Tuesday, August 30, 2011

An Ode to Tom Perrotta, my favorite author

Bad Haircut: Stories of the SeventiesThe WishbonesJoe College: A NovelLittle Children : A NovelThe Leftovers

My History with Tom Perrotta
For years, I've claimed a difference between favorite authors and favorite books. I've loved Tom Perrotta since 1999. I was an undergraduate working at an independent bookstore in Atlanta, and one of my co-workers told me to read The Wishbones because it reminded her of her boyfriend. I read it; I loved it. I moved on to Election with some hesitation because I really didn't care for the film. I adored Election and am still livid at how the film turned out. I finished his then collection with Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies, a set of interconnected stories. I loved them too, even though my distaste of short stories was pretty strong in those days.

When news broke that Tom Perrotta had a new book coming out, the staff of our little indie was ecstatic. We eagerly opened each new shipment hoping for a copy. When they finally arrived only the day before publication day, we all promptly borrowed a copy and created a display. On publication day, I was busy shelving when I was called to the front of the store. Standing there was Joe Perrotta, Tom's brother, who was pretty excited to hear he'd wandered into a bookstore where his brother, then still very little known outside of Election, was a literary rock star. Joe immediately offered to send copies of Joe College to Tom for him to sign.

On picking a favorite
I read Joe College while I was in college, and it remains one of my favorite books. Still, I'm hard-pressed to claim a favorite Tom Perrotta book. The reason my favorite authors and favorite books list rarely overlap is because I can't separate Tom's books from one another emotionally. Sure, I can tell you the plots of all of them and extol their virtues, but when I love an author's work like I love Tom's, the emotional and the intellectual connections become so enmeshed I simply cannot assign value to parts of what I see as a whole. (In college, I became fascinated with communication theory on celebrity identity. Our perceptions of actors and actresses is typically a combination of both the characters they've played and the way the appear in interviews and the media.) I subscribe to this theory for literature too. In this age of connection, when I'm able to converse with so many authors I admire via email and Twitter, as I read their blogs and glean information about them through their book reviews, there are so many things that go into my perceptions of them and their work.

On the anticipation of reading The Leftovers
I knew reading The Leftovers would cause me to reassess not only Tom, but all of his other novels too. It's part of the picture. It's also his first novel since I've been reading so publicly. I'll be reviewing The Leftovers here soon, but any review would be incomplete without this back story. I've spent a lot of time with Tom's books before this blog, and I hope he keeps writing and astounding me for years.

I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of The Leftovers a few months ago. I started it, and I was absolutely loving it, but I had to stop reading it. Faced with a paper copy, I was growing tired of furiously copying passages down to think of later and leaving notes to myself. I've professed my love for my Kindle before, but I've never been so dissatisfied reading a book in print before. Faced with a print copy of the newest book by my favorite author or waiting for today, its publication day, to read it, I opted to wait and buy it for my Kindle. I'll be reading as much as I can this week, but I'll also be reading it differently. I want to savor it. I don't need to rush through it to get to other things on my reading list. I'm giving it the time, contemplation and Kindle-highlighting and note-taking it deserves. Many of bookish friends may cry fowl, but I have never entertained the idea of liking the feel or smell of a book. I like the ideas in books. I like the way books transport me and make me think; these capabilities are outside of its physical form for me. I like the look of language. I'm still happy to read books in print sometimes, and I use my library frequently. I often receive advance copies of books in print and enjoy them regardless of format. Still, if I could afford to be only an e-reader, I would be. With The Leftovers, I decided it was worth waiting for an electronic copy so I can enjoy my favorite author in my favorite format.

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

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Loving the Des Moines Life: Birthday Dinner at Django

Saturday was my birthday, and for Mr. Nomadreader and me, birthdays mean decadent dinners with numerous courses and lots of wine. This year, I opted for Django, a French restaurant downtown that is probably my favorite place to eat in Des Moines. Despite having amazing food, Django never has a corkage fee. For wine lovers like us, it's heavenly to bring two bottles of great wine from our home collection.

