Thursday, July 30, 2015

book review: Fear the Darkness by Becky Masterman

The backstory: Fear the Darkness is the second mystery featuring former FBI agent Brigid Quinn. I loved the first one, Rage Against the Dying.

The basics: When Brigid's sister-in-law dies, she agrees to let her seventeen-year-old daughter Gemma-Kate move from Florida and live with her (and her husband Carlo.) Around the same time, she agrees to investigate the somewhat suspicious drowning death of a fourteen-year-old boy. Also, things start seeming off with Brigid's own mind and body.

My thoughts: There are essentially three mysteries at the center of Fear the Darkness. First: what is wrong with Brigid? Second: was Joe's death in the pool an accident, a suicide or a homicide? Third: is Gemma-Kate a psychopath. All of these storylines are interesting at times, but none of them seem to move along particularly quickly. The only running theme is that things are perhaps not quite what they seem, but is anything actually happening?

It's clear to the reader that Brigid is being poisoned in some way. She narrates this novel from the vague future, when the novel's events have culminated. Given her knowledge, the novel reads awkwardly. Why is Brigid not sharing the things she knows now? Obviously she's waiting for a big reveal, but it made much of the novel feel unnecessary. As a reader, I find it incredibly frustrating to have a narrator who is not terribly smart, unless there is a compelling narrative reason for it. In Fear the Darkness, it was an exercise in frustration:
"Oh, and before I move on, do I need to remind anyone that if my brain hadn't been fried by the drugs, I could figured all this out without [redacted]'s help?"
No, Brigid, you don't. The readers' brains aren't being fried by drugs; they're being fried by boredom. I'm being harsh on Brigid (and by extension Masterman.) I know it, but I'm not sorry. Here's why: Rage Against the Dying was a fantastic debut, and Masterman is capable of much better storytelling. But the real kicker is this: the resolution and reveals in Fear the Darkness are good. I guessed much of them, but once Brigid finally started figuring things out, this book got really good. When I finished this uneven, frustrating, and compelling novel, I kept thinking there has to be a better way to tell this story to make it more compelling and less frustrating.

Favorite passage: "The thing with really smart people, though, is they often underestimate the rest of us."

The verdict: The resolution of this novel was interesting enough to merit three stars, but the set-up was long, frustrating and arduous. An unwittingly feeble Brigid Quinn was more frustrating than compelling. There are some really good parts to this novel, but I fear the boring parts more than the darkness.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 336 pages 
Publication date: January 20, 2015 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Fear the Darkness from Amazon (Kindle edition.) Better yet: buy Rage Against the Dying from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Becky Masterman'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!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The 2015 Booker Dozen: A U.S. Reader's Guide

When last year's Booker Prize longlist was announced, I was very, very pregnant. As excited as I was for the first year the Prize was open globally, I was mostly thinking, "am I going to have a baby today?!" I did not have one for many more days. But this year, I found myself getting really excited. I didn't even pretend to predict which titles would make it, as the Prize is so wide open now, and the longlist relatively short at 12-13, it seemed fruitless. Instead, I found myself hoping for books I've loved to make it. I got one wish: The Green Road by Anne Enright. I adored this novel, and I'm thrilled to see that it's longlisted (and that Enright is the only former winner on this year's longlist.) Here it is (covers take you to Amazon, links to my reviews.)

The Ones I've Already Read

The Green Road by Anne Enright (4.5 stars)
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (4 stars)

The Ones Available in the U.S. Now

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
The Illuminations by Andrew O'Hagan
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

The Ones Coming (Somewhat) Soon to the U.S.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (September 8, 2015)
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (March 1, 2016)

The Ones We Hope Make Their Way to the U.S.

Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
The Chimes by Anna Smaill

total page count (via Amazon U.S): 4882

Quick thoughts: As I said, I'm thrilled to see the Enright. I'm surprised to see Anne Tyler here, just as I was surprised to see it make the Baileys Prize short list. It's a good novel, but I didn't find it to be extraordinary. And if we're talking compelling family sagas, I still can't shut up about The Shore by Sara Taylor, which I'm devastated to not see on the longlist. Overall, I think it's an intriguing and relatively diverse list. I'm most surprised to see Bill Clegg here, but I am looking forward to his novel, even if I didn't love his first memoir.

The longlist always comes with at least a few titles that weren't on my radar at all, and this year brings Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy, an author who has been on my TBR list for years. I didn't know she had a new book out in the UK, so I'm thrilled to have it on the way from The Book Depository. The other new-to-me title is The Illuminations by Andrew O'Hagan. I have no idea why I haven't heard of it, but it sounds right up my alley. 

I'm not committing to reading the entire longlist, even if this year's judges seem to share my affinity for novels of a reasonable length (under 350 pages for me.) There are only two and a half chunksters (novels between 400-500 pages aren't quite chunksters, but 480 pages is pretty close.) I'll be very curious to see what makes the shortlist in September (obviously), and I'm looking forward to reading most of these, as most were already on my neverending TBR.

