Thursday, May 14, 2015

book review: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

translated by William Weaver 

The backstory: Invisible Cities is one of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. It's also Mr. Nomadreader's favorite book of all time and one of the first two selections for The "Darling, but..." Book Club.

The basics: Invisible Cities is mostly a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, in which Polo describes the cities he's seen on his journey to and from Venice and the Mongol Empire.

My thoughts: There's a lot of pressure when you read your favorite person's favorite book. Mr. Nomadreader and I have been discussing this book for years, as it's themes of cities and travel come up so frequently in our lives. Yet when we started watching "Marco Polo" on Netflix this winter, and I kept pausing to ask questions because I didn't know enough about that historical period to be able to follow (my world history pre-1900 is embarrassingly bad), I discovered that the plot of Invisible Cities is actually conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Although I knew both of their names, I didn't understand their historical connection (again, embarrassing, I know.)

Invisible Cities is very much a book of ideas. As such, it is at times utterly brilliant, but at times I also found my mind wandering a bit. It tackles big ideas about time, place, and space in beautiful ways:
Kublai Khan had noticed that Marco Polo’s cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change of elements. Now, from each Marco described to him, the Great Khan’s mind set out on its own, and after dismantling the city piece by piece, he reconstructed it in other ways, substituting components, shifting them, inverting them.
I can absolutely see why people love and revere it, as there are passages I love and revere in it, but I can also see how it's a frustrating read for some people.

Favorite passage:  "By now, from that real or hypothetical past of his, he is excluded; he cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches."

The verdict: Invisible Cities is part poetry and part prose. It's both an intimate conversation and a book of big ideas. It's abstract and concrete. It's haunting, but at times it's too mellow. It's a book I imagine benefits from re-reading with a pen in hand to make notes about connections between different cities and different tales. It's not my favorite novel ever, but I see why Mr. Nomadreader loves it so much. Perhaps if I had discovered it at a different time in my life, it could be my favorite too.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 173 pages
Publication date: 1974 (English translation)
Source: personal copy

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Invisible Cities 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!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

book review: The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato

The backstory: The Ghost Network is my May pick for The "Darling, but..." Book Club. Within the first few pages, I knew I had to make Mr. Nomadreader read it.

The basics: Told in a nonfiction style, complete with frequent footnotes, The Ghost Network begins with the disappearance of Molly Metropolis, a famous pop singer. Through interviews with Metropolis's inner circle and journals, The Ghost Network reads like a mystery, a biography, a history of an anarchist fringe group or mapmaking or the city of Chicago, a work on city planning, and a work of philosophy. It is all of those things, and it is none of those things.

My thoughts: I don't think my description of The Ghost Network can do it justice. It's so original, and it has so many fun discoveries in it, that I'd rather keep my description vague. I knew very little going into this novel. I think the notes in my review spreadsheet called it a feminist debut mystery. And it is, but it is so much more. As I read the first few sections, I found myself wishing Molly Metropolis were real: "She created a scene where people could claim non-conformity by listening to music made by the most popular artist in the country. And she made that paradox feel logical. Her inexplicably powerful charisma trumped better judgment."

From the first pages. Disabato captivated me. It's no secret I love both low-brow and high-brow pop culture, and Disabato gets the fun of both. The worlds she combines are amazing. Some of the lines between fiction and nonfiction are blurry, which I adored. Disabato has created a world that is both playful and smart, like Molly Metropolis herself:
"Molly loved secret histories. She also loved contradicting accounts of the same historical events. She liked ambiguities. She liked answer-less questions. She told me that she was investigating the world that traditional maps hide from us." 
Favorite passage: "The Situationists still aren't widely known by name, but psychogeography has become fashionable again. Everyone likes to decorate with old maps; they fetishize the idea of transcending their borders."

The verdict: Disabato masterfully blends the high-brow and the low-brow. It blends fiction and non-fiction. It's part mash-up, yet it's refreshingly original. It's compulsively readable. It's smart and funny. Catie Disabato, I want to be your friend, but I fear I might already be too much of a fan.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 290 pages
Publication date: May 5, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Ghost Network from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Catie Disabato'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!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

review rewind and giveaway: Ways of the Dead by Neely Tucker

Today, in honor of the paperback release of Neely Tucker's first mystery novel, The Ways of the Dead, I'm reposting my review from last fall. It made my Best of 2014 list (#6!) I'm also thrilled to offer a copy of the paperback to one lucky reader in the U.S. The second Sully Carter mystery, Murder, D.C. is out June 30, 2015. Look for my review on June 29th!

The backstory: The Ways of the Dead is the debut mystery by Neely Tucker, a veteran journalist and memoirist.

