Monday, June 30, 2014

book review: Don't Talk to Strangers by Amanda Kyle Williams

The backstory: I raced through the first two Keye Street mystery novels by Amanda Kyle Williams last fall and loved them both (see my reviews of The Stranger You Seek and Stranger in the Room.) When I visited Atlanta, where the series is set, in February, I treated myself and read the galley on my trip (y'all know I love to read books in the city in which they're set!)

The basics: When the Hitichi County sheriff calls Atlanta FBI profiler turned private investigator Keye Street about a possible serial killer, she travels to the lakeside, rural Georgia town to try to solve the murders of two thirteen-year-old girls killed ten years apart and discovered in the same grave in a wooded area.

My thoughts: The further along writers get in series, the harder it can be to keep things fresh. In this third installment of the Keye Street series, the first thirty pages are so are a glimpse into Keye's personal and professional life. The reader is treated to her current living situation, a bond jumping case, and office hijinks. When the action shifts to the mystery whose focus carries this novel, I was hooked. The premise is fascinating: a serial killer targeting thirteen-year-old girls ten years apart. As the details of the case unfold, I marveled at its complexity and the spot-on pacing. Williams strikes the perfect balance between the comforts of the previous books and characters and moving the storylines along in a satisfying way. These murders definitely dominate this novel, but the case is interesting and complicated enough that to have it otherwise would be a disservice. This series continues to fly under the radar, but it's among my favorite contemporary mystery series, and I cannot wait until the fourth one is out.

The verdict: Don't Talk to Strangers is a riveting procedural and a worthy entry in this excellent series. The case is the focus, and its conclusion is satisfying, but the epilogue delivers a jaw-dropping cliffhanger in Keye's personal life that left me cursing the time until the fourth installment.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: July 1, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Don't Talk to Strangers from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

A note on series order: While events from the first two books in this series are mentioned, they aren't spoiled. Readers who haven't read The Stranger You Seek or Stranger in the Room could still enjoy Don't Talk to Strangers and read the earlier novels later. Although I'm a series order purist, Williams balances character development and past events well. The biggest spoilers are in Keye's personal life, and those are relatively minor.

Want more? Visit Amanda Kyle Williams' websitelike her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter

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

Monday, June 16, 2014

book review: Terminal City by Linda Fairstein

The backstory: Terminal City is the sixteenth mystery in Linda Fairstein's Alexandra Cooper series. Cooper runs the Manhattan D.A.'s Special Victims Unit, a unit Fairstein herself ran for many years.

The basics: A woman is found raped and murdered at the illustrious Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Soon thereafter, another body appears outside Grand Central Terminal, and Alex, along with good friends and detectives Mercer and Mike, is drawn into the self-functioning city of people who call the ground underneath Grand Central home as they try to solve these murders.

This review will contain minor spoilers from previous Fairstein novels, particularly Death Angel.

My thoughts: I, like many long-time readers, celebrated a certain development in Alex's personal life that appeared frustratingly close to the end of Death Angel. As excited as I always am for a new Fairstein novel, this year I was most excited to see what was happening in Alex's love life. The events in Terminal City pick up shortly after the events of Death Angel, so not much has changed. The first murder brings Alex and Mike, just back from suspension and an Ireland vacation, together professionally before they've spoken personally, and the case continues to dominate their time. As a reader, I found the all-consuming nature of this case frustrating, but it is realistic.

Soon, however, I was more wrapped up in the intrigue of the case and the rich history of Grand Central. Like Alex, I put her love life out of my mind. I read this mystery compulsively, but I savored the fascinating details of New York's history as much as the developing clues in the whodunit. As is typical of Fairstein, the history is not merely a backdrop--it feeds clues to the mystery itself, which make her books entertaining and informative.

