Showing posts from October, 2015

book review: The Midwife's Daughter by Patricia Ferguson

The backstory: The sequel to The Midwife's Daughter, Aren't We Sisters? was longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Prize, but I wanted to read this one first.

The basics: The Midwife's Daughter is the story of Violet Diamond, a midwife in pre-World War I England. When she visits the orphange her twin sister works at and spots a young orphan who bears a striking resemblance to her dead daughter, Violet adopts the girl and names her Grace. The key difference, as the cover indicates, is that Grace is black.

My thoughts: The Midwife's Daughter is a lovely piece of historical fiction. It is a character driven story featuring fully formed people, but it's also a fascinating insight into midwifery at a critical point in its history, as the advances in medicine are making fewer use midwives. As World War I looms, there is even more uncertainty for these characters and their lives.

Ferguson tackles a lot of themes in this novel. She is a trained nurse and midwife, and that expertise…

book reviews: Ms. Marvel Vols. 2 & 3 by G. Willow Wilson

After enjoying the first volume of Ms. Marvel: No Normal, I was eager to continue with the series.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 2: Generation Why
If  the first volume had a weakness, it was a necessary one: Wilson had a world to build. Generation Why is able to pick right up where the action left off, and it covers a lot of ground. These collections feature several issues of the comics bound together. As someone who has never read traditional comics, I find the pacing interesting. Many of the issues end of cliffhangers, as the first volume did, but I was pleased this collection's ending felt like a satisfying end for a volume that's part of a continuing series.

Readers familiar with comics will find many familiar faces (I confirmed some with Mr. Nomadreader), but as relative Marvel neophyte, I never felt lost. Wilson manages to write for new and old fans simultaneously. Wilson also packs a lot of action into this volume. Thankfully, there is also a lot of character development. I enjoyed th…

book review: How It All Began by Penelope Lively

The basics:  "When Charlotte Rainsford, a retired schoolteacher, is accosted by a petty thief on a London street, the consequences ripple across the lives of acquaintances and strangers alike." -publisher

My thoughts: I find myself drawn to novels that address the unlikely connections between people, so the premise of How It All Began appealed to me immensely. Lively uses the premise to trace connections of various levels that all begin with a mugging. As each new character was introduced, I was fascinated to guess the connections. Promising as this premise was, I didn't find all of the characters particularly interesting. And even the interesting ones got bogged down in odd subplots at times.

Despite my questioning of some of Lively's storytelling choices, her observational prose frequently took my breath away:
"Time was, long ago, pain occasionally struck--toothache, ear infection, cricked neck--and one made a great fuss, affronted. For years now, pain has been…

audiobook review: Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin

narrated by Madeleine Maby

The basics: Wednesday Martin is an anthropologist, originally from Michigan, who moves from the West Village of New York City to the Upper East Side and turns her anthropological training on Upper East Side mommies.

My thoughts: Since having a baby, I find myself drawn to narratives I might not have been before. I'm fascinated by how people raise their children, in this country, throughout different times in history, and around the world. (See also: How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, How Not to Calm a Child on a Planeand Bringing Up Bebe.) As a mom, I find myself remarking, "these people are crazy!" as often as I do "I can't believe I think this is normal now!" So much of parenthood seems to be finding people with whom you agree and finding people whose choices make you feel better about your own. To that end, Primates of Park Avenue is both.

It's entertaining,  at times alarming, and informative. A few chapters dragged a bit f…

book review: Women by Chloe Caldwell

The basics:  "Women is a novella about falling in love with a woman, about loving women, about being a woman. It is a novella about a mother and a daughter. A novella about female friendships that blur the line of romance. A novella about a woman who, after having her first sexual relationship with a woman, goes on a series of (comical) OK Cupid dates with other women. A novella about a woman in her twenties who doesn't know if she's gay or straight or bi. A novella about falling in love and having your heart broken and figuring out what to do next. The book is an urgent recall of heartbreak, of a stark identity in crisis."--publisher

My thoughts: Despite many people assuring me I couldn't possibly read as much once I had a baby (I hit 100 books for the year last week), I still read a lot. I read differently. I listen to more audiobooks than I used to. And I read in short spurts, with the exception of weekend naps. Despite still carving out a lot of time for readi…

page to stage: Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon

The backstory: After taking a few years off, Mr. Nomadreader and I have resubscribed to season tickets for StageWest, a local "bold, cutting-edge, contemporary theater." This year I had the brilliant idea to read each of the plays before seeing them. The first play of the season was Bad Jews.  I promptly got the play from the library, went on vacation for a week and a half, came home to remember our tickets were for the next day, and managed to pick it up to read only after seeing the play.

