Wednesday, August 10, 2016

book review: All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker

The backstory: I saw Wendy Walker speak at ALA in June. I started All Is Not Forgotten the morning I heard her speak, as I figured it would be a good book to read during a conference--something that would keep my attention, but that I could put down while I was busy attending programs and events. I was right on one of those.

The basics:  "It begins in the small, affluent town of Fairview, Connecticut, where everything seems picture perfect. Until one night when young Jenny Kramer is attacked at a local party. In the hours immediately after, she is given a controversial drug to medically erase her memory of the violent assault. But, in the weeks and months that follow, as she heals from her physical wounds, and with no factual recall of the attack, Jenny struggles with her raging emotional memory. Her father, Tom, becomes obsessed with his inability to find her attacker and seek justice while her mother, Charlotte, struggles to pretend this horrific event did not touch her carefully constructed world."

My thoughts: From the beginning, All Is Not Forgotten skillfully straddles a line between realistic fiction and slightly futuristic fiction. The controversial drug Jenny receives doesn't yet exist in this form, but it doesn't seem very far from reality. This set-up allows Walker to tell a cautionary tale, but this novel is much more than that. Through Jenny's parents, who have a beautifully fractured, realistic marriage, Walker is able to show two different, but understandable perspectives. Simmering below the surface of this novel are themes of female autonomy I wish Walker would have explored more.

It's hard to speak about All Is Not Forgotten without giving too much away, but I'll speak generally about some of the things I liked best about this novel, aside from the wide-ranging cast of characters and its small town setting. The narrator is perhaps my favorite part of this book. The reader doesn't know who the narrator is right away,  and even once you learn the identity, there are more interesting intersections that make this more of a psychological thriller than an ordinary thriller.

The verdict: All Is Not Forgotten is an utterly gripping thriller. I read it compulsively. As I reached its conclusion, however, I realized the thrills were likely gone. In this sense, the novel is authentic and realistic--it's characters feel like real people. While I appreciate the novel's conclusion in this sense, for such a twisty ride, I was midlly disappointed there wasn't one more twist. Ultimately, it's a book that is thrilling, engaging and thought-provoking, but it's not one that will likely stick with me. Looking for a book to devour in a day or on a flight? All Is Not Forgotten won't disappoint.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: July 12, 2016 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy All Is Not Forgotten from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Wendy Walker at ALA, June 2016
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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

book review: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

The basics:  "Twenty-two, and knowing no one, Tess leaves home to begin her adult life in New York City. Thus begins a year that is both enchanting and punishing, in a low-level job at “the best restaurant in New York City.” Grueling hours and a steep culinary learning curve awaken her to the beauty of oysters, the finest Champagnes, the appellations of Burgundy. At the same time, she opens herself to friendships—and love—set against the backdrop of dive bars and late nights."--publisher

My thoughts: I am not often a reader who makes much of first lines. I don't know if that's a trait unique to me, or a result that the first lines of books I read aren't remarkably good or bad. But when I started Sweetbitter, I read the first paragraph, put the book down, added it to my favorite passages, and texted it to Mr. Nomadreader:
"You will develop a palate.
 A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again."

Would you believe me if I told you it only got better from there? It's true. The first sentences cement Danler as a food writer, but while this is indeed a novel foodies will adore, it is so much more. To call it a coming of age novel is to sell it incredibly short. This novel isn't one just for foodies or those seeking a coming of age tale. It's a Great American Novel. Or a Great Novel. It's accessible, but literary. It's fun but has depth of language and emotion. It's astonishingly good, and I look forward to rereading it frequently.

Favorite passage:  "It’s an epidemic with women your age. A gross disparity between the way that they speak and the quality of thoughts that they’re having about the world. They are taught to express themselves in slang, in clich├ęs, sarcasm—all of which is weak language. The superficiality of the language colors the experiences, rendering them disposable instead of assimilated. And then to top it all, you call yourselves ‘girls.’"

The verdict: Sweetbitter is one of those rare books I wanted to spend every moment reading, but I never wanted it to end. Danler both transported me to the New York City restaurant world and into a deeply authentic emotional, personal place. To do one is a success; to do both is a triumph. Sweetbitter is one of my favorite books of 2016, and it's a rare title I'll recommend to both dedicated readers and those who make time for a book or two a year.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 368 pages
Publication date: May 24, 2016
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Sweetbitter 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!

