Tuesday, March 30, 2010

young adult book review: The Heart Is Not a Size

The Heart Is Not a Size
Beth Kephart has been on my authors I want to read list for years. Even though I this book was the first of hers I've read, I'm often intrigued authors who write in multiple genres.

The Heart is Not a Size is a novel told in two parts. The first half of the novel tells the story of Georgia and her best friend Riley. Georgia sees a flyer promoting a mission trip to Juarez, Mexico, and she convinces Riley to go with her. The second half of the book explores their time in Mexico.

Kephart infuses Georgia with observations and realizations of a somewhat omniscient narrator, but this duality actually works. Kephart's writing is deceptively simple. She writes beautifully, and action occurs in between words and sentences as well as in them. Kephart's writing will enchant readers of all ages. Technically it's young adult fiction, but really it's a novel narrated by a teenage girl. This novel deals with some serious subject matter, but it doesn't dwell on it. It's not a book about an issue. It's a representation of these characters lives through the lens of a gifted writer.

I'm certainly glad I read my first Beth Kephart novel, and I'm looking forward to reading more of her fiction and nonfiction. I'm also looking forward to meeting her at Book Blogger Con. You can check out Beth's blog too.

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Pages: 256
Release date: March 30, 2010
Source: ARC from Traveling ARC Tours

Monday, March 29, 2010

dinner and a movie: Chloe

Welcome to my Monday morning recap of my fabulous Friday night date with myself.

I was looking forward to seeing Chloe, even though I didn't know much about it, because I adore Julianne Moore, really like Liam Neeson and have somewhat recently become a fan of Amanda Seyfried. I'm also a big fan of the director, Atom Egoyan.

Here's Chloe in a nutshell: if you know nothing going in, it's a gripping, intriguing psychological and sexual thriller. Apparently if you watched the trailer, you know the film's climax, and I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it. The joy of this film was its twisted journey. The journey isn't amazing enough to shine through spoilers. Here are the barebones details that won't spoil the film's fun for you: Liam Neeson, a music professor, and Julianne Moore, a gynecologist, are somewhat happily married, but she suspects him of cheating. She hires Amanda Seyfriend (Chloe) to seduce Liam Neeson to see if he would fall for it.

After all the drama is an interesting look at marriage, parenthood, loneliness and simple human connection.

Julianne Moore's performance was amazing. I am always amazed at her talent, and I still cannot believe we live in a world where Sandra Bullock has an Oscar and Julianne Moore does not.

I enjoyed the film, but I doubt I would have if I knew what would happen. If it's already been spoiled for you, you might want to wait for dvd to enjoy Julianne Moore's performance.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Running time: 96 minutes
Release date: March 26, 2010 (U.S. limited); see where it's playing
Source: I paid to see it at the Spectrum Theater

After the movie, I strolled two doors down to my favorite Albany restaurant, New World Bistro Bar. For some reason,  I wasn't terribly hungry, so I had a light. I started with the always delicious arugula salad with roasted beets, drunken goat cheese, sunflower seeds and a truffle vinaigrette dressing. For a light supper, I enjoyed the revamped cold seafood sampler. The brand new version includes a taste of the ceviche of the day, some tuna poke, two gravlax bundles, two wasabi tobiko deviled eggs and the tastiest anchovies I've ever had. It was the perfect dish for a light supper, and it was divine with the French rose wine. Yes, one of these weeks I'll remember to take pictures.

Next week: dinner and a movie goes on the road to Providence, Rhode Island!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

sunday salon: Read-a-thon

It's time for Dewey's Read-a-thon again! The spring read-a-thon will be Saturday, April 10. It begins at 8 a.m. Eastern time. For all of the details, visit the read-a-thon's blog and sign up!

I had a lot of fun with my first read-a-thon in October, and I'm looking forward to participating again. I won't be reading most of the day this time, however, as the read-a-thon is the same day as the Empire State Book Festival.
It's the first ever Empire State Book Festival, and I'm thrilled to have such a fantastic collection of authors and events right here in Albany. The festival will be 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., but I'll try to read a little before I go and read until I fall asleep when I get home.

Have you done the read-a-thon before? Are you doing it this spring? Are you going to the Empire State Book Festival?

