Thursday, December 24, 2009

young adult book review: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Shiver is a werewolf love story. It's told through the points of view of Grace, who was bitten by the pack of wolves who live in the woods behind her house in Mercy Falls, Minnesota, and Sam, who was also bitten by these wolves and became one of them. No one in town knows the wolves are werewolves that change for the season. In the summer, Sam is a boy! In the winter, he's a wolf. No one in town notices that some people are only around in the summer. Yes, this is a plot hole, but the author attempts to explain this phenomenon through the fact, one year, the wolf will not change back and will be a wolf year round (until they die, and wolves apparently only live about fifteen years). Yes, this situation is rife for teen angst. 

Grace and Sam are in love, and perhaps my biggest problem with this book was the lack of development of their love. Sure, one could argue they had a powerful connection and attraction, but I still think it was underdeveloped. Mostly, I didn't like this book because I didn't like Stiefvater's writing. I average one eye-roll per page. Without an adequate foundation for the romance, it all seemed trite, silly and elementary. Yes, it's young adult fiction, but young adult fiction is often adult fiction with teenage narrators. This book is not. I wanted to stop reading this book, and if it weren't for many trusted opinions raving, I would have. While my opinion is not the minority, it's certainly not the majority. Readers seem to be split. For a few other opinions, check out some of these blogs:
S Krishna's Books
Linus's Blanket
My Friend Amy
One Librarian's Book Reviews

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5 stars) 
Pages: 400
Publication date: August 1, 2009
Source: my local public library

As an Amazon Associate, I will receive a small commission when you make purchases through the links on my blog. Thank you!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

book review: Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner

Superfreakonomics is the follow-up to the wildly successful Freakonomics, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This edition is more of the same. If you liked the first one, you'll like this one. If you didn't, then you probably won't. If you haven't read either, read the first one. This one is interesting, mostly, but the last chapter was a bit of a drag for me. There are some fascinating theories, statistics and illustrations. For the fans of their New York Times blog, however, there's not much that's new. The first book was a novelty, and a fascinating interdisciplinary one. This book is clearly a concerted effort, and it's enjoyable, but I recall random trivia and interesting points rather than the overarching themes. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. Will I still talk about it at dinner parties in five years as I still talk about some of the theories in the first one? Well, I will reference one specific chapter.

In short, I loved it, although not quite as much as the first one.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Pages: 288 (but 60 of that are the thorough footnotes)
Publication date: October 2009
Source: my local academic library

As an Amazon Associate, I will receive a small commission if you purchase this book through the above link.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

young adult book review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire is the sequel (and second in a trilogy) to The Hunger Games, which I liked, but I didn't love. After reading Catching Fire, I like The Hunger Games more. I won't spoil The Hunger Games for you if you haven't read it (and if you haven't, you really should.) The things that bothered me in the first book (the half-hearted romance and the lack of depth and a greater message) were my favorite parts of book two. The romance was beautifully written and perfectly placed within the drama instead of as an aside. There is depth and a greater message. If book three continues these trends, it will be an amazing, fully realized trilogy of dystopian literature. Knowing the depth of Catching Fire makes me appreciate what I took as the simplicity of The Hunger Games as the subtleness and groundwork for the trilogy. The restraint Suzanne Collins showed is amazing. The Hunger Games felt like young adult literature, but Catching Fire didn't. Yes, our narrator and heroine is seventeen, but this book should be read by adults too.

It seems fans of this trilogy (book 3 will be out August 24, 2010 - just in time for my birthday!) fall into two camps: those who like The Hunger Games better and those who like Catching Fire better. I am clearly in the second camp. I cannot wait for the still untitled third book.

How much do I love Catching Fire? I gave nomadreaderboy copies of both books as an early Christmas present for train reading.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5 stars)
Pages: 400 pages
Publication date: September 1, 2009
Source: my local public library (but I liked it so much, I bought it too)

Also fun: Fizzy Thought's song for Team Gale.

As an Amazon Associate, I will receive a small commission if you purchase any of these books through my links. Thank you!

Monday, December 21, 2009

dinner and a movie: An Education

Welcome to my Monday morning recap of my fabulous Friday night film at Spectrum 8 Theater and dinner at New World Bistro Bar!

The movie: An Education is based on Lynn Barber's memoir. Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay. Carey Mulligan is nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress (and many other acting awards). The entire cast is nominated for the Screen Actors Guild award. 

The barest of plot details: The film is set outside London in 1962. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is sixteen, and one of the brightest students at her private girl's school. She wants to go to Oxford to read English literature. She meets a charming, friendly, older man. 

