Sunday, September 26, 2010

New York State Writers Institute: Fall 2010

One of the coolest literary perks of living in Albany is the New York State Writers Institute and their Visiting Writers series. The Fall 2010 schedule has been released, but I'm only highlighting the ones I'm most excited about (the full list is here.)

Salvation City
Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez
Thursday, October 7
The early buzz about Salvation City has been amazing. It's the story of "an oprhaned 13-year-old boy who is adopted into a Christian fundamentalist community, and who struggles to make sense of life in the aftermath of the flu pandemic that wipes out much of the world's population." I'm also hoping she talks about her forthcoming memoir, Sempre Susan, about her long friendship with Susan Sontag. It will be published in 2011. 

The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her TimesThe Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times by Ilyon Woo
Thursday, October 21
I've lived in Albany for a little over two years, and I'm growing more and more interested in its history (Albany is the fourth oldest city in the United States.) I'm really looking forward to this locally-set, popular history book. The local buzz is fantastic, and I'm really looking forward to learning more about the city I live in and its history.

by Sapphire (Author)Precious (Push Movie Tie-in Edition) (Vintage Contemporaries) (Paperback)

Sapphire
Tuesday, October 26
Despite never having read any of Sapphire's work (I did see Precious), I'm immensely looking forward to hearing her speak. The event is co-sponsored by the School of Public Health.



It's a wonderful schedule this semester, and I hope to attend most of the events, but I'll be (attempting) to read these books before the authors are here. Of course, I'll write wrap-up posts for all the events I attend.

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

book review: I'd Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman

I'd Know You Anywhere: A Novel The backstory: I really enjoy mysteries, and when I read my first Laura Lippman novel last year, Life Sentences (my review), I didn't really love it because I didn't think it was much of a mystery. I did think she was a good writer, though, and when I heard about her latest stand-alone mystery, I'd Know You Anywhere, I wanted to give her another try.
 
The basics: When Eliza was fifteen, she was kidnapped and held captive for weeks by a man who raped and killed young women. He let her go. He's now on death row, and she receives a letter from him that shatters her present world. She changed her name from Elizabeth to Eliza, took her husband's name and never speaks of the event.

My thoughts: Once again, I read a Lippman novel I wouldn't describe as a mystery. The central mystery, if you can call it that, is the lingering effect of kidnapping. The novel is told in alternating chapters of the summer of 1985, Elizabeth's summer with Walter, and the present day. I found it to be somewhat interesting but incredibly slow-placed. Initially I thought it would be a psychological thriller, but as the pages turned, I found it to be a psychological introspection. It is fascinating and disturbing to get so deeply inside the mind of Walter, and the novel does explore humanity in the face of crime well. There is a lot of discussion about the death penalty (as the novel takes place in the D.C. area, the differing politics of Virginia and Maryland are discussed at length.) Part of my disappointment with this novel stemmed from my assumption it was a mystery. Lippman is a good writer, but this book straddles a few genres. It may disappoint mystery fans, frighten literary fiction fans, and not be gory enough for psychological thriller fans, but somewhere between the three it will intrigue and appeal to an audience more than it did to me.

The verdict: Despite Lippman's strong writing and an interesting subject, I thought this novel was too long and too slow. I was expecting a mystery, but I got a close look at the lingering psychological impact of kidnapping. I'd rather watch an episode of Criminal Minds.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: September 1, 2010
Source: I received a copy from the publisher via TLC Tours


As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Waiting on Wednesday: Silent Mercy by Linda Fairstein

Silent MercyIf you read this blog, you know I'm a huge fan of Linda Fairstein's Alexandra Cooper mystery series, and I just heard about her latest release, Silent Mercy. Here's the description of what we're in store for in this thirteenth Alexandra Cooper novel:
"It's the middle of the night. Prosecutor Alexandra Cooper is called to Harlem's Mount Neboh Baptist Church, a beautiful house of worship originally built as a synagogue. But the crowd gathered there isn't interested in architecture, or even prayer. They've come for the same reason Alex has: to find out why the body of a young woman has been decapitated, set on fire, and left burning on the church steps.