Friday, March 26, 2010

young adult book review: Restoring Harmony by Joelle Anthony

Restoring Harmony

Restoring Harmony, the debut novel by Joelle Anthony, is an immensely readable and accessible young adult dystopian novel. The book is set in 2041, and its dystopian world feels frighteningly close. If this book were an episode of Sliders, it would have been the one with the Azure Gate Bridge and the Giants winning the World Series some year they actually didn't. The set-up is rather simple: reliance on oil sunk the economy of the United States. There are no cars anymore. Goods don't travel between cities. Cities are abandoned since The Collapse. Communities must be self-sustaining. Travel barely exists as even train tracks have fallen under disrepair. Few can afford to pay taxes.

The heroine, Molly McClure, loves her island farming island in Canada. Her family is able to farm for a living and the climate is lovely. She knows her family and her town are fortunate, considering the plight of most in other areas. When her mother suddenly fears for the health of her parents, Molly begins a long trek to Portland, Oregon to see if her grandmother is alive and if her grandfather is alright.

One of the most initially fascinating things about this novel was a world without travel. Molly had heard stories about traveling, but she'd never done it. In this world, it was nearly impossible, but her parents told stories of traveling in their youth. I love to travel (hence the nomad in nomadreader), and it's amazing to imagine the difference in our everyday life even this simple detail would make.

This novel almost fell into three acts for me, and while I adored the beginning and the end, the middle one hundred pages dragged a bit for me. The middle read more like a young adult novel than the rest of the book. I was frustrated by Molly's actions, and the events seemed both obvious and annoying slow to unfold. I never contemplated abandoning the book, but I was disenchanted and felt let down. I was emotionally unengaged. The final third of the book, however, built on the enchanting premise of the novel's beginning and brought surprise, intrigue and emotional revelations. In the end, I loved this book; I was sad when it ended.

Ultimately, it was an immensely smart, enjoyable and meaningful novel with a brief slow spell. It's a novel aimed at young adults, but it only reads like a young adult novel in a few parts. It's a near-future dystopia, and the setting provides ample ideas for discussion. Although the story is from Molly's point of view, the reader gets an idea of how the young and old, connected and unconnected, and rich and poor feel in this world.

Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Pages: 320
Release date: May 13, 2010 (pre-order it now)
Source: ARC from the publisher via Around the World Tours

Thursday, March 25, 2010

book review: Wedding Season by Katie Fforde

Wedding Season: A Novel
Last April, I had the joy of reading Katie Fforde's novel Wedding Season (thank you, interlibrary loan). Last week, Wedding Season finally made its U.S. debut with a lovely new cover. I'm reposting my review because it's been a year. If you're a fan of British chick lit, you must read Fforde. Enjoy!

I am a huge fan of Katie Fforde, and I'm in the midst of planning a wedding, so I eagerly awaited my copy of Wedding Season to arrive from interlibrary loan. As usual, Katie did not disappoint.
Wedding Season followed three friends: Sarah, a wedding planner whose secretly pregnant sister and a major U.S. movie star have decided to get married on the same day with only a few months notice; Bron, a hairstylist in an unhappy relationship; and Elsa, a talented dressmaker. The three consider themselves friends and co-workers of sorts, as they often work the same weddings.

It was refreshing to have three main characters, and thus three romances going on. Katie 
Fforde writes consistently delightful modern, British romantic comedy of manners novels. Her heroines always manage to be easy to relate to, yet inspiring and independent. It was refreshing to see these three learn to rely on one another and a few other helpful hands along the way.

As a bride to be, I appreciated all of the laborious details of weddings. I find novels about wedding planning infinitely more helpful than the actual wedding planning books I've read thus far! 

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 432
Release date: March 16, 2010 (U.S. edition)
Source: Interlibrary loan, a British fiction reading woman's best friend

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

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Waiting on Wednesday: City of Veils by Zoë Ferraris

 Jill at Breaking the Spine hosts Waiting on Wednesday each week to encourage book bloggers to spotlight an eagerly anticipated upcoming release.
City of Veils: A Novel 
My pick this week is City of Veils, a follow-up from Zoë Ferraris, author of Finding Nouf . Here's how the publisher describes this novel:
In this riveting sequel to her critically acclaimed debut Finding Nouf, Zoë Ferraris weaves an intricate plot of mystery and suspense, exploring the complexities and contradictions of life in Jeddah, a place caught between its role as the holy gateway to Mecca and a cosmopolitan city in an increasingly liberal world. City of Veils follows Nayir, Katya, and Osama as they unravel the connections between the murder of Leila Nawar and the disappearance of Eric Walker, while coming to terms with their own views of the strictures and tenets of Islam.
Zoë Ferraris moved to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the first Gulf War to live with her then husband and his extended family of Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins, who had never met an American before. She has an MFA from Columbia University and is the author of one previous novel, Finding Nouf. She lives in San Francisco.
 Finding Nouf has been on my radar for far too long, and I cannot wait to read it and City of Veils.

