Tuesday, February 25, 2014

book review: The Black Echo by Michael Connelly

The backstory: After enjoying the Bosch pilot on Amazon, I decided to finally start reading the Michael Connelly series so many, including Alafair Burke, one of my favorite crime novelists, rave about.

The basics: The Black Echo, the first novel in Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series, introduces readers to the LAPD homicide detective. When a dead body is discovered in a pipe, Bosch recognizes the victim as a fellow tunnel rat from his days in Vietnam. What otherwise might have been classified as a junkie dead from an overdose turns into a complicated, intriguing mystery stretching back to the Vietnam War itself.

My thoughts: Originally published in 1992, The Black Echo is a delightful time capsule into its time. As close as 1992 seems, the Vietnam War is closer to it than it is to today. This mystery is firmly grounded in the lingering impact of Vietnam, and it even takes its title from a War reference:
"Meadows was something else…. Back then, we were all just a bunch of kids, afraid of the dark. And those tunnels were so damn dark. But Meadows, he wasn’t afraid. He’d volunteer and volunteer and volunteer. Out of the blue and into the black. That’s what he said going on a tunnel mission was. We called it the black echo. It was like going to hell. You’re down there and you could smell your own fear. It was like you were dead when you were down there."
As a character, Bosch is a little bit rogue, which I enjoyed. The reader slowly learns more of his back story, but I was so engrossed with the mystery, I hardly cared when or how I learned about Bosch himself. As is often the case with first-in-a-series-mysteries, the person solving the mystery has a personal connection to the victim. In this case, the connection was fascinating rather than convenient, and it drove the story deeper.

Favorite passage:  "My father was in the military. Most I ever spent in one place was a couple years. So my memories aren’t really of places. They’re people."

The verdict: The Black Echo is a tight, twisty mystery whose resolution left my mouth hanging open. I enjoyed the journey as much as the payoff, and I can't wait to read Connelly's next Bosch mystery.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 484 pages
Publication date: January 21, 1992
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Black Echo from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Michael Connelly's website, like him on Facebook, and follow him 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!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sunday Salon: Hello from Kansas!

The Sunday Salon.comIt's another Sunday, and I'm in another city I still call home. The great second trimester travel tour is cruising along, and visiting places I used to love has me marveling at what paths our baby's life will take.

I drove down to Lawrence yesterday afternoon to go to the Kansas-Texas basketball game. It was my first game at Allen Fieldhouse in ten years, and it was a great one! Our seats were incredible. My father and I sat nine rows back from the court, behind the Texas bench, and next to all of the Kansas players' families. It's always a special time at Allen Fieldhouse, but last night was extra special, and I'm so glad I could share it with my father. Baby D-L's in utero experience was definitely unlike anything s/he has experienced so far.

As much as I love Lawrence, I'm glad this trip is such a short one because I only got back from Atlanta a few days ago and leave for Orlando Tuesday. In this whirlwind of traveling, I miss Mr. Nomadreader so much, and I'm glad to be heading home to him this afternoon (after a sure-to-be-delicious brunch with my parents at Rye in Kansas City, of course!) And I'll also stop by Wheatfields before I leave Lawrence and hope I'm early enough to get a cheese danish, as they make the world's best cheese danish (I'm happy to sample other claims of world's best cheese danish if there's dissension.) I wish his work schedule allowed him to join me for all (or any!) of my travels this month. Next month we're looking forward to a week-long trip to yet another place we call home, upstate New York.

I have an embarrassingly bad track record of reading my book club books. I suggested The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell, and my book club picked it as one of our March reads (we meet every other month and read two books), so I knew I had to read it. I've also been meaning to read it since it came out, so it's good motivation. I started it Friday (a full month before book club!), and I'm enjoying it so far. I hope to finish it before my next trip Tuesday.

On the drive to Lawrence yesterday, I started listening to The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I'm also enjoying it and realize it's been too long since I've listened to an audiobook (although I have been reading print and ebooks more, so I suppose it's a wash!)