The only identifiable artifact on the charred remains is the imprint of a Star of David necklace seared into the victim's flesh. Alex wonders if the fire was meant to destroy this woman's body, or to draw attention to it. Her fears are confirmed days later, when a second corpse is found at a cathedral in Little Italy. The killings look like serial hate crimes, but the apparent differences in the victims' beliefs seem to eliminate a religious motive. Convinced that another young woman is bound to die, Alex mines the depths of Manhattan's many houses of worship to find a connection between the victims-and in the process uncovers a terrible and perilous truth that takes her far beyond the scope of her investigation, and directly into the path of terrible danger"
If you haven't discovered Linda Fairstein's mystery novels already, you're in for a treat. Silent Mercy will be published March 8, 2011, but you can read reviews of her previous Alex Cooper novels:
Update: I loved it! My full review is now available.

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

book review: Loving Che by Ana Menendez

Loving Che: A NovelThe backstory: I so enjoyed reading Ana Menendez's most recent novel, The Last War (my review), I was eager to read her first novel, Loving Che. Menendez also wrote a collection of short stories entitled In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd.

The basics: Loving Che takes place in contemporary Miami, as a young woman longs to uncover her past. Once she receives a package of letters and photographs, the narrative shifts to her mother's voice recalling the years of the Cuban Revolution and her love affair with Che Guevera. Then, the narrative shifts back to modern day as the unnamed narrator seeks to use the clues from letters and photographs to fill in the details of her life.

My thoughts: I'm a huge fan of historical fiction featuring real people, and Che Guevera is someone I've been fascinated with quietly  for years. Loving Che is a unique piece of historical fiction. It's events are intricately linked to actual events in the very public life of Che Guevera and the Cuban revolution, but the links come in broad strokes more often than details. There's also a mysterious element to the novel as our narrator seeks answers to her questions about identity. My favorite part of the novel was its last third. It was a fascinating journey, and I couldn't help but think of A. Manette Ansay's fabulous Good Things I Wish You (my review), where the lines between fiction, research, and memoir became blurred into a lovely piece of metafiction. I don't know how much Menendez's journey to research this novel mimicked itself in the narrator's research of her life, but it was quite fascinating to read about. At times, this novel veered into romance:
"The first kiss is more intimate than the naked bed; it's small perimeter already contains the first submission and the final betrayal." (p. 91)
At times, it was both romantic and wise:
"I wonder now if people don't make up their reasons for deception after the fact. And that what truly leads us into the arms of another lies beyond our comprehension." (p. 93)
There are so many beautiful truths in this novel:
"But death to me is more a regret, not a fear. Fear is one of the things that make us value life. But how can you fear the inevitable? It would be like fearing the dawn." (p. 112)
There were a few moments that felt uneven in this novel. Because I read The Last War first, I was willing to forgive some first novel pacing issues. The depth of the ending surprised me; I had written off this novel as simple and sweet despite my enjoyment of Menendez's writing. I was moved to tears and quite pondering by the novel's last pages, and I think it will haunt me for quite some time.

The verdict: A lyrical tale of love, revolution, life, identity and the power of the unknown. Recommended for fans of historical fiction, women's fiction and literary fiction.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: a lyrical and powerful 240 pages
Publication date: It came out in paperback November 30, 2004
Source:  my local public library

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

book review: The Art of Devotion

The Art of DevotionThe basics: The Art of Devotion, Samantha Bruce-Benjamin's first novel, is told through the voices of four women: two mothers and two daughters. The lives of these families criss-cross in a variety of ways on a beautiful Mediterranean island.

