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Showing posts from January, 2014

book review: Killer Ambition by Marcia Clark

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The backstory: Killer Ambition is the third mystery in Marcia Clark's Rachel Knight series. I've already enjoyed and reviewed Guilt by Associationand Guilt by Degrees.

The basics: When a famous Hollywood director's daughter is murdered, in what seems to be a kidnapping gone wrong, D.A. Rachel Knight and her best friend, detective Bailey Keller, catch the case and the spotlight. Of course, things are never quite what they seem in a Marcia Clark novel, and the actual mystery is much more complicated than a simple whodunit.

My thoughts: After starting this series in December (the week I found out I was pregnant and only wanted to lose myself in mysteries), I read all three books back-to-back-to-back in a single week. I've spaced out my reviews so as not to delude you all at once, but I am so in love with this series and these characters. Overall, this mystery wasn't quite as compelling as the one in Guilt by Degrees, but I enjoyed reading it just as much. The trio of Ra…

film review: Dirty Wars

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The backstory: Dirty Wars is one of the five films nominated for the Best Documentary Academy Award this year.

The basics: Jeremy Scahill, a foreign correspondent for The Nation, investigates the unseen wars the U.S. is fighting.

My thoughts: Jeremy Scahill, best known for exposing Blackwater, sets his sights on uncovering the stories behind the NATO reports. He's first drawn to Gardez, Afghanistan, where civilians and an Afghan police chief trained by the U.S. are killed. Throughout the film, Scahill manages to get impressive access to both government officials and locals in the war zones.

The film isn't necessarily a marvel of visual filmmaking, but it is a marvel of documentary film as an information resource. The emphasis here isn't style; it's relaying critical information. By taking the viewer along on Scahill's journey, this film watches like an unfolding mystery. Although Scahill didn't know how this story (or stories) was end, I'm thankful he was sma…

book review: The Good House by Ann Leary

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The basics: Hildy Good is a real estate agent near Salem, Massachusetts. She went to rehab at the behest of her two grown daughters, but she's not an alcoholic.

My thoughts: The Good House is one of those books many were quietly raving about most of 2013, but yet it never seemed to really get much attention. I'm pretty sure I checked it out of the library in January when it came out and finally read it in the final days of 2013 (I know, I am a library book hoarder.) I was instantly entranced with this novel. Hildy is a dynamic narrator. I'm tempted to call her an unreliable narrator, but I'm not convinced that's completely accurate. Hildy's unreliability comes in two forms: first, she is not always forthcoming with the reader. She doesn't necessarily lie, but she carefully chooses how to share and when. In reality, this behavior is what we all do. We don't lead with the faults others find with us that we don't quite believe, yet when Hildy first ackn…

mini-film reviews: Hysteria, Lee Daniels' The Butler, and The Spectacular Now

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Hysteria by Tanya Wexler

I really wanted to love this film. Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal in a historic feminist comedy? It should be right up my alley. The tone of the film overall is somewhat bizarre. At times it feels like a comedy, but at times it was much more serious. The actors often seemed as though they were acting in different films. Ultimately, I don't think the film's direction was clear enough. I've seen Sarah Ruhl's fabulous play In the Next Room, which also focuses on the invention of the vibrator, and perhaps the excellence of that play negatively impacted my enjoyment of Hysteria. There were some wonderful moments in this film, but overall, I was pretty disappointed this story and this cast only made a mediocre film.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Availability: dvd


Lee Daniels' The Butler by Lee Daniels

Based very loosely on the true story of an African-American butler who served from Eisenhower to Reagan and lived to see Obama's presidency. The story is a…

book review: The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

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The backstory: I previously adored Valerie Martin's Orange Prize-winning novel Property.

The basics: The Mary Celeste was found abandoned in 1872. The ship was in tact, there were no signs of a struggle, but the crew was gone. Arthur Conan Doyle writes a soon-to-be-famou short story about what happened. Meanwhile, medium Violet Petra, who can communicate with the dead, exemplifies the growing fascination with ghosts and unexplained.

My thoughts: I was not familiar with the mystery of the Mary Celeste before reading this book, but I was instantly intrigued by it. Martin does not structure this novel in a straight-forward way, which mimics the mystery of the ship itself. Characters come and go throughout the novel, and the reader is left to piece together how these parts fit together. This passage about a third of the way into the novel illustrates Martin's craftiness:
"Though most of its critics recognized Jephson's "Statement" as fiction and placed it in the lo…

Sunday Salon: embracing the new normal

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First, thank you all so much for your kind and celebratory words here on the blog, on Instagram, on Facebook, and on Twitter about our little announcement. I've been diligently adding all of your book selections to my reading list too. It's so nice to finally have my pregnancy completely out in the open, and I'm celebrating by writing a Sunday Salon in which I can actually tell you about my week.

