Friday, November 30, 2012

The Backlist Book Club: November 2012 discussion

Welcome to the discussion of The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken! Need a refresher? Check out my review of The Giant's House.

1. I had misgivings about this novel having the subtitle "a romance" given the age difference between the characters. By the end, I was won over, but it's still far from a traditional romance. What elements of romance are present? What elements of romance are lacking?

2. As a librarian, I'm immensely curious: what were you reactions to the details of librarianship? Were you as fascinated as I was?

3. Let's talk about Peggy. While I adored her often irreverent and always honest look at herself and the world, she's not a traditionally likeable character. What did you think of Peggy?

4. What surprised you in this novel? 

5. To whom would you recommend this title?

I encourage you to subscribe to the comments for this post to keep up to date. I use a threaded comment system, so you can reply to earlier comments or post new comments. Please feel free to ask questions as well! (Note: Reading Group Guides and ReadersPlace have additional discussion questions available .)

Don't forget: check back tomorrow morning to see what I've picked for December 2012! 
(hints: it was originally published the year I was born and is the first in a series.)

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, November 29, 2012

Thursday TV: Chicago Fire

Thursday TV is returning as a semi-regular Thursday feature for me to discuss television: the shows I'm watching, the shows I'm giving up on, as well as other trends.

If you had asked me at the beginning of the fall television season which network show would be my favorite, I likely would have guessed Nashville (coming soon to Thursday TV) or Elementary. Instead, two months into this season, the only new fall show I genuinely love is Chicago Fire, a show I didn't even intend to watch.

I'll be honest: it's not the best new show, but it is the new show I love the most. There's something classic about this drama. It isn't necessarily breaking new ground or doing anything unconventional, but it's doing the medical/rescue drama exceedingly well. Here's why:

1. A true ensemble cast
I'm a huge fan of ensemble casts, and there isn't a true star on this show. (I mean that with no disrespect, partiuclarly to those of you who know how much I adore David Eigenberg, Monica Raymond, and Eamonn Walker.) In a sense, they're all stars. It's incredibly refreshing to see an ensemble where there isn't someone clearly out-acted. There's a respectable amount of racial diversity, but more importantly, there's diversity in age, weight and beauty. Yes, there are quite a few gorgeous people fighting fires and saving lives, but I appreciate the cast and characters bearing some relation to reality. What really makes an ensemble cast work, particularly one this large in the early days of a show, is chemistry. I believe these people are co-workers and drinking buddies. Without yet knowing all of their backstories, even the minor characters have their place.

2. The Chicago setting
I love New York, but it is so refreshing to have two of my favorite shows on television set in Chicago (see also The Good Wife). Chicago is a fascinating city, and this Midwesterner loves to see our nation's third largest city showcased in popular culture. The gang culture, political corruption and temperatures provide the perfect background for many types of stories and fires too.

3. A mixture of one-week storylines and overarching storylines
The quickest way to kill even a strong show is to have the storylines end in each episode or go on far too long. So far, Chicago Fire has nailed it. There are always the emergencies of the week, which typically fall at inopportune times. The duality of this timing makes for excellent television. We've also had several multi-episode arcs already come to satisfying conclusion. Still, there are several lingering plot points I won't expect to time up anytime soon. The harmony of these three different lengths of storylines is crucial, and the writers are delivering so far.

4. Good acting
I'm the first to admit Chicago Fire isn't necessarily a great program, but great acting can elevate scripts that border on cheesy or unsurprising. Chicago Fire doesn't often leave me guessing, but it does leave me wanting to see characters, who seem like people, experience things and react to them. A constant on Chicago Fire are wide shots pulling together multiple storylines, emotions, and even humor, often without dialogue. It's a testament to these actors living in their characters.

Now tell me: Are you loving Chicago Fire as much as I am? What's your favorite new fall show this year?

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, November 28, 2012

book review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

The backstory: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain's first novel, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. It was also the 2013 runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

The basics: Set on Thanksgiving Day 2004, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk takes place at the Dallas Cowboys annual Thanksgiving Day game. Billy Lynn, a nineteen-year-old member of Bravo Company, is our window into the bizarre festivities. Here, the young men of Bravo Company, famous for winning a filmed fight with insurgents, are on a "victory tour" before returning to Iraq. The Cowboys game, where they participate in the halftime festivities with Destiny's Child, is their final stop.

