Monday, December 31, 2012

The Backlist Book Club: The Clan of the Cave Bear discussion

Welcome to The Backlist Book Club discussion of The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. Need a refresher? Check out my review of The Clan of the Cave Bear.

1. Typically, I'm not turned off by unlikable characters, but in The Clan of the Cave Bear, I was. Broud was too unlikable and no one else was likable enough to compensate. Which characters did you find to be likable and unlikable?

2. Even though I didn't like the book, the setting captivated and fascinated me. Much of the novel seemed hyper-realistic, but at times the Clan's traditions veered into science fiction. Overall, did you find the novel believable?

3. I think one of the reasons I didn't connect with Ayla was her age. When the novel began, she was a child, and I struggled to identify with her frustrations. What did you think of Ayla as she aged? Did your impressions of her change?

4. What surprised you in this novel?

5. To whom would you recommend this title?

I encourage you to subscribe to the comments for this post to keep up to date. I use a threaded comment system, so you can reply to earlier comments or post new comments. Please feel free to ask questions as well! 


Don't forget: check back tomorrow morning to see what I've picked for January 2013! 
(hint: it's the first novel written by one of my favorite writers)

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, December 30, 2012

book review: Just Wanna Testify by Pearl Cleage

The backstory: Just Wanna Testify is the sixth novel in Pearl Cleage's West End series (my reviews of Some Things I Never Thought I'd DoBabylon SistersBaby Brother's Blues, Seen It All and Done the Rest, and Til You Hear From Me.)

The basics: As always, Cleage combines a mix of familiar West End faces with new characters. In this case, the Too Fine Five, a group of tall, skinny supermodels seek Blue Hamilton's blessing to do business in the West End neighborhood this week.

Note: this review contains spoilers of the plot and the ending. Proceed at your own risk.

My thoughts: When I sat down to read the last West End novel, I was filled with happiness and sadness. I've re-read and read all of Pearl Cleage's novels in 2012. I sought the comfort of the familiar: characters, social justice, and people working to change the world. I got that, but I also got something I absolutely didn't expect: vampires. I appreciated Regina's pondering on the subject when she first heard the vampire rumor: “I would hate that,” Regina said, leaning her head against his shoulder as they started up the front walk, arm in arm. “Hate what, baby?” “Vampires in West End.”

Cleage has certainly dealt with magical realism in this series, but it's still a jump from the acceptance of past lives to vampire supermodels. Yes, the Too Fine Five are supermodel vampires who do not age. They drink tomato juice to satisfy their blood cravings. Cleage doesn't dwell on vampire mythology or world building (these vampires have no problem with the sun, but it's not mentioned), and while their presence stretches credibility, Cleage managed to convince me the story of these vampires was worth telling:
"Blue was glad they didn’t have to waste any time discussing the possibility of things that could not be rationally explained showing up on your doorstep. Henry had been with Blue long enough to know that not everything could be explained by what you thought you already knew."
After the vampires, the most surprising part of this novel was Blue Hamilton. Going against vampires, something with which he was unfamiliar, allowed Cleage to form him more fully as a character:
“I’ve been focused on the really bad guys, the ones who are the most dangerous,” Blue said. “The ones who are already so damaged that nothing I can say or do can change the way they cut a path through the world. Those are the ones I know how to handle, and if I’m ever called upon to answer for what I’ve done to get them out of West End, I have nothing to hide.”
I won't get into too much detail about the history of the vampires and what brings them to West End, but it was fascinating enough to pull me back into the West End and love this novel. She let her characters speak for her and justify (and testify) why she chose to tell this unconventional tale:
“But what does that mean for our future?” Regina said. “If no woman will vouch for a man when a woman’s words are all that stand between him and annihilation, how can we go on together?”
“Maybe these vampires are giving us a chance to ask ourselves that question.”
With this triumphant ending, I was pleased. Following the story's conclusion, however, was an epilogue. In the epilogue, one of my least favorite plot devices was used, and it killed the momentum of the story for me: Regina dreamed the whole thing. There weren't really vampires in West End. The dream strikes me as a cop out. For much of the novel, I would have welcomed it, but Cleage won me over. I wish she would have fully won herself over with the strength of this idea and not written a cop out ending.

Favorite passage:  "She had been feeling alternating waves of sorrow, fear, and helplessness, none of which were particularly empowering emotions, and certainly ones that could do major damage if you let them hang around too long."

The verdict: The cop out ending of this ambitious novel weakened its power. Just Wanna Testify isn't Cleage's best novel, but it was a fascinating vehicle for pondering contemporary African-American relationships. Ultimately, it's a disappointing note to end the West End series on, and I hope Cleage writes a new installment soon.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: May 20, 2011
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Just Wanna Testify from Amazon (Kindle version.)

Also by Pearl Cleage: What Looks Like Crazy On an Ordinary Day and I Wish I Had a Red Dress

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

Saturday, December 29, 2012

book review: The Darlings by Cristina Alger

The basics: The Darlings, Cristina Alger's debut novel, opens with an unnamed man driving his Astin Martin to a bridge and jumping to his death. The action quickly shifts back to the titular Darling family: patriach and finance guru Carter Darling, his Portugese wife Ines. The Darlings have two daughters, Merrill, a lawyer married to Paul, a lawyer who recently became legal counsel at Carter's firm; and Lily, married to Adrian, who works in client relations at Carter's firm. As New York City is just feeling the beginning of the financial crisis, this family finds itself at the epicenter of it.

