Wednesday, January 28, 2015

audiobook review: The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

narrated by Julia Whelan

The backstory: As a holiday gift to members, Audible enlisted its 2014 narrator of the year, Julia Whelan, to record a new edition of the classic fable, The Snow Queen. (It's free on Audible until January 31, 2015.)

The basics: The Snow Queen, most recently made more famous as the inspiration for Frozen, is the story of two friends: one who gets lost in the woods and the other who goes on a journey of rescue.

My thoughts: I was curious to listen to this inspiration for Frozen. I assumed it would look quite different than the film, which I liked but did not love the way everyone else seems to. And it did, but it was not quite the cozy, winter read I envisioned. The story is divided into seven parts, and I found this structure odd, as not all of the pieces seemed essential.

Perhaps the most unexpected part of this story was how overtly Christian it was. Comically, when the story veered to the religious, I turned to look at my car's dashboard and nearly asked it aloud, "really? You're going there?" I suppose in hindsight it makes sense, given what I know of Hans Christian Andersen's religious views. Still, the infusion of religion felt out of place.

The verdict: As I sat down to write this review, I could not believe this book is only an hour and fourteen minutes long. It seemed so much longer while listening, despite Whelan's strong narration. This book is clearly not my preference, but perhaps those who enjoy fables or fairy tales will find more to enjoy in this classic. Over all, I wanted more vivid descriptions of the journey. For a book with so many interesting elements, the narrative was dreadfully dull.

Audio thoughts: Whelan's performance was, predictably, excellent. She took a very dramatic approach, including different voices for different characters. As I found the story itself rather dull, I appreciated her attempts to liven it up.

Rating: 2 out of 5
Length: 1 hour 14 minutes
Publication date: 
Source: Audible

Convinced? Treat yourself! It's free from Audible until January 31, 2015.

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, January 27, 2015

book review: The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain

The backstory: The Silent Sister is one of my book club's picks for January (we meet every other month and read two books.) The other pick is The Art Forger.

The basics: Riley MacPherson has a complicated relationship with her family. When her father dies, she's left to pack up his house. Her veteran brother, who still lives in the small town of New Bern, refuses to help. And her older sister committed suicide when Riley was very young. While going through her father's things, Riley begins doubting some of her family history and sets out to separate fact from fiction.

My thoughts: It was challenging to write the description of this novel without spoiling too much. It's challenging to talk about this book much at all without spoiling too much, so this review will remain more vague than I would perhaps like (and I am so looking forward to discussing this one with my book club!) The Silent Sister is a book I would almost classify as a mystery or a thriller because there are so many elements of suspense. But it reads more like women's fiction (a term I typically loathe, but it is descriptive) with moments of suspense. The more I thought about it, however, the more I became convinced it is simultaneously all of those things and thus none of them. Throughout this novel, it changes. The tone shifts from mysterious to nostalgic to haunting to reflective.

I enjoyed the suspenseful elements most. The mystery itself isn't terribly mysterious, as most of the revelations were foreshadowed too much for my taste. (Without so much foreshadowing, I would be inclined to think of this novel as more of a mystery.) What I found so enjoyable as I read was Riley's journey. Although I found I correctly predicted most of her discoveries before she did (because I had more information than she did, not because she is unintelligent or a frustrating character), I most enjoyed seeing how Riley would uncover each truth. She had so little to go on, and her frustration at her family for keeping so many secrets is compelling. So, too, is her questioning who she can trust. As a mystery reader, I'm tempted to not trust anyone, yet Chamberlain kept reminding me I wasn't reading a mystery, and that Riley's trust was steeped in reality.

The verdict: The Silent Sister is an entertaining, absorbing read. I found too many of the events over-foreshadowed, and thus some of the thrills fell flat for me. Still, I devoured this book in a single day, and Chamberlain had some twists I didn't see coming. If you're looking for a book to lose yourself in for a day, The Silent Sister is a good one.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 353 pages
Publication date: October 7, 2014
Source: library

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

Want more? Visit Diane Chamerlain'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, January 26, 2015

audiobook review: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

narrated by George Newbern

The basics: As the title indicates, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is the story of Robert DeShaun Peace's life, as written by his college roommate Jeff Hobbs, a novelist who relies on the memories of Rob's friends and family members to construct this biography of sorts.