Monday, August 8, 2016

book review: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

The backstory: I've adored Jacqueline Woodson's books for kids and young adults for many years, and when I heard she had a novel for adults coming out this summer, I squealed.

Seeing Jacqueline Woodson speak at ALA in June was one of the highlights of the conference for me (picture below.) She spoke at the same time as John Lewis, and I debated which one to go see. I chose Woodson because I haven't seen her speak before. I was lucky enough to have John Lewis as my Congressional Representative for many years, and I (not foolishly I hope) expect I'll have other chances to hear him speak again.

The basics: Another Brooklyn is the story of August and her memories of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970's and 1980's.

My thoughts: Another Brooklyn captivated me from the first page. There is a sparseness to Woodson's prose in this novel that is poetic. I savored this book and hung on every single word. It's easy to do, as much of the novel is told in vignettes, which make up chapters. As I reader, I got the sense Woodson labored over each word, yet it had a beautiful flow. It showed restraint, yet it captures so much more than words.

Necessarily, the novel is told with the wisdom of age, and these brief passages (taken from different parts) beautifully showcase the way Woodson tells this story with the wisdom of age but the emotion of youth:
"Our legs got long. Soemthing about the curve of our lips and the sway of our head suggested more to starngers than we understood."
"One day, I'd have full breasts, hips, and large hands. One day, my body would tell the world stories beneath the fabric of my clothes." 
I read this novel in the span of a few hours, and while I read it, I fully lived inside its pages. It's one I will think back on for many years to come, both for Woodson's writing, as well as the power of how she tells such a big story with so few words and pages.

Favorite passage: "When you're fifteen, pain skips over reason, aims right for marrow. I don't know how long I stood there staring at them, watching Jerome slip his hand from Sylvia's, watching Sylia inch away. Where're you heading? When you're fifteen, the world collapses in a moment, different than when you're eight and you learn that your mother walked into water--and kept on walking."

The verdict: Woodson is a deeply gifted writer and storyteller, and both talents are on full display in Another Brooklyn. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: August 9, 2016 
Source: publisher

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

Jacqueline Woodson at ALA, June 2016
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Sunday, August 7, 2016

book review: Killer Look by Linda Fairstein

The backstory: Killer Look is the eighteenth mystery in Linda Fairstein's Alexandra Cooper series. I've read them all and reviewed a lot them.

The basics: Each Alexandra Cooper novel offers some piece of New York to serve as a backdrop. In Killer Look, it's New York Fashion Week. The hook is the apparent suicide (and possible murder) of a very high profile fashion designer.

My thoughts: Fairstein has been ending the most recent novels with wonderful (or terrible, given we have to wait a year for the next installment!) cliffhangers, and as with novels past, Killer Look opens very soon after the events of the last novel, Devil's Bridge. Alex is not yet back at work, which is a big difference from the rest of the series. Naturally, she still finds a way to help Mike and Mercer with this case.

I won't say I necessarily missed the courtroom element of this case, but I did miss seeing Alex in her element. Given the events of the last book (vague spoilers), she has a lot to recover from, and given the timing of this book, she is nowhere near done recovering. I appreciated Fairstein's dedication to the realities of surviving, but it was soemtimes slightly boring or annoying to see Alex so weak. The case itself was quite interesting, even if there were few suspects. The clues were good ones, and, as always, I enjoyed the glimpse behind the scenes in New York City. Perhaps the biggest enjoyment in this novel was seeing Mike and Alexandra moving towards some kind of new normal.

The verdict: Killer Look isn't Fairstein's best outing, but it is quite good. Reading an Alexandra Cooper novel is always a joy, as it feels like spending time old friends. These characters have been in my life for fifteen years now, and it was wonderful to spend time with them. The last scene packs a big surprise, and, once again, made me wish the next installment would come more quickly.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 392 pages
Publication date: July 26, 2016 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Killer Look from Amazon (Kindle edition.) Better yet: start from the beginning with Final Jeopardy (Kindle edition--only $6.99.) 

