Wednesday, November 30, 2011

book review: Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

The backstory: Winter Garden is one of the picks for my new book club this month. (We meet every other month and read two picks, but this month we chose three!)

The basics: Sisters Nina, an award-winning photojournalist, and Meredith, who stayed home to take over the family's orchard, are quite different. They've both struggled with their mother's emotional distance throughout their lives and relished their father's affection.

My thoughts: If not for my book club, I would likely not have made time to read Winter Garden. I foolishly dismissed it as fluffy, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how emotionally affecting this novel is. It is safe to say I first identified more with Nina, the roaming photojournalist who doesn't want to settle down, than with Meredith, who has a struggling marriage and two daughters in college. Nina describes her "yearning to see everything, no matter how terrible, to know everything."  Despite my initial preference for one sister, I always enjoyed Meredith's story, even as I didn't identify with it.

Early on, I was struck with Hannah's writing:
"Nowhere was the quiet more noticeable than in Meredith Whitson’s own house. At twelve, she had already discovered the empty spaces that gathered between people. She longed for her family to be like those she saw on television, where everything looked perfect and everyone got along. No one, not even her beloved father, understood how alone she often felt within these four walls, how invisible."
She uses descriptions quite well, and she involves emotion beautifully. I was captivated with the story of this family.With the extended holiday weekend, I had the luxury of reading the last 300 pages in a single sitting on my couch. I can't wait to discuss this novel with my book club tonight.

Favorite passage: "And maybe that was how it was supposed to be, how life unfolded when you lived it long enough. Joy and sadness were part of the package; the trick, perhaps, was to let yourself feel all of it, but to hold on to the joy just a little more tightly because you never knew when a strong heart could just give out."

The verdict: I loved this novel. The characters came alive for me, and I adored the mix of modern day with historical flashbacks. It's a beautiful story of a family, and it's one I will treasure for years to come.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 394 pages
Publication date: February 2, 2010 (it's in paperback now)
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Winter Garden from Amazon in print or for the Kindle.

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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 29, 2011

book review: You Are My Only by Beth Kephart

The backstory: When I interviewed Amy for Book Blogger Appreciation Week this year, I let her pick one book for me to read before the end of 2011. She chose You Are My Only by Beth Kephart, which thrilled me because I knew both she and Wendy from Caribou's Mom adored it. The other Beth Kephart title I've read, The Heart Is Not a Size, I really enjoyed.

The basics: You Are My Only is the story of Emmy and Sophie. Emmy married young and had a baby young. One day, Emmy's baby goes missing, leaving only a yellow sock. Sophie, a teenage girl who is homeschooled and forced to be reclusive, has spent her life moving around from what her mother eerily calls the "No Good." Once Sophie discovers a cute neighbor, Joey, she begins to question her mother.

My thoughts:  The narrative alternates between Emmy and Sophie. It's clear from the beginning that Sophie is Emmy's daughter, yet this connection lacked intrigue. I know I mostly read adult fiction and read this novel through an adult lens, but the obviousness of this connection created some distance between the characters and me. While Sophie's story did intrigue me, Emmy's left me flat. I longed for her sections to end quickly. The idea was there, but the execution once again felt flat.

Although I enjoyed Sophie's story more, I found it slow too. The entire book felt telegraphed for me. Perhaps I watch too many crime dramas and read too many mysteries, but if I can guess the events of a book from early on, I need an incredibly strong devotion to the characters or writing to keep me interested. Sadly, Kephart's writing is good, but she wrote this novel in a way I felt distanced from the characters.

Favorite passage: "I wanted to tell his story. His real story." "That's not what you've done. You've written fiction. Your ideas about how a man feels. A man you've only met in books."

The verdict: Beth Kephart is a lyrical writer, and You Are My Only is well written. Unfortunately, the characters and story did not capture me, and Kephart's writing wasn't enough to anchor this novel for me. Ultimately, I found this novel flat, dull and unsurprising.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: October 25, 2011
Source: publisher via NetGalley

I seem to be in the minority with my opinions of this novel, so please read some glowing reviews to counteract my negative one. You might love this one as these reviewers did:

Did I miss yours? Email me a link (or leave it in the comments, and I'll add it.)


As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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, November 28, 2011

book review: The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate

The backstory: I first heard about Martha Southgate when reading her essay in The Help issue of Entertainment Weekly this summer. (Regular readers may recall I didn't love The Help.) When Jen and Nicole announced The Taste of Salt would be the pick for their November book club, I jumped at the chance to read it and discuss it (the full discussion--spoilers abound--is here.)

The basics: The Taste of Salt is the story of Josie, a black scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. It is also the story of Josie's family, their burden of addiction, and growing up in Cleveland.