My thoughts: As if the title itself isn't descriptive and sad, the subtitle, "a brilliant young man who left Newark for the Ivy League," underscores the sadness of Robert Peace's death. Even though I knew this story ends with his death, I compulsively listened to this book. It begins as a story of success. The tale of Robert Peace's childhood is remarkable and inspiring. It's a story too astonishing to be fiction.

Although I knew the ending of this book when I began it, Hobbs writing infuses so many mysteries into this book. I became obsessed with the hows and whys of Robert's life. There are so many wow moments, both happy and sad ones, and yet the smaller moments may resonate with me more deeply.

Hobbs has written a beautiful book. It's a biography of Robert Peace, but it's also partially a memoir. It's also a microhistory and sociological exploration of race and poverty. Although not explicitly, it's a call to action, or at least a call to awareness. This book changed me. It broke my heart. It made me think. I can't shake this book, nor can I shake the story of Robert Peace. It's a story I don't want to forget. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a book so good I'm tempted to not try to articulate why it moved so much, emotionally and intellectually. Part of me wants to say it's simply amazing, but as I attempt to articulate why I love this book so much, it reinforces how good it really is, as well as how good of a writer Jeff Hobbs is.

The verdict: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is storytelling at its very best. Hobbs is a wonderful writer and manages to tell both Rob's story as well as a story much bigger than Robert Peace himself. It's also partially Jeff's story, particularly at the times their lives intersect. So, too, is it the story of Rob's friends and family members. It offers a haunting glimpse into Newark and wrestles with the big issues of race, poverty, privilege, education, success, and home. It's a beautiful meditation on life and humanity. It's ostensibly the story of one man, but this book, much like its subject, is so much more complicated, intellectually and emotionally, than anything as simple as a biography can capture.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 13 hours 22 minutes (417 pages)
Publication date: September 23, 2014
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace 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!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Salon: Read Harder (Without Really Trying?)

The Sunday Salon.comI've finished five books this year. Four of them have counted toward my Read Harder Challenge. While I'm excited to be off to such a great start, I didn't pick any of these books based on the challenge. I'm one-sixth done with the challenge, and I haven't even challenged myself yet. To be fair. I completed seventeen of the twenty-four tasks last year without trying, so for me, a lot of the Read Harder challenge is in line with what I'm already doing. This week I got to thinking: given how easy it is to Read Harder, what other tasks are missing? Here's my list of possibilities so far:

  • A mystery: Romance and sci-fi get love from Read Harder, but what about mysteries? It's my favorite genre, and I think it deserves a spot with those too
  • A historical novel: I love exploring other times and places through historical fiction, and it works across many genres
  • A book published the year you were born: Read Harder goes back before 1850 and includes a 2015 book, but what about all of those year in between? Why not have people pick a title from the year in which they were born? 
  • A book written by someone from each continent (except Antarctica): Read Harder requires a book set in Asia and one written by someone from Africa, but reading the world should include the entire world.
  • A collection of essays: 2014 was the year I realized how much I adore essays, and I wish they were included in Read Harder. As it is, only two categories are mandated nonfiction (microhistory and self-improvement)
  • A book by someone of your gender: Admittedly, I read more women than men, but Read Harder requires a book by someone not of your gender. It would be a shame for a man or woman to read only books written by men (or vice versa.) 
  • A chunkster: if I have a literary fear, it's chunksters. Requiring a book with more than 500 pages would be truly reading harder for me.
  • A book from three different nonfiction subject areas (science, nature, history, criticism, social science, humanities, etc.): Another category to beef up the nonfiction reading.

Now tell me: what tasks do you wish were part of the Read Harder challenge?

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!

Saturday, January 24, 2015 20 Days!

Last February, I found myself home alone on a Friday night, pregnant, and wishing for a crime drama to watch. (Now I realize that sounds a lot like my current Friday nights, except instead of being pregnant, I'm home alone with a sleeping baby. Ah, the life of a restaurant manager's spouse!) I decided to watch the pilot for "Bosch," based on Michael Connelly's series, as part of Amazon's pilot season. I liked it, and so after I finished, I picked up my Kindle and started the first book in the series, The Black Echo, which I purchased four years earlier. I was hooked (my review), and I proceeded to read all twenty-seven of Michael Connelly's novels in 2014 (nineteen of them feature Bosch). I'm been impatiently waiting for season one of "Bosch" to premiere, and this week, we (finally) found out when it will: February 13, 2015. That day also happens to be the day Hawthorne turns six months old, but I didn't plan to take the day off work for that occasion. I am, however, taking the day off work to watch all ten episodes of "Bosch." I'll snuggle my baby and take pictures in between episodes, I promise.
Doesn't it look fantastic? In the meantime, feel free to follow my lead and pick up The Black Echo from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Now tell me: are you excited for "Bosch"?