Reading
I've been reading The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson for over a week now, which is much more of an indication of my need to sleep 12-14 hours a day than it is of how much I'm enjoying it. Regardless, I'm determined to finish it today. It's also a positive indication, however, of how well my New Yorker reading is going. I have found that during the week I don't like to start a new book because I'd rather devote my meager awake reading time to it, and I'm right on track with my 2014 goal of reading all issues. I have no idea which book I'll…

personally: a little announcement

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When I shared my goals for 2014 with you, I could have shared one more: read as many books as possible for the nomadbaby arrives (on or around) August 9th. Followed quickly by: read as many books as possible while on maternity leave. Mr. Nomadreader and I are excited and terrified (but mostly excited.) I've said many times lately "pregnancy isn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be." Which is true, but I think I was unreasonably terrified of it. Mostly, I'm tired (really tired.) And I have little to no appetite. What I want to eat is very specific--it's that or nothing. And it is impossible to drink enough water. But I am well, and the nomadbaby is well, so we are making do. In terms of reading, I've slowed down somewhat because I go to bed so early (and sleep so much over all.) My attention span is perfect for a 90-120 minute film, so I've been watching more of those. And my attention span also loves The New Yorker, so I'm following through o…

mini-film reviews: Bubble and Frances Ha

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Bubble directed by Steven Soderbergh

Bubble is a film best enjoyed knowing very little, so I will say very little about it. After reading the two-sentence description on Netflix, I said to Mr. Nomadreader about an hour into this seventy-three minutes film, "when is [spoler] going to happen?" Ultimately, I adored Bubble, but it progressed somewhat slowly. It's not a film all may enjoy. Steven Soderbergh didn't hire actors. The lead, Debbie Doebereiner, was found working at KFC. There was no script. Instead, these untrained actors (who come across as real people, likely because they are) improvised all of the lines from an outline. The result is a fascinating slice of life of a working class town. Much of the film is a snapshot of ordinary life, and while I enjoyed this setup, it did drag at times. The last fiftenn minutes, however, are simply divine. It's worth seeing, but even if it's not working for you--don't stop watching.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Availability:…

book review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

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The backstory: I've read and loved Gillian Flynn's other two novels Sharp Objects (my review) and Gone Girl (my review).

The basics: When Libby Day was seven, her older brother murdered their mother and two other sisters. Libby has lived off donations ever since, but now in her late twenties, the money is almost gone. She turns to the Kill Club, a secret club obsessed with murders, and they're willing to pay for her to talk to her father and brother about the crimes.

My thoughts: There's always something magical about my first 5-star read of the new year, and Dark Places is it for 2014. I was instantly drawn into this creepy world. Flynn manges to write about very dark people and events with moments of humor: "He was about to give Lyle a high-five and then thought better: his arm froze in an accidental Nazi salute." The story unfolds in alternating chapters. One is Libby's present struggles to learn more about the crimes and reconnect with her childhood. Th…

film review: 20 Feet from Stardom

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The backstory: 20 Feet from Stardom is nominated for best documentary at this year's Academy Awards (and the Independent Spirit Awards, the NAACP Image Awards, and already won the Critics Choice Award.)

The basics: 20 Feet from Stardom goes behind the scenes of the last fifty years of music to showcase the backup singers behind some of the biggest hits in pop, rock, and R&B.

My thoughts: Admittedly, the description did little for me. I finally decided to see it because it keeps getting nominated for so many awards. I should have paid attention earlier because 20 Feet from Stardom is the best documentary I've seen this year (and I've already seen fifteen.) While the description is certainly true, what makes 20 Feet from Stardom, like so many great works of art, so special are all of the other intangibles. It's not a coincidence that the backup singers are overwhelming black and female. This powerful social narrative moved me deeply. The stories of these individuals ar…

book review: The Harlot's Tale by Sam Thomas

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The backstory: Last year I read and adored The Midwife's Tale, Sam Thomas's debut mystery.

The basics: The story opens in August 1645, the year after the events of The Midwife's Tale. York is battling a brutal heatwave and adjusting to life with Puritan control. A new minister, Hezekiah Ward, has arrived in town, preaching about the evils of prostitution, just as much of the city believes the heat is God's punishment for evil. When the bodies of a prostitue and a john are found brutally murdered, Bridget's brother-in-law calls her in to view the bodies. Once again, her skills as a midwife find a crime-solving purpose.

