Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My 2014 Book Bucket List

I kind of love that no hardly any books are published in December. The fall always feel rushed and chaotic, with work and life, and I never manage to read all the new releases I intend too (not that I do in any season, but it's especially noticeable in the fall.) December is my catch-up month. I get invigorated to read as many books as I can before the year ends. And as I work in academia, I get almost two weeks off for the Christmas and New Year holidays, so there is a lot of time to read (even with a baby.) I started making my list of books I really want to read before the end of the year, and it is impossibly long. Then I cut it down to twenty. Twenty. Instead of feeling defeated, however, I rallied to make my bucket list to help prioritize reading the books I most want to read and that have been on my TBR for longer. Of course, I also want to read some of the 2014 releases I haven't yet. And I want to start reading 2015 releases. But rather than prescribe all my reading for a month (that sounded like a chore), I decided to pick five titles from my TBR to commit to reading before the end of 2014. That gives my reading some structure, but it also leaves me a lot of room to read whatever strikes my fancy from my other piles.

My 2014 Book Bucket List:



May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes is the next book I'm picking up. It won the Women's Prize (now Bailey's Prize) last year, and I'm excited to read it. It's set at Thanksgiving, so after a certain amount of time putting it off, I decided to wait to read it over Thanksgiving. And what says Thanksgiving like a dysfunctional family drama? (I'll take mine in fiction rather than reality, of course.)

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
I started listening to this novel on audio. I soon realized it wasn't the right fit for me on audio, but I haven't managed to pick it up again, even though it was on list after list last year. But now there's a sequel on the way. And Gillian Flynn called A God in Ruins "one of the best novels I've read this century." And Kate Atkinson is perhaps the author I'm most embarrassed to have never read. 

The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone was longlisted for the Orange Prize (now Bailey's Prize) in 2011. I've had it on my shelf since then, and it's time to read it. The Burmese setting also intrigues me, as there is a large Burmese immigrant population in Des Moines.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali has been on my TBR list for years (it was published in 2003.) Then I read her most recent novel, Untold Story, which I loved. It's time to read more of Ali's work.

Keeping Up With Magda by Isla Dewar was longlisted for the 1996 Orange Prize (now Bailey's Prize.) It's Dewar's first novel, and it was the first year of the prize. I picked up a copy when my desire to read all of the longlisted novels ever seemed more attainable. And every list should have one lighter title on it, right?

Now tell me: what's on your 2014 Book Bucket List?

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

book review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The backstory: Station Eleven is on the 2014 National Book Award short list.

The basics:  "An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity." (via the publisher)

My thoughts:  I had high hopes for Station Eleven even before it was longlisted (and then short listed) for the National Book Award. Emily St. John Mandel is an author I've been meaning to read for years (and an author whose early books grace my shelves, unread), and this novel was set to be her break out hit. And it has been. But as a reader, I never connected to the work or its characters.

The premise is interesting, and I typically enjoy narratives that bounce across time and whose characters share unlikely connections. The writing is quite excellent. And I loved the tension in the early chapters, as the Georgia Flu began. When the action shifted to the years after the flu, however, and the nomadic acting troupe, I grew bored. I celebrated as the plot shifted back to the time before the Flu, but I struggled to connect with any of the members of the troupe. St. John Mandel uses the variety of ages of troupe members to help shape the reader's understanding of the world after the Flu:
"I used to watch for it," he said. "I used to think about the countries on the other side of the ocean, wonder if any of them had somehow been spared. If I ever saw an airplane, that meant that somewhere planes still took off. For a whole decade after the pandemic, I kept looking at the sky."
Despite passages like this one, which is both beautiful and helps describe the world, I failed to connect or care about anyone in the troupe or their journey. This novel is one I objectively assess as good, but it wasn't a joy to read, despite its premise and writing, and while I appreciate what St. John Mandel did, I wanted it to be great, and I wanted the reading experience to wow me more than to feel like I was slogging through it, as the troupe slogs through life.