My thoughts: The premise of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a fascinating one, and I admit I had rather high expectations going in, but at the end of the novel, I found myself saying, "that's it?" That isn't to say Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a bad book; it's a good book, but I wish it would have been a great book.

One of the novel's weaknesses was having Billy Lynn narrate the entire novel. At times his observations were poignant and moving: "why, please, do they play the national anthem before games anyway? The Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears, these are two privately owned, for-profit corporations, these their contractual employees taking the field. As well play the national anthem at the top of every commercial, before every board meeting, with every deposit and withdrawal you make at the bank!" Who better to deliver that diatribe than a nineteen-year-old small-town Texas virgin back home for a whirlwind 'victory' tour after an intense time in Iraq. He knows he's on his way right back to Iraq too. He has the right perspective.

The narration's weakness occurred in two ways, however. First, at times Fountain seemed to make Billy Lynn more omniscient and wise than he was in most parts. Second, the thoughts of a 19-year-old about the Iraq War in 2004 already seem dated. They're certainly not bad thoughts, but they're not terribly new. For me, this novel shined brightest when Fountain took over. I think this novel would felt more modern and held greater depth if Fountain opted for either a true omniscient narrator or told the story in multiple voices. Billy Lynn is a great window into that world, but I wish he weren't the only one in this novel.

I'm generally a fan of slow, contemplative novels, but the action (or lack thereof) in this novel really dragged. The combination of the pace with Billy Lynn's intelligent but redundant observations hindered the momentum. The novel had the most momentum during the flashbacks, both to war and other events. The flashback of Billy Lynn's brief time with his family during the tour was the most moving of the novel. The contrast of how the soldiers speak to one another and how people expect them to act was interesting, but it soon grew redundant.

At the center of what I wished were better in this novel was Billy Lynn as a character. At times he was a believable 19-year-old soldier, but at other times, I felt Fountain more than Billy. Or rather, I felt Fountain trying a bit too hard with Billy. These chips in credibility pulled me away from the narrative. For one particular storyline, Billy's romance with the cheerleader, it felt forced, unreal and fell emotionally flat to me.

Despite these flaws, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk isn't a bad novel. I criticize it because in many ways it was so close to being a great novel. Fountain has a tremendous gift for language, but it wasn't enough to distract me from the novel's plot and character shortcomings.

Favorite passage:  "There was no such thing as perfection in this world, only moments of such extreme transparency that you forgot yourself, a holy mercy if there ever was one."

The verdict: While I appreciate what Ben Fountain tries to do here, overall the novel felt one-note to me. It took more than 300 pages to cover a few hours, albeit with flashbacks, but the flashbacks were the most enlightening and interesting parts.The events at the Cowboys game soon become dull and feel unnecessarily drawn out. The writing and ideas are top notch, but there's not much new here. If you're one who has not contemplated the hypocrisy of war, capitalism, Hollywood and professional sports, this novel will likely read like a revelation. If, however, you're well-versed in the shortcomings and hypocrisies of the Iraq War, you may find yourself wishing for more.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: May 1, 2012
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk 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, November 27, 2012

giveaway: Anna Karenina

Today I'm pleased to be hosting a giveaway in conjunction with the theatrical release of the new Anna Karenina film

Anna Karenina is acclaimed director Joe Wright’s bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, stirringly adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s great novel by Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love). The film marks the third collaboration of the director with Academy Award-nominated actress Keira Knightley and Academy Award-nominated producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, and Paul Webster, following their award-winning box office successes Pride & Prejudice and Atonement.

Two lucky winners will receive this prize pack:

The film is already playing in select cities and will open in wide release this Friday, November 30. After my failed attempts to read Anna Karenina last year, I'm looking forward to seeing the film first, then reading the novel! This movie looks so good, and I adore Keira Knightley!

This contest is now closed.

Want even more Anna Karenina? Visit the film's official website, like Anna Karenina on Facebook, repin fashion from the film on Pinterest, and refresh your memory of Anna with this study guide. 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, November 26, 2012

book review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The basics: The Middlesteins is the story of the Middlestein family: its obese matriarch Edie, her husband Richard, their adult children Robin and Benny, and Benny's wife and children. The family lives in the Chicago suburbs and the narration shifts between these main characters and moves through time non-linearly.