My thoughts: Once again I was delighted with the characters of Bridget and Martha, her servant and midwife apprentice. The relationship of the two women is one of my favorite parts of this series. As Bridget teaches Martha more about midwifing, the reader learns with her. There are numerous births throughout this mystery, but I also appreciate how Thoma…

book review: The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway

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The basics:  "Jim Kennoway was once an esteemed member of the ornithology department at the Museum of Natural History in New York, collecting and skinning birds as specimens. Slowing down from a hard-lived life and a recent leg amputation, Jim retreats to an island in Maine: to drink, smoke, and to be left alone. As a young man he worked for Naval Intelligence during World War II in the Solomon Islands. While spying on Japanese shipping from behind enemy lines, Jim befriended Tosca, a young islander who worked with him as a scout. Now, thirty years later, Tosca has sent his daughter Cadillac to stay with Jim in the weeks before she begins premedical studies at Yale. She arrives to Jim’s consternation, yet she will capture his heart and the hearts of everyone she meets, irrevocably changing their lives." (from publisher)

My thoughts: I knew very little about this novel when I began reading. I picked up a copy at ALA in June because of the praise for Greenway's first novel,…

book review: Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson

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The basics: After surviving the plane crash that killed her father when she was 5, Artis Henderson recounts losing her husband during a helicopter crash in the Iraq War.

My thoughts: I'm a huge fan of The New York Times Modern Love column. When I heard Artis Henderson, whose Modern Love column I cried throughout, published a memoir expanding on the topic of losing her husband, I knew I wanted to read it, even if war widow memoirs aren't typically a genre at the top of my list. And I'm so glad I did. It's a good thing the reader knows about the joint tragedies in Artis's life from the book's beginnings, becuase Henderson still packs an emotinoal punch. As I read, I was crying hard enough I had to leave my bed, where my husband peacefully slept, to go downstairs where I could read and sob in peace.

I'm not necessarily drawn to stories of tragedy, but I immediately connected with Artis as I read. She and I are almost exactly the same age, and I easily imagined …

mini-film reviews: Safety Not Guaranteed and Waiting for Superman

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The premise of Safety Not Guaranteed is a great one: someone places a classified ad seeking a partner to travel in time. The title is the same as the ad's last line. When Seattle Magazine writer Jeff (New Girl's Jake Johnson) takes two interns (Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni) to see who the person is. With such a great premise and a good cast, I had high hopes, but Safety Not Guaranteed flounders between two many genres. At times it's a witty satire, at time softly poignant, at times inspiring, and at time eye-rollingly bad. I rarely knew what the filmmaker wanted from me, and while I love a genre-defining mash-up, this attempt lacked consistency and clarity of focus. For every moment I loved, there was one I hated. There were moments of brilliance, but there were also far too many moments of boredom for a film only 86 minutes long. As a first film, some of these sins are forgiveable, and I will gladly tune in to see what Derek Connolly writes next. Rating: 3 out of 5


Waiting …

book review: The Execution by Dick Wolf

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The backstory: The Execution is the second novel in Dick Wolf's Jeremy Fisk series, after The Intercept (my review.) This review, like the book itself, contains spoilers if you have not read The Intercept.

The basics:  Shortly after the Mexican presidential election, twenty-three beheaded bodies are found beheaded on the U.S. border. Mexican intelligence officer Cecilia Garza recognizes it as the work of Chuparosa, a man she's been chasing for years. Meanwhile in New York City, it's United Nations Week, and NYPD terrorism detective Jeremy Fisk must keep numerous world leaders, including the newly elected Mexican president, safe.

My thoughts: After being surprised by how much I liked The Intercept, I was eager to see what The Execution had in store for Jeremy Fisk and the United States. Fisk is still reeling from the events of The Intercept, and Wolf doesn't shy away from revealing plot details. The Execution is clearly not intended to double as a standalone, and that'…

book review: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

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The backstory: The Invention of Wings is the third selection in Oprah's Book Club 2.0.

The basics: Based on the life of suffragist and abolitionist Sarah Grimke, The Invention of Wings begins when Sarah is eleven and receives her own slave, Hetty "Handful," as a gift. Told in alternating chapters, the novel explores the lives of both Sarah and Handful.

My thoughts: As soon as I heard Sue Monk Kidd's new novel was based on the life of Sarah Grimke, I was eager to read it. I've long been fascinated by Grimke and wrote papers on her in college (yes, I took the time to find and re-read those papers after I finished this novel.) When Oprah chose it for her book club, I was thrilled. I hope this novel brings the life and work of Sarah Grimke to more people.

