Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Best of Instagram: #BooksandBooze and #HairByHawthorne

I adore Instagram. I follow a mix of my Facebook friends (people I know or once knew) and those I follow on Twitter (mostly bookish folks from around the world and locals.) My feed is filled with babies, books, and travel, which are three of my favorite things. I post more photos of Hawthorne on Instagram than anywhere else. He has two of his own hashtags: #nomadbaby (sometimes others try to post with it) and #HairByHawthorne, which is dedicated to the times he styles his own hair comically:

But my favorite hashtag not related to Hawthorne is a brilliant Book Riot invention: #BooksandBooze. I am a reader and a drinker, and this hashtag makes me so happy because I am clearly not the only one. Mr. Nomadreader and I work opposite schedules, and the nights he's at work until after I'm asleep are my #BooksandBooze nights. Here are some recent favorites:

You can catch all of my posts related to books, booze, Hawthorne, and other things by following me on Instagram.

Now tell me: what are your favorite hashtags and users on Instagram?

Friday, April 24, 2015

book review: Slow Dancing with a Stranger: Lost and Found in the Age of Alzheimer's by Meryl Comer

The backstory: Slow Dancing with a Stranger: Lost and Found in the Age of Alzheimer's was one of my book club's picks in March.

The basics: Veteran journalist Meryl Comer tells the story of her husband and mother dealing with Alzheimer's and advocates for change in how we care for those afflicted with Alzheimer's.

My thoughts: I was really excited to read this memoir, as Alzheimer's runs in my family, even though I was sure it would depress me as it's such a horrible disease. Instead, I soon found myself hating this book and rolled my eyes through most of it.

I like memoirs. I often call the memoirists I most enjoy brave because they bare their souls and show their weaknesses. They tell truths that aren't always told. They are honest about their faults. They share the moments of which they're proud and of those they aren't. Unfortunately, Meryl Comer does not do any of those things in this book. It's hard to even call it a memoir, as it utterly lacks reflection or emotion. After about fifty pages, I found myself referring to the author as "Saint Meryl" because she could do no wrong.

Comer begins by telling how she and her husband fell in love. I am a sucker for these stories, yet her writing didn't convey the love and passion she must have felt. Thus, when she transitioned to the initial decline of her husband's brain (he has early onset Alzheimer's, a particularly heinous disease in my opinion), it didn't have the emotional pull I would have expected. This book soon becomes more of a manifesto than a memoir, but by that point I was so irritated with Saint Meryl I didn't even care.

I missed book club last month, but I hear the reactions to this book were split. Some loved it and others hated it. I'm clearly in the hated camp, and it's a shame. There are many moving stories to tell about Alzheimer's, and Comer was positioned to do so. At the height of this book, she was single-handedly caring for both her husband and mother in her home as they both struggled with Alzheimer's. I wanted to sympathize with her plight, but Comer wouldn't acknowledge anything she did was hard.

When this book was first picked for book club, I typed it into Goodreads and two titles came up: this one and an erotica novel. I joked that I hoped we were reading the Alzheimer's memoir rather than the erotica. Half way through this book, I changed my mind.

The verdict: If you're looking for a manifesto advocating for changes in the healthcare system related to Alzheimer's with some personal story thrown in, then you might enjoy Slow Dancing with a Stranger. If you're looking for an emotional, reflective memoir about a spouse's battle with Alzheimer's, you'll likely find yourself rolling your eyes at Saint Meryl as much as I was. I wanted more emotional intimacy. I wanted more of this story rather than a general exercise with a familiar disease.

Rating: 1 out of 5
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: September 2, 2014 
Source: library

Convinced? Buy it! Buy Slow Dancing with a Stranger: Lost and Found in the Age of Alzheimer's from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Meryl Comer'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, April 23, 2015

audiobook review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

narrated by Mozhan Marno

The basics: Anna Benz is a bored American housewife who has been living in the suburbs of Zurich, Switzerland with her Swiss husband for ten years. They have three children, but Anna is lonely and has not learned the languages of Zurich. As she begins taking a German class, she also begins an affair with a Scottish man in her class.

My thoughts: There's been a lot of discussion about Anna's likability. I'm not a reader who needs characters to be likable, but I do need them to be interesting and somewhat relatable. Anna is quite interesting, as she keeps secrets from her psychotherapist, her family, the reader, and to some degree herself. And she makes terrible decisions. Repeatedly. Yet I never became frustrated with these decisions, as I could always understand why Anna made them, even as I acknowledge anyone else making them would be mad.