This film is perhaps the perfect coming of age story. Yes, I realize what a strong statement that is. Lynn Barber's story is not necessarily unique, yet it is a product of the time she was raised. Still, as someone who came of age in the 1990's United States rather than the 1960's Britain, it could have been my story. It is the perfect coming of age story because this dichotomy between uniqueness and everywoman-ness.

Carey Mulligan is fantastic, but Peter Sarsgaard was mesmerizing. He completely nailed the British accent; I immediately checked to see if he was, in fact, British. The entire cast is amazing, and the casting director deserves kudos as well. Rarely does one see a cast without a weak link. It's easily the best movie I've seen this year, and although there is some hesitation to such a bold statement, it is one of my favorite movies of all time. I'll see how well it stand up with time and multiple viewings, but this one is a modern classic. It's brilliant, moving, funny (Nick Hornby, remember) and immensely watchable and re-watchable. With the Oscars opening Best Picture to ten films this year, this one may have a shot at a nomination, and I hope it does. 

Seriously, it's the best movie I've seen this year. 

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5 stars)
Running time: 95 minutes
Go see it now: Here's a map of where it's playing.

Dinner: Once again, I forgot pictures (sorry!) For my appetizer, I enjoyed the green curry mussels. The Prince Edward Island mussels were steamed in a green curry, coconut and lime brother and topped with fresh herbs. They were spicy, flavorful, and absolutely delicious. For my entree, I had a Yucatan shrimp and pork posole. Posole is a white hominy stew, and this one had lime, roasted tomatoes, yucca, cilantro and chiles. It was a lovely meal to follow the best movie I've seen this year. 

As an Amazon Associate, I will receive a small commission if you purchase any items through the above links. Thank you!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

sunday salon: travel reading

Originally, I intended to post my Favorite Books of 2009 today, but then I looked at the pile of books I have set aside for this week of train travel and vacation: The Graveyard Book, The Help, Wolf Hall, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Road, Gilead, and I thought making such a list would be premature. (I'll post my true Favorite Books of 2009 on January 1.)

Facing twenty-four hours of train riding (each way), I put far too much thought into what books to take, as I always do. Truthfully, the pile will probably change a few more times. Thank you to the friends and book bloggers who offered recommendations. Whether I take the time to always comment or not, I so enjoy reading book blogs. This week I'll be mostly offline, but I'll still post a few reviews, glance at my email, and read a few of my favorite book blogs. Everything else will be there after Christmas.

Happy Holidays and Happy Reading!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

movie saturday: dvd reviews

It's a well-known fact I adore awards. I'm not sure why, as I often disagree with them, but I do enjoy  being well enough informed to vigorously debate. This week, the Golden Globe Award nominees were announced. The Golden Globes are my absolute favorite award show. Why? Book awards aren't televised, and the Golden Globes highlight the best in television and movies. On a personal note, thank you Hollywood Foreign Press, for announcing your nominees at the end of the semester so I can indulge in copious movie watching over the semester break.

I had only seen three of the nominated films: Julie and Julia, Precious and Invictus. Nomadreaderboy and I have been watching the films already on dvd this week. For your viewing pleasure, some mini movie reviews.

Coraline is nominated for best animated movie. I haven't read the book by Neil Gaiman, but I was excited to see the film. Visually, it's absolutely majestic. The storyline is not quite as exciting as the art on screen, but it is a movie meant for children. Overall, I enjoyed it. The storyline dragged a few times for me, but honestly, I could have watched it on mute and enjoyed the movie. 4 stars (out of 5 stars)

Up is also nominated for best animated movie. Clearly, I am behind on animation, as I found this movie to be absolutely visually stunning. It too, was magical. I loved it as an adult, and I can only imagine how much more fun it would be to watch it as a child. I won't say much about the story because you either probably already know or don't want to know. I knew nothing about the story going in, and I loved being surprised. 4.5 stars (out of 5 stars).

Julia Roberts is nominated for Best Actress in a comedy for DuplicityDuplicity is the latest movie written and directed by Tony Gilroy (I loved Michael Clayton). I will tell you only the barest of details because if ever there is a movie you should nothing about it is this one: Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are spies. This film is a sexy, suspenseful, funny and smart spy caper. I loved it throughout, and I loved it even more when it finished. Julia Roberts was good, but I'm surprised it wasn't nominated for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) too. Go watch it now. 5 stars (out of 5 stars)

For some reason, Sandra Bullock was nominated for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for The Proposal. The Proposal is an average romantic comedy. Perhaps there is more comedy than romance, but none of the comedy is particularly original or smart. No new ground is broken. If you like romantic comedies, you will probably like it; if you don't, you probably won't. The movie could serve as a commercial for Alaskan tourism (or wherever they actually filmed the Alaska scenes.) The geography was breathtaking, and there were a lot of talented actors with very little to do. 2.5 stars (out of 5 stars)

As an Amazon Associate, I will receive a small commission if you purchase any of these dvds from Thank you!

