Monday, October 28, 2013

audiobook review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

narrated by Robin Miles

The backstory: We Need New Names, the first novel by Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo, was shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize.

The basics: We Need New Names is the coming of age story of Darling. The novel begins in Zimbabwe when Darling is ten years old. She knows she will soon be able to escape her troubled country and go to the U.S., where her aunt lives, but little else in this novel is so simple.

My thoughts: Child narrators are hit or miss for me, and I don't have a consistent opinion about them. Instead, I feel as I do about almost any staple in literature: when it's done well, I love it. When it's not done well, I don't. In this case, I am of two minds about Darling's narration. Admittedly, I know little about the history of Zimbabwe, so it was helpful to have a child guide me through some of it. When done well, a child's narration enhances a story rather than detracts from it; it's a lens into the world, but the reader can realize things deeper than the child does. While Bulawayo attempted these moments, I don't think they were completely successful.

I loved the idea of this book more than its execution. It's clear, from both the description of the novel and Darling's narration from the beginning, that she is going to the United States. There's even a plane on the U.S. cover. The anticipation of this shift made me restless at the amount of time spent in Zimbabwe. I don't mean to diminish the complicated history and hardship, but Darling's reflection of it soon seemed redundant, and I was eager for Darling to escape. Once she does leave, I found myself much more fascinated by her observations. Her aunt lives in Detroit, and Darling experiences culture shock in numerous ways. Her transformation and commentary are intriguing, and time seemed  to pass more quickly after she arrives in the U.S. She was more fascinating as a teenager than a ten-year-old.

Audio thoughts: Robin Miles narrates with a deeply accented voice, and it took me awhile to get used to it. I had to concentrate quite hard early on. At one point, I caught myself realizing she had shifted into a non-accented voice for a certain character, and I didn't immediately realize it, so I did get used to it. Over the course of the book, her accent choice grew on me, as Darling's accent abates slowly when she makes it to the U.S. This subtle transformation enhanced my enjoyment of Darling's transformation.

The verdict: We Need New Names is an intriguing coming of age story, but its strength is in Darling's acclimation to the United States. I wish that geographic transition would have happened earlier in the novel, or that more would have happened in Zimbabwe. These two parts of the novel felt out of balance, but beneath these issues of balance and pacing is a promising young writer.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (audio: 4 out of 5)
Length: 305 pages (9 hours and 4 minutes)
Publication date: May 21, 2013
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy We Need New Names from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit NoViolet Bulawayo's website and 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!

Friday, October 25, 2013

graphic memoir reviews: March and Nylon Road

March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell

The basics: Civil rights icon and long-serving Congressional Representative John Lewis recounts his life in this graphic memoir, the first in a planned trilogy. Book One covers his childhood through the Nashville Student Movement, as well as flashbacks of a young family visiting Lewis's DC office today.

My thoughts: I was proud to live in Lewis's Congressional district in Atlanta for many years, and I have long been fascinated by his life, both past and present. (And, yes, I still wish everyday I still had him as a Representative.) The events in March: Book One will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Lewis (and the second half to those who have seen Stanley Nelson's excellent documentary Freedom Riders.) What March does best is provide context for the omnipresent and harrowing racism. By having two children asking questions (there visit poetically coincides with Barack Obama's inauguration) filled with disbelief gives the grim tales a sense of hope without shying away from our tragic shared history.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 128 pages
Publication date: August 13, 2013
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy March: Book One from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Nylon Road by Parsua Bashi

The basics: Subtitled "A Graphic Memoir of Coming of Age in Iran," Bashi recounts her life, including her decision to leave Iran behind.