After hearing Mozhan Marno, one of my absolute favorite narrators, was doing the audio for Hausfrau, I took the galley out of my TBR and pre-ordered the audiobook. Marno brought Anna to life and infused her with the appropriate varying amounts of sadness, despair, and despondency. She made Anna a puzzle as her voice shifts as Anna interacts with different people. For a book filled with depression, I wouldn't call it a depressing read. One unfortunate marketing quote claims Hausfrau is a cross between Madame Bovary and Fifty Shades of Gray, by which I think was meant: Jill Alexander Essbaum wrote a literary novel with some graphic, erotic sex scenes. (I only made it through one paragraph of Fifty Shades, not because I'm a prude but because the writing was unbearably bad.) The sex in Hausfrau is notable. Sometimes it's hot, sometimes it's destructive, and sometimes it's both.

Perhaps my favorite part of Hausfrau was how Essbaum used German grammar as parallels for Anna's mental state. Through her German classes and her visits with her psychoanalyst, Anna narrates connections she finds between herself and the structure of language. It's clear in these moments that Essbaum is a poet. Her grasp of language, syntax, and construction is paralleled beautifully by her nuanced grasp of Anna, emotionally and pscyhologically.

The verdict: Hausfrau reminded me a lot of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, a novel I wish had gotten as much attention as Hausfrau is getting (not instead of, but in addition to.) It's unfortunate that so much of what I read compares it to a couple of well known classics because while the description (bored housewife in Zurich has affairs to combat boredom and depression) is accurate, it doesn't capture the depth and quality of what Essbaum does here, which is to tell a good story plotwise, but also to have layers of depth running through it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 9 hours 43 minutes (336 page)
Publication date: March 17, 2015
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Hausfrau from Amazon (Kindle edition--only $5.99!)

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, April 22, 2015

book review: Speak of the Devil by Allison Leotta

The backstory: Speak of the Devil is the third book in Allison Leotta's Anna Curtis legal mystery series, which begins with Law of Attraction, continues with the e-short story Ten Rules for a Call Girl and Discretion.

The basics: As Speak of the Devil opens, Anna is proposing to Jack. Simultaneously, detectives, armed with a search warrant Anna signed, are about to raid a brothel. Unbeknownst to them, a vicious gang, led by El Diablo, the titular devil, is also storming the brothel.

My thoughts: While it's hard to call any of federal sex crimes prosecutor Anna Curtis's case happy, this case is particularly horrid. I winced several times in the first ten pages, but Leotta hooked me from the very first page. She manages to set up a complicated story quickly, and I couldn't devour this book fast enough.

One of the things I most appreciate about Leotta's books are how much happens in both Anna's professional and personal life, both during each book and in between them. (Michael Connelly similarly ages his characters and moves storylines along quickly, and y'all know I love Michael Connelly's books.) Until this novel, while I've enjoyed the mysteries and thrills of the legal storylines, Anna is what kept me coming back. With Speak of the Devil, the mystery takes center stage for the first time, and it firmly establishes Leotta as one of the best mystery storytellers around. There's a huge twist in this story that left my mouth hanging open for minutes. It was perfectly executed and completely shocking. And where Leotta takes things after the twist are as good as the twist itself.

The verdict: Speak of the Devil is Leotta's breakout mystery. Once again, Anna is a character to root for, and Leotta moves her personal story ahead at a satisfying pace. What sets Speak of the Devil apart from her prior books is that this time, the mystery is the best part, particularly one of my favorite twists ever...across literature, film, and television. Speak of the Devil is a smart, thrilling page turner, and I hope A Good Killing (out May 12, 2015) is just as good.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 289 pages
Publication date: August 6, 2013 
Source: Scribd

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Speak of the Devil 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!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

audiobook review: The Bees by Laline Paull

narrated by Orlagh Cassidy

The backstory: The Bees is on the 2015 Baileys Prize short list.

The basics: The Bees is the story of Flora 717 and her hive. Flora 717 is born a lowly sanitation worker, born to clean the hive and remove the dead, but she exhibits traits beyond her social status.