My thoughts: Going into this novel, I knew two things: Jenny loved it and Bravo bought it and is creating a scripted series around it. I expected a soapy and fun tale of a Ponzi scheme gone wrong. I got that, but I was surprised how good Alger's writing was and how funny and astute her descriptions and observations were:
"He dressed as he did--Nantucket reds and bow ties and hunting jackets--without irony. He played lacrosse and drank his way through college, never doubting that a spot in the Morgan Stanley Investment Banking program would be available to him upon graduation (it was), and after that, a job at his wife's father's hedge fund."
During the first fifty pages, I was gleefully laughing at Alger's descriptions of these upper crusters:
"There's practically no floral budget," Ines declared when she had been named committee chairwoman. "We'll have to get creative. Opulence is out, anyway." She wasn't lamenting; Ines simply stated unpleasant facts with a sort of stoic fortitude."
Alger gets this world: she's a lawyer, a former analyst, and her father is a Wall Street financier, yet this novel has a delightful outsider feel because the reader sees this world through the eyes of Paul. He lives in this world, and his marriage to Merrill is a delightfully authentic love story, but he's from North Carolina and observes things as an outsider in many ways. Interestingly, so does Merrill. Unlike her sister Lily, who was never the smart one, Merrill enjoys her demanding job and has the ability (and braveness) to question the assumptions of the life in which she was raised.

As much as I laughed at the station of the rich in this novel, it was funny because Alger's humor is an intelligent and thoughtful one:
"The Darlings of new York." Ines loved to reference "the article" in casual conversation, and she spoke of Duncan Sander as though they were old friends. In truth, it wasn't really an article, but more of a blurb attached to a glossy photograph of Ines and Lily, inexplicably attired in white cocktail dresses, frolicking on the front lawn with Bacall, the family Weimaraner."
I'm not particularly drawn to financial thrillers, and while this novel qualifies, it is very much a character-based novel. There aren't easy answers or obvious bad people. Each character is well-crafted, complex, and driven by motivations that the reader can understand. Alger makes the complex world of financial accounting simple and fascinating.

Favorite passage: "Manhattan was a Darwinian environment: only the strongest survived. The weak, the nice, the naive, the ones who smiled at passersby on the sidewalk, all got weeded out. They would come to New York for a few years after college, rent shoebox apartments in Hell's Kitchen or Murray Hill, work at a bank or wait tables or audition for bit parts in off-off-Broadway productions. They would meet other twenty-somethings over after-work drinks at soulless bars in midtown; get laid; get their hearts broken. They would feel themselves becoming impatient, jaded, cynical, rude anxious, neurotic. They would give up. They would opt out. They would scurry back to their hometowns or to the suburbs or secondary cities like Boston or D.C. or Atlanta, before they had had a chance to breed."

The verdict: The Darlings is a delightful modern novel about life, love, loyalty and taking chances. Alger grounds her characters in the financial crisis and a Ponzi scheme, but ultimately this novel is a character-driven page-turner about how and why we make choices in difficult situations.

Rating: 5 out of 5 
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: February 16, 2012 (it's in paperback now)
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Darlings from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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, December 23, 2012

Sunday Salon: the holiday break reading binge

I confess: today feels like a normal Sunday. I haven't quite accepted that Christmas Eve is tomorrow or that I don't have to go to work again until January 2 (bless you, academia.) The one thing reminding me it's my annual (and glorious) holiday break reading binge: my overflowing reading pile. This week is when I scramble to try to read all of those books I've been meaning to read all year. If I spend my time reading while Mr. Nomadreader works reading, I can usually read a book a day.

I'm almost finished with Heather Lende's fascinating collection of essays about living in a small Alaska town, If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name. She has me dreaming of (and planning) a trip to Alaska, a destination I've wanted to visit for years. When I finish it, I'm really looking forward to devouring Colm Toibin's new novella, The Testament of Mary, in one sitting this afternoon. It might not be everyone's pick for Christmas reading, but I'm eager to see how Toibin paints an aging Mary as she reflects on her life, Jesus's life and her role in the foundation of Christianity.

I hope to spend the rest of the week with three new releases I've been meaning to read for months: Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, and Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, plus one new release I'm ecstatic has finally made its way to the U.S.: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.


I'll continue to post this week as I try to finish reviewing all of the books I've read. I'm also working on my Best of 2012 list, although I'm still playing around with the format. This year I there are three authors who will have more than one title on the list, and I'm still deciding how to handle that. I'm pondering doing a best of awards by category rather than a straight ranking, but I haven't made a final decision yet. As always, I'll post my Best of 2012 on January 1. I consider all books I read in 2012, regardless of when they were originally published, so I keep reading until the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve!

Now tell me: what are you hoping to squeeze in before the New Year (in books or not)?

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, December 18, 2012

book review: Never Tell by Alafair Burke

The backstory: Never Tell is the fourth novel in Alafair Burke's Ellie Hatcher series (my reviews of the first three: Dead Connection, Angels' Tip and 212.) When I accepted Never Tell from the publisher for review in May, I had to read any of Alafair Burke's books. I intended to, so I said yes and figured I'd catch up in a year or two. Seven months and eight books later, I've raced through them all and am already eagerly anticipating her next novel, If You Were Here, a stand-alone thriller coming in June 2013.

