Tuesday, March 31, 2015

book review: I Am China

The backstory: I Am China is longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Prize.

The basics: I Am China recounts the lives of Jian, a musician and political activist, and his love for Mu. It's also the story of Iona, a British woman tasked with translating this disorganized collection of diaries and letters from Jian and Mu.

My thoughts: The premise of this novel is an intriguing one, and I immediately identified with Iona as she set out to try to make sense of this correspondence. This novel jumps across time and its characters move throughout the world. It isn't constructed chronologically, but rather Guo dips in and out of the present through Iona's translations in progress. Initially, I quite liked this approach of getting to know Jian and Mu with Iona, but the more I read, the more I began to question Guo's narrative choices.

Jian and Mu's lives coincide with many momentous times in modern Chinese history. As more and more of these moments unfolded, I began to question how universal these experiences could be among the Chinese. It started to feel as though Guo was cramming as many of these moments in as possible, and it distracted me from the characters.

While I initially was fascinated by Iona, I also grew frustrated with Guo's depiction of her. It became monotonous to read about her struggles with translation. I can appreciate the skill and difficulty invovled in translating Chinese to English, particularly when working with a mix of documents without any context, but Iona's parts soon hindered the momentum of the novel.

There were a lot of moving parts in this novel, and given the non-linear presentation, I was waiting for the end of the novel to bring an understanding of why Guo chose to structure the novel as she did. Ultimately, too much of this novel felt like a gimmick. By the end, the characters didn't feel authentic; they felt like a vehicle for Guo to offer commentary on recent Chinese history. Typically, I'm not opposed to fictional characters as a means of offering social or political commentary, but it didn't work for me here.

Favorite passage: "I only have one regret in my life, I wish I had learned to read and write." Then she sighs. And it makes me think of you and me. What has all our reading and writing given us?

The verdict: Despite liking the premise and an initial fascination with Iona, I enjoyed this novel less the more of it I read. Readers able to simply go along for the ride may find more to enjoy than readers who are as fascinated by narrative structure as by plot.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: September 2, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy I Am China from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Xiaolu Guo's 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!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Wrapping Up: The Mockalong

March is coming to an end, and so is the Mockalong. I'm pleased I managed to finally read To Kill a Mockingbird, even if I didn't love it. I did love Calpurnia, and I'm curious to see what role she will play in Go Set a Watchman, which I've pre-ordered for my Kindle (and remain really excited about.)

This week, as I've reflected on the Mockalong, I admit I might not have prioritized my reading of To Kill a Mockingbird without this readalong. Hosting the Mockalong made me accountable to my own reading goal, even as I abandoned my original plan to watch and review the film for this final post (when you don't really love a book, sometimes watching its film adaptation isn't a terribly exciting prospect.)

Admittedly, it's somewhat awkward to not be a champion of the book you pick for a readalong, but literature isn't about agreement. I loved the conversations I had with people about To Kill a Mockingbird, particularly those who took the time to re-read it and reflect on how their perceptions of it were different this time. I tend to think of my responses to book as static (i.e. a five-star read is a five-star read), but how well would some of my five-star reads hold up to a re-read today? The longer I keep reading publicly and blogging, it's worth thinking about.

If you posted about the Mockalong or To Kill a Mockingbird this month, please leave a link in the comments or Tweet it to me. I'll update this post with a list of links.

As always, thanks for reading!

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 27, 2015

book review: Discretion by Allison Leotta

The backstory: After enjoying Allison Leotta's first mystery featuring Anna Curtis, Law of Attraction, and the following e-short story, Ten Rules for a Call Girl, I was excited to read Discretion.

The basics: The titular Discretion is a high-end, secretive escort company. When a young escort dies after falling from a balcony in the Capitol, U.S. Attorney Anna Curtis works the case as a sexual assault and homicide.

My thoughts: Clearly drawing inspiration from real-life scandal, including Eliot Spitzer, Discretion offers a fascinating look at the role of escorts in Washington, D.C. One of the things I've come to like most about Leotta's books is the way she manages to write from multiple points of view. Anna is the main character, but she isn't the only window into the world. By seeing the world of high-end prostitution (and low-end prostitution) through multiple points of view, it's possible to better understand the world. It's a more complicated approach to storytelling, but its payoffs are huge. Leotta shines light onto these complex issues by writing such good characters, from cops and lawyers to pimps, johns, and prostitutes. None of these classes of people are one thing, and Leotta shows the good and bad of all.

