Friday, March 29, 2013

book review: Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear

The backstory: Leaving Everything Most Loved is the tenth Maisie Dobbs mystery novel. Here are links to my reviews of the first nine books: Maisie DobbsBirds of a FeatherPardonable LiesMessenger of TruthAn Incomplete Revenge, Among the Mad, The Mapping of Love and Death, A Lesson in Secrets, and An Elegy for Eddie(There may be some minor spoilers from earlier novels in this review.)

The basics: When Usha Pramal is found dead in London, the police soon run out of clues. When Usha's brother arrives in London two months later, he is dismayed at the lack of progress in the case and enlists the help of Maisie to help solve his sister's murder.

My thoughts: Reading a Maisie Dobbs novel feels like spending time with an old friend. I'm particularly fond of Maisie as a character, and I appreciate how much changes in her life over the course of her books. Leaving Everything Most Loved raises the stakes and follows through on numerous storylines in the lives of Maisie and her assistants that have been building for the last several books.

As Maisie investigates Usha's live and death, she struggles to understand Usha's motivations for journeying from India to London and seeks to unlock the secrets of what kept Usha in London so long. Both the mystery at the center of the novel and Maisie's personal life share themes of travel, love, loss and family.

The verdict: In Leaving Everything Most Loved, Maisie shines brightly. Solving Usha Pramal's murder is satisfying, but the heart of this novel are Maisie's internal struggles. Not only is Leaving Everything Most Loved the most emotional Maisie novel yet, it represents a dynamic turning point for the series, and I can't wait to see what Winspear cooks up for Maisie next March.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: March 26, 2013
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Leaving Everything Most Loved from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Want more? Check out the entire tour (it features reviews of all ten Maisie novels!), like Jacqueline Winspear on Facebook, and visit her website.

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, March 13, 2013

The 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction longlist: A U.S. Reader's Guide

The Orange Prize Women's Prize for Fiction longlist is here! I'm not quite as obsessed as I have been in last years, but I still awaited the longlist with excited anticipation. I won't attempt to read the longlist before the winner is announced this year, but as most of the titles were already on my TBR, I will begin working through them, and I think I will attempt the shortlist once it's announced next month.

The Ones I've Already Read:

The Ones Available in the U.S. Now:

The One Coming Soon to the U.S.:
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Kindle edition)--coming April 2, 2013
The Ones We Hope Make Their Way to the U.S.:

  • A Trick I Learned From Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge
  • Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany
My thoughts: I'm pleased to see such a diverse list of established and debut authors. I'm thrilled eighteen of the twenty are available in the U.S.

Most intriguing: Will Barbara Kingsolver or Zadie Smith be the first woman to win the Prize twice? Will Hilary Mantel win and become the first woman to win the Booker and Women's Prize for the same novel? Will another debut novelist win (the last two winners have been debut novelists)? We'll know more when the shortlist is announced next month.

Now tell me: Which title are you most excited about? Which one should I read first?

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, March 12, 2013

book review: A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee

The backstory: After loving Jonathan Dee's last novel, Pulitzer Prize finalist The Privileges (my review) so much it made my Best of 2011 list, I was ecstatic to hear he has a new novel out.

The basics: A Thousand Pardons is the story of Helen and Ben Armstead. The Armsteads live in Rensselaer Valley, an upstate suburb of New York City, with their adopted daughter Sara. When Ben's actions bring scandal to the family, their marriage ends, and Helen must find a job.

My thoughts: A Thousand Pardons is a slim novel composed of seven lengthy chapters. The novel's first chapter pulled me into this family and the narrative and left me stunned. It's a fascinating and bold set-up for the novel, but it also lulled me into thinking this was a different sort of novel than it turned out to be. The second chapter slowed the narrative's pace, and while I settled into the rest of the novel, I wondered if Dee would return to the pace of the novel's first chapter.