The basics: Julia Whitmire, a wealthy, talented, and beautiful sixteen-year-old, is found dead in her bathtub. The cops arriving on the scene classify it as a homicide: her wrists are slit and she left behind a suicide note. Her mother, however, is insistent Julia was murdered and persuades the NYPD to look into. Detective Ellie Hatcher doesn't buy it, but her partner J.J. Rogan is more open-minded.

My thoughts: If I had to describe Alafair Burke's novels in one phrase, it would be "a thinking person's well-written police procedurals." The thrill of the chase cannot be underestimated, but Burke also makes me think about life along the way. She also captures the essence of New York City beautifully:
"Two million people buzzing around on just twenty-three square miles of land bred a certain culture: efficiency in moving from point A to point B; no eye contact or small talk; no connection to the people one passed on the way. And along with that culture came a distinct feeling of anonymity. But the sense of anonymity was not the same thing as actual privacy."
These themes of privacy, anonymity and secrets run throughout this novel. As the web of truths and lies becomes more complicated, Burke uses the mystery to ponder the questions of who knows us best and what clues we leave behind while begging the ultimate question: can we really know the definitive answer? Julia Whitmire's world is more complicated than it initially appears, and while I correctly guessed some of the developments, Burke once again wowed me with the complexity of her plot and the level of satisfaction felt with the conclusion.

Favorite passage: They both believed they could learn at least one interesting thing about human nature from any person they encountered."

The verdict: Never Tell is Alafair Burke's best mystery yet. At first, the case seems deceptively straight-forward and I was surprised by the relatively small number of characters. As the action progressed, however, I was again wowed by how intricately Burke can build a plot. They webs and layers of this one astonished me, even when I correctly guessed a couple of them. Alafair Burke writes contemporary detective-focused mysteries at their very best.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 368 pages
Publication date: June 19, 2012
Source: publisher via Edelweiss

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Never Tell from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Also by Alafair Burke: the Samantha Kincaid series (Judgment CallsMissing Justice, and Close Case) plus the stand-alone thriller Long Gone.

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, December 17, 2012

Backlist Book Club review: The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

The backstory: The Clan of the Cave Bear, the first in Jean M. Auel's Earth Children series, is the December pick for The Backlist Book Club.

The basics: The Clan of the Cave Bear is the story of Ayla, a young Cro-Magnan girl orphaned when the rest of her tribe dies in an earthquake. As she wanders in search of something, she encounters The Clan, who take her in even though she is so different from them.

My thoughts: (Note: this review contains some plot spoilers.) The set-up of this novel is fascinating. As I began reading, this prehistory is so different from anything I've ever read, it almost seemed dystopian, particularly in the sense of world building. Auel had the challenging task of making her reader understand life then. At times, this education slowed the narrative, but in the early pages, I was riveted.

As the novel moved on, however, I grew quite irritated with it. For one, the use of foreshadowing killed any narrative suspense or curiosity. Each event was telegraphed in a way that made me bored when things finally happened. Most egregiously: the novel opens with a list of the six main characters. The last character listed,Durc, is described as "born of a violent rape, belonging to neither one nor the other, he is the future of the Clan." It was clear from page one Durc will be Ayla's child. It is also soon clear which young man despises Ayla. This foreshadowing I found to be deeply disturbing.

While I appreciate Auel sticking to historical accuracy regarding gender roles, it was hard to read about the behavior of cave men and women. It was frustrating as a reader to see them not understand the world. I don't fault the characters or Auel for this, necessarily, but as a reader I find it dull to know so much more than the characters, particularly when I could not identify with any of them. It was difficult even to root for Ayla knowing she was destined for violent rape.

The verdict: Despite a promising concept, I failed to connect with any of the characters in The Clan of the Cave Bear and quickly grew frustrated with the frequent foreshadowing and lack of surprise.

Rating: 2 out of 5
Length: 512 pages
Publication date: May 4, 1980
Source: purchased

There's still time: join in! On Monday, December 31, I'll be hosting a discussion of The Clan of the Cave Bear. Grab a copy and join me! Despite not loving this book, I do still love the idea of it and am really looking forward to discussing it on December 31.

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Clan of the Cave Bear from  an independent bookstore, the Book Depository, or 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!

Friday, December 14, 2012

book review: Til You Hear From Me by Pearl Cleage

The backstory: Til You Hear From Me is the fifth novel in Pearl Cleage's West End series (my reviews of Some Things I Never Thought I'd DoBabylon SistersBaby Brother's Blues, and Seen It All and Done the Rest.)

The basics: Fresh off working on Obama's 2008 campaign, Ida B. Wells Dunbar is losing hope she'll be offered a job in the administration. Meanwhile, her father, Rev. Dunbar, a famous African-American preacher and civil rights icon is still irked with Obama about the Rev. Wright fallout, is making headlines with his some unfortunate statements. At the pleading of familiar West End face Miss Iona, Ida B. comes to Atlanta to check on her father.