The verdict: Discretion is a compelling mystery filled with political intrigue. It furthers the personal and professional storylines in Anna's life well without hampering the pace of the mystery itself. I'll definitely be reading the next in this series very soon.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 353 pages
Publication date: July 3, 2012
Source: Scribd

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Discretion from Amazon (Kindle edition.) Better yet: start with Law of Attraction. Buy it from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Allison Leotta's 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!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

audiobook review: Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

narrated by Tanya Eby

The basics: After completing a residency in pathology, Dr. Judy Melinek began a two-year rotation as a forensic pathologist in New York City in July 2001. Working Stiff is the story of those two years, and also the story of Judy's life and work.

My thoughts: The timing of Dr. Melinek's story certainly piqued my curiosity in a macabre way. It's such a big part of the book's description, that I was surprised it wasn't addressed earlier. Instead, Melinek (and her husband and co-writer T.J. Mitchell) tells her story more thematically than chronologically, which proves to be a very wise narrative choice.

Working Stiff begins with much insight into Melinek's life and choices than I expected. She talks about why she chooses pathology and how she and T.J. chose to get married. She speaks candidly about her father's suicide when she was a teenager. This personal narrative only serves to add to her insight, particularly as no one could (or perhaps should) disassociate death investigation from life. The emphasis is definitely on death investigation and what it means to be a forensic pathologist, and I was riveted. Melinek guides the reader through cases both ordinary and extraordinary. When she finally addresses the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I understood why she waited to tell one of the chronologically earlier stories last. As a reader, I wasn't ready to hear this tragic story earlier. By serving instead as the book's climax, it reminds the reader precisely how rare, bizarre, and devastating it was.

The verdict: Working Stiff is a fascinating, illuminating, and haunting look at what kills people. It's also an insightful glimpse into Melinek's life and work. As a book, it reads like a collection of mysteries, but it also packs an emotional and intelligent punch.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 7 hours 43 minutes (272 pages)
Publication date: August 12, 2014
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Working Stiff from Amazon (Kindle edition.) 

Want more? Visit Judy Melinek'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!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

book review: Cairo by G. Willow Wilson

The backstory: G. Willow Wilson is the opening keynote speaker (tonight!) at the Association of College and Research Libraries conference. After enjoying Ms. Marvel: No Normal, I grabbed her other books from the library.

The basics: Cairo is the story of a drug runner, a journalist, an American expatriate, a student, and an Israeli soldier in contemporary Cairo.

My thoughts: As the characters are introduced, it is not initially clear how they relate to one another, but Wilson weaves their storylines together in intriguing ways. While this graphic novel starts firmly planted in reality, it soon incorporates elements of fantasy. While I found those turns visually stunning and intriguing, in some ways I thought they distracted somewhat from the social and political commentary.

I'm certainly not an expert on Cairo, and the book taught me quite a bit. I imagine I did not understand each reference, but I never felt as though I couldn't follow the story (in fact the fantasy elements were a bit hard for me to follow at one point, but that is definitely a me-problem, as I am not typically a fantasy reader, and I wasn't expecting this book to take that turn.

The verdict: Cairo is an engaging and complicated, yet accessible, graphic novel. I read it in a single sitting. While I quite enjoyed it, I confess my enjoyment waned somewhat near the end. I am eager to continue with Wilson's diverse canon, which also includes a novel and a memoir.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 160 pages
Publication date: November 7, 2007
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Cairo from Amazon (no Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit G. Willow Wilson's 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, March 24, 2015

book review: Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

The backstory: Elizabeth Is Missing, Emma Healey's debut novel, is on the 2015 Baileys Prize longlist. It was also longlisted for the 2014 Dylan Thomas Prize.

The basics: Elizabeth Is Missing is the story of Maud, an older woman suffering from Alzheimer's. Her friend Elizabeth is missing. Through flashbacks, we also see Maud as a young woman and her struggles with the disappearance of her older sister, Sukey, shortly after World War II.