My thoughts: I sat down to begin The Taste of Salt one morning two hours before I needed to leave for work (I'm an increasingly early riser.) I did not move from the couch, not even to make another cup of coffee, and I contemplated staying to finish it. I decided to risk reading the last twenty pages on the bus because I couldn't be late, and I couldn't bear to not know how the novel ended. The Taste of Salt is incredibly readable; I breezed through it in a few hours. I read it compulsively and Southgate wowed me with the scope of this slim novel. As I sat down to write this review, I found my list of favorite passages were almost all filled with spoilers. It's beautiful to read a novel whose best parts are its most lyrical and its most plot-based.

Favorite passage: "When Daniel came along, I was dating a bartender who enjoyed his wares a bit too much--our relationship was on its last, unsteady legs. I don't even quite know how I got involved with a guy like that. He was good in bed; he had the kind of authority that you sometimes find in men who don't think too much. That can keep you going for awhile. But not forever. Daniel came along, same field, same smarts, those kind blue eyes that could not stop gazing at me. What could I say? What could I do? I went with him. I love him. I mean, I love him."

The verdict: It is both a testament and a detriment to Martha Southgate's compelling characters and fluid writing that I blew threw this novel. There is certainly much to be savored, and I'm pleased to discover a new favorite author with a backlist of novels to enjoy. The Taste of Salt moved me. It was an incredibly personal read, and while it may not be one that appeals to all readers, I hope it finds its much-deserved larger audience.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: September 13, 2011
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Taste of Salt from Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle (it's only $8.51!).


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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thankfully Reading 2011

When Thankfully Reading Weekend was launched two years ago, I wasn't able to participate much because I had to work most of the weekend (oh, graduate school...) This year, I'm blessed (truly) with a five-day Thanksgiving weekend, and I'm spending much of it reading. I'm also catching up on neglected review posts.

My plan
Seriously, waking up today and realizing it's only now the true weekend left me feeling relaxed, thankful and blessed. Mr. Nomadreader and I have planned a Mexican lunch out (festive, right?) followed by a matinee of The Descendents (review coming this week). I'm excited it's movie award season and all the films I'm most excited about are finally coming out. We plan to be back home and lounging on the couch before five o'clock. I'm hoping to finish Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah tonight. Then I'm excited to start A Bitter Truth, the third Bess Crawford mystery by Charles Todd. It came out at the end of August, and I've had my copy since then, but because it's set near Christmas, I've been saving it. I can't wait to glance up at our tree as I read.

Follow along
One of the best things about Thankfully Reading Weekend is the lack of structure. You can join in as little or as much as you want. I'm not sure how much I'll be tweeting as I read tonight, but you can follow all of the action at Jenn's Bookshelves and on Twitter with #thankfulreading. Happy Thankfully Reading Weekend!


As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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 25, 2011

book review: The Printmaker's Daughter by Katherine Govier

The backstory: The Printmaker's Daughter was published in Canada as The Ghost Brush.

The basics: A sweeping tale of historical fiction, The Printmaker's Daughter is the story of Oei, daughter of famous Japanese printmaker, Hokusai.

My thoughts: As I think back on The Printmaker's Daughter, it surprises me how far the book took me along its journey. In some ways, it's difficult to review books that are so epic in scope and long. In other ways, however, I think this book is particularly hard to review. The story is the focus of this book, and Govier allows Oei to tell her story. As I read, I was immediately transported into nineteenth century Japan. This novel is rich with detail, which enchanted me as I read, but also allowed the action to drag a bit at times. The slight downfall of this novel for me, was its pacing. Govier's writing steered the story, but I didn't write down a single memorable passage in this 512-page book. When the story slowed, the book slowed.

The verdict: While I enjoyed much of this novel, some parts dragged on too much for my taste and others felt somewhat heavy-handed. The story of Oei is intriguing and fascinating, and fans of historical multicultural fiction will likely enjoy this one.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 512 pages
Publication date: November 22, 2011
Source: publisher, via TLC Book Tours

Learn more about Katherine Govier at her website and Facebook page. Want to read it for yourself? Buy The Printmaker's Daughter from Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle.

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Last year I wrote about my love of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It still baffles those who know me how much I love it. The cinnamon rolls are in the oven baking, but I'll wait to open the sparkling wine until Mr. Nomadreader wakes up (or at least have a few cups of coffee first.) We're hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year, which I'm incredibly excited about. Tonight we'll be putting up our Christmas trees (yes, I take on the fully nostalgic tree filled with ornaments of childhood, while Mr. Nomadreader decorates a display window-worthy grown-up tree.) We're a two tree family in a one bedroom apartment, and I'm so excited to celebrate our first Christmas in this apartment.