What propels the novel into action is a scandal. Dee crafts a wonderfully ordinary scandal for Ben. In our scandal-obsessed culture, it would be easy to think, 'that's it?' When you stop to think about the reaction his actions would have on those around him, however, and the scandal is at once ordinary and shocking: 
"I mean, it goes both ways," Sara said. "I understand you too. I get why you'd just wake up one day and say, Is this really my life? How did I even get here? And if you can't answer that question, you might start to act a little crazy."
A Thousand Pardons feels both small and large. It's ultimately the story of a family, but there are also numerous subplots. It's partially a coming of age story for Sara:
"You have to start seeing your parents as real people at some point."
It's a story of Helen's career resurgence in public relations, which underscores the themes of mistakes and forgiveness. It's the story of connections from long ago and forming new ones. Not all of these storylines are as satisfying as others, but A Thousand Pardons is a novel I enjoyed while I read it, but my appreciation for its scope came after I turned the last page.

Favorite passage:"That was it: she hated this place because she believed that some earlier, embarrassing version of herself still lived here."

The verdict: A Thousand Pardons is a satisfying read, but in its title and ending, Dee makes it clear it's a novel meant to be more than the sum of its parts. It's engaging plot and intriguing characters are enjoyable, if sometimes meandering, but its ending will keep me thinking for some time.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: March 12, 2013
Source: publisher via NetGalley

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy A Thousand Pardons 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!

Monday, March 11, 2013

book review: The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver

The basics: Spanning three generations of the Porter family and fifty years of their relationships with their hired help, The End of the Point focuses on the family at four different times in history, beginning in the 1940's. Much of the novel takes place at their summer home in Ashaunt, Massachusetts.

My thoughts: Reading The End of the Point made me realize how much I love present-future narrators. As the story of the Porter family unfolds, the reader gets hints of how things are now, even though the story is told in the moment:
"If things had turned out differently, she would have begun the story here--or no, Smitty would have told it; unlike Bea, he loved an audience, he'd have made it funny, drawn it out."
These moments aren't frequent, but as I encountered each one, it felt as though I was unwrapping a present. We don't have the certainty of the future in our own lives, but literature can provide us with one for these characters. It's a testament to Graver's writing and character building that this technique feels so real. I was utterly absorbed in this family that kept growing in number as the generations increased. Graver infuses so much richness into each of them, it's astonishing the novel is as short as it is. It feels more epic than its number of pages, and it feels like a complete story of the people in their time and place. Ashaunt is a character itself:
"She loves her house with a tenderness that makes it feel almost human."
I pictured it so vividly and delighted in seeing how the bedrooms changed hands over the years and depending on which siblings and cousins were there on a given weekend. In fact, as the narrative moved forward to the next moment in time, the house provides the structure, both literally and figuratively, as the reader takes stock of what has changed since the last moment in time.

As I read the last pages, I wept openly and publicly in the airport terminal. When I turned the last page, I was immensely satisfied, yet sad to say goodbye to these characters who felt like family in the two short days I spent with them. Most of all, I wondered how I had not heard of Elizabeth Graver until this, her fourth novel.

Favorite passage: "Largely, now, it was not anger he felt, but rather a kind of bone-scraping, quiet, ever-present sorrow. To come to the place that was supposed to stay the same, to come and find it changed. Dr. Miller had warned him against what he called the "geographic cure." You can't fix yourself by going somewhere else, he'd said. You'll always take yourself along."

The verdict: The End of the Point is a beautifully written, deeply moving portrait of three generations of the Porter family and the their evolving relationships with their servants and caregivers.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: March 5, 2013
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The End of the Point from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Want more? Check out the entire tour schedule, visit Elizabeth Graver's website, like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.

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, March 8, 2013

book review: The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell

My thoughts: I'm not one to be easily shocked or made to blush (at least in the privacy of my own home. I fully confess to many blushing incidents on public transportation while reading), yet The Death of Bees had my jaw dropping, cheeks blushing, and my interior monologue saying "she's how old?" All of this is to say, The Death of Bees is not for the faint of heart, but it is a beautiful, haunting, coming of age tale that far more sad than salacious. While it may shock many readers, it's end point isn't the shock value; there's a deep, affecting story at the heart of The Death of Bees.

