Thursday, May 31, 2012

book review: I Wish I Had a Red Dress by Pearl Cleage

The backstory: Pearl Cleage is one of my favorite authors, and this year I'm reading and re-reading all of her novels is the order they were published. I Wish I Had a Red Dress is her second novel, and it features the same setting and some of the same characters from her first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (my review). I read this novel when it was first published in 2001, but I remembered little about it.

The basics: I Wish I Had a Red Dress is the story of Joyce, the older sister of Ava, who was the narrator of What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day. Joyce is a former social worker who now runs the Circus, a gathering place for young, black women in Idlewild, Michigan. These women are almost all teen moms.

My thoughts: If you begin to read I Wish I Had a Red Dress and have not read What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, the first ten pages might do you in. Joyce rolls through her tragic back story with such speed, you might wonder what story is left to tell. As the story moves on, however, it becomes clear this novel is a tale of redemption firmly grounded in reality. Joyce's work at the Circus amazed and inspired me, but it also depressed me. Thankfully, these troubled young people weren't the only focus of this novel. Sister, Idlewild's new pastor, and her husband are close friends of Joyce and soon play matchmaker.

I adore the way Pearl Cleage writes. Her writing shines a light on contemporary black life and tells wonderful stories. What keeps I Wish I Had a Red Dress from being as perfect as What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day is the balance of those two things. At times, this novel felt more like social commentary than a story.

Favorite passage:  "I never understood the idea of war as a manhood test. It requires and develops such a specific set of skills that the next question has to be how do you translate the things that make a great soldier into the things that women want and children need from that very same man once the war is over?"

The verdict: Although I Wish I Had a Red Dress is not quite as strong as What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, it is still a deeply moving tale of contemporary black rural life. In Joyce, Pearl Cleage has made a woman who not only articulates the problems of young black women in Idlewild, she tries to solve them. Joyce is a character to admire, but more importantly, she's a character whose imperfections are as real as her drive to change the world.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: July 3, 2001
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy I Wish I Had a Red Dress from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

book review: Long Gone by Alafair Burke

The backstory: Long Gone is Alafair Burke's seventh novel but her first stand-alone novel.

The basics: In New York City, after a chance meeting at an art gallery, Alice Humphrey has just landed the perfect job of running a new art gallery. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, teenager Becca Stevenson has started keeping some secrets from her mother. Lastly, FBI agent Hank Beckman can't stop following the man he holds responsible for his sister's death, even though it may cost him his job.

My thoughts: As you can see from my summary, this novel opens with three different narratives. Although it's clear the storylines will intersect sooner or later, I still found myself jotting down a character map as I read. In this novel, Alafair Burke left enough clues about little things to alert the readers to connections before these connections were made more formally. Remembering the details (or referring to the details on my character map) of characters led to some thrilling moments as I read. While a character map isn't a necessity, I had so much fun keeping up with it as I read. I didn't actually need to use it that long, but once I'd started, it was so much fun to draw arrows and lines to signify new connections. I wish I could share it with you, but it's filled with spoilers now! Ultimately, it made me more impressed with all that Burke accomplishes in this novel. It's a grand thriller

The verdict: Long Gone is a smart, fast-paced, contemporary thriller. I raced through it's action quickly, but I stopped to marvel at how large of a story Burke had created. It's a first rate thriller sure to delight casual readers and seasoned mystery readers alike. I'll be digging into Burke's two series in the coming months too.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 357
Publication date: June 21, 2011 (it's out in paperback now) 
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Long Gone from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.) Want more opinions? Check out the full tour schedule. Want to know more about Alafair Burke? Visit her website, like her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.

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

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sunday Salon: Orange Prize picks, prediction and thoughts

The much-anticipated announcement of the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction winner will be on Wednesday. As you likely read earlier this week, this year will be the last the Prize is sponsored by Orange. Many in the U.S. were surprised to hear that Orange is even a company. Linda Grant, who won the second Orange Prize for When I Lived in Modern Times (my review), wrote a beautiful response in The Guardian this week. Although Orange has sponsored the Prize since its inception in 1996, a private benefactor donates the prize money. It's a relief to know "if a new sponsor can be found, all that will change is the name – and what matters is not what the prize is called, but what it represents." Readers of this blog know I'm a both a fan and advocate for the Orange Prize. My initial sadness at the news of Orange's withdrawal has been tempered by the support. While the Prize will likely soon have a new name, it will live on. I do, however, hope the shortlisted authors can enjoy this week of festivities.

