Tuesday, August 28, 2012

book review: Correcting the Landscape by Marjorie Kowalski Cole

The backstory: Correcting the Landscape won the Bellwether Prize in 2004.

The basics: In Fairbanks, Alaska, Gus runs a newspaper struggling financially, both for the familiar reasons and because of the local advertisers, who increasingly take issue with the paper's political views and are pulling their financial support.

My thoughts: I majored in journalism in college, and I have a fascination with stories about journalists. I'm also fascinated by life in Alaska, so when I discovered this novel on my quest to read all of the Bellwether Prize winners, I was looking forward to it. Correcting the Landscape is a realistic, and depressing, look at the small town newspaper industry, but it's emphasis is really on telling the story of Gus, whose personal turmoil drifts into work, just as his professional turmoil is deeply personal. As a character, I admit I never felt connected to Gus, but Kowalski Cole's writing was so beautiful, I didn't care.

The themes of social justice in this novel are haunting. While it's a story of one man in one Alaska town, there is a universality in its arguments about the importance of news in our society:
"These three kids of his, their arrival over the years had kept pace with an increasing conservatism on his and Mary’s part. World too painful to present to his children, so you just pretend it’s different? Pretend these painful, ugly things don’t exist?"
Through the writing, grim events, and Alaska setting (the author was Alaskan), there's a chill to this novel, but  there's also a lingering hope, for both Gus as an individual and for the newspaper itself.

Favorite passage:  "A sense of community made me look up from my pages in anticipation of future struggles."

The verdict: Correcting the Landscape is a fascinating glimpse into Alaska and the newspaper industry. I enjoyed the larger themes more than the internal struggles of Gus, but the strength of this novel is in Kowalski Cole's prose.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: January 3, 2006
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Correcting the Landscape 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, August 23, 2012

book review: The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

The basics: The Orchardist, a debut novel from Amanda Coplin, is the story of Talmadge. When he was a boy, his father died. His mother took him and his sister west to an orchard in the Pacific Northwest. Tragedy continues to befall this family, as Talmadge's mother dies when he is 15. His sister disappears two years later, yet Talmadge lives on growing and selling fruit. When two young, pregnant girls, begin stealing from him, he tries to take them under his wing and provide food and shelter for him.

My thoughts: I confess: the description of this novel did not entice me to read it, but as it kept appearing on "Best of the Fall" lists, I took a chance, and I'm so glad I did. I think the word haunting may be approaching overuse for describing novels, but in the case of The Orchardist, it's apt. Coplin's writing is as haunting as her characters:
"She'd had the look of departure about a year before she disappeared. A watchfulness. Stirrings of restlessness in a creature otherwise inimitably patient."
The pace of the novel is also somewhat haunting. The novel is told in vignettes of varying length and time moves slowly sometimes and quickly at others. The story always flows beautifully, and I found myself reading it slowly to savor its stillness and depth.

Favorite passage: "And that was the point of children, thought Caroline Middey: to bind us to the earth and to the present, to distract us from death. A distraction dressed as a blessing: but dressed so well, as so truly that it became a blessing. Or maybe it was the other way around: a blessing first, before a distraction. Caroline Middey scrutinized this point; did not know if the distinction was important. (But all distinctions are important.)

The verdict: The Orchardist is simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming. It's a beautifully rendered debut novel, and Coplin's prose is as haunting as Talmadge himself.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5 (I'm still seriously debating this rating: it might end up at 5 stars)
Length: 448 pages
Publication date: August 21, 2012
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Orchardist 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!

Friday, August 17, 2012

book review: Accordion Crimes by E. Annie Proulx

The backstory: Accordion Crimes was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1997.

The basics: Accordion Crimes traces the lives of immigrants from a variety of countries  throughout the 1900's as a single green accordion ties the stories loosely together.

My thoughts: From the very first pages, I was enchanted with the writing of E. Annie Proulx. I vaguely recall reading Close Range in college, but I can't remember if I even liked her writing or stories. I'll remember her now. The downside to my love of her writing was her brilliant characterization, as I didn't realize when I started this book that it  was a series of (long) short stories. When the first story came to an end, I was devastated. In some ways, the book never quite recovered for me. Despite the significance of the accordion to both the characters and stories, the accordion was perhaps my least favorite aspect of this novel. As a narrative device, it worked beautifully. I loved the idea of an object passing through the lives and hands of different people, and most of the transitions were intriguing.