The Death of Bees is a difficult novel to classify. There are elements of mystery from the novel's first lines:
Eugene Doyle. Born 19 June 1972. Died 17 December 2010, aged thirty-eight. Isabel Anne Macdonald. Born 24 May 1974. Died 18 December 2010, aged thirty-six.
Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard.
Neither of them were beloved.  
From here, the story unfolds as part mystery, part contemporary fiction, and part coming of age tale. Marnie and Nelly navigate their lives in some ways quite similar to how they have already been. They must outsmart their neighbors and those searching for their parents. They must learn who to trust. As Marnie and Nelly alternate first-person narratives, the reader slowly learns what happened to Eugene and Isabel. Some days feel quite ordinary for them as teens who can do what they like, while others test their loyalty, strength and will.

Favorite passage: "Of course every girl wishes she could be one of those pop star babes who wave their hands in the air yelling about being survivors but when love sits on one side of you and loneliness on the other, it's hard to stop the touching and the kissing."

The verdict: The Death of Bees is glimpse into the difficult, and often comfortable, grey areas of adolescence, family, friendship and loyalty. Marnie and Nelly enchanted me with their bravery, fierceness and ultimately false bravado. O'Donnell has written a darkly comic novel that utterly enchanted me, and I'm already eagerly awaiting her next work.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: January 2, 2013
Source: publisher via Edelweiss

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Death of Bees 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, March 7, 2013

young adult book review: Level 2 by Lenore Appelhans

edit: Level 2 is now titled The Memory of After

The basics: Level 2 is the story of Felicia who died when she was seventeen and is stuck in Level 2, which is a sort of limbo between life and afterlife. In Level 2, drones can access their memories, but they also serve as a type of currency: if others watch your memories, it generates credits for you to watch more memories. When Felicia recognizes Julian, someone she knew in her life, and he tries to break her free from Level 2, she begins to learn more about what exactly Level 2 is.

My thoughts: From the first pages, I was fascinated by the world of Level 2 and by Felicia's story. She's a young woman who lived in and traveled to many cities and countries. She's articulate and loyal. Appelhans smartly tells Felicia's story in concurrent narratives: the reader is plunged into the world of Level 2, which Appelhans adds detailed observation into as the novel continues. The emphasis is on plot and character building rather than dystopian world building, yet the details of Level 2 are fleshed out a slow and satisfactory pace.

The reader gets to know Felicia and her past as she accesses her memories. I was struck by the haunting details of each memory. Appelhans includes metadata in the form of user tags (and metadata makes this librarian swoon.) Also included are the video owner's rating and viewer ratings. It's at times heartbreaking to see the difference between those two ratings.

The verdict: Level 2 is an inventive dystopian novel and a fascinating glimpse into memories and their meanings. It balances the puzzles of Level 2 with strongly developed characters who would not be out of place in any world. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing Felicia's journey with her, and I look forward to the next installment of The Memory Chronicles.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 290 pages
Publication date: January 15, 2013
Source: Nicole from Linus's Blanket was kind enough to send me her copy

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Level 2 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, March 6, 2013

book review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

The backstory: Although I didn't love Maria Semple's first novel, This One Is Mine, I did love parts of it (my review.) I liked Semple's humor and writing enough to eagerly read her latest novel, Where'd You Go, Berndadette? Update: it was also shortlisted for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction.

The basics: Bernadette Fox is a legend, in good ways and bad, depending on the group. She's an enigmatic world-renowned architect who hasn't worked in years. She's a  object or ire and ridicule to her fellow private school mothers in Seattle. She's something of a curiosity to her fifteen-year-old daughter, Bee, and her husband, who works at Microsoft. Bernadette has become agoraphobic and employs a virtual personal assistant from India rather than perform simple tasks herself. When Bee achieves a perfect report card, she asks for her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. When Bernadette disappears, Bee tries to solve the mystery by putting together emails, letters, and other pieces of evidence.