My thoughts: The experience I had reading The Middlesteins is one of my favorites: I knew very little going into it, so I was able to enter the journey of this novel without any preconceptions. Early on, I fell hard for Robin's sharp, raw observations about herself and her world: "Robin looked at Daniel and had the meanest thought of her entire life. He'll do." I was so enamored with the way she sees the world, I was sad when the narration shifted to Benny's wife. Attenberg soon alleviated this pain, however, as I discovered each of the narrators were fascinating. I adore this scene, in which Rachelle outlines all of the lies she's told to her husband:
"She lies once or twice a month about going to matinees during the day by herself because she thinks he might begrudge her that pleasure when he works so hard himself, and this lie necessitates a double lie, one when he asks what she did that day, and two when they go to see a movie she has already seen and she has to pretend she hasn't seen it yet, which has led her husband to wonder if she has lost her sense of humor, or, in a more subtle way he has not been able to name yet, her capacity for joy, because she barely laughs at the jokes she already knows are coming."
Attenberg utilizes the most omniscient form of narration possible, as she alludes to past, present and future simultaneously: "And then there he was, in a suit (it was his only suit, but she didn't know that yet), and he was smiling (his happiest days were behind him the minute he met her, but he didn't know that yet)."

While the character development is the focus of this novel, there is an impressive amount of plot in The Middlesteins. At times it felt like a play, where the pieces and characters were getting into their places for the real action to begin: for the reader to catch up on the past and present and join the future of The Middlesteins.

Favorite passage: "We are allowed to have more than one feeling at once," said Kenneth. "We are human beings, not ants."

The verdict: Jami Attenberg is a beautiful, insightful writer, and The Middlesteins is the contemporary family saga at its best. In less than 300 pages, Attenberg fully forms multiple character-driven narratives into a cohesive, poignant, and moving novel.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: October 23, 2012
Source: publisher via NetGalley

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Middlesteins 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, November 25, 2012

Sunday Salon: Wrapping up Thankfully Reading Weekend 2012

This long weekend has been exactly the relaxing and invigorating respite I needed. After a wonderful Thanksgiving Day with family, I finished Jami Attenberg's excellent new novel The Middlesteins (review coming tomorrow), which ended up being the 100th book I've read this year. I'm thankful for that happy coincidence.

This weekend I've also been reading Ben Fountain's debut novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk and This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz's latest story collection, both of which were finalists for this year's National Book Award.  I hope to finish at least one if not both of them today.

The Backlist Book Club
It's a big week for The Backlist Book Club! On Friday we'll be discussing The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken (my review). On Saturday, I'll post the December pick. I'm already giddy with excitement about spending next weekend curled up reading it.

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

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, November 24, 2012

Short Story Saturday: The Kissing List by Stephanie Reents

Welcome to Short Story Saturday, a returning semi-regular feature. The project stems from a desire to read more short stories. It's not a secret I prefer novels to short stories, but I'm working to stretch myself as a reader, and part of that will be reading more short stories. When I have read short story collections, I've often found them hard to review as a whole. This feature will allow me to review collections as a whole or separately, but I'll also be reviewing individual stories.

The basics: The Kissing List is the debut short story collection by Stephanie Reents. Some of the stories are linked.

My thoughts: The first story in the collection "Kissing," sets the stage for the rest of the book. Reents and the female narrators of her stories are young, brazen, fun and wise: "The funny thing about being in your early twenties is that it's a lot like being any other age, except you don't know it." I have a notoriously hard time reviewing short story collections as a whole, and The Kissing List is perhaps the hardest type to review because its stories aren't as linked as I'd hoped and aren't all centered around a common place or theme. They're a schizophrenic group, and while I adored some, there were some I didn't like at all and many fell somewhere between those two extremes.

What is present across all the stories is the quality of Reents' writing. When I didn't like stories, it was sometimes due to plot and sometimes due to character(s). Still, I admire Reents for taking some bold chances. They didn't always work for me, but they were adventurousness in scope, narrative and theme, and I like those traits, particularly in young writers. Reents isn't afraid of taking chances, and I'll eagerly await whatever Reents writes next.

Favorite passage: "If you think too hard about the grammar of talking, it can fill you with despair."

The verdict: While a few stories stood out in this collection, too many fell flat for me. Despite the unevenness of this collection, it made me a fan of Stephanie Reents, and I'll be eagerly awaiting what she writes next.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 225 pages
Publication date: May 22, 2012
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Kissing List 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, November 22, 2012

Another Happy Thanksgiving!

