Tuesday, July 31, 2012

book review: The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett

The backstory: The Magician's Assistant was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1998. Ann Patchett is also one of my favorite authors, and I'm reading all of her books in 2012. When Audra asked if I wanted to read The Magician's Assistant with her, I said "of course!" Read Audra's review of The Magician's Assistant at Unabridged Chick.

The basics: At the beginning of the novel, Parcifal, the magician of the novel's title, dies suddenly. Sabine, the assistant of the title, is left to grieve.

My thoughts: After having loved State of Wonder (my review), Bel Canto (my review), and Run (my review), I was convinced Ann Patchett was one of my literary soul sisters who could do no wrong. Sadly, I didn't connect with The Magician's Assistant at all, and I struggled to even finish the novel. My problems with this novel really begin with Sabine. While I'm normally an empathetic reader, I found myself instead wanting to shake Sabine. She fell in love with Parcifal years ago and worked as his assistant for more than twenty years. Parcifal, however, is gay, and he was in love with Phan, who died of AIDS. Parcifal was also sick with AIDS, and he and Sabine were preparing for his death, but something else killed him. As Sabine is dealing with her grief, I failed to understand her weakness. Her behavior seemed to be that of a teenager or woman in her early twenties. Patchett kept reminding me Sabine was in her forties, and I couldn't help but feel sad for her: she married a man who only loved her as a friend and has nothing else after his death but his money and the money of Phan.

As pitiful as Sabine was, I still kept hoping to connect with this novel. When Sabine learns Parcifal's mother is in fact alive and well in Nebraska, she welcomes her and Parcifal's sister when they visit Los Angeles. I hoped the preposterousness of this situation would carry humor and grace, but instead, it just seemed sad and somewhat far-fetched all around. Despite these long-held secrets about Parcifal (his family still knows him as Guy), something always felt off about the people; they never felt real either. There were a few digs at Midwestern life I didn't buy either, but I could have overlooked some of the caricature if I felt the emotional depth I have in Patchett's other works.

Favorite passage:  "Most people can't be magicians for the same reason they can't be criminals. They have guilty souls. Deception doesn't come naturally. They want to be caught."

The verdict: Despite my love of Patchett's writing, I never connected with Sabine in this story, and I never felt truly engaged with the narrative. While her writing excelled, plot and character development were lacking, and overall, this novel left me cold.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 357 pages
Publication date: October 15, 1997
Source: purchased for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Magician's Assistant 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!

Monday, July 30, 2012

book review: Kill You Twice by Chelsea Cain

The backstory: Kill You Twice is the fifth novel by Chelsea Cain featuring Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan. My reviews of the previous four: Heartsick, Sweetheart, Evil at Heart, and The Night Season.

The basics: When a grisly murder happens in Portland, incarcerated Gretchen Lowell claims to have inside information on the killer. Does she really? Or is she simply playing mind games with Archie Sheridan again?

My thoughts: After The Night Season, which was a departure for the series, I was curious where Cain would take this newest novel. Those who thought there wasn't enough Gretchen in it will likely be thrilled with her return to co-star in Kill You Twice. The move was mostly successful, but the first half of this novel suffered from too much set up. It was filled with Cain's characteristic grisly details, but the plot struck me as loose and familiar: Archie struggles with normalcy, mysterious woman who looks like Gretchen moves into his building, Gretchen wants Archie to visit her, and people are brutally murdered--can it possibly be Gretchen? It's hard to fault Cain for doing what works, but I feared she really was running out of new takes on these characters and the series was fizzling.

About the midpoint of the book, however, the payoff started to emerge, and I was hooked. Kill You Twice built slowly, but the second half was a fascinating and thrilling ride that leaves no doubt this series is still going strong.

Favorite passage:  “Do people not do this here?” she asked. “Go around and meet the neighbors? I’m from San Diego, so if this is weird, tell me, so I don’t continue to make a total idiot of myself.”
“Do people do it in San Diego?” Archie asked.
“No,” Rachel said. “But I thought Portland was friendlier.”
“We are,” Archie said. “But we’re also socially awkward. I think they cancel each other out.”

The verdict: Kill You Twice reinvigorates the series and returns to the tension between Archie and Gretchen. A satisfying second half made up for a slow first half, but ultimately this novel feels more like a transition novel than a stand alone. Even though I just finished this one, I'm already eager to read the next one, so get writing Chelsea Cain.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 337 pages
Publication date: August 7, 2012 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Kill You Twice 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!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The 2012 Booker Dozen: A U.S. Reader's Guide

The wait is over, friends. The 2012 Booker Prize longlist is here! And so far, I've read none of them. I wasn't planning on reading the entire longlist this year for a variety of reasons, but of course once the list was announced, I got excited. I've already ordered copies of all of them. I must say: I expected a list of literary familiars. Instead, we're treated to four (!) debut novelists (just like last year) and many authors unfamiliar to me. I'm looking forward to exploring these books.