I still adore Chicago Fire (my first thoughts), and last week I binge-watched the first five episodes of its spinoff, Chicago P.D., which I also really enjoyed. I'm so glad Sophia Bush is working in television again, and like Fire, the P.D. cast is a wonderful ensemble. The show isn't perfect, but it's finding its footing and is quite good.

I also (finally!) started watching Veronica Mars this weekend. Two episodes in, and I like it. I'm curious to see at what pace the mysteries unfold and how new mysteries are introduced in future seasons.

There will be actual reviews posting this week too! I've been treating myself to reading summer releases from some of my favorite authors, so those won't post until around the release dates, but I have some current new releases and backlist reviews coming this week, as well as some film reviews.

Now tell me: what are you reading, watching, or doing this weekend?

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, February 16, 2014

Sunday Salon: Hello from Atlanta

The Sunday Salon.comHappy Sunday! I'm writing this morning from Atlanta, the town in which I grew up. I flew in yesterday and spent the afternoon drinking ginger beer with my brother on his front patio (heavenly!), followed by hanging out with our cousins, and a wonderful dinner with my brother and sister-in-law at Gunshow, the new restaurant from Top Chef 7 alumnus Kevin Gillespie (also heavenly!) Today is the baptism of the daughter of one of my best friends. The rest of the weekend is filled with more time with friends, family, and meeting several babies born since the last time I was here, plus eating at more restaurants that are old favorites and discovering new ones. It's hard to believe it's been almost six years since I moved away from Atlanta (probably for good this time). It still feels likes home, even with so much changing over the years. The thought that the next time I'll be here, I'll have a baby is also hard to believe. All in all, the 60 degrees and sunny weather is pretty amazing. I think more afternoons on patio are definitely in order!

I've been thoroughly enjoying Thirty Girls by Susan Minot. The prose is stunning, but the subject matter is so dark, I had to take a break yesterday, when I had so much reading time while traveling. I picked up Don't Talk to Strangers, the third novel in the Keye Street mystery series by Amanda Kyle Williams, which is out in July 2014. The series is set in Atlanta, and it's been so much fun to read it while I'm in here visiting. I hope to finish both before I'm back in Des Moines, and I have no idea what I'll be picking up next, which is also really fun for me as an impulsive reader.

An early highlight of the trip was enjoying my first two flights where I'm permitted to read on my Kindle the entire flight. It was heavenly, particularly as the flight from Des Moines to Chicago is so short there are only about ten minutes that aren't considered part of take-off or landing. I loved not having to find a print book or pile of magazines to drag around. My Kindle is filled with many options of what to read next, which means I can also be an impulsive reader while traveling.

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, February 11, 2014

book review: Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists

The basics: This collection of personal essays from a varied collection of writers (mostly women) illuminates the a-ha moments when feminism "clicked." Edited by J. Courtney Sullivan and Courtney E. Martin, the idea for this collection arose when J. Courtney emailed a group of friends asking what their a-ha moment of feminism was so she could give a character in Commencement (my review) a particularly powerful one.

My thoughts: I've been meaning to read this essay collection for years, but now I'm glad I read it while I'm pregnant. A common theme running through many of these essays was the impact of a mother's (or mother's and father's) feminism on a personal embrace of the word, if not its meaning. As one half of a feminist couple about to have a baby, I kept wondering when my baby's "click" moment would be. And, yes, I also found myself browsing collections of feminist onesies as I read.

One of my favorite things about this collection was its diversity. There were many stories that were familiar, as many of these authors are around my age and thus went to high school and college around the same, all while experiencing pop culture similarly. There were also many stories that were beautifully foreign from my own experience. Like several of the writers in this collection, I don't have a single moment. I {cringe} vividly recall my ignorant self proudly uttering the phrase "I'm not a feminist; I'm an equalist." As if I had the power to redefine a word if I didn't accept its meaning. Yet as I wondered what my child's moment will be, and as I read these essays, many of which are about moments, what I most enjoyed in this collection were the thoughts before and after the moments. I was moved by what these writers think, feel, see and do after the click.