As I read back on last year's Thanksgiving post, I was struck by how little has changed (and what a first for me to be in the same place doing the same thing two years in a row!) I'm still up early to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. I'm enjoying my coffee, waiting for Mr. Nomadreader to wake up, and hoping I have enough time to finish The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg before he does.

Soon we'll open up a bottle of sparkling wine to truly toast this annual tradition. There are once again cinnamon rolls in the oven, but this year they're paleo cinnamon rolls to correspond with our new eating lifestyle (and by new, I mean five months and counting.)

In a few hours, my parents and my grandmother will arrive for Thanksgiving dinner. Mr. Nomadreader is once again slow roasting pork shoulder, a far tastier option than turkey.

Tonight we'll be putting up our Christmas trees (yes, two people in a one bedroom can have two trees!)

Most importantly, I'm still thankful for Mr. Nomadreader, my job, this blog (and all of you who take the time to read it), our apartment, and winter--my favorite season. This year, I'm also thankful for an earlier than usual Thanksgiving holiday and thus, a longer than usual Christmas season!

Thankfully Reading Weekend

After dinner, I hope to sneak in a few hours with my next read, Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk, which is set on Thanksgiving Day. The rest of this holiday weekend I'll be reading along with Jenn's Thankfully Reading Weekend. I've started perfecting my list of books I want to finish before the end of 2012, and I'll be digging into that list to see how much progress I can make before announcing the list. I'm also hoping (fingers crossed) to finally get caught up on writing reviews so I can end 2012 fully caught up and start fresh in 2013. Lastly, I've started working on both my Best of 2012 list and my 2013 reading goals. It's fun to think of the books I'm most thankful for this year, as there hasn't been a runaway favorite read in 2012 as there was in 2011 (State of Wonder), 2010 (Room), or 2008 (American Wife). There have, however, been many memorable reads and many new authors I've discovered and devoured (Alafair Burke!)

Now tell me: what book are you most thankful for this year?

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, November 21, 2012

film mini-reviews: The Queen of Versailles & We Need to Talk About Kevin

In my continued attempt to catch up on reviews, here are mini-reviews of two films I've seen this fall!

The Queen of Versailles
I expected The Queen of Versailles, a documentary detailing how billionaires Jackie and David Siegel react when they must stop building their dream home, the largest home ever built in the United States, to highlight their excesses. I did not expect this tale of lavishness (and to some extent cluelessness) to make me feel guilty for my own excess. This documentary is extraordinary in two ways: when filming began, the market had not yet collapsed, and the Siegels were living preposterously large. Their demeanors change, just as their lifestyle must, as the film progresses. Yet beneath all of their extravagance is a warning of scale: our financial position is precarious, even at my much, much more minimal level of income. It made me question what living within your means actually means--across all income levels. It's not all serious, however, as Jackie provides quite a few laugh out loud moments, including when she picks up a rental car after her first time flying commercial and asks what her driver's name is. The verdict: The Queen of Versailles is a surprisingly poignant, thought-provoking look at excesses both large and small. It's as captivating as it is as entertaining, and as entertaining as it is disturbing. 4 out of 5 stars

We Need to Talk About Kevin
After loving the novel by Lionel Shriver (my review), I was curious how it could possibly be adapted. The novel is epistolary and covers the time from before Kevin's birth through to the school shooting. Tilda Swinton was nominated for numerous acting awards, and she should have won. Her performance was amazing in its own right, but both her performance and the film as a whole carry more power and weight if you've read the book. We Need to Talk About Kevin is the rare adaptation that is not only as good as the book; it's enhanced by the book. There's little dialogue, and Swinton's acting, both facial and full body carries this film. The initial time shifts are subtle: the viewer has to pick up on changes in demeanor, hair style and location. If you've read the book, there are more visual clues to help you identify key scenes and decipher the chronology. The verdict: We Need to Talk About Kevin is a brilliant adaptation and Tilda Swinton shines and amazes. It's a complicated, crooked, fabulous film, and it requires attention and dedication from its audience. 4.5 out of 5 stars

Both films are now available on dvd. Buy The Queen of Versailles and We Need to Talk About Kevin from Amazon.

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Backlist Book Club Review: The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken

The backstory: The Giant's House, Elizabeth McCracken's first novel, is the first pick in The Backlist Book Club. It was also a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award.