Friday, December 18, 2009

holiday swap: thank you!

My book blogger holiday swap present arrived this week! I was thrilled to discover it in my mailbox. Inside, my Secret Santa, (who took the time to wrap my present in actual wrapping paper!), gave me the dvd of The Jane Austen Book Club, from my wish list! I also got some gingerbread cookies.

This year was the first time I participated in the book blogger holiday swap, but it was so much fun! Thank you to my Secret Santa, whomever you are.

Happy Holidays!

graphic novel review: Stitches by David Small

Stitches is a memoir in graphic novel form. It traces David Small's life through childhood. I've read several reviews of this book, but the one I remember most was Citizen reader's review entitles "Sadness, illustrated." It's a beautifully haunting and sad tale, and despite the often grim story, it was a fast read. There were a few moments I laughed out loud. I enjoyed it, and perhaps my favorite part was the author's note at the end, where David Small used prose to flesh out a few memories, thoughts and ideas. Part of the beauty of a graphic novel is the emotion and story told through pictures, and in this case, I find it difficult to express the emotion and depth of Small's graphic novel with only words. My advice: read it for yourself.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 335
Publication date: September 8, 2009
Source: my local public library

Buy Stitches: A Memoir from (As an Amazon Associate, I will earn a small commission if you buy through this link. Thank you!)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

book review: Nanny Returns by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

Nanny Returns is the sequel to the very popular novel, The Nanny Diaries. The original book was published in 2002, and I read it that year. I vaguely remember seeing the film on dvd, but I don't remember many of the details of the first book. Thankfully, my lack of reading memory was not a burden. There were just enough reminders in Nanny Returns to revive my memory.

Nan is now married to Ryan (the Harvard Hottie!), and after living many places around the world, they have returned to New York City and purchased a house in Harlem that is in disrepair. Nan has her master's degree and works as a consultant, even though she only has one client. Grayer, whom Nan used to nanny, is now 16, the Xes are divorcing, and now there is an adorable 7-year-old Stilton X as well.

Here's what is really important: the book is laugh-out-loud funny. I loved it more for the social commentary, which I daresay will age well as a tale of the privileged, private schooled rich New Yorkers in the late 2000s. It's a book that works both on the societal and personal level. It's an absolutely hilarious indictment of New York City's clueless and deluded upper-echelon; the brilliance lies in the fact that it manages to malign without defaming. I don't think the financial elite would take offense at their portrayal in this book.

On the individual level, Nan is delightful. She's smarter and more worldly than her 21-year-old self, but she still struggles with wanting to do the right thing and her place in the world, and in New York society. Ryan, her husband, is ready for children, and she's terrified of messing them up. There's a touch of Katie Fforde-like everywoman in Nan. She's stubborn, independent, warm hearted and plagued with problems that seem insurmountable at times, yet Nan handles them with grace, humor and an appropriate amount of ire.

I read The Nanny Diaries before my days of book blogging, and I remember enjoying it, but I don't recall my other reactions to it. Despite my spotty memory, I enjoyed Nanny Returns more. Should you read it if you haven't read the first one? Sure. You might miss a few of the inside jokes, but the crux of the story, and it's social commentary would not be lost. It's refreshing to read a book that makes you laugh out loud throughout the main character's ups and downs. It's never too serious or too fluffy, and it beautifully traverses the fine line between personal story and social commentary.

I'm continuously amazed two authors can write together well, but Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus are improving as writers. Nanny Returns is their best book so far.

Rating: 4.25 stars (out of 5)
Publication date: December 15, 2009
Pages: 304
Source: the authors very kindly sent me a copy of this book

Buy Nanny Returns from (If you buy the book through this link, I will receive a small commission from Amazon. Thank you!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

waiting on wednesday: The Passage by Justin Cronin

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine to spotlight an upcoming release you can't wait to read.

The Passage by Justin Cronin won't be released until June 8, 2010, but those lucky enough to have read it can't stop gushing. Stephen King almost put it on his best books of the year list. On Twitter, @oblongirl said it was one of the best books she's ever read. I absolutely cannot wait to devour all 720 pages of this book. Here's Stephen King's blurb he wrote for the publisher:
"Every so often a novel-reader's novel comes along: an enthralling, entertaining story wedded to simple, supple prose, both informed by tremendous imagination. Summer is the perfect time for such books, and this year readers can enjoy the gift of Justin Cronin's The Passage. Read fifteen pages and you will find yourself captivated; read thirty and you will find yourself taken prisoner and reading late into the night. It has the vividness that only epic works of fantasy and imagination can achieve. What else can I say? This: read this book and the ordinary world disappears."
Ballantine books will publish The Passage on June 8, but you can already pre-order it from or through the independent bookstore of your choice.