The verdict: Terminal City will delight longtime fans of the series. It has all the hallmarks of a great mystery, plus Fairstein's signature in-depth look at an icon of New York City. While you could easily enjoy this mystery if you haven't read others in the series, the personal storylines likely won't be nearly as satisfying to new readers. While the mystery at the center of this one struck me as dark by Fairstein's standards, the warmth of a certain storyline in Alex's personal life compensates and left me once again eagerly awaiting Fairstein's next mystery.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 401 pages
Publication date: June 17, 2014 
Source: publisher

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

Want more? Visit Linda Fairstein's websitelike her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

book review: MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction

The backstory: I've really been enjoying collections of essays lately, and MFA vs. NYC is perhaps this year's most buzzed about edited volume. It's theme also echoes many of the essays in Goodbye to All That, which I adored.

The basics: Divided into two large sections (MFA and NYC) and three smaller ones, MFA vs. NYC takes its name from an essay editor Chad Harbach originally wrote for n+1. The other essays are a mix of those written for this collection and those adapted from earlier pieces.

My thoughts: Part of what has drawn me to personal essays lately is the fascination with what it means to be a writer. In MFA vs. NYC, that theme is on full display, but it's bigger picture is the current state of American fiction. Obviously, writers are critical to that, and each essay offers different ideas and insights into what exactly it means to be a writer.

I've never seriously thought about enrolling in an MFA program, and what surprised me most about this collection was not only the rise of MFA programs themselves (in both quantity and perceived prestige) but what an MFA program actually entails. The emphasis in this collection is on Iowa, perhaps the most famous of MFA programs, and it would be easy to fill an entire collection with perspectives on this program alone.

If there's a fault with MFA vs. NYC it's that it tries to do too much. The essays are all excellent, but as a collection, it felt more unbalanced as I went along. The first two sections, on MFAs and NYC offered a variety of glimpses into contemporary writing and publishing, but as the themes shifted to pairs of essays, the collection lost a bit of its momentum. It's still an accomplished collection, but as a cohesive piece, it faltered somewhat near the end.

Favorite passages:  "It could be argued that any time you get ten to forty people together and have a core group of teachers, some homogenization is going to happen, but, in a sense, isn’t that what culture is? The establishment of a standard and then a resulting attempt to mimic that standard, followed by a passionate revolt against that stupid repressive reactionary standard, which is then replaced by a lovely innovative pure new standard, et cetera?" -- George Saunders, "A Mini-Manifesto"

"Charlotte didn’t think I was an idiot. She explained the ways in which her deployment of orcs and elves in her work differed from and even subverted the tropes of ordinary fantasy fiction. I didn’t mind discussing all this, even as I found it surreal. These were the times we were living in. I was on a college campus. I was a visiting professor. And I was sitting in my office, bearded and wise-looking and, in all seriousness, discussing orcs." -- Keith Gessen, "Money (2014)"

The verdict: Although the title implies an either/or dynamic, the essays in this collection focus more on sharing individual experience than arguing for one and against the other. As a collection of studies of modern American writing, it's fascinating. Anyone interested in the current state of American fiction will find many things worth ruminating over in this diverse collection.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: February 25, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy MFA vs. NYC from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

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

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

audiobook review: Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

narrated by Abby Craden

The backstory: I've been curious about Bringing Up Bebe since it first came out, but now that I'm pregnant (the nomadbaby is due August 9th), it seemed like a great time to finally read it. On the recommendation of Jen at Devourer of Books, I opted for the audio version.

The basics: Pamela Druckerman is a journalist and New Yorker who falls in love with a Brit and settles in Paris. Once they have a daughter, Bean, Druckerman begins to notice how different French children are than American children. They don't whine. They're not picky eaters. They sleep through the night earlier. yet when she asks French parents, they don't claim to do anything special or know what they're doing. In fact, compared to her U.S. friends who all espouse a variety of named parenting philosophies, the French parents insist that's just how children are.

My thoughts: One of my biggest fears about motherhood is exhaustion. I've always been a sleeper, and I don't function well on prolonged lack of sleep. Obviously, I'm aware that early motherhood will have me short on sleep, but I'm eager to find out anything that might help that period be as short as possible. In this sense, I enjoyed the first part of Bringing Up Bebe most because it focuses on the youngest children. My not-yet-born child does not yet whine in my fantasies, yet ini my head he does smile adorably in the middle-of-the-night when I wish I were sleeping.

