Monday, January 28, 2013

book review: The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

The backstory: After adoring Small Wars, the last novel by Sadie Jones, so much it made my Best of 2011 list, I was eager to read her newest novel, The Uninvited Guests.

The basics: The Uninvited Guests is all about one night in 1912 at the Torrington family's country estate. It is the 20th birthday of Emerald Torrington, but when there is a train accident nearby, all of the survivors come to the home.

My thoughts: I had high hopes for The Uninvited Guests based on both the rave review Audra gave it and my own enjoyment of Small Wars. For whatever reason, I failed to connect with The Uninvited Guests and didn't enjoy it. I did, however, enjoy the writing immensely, and it was enough to keep me reading when I might have otherwise cast this novel aside. Despite Jones' beautifully descriptive writing, the characters never came alive for me. In a comedy of manners (of sorts), characters are crucial, but these held no intrigue for me. In many ways, this novel defies categorization, a trait I often love, but here its quirks struck me as odd rather than endearing. Ultimately, I wanted to like this book but I didn't. In deference to Jones, I'm tempted to blame my stressful month and not her novel, so perhaps I'll pick this one up again some day and see if it is me or the book.

Favorite passage: "Edward fell in love as deeply as Charlotte grieved, and there in the far-down places of sorrow and sex they met."

The verdict: Despite enjoying the writing, the characters fell flat for me in this novel. I couldn't make myself believe they were real, and thus their actions bored me.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: May 1, 2012
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Uninvited Guests 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, January 23, 2013

These Days Are Ours: Grab It While It's Hot!

Why, hello there! Things have been mighty quiet around here this January. I've been having a blast teaching a new information literacy course I designed around documentary film in the inaugural J-term (January term), but cramming a semester's worth of reading, assignments and films into three short weeks has proved as exhausting as it is exhilarating. I've spent my weekends lounging on the couch watching television and grading papers rather than reading blogs and writing reviews. I have been reading a bit thanks to my public transportation commute to work. Plus I still have reviews from books read in 2012 to review, and things should be back to normal around here next week when spring semester begins and my teaching schedule shifts from twenty classroom hours a week back to two. I'm also planning a 'Best of J-term' documentary post for those of you who love documentary films too.

In the meantime, I have to tell you about this amazing deal on my favorite read of 2012. You might recall be gushing about how much I adored Michelle Haimoff's debut novel These Days Are Ours. I loved it so much I gave it six stars out of five (something I've only done three other times.) If you haven't read it yet, you're in luck! This amazing novel is now on sale as an e-book fro $1.99 for the next two weeks. Grab it while you can.

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, January 10, 2013

book review: An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer

The basics: An Uncommon Education, Elizabeth Percer's first novel, is a coming of age novel centered around Naomi Feinstein.

My thoughts: As An Uncommon Education opens, Naomi Feinstein is a peculiar girl with a big intellect and no friends, yet her tale isn't one of sadness. There's a matter-of-factness to Naomi and her honest narration. She writes both of the time in which she's living and with a maturity of observation:

"For entertainment I was given such things as Infamous Women coloring book; Shakespeare's plays in comic book fro; my own miniature Torah, the scroll of which was covered in wavy black lines; historically correct figures of Clara Barton and Abigail Adams; math games made pretty with glass marbles; and a jump rope with a booklet of illustrated counting rhymes to accompany it. In addition to our regular visits to the Kennedy home, every April 19th we drove to Lexington before dawn to witness the reenactment of the Battle of Lexington and Concord; every July 4th we walked the Freedom Trail."
At times, I would forget how young Naomi was in the story. As the story moves through time, I settled back into Naomi's growth. Because this novel is so character-driven, parts of Naomi's journey are unsurprising, yet these events still aren't predictable. As Naomi, an intellectual, driven child, has a road map for her life: first Wellesley, then medical school to become a cardiologist, the possibility of her choosing a new path still exists. The curiosity Naomi possesses was fascinating to watch. Percer's writing is strong and fluid, and it entranced me even when Naomi's story slowed a few times.

Favorite passage: "Sometimes that, more than anything, was what made me saddest about the little I knew about my family; it could be worked into almost any story, like a party trick."