To fault Proulx for being disappointed with this book because I was expecting a novel is unfair. I like to know as little as possible before reading books that come highly recommended (or appear on prize lists). While Accordion Crimes is beautifully written and features several engaging stories, I failed to emotionally connect with some of them. As is so often the case for me as a reader, I enjoyed the first story best. When it ended, I was sad and struggled most with the second story. Once I got a sense of her overarching goals and structure, I was drawn into most of the other stories, but none captured the same spark as the first one.

Favorite passage:  "...for he conducted his life as everyone does--by guessing at the future."

The verdict:  While the writing was gorgeous, the stories didn’t come together enough for me. Ultimately, it didn’t feel like a novel, despite the strong thematic elements. While I’ll eagerly read Proulx again, next time I’ll try a novel.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 432 pages
Publication date: June 19, 1996
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Accordion Crimes 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, August 16, 2012

book review: Communion Town by Sam Thompson

The backstory: Communion Town has been longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize.

The basics: The tagline for Communion Town is "A City in Ten Chapters." Aside from setting the stories have little in common, but instead they give ten different perspectives on the city of Communion Town.

My thoughts: I was immediately intrigued by the premise of this novel. I imagined the stories to have some overlapping characters and places. Instead, the more I read, the more convinced I became this book is not really a novel. Ultimately, it's a collection of stories that take place in the same city.

I confess I enjoyed this book less as it went on, but Thompson's writing is superb. There were a few stories I didn't care for at all, but for the most part, the writing carried throughout the stories I liked and didn't like. Throughout the first three stories, I kept searching for the common threads, either in character, location or theme. I didn't find much, but there were trends of seemingly realistic stories transitioning to something dreamlike and bordered on science fiction. While I did appreciate this tension determining what is real and what kind of city we're meeting, this theme wasn't explored quite as fully as I would have hoped.

Favorite passage: "Have you noticed how each of us conjures up our own city? You have your secret haunts and private landmarks and favourite short cuts, and I have mine, so as we navigate the streets each of us walks through a world of our own invention. And by following you into your personal city, I can learn a great deal of what I need to know."

The verdict: Thompson's writing wowed me throughout this book, but the stories I enjoyed most were the first three, and my very favorite was the first story. I hoped for more threads tying these together, and I'm curious if the Booker jury will find more connections than I did as they re-read Communion Town. While the writing is certainly Booker-worthy, I'm not convinced Communion Town is a novel.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: July 5, 2012 (UK)--no word on a U.S. release yet
Source: purchased from the Book Depository

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Communion Town from the Book Depository or Amazon (no U.S. 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, August 15, 2012

book review: Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

The backstory: Commencement was one of my book club's July picks.

The basics: Commencement tells the story of four friends, Celia, Sally, Bree and April, who met at Smith College and remained best friends as life took them in different directions after graduation. The four meet again at Smith for Sally's wedding and the novel unfolds in the present, as well as through flashbacks of their time at Smith.

My thoughts: There's a feeling I get sometimes when I read that the writer gets me. I don't only read to not feel alone in this world, but I celebrate when I come across a book that leaves me internally shouting, "yes!" in reaction to a character or a passage of writing. I lost count of how many times I felt affirmed by both her writing and her characters. J. Courtney Sullivan is one of those writers I celebrate, and although Commencement is not a perfect novel, it was an utterly delightful reading experience from its first pages:
"It was a habit of hers, a remnant of a time when she actually believed in God and would say a Hail Mary whenever she was in trouble. Celia realized now that what she had once thought of as prayers were in fact just wishes. She didn't expect the Virgin to actually do anything--even if she did exist, she probably wouldn't be in the business of controlling buses running express from Manhattan to Northampton, Mass. All the same, the familiar words calmed Celia down. She tried to use them sparingly so as not to offend the Mother of God, a woman she didn't believe in, but even so." 
Celia is the first to narrate, and I initially connected more with her, often for characterizations like this one: "Celia wanted to know it immediately. Her mother always said she had a novelist's fascination with other people's tragic tales." Although the novel is ultimately an ensemble, Celia seems to be the main character throughout.

The novel is filled with sharp observations that are sometimes funny and almost always wise. While I enjoyed the tales of their college years immensely (I love college so much I work at one), I was moved by their lives after college, when the women remained the same age but found themselves at different points in their lives.

Favorite passage: "Back then, they had expanses of time in which to memorize one another's routines and favorite songs and worst heartaches and greatest days. It felt something like being in love, but without the weight of having to choose just one heart to hold on to, and without the fear of ever losing it."