My thoughts: When I heard that The Bees was actually about bees, and that they were the only characters, I didn't quite know what to think. How would Paull bring them to life? Could she make me care about a bee (I am allergic enough to bee stings to not enjoy their presence.) She did. I was utterly enchanted with Flora 717 and cared what happened to her.

The Bees works on two levels. First, the story itself is interesting. I didn't think I knew a lot about bees, but as I listened, I realized how much I do know about bees and their lives. Flora's thoughts, feelings, and journeys kept me listening. What elevates the novel, however, is how perfectly the realities of a beehive mimic the tropes of dystopian fiction. The Bees is both science fiction and realistic fiction, and I loved this duality. At one point I said to myself, "so basically, Flora 717 is divergent!"

While I thoroughly enjoyed The Bees, I really disliked its closing scene. The novel opens with humans in an orchard talking about the hive the reader soon enters. Appropriately, it ends with a similar scene outside the hive. I understand what Paull was doing--grounding this fictional tale in our reality, but it didn't resonate with me the way the bees themselves did.

The verdict: Ultimately, I loved the idea and construct of The Bees a little more than the story itself, and I wish Paull would have omitted the opening and closing scenes. It's a fascinating, thought-provoking, original debut novel, and I look forward to discussing it with others.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 10 hours 16 minutes (357 pages)
Publication date: May 6, 2014 
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Bees from Amazon (Kindle edition--only $1.99!)

Want more? Visit Laline Paull'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!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

book review: The Offering by Grace McCleen

The backstory: The Offering is longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Prize.

The basics: Madeline is 34. She has been in an insane asylum for twenty years and cannot recall the events that put her there, but a new psychiatrist thinks he can help her recover the traumatic memories. The story unfolds both in the present: Madeline's life in the asylum and her therapy sessions, and in the years and months before she was committed.

My thoughts: Madeline has lived her entire life in two very different, but very sheltered environments. Her father was deeply religious and believed and moved them to an island where believed God wanted him to spread the word. Since the age of 14, she's been locked in an insane asylum and hasn't had a visitor in years. To her mind, which in many ways, is stuck at the age of fourteen, she observes parallels between these two disparate parts of her life:
Interestingly, over the years that I have been here it has not escaped my notice that despite their personal difficulties--and sometimes when they have more than enough reason to despair--nearly every other patient is a believer of some sort. There is Mary the ex-nun, Eugene the Jesuit, Robyn, who cries bitterly every Sunday because she will have to wait a whole week to go to church again, and Brendan, who is an ardent physicist and born-again Christian. It has made me wonder whether faith pre-dates mental disturbance or is a result of it. The apostle Paul says that faith is the ‘evident demonstration of realities though not yet beheld,’ a definition I am also aware comes close to describing psychosis, for behind both faith and delusion lies unshakeable belief. The bible refers to the disciples of God as babes, as children, children of light, children of the promise. The description is fitting because children trust.
As a narrator, I was fascinated by Madeline. She's brilliant in many ways. Her descriptions of her fellow asylum dwellers are haunting and wise. As she remembers her life before the asylum, however, there are so many things happening about which Madeline doesn't know or doesn't understand. I don't mean to fault her--her life was so incredibly sheltered that she doesn't have a way of knowing what is happening to her. She lacks the frame of reference. She doesn't have friends. She's homeschooled. Even when she and her mother are out in public, doing something as innocuous as getting ice cream, Madelne doesn't understand why other kids respond to her as they do. In these parts McCleen demands the reader read between the lines in ways Madeline cannot. Part of me hoped the ending would confirm my suspicions about a few things, but ultimately I admire McCleen's choice to not let the reader have everything tied up so neatly. Instead, we must ponder as Madeline does.

Favorite passage:  "Yet the key things, I do not remember. But it is not just I who have the monopoly on amnesia: forgetting is the precondition of existence; we forget to stay alive, filter the necessary, the bearable from that which can't be borne; whether or not we are aware of it, we leave what we have to in the dark."

The verdict: There's a layer of ambiguity to The Offering and its ending that I relished. Seeing the world through Madeline's eyes allows the reader to share her experiences, but witnessing her conversations with others, both inside the asylum and before make the reader understand things Madeline cannot. This duality, and its inherent ambiguities, wowed me. If The Offering doesn't make the short list, I'll be incredibly disappointed.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: January 15, 2015 (in the UK--no U.S. publication yet)
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Offering from third-party sellers at Amazon (no Kindle edition) or the Book Depository.