My thoughts: Bashi revisits her life by talking with her former selves. Thus the memoir is more about her coming to terms with the decisions she made (and the lot she was handed in life) than experiencing them with her. For this reason, this memoir fell somewhat flat for me. The conversations with past selves struck me as melodramatic rather than poignant. My reaction could be one of personal preference--this narrative technique didn't resonate with me. I wish it did, because there is a fascinating story hiding underneath, and if you can reach it, this memoir might be much more moving.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 128 pages
Publication date: November 10, 2009
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Nylon Road 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!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

book review: Stranger in the Room by Amanda Kyle Williams

The backstory: Stranger in the Room is the second in the Keye Street series. I raved about the first, The Stranger You Seek, last week

The basics: Miki, Keye Street's globe-trotting photographer cousin, comes home to see a man in her house and bolts. She's felt someone watching her off and on for years, but given her history of drug use and psychiatric hospitals, the police may not have followed up properly. Meanwhile, Rouse is investigating the death of a thirteen-year-old whose body was left in plain sight. Keye is also keeping busy with her P.I. business and treks to North Georgia to investigate a crematorium.

My thoughts: I tend to approach the second novel in a series with trepidation. As a reader, I seek out series partly for elements of the familiar, but I also seek them out with a desire to keep being surprised. If the structure and end are too similar, I fear other books will only include more of the same. Delightfully, Stranger in the Room is a very different novel than The Stranger You Seek. In some ways it's a more polished, conventional mystery. The police case took center stage for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing them figure out the crimes. I was also thoroughly creeped out that the thirteen-year-old boy was murdered on the block I last lived on in Atlanta. Williams uses Atlanta perfectly in these novels, and my familiarity with the city adds an extra layer of enjoyment.

There were also elements of a psychological thriller, and I loved that Keye's connection to Miki was unintentional. It was a wonderful way to make the story personal without another main-character-in-peril trope. What was somewhat less successful for me was Keye's investigation into the crematorium. Although it was nearly ten years ago, I remember the details of a similar case in the news. Being familiar with the details made the twists unsurprising, but I did appreciate the role of this case in providing more insight into Keye.

When reading a series, even this early on, the inevitable question is "Do I have to read them in order?" As hard as it is for me to understand why you wouldn't want to do so, Amanda Kyle Williams masterfully references events from the first book vaguely. If you were unaware of the first book, you wouldn't necessarily guess. This book does not spoil the mysteries at the heart of The Stranger You Seek, but Keye Street's love life has moved on. I'm incredibly appreciative that Williams is letting Keye grow and change as a character too.

Favorite passage:  "Memory is not a recording device. It’s corrupted by our own bias. We want to fit the pieces together. So we do. And then we convince ourselves it’s true."

The verdict: Stranger in the Room is a smart police procedural and a twisting psychological thriller. Keye Street is a flawed heroine to champion, and I'm eagerly awaiting her third outing in July 2014.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 321 pages
Publication date: August 21, 2012 (it comes out in paperback Nov. 26)
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Stranger in the Room from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Amanda Kyle Williams' websitelike 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!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

film review: The Bling Ring by Sofia Coppola

The backstory: The Bling Ring is the latest film written (adapted from a Vanity Fair article) and direct by Sofia Coppola. I'm a huge Sofia Coppola fan (my review of Somewhere.)

The basics: Based on true events, The Bling Ring is the story of the rise and fall of five teenagers who visit and rob celebrity homes when the owners are out of town.

My thoughts: There's a starkness to Sofia Coppola's films I enjoy. Even in this film, whose subjects are almost comically extravagant, there is a starkness, in both sound and visuals, that firmly establishes this film as critical rather than sensationalist. Yet Coppola doesn't strong arm the preposterousness of these teenagers; she allows them to present themselves as they did, both privately and publicly. Admittedly, my enjoyment of this film was somewhat hampered because I was so familiar with the story. I found myself enjoying the first half more, as I often do with films based on true events. The genesis was more fascinating than the familiar ending. For those who did not follow the exploits of the real life Bling Ring as closely, I imagine this film will delight even more.

The verdict: The Bling Ring is a visually arresting and haunting portrait of youth, greed, and entitlement.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 87 minutes
Release date: it's out on dvd now
Source: Redbox

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Bling Ring 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!