Happy reading!

Monday, December 14, 2009

dinner and a movie: Invictus

Welcome to my Monday morning recap of my fabulous Friday night movie at the Spectrum Theater and dinner at New World Bistro Bar!

Invictus: I was thrilled Invictus finally came out. I love sports movies, and I am quite a big fan of Matt Damon. Throw in Morgan Freeman, and I was sold. I wanted so badly to like it, but it was only okay.

The movie opens with some sensationally remade news footage of Nelson Mandela (with Morgan Freeman inserted) to provide backstory. Mandela takes over the presidency of a very divided South Africa, and he tries to unite the country around its rugby team. As the story begins, the white fans cheer for the Springboks, while the black fans cheer against them, no matter what team they're playing. Matt Damon plays the rugby team captain, Francois Pienaar.

The good: The acting was good, and at times great. Morgan Freeman completely captured Nelson Mandela's frailty and disposition. Matt Damon was good, although I didn't think he had too much to do. The two stars of this movie for me, however, were two supporting actresses, Leleti Khumalo and Sibongile Nojila. The women both played small roles; Khumalo worked for Mandela and Nojila was the Pienaar's maid. In the hands of other actresses, perhaps I wouldn't even have noticed them, but stealing a movie from Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon is quite a feat, and I hope other take note. On the visual side, Eastwood never disappoints with aerial shots. There were quite a few breathtaking views, but otherwise, the movie was nowhere near his other works, especially the visually stunning Changeling (one of 2008's best movies, in my opinion).

The not so good: This movie falls somewhere between a sports movie and a political movie, and for me, it failed at both. I admit, I know little to nothing about rugby. The climactic sports scene (it's hardly a spoiler, you know there will be one) was dull. I didn't understand how points were scored, how insurmountable leads are, or what the time on the clock was counting up or down to, and thus, I wasn't especially invested in the action. I knew the outcome, but good sports movies excel at providing an amazing, emotional magical journey. This film lacked magic. Not only did I not cry, I didn't even get goosebumps. I should be the target audience for this film; I adore sports movies, and I enjoy political movies. I like the actors in it. It certainly wasn't bad, but it simply didn't grab me. At the end, all I could say was eh. I didn't like it; I didn't dislike it. It wasn't memorable for me, despite being about a fascinating time.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Running time: 134 minutes
Release date: December 11, 2009 (wide release); here's a map of where Invictus is currently playing.

Dinner: As always, I had a fantastic meal at New World Bistro Bar. (Seriously, if you're in Albany, go). To start with, I had the soup of the day: a crab chowder with yucca and red peppers. It was delicious. For my entree, I went with one of my favorite dishes on the menu: steak. This fall I made the switch to only eat local meat, and I'm still amazed how good it always is. I opted for the 8 oz. grass fed sirloin, which is served with a flavorful chimichurri, grilled scallions, fries (accompanied by the only ketchup I like, a homemade banana ketchup that isn't too sweet), and I substitute brussel sprouts fro the broccoli rabe. It was cooked perfectly (rare), and it was fantastic.

Next week I'll try to remember to photograph my food before I devour it!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Sunday Salon: End of the semester joy!

It's finally here, fellow bibliophiles: the end of my semester. Bring on endless time to read, catch up on my DVR, see more movies and play board games! This week I'll catch up on reviews of books and fall television, prepare my Best of 2009 list and, of course, read. It looks like I will make my goal of reading 100 books this year, even though many of them were children's and young adult. Next year, I'm shifting my focus to quality over quantity. Several book bloggers have coined 2010 The Year of Deliberate Reading. I first heard it from the Literate Housewife on Twitter, and I'm using it too. I'll be focusing on reading the finalists in the awards I enjoy the most: the Newbery Award, the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, the National Book Award (fiction), the Pulitzer (fiction), and a few of the "best of the year" lists from publications I trust the most. I also hope to read more classics and more of the books I've been meaning to read forever.

As I mentioned last week, I am taking over the Art History Reading Challenge for 2010. The sign-up post is up, so head over to the challenge blog to sign up today! This year, you have your choice of 3, 6, 9, or 12 books (either fiction or nonfiction). Non-bloggers are welcome too! Questions? Ask me!