Want more? Visit Grace McCleen'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!

book review: Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich

The backstory: Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel was a 2014 New York Times Notable Book.

The basics:  "After fifteen years of marriage, Lena Finkle embarks on a string of online dates and receives a brutally eye-opening education in love, sex, and loss while raising her two teenage daughters."--publisher

My thoughts: I heard about this graphic novel when it was released last summer, but I was a million months pregnant and cranky. Then I forgot about it until it was named a 2014 New York Times Notable Book. It's still a big deal for a graphic novel (or graphic memoir) to make the list, and I was curious to dive in. I managed to read this lengthy (by comics standards) book in a single afternoon (it would have been a single sitting, but as happy as Hawthorne is to play by himself, he still likes to play with me too.)

As I read, I was struck by the rawness of Lena as a character. Although fictional, it reads like a memoir. I had to keep reminding myself that while Ulinich and Finkle may share some experiences and traits, this book is fictional. This tension strengthens the novel and is a testament to Ulinich's writing and character development that it all feels so real.

I was also struck by the quality of the writing itself. Often when I read comics I find myself focusing more on the images than the words. With this book, I found myself reading them in equal measure. Ulinich plays with the format of the page and size of drawings in really interesting ways. And for this novel being "serious literature," it's also laugh-out loud funny at times: "Can we stop talking about sex? You have a voice like those guys in sad indie’s making me want to cry and fuck at the same time."

Favorite passage:  "And although not surprising, it was disorienting that a place so essential to me held so little meaning to my most essential people."

The verdict: Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel is Anya Ulinich's first graphic novel, but it's not her first novel. I'm eager to read Petropolis too, and I'm curious to see where she goes next, and in which form.  

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 368 pages
Publication date: July 29, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Anya Ulinich's website, follow 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, April 6, 2015

book review: Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey

The backstory: Dear Thief is on the 2015 Baileys Prize longlist.

The basics: As the title implies, Dear Thief is written in the form of a long letter to a someone who has stolen something from the letter writer. The details of their relationship and the theft slowly play out over the course of the novel.

My thoughts: Dear Thief is the third novel by Samantha Harvey and the third to be longlisted for the Baileys Prize. Thus she's an author who has been on my radar for some time, but it's my first time reading her. To say it was a complicated reading experience would be an understatement. Rating Dear Thief was challenging for me, as I have an almost ambiguous feeling toward it. There were parts that were so brilliant and unusual, I was confident this novel could be a five-star read. Then there were parts that felt boring and unnecessary that had be thinking of abandoning it or fearing it might be only a three-star read. The reading experience had its ups and downs, just as its narrator had her ups and downs. Whether or not that was intentional, I can't say, but I have enough respect for Harvey's writing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

In many ways Dear Thief is an idea novel. It's inspired by the Leonard Cohen song "Famous Blue Raincoat," and if you're familiar with the song, you know it's written as a letter to the party who broke up a marriage. And Dear Thief isn't necessarily a novel about the reveal or reveals. Its strengths are the idea of its form and Harvey's writing. Its weakness is that the form doesn't stand up to scrutiny in reality. Do I believe a wife could write a 270-page meandering letter to the woman who broke up her marriage? Absolutely. Do I believe this wife, at this point in her life, cared enough to do so? No. Perhaps that judgment is unfair, but I couldn't quite shake it. A letter like that should have more passion, more rage, more sadness. It should have more emotion or more something. Despite the writing and moments of perfection, and despite the weaknesses, I'm glad I read Dear Thief. I see why some praise it, and I see why some abandon it. I fall somewhere in between, but I'm certainly going to be reading Harvey's other two novels, and the next one she writes.

Favorite passage: "Your moods were the stuff of legend, and that day your mood could only be described as dangerous--languorous, facetious, self-absorbed; you were amused by yourself and this was the worst of all possible states. because it was the kind of amusement I imagine Calaphas felt when he made a deal with the Devil."

The verdict: Harvey's writing is extraordinary, and her characters are interesting, yet many times I thought of abandoning this novel. I didn't, and I'm glad I persevered, but at the end I felt as though I'd read a writing exercise, albeit a good one, rather than a novel.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: April 7, 2015
Source: publisher

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

Want more? Visit Samantha Harvey'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 31, 2015

book review: I Am China

The backstory: I Am China is longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Prize.