As much as I enjoyed this collection, there were a few essays with which I did not connect. I was struck by two essays that focused on the universality of body issues that really bugged me. I acknowledge body issues and eating disorders are common, but it's foolish to assume your issues are shared by all women of a certain age. Perhaps I'm the vocal minority, but nothing turns me off faster in a personal essay than faulty assumptions. Exploring our similarities while illuminating our differences is one of the reasons I read, and I wished a few of these essays would have pushed the theme as far as most did.

The verdict: This varied collection of essays isn't perfect, but I most appreciated how well the writers captured their time and place. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent reading it, and I would love to see a follow-up edition of the next generation of voices in fifteen years. While I'd love to believe such a volume won't be needed, I'm not at all confident we'll get there soon enough.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 243 pages
Publication date: April 7, 2010
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or 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!

Monday, February 10, 2014

book review: The News: A User's Manual by Alain de Botton

The basics: The News: A User's Manual is a manifesto for what we should want and demand from news organizations, as well as a critique of their current offerings.

My thoughts: I majored in journalism as an undergraduate, and although I walked away from my desire to ever be a journalist, I still have a deep love for journalism. I spend a lot of time with the news, as a consumer and as a critic. I assumed I was the target audience for this book, but de Botton operates under the faulty assumption that no one else has ever thought critically about the news and its role in our lives. To be fair, the more I read, the more I came to believe de Botton isn't interested in being a journalist himself, and this book is less an examination of the news as it is a personal examination of the news. de Botton doesn't investigate the large body of historical or contemporary news criticism. Instead, he seeks to do it all himself. Again, at times this approach is more successful than at others.

Alain de Botton is not a journalist, and his lack of knowledge about journalism shows in this book, for good and for bad. Having an outsider's perspective brings a certain freshness to the topic, but it also causes a few major missteps. Too often de Botton speaks about news outlets as a single, monolith beast. As anyone who follows news and its increasingly few corporate owners, this trend is alarmingly true, but de Botton doesn't separate the majority from the minority. In this age of the Internet, there are important journalist voices working outside of this mainstream. More disturbingly, de Botton never addresses his decidedly British perspective. At times, it was clear he was talking about his experience with British news, but at times it wasn't. There are significant differences between news organizations in the UK and the U.S., and de Botton misses the opportunity to both clarify his points and articulate these differences.

de Botton organizes this manifesto thematically, with sections on politics, world news, economics, celebrity, disaster, and consumption. Some of these sections were more interesting, and more original, than others. I particularly enjoyed the sections on world news and celebrity. In these sections, de Botton did a better job articulating the big picture and making an argument for and why things should be different.

Favorite passage: "Foreign news wants to tell us with whom and where we should fight, trade or sympathize. But these three areas of interest aren't priorities for the majority of us."

The verdict: The News: A User's Manual was at times an incredibly frustrating reading experience. I found the second half more successful than the first because de Botton began to more clearly express his point: to ask what news should be. It's an interesting exploration, but I don't think his approach successfully captured the complicated nature of what news currently is.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: February 11, 2014 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The News: A User's Manual  from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Alain de Botton's website, follow him on Facebook, and follow him 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!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sunday Salon: Hello, Bosch

The Sunday Salon.comSundays that follow Saturdays when I work the reference desk are the best, most restful Sundays. And today is one of those blessed Sundays.

After work yesterday I started The Black Echo, the first mystery in Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch police procedural series. Friday night I watched the Amazon pilot for Bosch, and I really liked it. I'm often intimidated by long-running series, but so many people have raved about these over the years, I impulsively bought the first six Bosch novels in Kindle bundles when they were on sale....four years ago. At least I'm finally getting to them!