Unfortunately, this list is incredibly unfriendly to U.S. readers. Several of the titles aren't even out in the UK yet. It is, however, a list one could easily read through before October 16, when the winner is announced (the shortlist will be announced September 11.) Using page numbers provided by Amazon, one only has to read 48 pages each day to finish in time (if you can get a copy of all of these gems.) Clicking on the covers takes you to Amazon.

The ones available in the U.S. now:

Skios  by Michael Frayn (Kindle version)
The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Kindle version)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Kindle version)
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Kindle version)

The ones coming (somewhat) soon to the U.S.:

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman (March 2013)
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (September 4, 2012)
Umbrella by Will Self (January 2013)

The ones we hope make their way to the U.S.:

The Yips by Nicola Barker
Philida by Andre Brink
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore*
Communion Town by Sam Thompson

*(Amazon US lists a March 2012 pub date and has it temporarily out of stock. The publisher lists a September publishing date in the UK.)

While I wait for my shipments to arrive from Amazon UK and the Book Depository, I'll be taking The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Skios with me on vacation this weekend. I hope Narcopolis will be ready to pick up at the library when I return.

Now tell me: which title(s) are you most excited to read? What are you most surprised to see (or not see) on this list?

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, July 24, 2012

book review: Close Case by Alafair Burke

The backstory: Close Case is the third mystery in Alafair Burke's Samantha Kincaid series. Read my reviews of the first two books: Judgment Calls and Missing Justice.

The basics: When high-profile reporter Percy Crenshaw is murdered, the cops immediately identify a suspect and secure a somewhat suspicious confession. ADA Samantha Kincaid must try the case with the evidence given, even as she searches for alternate theories about the crime.

My thoughts: I'm a huge fan of this series, and I both adore the character of Samantha Kincaid (and the well-developed characters of her family, friends and colleagues) and the fascinating mysteries she solves. Burke does a phenomenal job of teaching the reader about the law and about Portland, Oregon:
"But in our hot spots, our most frequent calls aren't for robbery or rape. They're for stuff like loitering, graffiti, and street-level drug crimes. That's the kind of stuff that makes a neighborhood feel unsafe. And once it feels unsafe, the good guys start hiding inside and the bad guys take over. All the warm, fuzzy talk about community policing aside, our whole philosophy right now is to get our guys out there, talking to these kids on the corners, and stopping and searching them when necessary."
There are numerous elements at play in this mystery, and the city of Portland, its crime, and its racial make-up are a huge part of this novel. Burke tackles social issues as flawlessly as she does the crime, and both are improved by the strength of the other.

The verdict: Close Case is a superb installment in the Samantha Kincaid series: it's the best novel in an excellent series. The combination of current events and mystery was intriguing, thought-provoking and suspenseful. I hope Alafair Burke will return to this series and continue Samantha Kincaid's journey.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 368 pages
Publication date: June 26, 2005
Source: purchased for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Close Case 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!

Monday, July 23, 2012

book review: On the Floor by Aifric Campbell

The backstory: On the Floor was on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist.

The basics: (from the publisher) "In the City, everything has a price. What's yours? At the age of twenty-eight, Dubliner Geri Molloy has put her troubled past behind her to become a major player at Steiner's investment bank in London, earning £850k a year doing business with a reclusive hedge fund manager in Hong Kong who, in return for his patronage, likes to ask her about Kant and watch while she eats exotic Asian delicacies. For five years Geri has had it all, but in the months leading up to the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991, her life starts to unravel. Abandoned by her corporate financier boyfriend, in the grip of a debilitating insomnia, and drinking far too much, Geri becomes entangled in a hostile takeover involving her boss, her client and her ex. With her career on the line as a consequence, and no one to turn to, she is close to losing it, in every sense. Taut and fast-paced, On the Floor is about making money and taking risks; it's about getting away with it, and what happens when you're no longer one step ahead; ultimately, though, it's a reminder to never, ever underestimate the personal cost of success."