Favorite passage: "Hell is the absence of people you long for."

The verdict: Most review of Station Eleven mention how atmospheric and elegant it is, but this book and I failed to connect. I wanted to like it so much more than I did, but while I didn't enjoy it, I can appreciate the flashes of beauty in its writing. Overall, I was disappointed, but this one seems to be otherwise universally loved.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 353 pages
Publication date: September 9, 2014 
Source: publisher

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

Want more? Visit Emily St. John Mandel'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!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Salon: Three Months!

The Sunday Salon.com
While it seems as though every week brings a major milestone for the nomadbaby, most of them sound silly to someone without babies. Example: he's now eating 6 ounces at a time, which means he's into the big bottles! It's not that thrilling sounding. Here it is decoded: the more he eats at a time, the longer he should be able to go in between meals. This development matters most at night, which we hope he will soon sleep through.

But I think even people without babies appreciate the timeline milestones and seeing babies grow. Hawthorne turned three months old this week! The last three months of my pregnancy felt like they took a year, but the first three months of his life have flown by (in mostly good ways.) He is still a shrimp (that's the same outfit he wore in his two month photo), but he is clearly in the midst of a growth spurt. And his hair is growing to the point I have no idea what to do with it. I still try to give him the fauxhawk because it's adorable, but it's getting a little long. And as he spends all of his waking and sleeping time on his back or in a chair, the back of his hair is always a mess. And he could use a trim around his ears and a trip in back to get rid of the mullet he was born with. But who cuts a baby's hair at this age? (Serious question--do people do it?)

Reading Life
With age comes the ability to entertain himself for longer periods. And I'm getting better at actually reading the book in my hands while he amuses himself on his playmat. Hawthorne is only in day care twice a week, and he's an only child, so I try not to make him the center of my attention all the time. One of his favorite things to do is sit in his chair in the kitchen and watch me cook and do wishes. Thank goodness, as I really like to cook and eat.

When he's self-entertaining, I try to read print books in front of him. He enjoys books (just not right before bedtime), and I hope he'll gradually understand that his parents read books too. I want to model reading for him, and I doubt he'll understand that a Kindle is reading as early as he'll understand books are reading. To help with my desire to read print books, I finally took advantage of getting more library cards. Unlike other places I've lived, the libraries in my county don't share collections. But they do allow any Iowa resident the opportunity to get a library card. As our metro area, which is quite small, includes over ten cities, I am slowly accumulating all of their library cards. It's fascinating to me (a nerdy librarian) how different their collections are. Some books I'm looking for are only owned my one library. Others may have long reserve lines at one library but are sitting on the shelf at other libraries.

I am also on a serious memoir kick. I'm typically a mystery and literary fiction reader who occasionally dabbles in memoirs, but I've just read two in a row, and I'm having better luck with my nonfiction picks than my fiction picks lately. Typically, I listen to more nonfiction than fiction, but I have been on a fiction kick with my audio picks.

Bucket list
I've started working on my 2014 book bucket list. I always make a list of the books I want to read before the end of the year, and my list is currently impossibly long, even though I've read more books this year than in any other year. I plan to post the list the week of Thanksgiving to help hold myself accountable through the end of the year. I will likely have two lists: the must reads and the "would really like to read." I'm thinking of keeping this list going seasonally (monthly seems too often).

Now tell me: what books are on your 2014 bucket list?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

book review: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

The backstory: I'm a fan of Amy Poehler, but I'm not a fan of Amy Poehler. I don't watch Parks and Recreation, but I've seen some episodes. I do, however, lover her smart, observational humor.

My thoughts: Yes Please is a multimedia memoir of sorts. It's part advice, part reflection, part humorous recollections, part traditional memoir, part essays, part commentary on career, marriage, divorce and parenthood, and all parts awesome. Its awesomeness came in unexpected ways, as well as expected ways. It's a very diverse book.