My thoughts: I really wanted to like this book. I adore novels told from multiple points of view. I like stories of family secrets and interconnected generations. I like historical fiction (it's set in the first half of the 1900's.) I like books set in exotic locations. What kept me from loving this book? It was oh so very melodramatic. Bruce-Benjamin was so busy having the four narrators tell us what they were thinking and feeling the characters never actually thought or felt anything. The pacing was bizarre and unsuccessful for me. All of the narration read like a memoir; each woman's emotions were presented, but for most of the book, the reader didn't actually know what events they vaguely referred to. There was an omen of something happening, but there was no real mystery or intrigue. By the time the truth(s) were revealed, I no longer cared. The book was so devoid of plot the only real story became the emotions of the women, and their emotions were overwrought and redundant. Not only did I not care what was going to happen to them, I didn't care what had happened. They were all so melodramatic and over-the-top (and the reader doesn't know why until the end) it was difficult to muster sympathy.

While I was reading it, I kept forgetting it was set in a different era. There were no historical clues or references. I suppose the argument could be made that this novel is timeless, and while I technically agree, I'm a reader who enjoys a strong setting. Bruce-Benjamin took great care to describe the island frequently (and similarly) from four points of view, but there was no mention of time aside from the section headings.

The verdict: There was potential for a good story in this novel, but the crucial events were revealed last, and it took far too long to get there. The narrative was overwrought and melodramatic. I hope Samantha Bruce-Benjamin finds a way to tighten her narrative voice in her next novel.

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: a far-too-long 400 pages
Publication date: June 8, 2010 (paperback)
Source:  I received this book for review via Crazy Book Tours from the publisher, who compared her writing to Ian McEwan and Anne Right. I respectfully disagree.

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

BBAW Interview Swap

Today's celebration of Book Blogger Appreciation Week is the interview swap. I was partnered with Kristi from Kristi's Book Nook. You can find Kristi's interview of me today on her blog.

Why did you start blogging about books? 
I love childrens books. I write childrens books and submitt work all the time. I read with my nephew and he would always come home from school with a new book to share. From that I just started writing reviews about them.

What is your favorite things about blogging? 
I love blogging about reading. Anything that will get a parent or child interested in reading I am all for it. I blog because I love self expression. Since all of my blogs are different I can express myself in many ways. It's fun.

Your blog highlights children's books. Do you read other types of books too?
I love to read detective and sci-fi type books. I love scary books too. I am a big fan of Stephen King, John Sanford, James Patterson and F. Paul Wilson.


You're also a writer. How has your book blog impacted your writing? 
My blog has impacted my writing. In January of this year I decided to take my writing seriously. Since then my blog has been viewed by so many people it forced me to get better at my writing and to really pay attention to how I do my reviews. As a result of that I do reviews for the National Writing For Children Center, Tiger Tales Books and I just did two review for Sylvan Dell authors.

You're currently enrolled in the Insititue of Children's Literature. Tell me how that experience has been for you. 
The ICL has forced me to really look at my writing and how it is structured. There are a lot of rules for writing picture books and so I still have a lot to learn. So far, it has been a really good learning experience.


Tickle MonsterTickle Monster is your favorite book. What sets it apart from the other books you've read?
I love the way the words roll off the tongue. I anticipate each page and it is just a really fun read. The kids love it and it forces you to interact with the book and them.

You live in Overland Park, Kansas, where I used to live. How does your location impact your blog? Have you discovered other Kansas City-area bloggers? Are there interesting literary festivals, events or author signings you frequent? 
I have encountered a lot of KC bloggers. I don't think it matters where you are located, blogging is blogging. I love literary festivals and do attend them if at all possible. I plan to attend some author signings next week.


Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Kristi! You can find Kristi's interview of me at Kristi's Book Nook.
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Monday, September 13, 2010

Booker 2010: C by Tom McCarthy

CThe backstory: C is on this year's Booker Prize shortlist.