This year, as I contemplate how incredibly different my life is than this time last year (is it possible I was still in grad school and fretting about pending unemployment this time last year?), I'm quite moved by the spirit of Thanksgiving and giving thanks. Here's an (abbreviated) list of things I'm thankful for:

  • Mr. Nomadreader: he's my best friend, my husband, and my favorite person to be with. I love him, his kindness, patience and the utter joy he brings to life.
  • My job: it challenges me in the best ways, fulfills me, pays the bills and provides the perks of work-life balance I need. I'm grateful to have it, and I'm grateful to have times like this five-day weekend away from it.
  • My blog: I am so thankful to share my love of reading with all of you. As an extroverted reader, I especially cherish the discussions that begin here. Thank you for reading, and thank you for staying with me when I take unexpected week-long breaks like I did the past week (where did the time go?)
  • Home: As much as I love to travel, I'm incredibly grateful to be staying home this holiday. My parents and grandmother are coming over, and the crock pot has been slaving all night to cook that sure-to-be-delicious pork shoulder (we're not really a turkey family). 
  • Winter: it's my favorite time of year. I love the anticipation of Christmas, snow and the cool temperatures. I find the cold invigorating, and I cherish this time of year for so many reasons.
I'm off to enjoy the parade and a lovely afternoon with family. I hope to spend some time with Kristin Hannah's Winter Garden (a book club read) today too. The wintry mood is perfect for this time of year, and I'm surprised how much I'm enjoying it so far.

Now tell me: what are you thankful for this year?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

National Book Award 2011: Thoughts & Predictions

Tonight, the winners of this year's National Book Awards will be announced. I mostly follow the fiction category, but I'm always excited to see which authors win across the board. This year in particular, several of the young adult and non-fiction titles sound quite appealing.

For the first time, the National Book Foundation is offering a live webcast of the ceremony on its website. It starts tonight at 8 p.m. New York City time. I'll be watching live (perhaps even from my Kindle Fire, which is set to arrive today!)

I managed to read all five of the fiction finalists this year, and I can honestly say I would be happy if any of them win. While I certainly have my favorites (more on that soon), the five titles are incredibly diverse and represent a fascinating combination of American voices in fiction. Although I had hopes for other titles to appear on the list, I welcome reading prize lists to discover titles I likely otherwise wouldn't have.

It is incredibly difficult to compare these titles on the basis of quality. Each is exceptional and worth a read, even though none earned a five-star rating from me. It is likely none will make my Best of 2011 reading list either, yet I would be happy for any of these authors. Despite issues I had with many of these titles, I do believe each is capable of even better things in their future careers. Granted, the National Book Award is not a rising star award, but it feels like one this year.

Part of my happiness with this list is its honoring of young and, largely, not terribly well known authors. Tea Obreht is arguably the best known, as she won the Orange Prize earlier this year. Only Obreht and Pearlman have Wikipedia pages (not a mark of their careers, certainly, but a testament to their fame.)

Here are my final thoughts on these five finalists:
The Sojourn  by Andrew Krivak (my full review)
"Although I struggled through more than half of this short novel, the slow part was bookended by a haunting beginning and a beautiful ending. I find myself remembering the strengths and not focusing on the weaknesses. Krivak is a strong writer, and I hope his next novel is stronger and more consistent. The Sojourn is a difficult novel, but fans of historical literary fiction and novels of war will likely find enough great to balance the boring here."

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht (my full reveiew)
"Despite adoring Obreht's writing, the novel as a whole was hit or miss for me. I enjoyed parts of it but was bored by other parts. Overall, brilliant writing wasn't enough to make me love this novel, but it will leave me eagerly awaiting the next novel Tea Obreht writes."

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (my full review)
"Unlike anything I've ever read, The Buddha in the Attic is a mesmerizing journey of what life was like for the Japanese picture brides."

Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories by Edith Pearlman (my review)
"Binocular Vision is a tour de force of short stories. As a novel-lover, however, I found myself searching for a common theme to tie together these disparate stories. While short story lovers will celebrate this collection of Pearlman's work, both new and old, I found myself hoping for another story as perfect and magical as 'Inbound.'"

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (my review)
"Overall, I found the action uneven. I wanted more character action and less descriptions of the dogs. West painted a scene of one fractured family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, but I wish it were more focused on Esch than the supporting characters. The other characters were strong, but I wanted more Esch. She's a dynamic, troubled woman, and she continues to fascinate me."

So who will win?

If I got a vote, my pick to win would be: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

I predict the actual judges will pick: Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

Update: The judges chose Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones, a worthy winner. Kudos!