There are fabulously funny lines, of course:
"Is there a word for when you are young and pretending to have lived and loved a thousand lives? Is there a German word for that? Seems like there should be. Let's say it is Schaufenfrieglasploit."
But there are also fabulously wise lines telling truths that are both simple and profound:
"Change is the only constant. Your ability to navigate and tolerate change and its painful uncomfortableness directly correlates to your happiness and general well-being."
My favorite passages, however, managed to do both:
"Please don't drive drunk, okay? Seriously. It's so fucked up. But by all means, walk drunk. That looks hilarious. Everyone loves to watch someone act like they are trying to make it to safety during a hurricane."
There's a beautiful rawness to this book that comes perhaps from the time in which it was written. Poehler candidly talks about the realities of going through a divorce. She writes with grace, and the moments of pain are still laced with wisdom and humor in a truly magical and beautiful way.

Favorite passage:  "He was the first important person in my life to die, and when he did, it was the first time I realized that life is not fair or safe or even ours to own."

The verdict: I can't fully articulate why I fell so deeply in love with this book. As I read, I was moved, both emotionally and intellectually. I was wowed by both what Poehler managed to accomplish with this book and how unique it is. I can't fully articulate either what this book is or how much it meant to me, but I didn't expect to connect so fully and so deeply. Thanks to the honesty, humor, grace, and wisdom of Amy Poehler, I did.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: October 28, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Yes Please 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!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

book review: The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

The backstory: The Care and Management of Lies is Jacqueline Winspear's first historical novel not to feature Maisie Dobbs. I've read and enjoyed all of the Maisie Dobbs novels: Maisie DobbsBirds of a FeatherPardonable LiesMessenger of TruthAn Incomplete Revenge, Among the Mad, The Mapping of Love and Death, A Lesson in Secrets, An Elegy for Eddie, and Leaving Everything Most Loved.

The basics: The Care and Management of Lies focuses on three characters: Kezia, Thea, and Tom. Tom and Thea are brother and sister. Kezia and Thea are lifelong best friends...until Kezia marries Tom.

My thoughts: World War I and its lingering effects feature prominently in the Maisie Dobbs series, so I was curious to see how Winspear tackled the war itself. The story begins before the war, and thus the reader knows what's to come better than the characters do. The subtitle "A Novel of the Great War" makes it abundantly clear, and yet it takes some time to get to the actual war itself. It takes even longer for any of the three main characters to get to the war. Herin lies the two connected problems of this novel: it doesn't quite know what kind of novel it wants to be and its pace is off.

There is a lot of good in this novel. The triangular relationships of Kezia, Thea and Tom are fascinating. All three have changed in ways that impact their relationships with one another. Kezia's journey from urban teacher to farm wife is entertaining, if not terribly original. Thea's increasing involvement in the suffrage movement is intriguing both for the changes it brings to her as an individual and its insight into the movement itself. The delicate negotiations of Kezia and Tom as they learn to live as a married couple had a quiet beauty to it. The reader gets to learn about the land and farming by seeing it through Tom's veteran eyes and Kezia's fresh eyes.

The set-up in this novel is quite interesting, and I can't help but think it's a shame the war had to come and wreck what was an illuminating and entertaining novel. If Winspear's point was to illustrate how the war impacted so many lives, she makes it, but the war scenes aren't as enchanting as the pre-war scenes. Much has been written about World War I, and there wasn't enough new here to keep my attention.

The verdict: The Care and Management of Lies is a moderately entertaining novel that I read in spurts over several months. It wasn't bad enough to abandon, but it wasn't good enough to read with any sense of urgency. Readers who like World War I and domestic fiction will likely find much to enjoy.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 341 pages
Publication date: July 1, 2014 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Care and Management of Lies from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Jacqueline Winspear's website and like her on Facebook.