We started the night with a bottle of Nicholas Feuillatte champagne because it's not a birthday without some bubbly. It was delightful as a cocktail wine, but it was even more fun once the first course arrived: the small shellfish platter. The platter features six oysters, six clams, six mussels and six shrimp on a bed of ice with cocktail sauce and mignonette sauce. It was delicious. Another reason to love Des Moines: this 24-piece seafood platter is only $19.99. I love this city. 

We ate the first course in no time at all, and our second appetizer course was decadently amazing. We finished our champagne with two classic French dishes: sauteed sweetbreads and foie gras. We're both huge fans of sweetbreads, and it's always a treat to have them sauteed instead of fried, as is more commonplace. Django sautees the sweetbreads with bacon and wild mushrooms in a veal demi glace and serves a luscious brioche on the side. Despite being slightly overcooked, the sweetbreads were still delicious and rich.

Foie gras is perhaps my favorite food in the world. The flavor of it pops in my mouth in a way nothing else does. The Django version is pan-seared and served with a peach gastrique; a homemade chutney; a light fennel, red onion and parsley salad; and brioche. As you can see, I was too excited for the first bite to manage a photograph of it in full form. It was amazing. The peach gastrique brought a welcome sweetness to the bites. I was surprised how much I loved the fennel and herb salad, but it worked as the perfect palate cleanser in between bites. The champagne highlighted the foie gras impeccably too. It was simply divine.

For our main courses, we picked duck and scallops. There are two scallop entrees on the dinner menu, but we opted for these Seared Sea Scallops, They were cooked to perfection and served with a lobster and sweet corn mashed potatoes and asparagus. As a native Kansan, I am somewhat partial to mashed potatoes, and these are the best I've ever had. Even more shockingly: it wasn't because of the lobster. Yes, the lobster was lovely, but the mashed potatoes themselves were legendary. The corn sauce was incredibly flavorful, and I loved the mix of whole kernel corn within the sauce.

The La Belle Farm duck was perfectly seared. The skin was crispy, and the meat itself was a perfect rare-to-medium-rare. It was also a delightfully large duck breast. The duck is sliced and served over a spaetzle with leeks and La Quercia prosciutto (a local prosciutto). All of this goodness is topped with a rhubarb gastrique and veal demi glace. I love duck, and this may have been the best duck dish I've ever had. It tasted so autumnal, and I cannot wait to have it again once the fall chill finally makes it into the air. After our divine entrees, we shared a caesar salad. It was simple, classic, and perfectly executed.

How could I forget the wine? With our entrees, we enjoyed a bottle of the Turley Dragon Vineyard Zinfandel. After several years of being on the waiting list, I got my first option to order Turley wine this spring. We've been slowly enjoying our case of wine from one of our favorite winemakers, and this bottle was among our favorites yet. I kept drinking it after we were done eating, while I stole a few bites of the chocolate pot de creme for dessert. We finished off with two espressos from Zanzibar, a local coffee roaster. With a spring in our step, we enjoyed a lovely stroll home.

All in all, it was a fantastic meal and a fantastic birthday. Once again, I love any excuse to splurge on amazing food and wine with my husband. Luckily, his birthday is in September, and we can do it all again.

Friday, August 26, 2011

book review: When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant

When I Lived in Modern TimesThe backstory: When I Lived in Modern Times won the Orange Prize in 2000.

The basics: Set at the end of World War II, When I Lived in Modern Times is the story of Eve, a young Jewish woman born and raised in London who finds herself alone in this world after the death of her mother (she has never known her father.) Her "Uncle Joe," a man her mother has had an affair with for years but who has a family of his own, encourages her to embrace her Jewishness and join the displaced persons flocking to Palestine.

My thoughts: I read Linda Grant's most recent novel, We Had It So Good (my review), earlier this year and loved it. I was surprised when it didn't make the Orange Prize or the Booker Prize longlist. As I read, I couldn't help comparing the two novels, even though they are quite different. There are some striking similarities, however. When I think of Linda Grant, I can't help but think of the impressive scope of these two novels. Both are well under 300 pages, yet both feel epic in their spans of time, place and wisdom.