The basics: I'm not sure I've ever read a book so difficult to summarize. The book jacket does a decent job, however, so I'll use its description: "C follows the short, intense life of Serge Carrefax, a man who--as his name suggests--surges into the electric modernity of the early twentieth century, transfixed by the technologies that will obliterate him."

My thoughts: C is a complicated, dense, self-referential novel. The overarching theme of the novel (I think) is transmission: the transmission of thoughts, feelings, ideas, words, messages and life itself. It's a difficult novel to evaluate. As I was reading it, I felt simultaneously smart for getting some of McCarthy's puns, symbols and allusions, but I couldn't help feeling I was barely scratching the surface of this novel's depth. By the end, I had a better grasp on the intention of the novel, and I imagine more layers would reveal themselves upon rereading it.

There were times I was enchanted with McCarthy's writing:
Breathing, we live; speaking, we partake of the sublime. In our conversing each one with the other--listening, responding--we form our attachments: friendships, enmities and loves. It is through our participation in the realm of speech that we become moral, learn to respect law, to understand one another's pain, and to expand and fortify our faculties through the great edifices of the arts and sciences: poetry, reason, argument, discourse. (15)
There were times his writing was far too much for me:
He lets a fart slip from his buttocks, and waits for its vapour to reach his nostrils: it, too, carries signals, odour-messages from distant, unseen bowels. (66)
Some characters seemed to stand in for McCarthy's ideas of the novel itself, as when he described "her strange associate web" (70) or Serge's "sense that Sophie's talking about things he's simply not equipped to understand, an apprehension that gulfs as wide as frozen interstellar distances are opening within her words, expanding beyond measure the gap between her and him (74). By the end of the novel, the associative was still strange, but it had somewhat narrowed its scope and tied up its ideas. 

The verdict: This book felt longer than it was, even though it was a gripping read. It's incredibly unique, difficult to describe, and its ambitions and conclusions are bigger than its 310 pages. Recommended only for those literary fiction fans who don't mind a challenge.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 310 pages

Publication date: September 7, 2010
Source: I bought it from the Book Depository.


Worth noting: Normally, I only skim the New York Times' book reviews, but C is a rare novel, and I think spoilers may aid understanding rather than spoil the reading experience. Jennifer Egan's review of C is worth reading, before or after you read C.

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Changes

Good morning! If you're reading this by visiting my blog, you'll notice things look quite a bit different here. I'm still playing around with the new layout, but if you have thoughts (good and bad), I'd love to hear them.

Why the change? Aside from the beautiful background photograph I wanted to incorporate, I desperately wanted to add the new "share widget". Now you'll notice five lovely icons at the bottom of each post (to the right of where you click to add a comment.) You can now share my posts via Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Google Buzz and Gmail.

The look isn't the only new thing around here either. When I first started this blog, I spent at least as much time (and often more time) talking about tv than books. Now that I'm reading literary fiction almost exclusively, I also find myself using television to unwind more and more, and I wanted to start blogging about tv again. After much debate about whether or not to used nomadreader for tv posts too, I decided to start nomadreader on tv: a new blog for my television posts. Here, I aim to never post more than once a day, and the shelf life of television is so different, I'll have the freedom to most as irregularly as I want there. From time to time I'll post links here, but for the most part, I'll keep the two blogs as separate, as I imagine those who love their literature high-brow may not like their television as low-brow as some of mine is.

First up at nomadreader on tv: Hellcats. The CW takes on cheerleading with a couple of Disney favorites.




Thursday, September 9, 2010

book review: The Financial Lives of Poets by Jess Walter

The Financial Lives of the Poets: A Novel (P.S.)
The basics: The Financial Lives of Poets is the story of Matthew Prior, a newspaper reporter who quit his job to start a financial website written in poetry. Seriously. Not surprisingly, this venture has failed, and Matthew now finds his marriage less happy than it once was, his father (in the early stages of dementia) living with them, his sons wishing for electronics, their house on the verge of foreclosure, and himself increasingly desperate.

