Thursday, June 21, 2012

book review: We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane

The backstory: Elizabeth Crane is the lone author who has had a place on my list of favorite writers without writing a novel. Until now. I've read and adored all three of her short story collections: When the Messenger Is Hot, All This Heavenly Glory, and You Must Be This Happy to Enter (my review).

The basics: We Only Know So Much is the story of the Copeland family: 98-year-old Vivian; her son Theodore, whose memory is quickly fading; his son Gordon, who incessantly quotes Wikipedia; his wife, Jean, who is having an affair with a man in her book club; their daughter Priscilla, who is a self-absorbed teenager who dreams of being on reality tv; and their son Otis, who is nine and smart beyond his years. These four generations of Copelands all live in the same house. They share little else besides their obliviousness for one another.

My thoughts: As a reader, I often hear others exclaim, "the book was so good I didn't want it to end!" I've rarely shared those sentiments, as I always want a book to end so I can know what happens. Endings can sometimes make or break a novel for me. With Elizabeth Crane, however, I don't want her work to end. It's the reason I adore her short stories when I rarely enjoy short stories. I'm completely enamored with the way she describes our world.

The narrator in We Only Know So Much is the we of the title: "if we didn't know better, we might think she believed it to be a grammatical rule, and that, in her universe, the rarely used comma is reserved for sarcastic pauses only." Instead of distracting, this narration instantly bonds the reader with the narrator: who are we to be looking in on this crazy family? More importantly: I'm not in this alone.

Favorite passage: "Vivian operates at a pretty high level of denial where unpleasant things are concerned."

The verdict: We Only Know So Much is a delight. The quirky Copeland family are fascinating, but the narrator's take on the family is truly beguiling. If you're looking for a smart, sarcastic, hilarious novel: it's here, but you'll also be moved by its emotion and heart.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: June 12, 2012
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy We Only Know So Much from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Want more? Visit Elizabeth Crane's website, follow her on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook. Read what others thought too: the full tour schedule is here.

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, June 20, 2012

book review: Judgment Calls by Alafair Burke

The backstory: After reading and loving Alafair Burke's stand alone novel, Long Gone (my review), I knew I wanted to read all of her novels.

The basics: Judgment Calls is the first in Burke's Samantha Kincaid series. Kincaid is a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, as Burke was when she wrote this novel.

My thoughts: This novel begins as a legal procedural. As someone fascinated by the law and its differences, hearing about the legal system in Portland, Oregon was intriguing. Burke shared details to enhance the reader's understanding of the law, and these details added depth and nuance to the mysteries at the center of this novel:
"The law requires mandatory minimum sentences for the most violent felonies. Not surprisingly, once Measure 11 defendants figured out they were facing long minimum sentences upon conviction, whether they pled out or not, they stopped pleading guilty and started rolling the dice at trial. As a result, the DA's office stopped filing charged that fell under Measure 11 unless the bureau's investigation was flawless."
I loved those insights and details about unintended consequences to well meaning laws and policies.

As the novel and the legal case move forward, the action shifts from legal procedural to a thrilling mystery. Samantha's personal life was threaded throughout the novel, and as a character I completely fell in love with her. Not only do I want her to prosecute sex crimes cases in the real world, but I also want her to be my friend and discuss the world over a bottle (or two) of wine. It's rare to find a character in a mystery who is as compelling as the mystery itself. Samantha Kincaid is remarkably well developed in this novel, and I'm eager to continue following her adventures in the next two novels.

The verdict: Judgment Calls is a nearly perfect legal procedural and mystery. Burke combines a character you can root for with a case that's compelling, intriguing, and so much more twisted than it initially appears.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 364 pages
Publication date: July 1, 2003
Source: purchased for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Judgment Calls 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, June 19, 2012

book review: Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg

The backstory: Island of Wings, the debut novel by Karin Altenberg, was on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist.