My thoughts: Y'all, Maria Semple has arrived. This novel is a treasure of brilliance, humor, and curiosity. In theory, I'm a huge fan of epistolary novels, but in practice, I'm often disappointed. Semple modernizes and transforms this storytelling method brilliantly. She combines emails with secret messages, invoices, and other odds and ends to create a seamless narrative.

This novel defies conventions in so many ways. At different points in this novel, it can be described as satirical, mysterious, delightfully preposterous, emotionally compelling, and a haunting contemporary family drama. Throughout this novel, however, it is always engaging, enjoyable and thought-provoking. It's a novel I read in less than twenty-four hours. I couldn't wait to finish this journey with (and without) Bernadette, but I also didn't want it to end because it's impossible to know when the next novel this creative, inventive, smart and enjoyable will come along.

The verdict: Where'd You Go, Bernadette? isn't a perfect novel, but it is a perfectly enjoyable one. Semple takes risks big and small, and while almost all of them pay off, a few nagging details kept this novel from being a 5-star read, but it's one I wholeheartedly recommend to just about everyone. Once again, I can't wait to read what Maria Semple writes next.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: August 12, 2012
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Where'd You Go, Bernadette? from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version--grab it while it's only $8.89!)

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, March 5, 2013

book reviews: Upstairs & Downstairs and Below Stairs

The backstory: My obsession with love of Downton Abbey has inspired me to learn more about the period and customs of British country homes at that time.

The basics: Upstairs & Downstairs: An Illustrated Guide to the Real World of Downton Abbey is part nonfiction, part coffee table book about typical life in an Edwardian country home.

My thoughts: Most of what I know about this time, I've learned from Downton Abbey. I was curious to learn more about the time, in part to better assess how true Downton is to history. Upstairs & Downstairs was an informative, engaging look into life at the time. Divided into sections based on a typical day. This structure allowed author Sarah Warwick to examine the roles of those upstairs and downstairs simultaneously.

There was much that was familiar from Downton, but I also learned many things that added more nuance to my understanding of the servant's roles on the show. What I enjoyed most about this book, however, were the pictures and illustrations. Visually, the book is both beautiful and fascinating. Through a combination of photographs from the time, drawings, and diagrams, I gained much appreciation for the visual elements on Downton. Ultimately, the visuals in this book are the most enjoyable pieces, but the extensive outline of the general roles, qualifications and pay for servants was quite illuminating.

The verdict: If you're already familiar with the historical detail of this period, there likely isn't much new here. If, however, you want to learn more about the period and its customs, Upstairs & Downstairs is a visually interesting, informative work.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 128 pages
Publication date: September 4, 2012
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Upstairs & Downstairs: The Illustrated Guide to the Real World of Downton Abbey from the Book Depository or Amazon (no Kindle version.)

The basics: Below Stairs, originally published in 1968, has been reissued with the Downton Abbey craze and the new subtitle "The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey." There are glowing quotes from Julian Fellowes and Dame Eileen Atkins (co-creator of Upstairs, Downstairs) on the cover.

My thoughts: From the first pages, it's clear Margaret Powell is not actually writing a conventional memoir. while she tells the story chronologically, it read more like a transcript than a memoir. It's clear she's dictating her life thoughts on her life, including many years in different kitchens. I did appreciate Powell's thoughts and candor, but despite being told so conversationally, if I had not watched Downton or already read Upstairs & Downstairs, I would not have understood as much of the power dynamics present. Powell throws around different names of servants without providing the context explaining the differences. Knowing the different role these servants played, it was interesting to compare the houses in which she worked.

The verdict: While the story is interesting and I appreciated Powell's candor, the writing lacked finesse, which hindered my enjoyment of the tale. If you're looking for insight into the downstairs life in Edwardian times and don't mind conversational writing, then you'll likely enjoy Below Stairs and its authenticity. Below Stairs is a quick read, but it's far from a literary masterpiece.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: May 1968 (reissued January 3, 2012)
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Below Stairs 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!