My thoughts: This novel took me on a roller coaster of a reading experience. I absolutely adored the first few chapters. I was reading it in public and could not stop myself from laughing out loud. The narrative began smart, funny and fresh, as when he describes the uniforms his sons wear to Catholic school:
I think these uniforms wouldn't be so bad if they didn't make the kids all look like bank tellers on casual Friday or the employees of a discount airline or--like me...
Throughout the book, the hilarious observations share space with thoughtful musings on life and love:
Our marriage was typical, I think; we deluded ourselves that it was made of rock-solid stuff, but there were trace elements of regret, seams of I-told-you-so, cracks of martyrdom.
The book began delightfully, but it soon descended into a satire so dark it was sometimes depressing. The push and pull between funny and dire fell out of balance for me at times, and I enjoyed the middle part of the book less than the rest. Even while I was not enjoying it completely, I still couldn't put it down, which is more a testament to Walter's writing than storytelling ability. I also laughed out loud more with this book than with any other in recent memory.When the story didn't move me, the writing still did. By the end, I was back on board with the story too. I may not have ended up loving it as much as I did in the early chapters, but I'm still glad I read it, and I think it's a solid, if not slightly unbalanced novel. It's certainly not for everyone, but I'm glad I read it, and I will look forward to more Jess Walter novels in the future.

The verdict: This book definitely isn't for everyone, but I recommend it to fans of smart, dark humor and those who don't mind a little raunch with their literary fiction.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Length: 290 pages (plus some delightful bonus features in the paperback edition: a short story, an essay from the author on how the book came about--including a hilarious tale of an elderly woman who called him because she didn't understand The Zero and didn't know what to say at book club, and information on his previous novels)
Publication date: It's out in paperback now, in three lovely colors (pictured above)
Source: publisher, via TLC Book Tours
 As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

book review: An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd

An Impartial Witness: A Bess Crawford Mystery 
The backstory: I thoroughly enjoyed Charles Todd's first Bess Crawford novel, A Duty to the Dead (my review), so I was eager to read the second mystery in this series.

The basics: An Impartial Witness is once again narrated by British World War I Army nurse Bess Crawford, a delightfully independent, intelligent, feminist woman. Granted, Bess is developing quite a habit of finding herself in the midst of murder investigations, but she's relatively smart about it.

My thoughts: Simply put, I enjoyed this novel even more than the first one. It's also refreshing to discover a mystery series that doesn't need to be read in order. There are a few mentions to the Britanic sinking, but the other events from the first novel (the mystery parts) aren't alluded to. The family and friends of Bess return, but their brief descriptions are helpful reminders for readers of the first book and adequate descriptions for those new to the series. Bottom line: it doesn't matter if you've read A Duty to the Dead or not.

Overall, this novel was well-written and engaging. Bess is a delightful character. She pushes the boundaries of convention for her time, but she acts with dignity and within the boundaries of social conventions and manners. It can be difficult to place independent, head-strong women in historical fiction, but Charles Todd (a mother and son writing team) do so quite well and rather believably. As is often the case with mystery novels featuring a main character who is not a detective, the reader must allow for a certain amount of leeway. There were a few too many coincidences early on, but allowing these provided many delightful twists and turns throughout the novel. I was willing to overlook the number of times Bess happened to run into people who provided her with pertinent information Scotland Yard overlooked because it made the novel more enjoyable.

The writing is both in cadence of the time (or it is to my eyes) and immensely readable. Bess, our wonderful narrator, has a way with language I loved:
"Which is how I found myself on a crowded train to Oxfordshire, with malice aforethought."
I finished this novel in a day, and I quite enjoyed it. It's not page-turning suspenseful until the last fifty pages, but it was just so interesting, I wanted to keep reading it.

The verdict: Bess Armstrong is a wonderful historical mystery character, and this novel will appeal to historical fiction and mystery lovers alike. I will eagerly await the third novel in this series, but in the meantime, I hope to read Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge series too.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 344 pages
Publication date: September 1, 2010
Source: I received this book from the publisher for review.