The basics: Set in the late 1990's, The Ways of the Dead opens with the murder of Sarah Reese, the fifteen-year-old white daughter of a U.S. federal court judge. Veteran newspaper reporter Sully Carter, who like Tucker himself spent years covering foreign wars, notices a pattern of other dead young women on the same block, but the others are poor and not white. While the police actively pursue Sarah's death and mostly ignore the other deaths, Sully uses his contacts and press badge to follow the whole story.

My thoughts: I majored in journalism in college, and although I ultimately opted not to make my career in the field, I am drawn to tales of journalism, both in fiction and in non-fiction. As a journalist writing a novel whose main character is a journalist, Tucker brings great authenticity to the character of Sully. I loved the details of the news business, particularly how well steeped in the setting they were. I often have to remind myself how long ago the late 1990's were, but when presented with the antiquated technology Sully used, it was pretty obvious.

I typically prefer my mysteries to feature law enforcement, but the set-up of this mystery would be unlikely, if not impossible, to tell via a traditional investigation. It takes a journalist to see the patterns, and his neighborhood contacts, including those in law enforcement, share with him what they wouldn't share with others--mostly due to his long-established relationships with those contacts, but also to his reputation as a journalist. Tucker writes with reverence for the veteran journalist.

As much as I enjoyed the elements of journalism infused throughout this novel, it's much more than that. The mystery is superb, but what I most liked about it was the depth of character and social commentary that only served to enhance the mystery. The Ways of the Dead is reported to be the first in a series, and Tucker does a great job establishing Sully as a character, while also leaving many opportunities to continue to explore his past in future novels. So much of this mystery hinges on issues of race and class, and Tucker explores these social issues thoughtfully within the story itself.

The verdict: The Ways of the Dead is an astonishingly good debut mystery. Tucker tells a complicated mystery in a straight-forward way. The cast of characters is large, and the story covers a multitude of themes, but the narrative moves quickly and doesn't get lost in the details. Instead, as the case gets more complicated, these details make it ever more compelling. I'm already eagerly awaiting the next novel from Tucker.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: June 12, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Ways of the Dead from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Neely Tucker's websitelike 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!

Monday, May 11, 2015

book review: A Good Killing by Allison Leotta

The backstory: This spring I've flown through all of Allison Leotta's Anna Curtis series, starting with her debut mystery Law of Attraction, and continuing with the e-short story Ten Rules for a Call Girl, and the novels Discretion, and Speak of the Devil. With this week's publication of A Good Killing, I'm left waiting for Leotta to write more and pondering which mystery series I'll dig into next.

The basics: A Good Killing opens shortly after the events of Speak of the Devil. A frantic phone call from a friend in Anna's Michigan hometown alerting Anna to the death of their town's beloved football couch. Her sister, Jody, is the lead suspect. Anna flees for Holly Grove to help Jody and escape the chaos of her life.

My thoughts: A Good Killing is a departure from the earlier Anna Curtis novels in many ways. I'm so glad Leotta changed things up with this novel, given the state of Anna's life in D.C. Perhaps the timing was convenient, but it works. Anna and her sister Jody share narration duties. I was confused at first, as it took me a few pages to realize Jody was narrating from her high school years. Jody's narration is aimed at Anna directly, for reasons that become clear later.

Anna has often struggled to understand lawyers who work as defense attorneys, and I appreciated seeing her struggle with being on the other side. I'm curious to see how this experience shapes her perspective in cases going forward. Many of the courtroom scenes were written similarly to Michael Connelly's Mickey Haller books; Leotta explains the why and how without breaking up the momentum and drama of the trial itself.

Favorite passage: "We tend to rise or sink toward others' expectations of us. It takes a lot of conscious will not to."

The verdict: A Good Killing is a departure for Anna Curtis and Allison Leotta. I loved seeing Detroit through Anna's eyes, and I enjoyed seeing her work as a defense attorney. The mystery wasn't as surprising as I might have hoped, but Leotta's skillful incorporation of so many relevant sub-plots more than made up for it. A Good Killing will keep me thinking about many of the social issues it addresses.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: May 12, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy A Good Killing 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!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday Salon: Introducing the "Darling, but..." Book Club

The Sunday There's no one in the world I love to talk to more than Mr. Nomadreader. And as someone who really likes to talk about books, Mr. Nomadreader and I have battering around the idea of a two-person book club for years. We finally started it last month:

The basic logistics
1. We each pick one book a month, so together we'll read two books each month. We are aiming to pick books we haven't read, although I've already sought (and was awarded) two exceptions for books I happened to be reading and thought he would love (and that would be interesting to discuss.)

2. Each year in our birthday month (August for me and September for Mr. Nomadreader), we're allowed to pick a book we've read before. I am already debating which of my favorite books from the last few years to pick in August!