One of the big changes I made when I found out I was pregnant was cutting way back on review books with specific dates. I wanted to spend these last few childless months reading whatever struck my fancy. I'm really enjoying this freedom to read, and I'm actually reading more. I'm currently three books ahead of my two-book-a-week goal pace. It's also opened up the time to tackle a long-running series like Michael Connelly's, in which there are currently eighteen titles. I'm still reading plenty of review books, but I am loving the freedom to read the ones I want to read most when I want to read them.

I'm still marveling about how good Short Term 12 was. It's a film I hope finds a much larger audience because it's one of the best I've seen in years. Take the time to watch it, and then come talk to me about it! My devotion to it has kept me from wanting to much other serious films, but I'll have more film reviews later this week.

Mr. Nomadreader and I celebrated our eighth and fourth anniversaries Friday. We got married on our fourth anniversary, and I still can't quite believe we've now been married longer than we were together before we got married. Celebrating while pregnant was certainly poignant, even though the actual celebration is still to come. We don't buy each other birthday or anniversary presents. Instead, we do what we love best: travel, eat, and drink. We haven't been able to take a trip for our anniversary each year for the past few years, but we do still go out for a fancy dinner and drink a lot of wine and martinis. Obviously, there won't be much drinking this year, but I'm still looking forward to dinner at one of my favorite Des Moines restaurants this week.

I'm officially in my second trimester! This week I woke up before my alarm more than once, which means I'm sleeping only nine or ten hours night. More importantly, I don't feel like a zombie who is only sleeping four hours a night, even though I'm sleeping twelve. Of course, I also had my first night where I had problems getting comfortable because of my growing belly. As everyone has said to me, as soon as you celebrate the disappearance of one pregnancy system, another one is there to take its place. I'm also eating the portions of a normal person again. One of the things I've missed most is breakfast, as my stomach was most irate in the mornings. I'm used to having bacon and eggs every morning, and I really hope I can get back into that habit this week.

The blog
I seem to have fallen into the habit of blogging every day. I'm not entirely sure how long it will last, but I still have thirteen read but unreviewed books and three films to review, so there's enough content for at least the rest of the month. I also am not informally scheduling reviews. I try to review things as close to the release date as possible, but if I sit down to write a review and don't have much to say, I'm giving myself the freedom to sit on it for a few days. This year is definitely teaching me a valuable lesson: being more relaxed about blogging actually has me reading, watching films, and blogging more.

The rest of today
After I finish this post and write a review for tomorrow, I'm making bacon and eggs for a late breakfast. Then I'm snuggling in with Harry Bosch for the rest of the morning and afternoon until Mr. Nomadreader gets home from work.

Now tell me: what are you reading today?

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, February 8, 2014

film review: Short Term 12

The basics: Grace (played by Brie Larson in a Critics Choice Award nominated performance) works at a group home for troubled teens, along with her boyfriend, Mason.

My thoughts: I knew nothing about Short Term 12 when I sat down to watch it. It intrigued me because Brie Larson was nominated for a Critics Choice Award for Best Actress for it. All of the other nominees were this year's usual suspects. Why had I not heard of this film? After I finished it, I was even more baffled, as it's the best film I've seen in quite some time.

Brie Larson's performance is phenomenal, but I'm not necessarily convinced it's the film's best. I'd give that honor to Keith Stanfield, who plays Marcus, a long-time resident of the home who is about to turn eighteen (Blessedly, Stanfield is nominated for an IFC Independent Spirit Award for his performance.)

From start to finish, there is an emotional delicacy to this film. It would be very easy to sensationalize the trauma of these teenagers. Initially, I was convinced Grace and Mason are a rare super-human breed of do-gooders equipped with infinite patience and wisdom to deal with the understandable, yet horrifying, outbursts of these troubled teens. Thankfully, writer and director Destin Cretton had a more complicated and satisfying story in mind. With so much sadness in this film, I spent much of it feeling utterly depressed. The events depicted were too real, and I wondered if watching this film and feeling these emotions was worth the effort. Unequivocally, it was. The film's final act is a thing of beauty and grace; it firmly cemented Short Term 12 as one of the greatest films I've seen in years.