City of Veils will be published August 9, 2010 by Little, Brown and Company, but you can pre-order it now.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

young adult book review: Life, After by Sarah Darer Littman

Life, After
I confess: the cover made me want to read it. I adore this cover, but thankfully, I also adored this book. Life, After is a heart-wrenching and heartwarming tale of immigration, friendship, terrorism, young love, Judaism, Argentinian politics, depression and Asperger's syndrome. Sarah Darer Littman manages to deal with all of these themes beautifully and sometimes unexpectedly. 

Part of the joy for me of reading this book was having so little idea what it was about, so I promise not to give away too much. The narrator, Dani, is a young Jewish Argentinian girl. Her aunt, who is eight months pregnant, is killed on July 18, 1994 in the AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires. The ensuing fallout of the terrorist attack moved her family (and most Argentinians) from middle class business owners to those in need of charity. Argentina was in crisis, and Littman does a wonderful job succinctly explaining ten years of politics to those who likely don't know any of the story. 

Most of the story takes place in 2003. Dani is now 16, her precocious sister Sarita is 7, and it becomes increasingly clear her family cannot afford to stay in Buenos Aires. It's not a surprise when they move to a small town in suburban New York. For Dani, there is life before and life after. Life after initially means life after the collapse in Argentina, but it also comes to mean life after terrorism and life after immigrating. I admit, I got so caught up in the story and its apparent currency, I forgot the setting was 2003 until the book mentioned Friendster.com, a new Web site. It's a testament to this book's staying power that it seems so current when the story it tells is already seven years old. Granted, in the span of the sixteen-year-old narrator's life, that's a long time.

Life, After could have easily fallen victim to heavy handed metaphors and cookie cutter comparisons, but Littman manages to have a novel that is both emotionally raw, honest and uplifting. It's a novel intended for young adults, but mature upper elementary readers will enjoy it too. Despite the fact that it reads like a book meant for children and young adults, it's themes are both accessible for its intended audience and complex enough to satisfy adult readers. 

Simply put: I loved this book. 

The bad news: it doesn't come out until July, so mark your calendars. I think you'll be hearing a lot more about this dynamic novel.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Pages: 288 pages
Publication date: July 1, 2010, but you can pre-order it now.

Monday, March 22, 2010

From Short Story to First Novel: a guest post by Malena Watrous

Last Thursday, I reviewed If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous. I loved the book, and I've read quite a few interviews with her on blogs, in old media and the one included in the back of the book itself. With most of my questions having already been asked and answered, I asked Malena if she would be willing to write a guest post for this blog instead of doing another interview. I mentioned I was interested in the process of how she turned a short story into a novel, and she quickly and graciously agreed to tell that part of the story here.

One of the questions that I have been asked since my novel came out is what I learned from the process of writing it, and what I would do differently the next time around.  The short answer is that I wouldn’t want to turn a short story into a novel ever again. 

I wrote “Gomi” (garbage), the story that became If You Follow Me, when I was a student in Marilynne Robinson’s workshop at the University of Iowa.  I had gone to Japan to teach English for two years, and had applied to graduate school while I was still abroad, moving straight from rural Japan to a town almost as small in the heartland.  While I loved fiction, and had read little else since I got hooked as a kid, most of my fiction writing consisted of “postmodern” (aka disorganized) fragments in notebooks, pieces I never really finished, let alone revised. 

My published writing at that point was all journalism—restaurant reviews, fluff features and essays—and so I got to graduate school with a weak understanding of the craft of fiction.  The workshops were small, which meant that each person had to submit a finished piece about every three weeks.  These pieces were photocopied and left in cubbies in a hallway where anyone who wanted to could help themselves.  Stories by the people with the reputations for being both the best and the worst writers always went fast.  There wasn’t much else to do in Iowa, besides write and gossip, envy and mock, and have nervous breakdowns.  I never saw so many people crack up as I did during those two years in the cornfields.

By the end of my first year (right around the time I started Marilynne’s workshop) my own nerves were frayed.  I disliked most of the stories that I had been churning out so fast that I could hardly think of new names for the characters.  It had also been a brutally cold winter, and my landlords—who lived in the other half of the building—were constantly on my case for leaving the lights on and running up the electricity bill.  Although they could have just knocked on the door and confronted me in person, they preferred to leave creepy notes that made me feel like I had to skulk around my own house.  One day, I threw out a bag of trash without cinching it shut, and it rained before the temperatures dropped, and the whole thing froze solid.  For some reason, my fear of the landlords led me to bring the “trashsicle” inside, to thaw in my bathtub, which took days while it leaked leaves and sludge and started to stink. 