Now tell me: what book are you most excited to see on the longlist? What book are you most devastated to see left off?

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, July 23, 2015

audiobook review: How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

narrated by Tavia Gilbert

The basics: Told in a non-chronological narrative, How to Start a Fire is the story of friendship of Kate, Anna, and Georgiana. It stretches from their college days at UC-Santa Cruz in the early 1990's to 2015.

My thoughts: At first I feared a non-chronological (and largely non-linear) narrative would be a challenge to listen to on audio. A quick glance at the table of contents gave me pause, but I'm so glad I opted for this one on audio. Tavia Gilbert gave each character a distinctive voice. At times I forgot there was only one narrator, as she excelled at this cast of voices. As I often listen to audios in short spurts while driving, I didn't always remember exactly what year and city I left off, but I was able to immediately get back into the story. The longer I listened, the more I learned about the timelines and geographies of the three friends, and I was able to fix the larger stories of their life quite well.

How to Start a Fire excels in two main ways, First, Anna, Kate, and George are each fascinating. Second, their friendship is complicated, loving, and authentic. It's somewhat mysterious, and I admit to jumping to the wrong conclusions more than once. Because we see the after before the middle, it was fascinating to guess the whys and hows. While this structure made the book fun to read and kept me guessing, it also made the ending feel like not quite enough. In a book with so many surprises, I wanted one more revelation in the final chapter. Sometimes when I'm listening to audiobooks, the ending feels abrupt. I'm not usually looking at how many pages (or what percent of the book) I have left. And the ending to How to Start a Fire felt especially abrupt. Despite the non-linear narrative, I was still expecting something to tie things together more at the finite end. While I quite enjoyed the experience of listening to this book, I'm left unsure of what I think of it as a whole, largely because of my disaffection for the ending.

The verdict: How to Start a Fire is an engaging and mysterious tale of friendship. Although I wanted one more revelation in the final chapter, the listening experience was a great one.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 10 hours 53 minutes (352 pages)
Publication date: May 12, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy How to Start a Fire from Amazon (Kindle edition.) 

Want more? Visit Lisa Lutz'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!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

book review: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

The basics: Modern Romance is a hilarious and informative book about modern romance. It's part comedy, part sociology and part memoir that discovers what and how we love, date, have sex, and marry today.

My thoughts: I did not watch The Office, so I did not discover my love for Aziz Ansari until his Netflix stand-up special, which I thought was hilarious, and I enjoy stand-up less than the average person. So when I heard the premise of this book was a take on one of the funnier bits from that stand-up routine, I jumped at the chance to read it.

Modern Romance isn't what I expected. It is not a typical celebrity comedian memoir, but there are still fascinating (and hilarious) insights into Ansari's life. He frankly discusses his own love life and pontificates on his happily married parents, who have an arranged marriage.

Mr. Nomadreader and I have been together almost ten years, so I have never dated in the age of Tinder. I didn't even have Facebook when we started dating. There is a lot I don't know about what it's like to date today, and Ansari explored his own dating life, but he also shared fascinating insights about how different dating is across the United States (the distinctions between large cities, small cities and small towns was particularly illuminating) and in other parts of the world. Through focus groups, audience members at his comedy shows, legitimate sociological research (with co-author Erik Klinenberg), and his own experience, Ansari has created a unique research artifact that is both entertaining and informative.

Favorite passage:  "That's the thing about the Internet: It doesn't simply help us find the best thing out there; it has helped to produce the idea that there is a beat thing and, if we search hard enough, we can find it. And in turn there are a whole bunch of inferior things that we'd be foolish to choose."

The verdict: Modern Romance was as funny as I hoped, but it's layered with deep thinking and fascinating sociological data I didn't expect. This unusual combination helps make it impulsively readable. It's entertaining, hilarious, and informative.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: June 16, 2015 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Modern Romance from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Aziz Ansari'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!

Monday, July 20, 2015

book review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

The backstory: When the publication of Go Set a Watchman was announced, I finally read To Kill a Mockingbird, which I didn't love, but I still hoped to enjoy Go Set a Watchman more, and I did.

The basics: Jean Louise Finch returns to Maycomb from New York City for her annual two-week visit.

My thoughts: Going into Go Set a Watchman, I admit I was reading it in multiple ways. I was reading it as though it were a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, which it sort of is. I was also reading it as a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, which it also sort of it. But both of these readings exist with To Kill a Mockingbird as a known book. Much as I tried to identify what it would be like to read this novel without having read that book, I couldn't. While I both enjoyed Go Set a Watchman more and think it's a better book, I'm not sure it would stand on its own as well as it stands next to To Kill a Mockingbird.