My thoughts: I adore Pearl Cleage and her work, but I'll be honest: Til You Hear From Me started a little rough. The story felt rushed, the writing felt either too flat or too flowery, and one character, Wes, felt flat:
"Wes liked women. He didn’t consider them his equals, although like most of the middle-class men of his generation, he was fluent in the feminist rhetoric required of men who had worked with and for women most of their professional lives. When Wes thought about women, it was as sexual partners or employees. Necessary, certainly, but highly interchangeable. The large pool of smart, attractive, ambitious black women without romantic partners gave Wes an endless supply of lovers and entry-level associates who expected nothing more than whatever he was prepared to give."
I wondered if Pearl was up against a deadline and rushing to write this novel. Soon, thankfully, it returned to her usual style and became a deeply moving tale. At the heart of this novel is the impact of Obama on race relations in the U.S. Characters ponder if Black History Month is still necessary or if now every month is essentially Black History Month. Cleage combines the deep roots of the civil right movement with contemporary issues beautifully. There's both hope and fear with the Rev.:
“The thing he’s got to understand,” the Rev was saying, “is that this can’t be about a cult of personality. It has to be bigger than loving Obama. We can’t keep building our movements around one man.”
I most appreciated how Cleage inserted familiar West End faces and those new to readers into real-life moments and alongside real people. It was fascinating to watch West End, an African-American neighborhood in Atlanta, react to the president's election.

Favorite passage:  "But maybe it was just that as much as we want to make the Rev and Martin and Malcolm and Mandela all perfect, godlike creatures, deigning to walk the earth in human form in order to lead us mere mortals to the mountaintop, they are only men, fully and completely as human and as flawed as any of the rest of us. The quality that makes them different is that they can look at us and where other folks only see a bunch of wild, scary, defeated, disheartened, disorganized people, they see what we might look like if we would stand up once and for all and take responsibility for being the free men and women all people are born to be. They see the best of us even when we can’t and their words paint such vivid picture that for just a moment, we get it, we feel it, we see it, and somewhere deep, deep down, we know that we can be it."

The verdict: Although Til You Hear From Me gets off to a rocky start, Cleage soon returns to form, however, and delivers a funny, hopeful, moving tale of social justice, family and community. Admittedly, my fascination with the 2008 election heightened my enjoyment of this novel, but the tears I sobbed as I read the last 10% were tears of joy, hope, forgiveness and a shared humanity with Ida B. Wells Dunbar.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 289 pages
Publication date: April 20, 2010
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Til You Hear From Me from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Also by Pearl Cleage: What Looks Like Crazy On an Ordinary Day and I Wish I Had a Red Dress

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, December 13, 2012

book review: Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith

The basics: Alexis M. Smith's slim debut novel, Glaciers, focuses on Isabel, a young archivist who grew up in Alaska and now lives in Portland, Oregon. She adores vintage stores and the abandoned objects she finds and collects from those stores.

My thoughts:  Glaciers is a quiet, introspective little novel, and Isabel is a quirky delight. She has a charming sense of wonder coupled with disappointment:  
"Her sister read that spiders have book lungs, which fold in and out over themselves like pages. This pleased Isabel immensely. When she learned later that humans do not also have book lungs, she was disappointed. Book lungs. It made complete sense to her. This way breath, this way life: through here."
This combination feeds into her sadness for the objects she treasures, both personally and professionally. Her work fixing damaged books in the library's basement emphasizes the hope: these things are broke, but they can be fixed and shared once again. Similarly, when she discovers postcards sent to others at thrift shops, she seeks to give them a new home again.

Glaciers is a novel that made me slow down my reading and take in the world as Isabel does: "Isabel remembers this amusement from the last visit, as well. The woman seems ready to be pleased with the world." There's a beautiful thoughtfulness to Smith's detailed writing here.

What's fascinating about this novel is Isabel herself. If you're looking for plot, you won't find much in the first half of this novel. If, however, you want to enter Isabel's curious world, and read beautiful, thoughtful prose, Glaciers is for you:
"It’s a strange product of infatuation, she thinks. To want to tell someone about mundane things. The awareness of another person suddenly sharpens your senses, so that the little things come into focus and the world seems more beautiful and complicated."
Favorite passage:  "Change was inevitable, but she could not imagine what the future might look like, or what her place might be in it. All she could do was hope she did not end up in a shoe box at a Salvation Army Thrift Store."

The verdict: Glaciers is a quiet, contemplative novel with a delightful, fresh voice. Much of the novel is unassuming, but the impact of the ending will resonate with me for some time.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 112 pages
Publication date: January 17, 2012
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Glaciers from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version--it's only $3.99 this month!)

 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, December 12, 2012

book review: An Extraordinary Theory of Objects by Stephanie LaCava

The basics:  An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris is more about the objects than it is in Paris. In truth, Stephanie LaCava considers herself an outsider whether or not she's in Paris and traces her emotional history through objects.

My thoughts: An Extraordinary Theory of Objects is a unique memoir. It's told in vignettes of memories and objects. Drawings are paired with lengthy footnotes in the midst of the text. Initially, it was somewhat difficult to follow these dual narratives, and shifting my focus to the footnotes detracted from LaCava's fluid prose. Truthfully, I enjoyed LaCava's writing more than the footnotes. They drawings of the objects added a rich detail, but the footnotes, while often filled with fascinating trivia, didn't have the depth of LaCava's emotional memories.  About half-way through this slim volume, I took a different approach. I read each vignette in its entirety, then I went back and read each footnote in it. This strategy worked beautifully, and the objects themselves were more intriguing when taken together than when interspersed in the narrative.

The book is itself an object of curiosity. It's rare I recommend a print book over an e-text, but with An Extraordinary Theory of Objects, I would. It's a book to keep in view and observe your guests flipping through trying to figure out just what exactly it is.