3. I've invited Mr. Nomadreader to contribute to the blog, and we may play around with joint reviews, interviews about the book, and guest posts about our shared reading. It may vary based on the book. Regardless of what form it takes, I'm excited to bring a different perspective to the blog a couple of times a month.

4. Neither of us is allowed to pick Infinite Jest. If we do, it counts as two months. The rule will be similarly amended for books that are really long or otherwise daunting.

April 2015 picks
We kicked off our book club in April. I picked The Bees by Laline Paull because I was deep in Baileys Prize reading, and I thought it might be the title from the longlist that Mr. Nomadreader most liked. I've already reviewed it, and he's still reading it (we're getting a slowish start to our book club!) We've been chatting about it periodically. I hope to bring you our shared thoughts soon. Mr. Nomadreader was granted an exception (aren't we generous?!) and picked one of his all-time favorite books, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. I've been meaning to read it for years, and I'll be reviewing it for you this week.

May picks
I picked The Ghost Network, the debut novel by Catie Disabato. I knew in the first few pages that Mr. Nomadreader would love it. I devoured it while traveling for work last week, and I'll be reviewing it Wednesday. Mr. Nomadreader debated for weeks, but he finally decided on The Lost Boys Symphony by Mark Andrew Ferguson. I'm debating if I want to read it or listen to it, but I'll be starting it soon.

June picks
I've already picked my June book, but I'll keep you guessing for now because it hasn't been released yet. I will say only this: I rated it six stars out of five, and it's my favorite read of 2015 so far. I'm planning to re-read it this month, and y'all know I hardly ever re-read books. It's that good.

First thoughts
One obvious benefit of The "Darling, but..." Book Club is that it has Mr. Nomadreader reading more again. He loves to read (and majored in Literature), but doesn't make as much time for it as he wants to. It also pushes me outside of my comfort zone. I don't think it's a coincidence that all of our picks so far have some level of science fiction present. We don't just want to talk about great books. In fact, I'll settle for not great books that have lots of interesting ideas to discuss present. I hope to pick some nonfiction titles too. There's something particularly magical about two people who know each other so very well picking out one book a month for each other to read and discuss. It's the highest level of book concierge you can get. Mr. Nomadreader and I may not always agree on books (or other things), but we always love to talk about things. Being forced to read one book a month not of my own choosing, but picked by someone who knows me better than anyone else in the world, is pretty fun so far.

Now tell me: if you have a significant other (or best friend), do you pick books out for each other?

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, May 4, 2015

book review: The Green Road by Anne Enright

The backstory: I've previously read and enjoyed Anne Enright's fiction (my review of The Forgotten Waltz) and nonfiction (my review of Making Babies.) Update: The Green Road has been longlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize. Update: It has also been longlisted for the 2016 Baileys Prize.

The basics: The Green Road is the story of Rosaleen Madigan and her children. It begins in 1980 with the shock of Dan declaring he's becoming a priest. We spend time with each of the four Madigan children (plus Rosaleen) in different cities (and countries) in a different year before they each come home for a holiday.

My thoughts: In some ways, the first five parts of The Green Road would work as stand-alone short stories. There are some references to the family, but Enright lets us get to know each character individually. Oddly, my least favorite section was Hanna's, which comes first, and Hanna is the character I felt like I knew the least about in the first half of the book. Still, Enright's writing shines:
"The darkness of the theatre was a new kind of darkness for Hanna. It was not the kind of darkness of the city outside, or of the bedroom she shared with Constance at home in Ardeevin. It was not the black country darkness of Boolavaun. It was the darkness between people: between Isabelle and Dan, between Dan and the priests. It was the darkness of sleep, just before the dream."
I won't tell you where each of the Madigan children spend their stand-alone chapters, as seeing where and when they are, as well as what they're doing, is part of the fun. When the novel brings the family back together again, it felt like I was part of the family reuniting. Seeing these characters, all of whom I knew so well, interact together added depth to their individual stories while also advancing the larger story.

As an American reader, I was also struck that Irish readers may interpret this novel differently than I did. It's certainly a global story, but for me, it is the story of one fascinating family. I suspect it might also be powerful cultural commentary on Ireland. I'll be seeking out Irish reviews of this novel to test my theory.

Favorite passage: "Because death is not the worst thing that can happen to you. Everyone dies. It's the timing that matters. The first and second of it. The order in which we go."

The verdict: The Green Road is an accomplished, engaging novel. Enright's writing is luminous--it's filled with wisdom about life and her characters. As I read, it was clear I was reading a masterpiece. I'll be cheering for this book to find a spot on the Booker Prize longlist this year.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: May 11, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Green Road 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!