My vote and my prediction
This year's shortlist is quite strong, and for the first time in my obsessive reading of prize lists, I can say I will cheer and celebrate any winner this year. Will I cheer more loudly for some winners than others? Yes, but all the titles are deserving of the Prize, even though I happened to prefer two titles more.  Honestly, I won't be surprised with any name called Wednesday evening in London; a case can be made for any of these books to win. Several members of the Orange January/July group on Library Thing who have read the entire shortlist are participating in a shadow jury. It's been fascinating to see how different our reactions are to some titles. Here's how I ranked the six titles for the shadow jury (title links go to my reviews):

  1. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (6 stars)
  2. Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding (4.5 stars)
  3. Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick (4 stars)
  4. The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (4 stars)
  5. Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (4 stars)
  6. Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (4 stars)

If I were on the Orange Prize jury, I would do all I could to convince my peers to pick State of Wonder and make Ann Patchett the first author to win this Prize twice. It was my favorite novel of 2011, and I haven't stopped singing its praises since I read it last summer. If I were a betting woman, however, I'd pick Georgina Harding to win for Painter of Silence. It's a lovely novel, and it appears to have more of a consensus behind it than the other novels.

Enjoying staycation
I'm using my last four days of vacation this week, as I have to use it all by the end of May. It's wonderful to have seven days off of work, and I'm hoping to finish reading the last four titles on the Orange Prize longlist before I go back to work Friday. This afternoon, I'm staying indoors to avoid the oppressive heat and reading On the Floor by Aifric Campbell. What are you reading this weekend?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

book review: The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki

The backstory: The Flying Man, Roopa Farooki's fifth novel, was on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist.

The basics: The novel opens in 2012 with Maquil composing a letter shortly before his death, then jumps back to his childhood and moves chronologically through his life.

My thoughts: It's a bold move to begin a novel at the end, and Roopa Farooki mostly succeeds. Maquil is an intriguing character. As he moved around the world, the reader gets a taste of New York, Paris, Cairo, Lahore, Hong Kong and more. At the crux of Maquil is a particularly fascinating notion: few could pinpoint his ethnicity or origin. Were he a blond-haired blue-eyed man, his story would be quite different. His complexion and hair allowed him to be both insider and outsider. His gift for language allowed him to fool most anyone.

My favorite aspect of this novel, however, was seeing Maquil's failures. In stories of grifters, they are so often shown in a dazzling light. Although somewhat light overall, The Flying Man struck me as showing the realities of a life of gambling and name changing. There were moments of glamour, but it's not a glamorous story.

The verdict: The Flying Man succeeds because Maquil is so intriguing. Although the ending is never in question, his winding journey contained enough little twists and large moments of wisdom to keep me intrigued with how Maquil finds his ending.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: January 19, 2012 (UK--there's no word on U.S. publication yet) 
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Flying Man from the Book Depository or Amazon.

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

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

book review: Run by Ann Patchett

The backstory: After loving State of Wonder (my review), I set out to read all of Ann Patchett's books.

The basics: Run is the story of the Doyle family: Bernard, an Irish Catholic ex-mayor of Boston, his deceased wife Bernadette, their adult son Sullivan, and their two adopted college ages sons, Tip and Teddy, who are biological brothers.

My thoughts: I'm beginning to think Ann Patchett is my soul sister. Her writing reaches me deeply, and I've adored everything she's written. It was a special treat to read Run, the novel of hers I knew the least about going in. Although I had the framework of two of her novels and one memoir, I didn't know what to expect. Run isn't as universally loved as some of her other works, so I was particularly curious to see how it measured up.

Admittedly, Run started off slowly for me. It took two chapters to really get into the heart of the story, but once it happened, I was hooked. One of the things I love most about Patchett's writing are her characters. They are real people with real flaws. Extraordinary situations cause them to act in sometimes surprising ways, which make me ponder how actions vary in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. Ann Patchett writes about these extraordinary days of life, and Run, mostly takes place in a single day. There are days that change our lives, and the day in Run was certainly one of those days for every single character.