I have also been blessed with a few blog awards this week! Amused By Books, which has become one of my favorite book blogs, awarded nomadreader the Over the Top award.

In the Hammock awarded me the One Lovely Blog award. I recently discovered this blog, which is mostly devoted to historical romance. I'm trying to read more historical fiction, and she has some great recommendations!

In lieu of passing these awards on to the many worthy blogs, I've decided to add a blogroll to my blog. Soon, you'll be able to see my favorite blogs displayed in the side column of this blog!

Happy reading everyone!

Friday, December 11, 2009

book review: You Must Be This Happy to Enter by Elizabeth Crane

This statement will be sacrilege to many of you: I do not normally read short stories. I am a devoted New Yorker reader, and I often don't finish the short story in each issue. I don't seek out short story collections to read. I'm not quite sure why I have an aversion to short stories, and I'm trying to be better.

Personal backstory: I discovered Elizabeth Crane, one of my favorite authors, when her first book of short stories, When the Messenger is Hot, was first published. I read a glowing review in Entertainment Weekly and immediately requested it from the library. When I picked it up, I realized it was short stories. I reread the review, and I decided to read it. To this day, it's one of my favorite books. I eagerly read her second collection of stories, All This Heavenly Glory, and I finally got around to reading her third collection, You Must Be This Happy to Enter.

Review: Short story collections are difficult to review. I'll say this: the first story ("My Life is Awesome! And Great!"), where each sentence ends in an exclamation mark except for those that end in a question mark, was my favorite. I was laughing ridiculously loudly as I read it on the bus, and I didn't care when I missed my stop. The last story, "The Promise," is my other favorite. It's a book that simultaneously inspires me to write and wows me this writer's talents. It's inspiring without being daunting.

Elizabeth Crane's writing is difficult to describe, and I fear I won't begin to do her justice, but here's my best attempt: she writes brilliantly, simply, subtley and with an amazing rawness. She's smart and cool; she's an impossible combination of high-brow and low-brow. You can tell by her varying styles that she's a McSweeney's writer.

The Short of it: Read it. Even if you don't like short stories. If you do, read it now. The entire collection is less than 200 pages. It won't take long. Then check out When the Messenger Is Hot. If I had as much money as Oprah, I would buy a copy of this book for anyone who wanted one. As it is, a few family members and friends may find a copy heading their way soon.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5 stars) - universally recommended
Pages: 183
Publication date: 2008

Source: my local public library

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

dinner and a movie: Precious & seafood specials

Week two of my Friday night dinner and a movie at the Spectrum was a blast.

The movie: The movie Precious is based on Sapphire's only novel to date, Push.  Here's what I knew going into the film: Precious is sixteen and pregnant with her second child.

Precious is certainly bleak, but it's empowering and uplifting in a real way rather than a feel-good based-on-a-true-story kind of way. As the sad, dark revelations about her life unfold, the movie shifts inside her imagination to brief shots of Precious in her dreams. I loved this storytelling device; when the story got dark, there was something hopeful. The audience shared with Precious's coping mechanisms.

I absolutely loved the film as whole, even though it's not necessarily a film I want to rewatch. Gabby Sidibe was fantastic. Mo 'Nique has gotten a lot of positive reviews, but I found her performance adequate, but not amazing. Paula Patton, however, absolutely stole the film for me. She was mesmerizing, subtle and powerful. I would love to see her nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Rating: 4.75 stars (out of 5 stars)
Running time: 110 minutes
Release date: November 6, 2009 (limited). Here's a map of where Precious is currently showing.

The dinner:My favorite restaurant in Albany, New World Bistro Bar, is conveniently located next door to the independent movie theater. My dinner was especially delicious Friday night.

I started with a special appetizer: bbq oysters bacon and escargot on a grilled baguette with pesto and a garlic butter. It was one of the most complex and flavorful appetizers I've ever had. I would love to see it in on the next menu.

For my entree, I had another special: Ric's Best Bouillabaise. It has shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, squid and baby octopus in a tomato-fennel broth with pinenuts and a poblano-basil pesto. It was delicious as well.

Next week I'll take pictures of my food to share!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

sunday salon: week in review & the new art history challenge

First, the big news: Sarah is no longer able to host the Art History Reading Challenge, so I will be taking over the hosting duties for 2010. She already had a blog and buttons set up, so taking it over is a breeze. Look for the 2010 sign up post in the next few days. I'll post the a reminder here too!

Books read this week:
  • I finished and reviewed A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve. I really liked the book.
  • I read You Must Be This Happy to Enter by Elizabeth Crane, my favorite short story writer. My review will publish Tuesday.
  • I read David Small's harrowing graphic novel memoir, Stitches yesterday as part of the the Read.Read.Read-a-thon. My review will post Thursday.