My issues with To Kill a Mockingbird were pretty straight-forward: Scout idolized Atticus (as all 6-year-olds do, but it was still an annoyance) and everything was just too black and white/good and bad. It lacked the moral complexities and ambiguities I crave. As much as I hate to use my former favorite metaphor now that it's been literarily high-jacked, I prefer my fiction to exist in many shades of grey. So an adult Scout immediately appealed to me. She's feisty and confident. She is firm in her beliefs. She's fascinating: "It’s just that I’m so afraid of making a mess of being married to the wrong man—the wrong kind for me, I mean. I’m no different from any other woman, and the wrong man would turn me into a screamin’ shrew in record time.”

But I didn't just like Jean Louise better than I liked Scout, I felt as though Jean Louise was reaching out as a lifeline from another time. And she is. I don't read many classics. I read a fair amount of historical fiction, but I realized while reading this novel how rare it is for me to read a book written in a time before mine. I don't know why this idea was so powerful to me, but it makes me want to push myself to read more books that were contemporary fiction when they were published.

Go Set a Watchman isn't perfect. I found the three flashback scenes to Scout's youth to be particularly dull (and oddly integrated), and the middle part dragged a bit for me. But once Jean Louise really starts to grapple with the complexities of race in the south through conversations, Watchman really hits its stride:
"The remnants of that little army had children—God, how they multiplied—the South went through the Reconstruction with only one permanent political change: there was no more slavery. The people became no less than what they were to begin with—in some cases they became horrifyingly more. They were never destroyed. They were ground into the dirt and up they popped. Up popped Tobacco Road, and up popped the ugliest, most shameful aspect of it all—the breed of white man who lived in open economic competition with freed Negroes."
To scholars of history, it isn't news. The recent book and documentary Slavery by Another Name sheds a lot of light on how we got from the Civil War to where we are today. To read Harper Lee so eloquently explain it through the dialogue of multiple characters was a tour de force. To hear it from characters readers already know (and mostly love), wowed me. The publication of this book has been both necessarily scrutinized and controversial, but after having finished it, I'm more surprised that people who have read it think it shouldn't have been published. This Atticus gets his oratorical moments, and they are just as good as the ones from To Kill a Mockingbird. The only difference I see is that he's having these conversations with a grown-up Jean Louise instead of a six-year-old Scout. These conversations are much more complicated, interesting and necessary than those childhood moral fables. Haven't we all had to deal with the emotional and intellectual fallout of realizing those we idolize as children are in fact human? To do so along with Jean Louise is quite the intellectual experience, and even as I think Go Set a Watchman is the better book, part of what makes it better is the shared experience of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Favorite passage:  "Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends."

The verdict: Go Set a Watchman is a more ambitious and more complicated novel than To Kill a Mockingbird. I also think it's a better novel, but it's not perfect. Still, I appreciate its moral complexities immensely. Jean Louise is refreshing, and the reader shares Jean Louise's shock at seeing a much-revered figure does not remain perfect under adult scrutiny. But this Atticus is still wise, and these conversations are necessary to understand the differences between realism and idealism.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: July 14, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Go Set a Watchman from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

P.S. I love my local library so much: not only did they open up the ebook and digital audiobook for holds weeks before publication, Go Set a Watchman seamlessly appeared on my Kindle before I woke up Tuesday.

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, July 19, 2015

And then....

About six weeks ago I posted about my unintentional absence from blogging and reading. I blamed (in a not-angry-at-way) Hawthorne, who had just learned to crawl. Then I had one of those hilarious parent-brain moments when I took the time to actually say out loud to Mr. Nomadreader: "I wish there were a way to keep him in a rooms." Then we both laughed. Because we live in a 102-year-old house that has doors (often double doors) between every room. So they are now shut, and I have resumed reading while watching him explore and amuse himself. He crawls over (or walks along the couch) to say hello to me every 10-15 minutes, or to show me some awesome thing he's playing with, so I've been reading a lot of things that don't require intense concentration (I miss you, literary fiction!) But the second I open the computer to try to blog about one of those books...he is grabbing it out of my hands or typing with me, which turns my English into gobbledygook. Which is why I now have 25 unwritten book reviews. Many of these books I have loved and am dying to tell you all about. Thankfully, I am a good note-taker. And I have a new strategy for catching up and staying caught up (detailed after adorable pictures.)

So...speaking of Hawthorne, he is eleven months old! I am really excited for his birthday, even if we have no actual plans of how to celebrate it yet (besides the New York grandparents flying in.) People keep asking me if I can believe I have a one-year old. But I can believe it, mostly because I have felt those shocked feelings with other people's children on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and Instagram. So I was ready. And I'm only having one baby, so I've tried to be mindful of enjoying the good parts of every stage and looking forward to the next stage, while not focusing on the bad parts of each stage. Watching a baby grow into a child a little each day is a pretty amazing thing.