The verdict: An Extraordinary Theory of Objects is at its most extraordinary when LaCava shares her personal journey rather than her thoroughly researched beloved objects. Her journey and introspection were haunting and honest. Many of the vignettes would work well as a standalone, but as a whole, this book is as beguiling as Stephanie LaCava herself.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: December 4, 2012
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy An Extraordinary Theory of Objects from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Want more? Check out the full tour schedule, visit Stephanie's website, like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, or see what she's pinning on Pinterest.

 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, December 11, 2012

book review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The backstory: The debut novel of Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, was one of the spring 2013 releases I was most excited about. When Oprah picked it as her second Book Club 2.0 read and pushed up the book's release date, I moved it to the top of my queue.

The basics: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is the life story of Hattie Shepherd. It spans from 1925 to 1980.When she fifteen, Hattie, her mother and sister moved from Georgia to Philadelphia. There she married soon after and gave birth to twins: the first of many, many children.

My thoughts: The first chapter of this novel is devastating and heart-wrenching and still somehow hopeful. Both of Hattie's twins are sick with pneumonia in the middle of the night. Mathis shifts from the current minutes to Hattie's memories beautifully. In the second chapter, however, the action shifts, both in time and narrator. Suddenly it's 1948, and Hattie's son Floyd is a musician traveling through the South. My understanding of this novel shifted, and I expected to read a chapter from the point of view of each of Hattie's children, thus coming to understand her as a mother and as a woman. In time, though, Mathis shifts back to Hattie.

One consequence of this narrative structure was it's disjointedness. I never truly got a feel for this novel as I was reading it, but upon further reflection, particularly of the stunning final chapter, I did. At times it felt like a collection of linked stories. While Hattie was a part of all of them, in each story the reader glimpsed into the life of one of her children, most of whom were only previously mentioned in passing. While Hattie weaved through all of the stories, her children did not.

While this novel is the story of Hattie's life, it's also a commentary on the Great Migration:
"He thought of the South as a single undifferentiated mass of states where the people talked too slow, like August, and left because of the whites, only to spend the rest of their lives being nostalgic for the most banal and backwoods things: paper shell pecans, sweet gum trees, gigantic peaches."
There's also an extreme sadness to this novel. As I read about more and more of Hattie's children, I couldn't help but think, "him too?" or "her too?" Can no one in this family catch a break in life? This darkness is crucial to Hattie and her views on life and religion:
"Hattie believed in God's might, but she didn't believe in his interventions. At best, he was indifferent. God wasn't any of her business, and she wasn't any of his. In church on Sundays she looked around the sanctuary and wondered if anyone else felt the way she did, if anyone else was there because they believed in the ritual and the hymn singing and good preaching more than they believed in a responsive, sympathetic God."
Favorite passage: "It seemed to him that every time he made one choice in his life, he said no to another. All of those things he could not do or be were huddled inside of him; they might spring up at any moment, and he would be hobbled with regret."

The verdict: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a difficult novel in many ways. As a novel of the Great Migration, it is hinged on a hope we know will fail, and taking the journey of a generation's disappointment is depressing. Still, Mathis is a bold and lyrical writer. The first and last chapters will stay with me for quite some time.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: December 6, 2012
Source: publisher via Edelweiss

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Twelve Tribes of Hattie from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

 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, December 10, 2012

book review: A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks

The basics: A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts tells the life story of five characters: Geoffrey, a World War I soldier; Billy, a poor boy in Victorian London; Elena, a scientist in futuristic Europe; Jeanne, an orphan in rural France in the 1800s; and Anya, an American folk singer in the 1970s.

My thoughts: A Possible Life is a fascinating, gripping read. Each of the five parts could work on its own, although some are better than others. Taken together, however, they do become a novel of sorts as Faulks poses giant questions about life and humanity.

The novel begins with Geoffrey's story. I was amazed at the depth of detail Faulks infused into his 79 pages. The reader sees Geoffrey's life, and it was an amazing one. His life, and the lives of the other characters are all amazing. They share a particular kind of amazing, however. Faulks is concerned with those moments small and large that change our course in life. Each story contains numerous points where I wondered "what if?"

As mesmerizing as these characters are, particularly Geoffrey, Billy and Elena, I was enchanted by Faulks' writing: "All the time I worked and read, I didn't expect it would lead to anything. I read because I was interested. I learned to live in my imagination." He achieved the voice of these characters across time and the world while still maintaining a distinctive narrative voice that helps bring the five stories together.

As I read this book, I found myself having to read it in pieces. I wanted time between the stories to ponder. Although Geoffrey's story is perhaps my favorite, my appreciation for the novel as a whole kept growing as I read the first three tales. I found Elena's future-set story particularly intriguing. Faulks managed to tell historical and futuristic stories in a cohesive way. The story of Jeanne fell a little flat for me. The initial set-up was fascinating, and it had thematic ties to the previous ones, but it didn't engage me as deeply. Sadly, the last story of Anya failed to interest me. It was a disappointing ending to an otherwise strong novel. Initially, it dampened my enthusiasm for the novel, but I've come back to being so impressed with the other parts of the book to forgive Faulks for the Anya piece and praise the book as a whole.

Favorite passage: "She wonders if when she awakes, she will feel as mystified as she feels now; or whether the hard edges of fact, of history, of her own past--of every cell that makes her what she is--are in truth as flexible as time itself."