I found Eve's story utterly fascinating. She is a woman without family, career or direction. She journeys to a place that in some ways does not exist. She is both British and Jewish, yet feels somewhat outcast amongst both the Jews and the ex-patriot British in Palestine. In Eve there is the hope of future as endless: she can go anywhere and do anything, but there is also the agony of reality. When she arrives in Palestine, she finds herself  to be lacking relevant skills.

I read When I Lived in Modern Times after Far to Go (my review), and I think being entrenched in World War II voyage made the reading experience somewhat more intense. Grant takes a unique approach to historical fiction. If you lived in an historical vacuum, you likely would enjoy When I Lived in Modern Times, but you would miss much of its brilliance.
"Fifty years later it's so easy, with hindsight, to understand what was happening but you were part of it then. History was no theme park. It was what you lived. You were affected, whether you liked it or not."
Grant relies on her readers knowing modern world history. Understanding the state of Jewishness post-World War II and knowing the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations brings immense depth and perspective to this novel.

Favorite passage: "I felt as if we were all half here and half somewhere else, deprived of our native languages, stumbling over an ugly ancient tongue. We knew that we were to be remade and reborn and we half did and half didn't want to be. We were caught up in a plan to socially engineer our souls and this was being carried out by men who seemed like the distant gods on Mount Olympus or Valhalla, the deities such as David Ben-Gurion and the others from the Jewish agency who were smelting the Jewish future in which we would all be poured, like so many alloys in the melting pot of immigrant life, to emerge as molten, liquid, golden Jewish humanity."

The verdict: When I Lived in Modern Times is every bit as brilliant, in story, scope and language, as We Had It So Good is, yet I simply didn't love it quite as much. I am of the opinion Linda Grant is a literary genius with a knack for bringing modern history alive in blissfully short, yet fully developed novels.

Rating: 4.5 stars
Length: 258 pages
Publication date: January 25, 2001 (it's in paperback now)
Source: interlibrary loan (sadly neither my academic nor my public library had a copy)

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

Note: due to excessive spam, comments on this post have been disabled.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thursday TV: The Lying Game

The backstory: The Lying Game is the latest teen drama to be premiere on ABC Family this summer. It's adapted from Sara Shepard's books of the same name (only two have been published so far: The Lying Game and Never Have I Ever); Ms. Shepard also writes the wildly popular Pretty Little Liars series, which has also been adapted for ABC Family.

The basics: Hear me out. Emma and Sutton are twins, but they only found out they are twins a few months ago. Sutton was adopted by a wealthy couple in Scottsdale, Arizona, while Emma is an a unenviable foster care home with a perverted foster brother in Las Vegas. When he frames her for stealing her foster mom's money, she knocks him out and runs from the cops. She alerts Sutton she's coming to Arizona because she has nowhere else to go. When she arrives, Sutton has Emma pose as her, while Sutton jets off to Los Angeles to follow a lead for their birth parents.

My thoughts: While I read mostly literary fiction, my television time is split between high-brow and middle-to-low-brow programs. I have not out-grown my love of teen dramas on television. Still, I didn't have high expectations for The Lying Game. Two episodes in, and I am singing its praises to anyone who listens. It has a lot of things going for it: twins, good acting (especially from Alexandra Chando, who plays Emma and Sutton), interesting parents, delicious devious backstory, intrigue and quite a few mysteries.

As a reader who grew up with three different Sweet Valley series, I never quite outgrew my fascination with twins. I own and watch Mary Kate and Ashley movies, and I have always been too old to enjoy them. Aside from the twin fascination, this show could easily go wrong, but I give Alexandra Chando credit. She manages to be convincing as both Sutton and Emma. More importantly, it's clear when she's Emma pretending to be Sutton. She's essentially playing three characters, and she's flawless. As a viewer well above the intended audience for ABC Family programming, it's nice to see the parents fleshed out as characters with their own secrets too (it's certainly worked well for Gossip Girl.) Adrian Pasdar is deliciously evil and Tyler Christopher as a cop is just the right mix of good and bad. There have been allusions to how or why the parents aren't still best friends as they were in high school, but the answers are just starting to come out.

The verdict: While the central mystery is most interesting (why did Sutton's parents not adopt Emma too?), I find almost all of the storylines compelling. I'm eager to see where the drama leads.