The basics: I Am China recounts the lives of Jian, a musician and political activist, and his love for Mu. It's also the story of Iona, a British woman tasked with translating this disorganized collection of diaries and letters from Jian and Mu.

My thoughts: The premise of this novel is an intriguing one, and I immediately identified with Iona as she set out to try to make sense of this correspondence. This novel jumps across time and its characters move throughout the world. It isn't constructed chronologically, but rather Guo dips in and out of the present through Iona's translations in progress. Initially, I quite liked this approach of getting to know Jian and Mu with Iona, but the more I read, the more I began to question Guo's narrative choices.

Jian and Mu's lives coincide with many momentous times in modern Chinese history. As more and more of these moments unfolded, I began to question how universal these experiences could be among the Chinese. It started to feel as though Guo was cramming as many of these moments in as possible, and it distracted me from the characters.

While I initially was fascinated by Iona, I also grew frustrated with Guo's depiction of her. It became monotonous to read about her struggles with translation. I can appreciate the skill and difficulty invovled in translating Chinese to English, particularly when working with a mix of documents without any context, but Iona's parts soon hindered the momentum of the novel.

There were a lot of moving parts in this novel, and given the non-linear presentation, I was waiting for the end of the novel to bring an understanding of why Guo chose to structure the novel as she did. Ultimately, too much of this novel felt like a gimmick. By the end, the characters didn't feel authentic; they felt like a vehicle for Guo to offer commentary on recent Chinese history. Typically, I'm not opposed to fictional characters as a means of offering social or political commentary, but it didn't work for me here.

Favorite passage: "I only have one regret in my life, I wish I had learned to read and write." Then she sighs. And it makes me think of you and me. What has all our reading and writing given us?

The verdict: Despite liking the premise and an initial fascination with Iona, I enjoyed this novel less the more of it I read. Readers able to simply go along for the ride may find more to enjoy than readers who are as fascinated by narrative structure as by plot.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: September 2, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy I Am China from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Xiaolu Guo'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, March 30, 2015

Wrapping Up: The Mockalong

March is coming to an end, and so is the Mockalong. I'm pleased I managed to finally read To Kill a Mockingbird, even if I didn't love it. I did love Calpurnia, and I'm curious to see what role she will play in Go Set a Watchman, which I've pre-ordered for my Kindle (and remain really excited about.)

This week, as I've reflected on the Mockalong, I admit I might not have prioritized my reading of To Kill a Mockingbird without this readalong. Hosting the Mockalong made me accountable to my own reading goal, even as I abandoned my original plan to watch and review the film for this final post (when you don't really love a book, sometimes watching its film adaptation isn't a terribly exciting prospect.)

Admittedly, it's somewhat awkward to not be a champion of the book you pick for a readalong, but literature isn't about agreement. I loved the conversations I had with people about To Kill a Mockingbird, particularly those who took the time to re-read it and reflect on how their perceptions of it were different this time. I tend to think of my responses to book as static (i.e. a five-star read is a five-star read), but how well would some of my five-star reads hold up to a re-read today? The longer I keep reading publicly and blogging, it's worth thinking about.

If you posted about the Mockalong or To Kill a Mockingbird this month, please leave a link in the comments or Tweet it to me. I'll update this post with a list of links.

As always, thanks for 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, March 27, 2015

book review: Discretion by Allison Leotta

The backstory: After enjoying Allison Leotta's first mystery featuring Anna Curtis, Law of Attraction, and the following e-short story, Ten Rules for a Call Girl, I was excited to read Discretion.

The basics: The titular Discretion is a high-end, secretive escort company. When a young escort dies after falling from a balcony in the Capitol, U.S. Attorney Anna Curtis works the case as a sexual assault and homicide.

My thoughts: Clearly drawing inspiration from real-life scandal, including Eliot Spitzer, Discretion offers a fascinating look at the role of escorts in Washington, D.C. One of the things I've come to like most about Leotta's books is the way she manages to write from multiple points of view. Anna is the main character, but she isn't the only window into the world. By seeing the world of high-end prostitution (and low-end prostitution) through multiple points of view, it's possible to better understand the world. It's a more complicated approach to storytelling, but its payoffs are huge. Leotta shines light onto these complex issues by writing such good characters, from cops and lawyers to pimps, johns, and prostitutes. None of these classes of people are one thing, and Leotta shows the good and bad of all.