My thoughts: On the Floor has a fascinating premise: it's set against the Gulf War of 1991 and focuses on a career I know little about: investment banking. I was immediately drawn to Geri as a character. She lives large, plays hard, and works hard. It's clear she can't keep up the pace, but I was looking forward to the journey. While there was much I liked in this novel, the pacing was uneven. Some parts were filled with suspense, while others were dragged down by detail.

I particularly enjoyed Geri's observations (and premonitions) regarding the Gulf War. Knowing both the end of that war and the coming second Gulf War, there were some chilling scenes. It's a slippery slope when the reader knows more about the coming events than the characters. In On the Floor, it mostly worked, but at times the premonitions began to feel heavy handed.

The verdict: A strong setting, intriguing characters and good writing gave this novel all of the elements of success, but together it never quite came together for me. Ultimately, I appreciated what Campbell was trying to tell with this complicated story and setting, but I think she lost focus in unnecessary details too often to truly succeed.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: March 1, 2012 (in the UK--no word on a U.S. release)
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy On the Floor 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!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Salon: heatwave, the re-emergence of prizes, and impending vacation

Happy Sunday! Des Moines, like so much of the country is in the midst of an excruciating heat wave. One perk to this miserable weather: I'm reading even more than usual because I never want to leave home. Even the walk to the car makes me woozy. As it doesn't look the heat will break anytime soon, all I can hope for is a summer of great reading and an early fall!

I'm really looking forward to a short week of work. I'm heading to South Florida on Thursday. Words I never thought I'd say: "I can't wait to get to South Florida in late July. It will be so much cooler!" I'm looking forward to a fun, long weekend with friends. I haven't finalized which books I'll take with me for the plane, pool and beach because the Booker Prize longlist will be announced Wednesday. Although I vowed to stray from prize lists, I find myself getting more and more excited about which titles will make the longlist. I won't promise to read the entire longlist, particularly as many of the predicted titles are not yet published in the U.S. or not even scheduled to be published in the U.S. I don't make predictions for the Booker Prize, but I do enjoy following the speculation. As I did last year, I plan to chime in with my thoughts Wednesday once the longlist is announced and share my plans for which titles I'll read.

Now tell me: how are you surviving the weather? Or are you lucky enough to be somewhere without sweltering heat?

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, July 20, 2012

book review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The basics: In her early twenties, Cheryl Strayed was reeling from both the death of her mother and the break up of her marriage. She spontaneously (and somewhat recklessly) decided to hike the Pacific Coast Trail for three months by herself in the summer of 1995.

My thoughts: I'll let you in on the one fact about me that continues to absolutely baffle Mr. Nomadreader: I really want to hike the Appalachian Trail. He thought I was kidding when I first mentioned it. To be fair, we'd been together for years before it came up, and he was well aware that not only have I have never been camping, but I am also generally frightened of the woods, animals and anything that suddenly moves. (I proudly drink out of my "I'm outdoorsy in that I like to get drunk on patios" coffee mug.)  He knows I immensely enjoy comfortable beds, couches, air conditioning, good food and modern toilets. He's right. I have no desire to simply go camping, but I do still have a desire, and a longing, to hike the Appalachian Trail. I remain in awe that one can walk from Georgia to Maine (or vice versa.) Granted, I spent some very formative years in Atlanta with people who did enjoy the outdoors, and hiking all or part of the trail was a common activity for many of them. Will it ever happen? I can't imagine getting enough time off work to be able to do it.

But enough about me. Despite my normal aversion to the outdoors and memoirs, I was intrigued by Wild. Cheryl Strayed's writing is gorgeous and honest and painful. I don't think this memoir would have been possible much earlier in her life. She needed distance from her twenty-something self to write with this level of clarity and unapologetic strength. With almost twenty years hindsight, she manages to make her stupid, early-twenties actions not only easy to relate to, but she also provides the ultimate context to keep the tale from being utterly depressing: we know she makes it. Even knowing the ending from the beginning, I read without putting this book down. I cried. I actually hugged the book when I finished it.

I read this memoir in a single day. The more I read, the more intrigued with Strayed I was and the more enraptured with her writing I became:
"I was as searching as I was skeptical. I didn't know where to put my faith, or if there was such a place, or even precisely what the word faith meant, in all of the complexity. Everything seems to be possibly potent and possibly fake."
Wild is the wonderful type of non-fiction I love because it is as emotionally real as great fiction is to me. I haven't loved a memoir this much since Eat, Pray, Love (I do sometimes wonder if I would loved that book as much if I read it for the first time today, in my early thirties, as I did when I read it in my mid twenties, but, of course, there's no way to know.) They're completely different memoirs, but Gilbert and Strayed both write with an admirable amount of honesty. And they both write with immense wisdom.