The verdict: A Possible Life is a novel concerned with the number of possibilities of life. It addresses the small and large moments that make us who we are. Faulks explores circumstances large and small in these five people at different times and places in history. It's a novel that will make you ponder the pivotal moments of your own life. A Possible Life isn't a perfect novel, but it does have moments of perfection. Its flaws, however, appear in the last two stories that didn't measure up to the brilliance of the first three.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 304
Publication date: December 11, 2012
Source: publisher via Elle magazine

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy A Possible Life from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

 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, December 9, 2012

Sunday Salon: ahhh

Have you ever had one of those nearly perfect days when all you really want to do is read, and you manage to pick books that fit your mood perfectly until you realize you've spent close to twelve hours reading? I had one yesterday, and it was absolutely blissful.

I started with an early trip to Trader Joe's, which allowed me to make some long overdue progress on my audiobook, Death of an Artist by Kate Wilhelm(it's safe to say I haven't made it to the gym in weeks months, and I rarely drive, so my audiobook listening has been suffering.) When I got home, I was eager to finish the last 25% of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. I was feeling so accomplished, I set out to complete some overdue chores while I finished Death of an Artist. Kate Wilhelm, I dedicate the state of my apartment to you.
        

After finishing a depressing historical novel and a somewhat sad mystery, I craved something different, so I picked up Stephanie LaCava's memoir An Extraordinary Theory of Objects. It was the perfect book for my mood, and I read it in its entirety before the sun went down. To keep my wondrous day of reading alive, I picked up Til You Hear From Me by Pearl Cleage. I craved the familiarity of a favorite author and was curious to see which of my beloved favorite characters showed in this installment of the West End. I opted to put on some holiday music, turn out the lights, drink a glass of wine and read on my Kindle Fire with only the Christmas tree lights on. It was heavenly. I faced the windows, hoping the long-awaited promised snowfall would start earlier (it didn't, but it's snowing big, beautiful flakes now!) Last night encapsulated everything I love about this time of year. I was firmly rooted in the moment, relaxing my body, enchanting my mind, and simply enjoying many of the things I enjoy most in life.

I finished Til You Hear From Me this morning and am a little sad I have only Pearl Cleage novel left to read. Today I'm planning to spend my time with The Clan of The Cave Bear, the December pick for The Backlist Book Club. If I make it to the gym or decide to do more cleaning today, I'll be starting Bossypants by Tina Fey on audio. December has been an exceptional reading month for me thus far. I've already read eight books this month (two were in progress before the month began), and I seem to be doing a wonderful job of picking the right book for my mood, which in turn has me finding as much time as I can to read.

Coming up on the blog this week:
  • review of A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks
  • review of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
  • review of An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris by Stephanie LaCava
  • review of Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith
  • review of Never Tell by Alafair Burke
  • review of Til You Hear From Me by Pearl Cleage
Now tell me: what are you reading (or up to) this beautiful, snowy Sunday?


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

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Short Story Saturday: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Welcome to Short Story Saturday, a returning semi-regular feature. The project stems from a desire to read more short stories. It's not a secret I prefer novels to short stories, but I'm working to stretch myself as a reader, and part of that will be reading more short stories. When I have read short story collections, I've often found them hard to review as a whole. This feature will allow me to review collections as a whole or separately, but I'll also be reviewing individual stories.

The backstory: This Is How You Lose Her, the second story collection from Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner Junot Diaz, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award.

The basics: This Is How You Lose Her is a somewhat thematic story collection. The stories are all about love or a relationship to some extent. Most of the stories are narrated by Yunior, the narrator of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (my review.)

My thoughts: After enjoying the writing in Oscar Wao, I was curious how I'd fare with Diaz's stories. I'm more drawn to story collections united by theme, and I had high hopes. I don't consider myself a super fan of Junot Diaz. He's a strong writer, but I appreciate his talent more than I enjoy his output. This Is How You Lose Her is no exception.

My favorite story in this collection was "Otravita, Otravez." It's the first story not narrated by Yunior, which was initially jarring. After a few pages, I had to revise my expectations. While part of the story's strength was its uniqueness, the story itself had was emotionally haunting. In many ways it falls in line with the rest of the collection: it's a love story, albeit one laced with sadness, and a tale of immigrants. What sets it apart most of all, however, is having a female narrator. It was refreshing and unexpected.

Part of what hindered my personal enjoyment of this collection was Yunior. I'm not a reader who needs characters to be likable, but Yunior makes himself incredibly difficult to like or even understand. Despite narrating most of these stories, the collection didn't feel cohesive to me.

Favorite passage:  "My heart is beating and I think, We could do anything. We could marry. We could drive off to the West Coast. We could start over. It's all possible but neither of us speaks for a long time and the moment closes and we're back in the world we've always known." (from "Nilda")

The verdict: "Nilda" and "Otravita, Otravez" were the highlights of this collection for me. Both stories are the outliers of the collection. Fans of Junot Diaz will welcome this collection, but I found myself wishing for more of those surprising stories.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: September 11, 2012
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy This Is How You Lose Her from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

 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, December 7, 2012

book review: These Days Are Ours by Michelle Haimoff

The backstory: I discovered These Days Are Ours when Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and said "What differentiates the book from similar fables with young protagonists able to afford endless rounds of drinks in hipster bars is Hailey’s sense of self and her thoughtful inner life; the shopping and club crawls of her privileged life are just a backdrop, not the story." I immediately pre-ordered it for my Kindle, where I foolishly let it languish for nine months before reading it.

The basics: These Days Are Ours follows Hailey, a recent college graduate, in New York City in the spring of 2002. She and her privileged high school friends are in various states of employment, but they're also all still processing 9/11 and expecting another terrorist attack at any time. Hailey searches for a job, a life, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose.