The basics: Bad Jews take place in a studio apartment in New York City after a funeral. Its four characters are brothers Liam and Jonah, their cousin Daphna, and Liam's girlfriend Melody.

My thoughts: Over the years, I've realized I appreciate plays (and films and television shows) with a writer's dialogue. Meaning: I'm okay with art being more eloquent and faster paced than those people would actually speak in life. Bad Jews has this dialogue throughout. At times the pace s…

book review: Every Fifteen Minutes by Lisa Scottoline

The backstory: Every Fifteen Minutes, a stand-alone thriller from the prolific Lisa Scottoline, was one of my book club picks this fall.

The basics:  "Dr. Eric Parrish is the Chief of the Psychiatric Unit at Havemeyer General Hospital outside of Philadelphia. Recently separated from his wife Alice, he is doing his best as a single Dad to his seven-year-old daughter Hannah. His work seems to be going better than his home life, however. His unit at the hospital has just been named number two in the country and Eric has a devoted staff of doctors and nurses who are as caring as Eric is. But when he takes on a new patient, Eric's entire world begins to crumble."

My thoughts: From the description, Eric sounds like a smart, admirable person, right? Unfortunately, both at work and at home, his actions fail to show intelligence. This disconnect was incredibly distracting and made me lose faith in the narrative very early on. I can tolerate a frustratingly stupid narrator given an…

book review: Snowden by Ted Rall

The basics: Snowden is a graphic biography of Edward Snowden. Rall traces his life from birth to both understand why he chose to become a whistle blower and to shed light on what our government knows about us and how.

My thoughts: I thought I had followed the story of Edward Snowden pretty carefully, but I find both him and his actions, as well as the repercussions, fascinating. I wasn't sure how much I would learn from Snowden, but I actually learned quite a lot. This book is a nice reminder that following something in real time is quite different from taking a step back, understanding the layers of context, and trying to see the bigger picture. Snowden provides that big picture beautifully, but it's also a gripping tale that reads like fiction.

I didn't expect Snowden to be such a page-turner, but I was instantly hooked. Rall chooses his words carefully, and he uses art to powerfully tell this story. The absence of words makes those that appear more powerful, and my eye w…

book review: The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

The backstory: After loving both of Lauren Groff's other novels, Arcadia and Fates and Furies, I finally made time to read her debut novel, which was a finalist for the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers.

The basics: Willie Upton, a direct descendant of the founding family of Templeton, New York (based on Cooperstown, New York, where Groff grew up), returns home after having an affair with her married archaeology professor while on a digging trip. She's surprised to find her hippie mother, Vi, has become a conservative Christian. She's even more surprised to learn her mother has lied to her about her father's identity all her life, so she puts her academic research skills to the test to figure out his identity.

My thoughts: I spent a magical summer in Cooperstown, New York in 2009 when I interned at the Baseball Hall of Fame's Research Library. The town remains one of my favorite places in the world, and while visiting for an all-intern reunion earlier this month, I …

audiobook review: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

narrated by Robin Miles

The backstory: An Untamed State is a 2015 finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was on the 2014 First Novel Prize longlist.

The basics:  "Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents." (publisher)

My thoughts: I knew going into this novel that it was about a kidnapping, yet I did not expect the opening scene to be the kidnapping. The initial pace of this novel left me breathless in the best wa…

book review: Mislaid by Nell Zink

The backstory: Mislaid, Nell Zink's second novel, was on the 2015 National Book Award longlist. I previously enjoyed her first novel, The Wallcreeper.