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

Friday, November 7, 2014

book review: Confessions of a Scary Mommy by Jill Smokler

The basics: Confessions of a Scary Mommy is an irreverent and honest book about the journey into motherhood, from Smokler's surprise first pregnancy to the present, when she has three children.

My thoughts: When I started back at work after maternity leave, a friend told me I had to read this book. So I did. And there were some parts I really liked. Each section begins with anonymous confessions. I admit: some made me laugh, some made me sneer, and others made me sad for the person who confessed. They were unconnected and eventually a little annoying.

The book itself is arranged somewhat chronologically and thematically. Predictably, I enjoyed some parts more than others, as I'm the mom to a 12-week-old, not three kids who walk and talk. As with most stories of parenting, I connected and related to some more than others. The reading experience itself wasn't deep enough for me. I'm all for irreverent and honest, but I still wanted depth and a stronger voice. It felt as though I was reading a compilation of already written pieces rather than an original book. I love small pieces on parenting, but they don't always come together for a strong narrative, and this one didn't, nor did it necessarily intend to. Given the choice of reading short pieces on parenting, I'd opt for the diversity and breadth of the Scary Mommy website rather than this collection.

The verdict: While there are some hilarious and sweet anecdotes, Confessions of a Scary Mommy barely scratches the surface. This slim volume is nice, but the website is a true treasure trove of content, including many more voices. Smokler's attempts to include other voices fell flat for me, and I found myself wishing she would share more of herself.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 176 pages
Publication date: April 3, 2012
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Confessions of a Scary Mommy from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit the Scary Mommy website and like it 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!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

audiobook review: Some Luck by Jane Smiley

narrated by Lorelei King

The backstory: Some Luck was longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award.

The basics: Some Luck, the first in a new trilogy from Jane Smiley, stretches from 1920 to 1953 and tells the story of the Langdon family, who farm in the fictional town of Denby, Iowa.

My thoughts: I'm thirty-four years old. This book covers thirty-three years. This synchronicity fascinated me as each chapter brought a new year for the Langdon family. Covering thirty-three years in just over four hundred pages means that there are many moments and events not told. As the Langdon family grows, there are more people to catch up with each year, and as the children begin to leave the home, there are more places to go to catch up with them. While the novel begins as a quiet, farm tale, covering fascinating times of transition in the 1920's and 1930's, I was surprised by how much Smiley tackles.

Some Luck spends a surprising amount of time away from the farm. While still deeply rooted in Denby, the last third of this book exemplifies how much changes in a generation, no matter where you come from. That particular thirty-three year stretch is a fascinating one, and Smiley manages to explore a number of issues, experiences, and locations through the Denby family.

Favorite passage:  "But she knew this was her life. Better to be immersed in it than to see it from afar."

Audio thoughts: While I quite enjoyed this book, I found Lorelei King's narration to be uneven. She excels at using different voices for characters, and the dialogue came alive with her narration. I was particularly impressed with the subtle changes she made in characters as they grew. When the novel begins, for example, Frank is a baby (and yes, he has internal thoughts), but he slowly grows up, and King's narration slowly grows with him. As good as the dialogue performance was, I found King's narration of the prose rough and jarring. It took me awhile to get used to it (I think I listened to the opening scene five times), but once I did, I was no longer distracted. King isn't a narrator I'd seek out again, but she isn't one I'd avoid either. Particularly for dialogue-heavy books or multiple-narrator performances, she would be excellent.

The verdict: Some Luck was a riveting, fascinating read. I can't wait to read the second and third installments and see where the Langdons end up in 2020. Thankfully, this trilogy will be coming out soon, as both the second and third volumes are due out in 2015.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5
Length: 14 hours and 48 minutes (416 pages)
Publication date: October 7, 2014
Source: purchased

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

Want more? Visit Jane Smiley's website.