Because of my familiarity with Grimke, I initially found the novel's pace a bit slow. I appreciated the insight into her childhood, but I was eager for the action to move along to where I knew it was going. As is …

Sunday Salon: Baby, it's cold outside!

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Happy first Sunday of 2014! I'm snuggled on the couch under a blanket, where I intend to spend most of the day. Here in Des Moines, we've already reached our high for the day (3°) and are quickly falling to tonight's low (-17°). Sadly, that does not factor in the wind chill. I really enjoy the cold weather, but when it gets near and below zero, I don't feel the need to go outside if I don't have to. Unfortunately, tomorrow looks even worse: our high won't even reach zero. Thankfully, this epic cold snap will be short-lived, and we'll be back to normal January temperatures (double digits!) this week.

My reading year so far
2014 is off to a wonderful start (and yes, only having to work one day so far this year has certainly helped!) Yesterday morning I finished the first New Yorker of the year, as well as the first two books of the year (one I started in 2013.) I started a third last night and stayed up far too late reading, and then I woke up and finished it …

My 2014 goals

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Although the distinction may seem somewhat arbitrary, I prefer making New Year's goals rather than resolutions. For me, the best goals are both achievable and aspirational. Finding this balance is crucial. Some yeras, I've set goals that were too aspirational or too proscribed. As I reflected on the reader I was in 2013, I found a few opportunities for gradual change. My goals this year aren't exclusively about reading, however, as I continue to enjoy a variety of media. Ultimately, the purpose of these goals is to help me focus. In those moments when I contemplate how to spend my time, most often when I get home from work and Mr. Nomadreader is still at work, I want to keep returning to these goals in 2014. If I'm on track, great. I can be free to do what I most feel like doing. If I'm not on track with these goals, I hope I'll choose to spend my time working toward them. These are goals I made out of love; I truly enjoy all of these activities and want to sp…

book review: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

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The backstory: Leaving Atlanta is the first novel by Tayari Jones. After adoring her most recent novel, Silver Sparrow (my review), I finally got around to reading this one ("finally getting around to reading" was the theme of much of my holiday break binge-reading!)

The basics: Told in three parts from the perspective of three black middle school students in southwest Atlanta, Leaving Atlanta takes place at the time of the notorious Atlanta Child Murders.

My thoughts: I spent almost half my life in Atlanta (although I'm getting farther away from that every year!) Regardless, I've lived more years in Atlanta than in any other city, and I've been fascinated by the Atlanta Child Murders since I first heard of them. Jones introduces the reader to this time through three different child narrators. Each of the three takes one section, although the sections frequently reference the other narrators. I have mixed reactions to this storytelling approach. Typically, I love d…

book review: Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

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The backstory: After liking J. Courtney Sullivan's first novel, Commencement (my review), I finally got around to reading her second novel, Maine. 

The basics: Maine traces the story of the Kelleher family one summer at their Maine beachhouse. Four women share narration: Alice, the matriarch, whose husband Daniel, died ten years ago; Alice's daughter  Kathleen, who lives with her boyfriend and runs a worm farm in California; Alice's daughter-in-law Anne Marie, who has become obsessed with dollhouses; and Kathleen's daughter Maggie, who is thirty-two, unmarried and pregnant.

My thoughts: In recent years I've realized how much I enjoy family sagas. I've always enjoyed multiple narrators, so Maine was right up my alley. I love the way Sullivan writes, and she's grew as a writer between Commencement and Maine. There's a maturity to Maine and its characters that I quite enjoyed. While Maine takes place over the span of a little over a month, the action is spli…

The Very Best of 2013

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Happy New Year, y'all!
As always, I start the new year by looking back at the best books I read last year. Admittedly, 2013 was not the best reading year for me. I went through several reading droughts and several slow blogging periods. I thought of walking away from this blog more than once (and I'm so glad I remembered why I love sharing my reading with y'all. I'll be sticking around for quite some time.) Despite some reading and blogging disappointments, the year itself was a delight. Mr. Nomadreader and I bought our first (and I hope last) house. I discovered my new favorite band, American Aquarium, and took a solo road trip to one of my favorite cities, Nashville, to see them in concert for my birthday. I continue to love my job and all around, I feel very blessed and happy.

In terms of reading, I didn't even manage to read 100 books in 2013. (It's the first time since graduate school I haven't read 100 books, and I'm disappointed in myself for not…