My thoughts: This novel is billed as a psychological thriller, which I don't think it actually is. It is a compelling page turner, but the titular mystery is the least interesting thing about it. It's emotionally complex, and it's definitely a page turner, but I found the mystery of Elizabeth to be not much of a mystery. Instead, the mystery of Sukey is what fascinated me more. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the novel is Maud herself and how much she misunderstands and mis-remembers.

As I read Elizabeth Is Missing, I was riveted. I raced through it, but as much as I enjoyed the experience of reading it, I took issue with one of Healey's choices. Despite its title, it was clear to me early on that Elizabeth is not actually missing. Maud thinks she's missing, but we see enough through Maud's eyes to know that Elizabeth is okay, even if we don't know the particulars. In this sense, Healey makes the narrative choice to leave the reader in the dark, which frustrated me because it didn't add to the narrative or the suspense. Maud's daughter Helen, as well as Elizabeth's son, frequently mention that they have told Maud where Elizabeth is, but she does not remember. As a reader, I wanted to know too, and it would have been so easy for Helen to tell Maud in the book. There are so many things she tells her frequently because she forgets, so why is this not one of them?

Aside from that choice, I quite enjoyed this novel. My perceptions of other characters, particularly Helen, changed over the course of the book. Maud is an unreliable narrator because she lacks short term memories. She writers herself notes, but as she re-reads them trying to remember, the context is gone and her confusion mounts. Alzheimer's and dementia are vile diseases, and Maud's story shows why. The gaps between her reality and her perceptions grow over the course of the novel. To pair these with Maud as a teenager in the flashback scenes only exacerbates the sadness.

I didn't expect to enjoy the historical storyline so much, but Healey offers a fascinating glimpse into post-World War II life in England. The mystery of what happened to Sukey was the surprise of the novel for me, as it proved far more interesting than the mystery of where Elizabeth was. Even though there were only a few probably outcomes for each woman, I found Sukey's possible whereabouts much more compelling.

The verdict: Elizabeth Is Missing is an engaging page turner. It offers a window into Alzheimer's that is at times heart-wrenching. This novel is both plot and character-driven, as it explores Maud's life in the past and the present. It's a good novel that could have (and perhaps should have) been a great novel, but I still couldn't put it down while I read it. Healey is a talented writer and plotter, and I look forward to her next book.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: June 10, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Elizabeth Is Missing from Amazon (Kindle edition--only $2.80!)

Want more? Visit Emma Healey'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!

Monday, March 23, 2015

book review: To Kill a Mockingbird

The backstory: To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

The basics: Told from the point of view of Scout, a precocious girl in 1930's Maycomb, Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of that town, its views on race and class, and Scout's family.

My thoughts: I wanted to love this book, as it is nearly universally loved. I respond strongly to themes of race and class, and yet I failed to connect to this narrative, with a few exceptions. I wrote last week about Calpurnia, who was by far my favorite character in the book. She was fascinating and complex, and I wish there were more of her in the novel.

I appreciate that Lee chose to write this novel from the perspective of Scout. At times it helps the reader see things as an outsider, but it also limits the narrative. Admittedly, one of my literary pet peeves are child narrators who are impossibly smart and perceptive, and Lee avoids that quagmire by making Scout consistently her age, but I missed the perceptions of others. If Lee would have alternated viewpoints or chosen a different narrative, I think I would have enjoyed it more. I would have particularly loved to see the world through Atticus's eyes, as he is so revered in this book (as he should be when seen through the eyes of his young daughter.) To see inside Atticus's thoughts rather than just hearing his lessons would have been wonderful.

Overall, I felt like this novel read like a young adult novel or a children's book (albeit one with some explicit themes.) Ultimately, I think that's what most hindered my enjoyment. Because Scout tells the story, we get characters talking to Scout, and as a reader, I felt like Lee wrote for a very young audience. She's clearly trying to impart lessons, and had I read this novel at a younger age (or earlier in history), perhaps those lessons would have been more poignant.

Ultimately, I found the Boo Radley storyline confounding. It's resolution felt off in pace and scope. Aside from Calpurnia, the highlight of this novel was Robinson, the black defendant. When the trial ended, I was curious where the novel would go, as I was completely enraptured by Lee's courtroom scenes. That was the one part of the novel that was exciting for me as a reader.