The verdict: Discretion is a compelling mystery filled with political intrigue. It furthers the personal and professional storylines in Anna's life well without hampering the pace of the mystery itself. I'll definitely be reading the next in this series very soon.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 353 pages
Publication date: July 3, 2012
Source: Scribd

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Discretion 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!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

audiobook review: Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

narrated by Tanya Eby

The basics: After completing a residency in pathology, Dr. Judy Melinek began a two-year rotation as a forensic pathologist in New York City in July 2001. Working Stiff is the story of those two years, and also the story of Judy's life and work.

My thoughts: The timing of Dr. Melinek's story certainly piqued my curiosity in a macabre way. It's such a big part of the book's description, that I was surprised it wasn't addressed earlier. Instead, Melinek (and her husband and co-writer T.J. Mitchell) tells her story more thematically than chronologically, which proves to be a very wise narrative choice.

Working Stiff begins with much insight into Melinek's life and choices than I expected. She talks about why she chooses pathology and how she and T.J. chose to get married. She speaks candidly about her father's suicide when she was a teenager. This personal narrative only serves to add to her insight, particularly as no one could (or perhaps should) disassociate death investigation from life. The emphasis is definitely on death investigation and what it means to be a forensic pathologist, and I was riveted. Melinek guides the reader through cases both ordinary and extraordinary. When she finally addresses the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I understood why she waited to tell one of the chronologically earlier stories last. As a reader, I wasn't ready to hear this tragic story earlier. By serving instead as the book's climax, it reminds the reader precisely how rare, bizarre, and devastating it was.

The verdict: Working Stiff is a fascinating, illuminating, and haunting look at what kills people. It's also an insightful glimpse into Melinek's life and work. As a book, it reads like a collection of mysteries, but it also packs an emotional and intelligent punch.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 7 hours 43 minutes (272 pages)
Publication date: August 12, 2014
Source: purchased

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

Want more? Visit Judy Melinek'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!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

book review: Cairo by G. Willow Wilson

The backstory: G. Willow Wilson is the opening keynote speaker (tonight!) at the Association of College and Research Libraries conference. After enjoying Ms. Marvel: No Normal, I grabbed her other books from the library.

The basics: Cairo is the story of a drug runner, a journalist, an American expatriate, a student, and an Israeli soldier in contemporary Cairo.

My thoughts: As the characters are introduced, it is not initially clear how they relate to one another, but Wilson weaves their storylines together in intriguing ways. While this graphic novel starts firmly planted in reality, it soon incorporates elements of fantasy. While I found those turns visually stunning and intriguing, in some ways I thought they distracted somewhat from the social and political commentary.

I'm certainly not an expert on Cairo, and the book taught me quite a bit. I imagine I did not understand each reference, but I never felt as though I couldn't follow the story (in fact the fantasy elements were a bit hard for me to follow at one point, but that is definitely a me-problem, as I am not typically a fantasy reader, and I wasn't expecting this book to take that turn.

The verdict: Cairo is an engaging and complicated, yet accessible, graphic novel. I read it in a single sitting. While I quite enjoyed it, I confess my enjoyment waned somewhat near the end. I am eager to continue with Wilson's diverse canon, which also includes a novel and a memoir.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 160 pages
Publication date: November 7, 2007
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Cairo from Amazon (no Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit G. Willow Wilson's websitelike her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

book review: Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

The backstory: Elizabeth Is Missing, Emma Healey's debut novel, is on the 2015 Baileys Prize longlist.

The basics: Elizabeth Is Missing is the story of Maud, an older woman suffering from Alzheimer's. Her friend Elizabeth is missing. Through flashbacks, we also see Maud as a young woman and her struggles with the disappearance of her older sister, Sukey, shortly after World War II.

My thoughts: This novel is billed as a psychological thriller, which I don't think it actually is. It is a compelling page turner, but the titular mystery is the least interesting thing about it. It's emotionally complex, and it's definitely a page turner, but I found the mystery of Elizabeth to be not much of a mystery. Instead, the mystery of Sukey is what fascinated me more. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the novel is Maud herself and how much she misunderstands and mis-remembers.