The verdict: While some parts of the story fell a little flat for me, Commencement is still a novel I utterly adored. J. Courtney Sullivan infuses social justice and feminism beautifully to enhance the overarching theme of friendship. Sullivan wrote fully realized characters, and I loved witnessing their good times and bad times. She's clearly a writer to watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 432 pages
Publication date: June 16, 2009
Source: bought it for my Kindle

 Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Commencement 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, August 14, 2012

book review: Don't Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman

The backstory: Don't Ever Get Old, the first mystery novel by Daniel Friedman, was one of my book club's July picks.

The basics: Buck Schatz is 88 and a retired Memphis cop. When one of his old war friends dies, he learns his enemy from the war may have escaped Germany with a significant amount of gold. He and his grandson set off to find the man and steal the gold.

My thoughts: Buck is a unique character. He's getting old, as he tells the reader frequently. He lacks a filter, which made this novel amusing, if sometimes crass.Initially, I appreciated and enjoyed Buck's perspective:
"I’ve been around eighty-eight years, Detective, and I’ve found that it’s always a good time to be a wiseass."
As the novel went on, however, his memory problems, aversion to technology and medical ailments became trite and annoying.

I'm of two minds about this novel, as I did enjoy the experience of reading most of it. Hearing Buck's stories about the war were intriguing. The notion of a Nazi war criminal successfully hiding with a large amount of gold is the perfect blend of possible and unlikely. As Buck tracked him, I could not put the book down. With his history as a cop, this novel didn't initially feel like a cozy. I enjoyed Buck's grandson, who used technology in ways Buck couldn't understand.

For most of the novel, I enjoyed it. The more I read, however, the more the once original characters and ideas became obvious, pedestrian, and, in my opinion, neither realistic nor entertaining.

Favorite passage:  "In their minds, people’s boring, puerile problems always take on Shakespearean proportions."

The verdict: While I enjoyed reading Don't Ever Get Old, ultimately the payoff didn't quite work for me. The mystery is simultaneously dark and comedic, but by the novel's end these two competing moods felt out of balance to me. Overall, it was a quick, amusing read, but it fell short of the novel's premise and my early expectations.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: May 22, 2012 
Source: publisher via NetGalley

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Don't Ever Get Old 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!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

book review: Babylon Sisters by Pearl Cleage

The backstory: Babylon Sisters is the second novel in Pearl Cleage's West End series. Although this book isn't a sequel to Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do (my review), the main characters from Some Things do pop up a few times here, which will delight readers who enjoyed the first novel.

I first read Babylon Sisters soon after it came out, and I'm re-reading and reading all of her novels this year. As I re-read it, I was amazed how many of the details I recalled.

The basics: Babylon Sisters focuses on Catherine, who describes her work perfectly in this passage: "What I do is coordinate and integrate services for programs assisting female refugees and immigrants. Atlanta is a magnet for people trying to make a new start in a new country, and even though the town’s natives still think in terms of black and white, in reality we’re looking more and more like the Rainbow Coalition." She's also a single mother to a smart, confident seventeen-year-old young woman who longs to know her father, but Catherine remains committed to keeping that secret from her.

My thoughts: It's no secret Pearl Cleage is one of my all-time favorite writers (my reviews of What Looks Like Crazy on An Ordinary Day and I Wish I Had a Red Dress.) I love her ability to write characters who can simultaneously be human beings struggling with romance and trying to make the world a better place. Pearl Cleage's novels make me feel like I'm sitting at the greatest dinner party ever. Her characters eat, drink, think, speak and act in ways that inspire me and leave me breathless:
"There are always a million answers—the generals and the rebels make sure of that—but when you really think about it, there’s no good reason to try to kill as many people as you can, for as long as you can, until the ones who are left surrender their lives, or their resources, or their culture, or their self-respect, or their ancestors, or their spirits, or their oil, until they get strong enough to throw you off their backs and the whole cycle starts all over again. Thinking about it can make you feel powerless and scared, and that was no way to end an evening that had evolved into one of the best I’ve had in too long."
Catherine is the heart and soul of this novel, and I loved her personally and professionally. She's smart, driven, loyal to her friends, and a wonderful mother. What makes her great, however, are her raw honesty and her expression of fears and vulnerabilities:
"I wondered if it was possible to be in love with a man and develop a vocabulary free of the responses that make every conversation a minefield of hurt feelings, half-truths, and dashed expectations."
I'm rarely sad when I finish a novel because I'm usually eager to find out how it ends and ponder my thoughts on the novel as a whole. Babylon Sisters, however, is the rare novel that makes me sad when I finish because I want to go on glimpsing into the lives of Catherine and her friends because they feel like my friends.