The basics: Neil Mackenzie, a young minister, and his new wife Lizzie move to the remote island of St. Kilda in 1830. This passage from the first few pages sets the stage beautifully: "Mr. Bethune said gleefully. 'There is no other place in the Empire as remote as St. Kilda, and the inhabitant are as savage as the naked blacks in the King's territories in Australia. I know nothing of their faith, but I tell you this: I'm happy as long as they pay their taxes so that my Lord of the Isles can sleep well in a feather bed.'"

My thoughts: On days like this one, when the temperature will be near 100 degrees, I often joke I would not make a good pioneer woman. Thanks to Island of Wings, I can now also say, I would not make a good minister's wife in 1830's St. Kilda. Fiction transports us to different times and places, but I found with this novel, which I enjoyed very much, I didn't want to be transported to St. Kilda to share in this experience. Instead, I wanted to be a very distant third party and watch a film of it happening.

Altenberg painted St. Kilda quite vividly, but it was so foreign to me, I still found myself seeking visuals of the island, its people, and its customs following passages like this one: "They often make shoes out of the necks of gannets--they cut the head off at the eyes, and the part where the skull serves as the heel of the shoe and the feathers on the throat offer warmth and waterproofing. They generally last a couple of days, but at times there are so many birds that they can wear these disposable socks almost daily." At times, this novel read like non-fiction, but in a good way: I learned so much about this island and its people. While the story of Lizzie and Neil was also good, it wasn't as riveting as the story of St. Kilda.

Favorite passage: "These men are not just living in primitive simplicity--they are as free as most enlightened people can ever dream to be! If St. Kilda is not the Utopia we have sought so long, where will it be found?"

The verdict: Island of Wings is a glimpse into a fascinating place and time. St. Kilda is the true main character, and I remain intrigued by its place in history.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 322 pages
Publication date: December 27, 2011 (it's in paperback now)
Source: publisher via NetGalley

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Island of Wings 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!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

book review: Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan

The backstory: After reading and enjoying the first Stewart O'Nan novel I read, The Odds: A Love Story (my review), I knew I wanted to read more of his work. When Ti at Book Chatter reviewed this one, it jumped to the top of my pile.

The basics: It's the last night this Red Lobster next to a mall in Connecticut will be open. Christmas is a few days away, it's snowing heavily, and only five of the employees are coming with Manny, the general manager, as he transitions to assistant manager at the Olive Garden in nearby Bristol.

My thoughts: I spent five years working full-time in restaurants and nearly as many working part-time in restaurants. Mr. Nomadreader and I met while we working at the same restaurant (Murphy's, a winebar in Atlanta for those who are interested.) During my too-long stint in the corporate chain restaurant world, I managed to hold just about every job in the restaurant except, blessedly, the salad bar attendant. I didn't work in the Darden consortium of restaurants like the characters in this novella, but the similarities with my years at Ruby Tuesday are quite similar. (My favorite absurd corporate restaurant tidbit: at Ruby Tuesday, the hosts are known as SPGs--Smiling People Greeters.) O'Nan did a wonderful job of presenting the minutiae of a day in the life of a restaurant. The inner workings of restaurants are fascinating, and I reveled in O'Nan's detail of it.

Despite the authenticity of this novel, I was left wanting more. At 150 pages, it felt either too long or too short. As a short story from the perspective of Manny, it was a bit long. As a novel of a last day at the restaurant, it was too short and didn't include enough of the other characters. Last Night at the Lobster is good, but I think it could have been great. I wish O'Nan would have pushed it further because as fascinating as the story was, the narrator himself was pretty dull. I wish he would have opted to tell the tale through multiple narrators or include more time.