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

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Quickly: Commas Matter


Spotted on Twitter this most amazing correction from my beloved Ann Patchett to The New York Times:

Puppy Love

To the Editor:

I was grateful to see my book “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” mentioned in Paperback Row (Oct. 19). When highlighting a few of the essays in the collection, the review mentions topics ranging from “her stabilizing second marriage to her beloved dog” without benefit of comma, thus giving the impression that Sparky and I are hitched. While my love for my dog is deep, he married a dog named Maggie at Parnassus Books last summer as part of a successful fund-raiser for the Nashville Humane Association. I am married to Karl VanDevender. We are all very happy in our respective unions.

ANN PATCHETT

NASHVILLE

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Monday, November 3, 2014

book review: The Burning Room by Michael Connelly

The backstory: The Burning Room is Michael Connelly's twenty-seventh novel and the nineteenth to feature Harry Bosch. See my reviews for the other twenty-six novels in my Book Review Database.

The basics: There are two mysteries at the center of The Burning Room. The first is a warm cold case. A mariachi musician dies nine years after being struck by a stray bullet. After the shooting, he became a political celebrity of sorts, and his death is very big news. Harry Bosch and his new partner Lucia Soto, who has been in the news as a hero cop, have a cold case to solve but a warm body to help. The second is a cold case very personal to Detective Soto, and it lets the reader get to know her through her backstory.

My thoughts: It was with some trepidation that I began reading The Burning Room. I read Michael Connelly's first novel in February and proceeded to read all of his novels this year. Beginning this one (before it was published) meant the wait for the next one was really long, but I had to see what was happening with Harry.

One of the things I like best about the Bosch series is how Connelly lets time pass. He writes in real time, so when a year passes between books (or two years when a Mickey Haller novel comes in between), Bosch has been living and working, and we don't know what he's been up to. It might be easy for readers to think they've missed a book. This passage of time has also been building tension in the series for years, as Harry Bosch is the most senior detective in the LAPD and has already retired and come back once. How many more years does he have?

Aside from my love for this series as a whole, I've thoroughly enjoyed Harry's time in the Open Unsolved Case Unit, so I was thrilled to see he's still there. Seeing Harry train a new partner is also fascinating. The theme of Harry as old school has been around for years, but there's a new poignancy to it, as Harry acknowledges his career is winding down. The relationship between Lucia and Harry is as compelling as any of Harry's other partners over the years. Harry's work in the Open Unsolved Unit also allows him to keep exploring the themes of past corruption. The political angles in this novel are once again as fascinating as the cases themselves.

The verdict: The Burning Room introduces a new partner for Harry, features two compelling and twisty mysteries, and continues to explore Harry's professional motivations. The pairing of Harry and Lucia is an intriguing one, and I'll be eagerly (and impatiently) awaiting the next Harry Bosch mystery, not only because Connelley leaves us with one hell of a cliffhanger. If you haven't started this series, and you like mysteries, what are you waiting for?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 400 pages
Publication date: November 3, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Burning Room from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or 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!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sunday Salon: November?

The Sunday Salon.com
Is it really November? Time is flying by. I am not kidding when I say the not-even-a-year I was pregnant was the longest, slowest year of my life. At first time felt normal again after Hawthorne was born. Suddenly, he's growing and changing so much, and time is moving faster than ever. But November? It has sneaked up on me (am I the only one who always feel as though I use the past tense of sneak incorrectly? It just sounds wrong.) I think my November disbelief is partly due to the weather. I wore my winter coat for the first time Friday. That is unreasonably late in the year. Thursday night Hawthorne and I sat outside in our chairs (okay, so he does not so much sit as recline gracefully in his baby chair) while I enjoyed a glass of wine. It's been a beautiful, mild fall, and I've been enjoying it, but I am also getting ready for winter, which I adore (until around March, when I am once again ready for spring.)