Favorite passage:  "Trying to change poor people’s lives is never as glamorous or inspirational as they make it when some do-gooders get the central role in a Hollywood movie. In real life, Sam’s experience is probably closer to the truth, a long series of unrewarded sacrifices and thankless tasks that rarely impact the lives of the people you want to rescue."

The verdict: Babylon Sisters is a rallying cry for social justice, a love story, a touching tale of a mother-daughter relationship, and a story about the family we make for ourselves, but most of all it's a beautifully written novel filled with memorable characters faced with difficult decisions, both personally and professionally. And it makes readers think about the choices we wish we would make and the choices we fear we might make.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: March 29, 2005
Source: purchased for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Babylon Sisters 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, August 7, 2012

book review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

The backstory: Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2004, and was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2006.

The basics: As Rev. Ames nears the end of his life in the 1950's, he begins a letter to his young son because Ames realizes his son is too young to really know him. Gilead is that letter.

My thoughts: Gilead is a novel I'm been meaning to read for years. It's a character-driven, Midwestern narrative by one of our best contemporary writers. It should be a novel I love, yet I struggled to finish it and admit I was wowed by neither the story nor the writing.

Gilead seemed almost stream-of-consciousness at first. I appreciated that Robinson jumped right in: this novel is a letter from father to son; the reader's ignorance of these two characters is not the focus. As the novel progressed, more details began to be filled in, and the reader begins to understand the characters, setting and purpose. I enjoyed the first fifty pages, and I was left with more questions than answers. The premise was intriguing, and Robinson withheld enough details that made it almost mysterious.

The more I read, however, the more I grew bored. I'm typically a big fan of character portraits, but Gilead didn't provide me enough insight into Ames. I also became irked by the structure of the novel: I didn't buy it as a letter. I didn't buy it as the either the order or structure of what Ames would write to his son. Unfortunately, the narrative didn't quite work as a diary of look back on life for me. Ames never became more than a caricature for me, and without a plot, I need characters either real enough to believe in or writing amazing enough to rely on. Ultimately, this novel just didn't work for me.

Favorite passage:  "You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have."

The verdict: While there were a few gorgeous passages in this novel, the writing wasn't poetic enough throughout to make up for the lack of plot and character development. Despite enjoying the premise of this novel, the execution left me cold, and I'm struggling to understand why so many others praise Gilead.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Length: 247 pages
Publication date: November 4, 2004 
Source: library

Want to read it for yourself? Buy Gilead 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, August 6, 2012

book review: Misfit by Adam Braver

The basics: In Misfit, Adam Braver imagines the life of Marilyn Monroe, from childhood until her death, in brief vignettes.

My thoughts: Reading this novel, I learned how little I knew about Marilyn Monroe's life. This novel isn't a comprehensive novel of her life, but Braver offered fascinating possible insights into certain moments, some quite well known and some that were not known to me. From the beginning, the focus is on the end of Marilyn's life. Braver intersperses more detailed events of the weeks before Monroe's death with a chronological narrative. The effect was at times sad, at times downright morbid, but mostly fascinating.

This novel doesn't have much plot. For someone more familiar with Ms. Monroe's life, there would likely be no plot. For me, however, there were enough surprises added in with the known facts to provide a haunting context to a fascinating woman. What struck me as most impressive in this novel was not how well Braver got into the psyche of Monroe at different parts of her lives, although he does an excellent job. What was most impressive was how Braver captured the time of Monroe's life in a novel with sparse historical detail. For the first time, I was shocked at just how young Marilyn was, both in her fame and her death. Braver sets the stage with a date and location, but otherwise the narrative pulls the reader into the story. At times, Braver addresses the reader as Marilyn. A few times this technique was jarring, but mostly it did make me identify with Marilyn in a purely human way.

Favorite passage:  "Because it’s nice to know there’s a person who wants to hear what you have to say, and is interested in it. And because of that trust, you try to be mindful that even if the things you say aren’t always entirely factual, they’re always truthful."