Want to watch? The Lying Game airs on ABC Family Monday nights at 8 p.m. central. 
Now tell me: Are you watching The Lying Game? Do your television habits coincide with your reading habits?

Note: I pay a pretty penny for satellite and DVR, which I use to record and watch this show.

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Waiting on Wednesday: Wild Thing by Josh Bazell

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine to highlight an upcoming release you cannot wait to read.

Wild Thing: A NovelMy pick this week is one I've been eagerly awaiting for more than two years. I loved Josh Bazell's debut novel, Beat the Reaper (my review). I was thrilled to read Library Journal's Pre-Pub Alert this week and discover it's finally time for more Pietro Brwna. Note: it's a sequel, so this brief description might include spoilers from Beat the Reaper.

Here's how the publisher describes it:
"It's hard to find work as a doctor when using your real name will get you killed. So hard that when a reclusive billionaire offers Dr. Peter Brown, aka Pietro Brnwa, a job accompanying a sexy but self-destructive paleontologist on the world's worst field assignment, Brown has no real choice but to say yes. Even if it means that an army of murderers, mobsters, and international drug dealers-not to mention the occasional lake monster-are about to have a serious Pietro Brnwa problem. Facing new and old monsters alike, Dr. Brnwa's story continues in this darkly funny and lightning-paced follow up to Josh Bazell's bestselling debut."
The bad news:  The divine Reagan Arthur imprint won't publish Wild Thing until February 8, 2012. You can pre-order it from Amazon now in hardback or for the Kindle. It does, however, give you plenty of time to read Beat the Reaper if you haven't yet.

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

book review: Far to Go by Alison Pick

Far to Go: A Novel (P.S.)The backstory: Far to Go is on the 2011 Booker Prize longlist. 

The basics: Set in Czechoslovakia during World War II, Far to Go follows the Bauer family: Pavel, his wife Anneliese, their son, and governess Marta through the Nazi invasion. In alternating sections, the reader gets glimpses into the research of a historian fascinated by the Kindertransport.

My thoughts: The plot of Far to Go is somewhat familiar ground. The Czechoslovakia setting was new to me, and I enjoyed seeing the war from this vantage point. My favorite part of this novel was the exploration of the theme of Jewishness, and the notion of distinguishing between identity and behavior. I found myself enjoying the contemplative scenes more. I was most drawn to Marta and her observations of the family and town.

Two of the plot devices distracted me from thoroughly engaging with the story, however. I found the modern scenes disjointed and distracting. It was clear the historian was relevant to the main story, but the lack of clues made the narrative muddier rather than enhancing it. Similarly, I was bothered by Marta's illusions to past secrets. If she referred to them less frequently, I think the planted nuggets of information would have been more effective. As it is, I found the clues somewhat distracting.

I liked Far to Go most when the action was happening in the historical sections. I found myself clearly picturing the scenes in Czechoslovakia, and I became quite caught up in the suspense. Overall, the reading experience was somewhat inconsistent. I loved parts of the book, but I also some parts a bit slow. Pick is a strong writer, and I found her best writing to be during Marta's observations, which perhaps explains why Marta was the character I found most enjoyable.

Favorite passage: "People's lives, their infinitely tangled histories, are almost impenetrable--to themselves, let alone to an outsider. My students, of course, would cringe to hear me say this, so full of optimism are they about the historical method. Some still believe in the idea of truth; some, even, that they will find it."

The verdict: Far to Go will enthrall historical fiction fans with its rich setting and characters. Although I'm normally a fan of novels that alternate past and present, I found the modern scenes distracting and somewhat awkward here. The historical elements were good, but this disconnect kept me from truly embracing the narrative.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: April 19, 2011
Source: my local public library

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

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Short Story Saturday: Anthologies, Collections or Stand-Alone Stories?

On my quest to read more short stories, I've found myself reading more collections, as well as more intentionally reading the short stories from The New Yorker. This afternoon, as I sat down to begin Emma Straub's collection of stories, Other People We MarriedI was struck by the title verso page and its details. Of the twelve stories in this volume, seven had been published previously before. That news in and of itself isn't terribly surprising, especially for a young writer, but it got me thinking.