As I read Elizabeth Is Missing, I was riveted. I raced through it, but as much as I enjoyed the experience of reading it, I took issue with one of Healey's choices. Despite its title, it was clear to me early on that Elizabeth is not actually missing. Maud thinks she's missing, but we see enough through Maud's eyes to know that Elizabeth is okay, even if we don't know the particulars. In this sense, Healey makes the narrative choice to leave the reader in the dark, which frustrated me because it didn't add to the narrative or the suspense. Maud's daughter Helen, as well as Elizabeth's son, frequently mention that they have told Maud where Elizabeth is, but she does not remember. As a reader, I wanted to know too, and it would have been so easy for Helen to tell Maud in the book. There are so many things she tells her frequently because she forgets, so why is this not one of them?

Aside from that choice, I quite enjoyed this novel. My perceptions of other characters, particularly Helen, changed over the course of the book. Maud is an unreliable narrator because she lacks short term memories. She writers herself notes, but as she re-reads them trying to remember, the context is gone and her confusion mounts. Alzheimer's and dementia are vile diseases, and Maud's story shows why. The gaps between her reality and her perceptions grow over the course of the novel. To pair these with Maud as a teenager in the flashback scenes only exacerbates the sadness.

I didn't expect to enjoy the historical storyline so much, but Healey offers a fascinating glimpse into post-World War II life in England. The mystery of what happened to Sukey was the surprise of the novel for me, as it proved far more interesting than the mystery of where Elizabeth was. Even though there were only a few probably outcomes for each woman, I found Sukey's possible whereabouts much more compelling.

The verdict: Elizabeth Is Missing is an engaging page turner. It offers a window into Alzheimer's that is at times heart-wrenching. This novel is both plot and character-driven, as it explores Maud's life in the past and the present. It's a good novel that could have (and perhaps should have) been a great novel, but I still couldn't put it down while I read it. Healey is a talented writer and plotter, and I look forward to her next book.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: June 10, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Elizabeth Is Missing from Amazon (Kindle edition--only $2.80!)

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Monday, March 23, 2015

book review: To Kill a Mockingbird

The backstory: To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

The basics: Told from the point of view of Scout, a precocious girl in 1930's Maycomb, Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of that town, its views on race and class, and Scout's family.

My thoughts: I wanted to love this book, as it is nearly universally loved. I respond strongly to themes of race and class, and yet I failed to connect to this narrative, with a few exceptions. I wrote last week about Calpurnia, who was by far my favorite character in the book. She was fascinating and complex, and I wish there were more of her in the novel.

I appreciate that Lee chose to write this novel from the perspective of Scout. At times it helps the reader see things as an outsider, but it also limits the narrative. Admittedly, one of my literary pet peeves are child narrators who are impossibly smart and perceptive, and Lee avoids that quagmire by making Scout consistently her age, but I missed the perceptions of others. If Lee would have alternated viewpoints or chosen a different narrative, I think I would have enjoyed it more. I would have particularly loved to see the world through Atticus's eyes, as he is so revered in this book (as he should be when seen through the eyes of his young daughter.) To see inside Atticus's thoughts rather than just hearing his lessons would have been wonderful.

Overall, I felt like this novel read like a young adult novel or a children's book (albeit one with some explicit themes.) Ultimately, I think that's what most hindered my enjoyment. Because Scout tells the story, we get characters talking to Scout, and as a reader, I felt like Lee wrote for a very young audience. She's clearly trying to impart lessons, and had I read this novel at a younger age (or earlier in history), perhaps those lessons would have been more poignant.

Ultimately, I found the Boo Radley storyline confounding. It's resolution felt off in pace and scope. Aside from Calpurnia, the highlight of this novel was Robinson, the black defendant. When the trial ended, I was curious where the novel would go, as I was completely enraptured by Lee's courtroom scenes. That was the one part of the novel that was exciting for me as a reader.

Favorite passage: "Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing."

The verdict: While I can certainly see the appeal of To Kill a Mockingbird for younger readers and those who read it when they were young, it didn't capture me. It may have been a trailblazing novel, but its ideas weren't novel to me as a reader. The highlights of this novel for me were the courtroom scenes and Calpurnia. Once the trial ended, I found the rest of the novel oddly paced, including its somewhat climactic ending. I am, however, still excited to read Go Set a Watchman, as so many of my issues with this novel relate to Scout as a narrator. I'm quite intrigued to see her as an adult and see what life looks like for her.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 385 pages
Publication date: July 11, 1960
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Go Set a Watchmen (Kindle edition) releases in July.

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!