Wild isn't perfect; in the first eighty pages Strayed is sometimes redundant as she sets both the present of the memoir time (1995) and her past (pre-1995.) As the narrative moves on, she goes into more detail about some stories already mentioned, and this repetition dragged down the narrative in some of those early moments. Despite these minor structural issues: I wholeheartedly recommend Wild. The writing and honesty are empowering and beautiful. I recognized a lot of my twenty-something self in Cheryl Strayed, albeit not the details, and she made revisiting it seem uplifting and cathartic rather than embarrassing.

Favorite passage:  "Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren't a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the PCT had altered that sense. Alone was not a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before. Living at large like this, without even a roof over my head, made the world feel a bigger and smaller to me."

The verdict: Despite not being a fan of the outdoors or memoirs, I adored Wild. Strayed's writing is as refreshing as her honesty. Even though the map at the beginning outlines her journey and the ending is never in doubt, I turned the pages with suspense, but I read slowly to savor each word of her prose.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: March 20, 2012
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Wild 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!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

book review: The World Without You by Joshua Henkin

The basics: The World Without You is the story of the Frankel family gathering over July 4, 2005 at their summer home in Lenox, Massachusetts, one year after the death of Leo, the youngest of four children, in Iraq.

My thoughts: I've been meaning to read Matrimony, Joshua Henkin's previous novel for years, but when I heard about this new novel, I decided to start with it. I'm so glad I did. I read The World Without You mostly in public places, which isn't particularly unusual for me. What is worth mentioning, however, is that nearly every chapter of this novel brought tears to my eyes. Some chapters left me sobbing, which is something I generally try to avoid in public places, but this novel was too good to put down in airports, on airplanes and on the bus.

Despite taking place over a few days, Henkin masterfully constructs these characters fully. I never got confused as to which person, and they seemed like real people, was which. Part of the fun for me was the setting in the Berkshires, near where my husband grew up and I, too, love to spend summers. Essentially, this novel is all about character and writing:
"In her twenties, she used to buy condoms with a casualness that bordered on disdain, but this feels different to her. There’s something more private about pregnancy than about sex, and although she understands the two are connected, it’s the trying to conceive that feels personal to her."
As I looked back on the numerous passages I marked, I was still surprised to see that all of them were character-based statements. Henkin is a beautiful writer, and despite the tragic death at the novel's center, the emotions I felt as I read never felt forced or stemmed from manipulation. Instead, they stemmed from real grief felt for these people.

Favorite passage:  "She’s suspicious of people who don’t snoop; she thinks it suggests a lack of curiosity."

The verdict: The World Without You is a deeply affecting, character-driven novel and one I won't soon forget. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: June 19, 2012 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The World Without You 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, July 17, 2012

book review: The Age of Miracles

The basics: When the speed of the Earth's rotation slows, life changes for Julia, an eleven-year old living in Southern California.

My thoughts: I found the premise of this novel fascinating: what happens to our world when something so simple we rarely think about, the Earth's rotation, begins to change? It's a future I had not contemplated. As Thompson Walker writes in the novel's early pages:
"There was no footage to show on television, no burning buildings or broken bridges, no twisted metal or scorched earth, no houses sliding off slabs. No one was wounded. No one was dead. It was, at the beginning, a quite invisible catastrophe."
The change seems so minor: each day there is more daylight, followed by more nighttime. One of the initial casualties is time: do we stay on the same 24 hour clock when the middle of the night may come in the afternoon or stay on the clock of the sun? These issues were fascinating to me, and the very real-ness of the situation left me contemplating which side I would take.

As the novel progressed, however, I grew somewhat bored. I wanted more than anecdotes about what the news and our leaders were saying. Through Julia, the reader sees how differently her parents react to the slowing, but I longed for more. I wanted to dig deeper into detail, the experiences of more people, and the experiences of others around the country and the world. Julia mentions a few times how lucky they are to be in Southern California, but I wanted to know more about how others fared.

While it's clear from the beginning of the novel that Julia is telling the story from the future, the increasing foreshadowing led me to believe there was momentum building. Ultimately, I was disappointed by how underdeveloped the wonderful idea for this novel was. It read more like a children's or teen novel, which will appeal to some readers.

Favorite passage:  "But I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different--unimagined, unprepared for, unknown."