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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: Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories by Edith Pearlman

The backstory: Binocular Vision: New and Collected Stories is a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award.

The basics: This collection of short stories is not connected by a common theme. The stories dart through history and feature numerous locations worldwide. Most stories do, however, feature Judaism or take place in Boston, and sometimes both.

My thoughts: Mr. Nomadreader and I are huge fans of The Next Iron Chef, the reality competition show to pick the next Iron Chef. (Stay with me here.) A recurring theme on the show is the danger of making duos and triples with the secret ingredient because it allows the judges to judge you against yourself rather than your competitors. As the only short story collection to be a finalist for the National Book Award, at times it felt Edith Pearlman is competing against herself, and it wasn't always successful for me.

Pearlman is a brilliant writer and storyteller, yet my lack of fondness for short stories came through as I read this collection. Without a strong thematic connection, I often struggle with short story collections. In this case, the biggest problem I had was that the first story was the collection's best. I kept searching for something equally as compelling, and I never found it.

Favorite passage: "Lily didn't clarify; she softened things and made them sticky. Sophie and each parent had been separate individuals before Lily came. Now all four melted together like gumdrops left on a windowsill."

The verdict: Binocular Vision is a tour de force of short stories. As a novel-lover, however, I found myself searching for a common theme to tie together these disparate stories. While short story lovers will celebrate this collection of Pearlman's work, both new and old, I found myself hoping for another story as perfect and magical as "Inbound."

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 392 pages
Publication date: January 11, 2011
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Buy Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories from Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle.

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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 15, 2011

book review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

The backstory: Jesmyn West's second novel Salvage the Bones is a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award.

The basics: Salvage the Bones is the story of Esch, a pregnant fourteen-year-old girl in New Orleans in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Since her mother died, Esch helps care for her alcoholic father and three brothers. Much of the action also focuses on China, the pet pit bull who gives birth as the novel opens.

My thoughts: When the National Book Award finalists were first announced, I had heard the most about Salvage the Bones (of the three I had not read.) Two bloggers whose opinions I trust, Audra at Unabridged Chick and Heather at Raging Bibliomania, liked it but found the subject matter quite difficult. As someone who lacks an affinity for dogs and is downright afraid of aggressive dogs, I was curious  how the focus on pit bull fighting would work for me. In short: I wanted more Esch and less of the dogs.

Jesmyn West does not hold back in this novel. It is a raw, gritty and humanizing tale. Here, Esch describes why she has sex:
"And it was easier to let him keep on touching me than ask him to stop, easier to let him inside than push him away, easier than hearing him ask me, Why not? It was easier to keep quiet and take it than to give him an answer."
Esch finds fascination and often strength in the story of Medea, which is a personal favorite of mine (I loved it when I read it, but then I got to see Phylicia Rashad play Medea, I loved it even more.) West continuously uses Esch's focus on Medea to point out the correlations between ancient Greece and modern day New Orleans. These correlations proved to be my favorite parts of the novel.

Favorite passage: "She is calm and self-possessed as a housecat; it is the way that all girls who only know one boy move. Centered as if the love that boy feels for them anchors them deep as a tree’s roots, holds them still as the oaks, which don’t uproot in hurricane wind. Love as certainty."

The verdict: Overall, I found the action uneven. I wanted more character action and less descriptions of the dogs. West painted a scene of one fractured family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, but I wish it were more focused on Esch than the supporting characters. The other characters were strong, but I wanted more Esch. She's a dynamic, troubled woman, and she continues to fascinate me.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: August 30, 2011
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Convinced? Buy Salvage the Bones from Amazon in print or for the Kindle.

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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 11, 2011

book review: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston

The backstory: I've been eagerly awaiting Caroline Preston's latest novel since I first heard about it.

The basics: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is, aptly, a scrapbook Frankie Pratt has made of her life. It's a novel in pictures, but not quite a graphic novel. Preston's words are as illuminating as the objects she pairs them with. Amazon allows you to download a sample, and it is worth seeing for yourself.

My thoughts: I've enjoyed all of Caroline Preston's previous books, which are all so different, and this one is certainly no exception. I devoured this historical scrapbook even as I savored it. I could not wait to see where Frankie's adventures would take us, yet I hesitated to turn the pages because there was so much visual treasure to explore. In many ways it's a difficult novel to write about because the writing, which is quite strong, is not the star of the novel. It's a visual delight with remarkable depth and character development.

The verdict: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is a fascinating, unique and deeply affecting story of a woman. Frankie is a fascinating historical figure who led an interesting life; she's a character I will think of for years to come.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: October 25, 2011
Source: I bought it (and bought a copy for my mother too)

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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, November 10, 2011

book review: In the Last Analysis by Amanda Cross

The backstory: In the Last Analysis is the first mystery in the Kate Fansler series written under the pseudonym Amanda cross. When Rose City Reader reviewed the second mystery in the series, The James Joyce Murder, I was intrigued enough to try this series.