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, January 23, 2015

book review: Halfway Home by Christine Mari Inzer

The basics: Halfway Home is a graphic journal of Christine Mari Inzer's trip to Japan, the country where she was born.

My thoughts: I'm a huge fan of travel writing, so I was eager to read Halfway Home, the debut from Christine Mari Inzer, a teenage graphic memoirist. Inzer was born in Tokyo in 1997. Her family moved to the U.S. in 2003. In the summer she turned sixteen, she returned to Japan by herself to visit family and explore her roots.

Halfway Home transported me to Japan along with Inzer. It made me feel sixteen again, in the sense that she captures the good and the bad parts of being that age. Inzer's trip to Japan is unique, in that she is exploring both by herself and with family. As she explores alone, however, she also has advice from her father about where to go and what to see.

Like so many travel journals, food is a big part of Halfway Home, and I quite enjoyed Inzer's depictions and descriptions of her meals. As I read her travel journal, I felt as though I were on the trip with her.

The verdict: Inzer is a bright, young, graphic storyteller. Her art depicted her trip beautifully, and as a travel journal it succeeds. If it has a fault it's that I wish Inzer would have added in more reflection, and I hope she does so in future work.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 102 pages
Publication date: November 13, 2014
Source: publisher

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

Want more? Visit Christine Mari Inzer'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, January 22, 2015

book review: Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

The backstory: Lord of Misrule won the 2010 National Book Award and was longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize (now Bailey's Prize.)

The basics: Set in 1970's West Virginia, Lord of Misrule offers a glimpse at the life at a rundown horse race track.

My thoughts: I started this book many, many times since November 2010. First when it was named a finalist for the National Book Award. Again when it won the National Book Award. Again when it was longlisted for the Orange Prize. Despite not really wanting to read it because of its content, I was determined to finally finish this slim book, and I did. But I was right: I didn't like it.

Usually, when I'm underwhelmed or ambivalent about an award-winning novel, I can see its moments of merit, but I struggle to understand how this managed to win the National Book Award. I went in with very low expectations of enjoyment, but I did expect to be wowed by its construction, or its language, or its setting. Instead, I found myself reading an oddly detailed and stylized account of 1970's horse racing whose plot is given away in the explanatory note before the novel even begins (admittedly, I would not have understood the story without this explanatory note, but it made it quite obvious some character would foolishly attempt to run horses that are too good in claiming races.)

The verdict: In the end, there is only one nice thing to say about Lord of Misrule: the character of Maggie was intriguing, albeit only about half of the time. I wish there would have been more of her. Or more plot. Or more beautiful, descriptive language, or more intelligent characters, or more intelligent commentary on unintelligent characters. Clearly, there is an audience who will appreciate the novel in ways I didn't. For all its faults, I can finally say I read it.

Rating: 2 out of 5
Length: 297 pages
Publication date: November 10, 2010 
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Lord of Misrule from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Read Jane Smiley's review of Lord of Misrule. She doesn't love it either, but she does articulate some of its virtues and make a case for its writing.

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, January 21, 2015

audiobook review: The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

narrated by Orlagh Cassidy

The basics: The Astronaut Wives Club offers extraordinary access into the actions, thoughts and feelings of the wives of the Mercury Seven, the Gemini missions, and the Apollo missions. It's a look at what life was really like for these women. Through these women, Koppel also tells the story of the space program and the world at that time.

My thoughts: I downloaded this audiobook from the library on a whim, and it ended up being a fabulous listening experience. I am definitely young enough that I took space travel for granted. The Astronaut Wives Club took me back to the time when space travel was beginning. I was riveted as the wives of the Mercury Seven transitioned from military wives with humble lives into media celebrities.