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, August 6, 2016

audiobook review: Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson

narrated by Tavia Gilbert

The backstory: Girl Through Glass is on the 2016 First Novel Prize longlist.

The basics: Told in alternating chapters, Girl Through Glass is the story of a young girl's coming of age at the highest levels of New York City ballet in the late 1970's, and where she is now, a dance history professor somewhere in Ohio. While it appears to be a simple narrative at first, it soon becomes clear there are many mysteries between the 1970's and today for the reader to discover.

My thoughts: Over the years I find myself less drawn to traditional coming of age stories, so I was excited to see this one offered two timelines, a narrative technique I enjoy. As is often the case with such a structure, I find myself trying to fit the pieces together as I read. The biggest challenge of dual narratives are what to revela when, and while I took issue with a few of Wilson's choices as I read, I admit I can't come up with a better way to tell this story.

As I read, I found myself enjoying the modern store of Kate more. It's not surprising, as I'm dranw to tales of academia, and this Kate makes some spectacularly bad and fascinating choices, which did make me curious about how she to that point. At times, the earlier storyline was just as interesting, but it moved at a slower pace in the beginning.

One of the biggest successes of the dual narrative was Kate's ability to offer context and academic insight into dance. To do so in Mira's teenage years would have weighed it down, and this knowledge helps elevate this novel to much more.

Audiobook thoughts: I've enjoyed Tavia Gilbert's narration in the past, and I mostly enjoyed it here. I found a couple of her pronunciations odd. The name of one character was so unique to me, I grabbed a print copy at the library to see how it was spelled, and I was surprised to see it was a name I'd always heard pronounced differently. From that point, I found the character's name distracting. Overall, her performance was mostly straightforward, with a few voices thrown in for some characters. It's hard to tell if the novel's foreshadowing was due to Gilbert's narratino or the words itself. Ultimately, I liked this one on audio, but I don't know that I'd recommend it over the print.

Favorite passage: "I know there is never only one version of the past. We resurrect the past to suit the needs of the present."

The verdict: Girl Through Glass is not a novel whose storyline swept me away, but it was a novel I can't stop thinking about, both its substance and its structure. It's a book I enjoyed reading as much for its construction as for its plot, which makes me very excited for what Wilson will write next. The interwoven storylines of this novel are complex, and while not always perfectly executed, both are interesting and feature dynamic characters.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 10 hours 12 minutes (309 pages)
Publication date: January 26, 2016
Source: personal copy

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Girl Through Glass from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Sari Wilson's website and follow her on Twitter.

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

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

book review; The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The backstory: The Sellout won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and has been longlisted for the 2016  Booker Prize. It was also a 2015 New York Times Notable Book (including being honored as one of the five best fiction titles of the year) and a contestant in the 2016 Tournament of Books.

The basics:  "A biting satire about a young man's isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty's The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant."--publisher

My thoughts: The first ten percent or so of this book had me thinking, "this may be the most provocative and brilliant thing I've ever read." I should remind myself when I get that excited about a book that early, it's nearly impossible to sustain. The Sellout is undeniably brilliant, and I see why it has received such acclaim, but for me as a reader, it was brilliant but flawed.

Part of my issues from it inevitably stem from my issues with many examples of satire. I find satire best in small doses. I don't know that I would consider The Sellout a straight satire, which is part of the problem I had with it. Parts of it read like a more straight-forward comedy, parts read like a contemporary literary novel, and parts read as beyond absurd (I know, the tension between absurdity and reality is central to satire, but in this novel, it felt inconsistent.)

The opening scene would be a brilliant short story. Despite a few other standout scenes, nothing ever matched the book's' opening for me. Overall, I found the social commentary much more compelling than the story itself.

Favorite passage:  "Like all people who believe in the system, he wants answers. He wants to believe that Shakespeare wrote all those books, that Lincoln fought the Civil War to free the slaves and the United States fought World War II to rescue the Jews and keep the world safe for democracy, that Jesus and the double feature are coming."

The verdict: Paul Beatty is clearly a brilliant and talented writer, and I'm glad I read The Sellout for the parts I enjoyed most, as well as the parts that made me think. Despite its strengths, of which there are many, I also found too many flaws that tempered my enjoyment, if not my appreciation, for this novel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: March 3, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Sellout 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!