The basics: Kate Fansler is a literature professor at Columbia. When a student, Janet Harrison, of hers asks Kate for a recommendation for a psychoanalyst, Kate recommends her dear friend Emmanuel. When Janet is found dead on Emmanuel's couch,  he is the prime suspect. Kate never doubts his innocence, and she throws herself into the case when she believes the police aren't considering alternative suspects.

My thoughts: I instantly enjoyed Kate as a character: "As is the unfortunate habit of the literary person, she already imagined herself retelling this extraordinary event." Although in the Last Analysis is a mystery, the mystery is not always the focus of the novel. Kate still has to teach, research and attend to her administrative duties, and I was as fascinated with the state of academia in the 1960's as I was in the mystery. The glimpse into higher education was absolutely fascinating. It was just as shocking to see how much things have changed as it was to see how little things had changed at times too.

Kate is both deeply insightful and curiously funny, although perhaps not always intentionally. Cross never seemed to meet a comma or set of parentheses she isn't inclined to use: "“it began like any other day.” (Days always do, Kate thought, but we notice it only when they don’t end like any other day.)" While I found these diversions delightful and mostly amusing, this descriptive writing will not appeal to readers seeking a more traditional mystery.

Favorite passage:  "I wanted to protect you, so to speak, in the quarantine period, to be sure the fever was gone.” “What fever?” “Detective fever. I’ve known a few people with cases like yours. They invariably sail for Europe and trip over a body on their way to the shower. It was simply no good expecting myself to sit in New York, imagining you following clues and dropping literary allusions.”

The verdict: I found Kate to be more interesting than the mystery of itself, but I still enjoyed both elements of this novel  immensely. I'm looking forward to reading the next Kate Fansler mystery soon.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 217 pages
Publication date: June 1964
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Treat yourself! Buy In the Last Analysis from Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle (only $5.99!)

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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 9, 2011

guest post: Ann Weisgarber on Researching The Secret History of Rachel DuPree

Last week I reviewed The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber (I loved it). I couldn't stop thinking about Rachel, an African-American homesteader in South Dakota's Badlands. As an academic librarian, I spend much of my day teaching students (and to a lesser extent, faculty) how to conduct research and which sources are most appropriate for which research topics. I'm fascinated by how people conduct research, and Ann graciously agreed to write a guest post about her research for this novel. It was a fascinating surprise to hear that Ann's research began right here in Des Moines!

Carrie, thank you for asking me to write about the resources I used during the research process.  I do, though, have a confession to make.  I told very few people, including the librarians who helped me, that I was writing a novel.  The very word intimidated me.  Instead, I said I was working on a project.  When the book was published, I finally told them.  The librarians weren’t surprised since they had guessed that long ago.  Detectives at heart, librarians cannot be fooled.

When I started, the Internet wasn’t the tool that it is today. Instead, I packed paper and pencil and went to the public library in Des Moines, Iowa, where I lived at the time.  Perched on a stool at the catalogue, I started with African-American homesteaders.  I found John Ravage’s Black Pioneers, and I was off and running.

Soon after the discovery of Ravage’s book, I moved back to Sugar Land, Texas.  Again, I turned to my local library.  I found Luchetti and Olwell’s Women of the WestA librarian told me about reference books that listed popular music from the past century and inventions of the day.  When I researched cows, water wells, and the history of South Dakota, children’s non-fiction books were just what I needed.  The descriptions and illustrations were concise and clear.

The library was also the place where I went when I was overwhelmed by the writing process.  The atmosphere soothed my nerves, and the stacks of books reminded me that other writers had gone before me. Another resource was the library at Badlands National Park.  I had a writing residency through the U.S. Park Service, and I was able to access the library in the visitor’s center.  My knees wobbled the first time I saw it.  I had no idea the parks had historical archives that included diaries and photographs.  I had hit gold. 

During the residency, I talked to local people.  Some of their stories, such as an electrical ball of fire that travels along a stove pipe, found a place in Rachel DuPree.  In Wall, South Dakota, I drifted along the aisles at Hole in the Wall Bookstore.  There I found Oscar Micheaux’s The Conquest and Era Bell Thompson’s American Daughter, autobiographies of African-Americans in the West.