The verdict: Despite a strong premise and strong writing, The Age of Miracles fell flat for me. As the sole narrator, Julia let me down. I cared less about the impact on her young life than I did on the world as a whole. I was left with more questions; I wanted Thompson Walker to explore more. The vision of the new reality was so narrow, and I wished for more world building.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 
Length: 289 pages
Publication date: June 26, 2012
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Age of Miracles 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!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

book review: Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do by Pearl Cleage

The backstory: Pearl Cleage is one of my favorite authors, and this year, I'm re-reading (and then reading) all of her novels. Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do is her third novel and the first in the West End series. My reviews of her first two novels: What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day and I Wish I Had a Red Dress.

The basics: Regina Burns has turned her life back around. She's out of rehab, but her poor decisions have left her home, the home her mother and grandmother grew up in, in danger of being taken by the bank. She sets off for Atlanta to work for her former boss, inspirational speaker Beth Davis, to organize the paper's of her late son, Son Davis, to whom Regina was engaged.

My thoughts: I remember reading Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do shortly after it came out nearly ten years ago. As I re-read it, I was surprised how much of the story I remembered, even the little details. It's a unique novel. Still present are Pearl Cleage's characteristic impassioned writing:
"The signs the demonstrators carried in Memphis right before Martin Luther King was killed said only i am a man. We all knew what that meant, and we embraced it, endorsed it, longed for it. But something happened between then and now. The definition of what a man is and what a man does has been so corrupted and compromised by a pop culture that will tell you anything to sell you everything that now we have manhood defined by cars and clothes and random sex and money made by any means necessary."
What separates this novel from her first two might surprise some: magical realism. This novel is a fascinating work of fiction because it's simultaneously realistic and a product of fantasy. It straddles the line beautifully between what is real, what might be real, and what could be real.

Against this backdrop of reality and dreams are dynamic characters. Regina is a beautiful, flawed, honest, strong heroine. The Atlanta in this novel is a character itself, and its idealized yet realistic portrayal is one I remember and miss. The other characters of this novel bring stability, drama and chaos in a beautifully, dramatic way.

Favorite passage:  "My mother always said a steady diet of scary bad news was just a right-wing plot to make people afraid to trust one another, and I used to laugh, but I think maybe she was right."

The verdict: Pearl Cleage's lyrical writing, astute observations on contemporary African-American society, and hints of magical realism delight. Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do is a novel that makes me confront the world we live in, but it also makes you dream about the world we could live in.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 307
Publication date: August 26, 2003
Source: purchased for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

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, July 10, 2012

book review: Flight from Berlin by David John

The backstory: Flight from Berlin is David John's first novel.

The basics: Set during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Flight from Berlin is a story of espionage. It focuses on Eleanor, a young, married swimmer destined to win another Olympic gold medal despite her father's (a New York Senator) disapproval of the games that support Hitler, and Denham, a British journalist.

My thoughts: I'm a huge fan of the Olympics, and reading about the stories 1936 Olympics was quite intriguing. The opening pages of the novel were fascinating. I was instantly drawn to Eleanor and her feistiness. Granted, her dialogue was sometimes heavy-handed, but it worked for her:
"The fastest man on earth is on board this ship,’ she said, interrupting Helen, ‘and he’s a Negro. He’s going to win gold in Berlin in front of the whole world. Don’t you think that’ll be one in the eye for stupid, hokey race theories? I think it’s damned right that we’re going to these Games.’"
The early chapters are told in alternating stories, and Denham's story took me longer to get into. He was less dynamic as a character.

Despite initially enjoying this novel, the stories never really took off for me. While I hoped the Olympics would provide a fascinating backdrop, it was more of an ordinary Hitler-era espionage story, and I found the pacing to be somewhat off kilter. At times this novel suffered from too much telling and not enough showing:
"Spies and journalists alike were in the information game, courting contacts, mining for secrets. In times like these the jobs were almost identical."
After that quote, it seemed clear Denham would find his to espionage, yet the actual journey took awhile. What seemed most off about this novel were its expectations of the reader's knowledge. At times I grew bored because it seemed John assumed the readers knew nothing about the time, but at other times, he name dropped for seemingly little reason other than to emphasize what the reader does know about the time.

The verdict: While this novel didn't click for me, it will likely appeal to fans of World War II fiction and those who haven't read too much about this period. John combines real people from history with fictional characters well, but overall, it failed to impress.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 368 pages
Publication date: July 10, 2012
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Flight from Berlin 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!

Monday, July 9, 2012

book review: Missing Justice by Alafair Burke

The backstory: Missing Justice is Alafair Burke's second novel in the Samantha Kincaid series. I thoroughly enjoyed the first title in the series, Judgment Calls (my review.)

