while trying to figure out the connections between Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Nine Dragons is perhaps the most personal Harry Bosch novel yet. It's an intriguing mystery, but Maddie's kidnapping is a suspenseful thrill-ride through the chaotic streets of Hong Kong. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Source: library

The Reversal is the third Lincoln Lawyer novel featuring Mickey Haller. here, the LA District Attorney asks Mickey to serve as a special prosecutor to retry a child murderer after the 24-year-old verdict is reversed on appeal. Haller agrees, with two stipulations: his ex-wife, Maggie, an assistant district attorney, must serve as second chair, and Harry Bosch must be named the investigator. Seeing Mickey Haller as a prosecutor was fascinating, and it was a delight to have him working closely with Maggie and Harry throughout this novel. The mystery at the heart of this novel was also compelling. Connelly consistently comes up with believable situations to combine characters, and those efforts worth well here. While I found the resolution somewhat anti-climactic, the journey sure was fun.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: library

The Fifth Witness is the fourth Lincoln Lawyer novel featuring criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller. In this installment, criminal defense work has fallen off, and Mickey has become a specialist in foreclosure cases. The timeliness of this plot point was refreshing. Soon, however, Mickey finds himself back in the familiar territory of defending an accused murder. One of his foreclosure clients, a semi-famous anti-foreclosure activist, is accused of killing the banker trying to take away her home. The case receives a flurry of media attention, and it's a nice combination of intriguing mystery (if Lisa didn't do it, who did?) and contemporary social commentary. The trial is the bulk of this novel, and the pace felt slow to me at times, but the bright spots of suspense and surprise were well worth the slow spots.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: library

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, August 21, 2014

book review: Thirty Girls by Susan Minot

The basics: Thirty Girls is the story of two women: Esther, a Ugandan teenager who is one of thirty girls abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army from a convent home, and Jane, a young, idealistic American journalist who travels to Africa to tell the stories of these Ugandan children.

My thoughts: From this novel's very first pages, I was struck by the elegant brilliance of Minot's writing. I expected a serious treatment of a devastating part of our global history, and I got it. I also got stunning insight into the life of an idealistic young American woman. Admittedly, as a former idealistic, young American woman, I am partial to such character explorations: "Jane was sufficiently bewildered by what kind of person she was, so it was always arresting when someone, particularly a stranger, summed her up."

The juxtaposition of Jane's story with Esther's is haunting. It would be easy to make Jane and her problems seem vapid, but Minot handles the interior monologues of both young women beautifully:
"We are not fenced in. Here is not a prison and still we are not permitted to leave." (Esther)
"She felt far from everything. She often felt far from things in familiar surroundings, so it was a reassuring alignment when she had the feeling when actually far from home." (Jane) 
Often in dual narratives, I find myself enjoying or identifying with one more than another. As I read Thirty Girls, I didn't. I was as fascinated by Jane's story as I was by Esther's. The two women are so different and yet Minot skillfully forms connections between their stories and their perspectives. In the work of a lesser writer, this novel easily could have failed in several ways, but Minot skillfully writes these characters in this story in a way I won't soon forget.

Favorite passage: "Sometimes it seems discovery is the learning of all I do not know."

The verdict: Thirty Girls is a hauntingly beautiful novel. It's at times incredibly depressing, particularly as so much of it is based on real events, but the shared humanity Minot infuses her characters and this story worth make it an astonishingly important one.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 321 pages
Publication date: February 11, 2014
Source: publisher

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

Want more? Like Susan Minot 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!