As someone whose short story predilections veer towards interconnected or strongly themes collections, I'm starting to pay more attention to how stories come together. When I started Siobhan Fallon's You Know When the Men Are Gone (my review), I intended to read one story most days, as I'm prone to do. Instead I devoured it like a novel, partially because the stories and characters shared a place and space. Collections from multiple writers, such as the Best American Short Stories series, easily lend themselves to reading one at a time. Telling where story collections from a single writer will fall has proven to be more difficult.

On Literary Monogamy
I'm not one prone to book polygamy. I try to avoid it because I can't help but play favorites and favor one book. I do try to have an audiobook going (currently Anne of Green Gables, which is lovely and nostalgic), but otherwise, I just want to be reading one book at a time. As I deliberately read more short stories, however, I sometimes find myself in a conundrum: is this collection a cohesive whole or not? Should it be the only book I'm reading or can I parse out one story each day?

Where Music Meets Literature
I  still believe the shuffle button on cd players is still one of the greatest inventions ever; MP3 players made my love of shuffling explode. I rarely believe albums should be listened to in order (or even in their entirety.) Mr. Nomadreader, on the other hand, will only purchase entire albums and never individual songs. Meanwhile, I regularly Shazam the songs from television drama montages and instantly purchase them. As a novel-lover, I never saw the connection until recently, but short stories are like songs. Anthologies are a literary mixtape, collections are albums, and The New Yorker is my favorite literary radio station. There's a place for stories in all of these areas. When I begin a collection of stories, I find myself recalling my younger self who would eagerly unwrap a new cd to listen. Would it become a favorite with many wonderful songs, or would only a few stand out? It's difficult to know until I'm invested, but I'm enjoying short stories more, regardless of how I read them, and that is a success.

Now tell me. How do you like your short stories: in anthologies, in collections or a la cart?

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

book review: How to Love an American Man by Kristine Gasbarre

How to Love an American Man: A True StoryThe backstory: When Meg of Write Meg reviewed this memoir back in May, I knew I wanted to read it.

The basics: How to Love an American Man is a memoir of life, love, family and home.  While dealing with the break-up with her British boyfriend and the death of her beloved grandfather, Kristine Gasbarre opts to come back home, live with her parents in rural Pennsylvania and figure out where to go next.

My thoughts: Overall, this memoir is a thoroughly engaging read overflowing with honesty and humor. I found myself drawn to the theme of family more than that of love, but that is much more a product of where I am than the fault of Ms. Gasbarre. Her struggles, both humorous and moving, of getting to know her grandmother were delightful. Her grandparents were married for sixty years, and both women loved him deeply, yet they have struggled to connect over the years.

I also appreciated the theme of coming home as one of choice and blessing rather than failure, laziness or burden. I, too, spent a year living with my parents in my mid-to-late-twenties, and it was a wonderful experience. I was moved by Gasbarre's journey from living in New York City and Italy and opting for life in rural Pennsylvania.

Given the love and devotion Gasbarre has for her family, when she wrote about her attempts at dating, it was somewhat evident what path the relationships would take. I liked her stories of dating in rural Pennsylvania while living with her parents, but these stories lacked the emotional resonance of the rest of the memoir.

The verdict: Had I read How to Love an American Man five or ten years ago, or were I still single now, I likely would have loved it in its entirety. As a product of where I am now, I did love parts of it, but the dating stories weren't as captivating for me as the tales of family.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 292 pages
Publication date: August 16, 2011
Source: publisher, via TLC Book Tours

Want more? Connect with Kristine on her Website, Twitter of her Facebook page. See the full tour line-up for more reviews. Already convinced? Treat yourself! Buy How to Love an American Man from Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle.

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

Monday, August 15, 2011

book review: The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

The Irresistible Henry House: A NovelThe basics: Henry House, the titular character in The Irresistible Henry House, begins like as an orphan who soon becomes a home economics test baby. Female college students take turns spending a week caring for Henry and living in the home economics house.

My thoughts: I was fascinated by the premise of this novel, but the execution didn't quite live up to my expectations. Because Henry is an infant as the novel opens, the initial focus is one the house mother and the seven women who care for Henry. I found the narrative a bit muddled with all of these characters.