The verdict: Last Night at the Lobster is a fascinating glimpse into one day in the life of a corporate restaurant and its staff. O'Nan nails the details of the business, but by limiting the story to a single day, it's more of a snapshot and observation of the life than a fully developed character study.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 150 pages
Publication date: November 1, 2007
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Last Night at the Lobster 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, June 12, 2012

book review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

The backstory: Two years ago I read and enjoyed The Financial Lives of Poets by Jess Walter (my review.) When I was at the American Library Association's Midwinter conference in January, the fantastic ladies of Harper Collins' library marketing department alerted me to this new novel, which is dramatically different from The Financial Lives of Poets.

The basics: Spanning from Italy in the 1960's to present day Los Angeles, the story in Beautiful Ruins begins on the film set of Cleopatra in Rome. Young American actress Dee Moray arrives at the isolated Italian city of Portovergogna and at The Hotel Adequate View, a small inn run by Pasquale, a young Italian man whose father has just died. Fast forward fifty years to Los Angeles and Claire is a production assistant for Michael Deane, an aging Hollywood producer.

My thoughts: It would be too simple to say this novel gets better the farther you get in it, but that is partially true. As it did in The Financial Lives of Poets, Walter's writing captivated me from the first pages, and I was highlighting quotations at least every five pages. One of my early favorites is: "We live in a world of banal miracles."

While I enjoyed the story from the beginning, I didn't love it initially, even though Walter's quotable wisdom was enchanting. I was more fascinated by the story in the 1960's than the present day, and I thought Walter was telling two disparate stories. The more I read, however, the more enamored I became with the non-linear structure. I soon realized how entwined these stories were in so many ways. Rather than stick to alternating chapters of the past and present, Walter keeps readers on their toes by infusing movie pitches, a short story, a chapter from a memoir, and part of a play, as well as jumping around through time. The result is a stunning achievement: it's a complex story told in a straight-forward, yet non-linear way. It's complex and simple at the same time, and by the mid-way point, I could not put this novel down.

Favorite passage:  "Weren’t movies his generation’s faith anyway--its true religion? Wasn’t the theater our temple, the one place we enter separately but emerg from two hours later together, with the same experience, same guided emotions, same moral?

The verdict: While Walter's writing shines throughout this novel, the story does take some time to truly take flight. This novel is one both serious and casual readers will enjoy.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: June 12, 2012
Source: publisher via Edelweiss

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Beautiful Ruins 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!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

book review: An Unmarked Grave by Charles Todd

The backstory: An Unmarked Grave is the fourth title in the Bess Crawford historical mystery series by mother and son writing team Charles Todd. I've reviewed the first three titles in this series: A Duty to the Dead, An Impartial Witness, and A Bitter Truth.

The basics: The novel opens in France in the spring of 1918 when the Spanish influenza is killing many on the front lines. When a private discovers an extra body in the shed, Bess once again finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery.

My thoughts: One of the things I love most about this series is the character of Bess Crawford. She is both innocent and experienced. She's confident and bold, yet her behavior conforms to the societal norms of her times. Despite being mysteries set in the war, there is a gentleness to this series as Bess is a nurse not a constable.

In many ways, then, An Unmarked Grave surprised me. Almost all of the action takes place in France, where both the front lines and Spanish influenza pose major risks to everyone. Danger was imminent on each page. A body appears at the beginning of the novel, which is also characteristic of a more traditional detective story, and it immediately took this novel to a dark and sinister place.

The verdict: An Unmarked Grave is the most intense and fast-paced Bess Crawford mystery yet. I was riveted to the action  and shocked Todd was bold enough to put so many major characters in harm's way. The high stakes of war and disease were illuminating and depressing. It's a wonderful mystery, and it will delight readers of this series. I don't think it would work well as a stand-alone novel, however, as the action is so fast-paced that a knowledge of the regular characters will help readers distinguish the large cast of new characters.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: June 5, 2012
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy An Unmarked Grave from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.) Want more opinions? Check out the entire blog tour.

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, June 6, 2012

book review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The backstory: Gone Girl is Gillian Flynn's third novel. Update: it was longlisted for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction.