I was telling some friends about this, glorifying the absurdity, when I started remembering how difficult it had been, when I first lived in Japan, to learn and follow the “gomi” or garbage laws there.  I hadn’t planned on writing fiction based on my experiences in Japan, but once I started that story, I felt seized by the characters and the place and the subject matter in that way that we fiction writers all hope to have happen much more often than it usually does.  I finished that short story in a heat, and it came in at about sixty pages.  Most of the scenes took place near the end of the main character’s year in Japan, in the early spring, when her relationship with her girlfriend was essentially over, but they still had four months to go before they could move out to their separate and uncertain futures.  The garbage, as an image, stood in for their relationship, in the sense that they couldn’t just dispose of it.  They were stuck together, dependent on each other in spite of their incompatibility, because of having moved to this foreign country as a couple.  I also wanted to capture the way that people can know that they don’t belong together but still feel tenderly towards each other.

That was the first story I wrote all year that I was happy with, that felt like the kind of work I wanted to be doing.  I remember that Marilynne Robinson called it “suigeneris.”  I had never heard that word before, but didn’t want to admit to my ignorance, and so I had to look it up to learn that it meant work that is self-inspired, not derivative.  How this thrilled me!  We all want to be doing suigeneris writing all the time, but unfortunately it’s not always so obvious, whereas imitation is always available.  I’d been doing plenty of poor imitations, up until that point.  I was more than a little bit sorry to move on from that story, to leave that world behind, but after a few revisions, I went back to the drawing board (and to my baby names book) and wrote more stories.

I also submitted “Gomi” to the Glimmertrain Fiction Open contest, partly because I loved the journal, but also because it was one of the rare publishing platforms without a word limit, and I hadn’t found many other venues willing to consider a sixty page “short” story. Months later, I was elated when it won second place, even though this meant that only a paragraph of the story actually got published. But that paragraph attracted the attention of an editor with an interest in fiction set in Asia, and after she asked to see the whole novella (let’s be honest), as well as my other stories, she told me what I think I already knew: that “Gomi” was too long and particular, its setting too real and vivid, to work in a collection with a lot of (half-baked) stories set in vaguely rendered America.  She suggested that I should revisit and expand upon “Gomi,” which she thought seemed incomplete.

I went back and read the story again too, a couple of years (by this point) after having finished it, and was left with a feeling of simultaneous excitement and dread.  On the one hand, I could tell that I wasn’t done with the place or the people.  I felt the same crackle of energy that I had felt when I first wrote that first draft in a feverish rush.  It was still alive to me, which meant, I thought—I hoped—that I could get back into it.  On the other hand, I had no idea how to get back into it, or what else I had to say on the subject. The relationship between those women had run its course by the end of the story.  I couldn’t just pick up from there.  So I had to start over, by blowing it open.

I know a lot more about how novels are built as a result of having written one.  I now know that it’s important to raise questions at the beginning, to introduce the different plot strands that will eventually weave together into an interesting pattern.  If I eventually accomplished those things in my novel, it was a long and arduous process involving a lot of trial and even more error.  It was hard to take a structure that was already working in a short form and pry it apart, especially since I didn’t have a sense of a Big Event that was going to happen.

I remember once going to a reading by Aimee Bender, when she was on tour for her novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, where she talked about how she brought in the conceit of the numbers in a late draft of that novel.  This seemed amazing to me, because the main character in that book is obsessed with numbers—that’s what defines her.  Specific numbers also help to create both the structure and plot for the book.  What was the book, before she figured out the numbers?

But many of the essential elements of my novel came to me—and to it—fairly late in its creation, including Marina’s father’s suicide.  In a short story, there isn’t nearly as much room, or need, for back-story as there is in a novel.  Now, I can’t imagine the book without that plotline.  The device of four seasons was also something that took a few years to land upon, and that helped me to create a container and an arc for the book as a whole, which is really four novellas, each one featuring a different core cast of characters, whose stories hopefully do weave together by the end.

As a writing teacher, I always encourage my students to write discovery drafts, to give themselves the freedom to make mistakes in the service of figuring out what they really want to and should be writing about.  It’s easier to preach than to do.  It would be nice to write a novel with a roadmap, the security blanket of an outline, a sense that these scenes are the right ones, building to a steady and sure climax and denouement.