He has learned to turn board book pages, and is rarely without a book in his hands...
....even if it's upside down (I hand this book to him right-side up every time, and he turns it around. I guess Global Babies are best looked at upside down.) Books are his favorite toys, which warms my heart.

And despite a slow, skeptical start with food that doesn't come in a bottle, he has turned into a delightfully adventurous eater who enjoys anything anyone is eating.
Here he emotes about raspberries in a sea of blueberries, blackberries and strawberries.

On a recent play date, he got to eat his first waffle.
Notice his strong grip on the quarter in his right hand too! Sorry for denying you grains, kid. He is also a huge fan of blue cheese and chorizo. We are not the parents who plan different meals for our kid. If he's awake when we eat, he gets to have some of whatever we're eating that he shows an interest in. (He also still has four bottles a day and several pouches of pureed baby food.)

In summation: life is good. Hawthorne is almost one. I've managed to read seventy-two books so far this year, which is awesome, especially as a full-time working parent. And I hope to have posts here for you most days by reverting to the strategy I used while on maternity leave: write all (or most) of the week's posts in one sitting. A change in Mr. Nomadreader's work schedule means we'll have much more time together on the weekends, so I'm claiming a few hours a weekend for blog activities. Wish me luck! And look for my review of Go Set a Watchman tomorrow!

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, July 2, 2015

book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

translated from the Japanese by Cathy Hirano

The basics:  "Despite constant efforts to declutter your home, do papers still accumulate like snowdrifts and clothes pile up like a tangled mess of noodles? Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo takes tidying to a whole new level, promising that if you properly simplify and organize your home once, you’ll never have to do it again."--publisher

My thoughts: If you would have told me that a Japanese book on cleaning, written by a cleaning consultant, would be one of the books to have the biggest impact on my thinking, I would have laughed loudly for a long time. I am not saying The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is the best book I've read this year (it's not) or that it has necessarily changed my life (yet), but it did change the way I think, and it's rare for a book to make me rethink and reevaluate so many things in which I believe. Granted, I don't devote much time or energy to cleaning, so this thinking that changed is in some ways minor, but there's something magical about a book you expect to dismiss having such a deep impact on your thinking (and I hope my life.) I highlighted eighteen passages. I also rolled my eyes about eighteen times. This book might just change my life.

I could best describe my approach to cleaning as "if it looks dirty, I clean it." But Kondo isn't talking about dirtiness and cleaning; she talks about clutter and tidying. This book is about how much stuff you have and where you put it. My prior method of tidying is giving away and throwing away massive amounts of things I forgot I had each time I move. Now that we own a house (and we intend to live in it for 30+ years), I knew I needed a new approach so Hawthorne doesn't have to one day deal with all of our possessions.

Here's how this book has the potential to change my life: I'm planning, by the end of 2015, to get rid of approximately 75% of my possessions. Clothes, books, papers, and things are leaving. Even weirder (to me): I'm really excited about the actual tidying. Instead of it feeling like an obligation, Kondo has transformed my thinking to excite me about the process because I'm excited about the results. So far the process has been cathartic, and we're in the very early stages.

Kondo is a bit hokey for me at times, but I agree with her ideas, even if I find her seriousness about the feelings of objects to be silly:
"That particular article of clothing has already completed its role in your life, and you are free to say, “Thank you for giving me joy when I bought you,” or “Thank you for teaching me what doesn’t suit me,” and let it go. Every object has a different role to play. Not all clothes have come to you to be worn threadbare. It is the same with people. Not every person you meet in life will become a close friend or lover. Some you will find hard to get along with or impossible to like. But these people, too, teach you the precious lesson of who you do like, so that you will appreciate those special people even more."
At the beginning of this passage, I find myself rolling my eyes, but as she extends the metaphor, it makes complete sense to me. I don't let guilt guide me in life, so why should I fill my home with objects that make me feel guilty (consciously or not?)

Here are my three biggest take-aways from this book:
  1. Every object in your home should be bring you joy.
  2. "Clutter has only two possible causes: too much effort is required to put things away or it is unclear where things belong."
  3. "But when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future."
Favorite passage:  "Therefore, storage should reduce the effort needed to put things away, not the effort needed to get them out." (a complete a-ha moment)

The verdict: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is the most surprising book of the year for me. I can't quite say I loved it, but I do love so many of its ideas, and I'm already incorporating them into my life. It's a simple, straight-forward book filled with fascinating, transformative ideas. At times I wished desperately for images or diagrams, particularly for the Japanese way of folding clothes in drawers, and I'm excited for the sequel, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Guide to the Life-Changing KonMari Method, which will be published December 29, 2015--after Christmas? For shame!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: October 14, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up from Amazon (Kindle edition.) 

Want more? Visit Marie Kondo'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!