While this review shares very little of the actual story, I truly believe it's best experienced without detail. Know this: Run is extraordinary.

Favorite passage:  "In suggesting that there may be nothing ahead of them, he in no way meant to diminish the future; instead, Father Sullivan hoped to elevate the present to a state of the divine. It seemed from this moment of repose that God may well have been life itself. God may have been the baseball games, the beautiful cigarette he smoked alone after checking to see that all the bats had been put back behind the closet door. God could have been the masses in which he told people how best to prepare for the glorious life everlasting, the one they couldn’t see as opposed to the one they were living at that exact moment in the pews of the church hall, washed over in the stained glass light. How wrongheaded it seemed now to think that the thrill of heartbeat and breath were just a stepping stone to something greater. What could be greater than the armchair, the window, the snow? Life itself had been holy."

The verdict: I adored Run. It ambitiously tackles themes of politics, religion and family in large and small ways. The characters are as strong as the writing, and I was sad when I finished this novel and had to leave them behind. Ultimately, I liked it even more than I liked Bel Canto (my review).

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: September 25, 2007
Source: purchased for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Run from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Salon: ALA planning

Happy Sunday, everyone! The last few months have been incredibly hectic, and I'm really looking forward to a calmer work life this summer. My reading has picked up, and I'm enjoying not having a backlog of reviews to write too! I finished Ann Patchett's Run last night and am spending my afternoon and evening today with Roopa Farooki's The Flying Man from this year's Orange Prize longlist. I'll be reviewing both later this week.

In just over one month, I'll be heading to Anaheim, California for the American Library Association's Annual Conference! I'm really looking forward to the trip for a number of reasons:
  • As I've mentioned before, I was blessed to be chosen as a 2012 ALA Emerging Leader. Anaheim marks the culmination my group's project. All of the Emerging Leaders teams will be presenting Friday, June 23. It will be my first presentation at a national conference, and I'm particularly glad it happens on the first day so I can relax for the rest of it!
  • As an academic librarian, so little of my job is talking to people about books, but at ALA conferences, where public, academic, special and school librarians all come together, I get to sneak in a few presentations about books and see authors I enjoy. It's a wonderful mix of pleasure and business.
  • RUSA, the Reference and User Services Association, has started the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and Non-fiction. It's the first ALA award for adult books, and you all know how much I adore book awards! I'll be going to the award presentation on Sunday, June 25. It will be first time attending a book award presentation in person, and I was excited to see I've read two of the three fiction finalists, which were announced this week. The three finalists in the fiction category are:
    • The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (my review)
    • Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks
    • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (my review)
Will any of you be in Anaheim for ALA in June? If so, let me know; I'd love to meet up!

The conference ends Tuesday, June 26, but Mr. Nomadreader will be flying out that day, and we've decided to spend a couple of days exploring Southern California. Right now, we're thinking of Orange County and San Diego, but we'd love to hear suggestions of things to do, places to eat, and things to avoid! We both want to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, so coastal suggestions are most welcome. Thanks!

Now tell me: what are you up to this Sunday afternoon?

Friday, May 18, 2012

book review: Alice by Judith Herman

Translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo

The backstory: Alice was shortlisted for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

The basics: Told in five sections, Alice offers five glimpses of its titular character. In each section, there is also a death.

My thoughts: Given the short length of this novel (160 pages), I intended to read it in a single setting. After I finished its first section, however, I wanted time to ponder. I ended up spreading out this slim volume over five days: one for each of its sections. Some describe this book as linked stories, and while I suppose that is technically true, it read like a character-driven novel. Alice is the focus of each section, even though the sections are named for the person who dies. As the theme of death becomes more clear (the first character was on death's door as the novel began, while the second character was unexpectedly ill), the argument that Alice is a novel becomes stronger. Taken individually, the focus can be on the death of the characters whose section bears their name. Taken as a whole, the stories are Alice's and made this reader ponder bigger notions of life and death. It was easy to identify with Alice, as we've all known people who have died, but it was also easy to imagine myself as those characters who were neither Alice nor the dying ones. The scope and shape of the story rely on this perspective.

Favorite passage:  "When she got back from her visit, Alice had asked Raymond, Would you rather die before me or after me? After you, I think, Raymond had said. It had taken a while before he could answer; he seemed to consider the question itself impossible. Why? He asked. He wasn’t quite sure. And you? She’d shaken her head and put her hand over his mouth. She couldn’t answer him."