The verdict: An Uncommon Education is an eloquent, thoughtful coming of age story. It begins as an intellectual coming of age, but Naomi's journey is as fascinating emotionally as her uncommon education.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 368 pages
Publication date: May 1, 2012
Source: publisher via TLC Tours

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

Want more? Check out the entire tour schedule, visit Elizabeth's web site, or like her on Facebook.

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

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Best of 2012

When I sat down to think about my year of reading, I was thinking more thematically than I have in past years. While one book rose to the top (These Days Are Ours), my reading was incredibly diverse and much of it was dedicated to two particular authors: Pearl Cleage and Alafair Burke. When I think back on 2012, I will fondly remember re-reading (and then reading) all of Pearl Cleage's eight novels. I'll also think of Alafair Burke, an author whose work I'd been meaning to read for years. I read her first stand alone thriller in the summer and proceeded to read her other seven mysteries this year. In 2012, I read 118 books (ten more than 2011, which surprised me, but I suppose cross-country moves and new jobs can hamper reading.)

After I quickly abandoned the idea of ranking these novels as I've done the past two years, I was quite surprised to see how many of these novels I would categorize as family sagas, yet they are all incredibly different.

Without further ado, the thematic Best of 2012 (in no particular order):

Most surprisingly awesome (i.e. I thought it was light-hearted chick lit and it's not): 
  • Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close (review coming tomorrow)
Best Orange Prize Prize for Women's Fiction read (longlist/shortlist/winner): 
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  • What I said then: "Bel Canto is a wonderful, thought-provoking, invigorating novel that examines the humanity in all of us. It is a fascinating story of hostages and captors, but it's also more. This novel is a celebration of the arts and the human spirit."
Best re-read: 
  • What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage
  • What I said then: "What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day shows no signs of age. It's as relevant than when it was first published. It's a brilliant novel and an astonishing debut novel. Whether on stage or page, Pearl Cleage is a master storyteller, and I'm continuously astonished she's not better known, more often read, and heralded as one of the great literary talents. This novel is a contemporary American masterpiece."

Best series: West End
  • Babylon Sisters and Baby Brother's Blues by Pearl Cleage
  • What I said then:  "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."
  • What I said then: "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.
Best historical: 
  • The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay
  • What I said then: "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."

Best mysteries:
  • 212 by Alafair Burke
  • What I said then: "212 is Alafair Burke at her very best. It's a top notch police procedural filled with smart twists and turns, and Burke's writing shines as much as her fully developed characters do. After Angel's Tip wowed me, 212 proved itself to be Burke's best mystery yet. Highly recommended, but do read Angel's Tip first."
  • Never Tell by Alafair Burke
  • What I said then:  "Never Tell is Alafair Burke's best mystery yet. At first, the case seems deceptively straight-forward and I was surprised by the relatively small number of characters. As the action progressed, however, I was again wowed by how intricately Burke can build a plot. They webs and layers of this one astonished me, even when I correctly guessed a couple of them. Alafair Burke writes contemporary detective-focused mysteries at their very best."
Best backlist: 
  • The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken
  • What I said then:  "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."

Best family sagas: 
  • Arcadia by Lauren Groff
  • What I said then: "Lauren Groff not only manages to cover fifty years in less than three hundred pages, she manages to do it while also playing with genre and exploring the nature of community and freedom. The result is this magnificent novel that is at times realistic, utopian and dystopian. Thankfully, at all times it's beautifully written and totally absorbing."
  • Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
  • What I said then: "I loved everything about Silver Sparrow: the characters, the writing, the pacing, the themes and the setting. This exploration of a family continues to move me. While it's very much a story of these six people, its also deeply symbolic of its place, community and time."
  • I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits
  • What I said then: "While the epicenter of this novel is the Hasidic Jewish community, it is also a stunning, moving tale of family, love, honor and secrecy. Markovits skillfully uses pace, character development and intrigue to make this novel absolutely riveting. Highly recommended to just about everyone."
  • The Darlings  by Cristina Alger
  • What I said then: "The Darlings is a delightful modern novel about life, love, loyalty and taking chances. Alger grounds her characters in the financial crisis and a Ponzi scheme, but ultimately this novel is a character-driven page-turner about how and why we make choices in difficult situations."
  • Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
  • What I said then: "There's a startling intimacy to this novel and its characters. As a reader, I was unsettled as a voyeur witnessing the tragedies unfold in the lives of these tender, haunted characters, but I also loved every word, punctuation mark and sentence. Levy has written a masterpiece, and it's utterly deserving of this year's Booker Prize."
  • Run by Ann Patchett
  • What I said then: "I adored Run. It ambitiously tackles themes of politics, religion and family in large and small ways. The characters are as strong as the writing, and I was sad when I finished this novel and had to leave them behind."