The verdict: Misfit is a fascinating piece of historical fiction. Braver's writing was luminous and highlighted the joy, pain, and idiosyncrasies of an icon's life. Ultimately, it's the most human portrait of Marilyn Monroe I've experienced, and it's one I won't forget. Its publication in coordination with the fiftieth anniversary of her death is particularly poignant.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: July 24, 2012
Source: publisher via Elle Magazine

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Misfit 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, August 5, 2012

Sunday Salon: a new look & new release anticipation

A new look
Happy Sunday! If you've visited my blog in the past two days, you've probably noticed things look quite a bit different. I've been meaning to redesign it for quite some time. Although I loved my old design, particularly the gorgeous picture of an airplane flying over the globe, I wanted to have posts appear in black ink and a white background. I'm still tweaking a few things, some major and some minor, and I probably will continue to do so this week. As always, I'd love to hear what your thoughts and suggestions are.

Summer television love
I'm in the midst of my blissful two and a half weeks of vacation and have just enjoyed a relaxing week at home. I've been reading a lot, watching the Olympics, and catching up on my DVR. I finally started watching The Newsroom, which I'm really enjoying. I also had a mini-marathon of the first three episodes of Political Animals. Despite its poor reviews, I'm loving it. I expected to be wowed by Sigourney Weaver, but Carla Gugoni is stealing the show.

Vacation treats
Tomorrow Mr. Nomadreader and I set off for a vacation of our own. It's rare we get to take a trip that's not for another reason (i.e. wedding, funeral, family reunion), and I'm really looking forward to a week away together. The hardest choice for me on quiet vacations is always which books to read. I'm eager to make progress on the Booker longlist, but I'm also eager to dive into the pile of fall new releases I'm most excited about:

  • The Cutting Season by Attica Locke: I read Attica Locke's first novel, Black Water Rising (my review), when it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, and utterly adored it. It made my top ten of 2012. It will be released September 18.
  • Eight Girls Taking Pictures by Whitney Otto: I first discovered Otto in high school (How to Make an American Quilt). I rediscovered her the year after college, when it felt like I had all the time in the world to read (the benefit of no longer having homework, moving to a city where I knew no one, it was a brutal winter, and it was January: lots of reading time.) A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity remains one of my all-time favorite novels. Eight Girls Taking Pictures is her first novel in ten years, and even though I can't wait to read it, I fear the next one might take another ten years, and I don't want it to end. It will be released November 6.
  • Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: I fell in love with Michael Chabon in college, mostly thanks to my brother. I adored Wonder Boys and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, but somehow I haven't read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay yet. Regardless, the premise of Telegraph Avenue is right up my alley. It will be released September 11.
  • Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: I read The Lacuna (my review) when it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, which it later won. Although I didn't love the novel, I did love Kingsolver's writing, and I'm eager to give her another chance. It will be released November 6.                   
I feel so blessed to have copies of these titles already, and I'm looking forward to digging in. I hope to alternate these new releases with Booker longlist titles. The Yips and Communion Town have arrived from the UK, and I have Skios and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry on my Kindle. (I hope to finish Narcopolis this afternoon.) I can't possibly read eight books in one week of vacation, but I'll be pleased with reading four of them. This time of year is always overwhelming for me as a reader: I'm simultaneously trying to read the Booker longlist, anticipating fall releases, and awaiting the Dayton Peace Prize, Giller Prize and National Book Award. 

Now tell me: which fall release are you most excited for?

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, August 3, 2012

book review: Dare Me by Megan Abbott

The backstory: Dare Me is Megan Abbott's sixth novel. I've read and reviewed two of her previous novels: Die a Little by and The End of Everything.

The basics: Addy Hanlon, a high school senior, has been best friends with Beth Cassidy for years. Within the hierarchy of high school royalty, Addy is the lieutenant to Beth's queen bee. When a new cheerleading coach arrives at their school, Addy and Beth's world changes, and coach draws Addy into her world.

My thoughts: Megan Abbott is the master of realistic thrillers. On the surface, this novel might not read like a thriller, or what we've come to think of as a thriller. The more I thought about this novel,  however, the more similarities I saw between this novel and The End of Everything, in which an abduction quietly moves at its realistic pace. Dare Me is a thriller because the characters don't realize they're in a thriller, but the reader soon does. This rawness gives Dare Me its edge.

I read Dare Me compulsively in less than a day. I loved inhabiting Addy's mind and discovering her connectedness and disconnectedness to reality. Addy provides a fascinating window into this story, as she narrates what she doesn't always understand. Her observations sometimes illuminated the story and sometimes darkened it. At times, I longed to have another view into these characters, but Addy's perspective kept a certain layer of both creepiness and normalcy.