Favorite passage: "Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing."

The verdict: While I can certainly see the appeal of To Kill a Mockingbird for younger readers and those who read it when they were young, it didn't capture me. It may have been a trailblazing novel, but its ideas weren't novel to me as a reader. The highlights of this novel for me were the courtroom scenes and Calpurnia. Once the trial ended, I found the rest of the novel oddly paced, including its somewhat climactic ending. I am, however, still excited to read Go Set a Watchman, as so many of my issues with this novel relate to Scout as a narrator. I'm quite intrigued to see her as an adult and see what life looks like for her.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 385 pages
Publication date: July 11, 1960
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Go Set a Watchmen (Kindle edition) releases in July.

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, March 22, 2015

Sunday Salon: My Reading Life (or How I Read with a Baby)

The Sunday Salon.comThe Wellness Office is sponsoring a two-month reading challenge, cleverly called The Well Read Challenge. There are some prizes, and each week has the opportunity for bonus points. The main piece of it, though, is to beat the weekly reading goal for number of minutes read per week. The first week, I got the calendar in campus mail, and I saw the goal was to read 125 minutes that week (each week the goal increases by 10 minutes.) That day, I read for 180 minutes (to be fair, I was on vacation that day and spent three hours driving from the Kansas City airport back home to Des Moines.) Going into this challenge, I didn't have a good sense of how much I read each week. After the first week, I had an answer: 900 minutes. That sounds like a lot, but it's really not that much. The second week: 900 minutes again, despite very different numbers day-to-day.

I started thinking: when I was pregnant, one of my biggest fears was not having time to read after Hawthorne was born. (It's a first world problem, I know, but I feel most like myself when I'm reading, so it's really part of my fear of not being me after he was born.) So far, I'm feeling pretty good about how much I read, even if it isn't always when or where I want (or how I used to.)

How I Read 900 Minutes a Week (Give or Take) With a Baby:

1. In the morning
I'm the one who gets up with Hawthorne in the morning. He's now sleeping through the night, which means we're both waking up happy and ready for snuggles, even if it's 6 a.m. We go downstairs, I make my coffee and Hawthorne's bottle, feed him, let him play in his exer-saucer, while I enjoy my morning coffee and my book. After a full night's sleep and a bottle, he's usually content to amuse himself for close to thirty minutes. It's not like the old days, when I would read for an hour over coffee before work, but it's still nice to sneak in a few pages before work. When he (briefly) slept until 7 after the time change, I got up before him to read, but 6 a.m. is early enough.

2. Audiobooks
The biggest change in how I read with a baby is audiobooks. Mr. Nomadreader and I work fairly opposite schedules, so when I'm with Hawthorne, it's usually just the two of us. We listen to audiobooks in the car, while I was dishes, while I cook, while I feed him, and every chance we get. I average about an hour a day during the week and up to four hours a day on the weekend.

3. Naptime
Hawthorne is not a regular napper. He naps 2-3 times a day for anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. His naps are my time to read. I don't when he will go down for one, but I do know when he does, it's my reading time. You won't find me cleaning while he sleeps. His naps, even on short nap days, are one of the reasons I still read a lot more on the weekends than I do during the week.

4. Play time
Since he was born, I've encouraged Hawthorne to play independently. When he's in his exer-saucer or on his playmat, it's as though he steps into his own world. I sit nearby, sometimes on the floor next to him or sometimes on the couch where he can see me, and I read. It's not usually the best reading time, as I spend as much time marveling at him as I do reading, but it's still nice. I also try to read a print book at these times so I'm modeling a reading life for him.

5. Nighttime
Hawthorne goes to sleep at 6 p.m. It's earlier than I would like, and I was really hoping his bedtime would become 7 p.m. with the time change, but he has a mind of his own. On the nights Mr. Nomadreader and I are both home, I usually don't read much after Hawthorne goes to bed. But on the nights I'm home alone, I sneak in a couple of hours before switching to television.

I'm glad the hobby I'm most passionate about is reading because I can take it anywhere. I can stop at any point, even though I prefer to stop at chapter breaks.

Now tell me: whether you're a parent or not, when do you sneak in reading time?