Part of my love for winter is my I love for the holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas and the New Year); the crisp temperatures signal their arrival. By this time I'm usually already listening to Christmas music, but I haven't had the urge yet. I am typically not a big fan of Halloween, but now that I have a baby, it allows me to dress him in ridiculous costumes, which I apparently quite enjoy. Here are Hawthorne's Halloween outfits:
Festive daywear (yes, it glows in the dark!)
My baby penguin (I did wait until it went on sale, as he
wore it for approximately five minutes before getting
agitated because it did not allow him to slobber all over
his fists as he so loves to do--he will manage to
separate his thumb any day now, I think. So, yes, it was
an expensive photo op, but so worth it!)
October reading wrap-up
I knew when I went back to work I would read less, and I have been. But you know what has really cut into my reading time this month? Houseguests. I love houseguests, but all of my leisure reading time becomes social time. This month my brother and his wife came from Atlanta for a long weekend and my father-in-law came from Arizona for a week. It was so lovely for them to meet and spend time with Hawthorne. Too much of our family and friends live too far away, so I treasure visits, especially as I want Hawthorne to know all of the important people in our lives regardless of where they live. But all those times I have my audiobook playing while washing dishes, feeding Hawthorne, and driving around town? Gone. Those quiet hours while Hawthorne naps when I can usually sneak in some reading time? Gone. The leisurely hours after he goes to bed but before I go to bed? Okay, some of those hours were still there.

So, despite my excitement at reaching 100 books read for the year in September, I ended October with only six finished books. I will, however, probably finish three this weekend, so I will start November with a bang! I am reading too many books at a time because so many great new books have come out in the past month, everything I've been waiting on at the library has finally arrived at the same time, and I have had more time to listen to audiobooks than actually read. These are all good problems, and now that it will get dark an hour earlier, I will probably spend even more time reading. Hawthorne is just getting on a sleeping schedule, so his 5:30-7 p.m. bedtime will now be 4:30-6 p.m. We'll work on it, but he is impossible to wake up while sleeping and very difficult to keep awake when he wants to sleep (in his defense, these habits are mostly lovely.)

November plans
What will November bring? I hope more reading. I plan to keep picking up whatever sounds good at the moment, but I am starting to think about reading goals for 2015 (I cannot believe we are less than two months away from 2015--it still sounds futuristic to me.) I'm also trying to get back into the #fmsphotoaday challenge on Instagram. I've been terrible at it, and I want my Instagram to have more than just nomadbaby photos (don't worry, there will still be plenty of those!) And I'm so excited for Thanksgiving. I think Hawthorne will be the perfect age to sit on the table in his Bumbo next to the food, which will make for fabulous photos to be enjoyed for years. Also, it's a four-and-a-half-day-weekend, which sounds divine.

Now tell me: what's the best book you read in October? Are you as surprised as I am that it's November?

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

Thursday, October 30, 2014

book review: Redeployment by Phil Klay

The backstory: Redeployment, the debut short story collection by Phil Klay, has been honored twice by the National Book Award. It's on the 2014 shortlist, and it's also a 5 Under 35 pick.

The basics: This thematic collection of short stories focuses on soldiers fighting in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Klay served in the U.S. Marine Corps and in the Iraq War.

My thoughts: There's been a surge of fiction about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in the past few years. I've read and reviewed several titles here: Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter, Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, and You Know When The Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon. Just as I've come to compare books about World War II to one another, I've also apparently reached the threshhold where stories about the Iraq and Afghanistan cause me to reflect and compare them against one another. In this sense, Phil Klay is at a disadvantage, as the bar has been set pretty high with my enjoyment of these other titles. He's also at a disadvantage because I typically prefer novels and memoirs to short stories. Still, I started this collection with excitement.

Redeployment, unsurprisingly, is not a cheery or uplifting collection. It's raw and gritty, and it's not a sentimental look at war or soldiers as heroes. Its characters are often crude and misogynistic (note: writing authentically misogynistic characters does not mean Klay himself is misogynistic.) Reading Redeployment is an uncomfortable experience. Perhaps it was more uncomfortable for me as I read some of it while holding my baby. Imagining him as a soldier in eighteen years adds a curious new layer to my reading of stories about mostly young men.