As Henry aged, it became more clearly his story, but it still felt a bit disjointed at first. Overall, I found the pacing to problematic. At times, I wanted to know more about parts of Henry's life, while at other times the story dragged.

The verdict: Despite a strong premise, The Irresistible Henry House fell a bit flat for me. Grunwald is a talented writer and storyteller, but somehow this novel never felt well-balanced. There's a lot of intriguing, entertaining and delightfully absurd in this novel, but there were a few too many dull scenes too.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 407 pages
Publication date: March 16, 2010 (it's out in paperback August 16, 2011)
Source: publisher, via TLC Book Tours

Want more? Connect with Lisa on her website or her Facebook page. See the full tour line-up for more reviews. Already convinced? Treat yourself and buy The Irresistible Henry House from Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle.

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

Saturday, August 13, 2011

an interview with David Nicholls

Last week, I had the privilege to join a handful of other book bloggers on a conference call with David Nicholls, who wrote the wonderful novel One Day (my review) and adapted it for the upcoming release of the movie. The film comes out next Friday, and I cannot wait to see it. We each got to ask two questions, and David was remarkably thoughtful and forthcoming with his answers.

Me: David, I'm curious. As you were adapting the screenplay for One Day, was there a particular year or scene that you found to be most challenging in adapting for the film?
David Nicolls: Some, the hardest thing was always just cutting back, cutting, cutting, cutting. That was the hardest thing. The scenes that came most easily were the scenes which were the kind of two-handed confrontations because they're very faithful to the book. For instance, the scene where Dexter goes to see his mother with a hangover and the scene where Emma and Dexter go for the terrible meal and fall out, and the holiday sequence, the sequence in Paris. Those are very, very close to the book, and I found those great fun to do and great to watch as well.

We always thought of the movie not as 20 equal chunks, but as sort of eight or so set pieces surrounded by a series of linking smaller scenes. So, in other words, the longer sequences were easier to write than the linking years. The thing that we found the hardest was in the book letters play a really important role in the growth of their friendship in the early years. Dexter sort of goes traveling and their friendship grows through the written word. And the beginning of the film had to have a certain kind of pace to it. We needed to establish them together again pretty quickly, but we also needed to establish how their relationship had changed and grown. So, finding a kind of equivalent for the letters was the hardest thing. A lot of the text in the letters was dropped and turned into dialog in the early scenes. That was some of the hardest material to lose.

It's much harder to dramatize. Emma spends a lot of the time stuck. She spends a lot of time kind of unsure of herself and unsure of her work and her life and her love life. And that's a much harder thing to put on the screen than activity, than forward movement and change. So, that was the toughest thing, sort of summing up those early years in short busy scenes.

David Nicholls on the One Day set.
Me: David, you've talked a little bit about how you haven't been working on a novel lately because you've been so busy adapting [editor's note: in addition to One Day, David also recently adapted Tess of the d'Urbervilles mini-series and Great Expectations.] When you do return to write a new novel, how will your approach to writing have changed because you've done so many adaptations?
David Nicholls: I have done a lot of adaptations. I've kind of made a resolution with myself not to do anymore. But, I think inevitably you take something from the books you adapt. When I was writing One Day, I was adapting Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles for the BBC. And I think even though Thomas Hardy is a supremely lyrical, poetic writer and a genius and does a lot of things that I would never dream of doing, I think there's a sense of fatalism. Things like letters that don't get delivered, phone calls that don't get made are very Hardy-esque. So, even though I wasn't consciously aping Hardy, I think a little bit has snuck into the book.

With the next book, it's not really a complaint, but I have started to worry about repeating myself, and I do feel like I have to do something different. But I'm also aware that I don't want to suddenly deliver a kind of ultra-violent science fiction novel or a novel about the Second World War. I don't want to be perversely contrary. I want the next book to have some of the qualities of One Day, but I don't want to write another bittersweet epic love story. So I suppose the worst element of it is it's made me a little bit self-conscious. But again, it would be really churlish and mean spirited to complain too much.