The verdict: To view the life of a person by witnessing the actions before and after five deaths is beguiling. Alice herself was fascinating, and Hermann's writing is crisp. While all five sections could work as standalones, this novel truly is more than the sum of its parts.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 160 pages
Publication date: August 1, 2011
Source: interlibrary loan

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Alice from the Book Depository or Amazon (no Kindle version, sadly.)

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

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

book review: Perla by Carolina De Robertis

The basics: When a mysterious figure arrives at Perla's home in Buenos Aires, she must confront Argentina's Dirty War, the role of her parents in it, and what it means for her.

My thoughts: When I began this novel, I was immediately struck by the power and beauty of the writing. De Robertis writes with strength and smoothness. Her words commanded the page and transported me into the world of Perla. The line between reality and magical realism was not immediately clear, which helped draw me into this fascinating world even more quickly. I soon discovered I cared more about the journey of Perla than where magical realism began.

In many ways, Perla is a coming of age story. The novel is largely told in flashbacks as Perla and this mysterious houseguest talk she revisits childhood memories for clues of what was really happening in Argentina. Perla's journey is both personal and an doorway into a fascinating and troubling piece of Argentinian history.

Favorite passage:  "There’s that feeling that comes when you read something and the lines speak directly to you, and to you only, even though the person who wrote them died long before you were born, or, even if alive, has no idea you exist. The words seep right into your mind. They pour into your secret hollow and take their shape, a perfect fit, like water. And you are slightly less alone in the universe, because you have been witnessed, because you have been filled, because someone once found words for things within you that you couldn’t yourself name--something gesturing not only toward what you are, but what you could become. In that sense, books raise you, in a way your parents can’t. They emancipate you."

The verdict: De Robertis writes with lyricism and grace. Perla's journey in this novel is moving, but what keeps this novel from achieving perfection is the power of the writing outshines the story itself at times.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 236 pages
Publication date: March 27, 2012
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Perla from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Want more? Visit all of the tour stops, Carolina's website, follow her on Twitter, or see her on Facebook.

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

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

book review: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

The backstory: The Sealed Letter, originally published in the U.S. and Canada in 2008, was released in the UK last year and was longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize.

The basics: Tracing the troubled marriage and divorce trial of the Codringtons, The Sealed Letter is the story of women's roles in marriage and life in 1860's England. Emily Faithfull, a first wave feminist belovedly referred to as Fido, is a dear friend of Mrs. Codrington and finds her personal and professional reputations compromised in the ensuing drama.

My thoughts: After reading and utterly adoring Room (my review), I was curious to read Emma Donoghue's historical fiction and see how it compared. I was immediately captivated by the setting, London in 1864, and with Fido. Donoghue is a wonderful writer of character descriptions: "What in another woman would strike Fido as hyperbole has in Helen Codrington always charmed her, somehow. The phrases are delivered with a sort of rueful merriment, as if by an actress who knows herself to be better than her part." This friendship between Fido and Helen was utterly fascinating. There were certainly hints of it being more than a friendship, particularly for Fido, but there were also notions that their strong affections for one another fell short of love as neither truly respects the other. Donoghue writes about their friendship beautifully, and my perspective on it changed throughout the novel as she played with the customs of the times excusing or requiring particular behaviors.

Favorite passages: "That's a ghoulish anecdote, Helen, not a reasoned argument."

"Strange how a few years can reduce humiliation to an anecdote."

The verdict: The Sealed Letter is a fascinating glimpse at the plight of women in England in the 1860's. Donoghue's delivers a novel firmly based in historical fact that is engaging and enlightening. Although the action drags a bit in the middle, the novel as a whole is an emotionally satisfying read made more impressive with the ending author's note indicating how much was based on true events.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 416 pages
Publication date: September 22, 2008 
Source: purchased for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Sealed Letter from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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

Friday, May 11, 2012

book review: New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry.

The backstory: Diego Marani's debut novel, New Finnish Grammar, was originally published in Italian in 2000. The translated edition is on the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist.