Favorite passage:  "How drunk the girl was, whether she really wanted you or whether she let you, or was scared of you, that doesn’t bother most Marines when they get laid on a Friday night. Not as far as I can tell. I doubt it bothers college frat kids, either. But walking back from Rachel’s, it started to really bother me." from "Bodies"

The verdict: Redeployment provides unflinching looks at the experiences of soldiers who fought in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Its insight is often dreary, but it isn't necessarily surprising. Despite my experience reading and watching films about these wars, the darkness in Redeployment often seeped in deeper than other have. Redeployment offers important insights and perspectives, but its stories are seldom easy to read or digest.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: March 4, 2014
Source: library

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

Want more? Visit Phil Klay's website 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!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

book review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The backstory: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is one of my book club's November picks. The other is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, which I LOVED. (My book club meets every other month and reads two books.)

The basics: A.J. Fikry is a widowed book store owner on Alice Island, a fictional Martha's Vineyard-like place. His prized possession is a valuable and rare copy of very early Poe poems has been stolen, and he is rather miserable all around.

My thoughts: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a story for book lovers. It's filled with recommendations and inside jokes:
"He wants Maya to read literary picture books if such a thing exists. And preferably modern ones. And preferably, preferably feminist ones. Nothing with princesses. It turns out that these works most definitely do exist. He is particularly fond of Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Emily Jenkins, Peter Sis, and Lane Smith." 
At times the novel gets somewhat meta, and I found these moments interesting but ultimately not as successful: "You're a good reader, and you'll probably see it coming. (Is a twist less satisfying if you know it's coming? Is a twist that you can't predict symptomatic of bad construction? These are things to consider when writing.)" There are twists in this novel, and some I saw coming. Some were satisfying, and those were often the ones I didn't see coming.

As I read, I was fascinated by this novel, but not always in a good way. I didn't get carried away by the characters. Instead, I was carried away by trying to think like Zevin: what was she trying to accomplish with this novel. There are clues, including this passage about listing an average novel among one's favorites:
"How to account for its presence when I know it is only average? The answer is this: Your dad relates to the characters. It has meaning to me. And the longer I do this (bookselling, yes, of course, but also living if that isn't too awfully sentimental), the more I believe that this is what the point of all is. To connect, my dear little nerd. Only connect."
And therein lies the problem I had when I finished this novel. I didn't connect. I enjoyed it as I read. I was curious what would happen, as well as how and when the twists I guessed were coming would come. I can't say what made me not connect, but I think that's the key difference in my lukewarm thoughts on this entertaining novel that so many have utterly adored.

Favorite passage: "The thing I find most promising about your short story is that it shows empathy. Why do people do what they do? This is the hallmark of great writing."

The verdict: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a fun, entertaining read. It's clearly an ode to the love of books, which I quite enjoyed while I read, but ultimately the story lacked depth and emotional resonance. The characters felt like characters in a story rather than real, multi-dimensional characters.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 273 pages
Publication date: April 1, 2014 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Gabrielle Zevin's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

audiobook review: The Expats by Chris Pavone

narrated by Mozhan Marno

The basics: The Expats is the story of Kate Moore, a D.C. policy analyst whose husband Dexter receives a compelling job opportunity in Luxembourg. Kate and Dexter, along with their two young boys, soon make the move to Luxembourg, where Kate joins the thriving expat community for morning coffee, but all is not what it seems in this spy novel.

My thoughts: Please ignore the basics of this book. It was quite challenging to remember what I thought was the setup early on in this novel, and I think it's most exciting to read without the knowledge of some of its secrets. Pavone has his characters start spilling secrets very early on, and the twists keep coming throughout the novel. It's clear from the beginning that The Expats is a spy novel. What isn't clear initially is who the spy is (or who the spies are.) The characters weave a complicated collection of secrets and lies, and I enjoyed every single reveal. Some I correctly guessed before the characters, but many left me surprised.

