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book review: The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

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The basics: The Year We Left Home is the story of the Erickson family in Iowa. It stretches from oldest sibling Anita's wedding in the 1970's to present day.

My thoughts: I was eager to read The Year We Left Home for two reasons: I've been intending to read Jean Thompson for years and it takes place in Iowa (where I live.) My perceptions of this novel changed mightily as I read it. Over the course of the first one hundred pages, I was convinced it wasn't a novel at all but rather a set of very loosely connected stories. There were gems of gorgeous writing like this sentence: "Ryan had meant something else, though now his meaning escaped him, what was it like, to travel across an ocean, to be in a war, to be afraid for your life, to kill someone or think about killing them, to buy a woman." Still, I yearned for character development. Although the action shifted to different characters, I felt Thompson kept all of them an arm's length away from the reader.

A…

Time Is Running Out

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The end of the year is bringing a slew of 'Best of 2011' lists (mine will go up Sunday), but it also means time is running out to nominate your favorite books for the 2011 Indie Lit Awards. The Indie Lit Awards, created by Wallace from Unputdownables last year, allow literary bloggers to be the judges. I'll thrilled to be a voting member of the fiction category this year. As a voting member, I can't nominate books, so we're relying on readers to nominate the books that will make up the shortlists. Here are the categories: Biography & Memoir, GLBTQ, Fiction, Mystery, Non-fiction, Poetry, and Speculative Fiction.

Here are the guidelines for nominations:
1. The books must have been published in 2011.
2. You may nominate up to five books per genre.
3. Anyone may nominate (except those who made a profit on the book, such as the author, publicist or publisher).
4. Nominations are open until December 31, 2011 at 11:59 Pacific time.

Have your list of favorite 2011 reads…

book review: The Fall of Rome by Martha Southgate

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The backstory: After so enjoying The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate (my review), I wanted to read her earlier novels too.

The basics: The Fall of Rome takes place at a private, all boys boarding school in Connecticut. There are three alternating narrators: Jerome Washington, a Negro (his preference) Classics teacher who has been at the school for thirty years; Jana Hansen, a middle-aged divorcee English teacher who is new to the school; and Rashid Bryson, an African-American first-year student with dreadlocks who comes from a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn.

My thoughts: In The Fall of Rome, the three main characters were delightfully diverse, yet I found equally myself compelled by all of them. Despite the differences of these three characters, none were a caricature. Jerome, who could be a bit of a curmudgeon after thirty years at one institution, still had balance:
"One thing that became clear to me after I had taught at Chelsea for awhile is that for the most part my students …

book review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

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The backstory: The New York Times named The Art of Fielding one of the five best fiction books of 2011.

The basics: The Art of Fielding is the story of Westish College, a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. The main characters include three members of its Division III baseball team, the college's president, and his daughter.

My thoughts: Going into The Art of Fielding, I was curious how much baseball would be its focus. I grew up a huge sports fan, as all of my family still is, but I've distanced myself from following current sports. I still have a love and appreciation for them, and continue to find myself drawn to books and films that feature sports. I have a special soft spot for baseball after spending one of the best summers of my life interning at the Baseball Hall of Fame's Research Library. I appreciated the baseball scenes in The Art of Fielding, but I appreciated the college aspect more. While this novel will certainly appeal to baseball fans, I found the most…

book review: Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

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The basics: Every morning Christine wakes up and doesn't know where she is, how old she is or who the man next to her his. Her husband Ben explains who she is, who he is, and leaves her lists of things to do while he's at work. Meanwhile, Christine has started keeping a journal to remind herself what she learned and remembered the day before. At the beginning of it, she writes: "DON'T TRUST BEN."

My thoughts: Before I Go to Sleep is a top notch thriller. My mind raced as I read it, and I was eager to unlock the puzzle of if Ben was a model husband trying to protect Christine or if he was keeping things from her, all while I realized this thriller was so rooted in reality, the answer couldn't be an either/or. From Christine's point of view, she wants to know everything about herself. From Ben's point of view, every day is the same; do you want to spend each day reliving the sadness of life and making the one you love sad?

What I loved most about this th…

Holiday Swap reveal!