The basics: Set in 1950's Cape Cod, The Giant's House is the story of an unlikely friendship between public librarian Peggy Cort and James, the giant of the title. Peggy and James meet at the library when he comes with class at the age of eleven and already over six feet tall.

My thoughts: I confess: I was nervous going into this novel. It came highly recommended from a friend whose reading taste I trust immensely, and I always have a pang of 'but what if I don't like it?' In this case, however, I spent a lot of time contemplating which title to pick for the first pick of The Backlist Book Club. I know the success or failure won't hinge on the first selection, but I really wanted to love the first pick. And I did.

Despite my misgivings of this novel being billed as a love story between a twenty-something librarian and a boy she meets when he's eleven, it utterly charmed me. The shining star of this novel is McCracken's writing. If you follow my oft-neglected tumblr, you were inundated with brilliant passages over the few days it took me to read this novel. There were nuggets of wisdom on libraries, "The idea of a library full of books, the books full of knowledge, fills me with fear and love and courage and endless wonder," that gave as much insight into Peggy as libraries.

While I loved this novel from the beginning, the ways in which I loved it changed as it progressed. Initially, it was McCracken's writing and discourse on libraries that reeled me in. Soon, despite our differences, Peggy enchanted me. As James grew older (and taller), he became more fascinating to me. By the end, I was amazed at the boldness and patience of McCracken to tell a story this way. It's emotion and poignancy snuck up me.

Favorite passages (I couldn't pick just one):  "Despite everything, I never felt jealous at weddings. I longed for love, yes,but I never saw that love was in greater supply at weddings than in butcher shops or department stores. The sight of a couple furtively holding hands beneath a restaurant table was more likely to remind me of the hopelessness of my life than any number of ladies dressed in giant christening gowns reciting words to become joined to a man in a rented suit. I do not like public ceremony, not graduations, not weddings; not pep rallies, nor church. Perhaps I simply do not understand trying to share one emotion (love, relief, faith, pep) with a quantity of strangers."

"Isn’t it funny how the faithful only reaffirm our faithlessness in everything except ourselves?"

The verdict: I loved everything about The Giant's House: the writing, the characters, the tenderness, the honesty, and the library setting. It's both immensely literary and accessible, and it's a novel deserving of more readers.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: June 1, 1996
Source: library

There's still time: join in! On Friday, November 30, I'll be hosting a discussion of The Giant's House. Grab a copy and join me!

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Giant's House from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (no 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, November 14, 2012

book review: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The backstory: The Yellow Birds, the debut novel from Iraqi War veteran Kevin Powers, is a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award, shortlisted for the 2012 Flaherty-Dunnan Award, and a finalist for the 2013 Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

The basics: Set in Iraq in 2004 and the months after, The Yellow Birds tells the story of two soldiers, Private Bartle and Private Murphy, who meet at training camp.

My thoughts: This novel's opening chapter is a visceral depiction of war. As I read it on the bus, I found myself crying and trying to breathe deeply to calm myself. I was grateful when the time shifted in the next chapter. Powers continues this powerful alternation between the war in Iraq and Bartle's attempts to deal with its aftermath. The reader learns early on that Murphy doesn't survive the war, yet the tension leading up to the how and why of his death is a literary marvel. I was eager to begin a chapter away from the war, but as the novel progressed and Bartle struggled, I soon found the Iraq chapters less emotionally challenging.

Bartle is 21, while Murphy is 18. As I read, I had to remember how large of a difference it is between age 18 and 21, particularly when you're killing to try to stay alive. Their age difference plays into the power dynamics of their friendship and adds a wrinkled layer to the events of Murphy's death to which Powers slowly builds up.

Favorite passage: "Half of memory is imagination anyway."

The verdict: The Yellow Birds is a quiet, haunting, and deeply moving depiction of the two soldiers and the impact of war. It's astonishingly well-paced and gets better as it goes on, leading up to one of the best endings I've read this year.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: September 11, 2012
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Yellow Birds 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, November 13, 2012

audiobook mini-reviews: Defending Jacob, Then Came You, and Ten Thousand Saints

Because I seem to be unable to actually get caught up on reviews, this week I'll be bringing you a few sets of mini-reviews. First up: audiobooks!