I suppose the only I am thinking is I've been working on Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, and I've really loved Great Expectations. The things I've taken from it have been plots, the importance of having a terrific, gripping story, and also very good writing about childhood and growing up and coming of age. I don't know whether the next book will have sort of sucked up some Charles Dickens. I hope so, because he's one of my favorite novelists, but, as I said, I don't know what the next story will be, but it will be about father and sons. It may be a sort of Nicholas Nickleby-esque coming of age story, the story of a young man growing up. I haven't really worked it out yet.

I do feel strongly that I need to write something a little different. There will always be an element of a love story, but I don't think the next book will be primarily a love story. Who knows? I've made some notes towards it, but I'm a long ways from starting writing.

Thank you to Big Honcho Media for inviting me to interview David Nicholls! It was a wonderful experience. I'll be seeing One Day this weekend when it arrives in theaters, so look for my review sometime next week. Remember, you still have a few days to enter my awesome One Day contest.

Want to read the book before you see the movie? Buy One Day from Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle.

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

Friday, August 12, 2011

book review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help (Movie Tie-In)The backstory: The Help was longlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize. It's also now a movie.

My thoughts: Oh, The Help. I wanted to like you so much. Bloggers I almost always agree with all loved it. As most of the reading public is familiar with The Help and has probably read it, this review will be frank about the novel and may include spoilers for people who somehow have never heard of it.

I fully admit it: I'm not normally a fan of Southern fiction. Despite living in Atlanta for thirteen years, I never developed a love for Southern fiction or culture. Southern food, however, I fully embraced.

I picked up The Help once before a few years ago and only made it a few pages because of the Southern speak. This time I persevered, but I found it all rather dull. I did really like the character of Skeeter. I'm often drawn to idealistic young female characters who dream of being a writer, so that comes as no surprise. Still, I found nothing in Skeeter's story surprising, so it wasn't enough to carry this novel for me.

My biggest problem with The Help was its pacing. I think there's a heart of a good story in there, but the plot seemed incredibly obvious to me, and Stockett's writing wasn't strong enough to make me enjoy the journey that seemed clear from the the time we meet Skeeter. Would my outlook be different if I read The Help too years ago before its contents became so well known? Perhaps. For being 454 pages long, very little actually happens. I wanted more conflict, intrigue and sadness. I found it disconcertingly gentle. Compared with the fantastic Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman (my review), The Help seemed so watered down.

I also really disliked the faux-Southern voices of Minny and Aibileen. I found it awkward and distracting to see 'a' used in place of 'of.' I was annoyed that the the writing didn't reflect clipped g's and other hallmarks of Southern dialect. It seemed an odd compromise, and it distracted from Aibileen and Minny's narratives.

There were things I liked. I found the portrayal of Aibileen's church to be very positive and inspiring. The congregation provided the only emotional connection I had to the story.

Despite my misgivings with the novel as a whole, I am looking forward to the film. With 454 pages of a novel to fit into a film, I think the pacing issues will be solved. Although I found Stockett's writing underwhelming, the cast of the film is superb, and I believe their acting could carry this story to the top.

Favorite passage: It's a bad sign when there is not one memorable passage in 454 pages.

The verdict: I wasn't a fan of The Help, but I am looking forward to seeing the movie.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Length: 464 pages
Publication date: February 10, 2009
Source: I bought it (in hardcover) before I got my Kindle a year and a half ago)

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

book review: The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson

The Lantern: A NovelThe basics: The Lantern is the story of Eve, a British freelance translator, and Dom, a musician, who are also a new couple who fell hard and fast in love and move to a crumbling home in Provence. It's also the story of Benedictine, who grew up in the same house. Her voice alternates chapters with Eve's.