Bringing Up Bebe begins with some background on Druckerman and her husband, which was interesting, but I was glad when she shifts the narrative to pregnancy. I didn't expect this book to include cultural differences about pregnancy, which I've read a lot about already. While I enjoyed her observations about pregnant French women, this section included the first red flags that Druckerman writes as a journalist who is not always willing to examine evidence or her own assumptions. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that stance, but throughout this book she vacillates between journalist and memoirist. This combination frustrated me as a reader at times, particularly because so many of her personal opinions she refuses to examine as a journalist are not ones I share.

Typically what I love about memoirs is having a glimpse into a person's real life. I liked that here, but I also realized for all the parts of this book I really enjoyed, I don't think Pamela Druckerman and I would be friends in real life. In fiction, I don't need my characters to be likeable as long as they're interesting and I understand their motivations. Listening to this book made me realize that preference extends to nonfiction too. Druckerman passes the interesting test--her life is fascinating, but her unwillingness to fully embrace this topic as a journalist frustrated me. For all the good observations (much more than half), there were several missed opportunities.

The verdict: There's a lot of wisdom and interesting observation about French parenting in Bringing Up Bebe. When Druckerman wrote as a journalist, I enjoyed this book much more than when she veered into more of a memoir style. There's a lot of good in this book, but I wished Druckerman would have pushed herself farther.

Audio thoughts: Abby Craden's narration was superb. Her French pronunciation (to my Anglophone ears) was accurate without being over-the-top. She read with emotion, and her voice reminds me of my favorite audiobook narrator, Cassandra Campbell. I'm glad I picked this one up on audio, as I fear Druckerman's opinions would have been more grating in print.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (4.5 out of 5 on audio)
Length: 288 pages (9 hours, 7 minutes)
Publication date: February 7, 2012
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Bringing Up Bebe from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Pamela Druckerma's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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

Monday, June 9, 2014

book review: All Day and a Night by Alafair Burke

The backstory: Alafair Burke is one of my favorite mystery writers. All Day and a Night is the fifth novel in her NYPD detective Ellie Hatcher series (reviews of the first four: Dead Connection, Angel's Tip, 212, and Never Tell.) Also see my reviews of the three titles in her Portland ADA Samantha Kincaid series (Judgment CallsMissing Justice, and Close Case) and her two stand alone mysteries (Long Gone and If You Were Here).

The basics: When Brooklyn psychiatrist Helen Brunswick is murdered in a similar manner to how six prostitutes were murdered by Anthony Amaro in Utica and New York City twenty years ago, Ellie Hatcher and her partner are tasked with taking a fresh look at the original victims to see if the same person could have killed all the women. Amaro is in prison, so he didn't kill Brunswick.

My thoughts: As much as I love police procedural mysteries, there are special places in my heart for both stories about wrongful convictions and those about serial killers. All Day and a Night has both, plus Ellie Hatcher, one of my favorite fictional detectives. From the first page, I was hooked. After reading all of the Ellie Hatcher series in a few months, it was delightful to enter her world again after so long.

The pace of this mystery is just right. I read compulsively as Ellie and her partner JJ slowly pieced together these cold case clues. While they discussed theories based on evidence, the mystery reader in me correctly figured out the big reveal. I don't fault Ellie and JJ for figuring it out after I did, but admittedly the resolution was a little underwhelming. Despite figuring out the ending, it didn't dampen my enjoyment as I read. Burke is a great writer, and Ellie Hatcher is a dynamic character. This novel did not, however, leave me saying "wow," after I turned the last page, as most of Burke's novels have.

Favorite passage: "There's no such thing as merit separated from biography, he had told me. The only question is whether you're going to let your biography hold you down or help you up."

The verdict: I loved the experience of reading this book more than its resolution. The journey is a great one, but it's not quite as good as Burke's other books because it lacked her signature shocking twist. It's really good, and even great, but it stops just short of the fantastic standard Burke has set for herself. If you haven't read Alafair Burke yet: start at the beginning and enjoy.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 368 pages
Publication date: June 10, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy All Day and a Night from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Alafair Burke's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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