Next time, I will try to have a novel-worthy plot in mind before I get too far with the writing.  I will figure out a working structure for the novel I have in mind, and write to fill that shape, instead of writing endless scenes (many of which landed on the cutting room floor), with little idea of how they would ever assemble into a coherent whole.  I hope to shave a couple of years off the process. 

But for all the time it took to finish this book, there was something exciting about the uncertainty, about learning to do a thing while doing it. There were many times that I doubted whether I could assemble my material into a shapely whole, but I didn’t doubt that I was writing about something that mattered to me, and I didn’t feel like I’d already read the book that I was writing before.  I think that came partly because I didn’t conceive of it as a novel initially, and so I hadn’t approached the idea with other novels in mind that it might resemble. While the short answer is that turning a story into a novel was arduous, the long answer (and you can see that it took a while to get here) is that I’m glad to have done it the way I did.

Thank you to Malena for taking the time to write about the writing process. Be sure to visit Malena's Web site and her blog too.

If you haven't read her book yet, you can order it from Amazon. As an Amazon affiliate, I will receive a small commission if you make a purchase through this link. Thank you!

Winner: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous

Congratulations to The Little Reader, who won my copy of 
If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

young adult book review: The Daughters by Joanna Philbin

(The final cover art has not yet been released, and the Web site for this series has not yet gone live.) 

The Daughters, the first novel from Joanna Philbin (daughter of Regis), follows fourteen-year-old Lizzie Summers and her two best friends. Lizzie is the only daughter of Katia Summers, the most beautiful woman in the world. Lizzie takes after her a father, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer for The New York Times. Her two best friends, Carina Jurgensen, whose father is a multimedia magnate and philanthropist, and Hudson Jones, daughter of pop icon Holla Jones, are famous by proxy.

The novel starts rather awkwardly. There is a lot of pseudo name dropping, and I found myself thinking of these characters and their parents as real people. I tried to figure out what real celebrities they were based on. Philbin's writing was also awkward at first as she quickly introduces a slew of characters. Lizzie uses the cringe-worthy metaphor that her friends her like a Brita filter.

Thankfully, the novel soon ventures out of its awkward  beginnings and takes shape. The heart of the story is the friendship of these three girls. They're about to start ninth grade, and their lives have shifted. These are the cute toddlers from the pages of celebrity tabloids grown up. They used to be photographed with their parents, but now the paparazzi don't want Lizzie because she has the frizzy red hair of her father rather than her mother's legendary looks. Unlike many tales of the super rich written for teens, this novel steers clear from most of the name dropping and label naming.

It was a joy to see Lizzie embark on her journey of self-discovery. There were certainly some predictable plot points, but the characters saved this novel from veering into cliches. There are morals to the story, but they arrive from an organic place and despite feeling familiar, they are refreshing and new.

This book fills a much-needed niche in young adult literature. The story takes place in the world of celebrities and designer labels, but it has heart, three-dimensional characters and a friendship that feels real. It's part fantasy, part reality, and a surprisingly enchanting combination of both. The characters are fourteen, and the romance plateaus with kissing. There's enough substance for mature teens (and interested adult readers), but the themes are mild enough that this series is perfectly appropriate for upper elementary readers.

Warning to those who don't like cliffhangers: this book ends with a resolution of one storyline, but it clearly sets up book two by blowing the door open for what is sure to be the focus of book two. I'm guessing Carina narrates book two (out November 2, 2010) and Hudson takes over in book three.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Pages:  288
Publication date: May 1, 2010 (pre-order it now from Amazon.com)
Source: ARC via Around the World Tours

Book 2 in The Daughters series, The Daughters Break the Rules, will be out November 2, 2010.

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

Thursday, March 18, 2010

book review: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous

I've been eager to read If You Follow Me, the first novel by Malena Watrous since I read an interview with Curtis Sittenfeld, author of my favorite book, American Wife, in Paper Cuts, the New York Times book blog. Needless to say, I had high expectations.

If you read this blog, you know my favorite books are about so much more than their plot. Great literature transcends its characters and plot and brings greater understanding and critical thought, and If You Follow Me is that kind of great literature. It's mostly the story of Marina, who is spending her first year out of college teaching college in rural Japan. She's still dealing with her father's suicide, and her girlfriend, Carolyn, is also teaching in Japan. They're the only foreigners in a small, rural town with a nuclear power plant. They live in the only apartment available for two people.