The backstory: I don't listen to many audiobooks. I've tried, I really have, but I can never finish the digital library loaned ones before they delete (my library only gives you seven days!) I don't drive to work, so cds don't work for me. I used to copy cds to my iPod, but my iPod is now over six years old and doesn't allow bookmarking, so if I want to  listen to anything else, I have to write down my stopping point. I'm not invested enough in them to spend money at audible. I have finally found something that works: Playaways! They're genius, really. Playaways are their own portable player with only the book loaded on to it. I can plug it into the car on the odd chance I am driving, take it to the gym, listen to it while doing dishes, and I can check one out for three weeks for only $1. After not listening to an audiobook all year, I've been listening consistently enough to complete about one a month. Here are my thoughts on the first three I finished.

Defending Jacob by William Landay gets the credit for my renewed audiobook accomplishments: it was the perfect blend of intriguing (I was eager to listen again) without making me drop everything else I was doing to only listen. It helped me find more times I could listen (while grocery shopping!) The narrator was really good, and I never had any problems picking up where I left off, even as the novel moved between two time periods. Grover Gardner's narration was strong: his emphasis and cadence enhanced the story and helped convey the gravity of several scenes.

The verdict: Defending Jacob is a legal thriller. I was fascinated by the depth of legal knowledge Landay brought, but what makes this novel shine is how well it sits in different shades of grey from multiple points of view. Read it: in print or on audio.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 432 pages (12 hours and 25 minutes)
Publication date: January 31, 2012
Source: library
Buy: Amazon (Kindle version)

Then Came You by Jennifer Weiner
After adoring her first several books in my early twenties, I haven't read Jennifer Weiner for several years. I'm increasingly fascinated by issues surrounding fertility, and the premise of this one intrigued me. It's narrated by four different women: Jules, a Princeton student approached at a mall to donate her eggs; Annie, a young mother of two who wants to contribute more financially by being a surrogate; India, a forty-three year old woman who wants a baby with her husband, who already has two grown children; and Betina, India's step-daughter who wants to thwart India's plans.

The verdict: I don't think I would have enjoyed this one as much in print, but the four narrators were fabulous. The segments of their stories were the perfect length for my workouts, cleaning and errands. Some parts were slower than others, but overall, it was engaging and emotionally compelling. The narrators gave each woman a unique voice, both literally and figuratively. Read it: on audio.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 354 pages (10 hours and 53 minutes)
Publication date: July 12, 2011
Source: library
Buy: Amazon (Kindle version)

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson was on of the New York Times top 5 fiction of 2011 picks. It opens in Vermont on New Year's Eve in 1987, a night the reader learns early on will be the last for sixteen-year-old Teddy. Stretching from Vermont to Manhattan's East Village and back again, Ten Thousand Saints is both a fascinating glimpse at a time and at the dueling drug and straight-edge subcultures. The writing was beautiful, and I found myself doing as Gayle does--reading and listening to the book at the same time. It's a testament to the vulnerable, raw, urgent and strong narration of Steven Kaplan that I ultimately opted to finish it on audio. He captured the essence of the characters and the period beautifully. Read it: in print or on audio.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 400 pages (11 hours and 5 minutes)
Publication date: June 7, 2011
Source: library
Buy: 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, November 10, 2012

book review: Angel's Tip by Alafair Burke

The backstory: Angel's Tip is the second mystery in Alafair Burke's Ellie Hatcher series, after Dead Connection (my review).

The basics: When Ellie Hatcher discovers the murdered body of Chelsea Hart, an Indiana college student who was visiting New York City with her friends, during her morning run, she takes the case as her own.

My thoughts: After liking but not loving Dead Connection, I was curious what Angel's Tip would bring. I was pleasantly surprised to find a fantastic mystery as well as an impressive amount of character development for Ellie Hatcher. As the novel opens, some time has passed since the end of Dead Connection. Immediately, this time allows for Ellie to step out of some of the lingering shadows from the last novel and embrace her new promotion to a homicide detective. The reader jumps right into her new normal, and readers who didn't read Dead Connection could still enjoy this mystery.

What often seems to be a contrived plot: a case impacting a detective personally and professionally, is original here. As the more and more gruesome details about a serial killer emerge, the intensity of this mystery also ramps up. The glimpses inside the mind of the killer have a Criminal Minds level of intensity. A sense of foreboding takes over this mystery, but it's conclusion is an adrenaline rush.

Favorite passage:  "Ellie’s father used to say that was the worst part of the job—the knowledge that good people would forever remember your voice, your words, that one phone call, as the moment that changed everything."