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, March 21, 2015

mini-review: Ten Rules for a Call Girl by Allison Leotta

After enjoying Allison Leotta's first mystery novel featuring Anna Curtis, Law of Attraction, I was eager to continue with this series. Ten Rules for a Call Girl is an e-short story that introduces a character who will appear in the second Anna Curtis mystery, Discretion.

I'm typically wary of this new trend for authors to write e-short stories that take place between novels in a series. For the most part, I think if it's part of the novel, then it should be part of the novel. But this one was free, which made me actually take time to read it between books one and two, and I'm so glad I did, as it allowed me to learn more about the world of high-end call girls in D.C. before reading Discretion.

The concept of Ten Rules for a Call Girl is pretty clever. It slowly unveils the ten rules as the reader gets to know Caroline, a reluctant new high-end call girl. She's also a student at Georgetown University. Ten Rules for a Call Girl is racy and well-written, and Caroline is a fascinating character. There are clear illusions to Elliot Spitzer, and I appreciated Leotta's slyness. It's worth noting Anna Curtis doesn't appear in this e-short story, and as I turned the last page, I found myself hoping Caroline doesn't die at the beginning of Discretion, which deals with the murder of a high-end call girl. Still, after reading Discretion, I don't think this side of the story would fit in its narrative, so an e-short story is the right choice. Thanks to Simon & Schuster, however, for keeping it free.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 55 pages (although the page count includes the first few chapters of Discretion)
Publication date: June 5, 2012
Source: purchased/publisher (it's free!)

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy (it's free!) Ten Rules for a Call Girl from Amazon (only a Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Allison Leotta's websitelike her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

Check back Friday for my review of Discretion.

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 20, 2015

book review: The Princess of 72nd St by Elaine Kraf

The backstory: I first heard of this novel in Yelena Akhtiorskaya's Year of Reading entry this year.

The basics: The titular princess of (New York's) 72nd Street is an artist with manic depression.

My thoughts: Kraf takes the reader inside the mind of a woman with manic depression in a way that made me better understand the disease. There are moments of humor, moments of stunning insight, and moments of confusion. In some ways, the princess is an unreliable narrator, as she contradicts herself in different moments. Instead, however, I think is unreliability is what makes her reliable narrator of depression:
"I have discovered that my thoughts can become most clear and ordinary when I am thinking about the past. It is the present which breaks up into pieces like lovely flickering white moths."
This novel is slim, but it is intense, particularly in the dark times. It consumed me as I read it. As much as it transported me to New York City in the 1970's, it more transported me to the mind of the princess, which was an uncomfortable place to be at times.

Favorite passage:  "Isn’t it these strange actions--unknown, innocent, spontaneous--that tend to shape our lives?"

The verdict: Kraf's writing is as haunting as her titular character. Just as the princess has moments of radiance, so too does this book. There are moments of breathtaking beauty and emotion, and there are moments of consuming sadness.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 118 pages
Publication date: November 1, 1979
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Princess of 72nd Street from Amazon (no 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, March 19, 2015

book review: Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson

The backstory: G. Willow Wilson is one of the keynote speakers at next week's Association of College and Research Libraries conference in Portland, Oregon, and part of the conference marketing campaign was designed around Ms. Marvel, so I knew I wanted to read it before seeing Wilson speak at the conference.

The basics: The titular Ms. Marvel is Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager living in Jersey City.

My thoughts: I don't read many traditional comics, and while Ms. Marvel is clearly a subversion of the genre, I knew there were references I wouldn't understand. I even wondered if I would get all the things it was trying to do, so I enlisted the help of a veteran comic book fan, Mr. Nomadreader. He explained a few things to me that gave the book more depth, but I was pleasantly surprised how much I did get just from my own reading.

There's a lot of set-up in this comic, but that didn't detract from the plot. Kamala's family and friends are well developed characters, as is she, and this combination adds insight into the comic's events and how they will be perceived. Some might say the ending is a cliffhanger, but I found it incredibly abrupt and felt as though there was at least a page missing. I'm definitely eager to see where the series goes from here.