The basics: The action in Missing Justice picks up one month after the events of Judgment Calls. Samantha is now a prosecutor in the Major Crimes Unit, and her first case there comes sooner than she expects when she gets a late night call telling her a judge is missing.

My thoughts: Partially because so little time elapsed between these two books, I was glad to read them close together. Of course, I was also eager to read Missing Justice because I adore Alafair Burke. The mystery in this novel began early, yet Burke still does an excellent job of teaching the reader about law, procedure and Portland without slowing down the action: "Portland has low violent crime and high property crime, driven primarily by a large population of street kids and drug addicts." (Although I must confess, the smart ass in me immediately quipped, what about Gretchen Lowell?)

One of the things I love most about this series (even only two books in) is how well I feel like I know Samantha. I love her. I love that she listens to Lyle Lovett cds (I'm a pretty big fan too) and reads mysteries. There are wonderful lines like this one:
"You believe in coincidences, Kincaid?” One of my favorite crime writers says there’s no such thing, but I’d never thought much about it. “Sure,” I said, “when I need to."
For the astute reader, there are layers of meaning and fun in that line; for the oblivious, it's still relevant to the story.

Missing Justice is an intriguing thriller, and it's one I thoroughly enjoyed, if a little less than Judgment Calls. There's something magical about the second book in a series, though, that makes the reading experience more enjoyable: you start to identify the author's quirks and habits. I start to see patterns in her pacing and writing, and I'm curious if those will continue.

Favorite passage:  "This conversation was echoing some of the broader debates we’d had about the allocation of law enforcement resources. I knew how frustrated Dad was, for example, that some of the highest-profile white-collar perps remained unindicted years after their scandals erupted. And I knew he saw a link between corporate practices that thwart the American dreams of everyday workers and the desperation that causes people to rob, sell drugs, or even kill, like Melvin Jackson. To Dad, economic crimes and street crimes were inseparable, each feeding the continuation of the other."

The verdict: Although the mystery is not quite as compelling as the one in Judgment Calls, Missing Justice still shines. Samantha Kincaid is a heroine to root for, and her actions inside the courtroom, in the filed, and at home are all equally entertaining in Burke's sophomore novel.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: June 2, 2004
Source: purchased for my Kindle

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

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, July 8, 2012

Sunday Salon: GoodReads and LibraryThing

I've been a Library Thing devotee for several years now. Recently, though, I decided to give GoodReads another chance. I'm not abandoning LibraryThing, but there are a few things I like better about GoodReads. (Note: Florinda has written about her love of LibraryThing at The 3R's Blog, and I won't be going into the level of detail she is. Similarly, Wallace has written about how to get the most out of GoodReads at Unputdownables. It's an excellent guide if you're unfamiliar with the site.) My focus today comes down to the simple question: what works best for me to organize my books and discover new books?

LibraryThing: How I love thee...
A co-worker and I were chatting about GoodReads a few months ago, and I mentioned I'm a LibraryThing user instead. Her response: of course you are, you're a librarian, but non-librarians prefer GoodReads. I'm willing to concede part of that point, but I think most of it comes down to what level of cataloging you care about for your books. Many dedicated readers will want the robustness of LibraryThing's cataloging efforts.

LibraryThing is a cataloger's dream. You have the option of using both controlled shelves (you can add and edit them, but all books must be on a shelf) and tagging. Different people use the two options in vastly different ways. I have prizes for most of the big prizes, and I love that books can be on multiple shelves (i.e. Read, Read in 2012, Pulitzer, and Favorites) plus have tags. I use tags to both describe the book and to indicate when I read it.

...but sometimes you let me down
LibraryThing is designed with a more classical approach in mind. Adding books works best if you have a physical book and an ISBN in front of you. I read mostly e-books and ARCs, so I am usually adding books manually, then manually changing the cover to be the correct image, which inevitably prompts the alert message "this will change your books ISBN." Obviously, in a real library, it is important to know which edition of a book you have. In my world, I care more about tracking my reading and reading goals. In many cases, I'm adding books I want to read, and I don't yet know if I'll be buying it for my Kindle or getting it from my library, and I don't really care.

Aside from that, there are two other minor gripes I have with LibraryThing: duplicates and the To Read shelf. I use the social functions of LibraryThing fairly regularly, and when people recommend books to me, I usually open another tab and add the book to my library manually. Often, I discover I already have the book in my library because LibraryThing alerts me I have a duplicate book. I can then delete it, find the original record and make another note about the new source recommending it. One reason I lose track of what's on my To Read shelf is that there aren't enough meaningful ways to sort it. I didn't realize how much I would love it, but GoodReads forced TBR ranking is incredibly helpful.