The verdict: Angel's Tip is an intense, gritty, police procedural. The mystery is twisting and intriguing, and Burke develops the character of Ellie personally and professionally. This fast-paced, surprising mystery wowed me, and I'm already eagerly awaiting 212, the next Ellie Hatcher mystery.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 366 pages
Publication date: August 19, 2008
Source: purchased for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Angel's Tip from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version--only $6.99!)

Also by Alafair Burke: the Samantha Kincaid series (Judgment Calls, Missing Justice, and Close Case) plus the stand-alone thriller Long Gone.

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, November 5, 2012

book review: Baby Brother's Blues by Pearl Cleage

The backstory: Baby Brother's Blues is the third title in Pearl Cleage's West End series (my reviews of Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do and Babylon Sisters.) The series takes place in the West End neighborhood in Atlanta and features recurring characters, but it isn't a series you necessarily need to read in order.

The basics: Blue and Regina Hamilton shift to main characters again in Baby Brother's Blues. Regina is pregnant and growing concerned with the number of women seeking haven in West End. Regina's friend Aretha is considering her husband Kwame's pleas to leave West End for Midtown to strengthen their marriage. Meanwhile, Baby Brother, a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq who has a brief bereavement leave, arrives in Atlanta angry at the world and with no intentions of going back to Iraq.

My thoughts: While Regina and Blue return to the spotlight in Baby Brother's Blues, Cleage works wonders with a large number of narrators. These seemingly unconnected characters move closer together as the novel progresses. There are elements of romance, politics, crime, and social justice, but ultimately this novel is both character-based and plot-driven. This combination makes it both a page turner and a novel to savor.

As in all of her novels, Pearl Cleage takes on big contemporary themes. Her scope is both global (the Iraq War most notably) and local (African-American trends in Atlanta). As much as I love these elements, I was most moved by the characters in Baby Brother's Blues. Cleage never takes the easy way out. The multiple points of view presented in this novel let the reader see the situation more clearly than the characters themselves. This clarity, however, only reinforces the difficulty of dealing with the larger issues. This duality of theme makes both the individual stories and the global stories stronger.

A personal highlight while reading this novel was having one scene set at Murphy's, the restaurant in Virginia Highlands. It's the restaurant Mr. Nomadreader and I met while working at. Pearl came into the restaurant a few times while we worked there too. I know some of my love of Pearl Cleage's work is how well she captures Atlanta, and the larger cast of main characters in this novel allowed her to present a larger slice of Atlanta than the West End.

Favorite passage:  "She knew she was earning her membership in a long line of outspoken women and passionately committed men who understood that loving your country meant speaking up as loudly when it was wrong as you cheered when it was right. She was grateful for the chance to be in their number."

The verdict: Cleage once again creates beautifully flawed characters with whom you want to celebrate and mourn. She infuses themes of social justice beautifully. The end of this novel is truly stunning as Cleage weaves all of the storylines into a surprisingly cohesive conclusion.

In a conversation after the conclusion of this novel, Pearl Cleage shares this beautiful sentiment on storytelling: "I think storytelling is an ancient art that has survived because it’s through our stories that we reveal who we truly are as a community of people. I want my stories to be able to stimulate a vision in people of a different way for us to live together."

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 370 pages
Publication date: February 28, 2006
Source: purchased for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Baby Brother's Blues 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, November 4, 2012

Sunday Salon: an extra hour

The Sunday Salon.comGood morning! It's the magical fall back weekend in the U.S., but I woke up refreshed at 7:30. That might have something to do with my inability to stay up until midnight last night. Still, having an extra weekend hour is a blessing, and I'll be using mine to read.

The response to the Backlist Book Club has been phenomenal so far. I'm looking forward to many backlist adventures! I've been enjoying this month's pick, The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken this weekend. I'm hoping to finish it today. I also noticed the due date stamps in the book (yes, my library still stamps books with due dates). Seeing a book this good had not circulated since 1999 gave me pause. It makes me so happy to highlight a backlist titled each month and bring titles back to the forefront of conversations about books. I hope you'll join me in reading The Giant's House this month.

I'm also reading This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. I'm only two stories in so far, but as everyone has said, it's quintessential Diaz. For me, that means I like it, but I'm not shouting from the rooftops about his brilliance. I'm curious how I'll feel by the end of the collection.