Have you read Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge series? Are there other historical mystery novels you recommend?

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The 2010 Booker Prize shortlist

I didn't attempt to publicly predict this year's Booker Prize shortlist because I only finished six of the thirteen novels. I was quite pleased, however, to see that three of the ones I enjoyed made the cut:
Room: A NovelThe Long Song: A NovelIn a Strange Room

Room by Emma Donoghue
I was really pulling for Room, because it became my favorite novel ever. I absolutely adored it (my review) and gave it 6 stars out of 5. Good news, U.S. readers, it will be published here next Tuesday, September 13. Get in line.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy
I called The Long Song "both incredibly literary and incredibly accessible as a story, which is an all too rare combination" (my review) and gave it 4.5 stars 

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut
In a Strange Room was the first of the longlisted novels I read, and I called it "a smart, unique, modern novel" (my review) and gave it 4 stars.

Of the three I've read, I'm happiest to see Room included, but I'm pleased with all three. The three shortlisted novels I haven't read (yet):
Parrot and Olivier in AmericaCThe Finkler Question
Parrot and Olivier in America  by Peter Carey
C by Tom McCarthy
(out today in the U.S. Happy publication day, Tom McCarthy!)
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
I confess, I feared the committee would pick six of the seven I hadn't read, but I'm thrilled to know I already have half of the shortlist read. I'm most eager to read C and The Finkler Question, and I'll start one of the two later today.

What was left out?
Again, it's hard to say when I've only read six of them, but the glaring omission to me is Rose Tremain's Trespass. I gave it 5 stars and said it's "an accessible literary novel with immense depth" (my review.)  Otherwise, I'm still looking forward to reading the rest of the longlist, especially The Slap, Skippy Dies, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Truthfully, with such an exciting longlist this year, there were bound to be some wonderful novels left out.

What are your thoughts on this year's shortlist? 
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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sunday Salon: A Booker Prize update

It's Labor Day!
Happy Sunday morning! We here at Casa Nomadreader are gearing up for a delightful gathering of friends and family to celebrate a three-day weekend, but I'm taking a welcome break from cleaning to update you on my Booker Dozen reading progress.

Booker Dozen: a failure of sorts
How am I doing? Not as well as I hoped. The Booker Prize shortlist will be announced Tuesday, and I'm eagerly awaiting the announcement. Despite my plan to read all thirteen of the novels on the longlist by Tuesday, I've only managed to read only six of the thirteen. I did realize this week I've managed to read all of the novels by female authors (plus one by a male author.) I certainly didn't intend to read the female authors first, but I suppose I do naturally gravitate toward woman-authored fiction, so it shouldn't be a surprise.

Now what?
Well, thankfully I enter any optimistic goal with a back-up plan. The shortlist may be announced Tuesday, but the winner won't be crowned until October 12, which gives me an extra month to complete my goal. I have all seven books in my possession, and I'm really looking forward to completing this goal. Here's what I have left to read:
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A NovelThe Finkler QuestionStars in the Bright SkyCThe Slap: A NovelSkippy Dies: A NovelParrot and Olivier in America
Honestly, I'm looking forward to all of them except the Peter Carey because the reviews I've read have not been terribly favorable. Still, Peter Carey is an author I've been meaning to read for years, so I am curious to experience his prose. At this point, I'm waiting until Tuesday to see what makes the shortlist, and I'll read it first. It will be a busy thirty-six days, but I'm looking forward to it.

The odds
I won't make predictions for this year's shortlist, as I've read only six of the thirteen, but I am hoping Room makes it. (I'm also hedging my bets Room will be the next Oprah Book Club selection, which will be announced September 17.) It has been fascinating to watch the actual odds change too.

Stay tuned Tuesday for my reaction to the shortlist. In the meantime, happy reading!

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!