The verdict: Short Term 12 is incredibly difficult to watch at times because its fictional story rings so true. Yet Cretton is a writer and director to watch precisely because of this film's difficult message. Ultimately, the pain and anguish is tempered beautifully with humor and eloquence. It's a masterful film.

Rating: 5 out of 5 
Length: 96 minutes
Availability: dvd

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, February 7, 2014

book review: The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson

The basics: Set in 1946, shortly after the end of World War II, The Secret of Magic is the story of the death of Joe Howard Wilson, a young black man who was returning home to Mississippi after serving in the war. M.L. Calhoun, the notoriously reclusive author of The Secret of Magic, who is from the same town as Joe Howard, writes to the NAACP. Young, African-American NAACP lawyer Regina Robichaud, who loved Calhoun's book as a child, convinces Thurgood Marshall to let her go investigate Joe Howard's death.

My thoughts: I'm a huge fan of both novels based on real events and novels about racial and gender equality, so I was very excited to read The Secret of Magic. The novel begins with the last moments of Joe Howard's life. It was difficult to read, but I appreciated how it set the stage and gave him a voice and personality. When the action shifted to Regina in New York City, I hoped for a heroine like Alice in Scottsboro. But too soon Regina began to drive me a bit crazy in passages like this one:
"And Regina knew that that something would be about the shirt. She'd felt a knowledge scintillating around them all afternoon, since before that, even a feeling that Peach knew secrets, things that might make a difference, could bring them to the tip of her tongue."
Regina had too many premonitions and feelings and not nearly enough thoughts. It quickly became hard for me to root for her, and the novel is mostly devoid of other people to root for.

Johnson captures the complicated racial relationships in small town Mississippi well, but unlike Regina, these realities weren't surprising to me, so I grew increasingly impatient as a reader waiting for a revelation in which I could share. Despite its title, The Secret of Magic, this novel isn't about secrets in terms of a mystery. The death of Joe Howard is solved relatively early on, and the emphasis of the novel is on the racial culture of this town, Calhoun's novel (long banned there), and the lingering impacts of Joe Howard's death.

Favorite passage: "What you just witnessed," he said, "why, that's nothing but the secret of magic. Ol' Man Magic always does that. Makes us forget what we started out after. Makes us look where he wants us to look."

The verdict: I found The Secret of Magic lacking in both secrets and magic. The book within a book execution never fully clicked for me, which ultimately hampered my enjoyment of the story itself. While I had high hopes for Regina as a character, I liked her less as the novel wore on. Despite a promising set-up, one based on a real murder, this novel left me wanting more story, more character development, and more magic.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 416 pages
Publication date: January 21, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Secret of Magic from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Deborah Johnson'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!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

book review: The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol

The backstory: The UnAmericans, Molly Antopol's debut short story collection, was named one of the National Book Award's 5 Under 35 last year.

The basics: This collection of stories addresses themes of home, immigration, and history.

My thoughts: Longtime readers of this blog know that short stories are not my favorite medium, but the reviews were so universally glowing for Molly Antopol that I've been anticipating this collection since I first heard about it. The collection's first story, "The Old World," is among its best. It absolutely blew me away, and perhaps it set my expectations for the rest of the collection too high.

As my reading continued, I found the collection to somewhat uneven, except the highs were exceptional stories and the lows were still good stories. There was one story that I found relatively ordinary, but as a collection, it's impressive. I often struggle with assessing story collections as a whole because the order matters so much more to me as a reader. With only eight stories, of mostly equal lengths, there aren't places to hide. When the three stories I loved ended, I was sad. When the four good stories ended, it seemed appropriate. When the one story I didn't particularly enjoy ended, I was relieved. It's difficult for me as a reader to think about this collection as a whole because one story or another is always more present in my mind. What I loved most about my favorite stories were the characters. Antopol masterfully developed characters and worlds in the lifespan of a short story, and it made me long to read the novel she's currently writing, The After Party.