Coming up on the blog this week (edit: or maybe next week!):
  • my review of Baby Brother's Blues by Pearl Cleage
  • my review of the film adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin (I loved the book)
  • my review of Defending Jacob by William Landay
  • my thoughts on Chicago Fire
  • my review of Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson
  • my review of The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf and its impact on my life
I'm off to make coffee and snuggle in on the couch with The Giant's House and This Is How You Lose Her. What are you up to this Sunday?

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, November 2, 2012

book review: Astray by Emma Donoghue

The backstory: Although I'm not a big fan of short story collections, I am a big fan of Emma Donoghue and her varied work (my reviews of Room and The Sealed Letter.)

The basics: Astray is a diverse collection of stories.The characters and locations spread across centuries and continents. What unites them is a sense of theme: each story features a character who is somehow astray.

My thoughts: The first story in Astray didn't particularly captivate me. It's the story of a British circus elephant and his trainer as they prepare to move to the United States. It was enjoyable enough, but what really enchanted me was the unexpected author's note at the story's end. The story was rooted in history and based on real characters and events. As I continued to read, I looked forward to these author's notes. It was a fascinating glimpse into both what intrigues Donoghue and how much history the characters were rooted in.

The collection's second story, "Onward" is among my favorites. It's a touching, yet sad story, and Donoghue's language is haunting: "love happens, like age or weather. I'ts not hard to do, only to endure, sometimes." When I do enjoy a collection of short stories, there is typically one that shines brightest for me, but that wasn't the case with Astray. I can think of two I didn't enjoy as much as the others, but Donoghue's breadth and variety astonished me, and it left me as eager to finish each story as I was to start the next one.

Favorite passage: "Writing stories is my way of scratching that itch: my escape from the claustrophobia of individuality. It lets me, at least for a while, live more than one life, with more than one path. Reading, of course, can do the same." (from the author's note)

The verdict: While I typically prefer novels to short stories, I also adore fiction based on real people. The threads of history and strong thematic elements of travel, wandering and displacement that run through this collection made it cohesive. Donoghue's writing shines as much as her research. Although a couple of stories failed to enchant me, I thoroughly enjoyed this reading experience.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: October 30, 2012
Source: publisher via Elle magazine (look for my comments in the January 2013 issue!)

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Astray 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, November 1, 2012

Introducing: The Backlist Book Club

I read a lot of recent fiction. As I spend so much of my reading time reading prize lists, most of the titles I pick up were published this year or last year. I'll never manage to fill in all of the reading gaps and keep up with what's being published, but today I'm launching a new monthly initiative: The Backlist Book Club. On the first of each month I'll announce a backlist title. I'll read it sometime during the month and post my review in the middle of the month. On the last day of the month, I'll host a discussion of the title with others who have read it. I invite you all to join me!

Why backlist?
As someone who reads a lot, friends and family members ask me if I've read (insert name of famous literary success here). Often, the answer is no. How can I, someone who reads so much more than they do, not have read this great book they've read? The list of authors I want to read is ridiculously long (as is the one of authors whose work I've enjoyed and want to read more of). Typically when any of these authors publishes a new book, I start with it.

One of the perks of picking a backlist title is accessibility. These titles may already be on our shelves. These titles shouldn't have a long waiting list at the library. These titles should be easy (and cheap!) to pick up used.  I love reading reviews of backlist titles. It's so easy to track down a copy quickly and dig right in.

What does backlist mean?
Backlist refers to the titles that have been published for several years. For the purposes of The Backlist Book Club, I'm loosely defining backlist as anything originally published from 1980 up to 5 years ago. I was born in 1980, and I want to focus on books published during my lifetime, but at least five years ago. I want to take time to read the books I meant to read in high school, college, and the early years after college, when reading wasn't a priority in my life.

How will titles be chosen?
For at least the first two months, I'll be picking the titles. I'm certainly open to suggestions for December! For January, I'll reassess and see how many are participating and may opt to open the selections up to votes.

I'm in! What's our first title?
The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken! First published in 1996, The Giant's House is Elizabeth McCracken's first novel. It was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award. McCracken, a self-described "lapsed librarian," writes about a 26-year-old librarian in 1950's Cape Cod. Over wine one night several months ago, a reading friend whose taste I respect told me I had to read The Giant's House. Several months later, I am, and I hope many of you will join me!

Convinced? Get the book! Order The Giant's House from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository, or Amazon (no Kindle version).

Look for my review in the middle of November and our discussion on Friday, November 30.

Grab the button and share the news. Cheers to reading backlist titles together!

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!