Watrous did an amazing job of translating the experience of teaching in rural Japan to the reader. She set this novel in the town she taught English in after college. The novel opens with the first of what will be many letters informing Marina of her violations of gomi law. The Japanese have a complex system of recycling, burning and disposing of their trash on different days, in different places and with different means. Instantly, I was as dumbfounded and embarrassed as Marina was for her inevitable and unintentional rudeness and violation of law. Perhaps the greatest cultural insults are the ones we commit when we don't even think to ask, such as how to sort our garbage.

Although the novel is told from Marina's point of view, it's brilliance is in the reader's ability to see the story not only through Marina's eyes, but also from the perspectives of the other characters, major and minor, and to truly understand each subtle moment from multiple sides. Many authors use multiple narrators to introduce readers to other points of view, but Watrous weaves language barriers, cultural misunderstanding and the human emotions beautifully into a coherent whole, and Marina still has a strong enough presence to feel like a friend from the novel's first pages. It's a testament to her skill as both a writer and a storyteller that this reader could so easily and quickly understand the perspective of those who have never ventured away from this small town in rural Japan.

I love to travel (hence the nomad in nomadreader), but even I admit part of my love of travel is the ability to focus on the great experiences once you're home and tell the quirky stories of travel, good and bad. When you're abroad, there are the inevitable moments of frustration, incomprehension, embarrassment and exhaustion. So many books set in interesting places only increase my desire to visit or revisit those locations. Books make me long for places I've visited, places I've lived and places I haven't found the time or money to see yet. This book, however, is the most honest depiction of a travel experience I've ever read. It's a book that made me realize layers of my own ignorance I didn't realize existed.

I had high expectation going into this novel, but Watrous grabbed my attention on the very first page and never let me down. I simultaneously devoured it by reading in large stretches and read more slowly than I usually do to savor each word and scene.

Perhaps it's not a novel for everyone. It's not a sentimental tale of teaching English in a foreign land and bridging cultural gaps. It is, however, among the most honest and thoughtful novels I've read in a very long time. If you're a fan of language, cultural divides, and people watching, then you'll probably love it.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5 stars)
Pages:  384
Release date: March 1, 2010
Source: I received this book from the publisher, as part of the TLC Book Tour
The contest to win my copy is over. Thank you to all who entered. Congratulations to The Little Reader!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Waiting on Wednesday: The Lovers by Vendela Vida

Jill at Breaking the Spine hosts Waiting on Wednesday each week to encourage book bloggers to spotlight an eagerly anticipated upcoming release.
The Lovers: A Novel 

My pick this week is The Lovers by Vendela Vida, who is perhaps best known for the novel Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name and writing the screenplay for Away We Go with her husband, Dave Eggers. I'm a huge fan of her fiction, nonfiction and the film. I couldn't locate a description yet, but I did find two fantastic endorsements from great writers:
"Vendela Vida's The Lovers is a spare and haunting meditation on how travel can bring us full circle back to the place from which we should have started. I read it over two days and dreamed about it the second night." (Francine Prose, author of Goldengrove )

Vendela Vida writes with elegance and economy. In this engrossing novel, she has managed to combine a stingingly acute portrait of grief, a moving meditation on love (both filial and romantic) and a page-turning adventure. (Zoe Heller, author of The Believers)
My love of travel is built right into my blogging name along with my love of reading. I cannot wait to read this novel.

The Lovers will be published June 22, 2010 by Ecco, but you can pre-order it now.

Monday, March 15, 2010

dinner and a movie: The Last Station

The Last Station
Welcome to my Monday morning recap of my fabulous Friday night. After journeying to the suburbs for Alice in Wonderland last week, it was wonderful to be back in the neighborhood to enjoy an independent movie at the Spectrum and dinner at my favorite Albany restaurant, New World Bistro Bar.

The Movie:
I've been eager to see The Last Station for months, but it only opened in Albany a few weeks ago. The film was nominated for numerous awards, including Best Picture at the IFC Independent Spirit Awards. Helen Mirren was nominated for Best Actress and Christopher Plummer was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Neither won, but seeing two powerhouse performances share so much screen time was a dream. Both displayed raw emotions beautifully. James McAvoy also shined. 

Without giving away too much, the film is based on a novel by Jay Parini and focuses on the last year of Tolstoy's life. Tolstoy is a major celebrity in Russia, and the Tolstoyan Movement has become quite a force. Tolstoy feels caught between his writings, which he believe belong to the people, and his wife. It's the story of a man, a marriage and a movement, and all three are deeply rooted in the time and place.