The basics: (from the publisher) "One night at Trieste in September 1943 a seriously wounded soldier is found on the quay. The doctor, of a newly arrived German hospital ship, Pietri Friari gives the unconscious soldier medical assistance. His new patient has no documents or anything that can identifying him. When he regains consciousness he has lost his memory and cannot even remember what language he speaks. From a few things found on the man the doctor, who is originally from Finland, believes him to be a sailor and a fellow countryman, who somehow or other has ended up in Trieste. The doctor dedicates himself to teaching the man Finnish, beginning the reconstruction of the identity of Sampo Karjalainen, leading the missing man to return to Finland in search of his identity and his past."

My thoughts: As this novel began, I found myself comparing it to Dalton Trumbo's masterpiece Johnny Got His Gun, which is a huge complement, particularly from this reader. While I can't be certain Marani was influenced by Trumbo and Johnny, this novel soon became march larger a man in a hospital trying to figure out his identity and remember language. I know next to nothing about the Finnish language, but I was fascinated both by the language and the thought of learning any language again from scratch.

While language is a large part of this narrative, it's truly a story of identity and clues to remembrance. It often read like a mystery: who is this man? How did he end up in Trieste? What will his future hold? As fascinated as I was with discovering these answers, I was even more intrigued by the journey Marani takes us on. As a reader, I had to face the fact I may not discover the answers to these questions, a harsh reality that is far gentler to me than to this man.

Favorite passage: "Sometimes human thought gets lost in the warren of its own logic, becomes a slave to a geometry which is and in itself, whose aim is no longer the understanding of reality, but the bolstering of some prior assumption. We are such monstrous egoists that we would rather destroy ourselves pursuing false truths than admit that we are on the wrong track."

The verdict: New Finnish Grammar is a fascinating story of language, memory, the things that construct our human identity, and the things that unite and separate our nations. The writing is hauntingly beautiful, the story was serious and mysterious, and it's a novel whose messages will linger.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 186 pages
Publication date: September 1, 2011
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy New Finnish Grammar from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (no Kindle version, sadly.)

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

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

book review: I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits

The basics: I Am Forbidden, the English language debut of Anouk Markovits, is the story of four generations of a Hasidic Jewish family. Their story begins in Transylvania before World War II, but then spreads to Paris and contemporary Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

My thoughts: While I didn't know quite what to expect from this novel when I sat down, I did not expect to finish the novel before getting up. I did not expect to postpone dinner three hours so I could keep reading, and I certainly did not expect to be enchanted by Hasidic Jewish tradition. I would stop short of calling I Am Forbidden a thriller, but it was certainly a thrilling read.

What I found most remarkable in this novel was how well Markovits explained the religious traditions and customs in a way that made them understandable despite their rigidity. The characters, particularly Atara and her adopted sister Mila, shaped my thoughts on opinions on this religion as they grew up and found the words for understanding their own faith. Markovits made me care about these people and understand their beliefs.

The verdict: While the epicenter of this novel is the Hasidic Jewish community, it is also a stunning, moving tale of family, love, honor and secrecy. Markovits skillfully uses pace, character development and intrigue to make this novel absolutely riveting. Highly recommended to just about everyone.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 302 pages
Publication date: May 8, 2012
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy I Am Forbidden from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

book review: Tides of War by Stella Tillyard

The backstory: Tides of War, the first novel by historian Stella Tillyard, is on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist.

The basics: Set in 1812-1814 against the Peninsular War, Tides of War jumps back and forth between the battle lines and the lives of three women in London who cope with their husband's absences in different ways.

My thoughts: Had I not known Tillyard was a historian, I think I would have figured it out quite quickly. The opening scene of Tides of War is a delight: the reader meets Harriet, the somewhat precocious new wife of James, who is about to depart for war. Harriet is more concerned with science and experimenting, both of which her father introduced her to, than with domestic details. I was utterly engaged with Harriet and was excited to see her grow and develop. Far too soon, however, the action shifted to new characters and details. Tillyard introduces a plethora of characters quickly, and coupled with the excessive detail, the characters and plot get somewhat muddled. There was a map at the beginning of the novel, but as it simply covered major cities in Portugal and Spain, it wasn't terribly illuminating if you're aware of where their major cities are located.