The Best. Period.

  • These Days Are Ours by Michelle Haimoff
  • What I said then: "These Days Are Ours is a refreshing, smart, accomplished, ambitious, intimate and beautiful novel of hope, fear, longing, sadness, and life. It's a novel I will give to many, many people this holiday season because Michelle Haimoff has captured the essence not only of my generation, but of early adulthood and post-9/11 New York. It's a novel I will re-read in the years to come. It's a novel I will share with my nieces and nephews to help them understand what it was like."
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, January 4, 2013

book review: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

The backstory: Tracy Chevalier is an author whose work I've enjoyed for more years than I've been blogging (my sixth blogoversary will be in March for those keeping track.) As I read all of her books pre-blogging, she's one of those rare favorite authors of mine whose work has only been reviewed once here (my review of Remarkable Creatures.)

The basics: The Last Runaway is the story of Honor Bright, a young, British Quaker woman who sets out with her engaged sister to move to Ohio in 1950.

My thoughts: When I sat down to read The Last Runaway on a flight to Portland, Oregon in October, I had to take a deep breath. I admit: I fear my favorite authors will disappoint me. I fear I will somehow outgrow them or their worth will outgrow me. With The Last Runaway, I was also afraid because the topic of the Underground Railroad is fascinating to me. I didn't want my high hopes to hamper my enjoyment of the novel. Looking back, I'm grateful I started this novel at a time when I had hours to read it, both because I didn't want to put it down and because it wasn't as I expected it to be.

Honor's journey begins in England. She decides to accompany her sister to Ohio, where her sister is set to marry a young man from their town. The journey is brutal for Honor's seasickness, and she realizes she will never return; she believes she could not bear another trip. This decision combines sadness and acceptance, and it's a window into Honor's worldview, which is largely shaped by her Quaker faith. From the time the ship lands until Honor reaches Ohio, Chevalier does a beautiful job expressing how foreign the land is and how utterly alone Honor is. The loneliness is palpable. The book has already taken a deeply moving physical, emotional and geographical journey, yet there is not yet mention of the Underground Railroad. There are allusions to race relations in Ohio, but I found myself caring less about what I thought this book would be about and more about taking this journey with Honor. Once my mind shifted from expectation to reality, I enjoyed that journey (and Honor) even more.

Favorite passage:  "We got us a long way to go. It surely ain’t somethin’ you need to break your marriage over. That’s jes’ foolinshness. Any runaway would tell you that. All they want is the freedom to make the kind of life you got. You go and throw that away for their sake, you jes’ mockin’ their own dreams."

The verdict: The Last Runaway is classic Chevalier, and Honor Bright is a dynamic, fascinating character. While this novel will perhaps inevitably be billed as one about the Underground Railroad, it's more about Honor and her journeys: geographically, romantically and spiritually. Honor's role in the Underground Railroad is certainly compelling, but it's merely one part of her compelling journey and her contemplations of faith.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: January 8, 2013
Source: publisher via Elle magazine

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Last Runaway 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, January 1, 2013

The Backlist Book Club is Taking a Break

In November, I launched The Backlist Book Club, a venture I was really excited about. I looked forward to sharing a backlist pick with you each month and discussing it. Despite the excitement and enthusiasm many of you expressed, the participation has been disappointing.

I'm taking January off to reassess what I want out of this venture. I'll likely still challenge myself to read at least one backlist title a month, but if others aren't participating, I'm hesitant to commit three posts a month to the project. I'm certainly open to suggestions and am considering picking a few titles and asking people to vote. Perhaps doing it monthly is too much. Perhaps different seasonal themes would make it more fun. If you have ideas, I'd love to hear them. If you're intrigued by the concept but haven't had the time to devote to it the past two months, I'd love to hear that too.