Favorite passage: "But she had always presented herself to the world in too apologetic a manner for me to take her ambitions seriously--because it hadn't yet occurred to me that it was different to be an artist or writer or thinker here in America. That one didn't need to be a persuasive speaker or have a charismatic presence, as every one of my colleagues had back in Prague. Daniela simply needed to live as an observer, sitting discreetly in a corner, quietly cataloging the foibles of those around her."

The verdict: There are three superb stories in this collection, and it made me a fan of Molly Antopol, even though I didn't love each of the collection's eight stories. Unsurprisingly, I'm eagerly awaiting her first novel because it's a form I adore, and with her stories, she's already established herself as an author I adore.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 273 pages
Publication date: February 3, 2014 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The UnAmericans from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Molly Antopol's website 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!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

mini-film reviews: In a World, Peeples, and Captain Phillips

In a World by Lake Bell

Lake Bell does triple duty in this comedy she wrote, directed, and starred in. She plays a  Carol, a struggling vocal coach who finds relatively unexpected opportunities in voiceovers for movie trailers, a strictly male-dominated field. The film's biggest strength is its smart, often dark humor. When it veered into schmaltz at times, it was less successful, but still highly enjoyable. Intelligent comedies with strong female characters are far too rare, and this one is definitely worth watching.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Availability: dvd

Peeples by Tina Gordon Chism

Peeples is an utterly forgettable script made quite entertaining by the tremendous talent of its cast. Kerry Washington, unsurprisingly, is amazing as Grace Peeples, a smart, talented young woman from a rich, Sag Harbor family. She's dating (and living with) Craig Robinson, but her family has no idea she is. He's goofy and likable, but I found their coupling on the laughable side of believable. Both give great performances, but there is no chemistry there. The rest of the Peeples family are similarly excellent, particularly S. Epatha Merkerson as Grace's mom. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, but the unnecessary romantic comedy ending was way too over the top for my taste. It's not a great film or even a good one, but is in an enjoyable one (except for that last scene.)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Availability: dvd

Captain Phillips by Paul Greengrass

Admittedly, I had low expectations for Captain Phillips. I don't particularly care for Tom Hanks (shocking to most, I know), and the ads struck me as a good (white Americans) versus evil (black Somali pirates) battle I wasn't sure I would embrace. I was wrong: Captain Phillips is not only good, it's thought-provoking and morally complicated. I even thought Tom Hanks was excellent in it (as was Barkhad Abdi), particularly in their scenes together. The film was intense throughout, but even though the real story had been rather well publicized, this fictional interpretation transported me directly to the high-stakes story.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Availability: dvd

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, February 4, 2014

book review: The Last Days of California by Mary Miller

The backstory: The Last Days of California is Mary Miller's debut novel.

The basics: Jess is fifteen and on a road trip from Montgomery, Alabama with her pregnant seventeen-year-old sister Elise, her evangelical father, and her mother. The family is heading to California because the rapture is coming in a matter of days.

My thoughts: The thought of being fifteen on a road trip with my older sister and parents is enough to make me feel claustrophobic in reminiscence (I'm sort of kidding--I don't have an older sister.) It's not a situation I would necessarily choose to immerse myself in, but from the moment I started The Last Days of California, I was hooked and didn't want to leave this journey.

Miller is an intriguing writer. This novel has dark humor in some unexpected places:
"Molly Ringwald was never pretty enough to be a leading lady, but the eighties were a dream world in which the captain of the football team would leave the homecoming queen for an awkward red-haired girl who made her own clothes."
This passage appealed to me as both a child of the 1980's and as a window into how a contemporary fifteen-year-old would view the 1980's now. Miller captures both.