With a magnificent cast and a wonderful story, The Last Station was certainly an enjoyable film, but somehow it was less than the sum of its parts. It's certainly worth seeing, and it was a better film than some of the Best Picture nominees, but despite the brilliant acting, the film itself wasn't a masterpiece.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Running time: 112 minutes
Release date: It's in theaters now, and you can pre-order it on dvd
Source: I paid to see it at the Spectrum Theater

After the movie, I met a friend for dinner at New World Bistro Bar. She saw The Last Station last week, so we had fun discussing our reactions. We agreed on how amazing the acting was, but she felt more of an emotional connection with the film as a whole than I did.

For dinner, I stuck to the regular menu and enjoyed the arugula salad (arugula, beets, drunken goat cheese, sunflower seeds and a truffle vinaigrette dressing) and the Latino Steak Frites (fantastic local all-natural 8 oz. sirloin served with a delicious chimichurri). I traded the french fries with yummy homemade banana ketchup for cheddar Yukon gold mashed potatoes. It was a delicious meal!

Next week: I haven't decided if I want to see Diary of a Wimpy Kid opening weekend or if I'll take advantage of Roman Polanski's latest film, Ghost Writer, which opens at the Spectrum Friday. Check back next Monday to see what I decided.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

book review: Bed of Roses by Nora Roberts

Bed of Roses (The Bride Quartet, Book 2)
I read my first Nora Roberts novel last fall, and I enjoyed it enough to read the next book in the series. I read Vision in White, the first book in the bride quartet, because I found myself enjoying novels about wedding planning immensely while I was planning my wedding. These books each focus on one of four characters who have been best friends since they were children. Now they own and run Vows, a wedding business. Mac, the photographer, is the focus of the first book. Emmaline, the florist, is the focus of the second book. As someone not terribly interested in flowers (I didn't have any at my wedding), I wasn't expecting to enjoy hearing about Emma's work as much as I enjoyed hearing Mac talk about photography.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed Emma's perspective. She and I have little in common, but she was surprisingly more relatable than Mac was, and I found myself rooting for her. It also helped that I didn't feel the need to strangle her for being stupid. She was smart, confident and an unabashed romantic. 

The love story itself was somewhat predictable, and the dialogue was awkward at times. Overall, however, I really enjoyed this book. Nora Roberts crafted four characters who have a friendship I both admired and wanted to participate in. Despite the stressful nature of their business, and the vast details provided about it, I wasn't bored. I cared about what would happen.

I won't say I'm a Nora Roberts fan, but I did really enjoy this book, and I enjoyed it more than Vision in White. I'm looking forward to the third book in the series, Savor the Moment, focusing on pastry chef Laurel, which will be published in April 2010.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5 stars) 
Pages: 368 pages
Release date: October 27, 2009
Source: I borrowed it from my local library

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Friday, March 12, 2010

dinner and a movie: Alice in Wonderland & The Melting Pot

Alice in Wonderland - Triptych (Three Prints) 22"x34" Art Print Poster
Welcome to my recap of last week's fabulous Friday night. Mr. nomadreader and I had a rare venture into suburbia to see Alice in Wonderland in 3D IMAX. I absolutely adored it. I had middling expectations going into it, as I read some bad reviews of it. I also had no emotional attachment to any version of the Alice story. Alice is not a timid little girl in this film; she's a 19-year-old woman with a mind of her own in a time that it's not necessarily in her best interest. 

The film begins as a period piece and introduces us to Alice, her mother and a rather uptight Victorian aristocratic crowd. Faced with a very public marriage proposal to a man she clearly doesn't love, she flees after a well-dressed rabbit and falls into the rabbit hole to a far different world.

From there, the imagery goes haywire in a good way. Burton plays with size, perspective and reality beautifully. The film plays with whether Alice is dreaming or really experiencing this strange land. Is she the right Alice? Would knowing it was a dream or nightmare make her act differently? I was fascinated with these ideas of reality versus perception. I was also mesmerized by everything happening on screen. The film is rated PG, but it's rather violent for a children's movie. It's a children's movie for adults. It made me feel like a child in the best possible way. I was in awe of what was happening before my eyes. It was magical. It was intriguing. It was mysterious. It was humorous. It was scary. It was lovely.