Monday, October 21, 2013

book review: My Education by Susan Choi

The basics: When Regina Gottlieb begins a graduate program in English at a prestigious upstate New York university, she was familiar with the rumors about Professor Nicholas Brodeur. When she accepts a job as his teaching assistant, the novel takes off.

Note: This review references some minor spoilers. All spoilers discussed are mentioned in the publisher's summary, which means some may not consider them spoilers, but as I reader, I did.

My thoughts: I have somewhat complicated thoughts about My Education. I adore novels about higher education, and this one started off thoroughly enmeshed in the culture of both the university and a town that sound very much like Cornell and Ithaca, New York to me. Regina is a fascinating enough character, and as Choi makes her intentions clear, my interest was certainly piqued. As a reader, I was surprised the first twist of sorts was soon followed by my own disengagement with the characters.

The middle of My Education was at times tough-going for me. I was certainly interested enough to see what would happen, but my interest stemmed from my curiosity of what Choi would make these characters do--I never felt the characters were real enough to drive the momentum of the story. Her writing was excellent, and the commentary on academic culture was close to perfect. Perhaps the strength of those elements also over-shadowed the characters somewhat. Because I read with a critical eye to construction rather than one of plot and character engagement, this middle section lagged for me. The summary of the book references a time jump, and largely because of this knowledge, I expected it to come much earlier. (Once again, I call for a rule that summaries mention nothing that is not revealed in the first half of the book, and I'd personally prefer nothing after the first quarter, but I know that's unlikely.)

Once the time jump happens, however, I was enchanted. For the first time, I realized I had no inkling where Choi was taking these characters. How much of them would be the same and how much would not? Regina goes from being realistically childlike to an adult, and I was eager to see how many of her annoying traits she managed to grow out of. This last section of the book was thoroughly enjoyable, but as I turned the last page, I still found myself questioning the pace of this novel. Perhaps it's a case of my fascination with life now, in my thirties, that I would have been satisfied with less emphasis on the past as it was and more emphasis on the past as it is remembered.

Favorite passage: "At that moment, I think we each genuinely believed ourselves to be the protagonist, and the other a naive and pardonable walk-on whose role might even have a tragic end."

The verdict: Although the pacing and emphasis on certain times seemed off to me, Choi's writing and observations were astute and thought-provoking throughout. While I didn't completely adore this novel, it did make me a fan of Choi, and I'm eager to explore her backlist while I wait for her next novel.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 305 pages
Publication date: July 3, 2013
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy My Education from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Susan Choi's website and 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!

Friday, October 18, 2013

a pair of graphic novel reviews: Agent Gates and Blue is the Warmest Color

Agent Gates by Kyle Hilton and Camaren Subhiyah

The basics: What if fan favorite valet Bates were a secret agent with a bionic leg protecting the royal crown? Agent Gates takes that idea and runs with it.

My thoughts: Agent Gates is escapist fan fiction at its best. The characters will be familiar to any fan of Downton Abbey, and the writers keep them just close enough to their fictional counterparts to be fabulously believable. It's a fun fun, preposterously awesome adventure that is the perfect thing to tide me over until January when season four makes its way stateside.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 128 pages
Publication date: January 1, 2013
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Agent Gates from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Blue is the Warmest Color by Julie Maron

The basics: Fresh on the heels of the film adaptation of this French-language graphic novel winning the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, an English translation is finally available.

My thoughts: I still have a soft spot for coming of age stories set when I was also coming of age, and the main characters in Blue is the Warmest Color, a hauntingly beautiful story of young love, the characters are in high school in the mid-to-late 1990's. It's also fascinating to see the fictional or real stories of what high school in the 1990's looked like around the world (Blue is the Warmest Color is set in Lilles, France.) The story is heartbreaking and at times heart-wrenching, Maron captures the emotional authenticity of those turbulent teenage years beautifully.

Favorite passage: via Instagram "Only love will save the world. Why would I be ashamed to love?"