Young narrators can be hit or miss for me. In this novel, I found Jess's voice mostly authentic. At time I wished Miller would push her observations more, but it suited the narrative voice. At other times, however, I felt Miller take over for Jess: "It made me love them more because I knew the day would come when I would also be unrecognizable to myself." It's one of the novel's best lines, but coming from the mouth of this fifteen-year-old, I didn't quite buy it.

Favorite passage: "She gazed up at my father and he leaned down and kissed her head. Occasionally, I caught glimpses into their world and it bothered me that I could never be a part of it, that I couldn't know them in the way they knew each other. We all knew each other completely differently, in ways that would never overlap."

The verdict: This novel is strongest when Miller writes about the seriousness with humor and levity. At times Jess, a teenage narrator, was wise beyond her years, and it left me wishing I got to hear the rest of her family share in the narration too.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 249 pages
Publication date: January 20, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Last Days of California from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Mary Miller's website 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!

Monday, February 3, 2014

book review: The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes

The backstory: I previously loved Strangers at the Feast, so I was eager to read the latest novel by Jennifer Vanderbes.

The basics: When her older brother and best friend goes off to fight in World War II, seventeen-year-old Juliet is devastated. Soon she receives a mysterious letter from him and discovers he's missing in action. Juliet lies about her age and enlists as an Army nurse, with the goal of getting as close to the front as possible so she can find answers about her brother's disappearance.

My thoughts: Juliet is a character who intrigued me from the beginning, when we meet her working after school in the science lab. She's smart, driven, and young, and I was curious where life would take her. As she decided to join the war effort, it made sense:
"But Juliet was growing increasingly certain of her intent to leave Charlesport; she did not want to be as Tuck had once described her--a girl who curiously opened every door but never walked through one."
There's a timelessness to such girlhood dreams, and I was most curious how World War II would shape Juliet's life and choices. As the book went on, however, I became less engaged with the characters and their lives. The novel, with flashes of beautiful and poignant writing, turned into a rather ordinary war novel. Perhaps I'm reaching World War I and World War II fatigue, but The Secret of Raven Point failed to distinguish itself from other stories of smart, driven young women who head to the front.

Favorite passage: "That was the arc of life, it seemed; the slow and grateful recognition of those who were, by chance or fate, simply with you."

The verdict: Ultimately, I was disappointed. The Secret of Raven Point is a rather ordinary war novel. While Juliet was a fascinating character to root for, her story felt too familiar. While I appreciate that war itself isn't tied up neatly, I wanted more answers to the questions raised in this novel.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: February 4, 2014 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Secret of Raven Point from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Jennifer Vanderbes's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sunday Salon: Hello, February!

Happy February! January proved to be a pretty great month in terms of my 2014 goals. I'm ahead of schedule on reading (10 books!) and film watching (30 films, 21 of them documentaries!). I've read each issue of The New Yorker, which I'm really enjoying. My participation in the #fmsphotoaday instagram challenge petered off in January, but I hope to get back into it this month. I've been keeping up with film reviews really well, but I entered 2014 with such a backlog of book reviews, I really need to get caught up on, that I haven't published reviews of most of my January reads yet. Over all, I'm quite satisfied.

Today I hope to finish both Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists, an essay collection, and The UnAmericans, Molly Antopol's debut short story collection. I've enjoyed dipping in and out of both collections the past few days, and I realize I should pair essays and short stories more frequently. Next up: the pile of February new releases. There are too many wonderful looking books coming out this month, and I can't wait to start reading them. Despite all of the new releases I read in January, my pick for best book of the month goes to a backlist title: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.

This week I plan to watch The Square, another Oscar-nominated documentary, 42, and Captain Phillips. If my exhaustion subsides, I may squeeze in a few more too.