Currently reading: 

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. Now that the release date for the third in the Hunger Games trilogy has been announced, I'm finally ready to read the second one. Needless to say, I'm enjoying it so far.  

Movies seen:
  • For Friday night's dinner and a movie, I saw Precious. My review will post tomorrow.
Coolest part about being a book blogger this week: 
  • Receiving an ARC of Hell Gate, Linda Fairstein's latest Alexandra Cooper mystery. I'm a huge fan of this series, and now I don't have to wait until March to read it. Hooray!
Happy Reading!

Friday, December 4, 2009

It's almost Read.Read.Read-a-thon Day!

It's time for the Read.Read.Read-a-thon! It starts at 9 a.m. EST tomorrow and lasts for 24 hours. Sadly, I am still finishing one final project before my semester is over, so I won't be able to read all day. I'm still hoping to at least read Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games. Yesterday, Scholastic announced the third book in the trilogy will be released August 24, 2009, and the rumored title is The Victors. 

Good luck to all of you taking the entire day to read. I'm definitely with you in spirit, and I will be reading with you for at least a few hours. I'll follow the action on Twitter (#rrreadathon) too!

Happy reading!

In the spirit of a read-a-thon, here's a fun contest for bloggers too!

book review: A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve

Somehow, I've never read Anita Shreve. I always had a positive opinion of her, as I think she's one of the more literary female authors who manages to appear in the mainstream enough to be on bestseller lists. Although I've read middling reviews of her latest novel, A Change in Altitude, the subject matter appealed to me, so I decided to read it.

The story takes place in Kenya in the 1970's. It's largely the story of Margaret and Patrick, a recently married couple from the U.S. Patrick's job takes him to Africa, and Margaret is thrilled to go with him. As someone about to get married, I'm fascinated by novels about new marriage (and weddings) right now. I'm also a fan of stories about ex-patriots.

I was immediately struck by the beauty and grace of Shreve's writing. It's almost lyrical, and the prose flows so beautifully that the novel reads remarkably quickly given the amount of subtlety to the action and language. Although the novel is a first-person narrative, I can't say I identified with Margaret, the protagonist. I found her interesting, but I did feel a sense of distance. I don't know if that was Shreve's intention, but if so, it's an interesting correlation to Margaret and Patrick's increasing distance from one another. I do think it's reflective of Margaret's feelings about Kenya. She wants to like it, but it's a brutal, often cruel place, despite the presence of many kind people. She feels distant from her new surroundings and her old life in Boston.

This novel is unusual. It's partially a character study of Margaret and Patrick, and partially a look at a young marriage in a strange land. The truly unusual part for me, however, is describing the amount of action and drama despite the relatively slow pace of the book. I can see why some did not like this novel, but for me, it worked. Perhaps much of that was how much I loved Shreve's writing. Her writing is new to me, so for those who have raved over her previous novels, perhaps that was enough. I was fascinated by the tales of Africa, marriage and friendship as well. This novel is filled with interesting themes, but it deals with them subtly. There's not necessarily a character to root for, but yet I did.

I would recommend this book; I found the writing beautiful and the story riveting. If you are a fan of ex-patriot tales in Africa, I also highly recommend a book I adored before I started this blog: Making It Up As I Go Along by Maria T. Lennon. The books share a setting of Africa, and they're not terribly similar on the surface, but their is a depth to the character, writing and geography of both that connects them together.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 307
Publication: September 22, 2009
Source: my local public library

Buy A Change in Altitude from
Buy Making It Up As I Go Along: A Novel from
(As an Amazon Associate, I will make a small commission if you buy these books through these links. Thank you!)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

waiting on wednesday: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. It encourages bloggers to spotlight upcoming releases we can't wait to read!

Last April, there was an interview with Curtis Sittenfeld, who wrote my favorite book ever, American Wife, in the New York Times books blog, PaperCuts. In the interview, she mentions the best book she's read lately, an early copy of If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous, despite the fact it's coming out in 2010. Sittenfeld said the book's release "seems really far away, but I swear it's worth marking your calendar for." I did, and when it popped up this week, I was thrilled to rediscover it, and I still can't wait to read it. Her blurb quote running on Amazon is this: "I love, love, love IF YOU FOLLOW ME. It's fearlessly honest, occasionally heartbreaking, and extremely funny, and I can't recommend it highly enough." I'm sure there are plot descriptions out there, but I don't want to read them. I want the joy and humor of this story to unfold with surprise from day one. I think the cover is beautiful too!