My thoughts: As I said the last time I rated a book 6 stars out of 5, "About once a year, I encounter a book that works for me on every level...It's a novel I immediately wanted to stick in people's hands and say "read this book." These Days Are Ours is the fourth such book since I started blogging. (The others are American Wife by Curtis SittenfeldRoom by Emma Donoghue, and State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.)

Even though I enjoyed this novel from the beginning, Haimoff's writing snuck up on me. This novel unfolds both slowly and quickly as the reader gets to know Hailey. There is a hopefulness and youthfulness to her initially as she imagines her future life with her crush: "And our kid—kids—would ask us what we were whispering about. And we’d say, “Nothing.” And the kids would roll their eyes because we always had these private jokes." I was transported back to my early twenties, a time in which I imagined many possible lifes for myself.

Hailey also has a sense of honesty and tragi-comedy I adored: "The thing that would be awesome about getting blown up by terrorists is that everyone would think we had all this unrealized potential." While she could come across as flippant, instead Haimoff reminded me of those unsettled feelings post-9/11 as we adjusted into what our new normal would become.

Part of what I love about Hailey is how she reminded me of the significance encounters have when you're 22:
"Okay, okay. But the point is, we ended up going on a weird walk together for seltzer and then eating macaroons on his roof and then having sex.” 
“That’s the most Jewish thing I’ve ever heard in my life. You should call your grandmother right now and tell her this story. You had seltzer and macaroons and sex with a Jewish future lawyer. On Passover." 
Haimoff couples the earnestness of Hailey's voice with her emotional rawness beautifully. As a reader I never felt dismissive of Hailey's feelings, as I increasingly do with coming of age novels. Instead, Haimoff reminded me of those years and transported my emotions back to 2002.

Perhaps one of the reasons this novel resonates so deeply with  me is Hailey and her friends are around the age I was in the spring of 2002. The pop culture and media references were spot on. Haimoff so captured that time, both in the time of 2002 and the state of being 22. The combination is particularly poignant, as the uncertainty of post-college days pairs beautifully with the uncertainty of the post-9/11 months: "Most sadness isn’t debilitating; it just makes regular life seem a little stupid."

The more I read, the more slowly I read. I began to savor Hailey's sentiment and cared less about the ending than her journey. I highlighted more obsessively as I read, and I ended up with 35 highlighted passages and almost as many notes. If I could change one thing about the reading experience, I would read this novel listening to a Spotify playlist composed of all the songs mentioned in this book. The next time I read it, I will.

Favorite passage:  "It was that undefined pause between the past and the future that had no other significance other than us experiencing it together."

The verdict: These Days Are Ours is a refreshing, smart, accomplished, ambitious, intimate and beautiful novel of hope, fear, longing, sadness, and life. It's a novel I will give to many, many people this holiday season because Michelle Haimoff has captured the essence not only of my generation, but of early adulthood and post-9/11 New York. It's a novel I will re-read in the years to come. It's a novel I will share with my children and with my nieces and nephews to help them understand what it was like.

Rating: 6 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: February 28, 2012
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy These Days Are Ours from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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, December 6, 2012

Thursday TV: Nashville

Thursday TV is returning as a semi-regular Thursday feature for me to discuss television: the shows I'm watching, the shows I'm giving up on, as well as other trends.

Hands down, the show I was most excited for this season was Nashville. The city itself holds a special place in my heart: it's where Mr. Nomadreader traveled for the first time for our first anniversary  Three years after that, it's where we opted to get married--at the Country Music Hall of Fame's Library.

The setting of Nashville wasn't the only draw, of course. The premise sounded fascinating: two dueling divas--one who might be passing her fame prime, while one is just beginning; politics; and music. I'm a fan of country music (although not necessarily what's marketed as country music on the radio). Most importantly though was the buzz. Jace Lacob, my favorite tv writer, declared it the best new show, and he admittedly hates country music.

How can this critically acclaimed show fall flat for me?

Pro and con: Acting. The acting is incredibly hit or miss. Hayden Paniettiere, whom I normally like, simply tries too hard. The argument could be made that her character is written that way, but whether its her character or her performance, it doesn't quite work for me. Still, Connie Britton is phenomenal, but the best talent is Charles Esten as Deacon Claybourne. Powers Boothe comes off as a soap opera villain, which might be the intention, but it detracts from the nuanced acting of Britton and Esten. Jonathan Jackson, who was excellent on General Hospital, also comes off as a soap opera villain, but confusingly. His character is utterly unlikable, and makes the otherwise lovely Clare Bowen's performance confounding. Ultimately, Britton and Esten are acting at a higher caliber than most of the cast. Perhaps most sadly, Eric Close, whom I adored on Without a Trace, hasn't convinced me he's a man Rayna would have married.

Pro: Nashville. I've mentioned my love for the city, but the show does manage to capture much of what I love about Nashville. From the faithfully reconstructed set for The Bluebird Cafe to the insider's look at the music business to the old money Southern politics, Nashville seems least like a soap opera when the music, business and political storylines intersect best.

Con: Reality. While related to the acting, I think the show's biggest problem is that few of the characters are convincingly real people. Aside from Rayna James and Deacon Claybourne, I don't believe any of the characters to be real. Some veer into soap opera caricatures, which can work (as it did on season one of Revenge.) Perhaps acting plays a role, but I'm inclined to believe Esten and Britton rise above their vanilla roles to make them strong characters while the rest of the cast needs more direction.