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I was so excited to participate in the Book Blogger Holiday Swap again this year. I have participated for the past two years (see my loot from 2009 and 2010) and discovered new bloggers and had the joy of receiving a package from a blogger who already knows me pretty well. This year once again I was buying for a blogger I did not know, plus she reads in a completely different genre than I do. It's a wonderful reminder of how big and diverse this community of book bloggers in, and it reminds me to step out of my little corner of literary fiction bloggers more often.

On to the presents....
Also, I have to give bonus props to my Santa because this gift arrived before Thanksgiving. I had the joy of unwrapping my first Christmas presents on the night before Thanksgiving, and it's taken me this long to actually write a post about it! As you can see, the present if off to an amazing start with this wine pourer and stopper. I eagerly dug into the wrapping paper to see what else await…

book review: Murder Season by Robert Ellis

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The backstory: Robert Ellis is my favorite mystery writer. Murder Season is his third novel to feature Los Angeles detective Lena Gamble (he also has two stand-alone mysteries.) I adored the first two novels in this series, City of Fire (my review) and The Lost Witness (my review), immensely, and I eagerly awaited the publication of Murder Season this month. In anticipation, I re-read both City of Fire and The Lost Witness this year, and both earned 5 stars from on the re-read, even though I remembered 'who did it.' Note: because I believe this novel could work as a standalone, this review will not include any spoilers from the first two novels.

The basics: Lena gets called to investigate a brutal double murder at a hot Hollywood nightspot. Both the identity of the victims, one famous and one infamous, and the fact the two were even associated with one another, surprises everyone.

My thoughts: Admittedly, I went into this novel with high expectations. I appreciate that Robert El…

book review: The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

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The basics: The Train of Small Mercies follows the lives of ordinary Americans in each state along the path of Bobby Kennedy's funeral train from Boston to his burial in Washington, D.C.

My thoughts: Bobby is one of my all-time favorite movies, and this novel takes a somewhat similar approach. The film follows numerous people in the hotel the day Bobby Kennedy was shot. To me, The Train of Small Mercies feels like a continuation of the film. Admittedly, I'm quite fond of the-day-in-the-life approach, but Rowell approached this day brilliantly and captured the spirit and energy of the time. The stories were quite varied, as were the main characters. This contrast was quite moving, as the reader gets to see a myriad of ways people felt connected to Bobby.

I was relieved the stories were mixed throughout the narrative. We lived through the day of the funeral train with different people, but we got to see their days, both the ordinary and the extraordinary. As is often the case wit…

book review: A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd

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The backstory: Having thoroughly enjoyed the first two Bess Crawford novels by mother-son writing duo Charles Todd, A Duty to the Dead (my review) and An Impartial Witness (my review), I eagerly awaited the release of A Bitter Truth. Because this mystery is set at Christmastime, I waited until December to read it.

The basics: Bess Crawford arrives home to London for a Christmas break from her job as a nurse in World War I. When she arrives at the door of her flat, there is a young woman hiding in the doorway trying to keep warm. Bess, being Bess, invites the young woman up and discovers she has marital problems and somewhat reluctantly agrees to see the young woman back home, where things get quite interesting.

My thoughts: Although I loved the first two novels in this series, I was curious how I would feel as it progressed. I don't seek out cozy mysteries, and I wondered how many ways Todd could manage to make Bess a crime solver. Thankfully, it works perfectly in A Bitter Truth. T…

book review: Maphead by Ken Jennings

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The backstory: I'm a huge fan of Jeopardy! (yes, I DVR it daily), and as Ken Jennings still holds the longest winning streak ever (74 games), so I am intellectually enamored by him. I also have an odd fascination with maps (and globes), so when I first heard about this book, it was right up my alley, even though I rarely read non-fiction.

The basics: Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks is part memoir, part narrative nonfiction and part geographic trivia.

My thoughts: When I started reading Maphead, I wasn't quite sure what I would get. I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of Jennings' writing. I'd stop short of calling him a wordsmith, but the narrative had a nice flow, which is impressive when imparting so many details about geography. The librarian and professor in me was pleasantly surprised to see passages contemplating the state of geography in our education:
"At some point isn’t this news only is the kids suddenly start doing well…

graphic memoir review: The Imposter's Daugther by Laurie Sandell

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The backstory: I had this graphic memoir in my read-a-thon stack but didn't get to it. While reading the November 2011 issue of Marie Claire, however, I discovered a Laurie Sandell article entitled "Loving a Madoff," about the relationship of Andrew Madoff and Catherine Hooper. It was fascinating and prompted me to pull The Imposter's Daughter off my shelf.