I'm beyond excited for this novel, and March cannot get here quickly enough. I suppose it could, if Harper Perennial decides to send me an early copy! 

Intrigued? Preorder If You Follow Me: A Novel (P.S.) from Amazon today. As an Amazon associate, I will receive a commission from the sale if you purchase it through this link.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

book review: No Time to Wave Goodbye by Jacquelyn Mitchard

No Time to Wave Goodbye is a sequel to Mitchard's first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, which was most famously chosen as Oprah's first book club selection. If you haven't read The Deep End of the Ocean, there will inevitably be a few spoilers in this review. 

A lot of time has passed between the two novels, both in publication dates and in the characters' lives. In many ways, however, not much has changed, and not much happens the first ninety pages. There's an awkward mix of catching readers up on what they may not remember about the last book and catching readers up on what happened since the events of the last book. I read The Deep End of the Ocean only last year, and I sometimes had a hard time figuring out which events I already knew about. There are a ton of characters thrown at the reader, including many characters calling Ben Sam to his face but thinking of him as Ben.

The opening scene itself is so interspersed with backstory, it's incredibly distracting. Vincent is premiering his new documentary in Chicago, and Beth has no idea what it's about. To hammer this point home, the reader is subjected to a ridiculous amount of her questioning interior monologue. The constant questioning is annoying because it's clear she's about to watch the movie and find out all of these answers and the subject of the film is one of the basic facts about this book. Vincent's film is a documentary about missing children. Ben/Sam interviewed five families about their missing children. The film is a such a huge success, it wins the Oscar for best documentary. These events all unfold simultaneously quickly (in ninety pages) and slowly (it was all quite telegraphed form the beginning, I thought), that it's clear something big is about to happen, as any reader can see the book is more than ninety pages. As though it weren't clear enough, Mitchard laces in ominous foreshadowing at every opportunity. I really wish the novel would have opened at the Oscars. It's difficult to fault a 220 page novel for being too long, but the first seventy pages were a waste of story and writing.

Finally, the action happens, and Mitchard's writing instantly becomes emotional, moving and thoughtful rather than stiff and filled with awkward metaphors. There's a surprisingly haunting and tragic poetry to the events. Once the action happened, I was absolutely riveted, and the book's turns of events surprised me.

No Time to Wave Goodbye is a difficult book to review for many reasons. I truly loved parts of it, but it doesn't work as a whole for me. There's a powerful message in it, and I do think it's worth reading if you enjoyed The Deep End of the Ocean, which is a nearly universally enjoyed book. The ideas of this novel are strong, although the execution is weak at times. It was good enough to keep reading, but I was also eager for it to end. The pacing was off the entire time, even while I enjoyed the book. Would I recommend it? Yes and no. My enjoyment of this book had little to do with my attachment to the characters. I truly liked the idea of it, and the idea of it is good enough to recommend it, despite my reservations with the beginning of the book and Mitchard's uneven reading. It would make a fantastic book club selection. The ideas are ripe for discussion, it's short, and there will likely be those who love and hate it, but I would guess most readers will fall somewhere in between. It's hard to love or hate a book so uneven in story, pacing and writing.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 228
Publication date: September 2009
Source: my local public library

Buy No Time to Wave Goodbye from Amazon.

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Monday, November 30, 2009

movie monday: Coco Before Chanel

One of my new goals is to start seeing movies in the theater again. My specific plan is to treat myself to a film every Friday night at the Spectrum, the local, independent art house theater, which is conveniently located next to the New World Bistro Bar, my favorite restaurant in town, where I'll treat myself to a glass of wine after the show. I started my new tradition last Friday, and I had so much fun. I'll post my movie reviews here on Monday mornings.

The movie: Coco Before Chanel is aptly titled; it follows Coco Chanel from her time in an orphanage, but it stops where most people become familiar with her story. The film stars the delightful Audrey Tatou as Coco. Perhaps my favorite thing about Coco Before Chanel was it's honesty. I confess to loving the feel-good rags to riches biopics as much as anyone, but it's rare to see a biographical film provide hope with honesty and without sappiness. Most of the film is not feel good. It's hardly depressing, but it is real. Coco didn't have an easy life. She and her sister were orphans, and they fought for opportunities. Coco makes some decisions she may not be proud of, but she doesn't regret them. She doesn't have the dream of becoming a fashion designer from day one, just as few of us truly know what we'll end up doing from the beginning. Her skills, experience and desire for self-sufficiency slowly evolve to lead her to it.

The film is a little slow, but it's similar to the pace of her life. It seems like it's not going anywhere for awhile, and if you didn't know what Chanel is, you might think that. I personally thought the subtitles were a little fast. My French is decent enough to understand some of the dialogue, but I often read the subtitle before the characters had begun to speak their lines. The beautiful lulls of dialogue featured the next subtitle, which threw off the pace a bit for me.