Audio thoughts: Mozhan Marno's narration was quite good. She conveyed the many complicated emotions of Kate beautifully, and she expertly added in pauses I doubt I would have had the patience for if I read in print. The audio is a little long for a book of that length, but Marno's pacing escalated the tension is this addictive thriller. Some listeners might have trouble keeping the two timelines straight, as the action jumps back and forth between the present day and the flashbacks without obvious audio markers, but I didn't have a problem with it thanks to Pavone's attention to detail.

Favorite passage:  "The joke, like most of his kisses, had become perfunctory."

The verdict: The Expats is a smart, twisty thrill ride of an adventure across Europe. Like Kate, the reader never quite knows who or what to trust. The Expats is also a surprisingly thoughtful exploration of marriage and love. That Pavone managed both in his first novel is even more exciting.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 12 hours 27 minutes (338 pages)
Publication date: March 6, 2012
Source: library

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

Want more? Visit Chris Pavone's website and like him 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, October 20, 2014

book review: Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

The basics: Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned" is part memoir, part thematic collection of essays, part humor, part advice, and part self-help vignettes.

My thoughts: I'll start with the disclosure: I'm a huge fan of Lena Dunham. Although I know of no actual relation to her Dunhams, I still try to claim her (and I'm only a Dunham by marriage.) So it was with huge excitement that I started Not That Kind of Girl the moment I picked it up from the library. It's no secret Lena Dunham can write dialogue, but how would it transfer to prose? She can build a scene beautifully in prose too:
"On Saturdays my friends and I load into somebody's old Volvo and head to a thrift store, where we buy tchotchkes that reek of other people's lives and clothes that we believe will enhance our own. We all want to look like characters on the sitcoms of our youth, the teenagers we admired when we were still kids."
And she can still write a hilarious one-liner: "This relationship culminated in the worst trip to Los Angeles ever seen outside of a David Lynch film." There are a lot of great moments in Not That Kind of Girl, but I'm still somewhat confused by Dunham's intentions with it as a complete book. At several points she refers to the pieces as essays, and I wouldn't have labeled them as essays, but I can sort of see that. I'm more inclined to call the varied pieces in this collection vignettes. There are essays, short and long pieces, humorous pieces, serious pieces, and pieces that tell stories rather than reflect on them. The collection is arranged thematically in five parts, which made it feel somewhat disjointed. Dunham mines her childhood frequently, but it doesn't feel like memoir because it's not organized chronologically.

Dunham is intentionally poking fun at her age with the book's subtitle: "a young woman tells you what she's "learned."" Yet as amusing as I find the subtitle, I'm not convinced it reflects the book itself. There are nuggets of advice, but I didn't find this book nearly as reflective as I hoped. Dunham is a great storyteller, but I longed for more than amusing stories from this book.

Favorite passage:  "Another frequently asked question is how I am “brave” enough to reveal my body on-screen. The subtext here is definitely how I am brave enough to reveal my imperfect body, since I doubt Blake Lively would be subject to the same line of inquiry...My answer is: it’s not brave to do something that doesn’t scare you. I’d be brave to skydive. To visit a leper colony. To argue a case in the United States Supreme Court or to go to a CrossFit gym. Performing in sex scenes that I direct, exposing a flash of my weird puffy nipple, those things don’t fall into my zone of terror."

The verdict: Not That Kind of Girl is smart and funny, but it's also somewhat uneven because it tries to be so many different things. There are moments of brilliance, tales that made me cry, and sentences that had me guffawing, but there were also portions that made me wish I was re-watching Girls from the beginning instead of reading.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 290 pages
Publication date: September 30, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Not That Kind of Girl from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Follow Lena Dunham 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!