The verdict: I enjoyed the time I spent with Ms. Marvel, and I will definitely seek out the second volume of this series. There's a lot of world-building and set up here, but Wilson develops Kamala and her world well. Although the volume ended abruptly, its climax was compelling.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 120 pages
Publication date: October 28, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Ms. Marvel: No Normal from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit G. Willow Wilson's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter. Also listen to this NPR story about what Willow plans to do with the new Marvel universe.

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 18, 2015

book review: Outline by Rachel Cusk

The backstory: Outline is on the 2015 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction longlist. It's also shortlisted for the 2015 Folio Prize.

The basics: Outline is billed as a novel of ten conversations. It begins with Faye, a recently divorced writer with two sons, on a flight from London to Athens, Greece, where she will teach writing.

My thoughts: Outline is very much a novel of ideas. There is no real plot to speak of, and its main character is the titular outline--we get but an outline of her through her interactions with strangers and friends alike. Still, I found it was a more cohesive story than I expected. Because it was billed as a novel of ten conversations, I made the mistaken assumption that these ten conversations would be with ten different people (spoiler: they're not.) While we only see some characters once, other appear several times, which helps ground the narrative and makes it feel more like a novel than a chronological series of short stories.

As a novel of conversations, much relies on the conversations themselves. They are fascinating conversations. I want to listen to them. I want to see them, and in some cases, I wanted to join in. In some cases it was because I wanted to ask Faye more questions. She shares details of her life sparingly, which is both beautiful and frustrating. Cusk gets clever with her ideas about writing a few times, including this one, which takes place during a session of her writing workshop:
It was interesting to consider, said the long-haired boy--Georgeou, as my diagram now told me--that a story might merely be a series of events we believe ourselves to be involved in, but on which we have absolutely no influence at all.
Cusk is clearly playing with the form here, and I appreciated this moment precisely because it works both within the narrative and outside of it. It works both in terms of this conversation, but it also works when the reader takes a step back from this scene and contemplates not only this novel as a whole but what stories can do.

Favorite passage:  "Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one’s own destiny by what one doesn’t notice or feel compassion for; that when you don’t know and don’t make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of."

The verdict: Outline is a beautiful, thoughtful, engaging novel. I love the idea of it, and I loved the time I spent with it. When I turned the last page, however, I found myself wishing there had been at least one wow moment. I expected one in the final chapter, and it didn't come. The lack of that moment kept me from rating this one five stars, but it's still a novel I love and one I hope wins some prizes.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: January 13, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Outline 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!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

book review: A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear

The backstory: A Dangerous Place is the eleventh historical mystery featuring Maisie Dobbs. My reviews of the other eleven (plus Winspear's stand alone historical novel) are in my Book Review Database.

The basics: Set four years after the last Maisie Dobbs novel, Leaving Everything Most Loved, in A Dangerous Place, we meet up with Maisie in Gibraltar in 1927 during the Spanish Civil War. She gets off her England-bound ship in Gibraltar because she's not quite ready to return.

Note: this review contains spoilers about what happened in those four years of Maisie's life between books, all of which are revealed in this novel's first thirty pages. 

My thoughts: Sunday I wrote about the Maisie Mail I received. These postcards appear in the book itself, along with many others. After setting the stage in Gibraltar in the opening pages (Maisie stumbles upon a dead body), Winspear recounts the last four years of Maisie's life in the form of postcards, letters, and telegrams. As I read them, I was so shocked I had to set the book aside for a few days. Maisie did marry James. They moved to Canada. She got pregnant. James died. And then she lost her baby at eight months of gestation. As a reader, I struggled with Winspear's choices here. I have spent years (and many books) rooting for Maisie and James. To have their wedding and married life occur off the page seemed hollow. To also have James die and to come back with a very sad Maisie didn't quite ring true.

Once I picked the book up again, I enjoyed the experience. I love Maisie, and even as I felt this book was emotionally overwrought because of its timing, it was fascinating to explore Gibraltar with Maisie. The mystery at the center of this novel was intriguing, but it felt too convenient. How fortuitous for Maisie to stumble across any body, but that she did with this particular dead body, which is so connected to so many aspects of the Spanish Civil War in Gibraltar, stretched the boundaries of coincidence.