Thank goodness for museums.  In eastern South Dakota, I visited one that included a collection of antique ranch equipment and medicinal remedies for farm animals.  I spent hours at the sod dugout at Prairie Homestead, a National Historic Site near Badlands National Park.  I visited Ft. Robinson State Park, Nebraska, where Isaac was posted.  Back in Houston, I went to the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum and took notes about uniforms, forts, and battles

A major eureka moment was the discovery of Ida B. Wells Barnett.  I came across her name while reading a library book about Chicago and slaughterhouses.  Her name was mentioned briefly, and I was fascinated by her.  I knew that Rachel would admire her, and I had to find a place for Wells Barnett.  Eventually, she became a role model for Rachel and her influence changed the shape of the novel. 

Each piece of research impacted the story.  Not every detail was included but a solid foundation in historical facts gave me the confidence to write a novel – rather than a project -- about a woman who lived a life very different than my own.

Many thanks to Ann for taking the time to tell about the research behind Rachel DuPree. You can buy The Secret History of Rachel DuPree from Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle. I hope Ann will come back when her next book is published and tell us about the research for it too.


As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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 8, 2011

book review: Crawling at Night by Nani Power

The backstory: Crawling at Night was longlisted for the 2002 Orange Prize.

The basics: Ito is a sushi chef who works with Mariane, an alcoholic waitress. Both are haunted by their past: for Ito, the life left behind in Japan, and for Mariane, the daughter she chose adoption for fifteen years ago.

My thoughts: As someone who both worked in restaurants full-time for several years (and met  Mr. Nomadreader while working together at the same restaurant) and has a fondness for food, wine and city life, I expected to love Crawling at Night. It is certainly a novel of urban despair, and I'm not generally one to shy away from bleak novels. I wouldn't, however, have chosen to read this one during the read-a-thon had I known just how bleak it was. I finished it, but it effectively killed my reading mood.

Crawling at Night is written with a haunting beauty. It is raw and gritty. It may make many readers uncomfortable at times. Its characters are unlikable. While typically I don't have a problem with these things. In this story, it was simply too much. Perhaps I needed more characters to spread around the grim realities of their lives. As I read, I kept wishing it were a movie. Somehow watching these people would have been less bleak. Sharing their sad internal thoughts was discomforting.

The verdict: Crawling at Night is a raw, dark, difficult novel, but it is certainly one with merit. It didn't fully resonate with me, but I admire what Nani Power tries to do with it.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: April 9, 2011
Source: library

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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, November 7, 2011

book review: The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

The backstory: The Soujourn, Andrew Krivak's debut novel, is a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award.

The basics: This novel opens in Pueblo, Colorado in June of 1899 when Jozef Vinich is an infant. The next section announces a location of Dardan, Pennsylvania in 1972, but the novel is really the story of Vinich's life, and in between his infanthood in Colorado and his time in Pennsylvania, he lives in his father's native Austria and fights in World War I.

My thoughts: The opening chapter of The Sojourn is among the most haunting I have read. It's beautifully written, undeniably tragic and a fascinating beginning to a life story. As the action shifts to Pennsylvania, I continued to be intrigued. How did Jozef's journey lead him here? Why 1972? The road is a winding one, and unfortunately it was often a boring one.

It was unabashedly dark, and ultimately honest, about the horrors of war:
"For the first time, I feared what a man was capable of doing to me in that war, a man weaker than I, and yet one whom I was bound to obey, at least in his presence. At that moment, I would have chosen to have been blown to bits by random artillery rather than to have had Captain Edmund Prosch be the last man to see me alive before a firing squad put a bullet through my heart."
The war stories were ultimately uneven for me. Although Krivak's writing was strong throughout, the plot grew rather repetitive in the middle. I kept reading because I was curious how the story would end up in 1972 in Pennsylvania. If not for the hint of that ending, I might have abandoned this book. Thankfully, I stuck with it, as the last 25% was completely brilliant and exciting.

In many ways, this novel feels like three novels. I adored the beginning scene, was bored through the middle of it, and once again enchanted by the last quarter of it. Overall, it was undeniably uneven, and Krivak is a strong enough writer that I believe the pacing issues were intentional. The war scenes were dull and perhaps meant to be slogged through, as war itself is. Despite my issues with more than half of this novel, it is one I ultimately enjoyed. The middle keeps it from being National Book Award-worthy for me, but I will be curious to see what Krivak does next.

Favorite passage: "For, though I say that I longed for home, I couldn’t say where that home was now."

The verdict: Although I struggled through more than half of this short novel, the slow part was bookended by a haunting beginning and a beautiful ending. I find myself remembering the strengths and not focusing on the weaknesses. Krivak is a strong writer, and I hope his next novel is stronger and more consistent. The Sojourn is a difficult novel, but fans of historical literary fiction and novels of war will likely find enough great to balance the boring here.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: April 19, 2011
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Treat yourself! Buy The Sojourn from Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle.