For women who were so frequently portrayed in the media at the time, The Astronaut Wives Club offers a behind-the-scenes look into what it was really like, from the every day moments to how they supported one another in times of tragedy. Obviously, many things have changed since the Mercury flights, and Koppel perhaps hits the sweet spot in history. It's a time when these women are able to speak more freely, yet they are still around to speak for themselves.

More time is spent with the "original" Mercury wives, but their tales are perhaps even more interesting. As space travel continued, the number of wives increased. While I thoroughly enjoyed the stories of the wives of the Gemini and Apollo missions, I didn't find myself as moved and shocked by their circumstances.

Audio thoughts: I thoroughly enjoyed Orlagh Cassidy's narration. She read this book as though she were talking, and often gossiping, with a friend. As I listened, I felt as though we were having a series of "did you hear about so-and-so?" conversations, and I quite enjoyed it.

The verdict: The Astronaut Wives Club was a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the wives of the first astronauts from the United States. It straddles the ordinary and the extraordinary beautifully, and I remain enchanted with these women, who are interesting in their own rights, but against the backdrop of the space race, their lives become a compelling chapter in American history. Perhaps if I knew more about this time, I would not have been as enchanted with these women, but I certainly was.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 7 hours 46 minutes (320 pages)
Publication date: June 11, 2003
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Astronaut Wives Club from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Lily Koppel'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, January 20, 2015

book review: Brick Lane by Monica Ali

The backstory: Brick Lane by was longlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize (now Bailey's Prize) and short listed for the 2003 Booker Prize. I previously loved her most recent novel, Untold Story.

The basics: Brick Lane, Monica Ali's debut novel, is the story of Nazneen, a young woman born in Bangladesh who moves to London as part of an arranged marriage when she's eighteen.

My thoughts: I've been meaning to read Brick Lane for many, many years, and I'm so glad I finally did. I've long been fascinated by arranged marriage, and while it's easy to dismiss it as an appalling practice, Ali presents a fascinating and nuanced view of it here. Brick Lane is very much a coming of age story, even as Nazneen's coming of age happens later in life than the traditional western time. She is undeniably naive when she arrives in London, yet she carefully takes in information and experiences, those shared with her husband, other Bangladeshi immigrants, and on her own, Through these experiences, subtle shifts appear. As time move forward, sometimes quickly, Nazneen comes into her own in some unexpected ways.

Admittedly, I'm drawn to both novels about other cultures and those about young women coming into their own, and Brick Lane provides both themes. There's an authenticity swimming through this novel that I found remarkable. Ali captures a multi-sensory experience as she shares Nazneen's story.

Favorite passage:  "For Nazneen, the baby's life was more real to her than her own. His life was full of needs: actual and urgent needs, which she could supply. What was her own life, by contrast, but a series of gnawings, ill-defined and impossible to satisfy?"

The verdict: Brick Lane is a beautifully written novel. Both Bangladesh and London come alive in Ali's hands. Naznee's window into her world provides the reader with a fascinating insight into immigrant London, Bangladesh customs, and Nazneen herself.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 432 pages
Publication date: August 19, 2003
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Brick Lane 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, January 19, 2015

book review: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

The backstory: Last year, I read Maggie Shipstead's second novel, Astonish Me. I enjoyed it so much, I wanted to read her debut novel, Seating Arrangements, too. Seating Arrangements won the 2012 Dylan Thomas Prize and was shortlisted for the 2012 Flaherty-Dunnan Prize.

The basics: Set over one wedding weekend at their New England island house, Seating Arrangements is the story of the Van Meter family. Patriarch Winn is obsessed with joining a prestigious club on the island, his wife Biddy has planned the wedding with immense detail, his daughter Daphne is getting married while very pregnant, and his daughter Livia is still reeling from the break-up with her boyfriend Teddy, the son of Winn's college girlfriend and current nemesis.

My thoughts: When I read Astonish Me, I called Shipstead's prose "astonishingly good" and having "so much interior insight." I can easily say the same about Seating Arrangements. In the early pages, this description that could easily be throw-away language took my breath away: "Freight trains slid across trestle bridges; distant jetties reached like arms into the sea. Pale rainbows of sunlight turned circles across the windshield." Yes, I enjoy the proper use of a semicolon more than the average person (and likely more than the average reader), so I always perk up when I see one, but that passage alerted me to read each word carefully. As I continued to read, I was struck by how precise each word, observation and moment seemed.