The verdict: Dare Me is modern day noir. At first, this novel seems innocuous, but as Abbott drew me deeper into the underworld of these teenage girls and their coach, it soon becomes more sinister. On the surface: these girls may be typical teenagers, but what's beneath is truly frightening...and darkly thrilling.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: July 31, 2012
Source: publisher

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

Want more? Visit Megan Abbott's website and follow her on Twitter. Join in the discussion: On Tuesday, August 7, Book Club, hosted by Nicole at Linus's Blanket and Jen at Devourer of Books, we'll discuss Dare Me at Devourer of Books.

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, August 2, 2012

book review: Miss Me When I'm Gone by Emily Arsenault

The basics: When Jamie's best friend from college, Gretchen, suddenly dies, she's asked to serve as her literary executor. Gretchen was in the midst of writing a second memoir after the success of her first: Tammyland, part road trip to important sites for women in county music and part personal reflection on her own life and relationships. It was hugely successful and described as a honky-tonk Eat, Pray Love. With increasing suspicion around Gretchen's death, Jamie finds herself trying to figure out both what Gretchen was writing and what may have gotten her killed.

My thoughts: Arsenault tells the story of Gretchen in three ways: excerpts from Tammyland, excerpts from notebooks of her second memoir, and through Jamie's primary narrative. They were all interesting, but the excerpts from Tammyland were particularly enjoyable for me. To those who know me well, it's no secret I'm a big fan of country music (well, classic country and alt country mostly.) Mr. Nomadreader and I even got married at the Country Music Hall of Fame's Research Library in Nashville. As I read the excerpts from Tammyland, I wish someone had made a Spotify playlist of all the songs mentioned. (Has someone?) Some are old favorites, but others were new to me. While country music was the star of some parts, it wasn't the focus of the book, even though it was one of the most special parts.

The book as a whole is an intriguing literary mystery (although I figured it out earlier than Jamie did, I didn't figure out all of the layers of complexity), a book within a book, a fascinating character study of Gretchen, and a portrait of friendship. Through it all, Jamie is seven months pregnant. She feels a sense of urgency to pay tribute to Gretchen by finishing her book before her son is born. Knowing Arsenault wrote this novel while pregnant with her daughter added a beautiful layer of emotion. Jamie was a dynamic heroine, and I would welcome a sequel to this novel, whether Jamie found herself once again solving a crime or simply transitioning to being a mother.

Favorite passage: "I'm a shameless student of people's worst moments: lies, violence, melodrama, fraud. I have been since I was a kid. I like to hold them up like baubles and examine them every which way. When I was young, I thought that would make me understand them, and become immune to such moments myself. Now I'm older and smarter, and study them purely out of gratuitous habit."

The verdict: Miss Me When I'm Gone is poignant and irreverent in equal measure. It's at times a quiet, thoughtful meditation on who we are, but it's also a fast-paced cozy thriller. Arsenault manages to make these disparate genres come together into a cohesive narrative, including convincingly giving Gretchen and Jamie different voices.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: July 31, 2012
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Miss Me When I'm Gone from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Want more opinions? Check out the entire tour schedule, visit Emily's website or find her on Facebook.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Wrapping up July 2012

July might have been my best month of reading yet. Thanks to a heatwave that left me inside near the air conditioning, a relaxing five-day weekend trip with girlfriends, and a generally low-stress time of year at work, I was able to read seventeen books! I was shocked when I saw the total number, although it does explain how I'm behind in reviews again! I hope I can keep up the reading pace (and level of enjoyment) in August, and I also plan to catch up on reviews. Even the titles I ended up rating somewhat lower, I still (mostly) enjoyed reading them. After I sat down to think about them, however, I began to see holes and thus assigned a lower rating. Here's what I read in July 2012:

The excellent (rated 4.5 stars or higher):

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay (my review)
Close Case by Alafair Burke (my review)
Wild by Cheryl Strayed (my review)

The good (rated 4 stars):
Kill You Twice by Chelsea Cain (my review)

The somewhat disappointing (rated 3.5 stars or lower): 
Flight from Berlin by David John (my review)
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Wallace (my review)
The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett (my review)

The not yet reviewed:
Indiscretion by Charles Dubow (coming February 2013)
The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf
The Kissing List by Stephanie Reents
Babylon Sisters by Pearl Cleage 
Don't Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Dare Me by Megan Abbott
Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan
Miss Me When I'm Gone by Emily Arsenault 

I'm on vacation from work for another week and a half, and I'm looking forward to a lot more reading, Olympic watching and time to spend with friends and family. I'll be dipping into the first few Booker longlist titles this week, and those reviews will probably jump to the top of my review queue. 

Now tell me: what was the best book you read in July?

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