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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 6, 2011

Sunday Salon: Abandoning Anna

Remember when I was really excited to join the read-a-long for Anna Karenina? And then I only managed to post once about it? Anna, it's not you. It's me.

In all seriousness, I was enjoying reading Anna Karenina, which surprised me somewhat. What I was surprised to find, however, is that despite my love of sharing the reading experience, I don't like read-a-longs. I didn't like having arbitrary places to stop each week. I found myself focusing on the ending points more than the book itself. I had trouble forming my thoughts for weekly blog posts. When I read, I want to be swept away at the pace that feels right. Reading a set number of pages each week was unsatisfying.

I do love discussing books once I've read them, and I think that's one reason I so enjoy my new book club. For book club discussions, count me in. For read-a-longs, however, I think I'll pass until the final discussion.

I'm already starting to think about my 2012 reading goals, and reading more classics is once again in play (although perhaps in a more realistic way for next year.) In fact, I'm going to spend my extra hour today perusing my copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to help pick which classics I'll read next year.

Now tell me: do you like read-a-longs (discussing books as you read) or book clubs (discussing books after you've finished them) better?

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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 4, 2011

graphic novel review: Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O'Malley

The backstory: Heidenkind thoughtfully reviewed this graphic novel the month before the read-a-thon, and I opted to start my read-a-thon with it. Bryan Lee O'Malley also wrote the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel.

The basics: Lost at Sea is the story of Raleigh, a young girl on a road trip from California back to Canada.

My thoughts: Looking for a graphic novel to read during the next read-a-thon? This one is perfect. First of all, it's about a road trip, which is a favorite theme of mine. Second, it's quite short (I read it in less than an hour, which was an excellent 8 a.m. boost.) Third, although I found the end bizarre, I really liked the experience of reading it and thoroughly enjoyed most of the book.

I won't spoil the ending, although it's not an ending with a shocking twist or surprising turn. It's more of an odd and unexpected turn. The rest of the story, however, is fascinating. The reader begins the novel on the road trip and slowly pieces together how the characters know each other, how they came to be on this trip together and who exactly Raleigh is. I'm a big fan of this narrative device, and it was especially fascinating to see it in a graphic novel.

The verdict: Although I wasn't wild about the ending, I thoroughly enjoyed most of this graphic novel. It was a wonderful way to start the read-a-thon, and I will be making time for the Scott Pilgrim series soon.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 168 pages
Publication date: December 22, 2003
Source: library

Treat yourself! Buy Lost at Sea from Amazon.

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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, November 3, 2011

book review: I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn

The backstory: I Was Amelia Earhart was shortlisted for the 1997 Orange Prize. At 160 pages, it was the perfect read-a-thon read.

My thoughts:  If you read this blog, you might have noticed I have a fondness for fiction about real people. You also might have noticed I grew in Kansas. As a young girl in Kansas, I was rather enamored with Amelia Earhart. What's not to like? She was from Kansas, like me. She dreamed of travel and other places, like me. Her disappearance was mysterious (thankfully, not like me.) Unlike many of my childhood fascinations, I haven't outgrown Amelia Earhart.

That lengthy exposition indicates how high my expectations were, even though I didn't know quite what to expect. The title indicates the basics: it's the story of Amelia Earhart, narrated by email, after the fateful flight. Awesome, right? If you answered no, then it might not be the book for you anyway.

The book begins before the flight, and it does set the stage well. Some of the details will be familiar to those who know something about Amelia, but Mendelsohn's writing is so gorgeous, I welcomed the chance to remember things I once knew.
"Back then, a plane was called a ship. There were still cabins, and a sense of voyaging. There was a reverence for flight because it was so dangerous. People lost themselves. There was no safety."
Part of the magic of this novel for me was imagining what else might have happened. I adored Mendelsohn's idea of what might have happened, but she wrote it in such a way I savored every possible juicy detail while also wondering, 'what if?'

What shined most brightly, however, was Amelia herself. Mendelsohn completely captured the image I had of her:
"Because I want to. And because I think women should do for themselves the things that men have done, and have not done."
Ultimately this novel is about Amelia. It's a character-driven realistic fantasy. It's real enough to feel like an appropriate ending for Amelia, yet it's fantastic enough to make me marvel and imagine myself in her shoes.

Favorite passage: "Much later, when I looked back on the flight, it seemed to me that we had been two lost souls in an immense netherwold, traveling toward an arbitrary goal, wondering which of us was more forsaken: the navigator who didn't care where we were going, or the pilot who didn't care if we ever got there."