The action of this novel takes place over one weekend, but these characters, the Van Meters and the bridal party, have histories going back many years. It matters which backstories are told and when, and Shipstead keeps peeling back the layers of their shared pasts as the weekend edges on. There's a beautiful depth to Shipstead's storytelling and characters, particularly in their moments of pain.

Favorite passage: "Getting married doesn't change you. Marriage changes you, though. Imperceptibly. Over time. You don't notice the change until you are changed. I don't know who that person is, back there. I mean the person I was before I got married. I thought I'd stayed the same all along, but I'm beginning to think I've turned into someone else. Or maybe just everything around me has changed."

The verdict: Seating Arrangements is a beautifully written exploration of family, love, and expectations. Shipstead deftly handles a large cast of characters, and while Winn is ostensibly the main character, the others are developed just as well. I loved the time I spent with this novel and its remarkably confident and brilliant author.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 433 pages
Publication date: June 12, 2012
Source: purchased

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

Want more? Visit Maggie Shipstead's website, like her on Facebook, follow her on Instagram, 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, January 18, 2015

Sunday Salon: the nomadbaby is on Goodreads

The Sunday
I still have a ridiculous backlog of unpublished reviews from my end-of-year reading binge, but eventually, those will stop, and I will have to figure out how to talk about picture books on a semi-regular basis. Because some days, I spend more time reading picture books to Hawthorne than I do reading my own books. As he is only five months old and has no concept of story or message yet, I am relishing having the ability to be The Decider of What We Read. All he really cares about is that the pictures are somewhat colorful and interesting, that he getting to sit on my lap and snuggle, that he gets to hear my voice (I talk a lot, and he was around my voice all the time while I was pregnant, so it still comforts him), and increasingly that he can actually TOUCH the book itself. So mostly I pick up the picture books at the library that look really fun. Sometimes I am very right:

Other times I am very, very wrong:

To help get better at picking picture books, I started a Goodreads account for Hawthorne. The ratings are mine, of course, but I can't count these books in my own Goodreads (it would throw off my reading data, obviously), so this presented a logical means to keep track of what we read together and what I like. I don't track reading a book more than once (because that is not a good use of time.) But if you want to know which picture books to read and which to avoid, go ahead and send Hawthorne a friend request.

Now tell me: what's your favorite picture book?

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!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Five months? Meh.

This week, the nomadbaby turned five months old. For the first time, I found myself feeling relatively unmoved about a monthly milestone. Five months feels like a rest stop on the way to six months, a milestone I cannot believe is less than a month away and am ridiculously excited for. So I am a few days late with five month pictures because it fell on a Tuesday, and I have not mustered the energy to care much about placing a special sticker on a plain outfit because I have a terrible cold, and I am managing to take adorable pictures of him without it.

He is still a wonderful baby, but he is so much more of a wiggling, determined, capable little person. If you let him hold your finger, he will find a way to put it in his mouth. If it's within his reach and he is at all interested, he will grab it (and put it in his mouth.) If you laugh, he will laugh with you. No one laughs alone with Hawthorne. I can't quite tell if he thinks he's saying or doing something that is the reason someone is laughing or not, but either way, it is ADORABLE. And endearing. And we have clearly established trust, as he stops crying when he sees you walk in the room (when he's been sleeping) or when he sees you preparing a bottle, or when you pick him up. That's so much nicer than the early weeks and months when the wailing did not stop until the bottle was actually in his mouth.

Thankfully, he's retained some of his abilities from those early weeks, most notably, the ability to sleep in restaurants, if only during the day.

Happy five months, Hawthorne! We'll make a bigger deal out of six months, I promise.

Friday, January 16, 2015

audiobook review: The Red Thread by Ann Hood

narrated by Hillary Huber

The backstory: I previously enjoyed Ann Hood's novel The Obituary Writer on audio.

The basics: The Red Thread is the story of a Providence, Rhode Island adoption agency specializing in the adoption of Chinese girls. Run by Maya, a divorced woman still dealing with guilt over her own daughter's death, the novel tells the stories of one co-hort of couples adopting Chinese daughters from the beginning of the process through the end.

My thoughts: I feel like my review of The Red Thread is really two reviews: what I thought about it while reading it and what I thought about it after I finished and really thought about it. I tend to enjoy novels told from multiple perspectives, and The Red Thread included many characters, all of whom wanted to adopt for somewhat different reasons. I appreciated the relative diversity of the couples, as it was easy to keep all of the characters straight. While I enjoyed some of their situations and storylines more than others, over all I thought they were well balanced and helped the events of the novel flow quickly and smoothly.