I'm off to meet a friend for brunch. Tonight we're celebrating my father's birthday by going out to eat with my parents, so it's a full day of eating out. Thankfully, my appetite is starting to return, so I hope to have more than a few bites at each meal today.

The rest of February brings a lot of travel for me: a long weekend in Atlanta, a quick overnight to Lawrence, Kansas, and a week in Orlando--the first half for a conference and the second half to relax with my best friends from high school. I'm really looking forward to this time with family and friends before the baby arrives (or I get too pregnant to travel). Of course, time for travel also means time for reading and relaxing!

I'm in the first home stretch: the last week of my first trimester. I hope my exhaustion and nausea subside this week and the promised boost of energy comes right on time. I'm really looking forward to the second trimester, as it has the fewest symptoms.

Now tell me: what's the best book you read in January?

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Saturday, February 1, 2014

mini-film reviews: Fruitvale Station, The Call, and Blue Jasmine

Fruitvale Station by Ryan Coogler

Near the beginning of Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler's debut (as screenwriter and director), the audience sees some of the actual cell phone video of the last moments of Oscar Grant III's life in Fruitvale Station in the early morning of January 1, 2009. I was familiar with the story before this film, but this choice places an omen over the rest of the film, which then takes the viewer to get to know Oscar through the last day of his life. I was gripped with fear throughout the film. In each scene, I kept expecting something terrible to happen, even though I knew the terrible moment, when Oscar is shot in the back by a security guard while handcuffed on the ground, would come near the film's end. The tension is still palpable. Coogler paints a well-rounded portrait of Oscar. He isn't made a martyr--the viewer sees all of him, both the positives and the negatives. Some of these moments were more successful than others, but I think it was wise to show these ordinary moments as a glimpse at one man's life Even as I knew what was coming, the film's last twenty minutes are an emotional tour de force. I bawled as the events I already knew unfolded again before my eyes. Fruitvale Station is a haunting, difficult, important film. It's not easy to watch, but the reward is its brilliance. It's one of the best films of 2013, and how it managed to not earn a single Oscar nomination is a travesty.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Availability: dvd
The Call by Brad Anderson

Admittedly, I had somewhat low expectations for The Call. I was in the mood for a mystery or a thriller, and I often appreciate those when top tier actors like Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin star. The film is intense. There are few moments of relaxation, for the viewer or the characters. Halle Berry plays a 911 operator who makes a small mistake with devastating consequences early in the film. Six months later, Casey (Abigail Breslin) is abducted from a mall and desperately searches for clues while locked in the trunk and on the phone with Jordan (Halle Berry.) It's not the most inventive premise, but it was well-executed. As the film neared its climax, I expected it to continue on its predictable, yet enjoyable course. I won't spoil the film, but I will say it moves from the ordinary to the extraordinary beautifully.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Availability: dvd

Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen

I am far from a Woody Allen. I've never really liked any of his movies, even Midnight in Paris (my review), which was adored even by my like-minded Woody Allen friends. I opted to watch his latest film for Cate Blanchett's likely Oscar-winning performance. In short: it is the best Woody Allen film I've seen, but it's still not great cinema. The cast of this film is pretty amazing. Cate Blanchett's performance is nothing short of phenomenal. Told partially in flashbacks to her happy, rich, Park Avenue life, where she was married to Alec Baldwin, who plays rich, cooky Alec Baldwin as well as ever. In the present, she's in San Francisco, staying with her also-adopted sister, played by Sally Hawkins. The two are a delightfully unlikely duo. The premise of Blue Jasmine is interesting enough, and the cast is superb (who knew Max Casella was still around being charming and goofy?), but visually, the film is pretty boring. For most of it, I felt as though I was watching a play. There's little to no staging, and as enchanting as the acting is to watch, I hoped for something more dynamic. It's certainly worth seeing for Blanchett's performance alone, but it didn't turn me into a Woody Allen fan.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Availability: dvd
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