I'm quite critical of this novel in many ways because I am so invested in the series and Maisie as a character. I anticipated a time jump and new secondary characters (and even posed the question if she would come back married and with a baby, but I did not think that would actually happen.) As a fresh start for the series, I enjoyed A Dangerous Place, but I question Winspear's choices of timing. It was challenging to see Maisie in such pain, when I didn't really share those experiences with her. Instead, I absorbed them through twelve pages of letters, which gave me emotional whiplash and made me feel so disconnected fro Maisie and her experiences. Winspear has written the death of other main characters in the series in such emotional ways, I felt particularly shortchanged to lose James in such a way.

Favorite passage: "No one is clean in a time of war."

The verdict: A Dangerous Place is a lovely exploration of Gibraltar in 1937 and the Spanish Civil War. The mystery at the center of the novel wasn't as intriguing as I would have liked, and it was hard to see Maisie in such pain throughout this novel. By the novel's end, I was back on the bandwagon and despite my issues with some of Winspear's storytelling choices around the time jump, I'm eagerly awaiting my next encounter with Maisie. I just hope no other characters die in the time between the end of this novel and the start of the next one.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: March 17, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy A Dangerous Place from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Jacqueline Winspear'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!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Mockalong: Team Calpurnia

I'm hosting the Mockalong this March because I've never read To Kill a Mockingbird. Despite not having read it, however, I felt like I knew so much about it. I had a sense of Scout, I knew Atticus is a lawyer (although I didn't know he is also Scout's dad), and I also knew of Boo Radley. I'm now more than half-way through To Kill a Mockingbird, and I'm perhaps most fascinated by how what I thought I knew about To Kill a Mockingbird matches up with my actual reading experience. If I were reading this without any knowledge, I don't think the character of Boo Radley would make an impression on me. His importance to the story hasn't been established yet (I presume yet, but I'm quite curious to see where his story ends up.)

Perhaps most surprisingly to me as a reader is Calpurnia. She's my favorite character in the novel (by far.) Last week I wrote about Atticus as the moral center of the novel. I don't dislike him, but he thus far lacks any flaws, which doesn't make him as interesting. As I've been reading this week, I keep wondering why no one else talks about Calpurnia. Why isn't she one of the characters who is well known in popular culture? I find her to be the most interesting and enjoyable, and I sometimes wish I were reading a novel narrated by Calpurnia, where the Finches are just one part of the story. The answers to why Calpurnia isn't a more famous character may well be in the book itself, which I hope to finish this week. Until then, my Mockalong tweets may bear a second hashtag: #TeamCalpurnia

Now tell me: whether you've read this book before or this is your first time--who is your favorite character?

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Salon: Maisie Mail

The Sunday Salon.comGood morning! It's a magical bookish time of year: the Bailey's Prize longlist was just announced, we're a week into the Tournament of Books (albeit an underwhelming set of brackets this year), the #Mockalong is in full swing, we're just over a month away from the Pulitzer Prize announcement on April 20, and the combination of Daylight Savings Time and early spring weather has me reading outside after work. I find myself reading more, talking about books more on Twitter, and generally feeling both bookish and connected right now. Amidst all of this, the highlight of my week this week may well be these two postcards that came in the mail:
I knew they were coming, and I still squealed with delight at this clever marketing idea. In anticipation of the release of A Dangerous Place, the latest Maisie Dobbs novel, on Tuesday, Harper sent Maisie Mail to a select number of bloggers. One post card is from Maisie herself (although not actually written to me--it's to her friend Priscilla) and one is to Maisie from her father's wife. The postcards themselves are beautiful. They evoke the time and place of their senders beautifully. For my review of A Dangerous Place and how these postcards fit into the novel itself, tune in Tuesday.

Now tell me: what are you reading today? When the nomadbaby naps, I'm alternating between To Kill a Mockingbird and Elizabeth Is Missing on my Kindle. When we're in the car running errands, I'm listening to The Bees on audio.

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 11, 2015

audiobook review: A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott

narrated by Cassandra Campbell

The basics: Set during the filming of Gone with the Wind, A Touch of Stardust is the story of Julie Crawford, an aspiring screenwriter from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who finds a job as Carole Lombard's personal assistant.