I'm not normally a fan of Johnny Depp, but he was wonderful. I finally understand his superstardom. This version of Alice  may not have universal appeal, but I adored it. I'm pleasantly shocked Disney made an unabashedly feminist film. It's a visual joy, but it's also a beautiful, modern interpretation that is long overdue.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Running time: 108 minutes
Release date: It's in theaters now
Source: Worth every penny for the $17 IMAX 3D ticket

After adoring the film, Mr. Nomadreader and I decided to stay in suburbia and eat at The Melting Pot. Normally, I stay away from corporate restaurants, but I do enjoy fondue. I was amazed how much I enjoyed dinner, and what a fantastic deal it was. Their wine list is surprisingly extensive and very reasonably priced. We had four courses of fruit, vegetables, cheese and meat. It was a balanced meal, albeit a large one, and it was all delicious. I'm a Melting Pot convert. I look forward to eating there again soon, but I was really ready to be in the city again after a long afternoon and evening in suburbia.

Winner: L.A. Candy by Lauren Conrad

L.A. Candy
Congratulations to Miss Remmers of Miss Remmers' Reviews!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tuesday Book Day: Hell Gate

Welcome to Tuesday Book Day! Every Tuesday, I'll remind you about the books being released I've already reviewed and those I'm eager to read. I also inform local readers of upcoming literary events around Albany, New York!

New release I loved:
Hell Gate
Linda Fairstein's twelfth mystery novel featuring Alexandra Cooper is now available. If you're a fan of this series, I know you'll read it, but this mystery is a fantastic one to begin with even if you haven't read the rest of the series. The topic, political corruption in New York, is even more timely now than when I read it in December. My full review is here. Linda is also currently on a media and book signing tour.

Literary Events:

Know of other area literary events? Let me know!

Happy reading!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

the sunday salon: Oscar Sunday

First, as promised, here is a wedding photo. We got married one month ago today in a museum library, and I could not resist a card catalog photo with champagne in hand.  


In other news, the Oscars are finally here! I've reviewed most of the films here over the last few months, but today I'll share my picks (if I were voting) and my predictions, which are rarely the same. The pre-Oscar awards have been rather predictable, and there are clear front runners in almost every category. I'm looking forward to the ceremony itself, as Adam Shankman is producing the show. Also, Steven Martin and Alec Baldwin are co-hosting, so I'm sure it will be funny, even if my favorites won't win. 

Best Picture
My pick: An Education
My prediction: The Hurt Locker (surprisingly, I think this category is most up for grabs. The voting system is completely different this year, and if supporters of the two front runners--The Hurt Locker and Avatar-- voted strategically and placed the other tenth on their ballots, Inglourious Basterds or Up in the Air could have a surprise win.)

Best Director
My pick: Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
My prediction: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker

Best Actor
My pick: Colin Firth, A Single Man
My prediction: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart

Best Actress
My pick: Carey Mulligan, An Education
My prediction: Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Best Supporting Actor
My pick: Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
My prediction: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Best Supporting Actress
My pick: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
My prediction: Mo'Nique, Preciuos

Best Original Screenplay
My pick: The Messenger
My prediction: Inglourious Basterds

Best Adapted Screenplay
My pick: An Education
My prediction: Up in the Air

Best Animated Feature
My pick: The Fantastic Mr. Fox
My prediction: Up

Best Foreign Language Film
My pick:(I haven't seen any of them yet)
My prediction: The White Ribbon          

Best Original Score
My pick: (A Single Man, which wasn't even nominated)
My prediction: Up    

Best Original Song
My pick: "The Weary Kind," Crazy Heart
My prediction: "The Weary Kind," Crazy Heart

Best Art Direction
My pick: Nine
My prediction: Avatar

Best Cinematography
My pick: The White Ribbon
My prediction: Avatar

Best Costume Design
My pick: Coco Before Chanel
My prediction: Young Victoria   

Best Makeup
My pick: Young Victoria
My prediction: Star Trek

Best Film Editing
My pick: Precious
My prediction: Avatar

Best Documentary Feature
My pick: Food, Inc.    
My prediction: The Cove

Best Documentary Short Subject
My pick: (I haven't seen any of them yet)
My prediction: China's Unnatural Disaster: the Tears of Sichuan Province

Best Animated Short Film
My pick: Logorama
My prediction: A Matter of Loaf and Death

Best Live Action Short Film
My pick: The New Tenants
My prediction: Miracle Fish

Best Sound Editing
My pick: Avatar
My prediction: Avatar

Best Sound Mixing
My pick: Avatar
My prediction: Avatar

Best Visual Effects
My pick: Avatar
My prediction: Avatar             

Picks correct:
Predictions correct: 

Sadly, I won't be live tweeting the Oscars because I'll be at work for the first half of the awards, but I will have a recap of my reactions tomorrow. Happy Oscars!