In many ways, Tides of War is two different books. At times it reads like a novel, but at times it read more like straight history. I tend to gravitate toward historical fiction that explores a time period through the actions of its characters, and in Tides of War, I don't think the characters were always the focus. Granted, I knew little about the Peninsular War, so I did learn a lot and found much of it to be fascinating. Still, I wished the three women had been more of the story's focus. While I enjoyed glimpses into the battlefield, I didn't enjoy them as much. At the end of the novel, Tillyard included a list of characters based on real people. Seeing how much Tillyard used reality to shape her story was impressive, but I wished she would have included this list at the beginning to help me get to know all of these characters.

Favorite passage: "The English rated politeness far too highly; any man could bend and produce a smile."

The verdict: Tides of War has an extensive cast of characters, both those based on real figures and those from Tillyard's imagination, but ultimately, I appreciated the effort of Tillyard more than her novel. There were glimpses of greatness, but the scope of this novel was its downfall. Readers who appreciate historical detail and lots of characters will adore it, but those of us who prefer a character or plot driven narrative will likely only enjoy parts of it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 346 pages
Publication date: October 25, 2011
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Tides of War from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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

Monday, May 7, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 17

Welcome to Week 17 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and as someone who would rather read fiction, I'm still finding the pace a delightful way to sprinkle in some non-fiction. Note: the hosts have switched to posting every other week instead of every week, but I'm bucking the trend and posting every week. This week is a week everyone is posting. (Missed the earlier posts? Check them all out here.)

My thoughts: Chapter 17, "Or Does It Explode?" focuses on the civil rights movement. Zinn opens the chapter by backtracking in time to the early 1900s and tracing the artistic output of black people: "a society of complex controls, both crude and refined, secret thoughts can often be found in the arts, and so it was in black society." It was a delight to read the beautiful words of so many black poets and writers and ponder the distinctions between jazz and blues music as political messages. After reading Half Blood Blues (my review) last week, it was particularly moving. There were also references to the Scottsboro boys, which obviously reminded me of  Ellen Feldman's divine novel Scottsboro (my review). There were also echoes of Toni Morrison's remarkable new novella Home (my review) as Zinn discussed the segregated armed forces and the plight of black soldiers once war ended.

I've realized that the parts of A People's History I've enjoyed most have reminded me of historical fiction I've read and enjoyed. Zinn provides an overarching history, scads of quoted primary source material, and statistics, but despite these strengths, what this book has lacked overall is some form of narrative. It's not necessarily a criticism, as I don't think it was Zinn's intention. For me, a reader who greatly prefers fiction to non-fiction, it's often meant reading without emotional investment. The strongest emotional chapters are coming from places other than Zinn's work. It's also why I'm glad to be reading a chapter a week. Without a narrative, I don't think I could read this book exclusively.

Back to this chapter: I've been intrigued with the civil rights movement for years, and this chapter was among my favorites because I already had a strong interest and knowledge about it. One challenge, as this book gets closer to the present, is confronting the actions of people I've admired. Somehow it's easier to accept the racist, sexist and classist actions of leaders a hundred years ago, but the actions of Robert Kennedy bring me sadness: "Attorney General Robert Kennedy, instead of insisting on their right to travel without being arrested, agreed to the Freedom Riders’ being arrested in Jackson, in return for Mississippi police protection against possible mob violence."

What was most jarring in this chapter were the economic statistics:
  • "In the spring of 1963, the rate of unemployment for whites was 4.8 percent. For nonwhites it was 12.1 percent."
  • "According to government estimates, one-fifth of the white population was below the poverty line, and one-half of the black population was below that line."
  • In 1974, "the total receipts of black-owned firms accounted for 0.3 percent of all business income."
  • "Despite the new opportunities for a small number of blacks, the median black family income of 1977 was only about 60 percent that of whites; blacks were twice as likely to die of diabetes; seven times as likely to be victims of homicidal violence rising out of the poverty and despair of the ghetto."
Aside from the third statistic, what I found most startling, and shouldn't be surprised by, is how similar these numbers are to our current economic plight. This recession is hitting black people (and young people) harder. We know more blacks than whites live below the poverty line. As I've said throughout this book, it's depressing how little has changed in some ways, and the closer the book comes to the present, I'm surprised to still feel the same way. When will we come together to solve these problems? With the next chapter set to focus on the Vietnam War, I'm guessing any sense of hope left from the civil rights movement and communities joining together will soon be lost.

