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Showing posts from March, 2015

book review: I Am China

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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 u…

Wrapping Up: The Mockalong

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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 i…

book review: Discretion by Allison Leotta

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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 stor…

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

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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 …

book review: Cairo by G. Willow Wilson

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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 we…

book review: Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

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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 rivete…

book review: To Kill a Mockingbird

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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 …

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

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The 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…

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

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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. beforereading 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…

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

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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 transp…

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

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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 deve…

book review: Outline by Rachel Cusk

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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 conver…

book review: A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear

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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…

Mockalong: Team Calpurnia

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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 fla…

Sunday Salon: Maisie Mail

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Good 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 frie…

audiobook review: A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott

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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, th…

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

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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
How to Be Both by Ali Smith (5 stars)--one of my favorite reads of 2014Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (3 stars) The Ones Available in the U.S. Now

Outline by Rachel CuskI Am China by Xiaolu GuoElizabeth is Missing by Emma HealeyAren't We Sisters? by Patricia Ferguson (available for Kindle)


The Country…