The basics:  "Stillwater College in Virginia, 1966: Freshman Peggy, an ingĂ©nue with literary pretensions, falls under the spell of Lee, a blue-blooded poet and professor, and they begin an ill-advised affair that results in an unplanned pregnancy and marriage. The couple are mismatched from the start—she’s a lesbian, he’s gay—but it takes a decade of emotional erosion before Peggy runs off with their three-year-old daughter, leaving their nine-year-old son behind." (from the publisher)

My thoughts: That description sets up the novel well, but it's somewhat impossible to discuss the novel without giving away a bit more plot than I normally. But Mislaid is not a novel one reads for the plot. Once Peggy takes her daughter, they begin living under assumed identities. She dresses like a man, and she procures the birth certif…

audiobook review: Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming

narrated by Alan Cumming

The basics: Not My Father's Son is actor Alan Cumming's memoir of his childhood and his experience learning about his family's history on the genealogy reality television show Who Do You Think You Are?

My thoughts: I've enjoyed Alan Cumming's performances in various things over the years, but it wasn't my enjoyment of his craft that made me pick up this audiobook from the library. Instead, I was fascinated by the genealogy and the insight into his experience on Who Do You Think You Are?, a show I've thoroughly enjoyed in the past. The show allows librarians, archivists, historians, and museums to show their value by helping celebrities research their family histories. It's a far more fascinating glimpse into how alike we all really are. I had not, however, seen Cumming's episode. If you have, some of the reveals won't be a surprise, but there is still enough intrigue to make this book worth your while.

I think it's saf…

audiobook review: Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

narrated by Tavia Gilbert

The backstory: After loving Jami Attenberg's last novel, The Middlesteins, I was excited to read her new one.

The basics: Set in Jazz Age New York City's Bowery neighborhood and based upon a real person, Saint Mazie is the story of Mazie Phillips, a young woman who loves to party. When the Depression hits, Mazie can't help but help.

My thoughts: The premise of this novel checks so many of my boxes, yet as I listened, Mazie never quite came alive for me. I think it's a combination of Attenberg's structure and Gilbert's narration style. The novel is structured as a documentary film, so there are numerous excerpts from Mazie's diaries, as well as interviews with descendants of those she knew. Perhaps especially on audio, this structure made the narrative feel fractured. I really wanted to love this book, but over all, I feel mostly 'meh' about it. It's such a great concept, and Attenberg is a great writer. This book has some …

book review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

The backstory: Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff's third novel, is on the 2015 National Book Award longlist. I loved her last novel, Arcadia, so very much.

The basics: Fates and Furies is the story of a marriage and two lives. The first half is told from the point of view of the husband, Lotto. The second half is from his wife Mathilde's point of view.

My thoughts: I had high expectations going into Fates and Furies. Arcadia  is both brilliant and moved me emotionally. And the buzz around Fates and Furies is huge. It's the book of fall. Plus, it was longlisted for the National Book Award (hooray!)

This novel is a book in two parts. Because Groff chooses to split it into halves (Lotto's is a bit longer) rather than interweave the chapters, there's a fair amount of setting the stage the first half of the novel takes on. It builds up this fateful, epic love story, and in some ways, the second half tears it down. In that sense, the first half was slightly more laborious. Gr…

book review: The Hopeful by Tracy O'Neill

The backstory: The Hopeful is Tracy O'Neill's debut novel. It was longlisted for the 2015 First Novel Prize and named a National Book Award 5 Under 35 pick.

The basics:  "A figure skating prodigy, sixteen-year old Alivopro Doyle is one of a few "hopefuls" racing against nature's clock to try and jump and spin their way into the Olympics. But when a disastrous fall fractures two vertebrae, [it leaves] Ali addicted to painkillers and ultimately institutionalized." (publisher)

My thoughts: The Hopeful is one of those novels I love a little bit more because I discovered it through the First Novel prize longlist. Somehow, I'd never heard of it, even though it's fantastic, so I hope this review will introduce many more readers to it. Of course, while I was reading it, Fiona Maazel picked it as a National Book Award 5 Under 35 pick. That will probably help too.

But back to The Hopeful and why you should read it. On the surface, there's a lot going on…