The verdict: Nashville disappointed me enough that I stopped recording it. As much as I adored some parts of the show, I never felt a sense of urgency to watch it. When I did watch, parts of each episode were boring. Ultimately, despite some strong storylines and performances, there was too much in Nashville I just didn't care about. The show can't seem to decide if it's a drama or a soap opera and thus fails at both.

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, December 5, 2012

book review: Seen It All and Done the Rest by Pearl Cleage

The backstory: Seen It All and Done the Rest is the fourth novel in Pearl Cleage's West End series (my reviews of Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do, Babylon Sisters, and Baby Brother's Blues.)

The basics: Like all the books in this series, Atlanta's West End neighborhood is the main character. The people who live, work, and love in this neighborhood appear in major and minor roles throughout these novels. In Seen It All and Done the Rest, actress Josephine Evans returns to Atlanta after thirty years in Amsterdam to visit her granddaughter, Zora, a pivotal character in Baby Brother's Blues, and check on the duplex she inherited. (note: Zora's story contains major spoilers from Baby Brother's Blues.)

My thoughts:  It's no secret Pearl Cleage is among my favorite authors, and this novel has many of her trademarks: themes of social justice, community empowerment, and the nature of home. What's new about Seen It All and Done the Rest, however, is the emphasis on the deterioration on the neighborhoods surrounding the West End, including where Josephine's house is. Much has changed in the thirty years Josephine lived and worked in Amsterdam. The Atlanta she sees is not one she recognizes:
"All those dreams have dovetailed into a community-wide nightmare where casual violence is the order of every day, vandalism is a spectator sport, and a strange sense of entitlement allows those unwilling to work at anything to still feel they have the right to kick in somebody’s door to get the things they want. Young people are angry and confused. Old people are scared to leave their houses for fear of being mugged or worse. And in the middle, the rest of us look around and wonder how it all fell apart so fast."
Faced with her rental property as a squatter's paradise and a low-ball offer from a developer, Josephine opts to fix up the home, along with the help of Zora, some familiar West End faces, and a few new characters.

Amidst this backdrop of neighborhood changes are once again undercurrents of the war. In Amsterdam, Josephine increasingly felt the animosity of Europeans to Americans in light of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Back in the United States, she's struck by how different the war appears: "There was none of the energy of the antiwar demonstrations in Paris and Amsterdam. There was none of the feeling here that our presence as citizens could really affect anything our government did one way or another." This novel is firmly rooted in its time and place in many ways, but there's also a sense of timelessness to these characters and their stories.

Favorite passage:  "I was grateful, too. Not for a chance to play the voyeur at thirty thousand feet, but because that’s one of the things I really like about people. We don’t care how many rules you make, we’re going to find a way to fall in love and have sex on airplanes and make babies and laugh and cry and live free. That’s just something we do, and all the wars and all the governments and all the armies you can put together to stop us won’t make one bit of difference. Especially when you’re moving along effortlessly at five hundred miles an hour and the flight attendants are half dozing and the cool-looking older lady that’s watching has probably seen it all and done the rest. That’s how she got to be so cool."

The verdict:  Cleage is a master of fast-paced social justice fiction filled with characters with whom you can laugh and cry and for whom you can't help but cheer. Seen It All and Done the Rest is no exception. It's an inspiring, yet honest, look at contemporary African-American life in Atlanta.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: March 18, 2008
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Seen It All and Done the Rest from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Also by Pearl Cleage: What Looks Like Crazy On an Ordinary Day and I Wish I Had a Red Dress

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, December 4, 2012

mini-film reviews: Beasts of the Southern Wild and Midnight in Paris

Beasts of the Southern Wild
There is much to be admired and enjoyed in Beasts of the Southern Wild, an independent film set in the post-Katrina bayou neighborhood known as The Bathtub. The action centers on Hushpuppy, a precocious six-year-old who mostly roams free this world. The film is a visual feast and features performances by real people who live in the bayou. At times it feels more like a documentary, and this authenticity is the film's strength. Where the film fell short for me, however, was in its reliance of magical realism. I often struggle with magical realism, and in this film I felt it deluded the film's greatest strength: the reality of life in The Bathtub, a community so far off the grid, rich with tradition, and seemingly foreign. The verdict: Beasts of the Southern Wild is a fascinating glimpse into The Bathtub, but the elements of magical realism undermine its narrative power. 3.5 out of 5 stars

Midnight in Paris
After nearly everyone whose taste I trust adored  Midnight in Paris despite not normally liking Woody Hall, I gave in and watched. Despite my love of Paris and the writers and artists featured in Gil's dreamy nights walking through Paris, I never connected with this film. Even worse: I found little to enjoy. Despite appealing to many who don't like Woody Allen, it was clear to me throughout it was a Woody Allen film. I found Rachel McAdams' character woefully undeveloped, a problem I often have with Allen's female characters. Ultimately, I couldn't buy into Gil finding himself in the 1920's when the clock hit midnight. Allen didn't strike the right chord: the world of this film is both serious and not, and neither were fully realized. The verdict: Neither the magical setting nor skilled actors were enough to make this dreadful film enjoyable. 2 out of 5 stars (note: I'm in excellent company with two of my favorite novelists on disliking this film.)

Both films are available on dvd. Buy Beasts of the Southern Wild or Midnight in Paris from Amazon.

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!