The basics: The Imposter's Daughter is a graphic memoir about Sandell's life. Its focus is her relationship with her father.

My thoughts: This graphic memoir begins with Sandell's childhood. As a reader, I appreciated seeing the story from the beginning. There is clearly something ominous looming, but it's easy to understand how and why it took Sandell so long to discover; we don't begin life distrustful of our parents. One of the my favorite parts of the childhood portion was the inclusion of actual drawings from Sandell's childhood. It was fascinating to see how she saw things and, to some …

Wrapping Up November 2011 (plus plans for December)

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It finally feels like winter, the Christmas tree is up, and the early dark and cool temperatures both have me settling in to read earlier at night, which I love. In November, I read ten books, which makes me happy.

The excellent (rated 4.5 stars or higher):
Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah (5 stars) The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate (4.5 stars) The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston (4.5 stars)
The good (rated 4 or 4.25 stars):

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak (4 stars)
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (4 stars)
Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman (4 stars)
Maphead by Ken Jennings (4 stars)
The Imposter's Daughter by Laurie Sandell (4 stars)

The somewhat disappointing (rated 3.75 stars or less):

The Printmaker's Daughter by Katherine Govier (3.5 stars)
You Are My Only by Beth Kephart (2.5 stars)

My list of books I want to read in December is a little long, but I am blessed this year with not having to travel for Christmas and almost two full weeks off from work for Christmas and …

November book club recap

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What we read:


Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand Winter Garden by Kristin Hanah (my review) State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (my review)

What we ate We opted to meet at a local bookstore, which was lovely, but they don't offer food or drink. One intrepid member brought some Trader Joe's dark chocolate peppermint bark, so we had a little something to nibble on!
The consensus In the true holiday spirit, none of us managed to read all three books! Most of us read two of them, and we had some nice discussions. We all enjoyed Winter Garden, but it was nice to see one member point out some continuity inconsistencies. After hearing them, I was shocked I hadn't noticed them, but I was so wrapped up in the emotions of the story, I perhaps wasn't reading with an editor's eye. We did all agree that all three books were worth reading, so I do hope to make time for Unbroken. (Thanks to Heather's awesome review at Raging Bibliomania, I could still participate a little bit in that discu…

book review: Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

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The backstory: Winter Garden is one of the picks for my new book club this month. (We meet every other month and read two picks, but this month we chose three!)

The basics: Sisters Nina, an award-winning photojournalist, and Meredith, who stayed home to take over the family's orchard, are quite different. They've both struggled with their mother's emotional distance throughout their lives and relished their father's affection.

My thoughts: If not for my book club, I would likely not have made time to read Winter Garden. I foolishly dismissed it as fluffy, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how emotionally affecting this novel is. It is safe to say I first identified more with Nina, the roaming photojournalist who doesn't want to settle down, than with Meredith, who has a struggling marriage and two daughters in college. Nina describes her "yearning to see everything, no matter how terrible, to know everything."  Despite my initial preference for one sist…

book review: You Are My Only by Beth Kephart

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The backstory: When I interviewed Amy for Book Blogger Appreciation Week this year, I let her pick one book for me to read before the end of 2011. She chose You Are My Only by Beth Kephart, which thrilled me because I knew both she and Wendy from Caribou's Mom adored it. The other Beth Kephart title I've read, The Heart Is Not a Size, I really enjoyed.

The basics: You Are My Only is the story of Emmy and Sophie. Emmy married young and had a baby young. One day, Emmy's baby goes missing, leaving only a yellow sock. Sophie, a teenage girl who is homeschooled and forced to be reclusive, has spent her life moving around from what her mother eerily calls the "No Good." Once Sophie discovers a cute neighbor, Joey, she begins to question her mother.

My thoughts:  The narrative alternates between Emmy and Sophie. It's clear from the beginning that Sophie is Emmy's daughter, yet this connection lacked intrigue. I know I mostly read adult fiction and read this novel …