Intrigued? Read along! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version.) You don't have to post each week (or at all!) Keep up with the read-a-long hosts at Fizzy Thoughts. Note: Jenners from Life...with Books has dropped out of her own read-a-thon.

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Friday, May 4, 2012

book review: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

The backstory: Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan's second novel, is shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize, was shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize, and won the 2011 Giller Prize.

The basics: Mostly set in Nazi-occupied Berlin and Paris, Half Blood Blues is the story of a young German & American band, the Hot-Time Swingers. Their most talented member, a black German, is arrested and dies in custody. One recording of the band, survives, however, and Hiero becomes a cult hero.

My thoughts: Early in this novel, Sid and Chip travel to Europe in 1992 to see a documentary about the band. Using a documentary about the characters was a brilliant way to condense their story early on:
"Of course, the recording’s cult status had to do with the illusion of it all. I mean, not just of the kid but of all of us, all the Hot-Time Swingers. Think about it. A bunch of German and American kids meeting up in Berlin and Paris between the wars to make all this wild joyful music before the Nazis kick it to pieces? And the legend survives when a lone tin box is dug out of a damn wall in a flat once belonged to a Nazi? Man. If that ain’t a ghost story, I never heard one."
I wasn't expecting the action to flash forward to 1992 so quickly, but as a narrative device, it placed the events of 1939 and 1940 in a wonderful context. Similarly, I was surprised when the action quickly shifted back to the war. Overall, the time jumps worked well and the reader came to understand the story and characters better through the non-linear narrative. My one complaint was the length of the middle of the book. The action dragged, and at times it read like just another World War II novel. I was more intrigued with the modern piece of the story, and I wish Edugyan would have moved through Paris more quickly.

Still, Half Blood Blues is a fresh perspective on the frequently chronicled time of World War II. Edugyan's exploration of racial issues and jazz were fascinating. I wish the unremarkable love story were not the focus of the book's middle; Edugyan's writing shined most when she talked about music and nationality and faltered a bit with discussions of young love and lust.

Favorite passage: "But I ain’t said it. I don’t know, I guess mercy is a muscle like any other. You got to exercise it, or it just cramp right up."

The verdict: Edugyan's descriptions of jazz and the racial culture in Nazi-occupied Paris and Berlin was stunning. The cadence of the dialogue transported me to those smoky, dusky clubs and evoked the fear of getting caught. Although the action dragged a bit in the middle when it began to feel like 'just another World War II novel,' Half Blood Blues is a tour de force.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: February 28, 2012
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Half-Blood Blues from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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

Thursday, May 3, 2012

book review: Cross Currents by John Shors

The backstory: Cross Currents was on the shortlist for the Indie Lit Award for Fiction this year.

The basics: Leading up to the devastating 2004 earthquake and tsunami on the Thai island of Ko Phi Phi, Cross Currents explores the island through its inhabitants, a three-generation family with two children who run an island hotel, and tourists, young American traveler Patch, who is soon joined by his brother, Ryan, and Ryan's girlfriend, Brooke.

My thoughts: The novel opens with an author's note about the tsunami and how it inspired him to write about this island he had visited and loved before. He wanted the world to understand this island before its devastation. What I found surprising given the author's note at the beginning was at what point in the novel the tsunami occurred: not until the novel's final pages. The author's note impacted my expectations of how this story would be told, and ultimately it left me disappointed and wishing Shors saved his author's note for the end.

I expected a glimpse at life on the island before, during and after the tsunami, and instead Shors focused on the life before and concluded with the storm's immediate aftermath. Knowing it was coming made the issues the characters faced seem mostly trivial to me, and I wish Shors would have let the reader share the journey of the characters. As a reader, I couldn't forget what was coming, and I was eager to see how life would be after the tsunami. An event of that magnitude changes everything, but here it served as an ending rather than a beginning. Knowing all along made me look at the characters and situation differently, and it's one reason I was most interested in what happened after things returned to 'normal', or a new normal. Reading about seemingly petty issues left me struggling to connect with the characters too. I think the aftermath was equally as fascinating as the lead up, and I wished there were more of it.

I did appreciate the setting of this novel. It was nice to explore the island from the viewpoint of both natives and visitors:
"So much of the island was devoted to tourists. Foreigners stayed on the nicest stretches of sand, scuba dived above untouched reefs, and enjoyed the best of everything. Most of the locals lived far from the beaches and worked all hours of the day."
The character I most enjoyed was Patch. Overall, I found the female characters to be particularly poorly developed, which bothered me. Simply shifting their narrative out of first person may have fixed it. This story felt like Patch's story.