The basics: Nick and Amy are unhappily married. On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Amy disappears. Flynn tells their story in alternating chapters of Nick's reaction to Amy's disappearance, and his role as a suspect, and sections from Amy's diary stretching from their meeting to present day.

My thoughts: Gone Girl is a novel best enjoyed when you read it knowing little. Watching this story unfold was as thrilling as the story itself. As suspenseful and intriguing as the plot was, I was also enamored with Flynn's writing. She masterfully builds these characters as both deeply flawed and understandable. Telling the story in alternating voices, but in different times, provided the reader with historical perspective on the couple, a sense of their today, and insight into both of them and the different ways they viewed their marriage over time. Throughout the novel, Flynn drops clues that the reader doesn't know the whole story, such as "it was my fifth lie I to the police. I was just starting," and "I'm a big fan of the lie of omission." Trying to separate fact from fiction was intriguing and kept me guessing.

Favorite passage: "Dorothy has one of those '70s kitten-in-a-tree-posters--Hang in There! She posts her poster with all sincerity. I like to picture her running into some self-impressed Williamsburg bitch, all Betty Page bangs and pointy glasses, who owns the same poster ironically. I'd like to listen to them try to negotiate each other. Ironic people always dissolve when confronted with earnestness, it's their kryptonite."

The verdict: Gone Girl is a thrilling, mysterious, awesomely deranged tale of a marriage. Flynn kept me guessing throughout the novel, but more importantly, she kept me marveling at her mastery of language, suspense, story, character and pace.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 432 pages
Publication date: June 5, 2012
Source: publisher via Edelweiss

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Gone Girl 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, June 3, 2012

May 2012 Wrap Up & June 2012 goals

Happy June! I am coming off an incredibly satisfying reading month in terms of total books read: I managed to finish fourteen(!) books in May, which leaves me one short of fifty books for the year. I'm hoping to finish Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl tonight. Here's how my reading panned out:

The excellent (rated 4.5 stars and higher):

Run by Ann Patchett (my review)
I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits (my review)
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (my review)
I Wish I Had a Red Dress by Pearl Cleage (my review)
Long Gone by Alafair Burke (my review)

The good (rated 4 stars):

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (my review)
The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue (my review)
Perla by Carolina De Robertis (my review)
Alice by Judith Hermann (my review)
The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki (my review)

The disappointing (rated less than 4 stars):

Tides of War by Stella Tillyard (my review)

The not yet reviewed:

On the Floor by Aifric Campbell (review coming soon)
Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg (review coming soon)

Night Watch by Linda Fairstein (review coming July 2)

Rethinking Prize lists
Although I managed to complete most of the goals I set for May 2012, I was surprised to see only one of my 4.5 or 5 star reads this month came from my prize goals. As I looked back on the rest of my 2012 reading, I became even more surprised: none of the six books I've rated 5 stars this year came from prize lists (While Bel Canto won the Orange Prize, I read it on my quest to read all the Ann Patchett novels this year.) I looked back to 2011. Of the fourteen books I rated 5 stars, only one (Sense of an Ending) came from a prize list, but Ann Patchett's State of Wonder did end up making the Orange Prize shortlist in 2012.

I've spent much of the last week pondering exactly what kind of reader I want to be. I came to a few conclusions: after a banner year of prize reading in 2010, where seven of my top 10 for the year came from prize lists (and one went on to win the Pulitzer in 2011), the success of these reads has diminished somewhat. Once I got thinking, it began to make perfect sense: the prize juries are different each year. As much as I love the big prizes, some years the selections will match up with my personal taste better than other years. 

While I don't plan to completely abandon prize lists, I'm going to trust my hunches more. I hope to spend June reading whatever strikes my fancy. I want to emphasize reading the authors I already love, the authors I've been meaning to read for years, the new releases that sound the best to me, and the recommendations of readers who share similar taste. So far in 2012, those types of books have been my personal favorites.

Now tell me: what one book would you recommend to me?

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!