My thoughts: I'll admit it: I've never read Gone with the Wind, nor have I seen the film. Growing up in Atlanta, its story was hard to ignore, and I certainly feel like I knew enough about it to understand its role in this story. (And yes, it did make me want to both read and see it.) Julie is such a wonderful character, and she is the perfect somewhat starstruck Hollywood newcomer to serve as a window into this world.

I'm a big fan of historical fiction about real people, and A Touch of Stardust infuses the real people (Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, Vivian Leigh) with fictional characters like Julie. This mix works so well because while the general storyline of the filming of Gone with the Wind and its stars are well known, there were so many other things going on in the world. Through Julie's romance with Andy, a Jewish executive who serves as Selznick's most trusted ally. Through Andy, we get insight into what it was like to be Jewish in Hollywood at that time, but we also get to see how different Hollywood was from the rest of the country in that respect, as well as how the escalation of Hitler in Europe would shape the future. As I describe all that is in A Touch of Stardust, it feels like it should be too much, but it isn't. As much as I loved Julie, in many ways Carole Lombard is the star of this book. Before I make time to watch Gone with the Wind, I'm settling in to watch some of her films to see how her on-screen persona matches up with Alcott's imagination of her.

The verdict: A Touch of Stardust is feel good historical fiction at its best. Julie is a character to root for, and while she's an educated, independent woman, she is not an anachronism for her time. Through Julie, the reader glimpses Old Hollywood at a fascinating, pivotal time. There's plenty of darkness, but both the tone of the novel and its characters remain hopeful.

Audio thoughts: As always, Cassandra Campbell's narration is wonderful. Her interpretation of Julie was the perfect mix of naive and strong, but I particularly appreciated the voices she used for the other main characters, especially Andy.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (audio 4.5 out of 5)
Length: 10 hours 57 minutes (306 pages)
Publication date: February 17, 2015
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy A Touch of Stardust from Amazon (Kindle edition.) 

Want more? Visit Kate Alcott'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!

Monday, March 9, 2015

The 2015 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist: A U.S. Reader's Guide

The 2015 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist is finally here! Longtime readers knows this prize, known for most of its history as the Orange Prize, is my favorite literary prize. The longlist announcement is always one of my favorite moments of the year, and it shapes my reading for the months to come. Last week I predicted the twenty titles I thought would make the longlist. I correctly guessed only five of the titles. For the fifth year in a row, I'm offering my thoughts on the longlist along with information on when U.S. readers can access these titles (see my U.S. Reader's Guide for the longlists in 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.

The Ones I've Already Read

The Ones Available in the U.S. Now

  • Outline by Rachel Cusk
  • I Am China by Xiaolu Guo
  • Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
  • Aren't We Sisters? by Patricia Ferguson (available for Kindle)

  • The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman
  • The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill
  • The Bees by Laline Paull
  • The Walk Home by Rachel Seiffert

  • A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie (available for Kindle)
  • A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
  • After Before by Jemma Wayne
The Ones Coming Soon to the U.S.

  • Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans (July 28, 2015)
  • Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey (April 7, 2015)--was published in October 2014 by Atavist, who has since gone out of business; being republished by Ecco
  • The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips (August 4, 2015)
  • The Shore by Sara Taylor (May 26, 2015)
  • The Life of a Banana by PP Wong (May 1, 2015)
The Ones We Hope Make Their Way to the U.S. Soon

  • The Offering by Grace McCleen

My thoughts
There are no former winners on the longlist, but eight have been shortlisted before (Rachel Cusk, Xiaolu Guo, Samantha Harvey, Heather O'Neill, Kamila Shamsie, Ali Smith--twice, Anne Tyler--twice, Sarah Waters--twice). Three other authors have been longlisted before (Lissa Evans, Patricia Ferguson, Rachel Seiffert--twice.) Ali Smith, Anne Tyler and Sarah Waters have all been shortlisted twice and longlisted once before--could it be the year for one of them? Over all, I think it's a very intriguing mix, and I'm eager to dig into the eighteen titles I haven't read yet. First up? Probably Outline by Rachel Cusk, which was already on my nightstand.

Now tell me: which title are you rooting for? Right now, I'm rooting for Ali Smith, as How to Be Both is exceptionally good, and it was one of my favorite reads of 2014.

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!