GoodReads: How I love thee...
The to be read shelf is one of my favorite features. New books are automatically added to the bottom of your queue. It's pretty easy to change the numbers, once I figured it out (it's incredibly non-intuitive to type the desired number in the box, then also click in the box and select 'move to position.') I wish it were as easy as Netflix and also enabled drag and drop. Still, it's nice.

One of the other great parts about GoodReads are its social functions. It's set up very much like Facebook with a newsfeed. I was able to import my Facebook friends list and Twitters following list, so I had a nice bank of bookish people built in to follow. As my friends post book status updates on books they finish, begin, add to their to read list, or update progress, there's a lovely column that indicates if the book is in my GoodReads account. If so, it tells me where. If not, it easily allows me to add it with a single click. (Yes, my to read list has grown astronomically because of it.) It's also easier to change the edition of the book in GoodReads. A simple mouse hover over the other editions lets you see the right one and click to change. I can also comment and ask questions about their books directly in the newsfeed.

One of the biggest perks to GoodReads I just discovered: an email alerting you to new releases by authors you've previously read. It's a fantastic perk. I stay up on new releases, but there are always a few that all through the cracks. Granted, given how my reading taste have changed over the years, I'm also subjected to new releases by authors I doubt I'll read again (ahem, James Patterson), but it's still a useful email customized to each user.

...but oh how I loathe you too
My biggest pet peeve with GoodReads, and one that single-handedly assures it will never be my only online book tracker, is the lack of half-stars. I have issues with their definitions of star ratings in general (1 star=didn't like it, 2 stars=it was okay, 3 stars=liked it, 4 stars=really liked it, 5 stars=it was amazing!) I suppose I think more in terms of letter grades and percentages. Giving three stars to a book you like seems silly: that's barely better than half. Giving two stars to a book that's okay makes even less sense: it's less than half. Regardless, I love half-stars, and I won't give them up.

Another thing that irks me about GoodReads: the shelves and lack of tagging. While you can have books on multiple shelves of your choosing, you must have it on one of the three core shelves: read, currently reading, or to read. On the surface, it seems sensible, but what about those books you've started but never finished? I don't really intend to read them in most cases, but I haven't actually read them either. I want to keep track of the books and authors I abandon, but there's not a seamless way I've discovered on GoodReads yet. GoodReads does let you add as many other shelves as you want, but they're more cumbersome than on LibraryThing.

And I also still have...
a books spreadsheet in Google docs. I use it to track my reading, as well as my reviews, and there are some elements of my reading, goal-setting and tracking not everyone needs access to. Plus, it lets me color code, and none of the online options do that! For now, I'm updating three places each time I start and finish a book. It seems extreme, but it also is working for me for now.

Now tell me: how do you keep track of what you read? What pros and cons of LibraryThing and GoodReads matter most to you? 

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, July 5, 2012

book review: The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

The backstory: I've been eager to read The Virgin Cure, Ami McKay's second novel, since Amy at Amy Reads reviewed it last fall when it was released in Canada.

The basics: The Virgin Cure is the story of Moth, a 12-year-old girl in New York City in 1871. Moth's father left when she was three, and her mother, a gypsy, lives in poverty so deep on Chrystie Street, she sells Moth as a servant to a rich woman.

My thoughts: Although Moth narrates her story, the reader is treated to helpful and explanatory notes in the text from Dr. Sadie, a female physician who works with poor women and children. With this balance, McKay manages to have a pure narrative from a young girl and provides the reader with context about the world in which Moth lives.

While the cover of this novel seems relatively innocuous, its title references something deeply sinister, and the book itself is filled with a sad story. The Virgin Cure is the kind of historical fiction that shakes readers to their cores. As I read, I desperately wanted to believe Moth's world didn't exist. I wanted to believe this novel was more fiction than history. I wanted to believe the experiences of girls like Moth are not part of our shared history. As I read A People's History of the United States earlier this year, I was struck by the statistics of orphans and poverty in the cities, but reading this novel made those numbers so much more real to me. It's a reminder why I continue to prefer the emotional resonance of fiction to non-fiction.

The verdict: The Virgin Cure wrecked me emotionally. McKay's powerful characters shined, and I felt their despair. While it's a story I wish weren't true, it's certainly a story that needed telling, and McKay proves she's a master of gritty historical fiction.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: June 26, 2012
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

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

Want more? Visit all the tour stops, stop by Ami McKay's website, find her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, or browse her boards on Pinterest.