The beauty of the film comes in its last half hour, when it becomes clear the slowness was in fact subtlety leading to a mesmerizing and poetic final half-hour. It's the kind of film one might be tempted to stop watching if she were at home, but ends up loving. It truly is a film that is the sum of it's parts. It works as a whole, but it's not necessarily riveting from the opening frame.

It's a beautifully feminist film; it's an honest look at one woman's struggle and journey for her place in the world. It's not a film with universal appeal, but it is a fantastic, beautiful, and inspiring film. If you like foreign films, historical films, biopics and strong female leads, then I highly recommend this film.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Release date: September 2009 in the U.S. Here's a map of where this film is currently playing! There's no word on dvd release yet.
Source: I saw it at my local, independent, art house movie theater

Sunday, November 29, 2009

sunday salon: Thanksgiving wrap-up

While Thanksgiving brings wonderful time spent with family and friends, as well as a few days to relax, the most exciting about Thanksgiving for a graduate student is knowing the end of the semester is almost here. There may be a lot to get done in the next two weeks, but I'm already looking forward to the ability to read, relax and watch movies without feeling guilty.

I also became an Amazon Associate this week. You should notice the Amazon search box to the right of this post. You'll also notice a link to purchase each book I review at the bottom of posts. The program is rather simple: when you click on links from my site to purchase things at Amazon, I get a small percentage commission; you pay the same price. While it's not secret I want a Kindle, I decided to stop hoping I win one and start making plans to buy one. I'll use the money I earn through the Amazon Associate program to finance my Kindle. I hope the advertising won't be distracting. I don't have high expectations for revenue, but every cent helps!

Books finished this week: 
  • A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd - I was thrilled to discover this new to me author and a new series for this author.
  • The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi - I'm so glad I finally got around to reading Persepolis, and I look forward to reading more of Satrapi's work.
  • No Time to Wave Goodbye by Jacquelyn Mitchard, the sequel to Deep End of the Ocean will be reviewed Tuesday.
Currently reading: A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve. Somehow, I've never read Anita Shreve, and I'm really enjoying this novel so far. I've read some middling reviews, so I'm curious to see how my opinion changes as the book goes on. I'm already smitten with Shreve's writing, however, and plan to read more of her books.

Movies seen (I finally got around to hooking up my Netflix account to the xbox 360, so we can now watch instantly through the television. I can't believe it took me this long to set it up, but I immediately cancelled HBO. I'm a convert, and thus, I will be watching and reviewing more movies in the coming months!):
  • To Catch a Thief  - We watched this movie on Thanksgiving, and I haven't seen it in years. It was so much fun! I adore Cary Grant, but I was most amazed how visually stunning the film was and how it didn't seem outdated. 
  • Casino Royals - We also watched Daniel Craig's first foray as James Bond on Thanksgiving. I really enjoy this movie, especially the ending scenes in Venice, one of my favorite cities in the world. 
  • Coco Before Chanel - I went to see this lovely French film Friday night, and my review will be posted Monday as part of my new Movie Monday feature.
  • Brodre - I watched the Danish film that the upcoming Brothers (starring Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire) is based on. I'll offer a comparative review when I see Brothers, but in the meantime, if Brothers is anywhere near as good as Brodre, it should be a major player at the Oscars this year.
Happy reading!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

graphic novel review: The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

The Complete Persepolis contains Persepolis and Persepolis 2 in one volume. Although there is no indication where the second volume begins, there is a shift in the story. Persepolis is an autobiography in graphic novel. Marjane Satrapi grew up in Iran, and the book is as much a story of the Persian people and Iran's history as it is her own. It's a fascinating look at a country and its history, but it's most remarkable seen through the eyes of a child. It's incredibly moving to think and see how much geography plays into our own sense of self and autobiography.

From a visual standpoint, Persepolis is simple and beautiful. There are frames so packed with meaning, I would stare at them for a few minutes. I would gladly hand several on my wall. It's an incredibly accessible graphic novel, as it's rather verbose, but Satrapi's drawings are powerful.

Persepolis is clearly a powerful book, and I do believe it's an important book, particularly for Westerners. I think it's wonderful and smart, but I didn't quite love it. It moved me deeply, but there was some unknown element inhibiting my full personal enjoyment.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 352
Publication: October 2007
Source: my local public library

Buy The Complete Persepolis from Amazon. (As an Amazon affiliate, I will receive a small percentage of the sale; it does not affect the price you pay for the item.)