As you know, I'm a new parent. It took us longer than I expected to get pregnant. It wasn't long by many standards (one friend has been trying for ten years. Years.) But it was long enough that our theoretical conversations about what we would do if we didn't get pregnant started to get real. I was able to get pregnant before I had to make a final decision, but I still don't think I would have been willing to try IVF or to adopt. I wish I wanted to adopt, I really do, as the thought of orphanages makes me sad. I'm fortunate enough to have a healthy, happy five-month old, but I'm still fascinated with these issues of fertility and adoption. And in many ways, The Red Thread is an exploration of these issues in an emotionally honest way. After finishing the book, however, I'm not convinced they stand up to much scrutiny. Part of me feels odd criticizing Hood's decisions, as she had a daughter die and went on to adopt a daughter from China, so she should have great insight into the emotional and logistical elements of both storylines. But Hood isn't writing a memoir here, and one of the things I liked most about the book is the variety of characters, both the adopting families and the Chinese women giving up their children for a variety of reasons, including some not of their own choosing. As a series of snapshots of both sides of the Chinese-U.S. adoption experience, The Red Thread succeeds. As a complicated exploration of a complicated issue, it is less successful.

The verdict: While I quibble with many of Hood's choices now that I finished the book and have had time to reflect on it, I did quite enjoy the experience of listening to it. She skillfully weaves many narratives together and deftly explores the process, even if simplified, of adopting a daughter from China. If you're a reader who enjoys an entertaining novel and are interested in adoption, I'd recommend The Red Thread. Even as I enjoyed it while I listened to it, I now find myself wishing Hood had done more with the story and characters.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 8 hours 36 minutes (313 pages)
Publication date: March 18, 2010
Source: library

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

Want more? Visit Ann Hood'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!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

book review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

The backstory: Life After Life was shortlisted for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction (now Bailey's Prize) and was a 2013 New York Times Notable Book and named to its Top Ten of 2013.

The basics: Life After Life is the story of a young British woman born in 1910. Throughout the novel she dies many times, and each possible life serves as an exploration of how small moments have enormous impact on our lives and deaths.

My thoughts: The opening scene of this novel is incredible: twenty-year-old Ursula kills Hitler in 1930 in a German cafe. She is promptly killed. Then the action goes back to Ursula's birth. In the next few scenes, various iterations of the doctor getting stuck in a snowstorm and making it to her birth or not play out, as do various causes of her death. Atkinson plays with life and death somewhat whimsically here, which I appreciated: "I hear the baby nearly died,” Mrs. Glover said. “Well…” Sylvie said. Such a fine line between living and dying."

The early part of this novel features many short scenes, which certainly introduce the concept of the novel, but I didn't find myself invested in Ursula as a person, even with her assassination of Hitler, until her teen years. I found the childhood years lacked momentum, but Atkinson's writing was strong, and I was enjoying the premise of the novel so immensely.

By the half-way point, I contemplated abandoning this novel. Despite its strong moments, I too often was bored. And this novel is loooong. I persevered, but the reading experience was somewhat maddening. At several points, I found find myself engrossed in the narrative only to have it switch paths. While I love the idea of this novel, I don't find it particularly new. Many novels tackle the idea, albeit without looking at actual different lives. The importance of little moments is a fascination of mine, and I often contemplate the different possible paths my life could have taken and still could take (admittedly, most of these do not involve my own death but rather the impact of the death of others, moves, and other life changes, small or large.)

Favorite passages:  "What a world of difference there was between dying and nearly dying. One’s whole life, in fact. Ursula felt she had no use for the life she had been saved for."

"Ursula’s own chance at ordinariness seemed lost forever."

The verdict: I loved the idea of this book so much more than its execution. Undeniably, there are moments of brilliance, but they make the other moments that much more frustrating. While perhaps intentionally so, some of Ursula's lives are unbelievably boring. Despite the writing and premise, I found this novel overly long and not nearly as good as a whole as some of its parts are.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 512 pages
Publication date: April 2, 2013
Source: library

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

Want more? Visit Kate Atkinson's website and like her on Facebook

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