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 160 pages
Publication date: August 19, 2013
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Blue is the Warmest Color from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

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

Thursday, October 17, 2013

book review: The Stranger You Seek by Amanda Kyle Williams

The backstory: The Stranger You Seek is the first novel in Amanda Kyle Williams' Keye Street series.

The basics: Set in Atlanta, The Stranger You Seek introduces Keye Street, a former behavioral analyst for the FBI and current private investigator. Street, an Asian-American adopted by a white couple (who later adopted a black boy, who turns out to be gay), witnessed the murders of her grandparents as a child. After years of being a functioning alcoholic, she's sober, divorced and trying to build her business. When a serial killer begins terrorizing Atlanta, her longtime friend (and head of homicide), Rauser, calls Keye in to consult.

My thoughts: If I have a quibble about first in a series mystery novels, it's that the main character is always far too close to the action. Here: it works. The Wishbone killer is savage brutal, and he's exactly the kind of person who would reach out to those working the case and amp up the fun and challenge. I also have a soft spot for novels set in Atlanta, a city I spent almost half my life in, and Williams nails the details and the spirit of the city (she lives there.) Atlanta's backdrop added a depth to the story I quite enjoyed, and it's one even those not familiar with the city will appreciate. Seeing these characters visit some of my favorite restaurants was a particularly special treat.

Beyond the pleasant setting, this novel is dark. The Wishbone killer is seriously demented, and I appreciated how Williams broke the tension with the more mundane aspects of Keye's work: bond enforcement and serving subpoenas. I always like characters working on multiple things at a time, as it adds a richness and dimension to them. I also really enjoyed the character development of Keye. She has a wicked sense of humor and her share of flaws, and this combination works beautifully. She's a complicated, likeable character, and she has the heft to carry a series.

Favorite passage: "I am less a part of the South than it is a part of me. It's a romantic notion, being overcome by geography."

The verdict: The Stranger You Seek is a smart, thrilling debut. The mystery was tightly plotted and Keye Street is a wonderfully complicated character I can't wait to read more about. In fact, now that I've finished this review, I'm sitting down to start the second book in the series, The Stranger in the Room. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: August 30, 2011
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Stranger You Seek from Amazon (Kindle edition--only $5.99!)

Want more? Visit Amanda Kyle Williams' 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!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

mini-movie reviews: three films I highly recommend

I adore Marion Cotillard. Knowing she stars in Rust and Bone was enough to put it at the top of my Netflix queue, and I sat down to watch it knowing nothing of the plot. Incidentally, that's exactly how I recommend you watch it too. To describe the plot gives too much away, so I'll say these two things: Marion Cotillard's performance blew me away with its power and rawness and it's the best film I've seen this year. That she was only nominated for a Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award and not an Oscar astounds me.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Source: Netflix

Although I stopped paying attention to most sports several years ago, I do still watch as much of the four tennis grand slams as I can each year. There's a peace to letting sports into my life four times a year for two weeks at a time. Serena Williams remains my all-time favorite tennis player. She's far from perfect, but I love to watch her play. This documentary goes behind the scenes of the 2011 tennis season, which was a tumultuous one for both Venus and Serena. It also looks at their childhood and careers. I'm not too proud to say: I ugly cried in the opening montage. As much fun as I've had watching the careers of these two athletes, this documentary puts their accomplishments into perspective beautifully. To know Serena is still at the top of the women's tour after the hardship and injuries she faced during the 2011 season makes it even more satisfying.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Source: Netflix

I'm late to the Silver Linings Playbook party, I know. I've been a huge fan David O. Russell, who adapted the screenplay from  Matthew Quick's novel and directed it, for almost twenty years. There's an emotional honesty to his films I adore, and this one is no exception. I'm glad I watched this film knowing little about its plot, as it's a film I enjoyed watching unfold slowly. The performances are admittedly excellent, but Jennifer Lawrence, as good as she is in this film, still doesn't compare to Marion Cotillard's performance in Rust and Bone. Still, I really enjoyed this film and its dark humor.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Source: library

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!