My thoughts: From the beginning, I enjoyed Lawrenson's writing immensely. Although The Lantern was a relatively fast read, it is also a smart, gothic tale. I was most enchanted with the way Lawrenson wove in Eve's love of reading. Their was romance to it: wouldn't any of us jump at the chance to work as we wished, not worry about money, read all day and live in Provence? The books begins as a reader's escape, but it moves into deeper territory as Eve ponders her lot in life more and more:
"Change is not always visible, as the turn of the season is, or the natural process of aging. We are so many different people in one lifetime."
As a reader, I was also fascinated by the way Lawrenson seemed to play with genre. At first glance, The Lantern is a romance and a bit of a reality fantasy. As darkness creeps in, the reader shares Eve's struggle wondering if she's being paranoid or smart; if she's foolish or prudent. I read thrillers and mysteries, and when you're sure you're reading one, the characters are always making foolish mistakes. In real(er) life, though, how do you know when to trust your instincts and when to dismiss uneasiness as paranoia? For me, this issue of paranoia was central to the book:
"I sometimes wonder how much of our life is rooted in the imagination, in the stories we tell ourselves and others in order to make sense of what has happened along the way. Unable to accept the unvarnished truth of our situations, we have to make them more palatable to ourselves as well as to others."
I thoroughly enjoyed The Lantern. I was eager to discover its secrets, as I was utterly unsure if my guesses were correct (some were; some weren't.) I would stop short of calling it a true thriller, but it had the intrigue of one, while also taking the time to delve into the deeper questions of life, identity and memory.

Favorite passage: "Where lies the line between books and life, fact and fiction? Of seeing and being seen? It was only now, when events were unfolding, that I recognized, from books rather than experience, that I truly appreciated the boundaries between reality and art. Before, I would read to understand, to think: yes, that person has a dilemma, those were the options available, and--for better or worse--that was the solution she or he chose. I have always argued for the fundamental honesty of fiction. But now I could see more sharply where the honesty lies. Possibly not in the stripping bare of the soul or on the crest of high drama, but in the small details and observations."

The verdict: While I started off much preferring the modern story to the older one, by the end, I was equally enchanted with both women and their lives. At times haunting, beautiful, spooky and inspiring, The Lantern is an engaging read.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: August 9, 2011
Source: publisher, via TLC Book Tours

Connect with Deborah: visit her website, blog, and Facebook page.

Treat yourself! Buy The Lantern from Amazon in hardback, for the Kindle, or from an independent bookstore.

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

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

book review: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Sisters Brothers: A NovelThe backstory: The Sisters Brothers was longlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize.

The basics: Eli and Charlie are brothers working as hit men in 1851 Oregon City. Eli, a nice, honest, killer if you will, hopes for life after killing, but his brother Charlie wants to keep living the life of a gunslinger. The two set out on a mission to kill a man in San Francisco.

My thoughts: When I saw True Grit last year (my review), I was surprised how much I loved it.  When the Booker longlist was announced, I was intrigued by The Sisters Brothers and was thrilled when it came into the library so quickly. I was surprised how much I enjoyed The Sisters Brothers too. I guess it really is true: I like westerns. Eli Sisters is a wonderful narrator and character. His cadence and perspective struck me as endearing and unexpected. I also could not help picturing it as a film as I read it. I think there's a great future for comedic westerns on the screen.

Booker thoughts: While I found The Sisters Brothers to be engaging and entertaining, I would fall short of calling it highly literary. I only marked one passage as truly special. As I read, I found myself enthralled with the characters and action, but I didn't find myself contemplating its depth. It's a book I would recommend to most people because it is so entertaining. To me, it was unique, but as it was the first western I've read, I'll leave the discussions of genre to its devotees. What I find most interesting in the "yes, it's entertaining, but is it Booker-worthy?" discussions is the notion of uniqueness. I can't compare The Sisters Brothers to anything else I've ever read. At what point does originality trump its literary prowess? The Pulitzer has been pushing the conventions of genre and voice for years with its winners, and perhaps this year's Booker judges are jumping on the originality bandwagon.

Favorite passage: "He said this casually, but it was the type of statement that eclipsed the conversation, killed it."

The verdict: The Sisters Brothers combines historical fiction, humor and a western into a highly entertaining and enjoyable novel. It's a  novel sure to appeal to readers of all ages who enjoy a variety of genres. Its seriousness is buoyed by its comedy, and despite some graphic violence, it's surprisingly touching.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 325 pages
Publication date: April 26, 2011
Source: my local public library

Treat yourself! Buy The Sisters Brothers from Amazon in hardback or for the Kindle.

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