Despite my issues with its scope and pacing, I did enjoy reading this book. I was eager to see what happened, and I read through it quickly.

The verdict: While I appreciated the setting and idea of this novel, none of the characters seemed believable to me. I never felt transported by the story; instead, I saw the effort behind it. I loved the idea of this novel, but unfortunately, I didn't love this novel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 336 paged
Publication date: September 6, 2011
Source: author

Want to read it for yourself? Buy Cross Currents from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Now tell me: which other Shors titles should I explore?

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

book review: Home by Toni Morrison

The basics: This novella, at its simplest, is the story of Frank Money, a black Korean War veteran and his reacclimation into a racist, divided society. More specifically, it's about Frank's journey back to the rural, poor Georgia town he hoped he'd never return to.

My thoughts: What I loved about this book from its first pages was realizing with this book, the simple is also the complex. I'll confess: Toni Morrison used to intimidate me. Looking back, I think I tried to read her on my own far too young. I picked Song of Solomon off a summer reading list when I was fifteen, and I'd never read anything like it. I knew I wasn't really understanding it. It was the kind of novel I needed someone to teach me or talk about with me. Instead, I let all of her other works intimidate me too. I'm so glad I picked up Home because it reminds me of how different a reader I am at 31 than I was at 15. It also truly introduced me to how much I enjoy, emotionally and intellectually, Toni Morrison's work.

But back to the surface simplicity of this novella. I could recount the plot of this book, but it wouldn't do it justice. I will say this: Frank Money's journey through this book is both one he shares with the reader and one he takes alone. This duality is fascinating, and its layers enhance the power and tragedy in this slim volume. As I read, I found myself captivated by both story and construction. The novella works on its own plot, but more astute readers will appreciate the construction and layers of theme and meaning. It's most impressive she can portray heartbreaking brutality gently and without sensationalizing it. The power of this novel is its simplicity: the tragedies lay at and below the surface.

Favorite passages: "They practiced what they had been taught by their mothers during the period that rich people called the Depression and the called life."

"It's just as sad as it ought to be and I'm not going to hide from what's true just because it hurts."

The verdict: Home is as loud as it is quiet. It's as tender as it is heart-wrenching. It's as haunting as it is beautiful. It's beautifully written and crafted so perfectly, I had to read the first chapter again as soon as I finished the last one.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 160 pages
Publication date: May 8, 2012
Source: publisher via Edelweiss

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Home from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May 2012 goals

I've fallen out of the habit of writing monthly goal posts this year, largely because there's been a disconnect between when I read books and when I can post about them. I think I'm finally back on track, have my reading mojo back, and I'm completely caught up on reviews (the last two will post later this week!) With almost three months until the announcement of the Booker Prize longlist, I'm hoping to make progress on my 2012 reading goals I've been neglecting.

Here's what I hope to read (and review) in May:
  • finish my Orange Prize reading: I'm currently reading Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues, which will be my last title from the shortlist. Then I'll finish the seven lingering longlist titles. I hope to have them all completed and reviewed before the winner is announced May 30th. This year's shortlist has been stellar, and I've been enjoying the longlist too. I'm looking forward to having read all twenty titles for the first year ever!
  • begin the Independent Foreign Fiction shortlist: Thanks to the wonder of interlibrary loan, I've been able to track down copies of all six titles on this year's shortlist. I plan to read three this month and the other three in June. First up are Alice by Judith Hermann, New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, and From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjon. The winner will be announced in mid-May.
  • return to my personal Booker winner challenge: This year I plan to read all of the Booker Prize winners from 2000 to the present. This month I'll tackle Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Ang Lee's film adaptation comes out in December. 
  • return to my personal goal of reading (and re-reading) my favorite authors: I'll be re-reading Pearl Cleage's second novel, I Wish I Had a Red Dress, which is a sequel to What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (my review) and Run by Ann Patchett.

Wish me luck! I've set this ambitious goal of fourteen titles, but I do have a week of vacation around the holiday weekend to help me finish! Now tell me: which of these titles should I move to the top of my May pile?

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