The verdict: I Was Amelia Earhart is a fascinating 'what if?' glimpse into a fascinating woman. I was as mesmerized by Mendelsohn's writing as I was by Amelia's story. It's a book that will stay with me for quite some time.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 160 pages
Publication date: May 30, 1996
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy I Was Amelia Earhart from Amazon in paperback.

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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 2, 2011

Waiting on Wednesday: Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear

Jill from Breaking the Spine hosts Waiting on Wednesday, which allows bloggers to highlight an upcoming release we can't wait to read.

My pick this week should come as no surprise to readers who have seen me read and enjoy the first eight Maisie Dobbs novels in the ppst year. My reviews of the first eight novels: Maisie DobbsBirds of a FeatherPardonable LiesMessenger of TruthAn Incomplete Revenge, Among the Mad, The Mapping of Love and Death, and A Lesson in Secrets.

The ninth installment, Elegy for Eddie, will be published March 27, 2012, which is too far away for my taste, but quality mysteries do take time! Plus, for those of you who haven't discovered the delightful Maisie Dobbs, you have time catch up! Here's how the publisher describes this one:
"In this latest entry in the acclaimed, bestselling mystery series-"less whodunits than why-dunits, more P.D. James than Agatha Christie" (USA Today)-Maisie Dobbs takes on her most personal case yet, a twisting investigation that will take her across London, from her childhood neighborhood to the highest echelons of power.

Early April, 1933. To the costermongers of Covent Garden-peddlers selling fruit and vegetables on the streets of London-Eddie Pettit was kindness itself. A little "slow," he was a gentle soul, more boy than man, with a gift for calming the most challenging horse. His recent death in a violent accident has shocked his friends and neighbors. They believe Eddie was the victim of foul play, but the police won't investigate. Their only hope of finding the truth is Maisie Dobbs.

Maisie has known these men from childhood when her father, Frankie, worked alongside them. Determined to do right by Eddie, she plunges into the investigation. The search for answers begins amid the working-class streets of Lambeth, where Eddie lived. But before long, Maisie is following threads of intrigue to a powerful press baron, a "has been" politician lingering in the hinterlands of power named Winston Churchill, and to the doorstep of a writer who is also the husband of her dearest friend, Priscilla.

The story of a London affected by the march to war years before the first gun is fired, and of an innocent victim caught in the shadow of power, Elegy for Eddie is one of Jacqueline Winspear's most poignant and affecting novels yet in her superb bestselling series."
I'm eagerly awaiting Elegy for Eddie, but in the meantime, I'm really enjoying Jacqueline Winspear's new blog.

Elegy for Eddie may not be out until March 27, 2012, but you can pre-order it from Amazon in hardback or for the Kindle (I have!)

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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!

Wrapping Up October 2011 and Goals for November

With the weather topping off at 72 degrees yesterday in Des Moines, I'm having a little trouble realizing it's November. I haven't started listening to Christmas music yet due to this unseasonably warm fall (yes, I know it's early for most people, but I tend to listen to Christmas music from October through January.)

October was a pretty good reading month for me, and I have several reviews to catch up on the next few weeks (thanks, read-a-thon!) I managed to read ten books last month. There weren't any five-star reads this month, but I still really enjoyed most of my reads.

The Excellent (rated 4.5 stars or higher):

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber (4.5 stars)
I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn (4.5 stars) - review coming tomorrow
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (4.5 stars)
Habibi by Craig Thompson (4.5 stars)

The Good (rated 4 or 4.25 stars):

The Odds by Stewart O'Nan (4 stars) -- review coming January 2, 2012!
A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear (4 stars)
In the Last Analysis by Amanda Cross (4 stars) - review coming next week

The Somewhat Disappointing (rated 3.75 stars or less):


Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O'Malley (3.5 stars) - review coming this week
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (3.5 stars)
Crawling at Night by Nani Power (3 stars) - review coming next week


Plans for November
I'm so close to being done with Andrew Krivak's National Book Award nominated novel The Sojourn. I plan to move right onto Salvage the Bones and Binocular Vision to complete my NBA reading for this year. The winner will be announced on November 16. If all (reading) goes according to plan, I'll share my predictions with you that morning.

I also hope to get to these titles this month:
  • The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate for Book Club
  • Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah for book club
  • Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand for book club
  • The Printmaker's Daughter by Katherine Govier 
  • A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd (the latest Bess Crawford mystery came out earlier this fall, but it's set at Christmas, so I'm saving it for Thanksgiving weekend reading!)
  • You Are My Only by Beth Kephart (I promised Amy I would)
After that, there are still so many fall releases I'm wanting to read. Plus, I want to make more progress on my 2011 goals before the end of the year.

Happy reading! What are you most looking forward to in November?