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, July 2, 2012

book review: Night Watch by Linda Fairstein

The backstory: Night Watch is the fourteenth mystery in Linda Fairstein's Alexandra Cooper series. Cooper is an ADA in the Manhattan Sex Crimes Unit, just as Fairstein herself was for twenty years. I discovered this series in the spring of 2003 and have read them all. Here are links to my prior reviews of Fairstein's series: Final Jeopardy, Likely to Die, Bad BloodLethal LegacyHell Gate, and Silent Mercy.

The basics: Alex is vacationing in France with Luc, her French chef boyfriend, when a young woman is found dead in the sleepy town. Soon thereafter, word breaks that Mohammed Gil-Dasin, known to most as MGD, has been accused of raping a maid at a hotel in New York City. MGD is head of the World Economic Bureau.

My thoughts: I'll begin with the good, as Fairstein is one of my favorite mystery writers, and this series is near and dear to my heart. As always, the banter among Alex, Mercer and Mike is a delight. I enjoyed them working both the high-profile MGD case and others. Within the MGD case, I was fascinated by how Fairstein pulled in comparisons between the French legal system and the U.S. system. The international angle was refreshing and intriguing.

Two things hampered my enjoyment of this novel: Luc and the MGD storyline. To be fair, I have never liked Luc and am somewhat baffled he and Alex are still together. I realize, however, that my personal dislike for Luc may not be shared. If you like Luc: you're in luck, because there's a lot of him in this novel. The second failing of this novel is more universal: the MGD rape case. To anyone who follows international current events, it's clear the case is inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. While typically I love novels based on real people or real events, this one fell flat. The story moved too slowly for me, as the details were nearly identical to the DSK case. When the MGD case did finally stray, it was divine, but it took too long to get there.

The verdict: After the excellence of Silent MercyNight Watch disappoints. While it isn't Fairstein's best, as a longtime fan of the series, I still enjoyed it. Recommended to fans, but if you're new to Fairstein, I suggest you start at the beginning with Final Jeopardy (my review) and work your way through the series or start with Silent Mercy, an excellent more recent mystery.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 416 pages
Publication date: July 10, 2012
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours and NetGalley

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Night Watch from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.) Want more opinions? Check out the full tour schedule.

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, July 1, 2012

Sunday Salon: Sunburned and jetlagged

Happy July! It's been a whirlwind few weeks, and I'm sorry to have been absent for so long. I'm back in Des Moines after a wonderful trip to California for the American Library Association conference, followed by a few fun-filled days exploring Los Angeles and Orange County. Unfortunately, the Internet went out at my hotel after construction workers hit the line, and it stayed off for the rest of my stay.

I have so many things to update you all on: ALA, including the first-ever Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and Non-fiction ceremony (one of the conference highlights for me), some of the fabulous books I read on vacation, and my journey itself. I'm slowly getting back to Central time, but I came home with a truly wicked sunburn. I rented a convertible and drove down the Pacific Coast Highway without enough sunscreen. I'm still hurting pretty badly, but I think the pain is on the decline.

June wrap-up
Letting myself read whatever struck my fancy this month worked out beautifully. I read nine books, and I rated them all 4 or more stars. I still have three left to review in the coming weeks. Here's how what I read in June measured up:

The excellent (rated 4.5 stars):

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (my review)
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (my review)
Judgment Calls by Alafair Burke (my review)
We Only Know So Much (my review)

The Good (rated 4 stars):

An Unmarked Grave by Charles Todd (my review)
Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan (my review)

The Soon-to-be Reviewed:

Missing Justice by Samantha Kincaid
Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do by Pearl Cleage
The World Without You by Joshua Henkin

Plans for July
I enjoyed my June reading so much, I'm continuing my pledge to read whatever strikes my fancy. While I will be curious to see which titles make up the Booker Prize longlist on July 26, I doubt I'll read the entire longlist this year. I will still read the ones that intrigue me the most. Here are some titles I hope to read this month:

For specific review dates:

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay (Thursday, July 5)
Flight from Berlin by David John (Tuesday, July 10)
Miss Me When I'm Gone by Emily Arsenault (Thursday, August 2)

Favorite authors:

Close Case by Alafair Burke
Kill You Twice by Chelsea Cain (out August 7, 2012)
Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
Babylon Sisters by Pearl Cleage
The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (out September 18, 2012)

New Releases:

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Gold by Chris Cleave (publishes July 3, 2012)

Now tell me: what's the best book you read in June?