Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sunday Salon: My 2015 Baileys Backlist Book Bucket List

The Sunday Salon.comIt's been awhile since I last Salon-ed. Almost seven months? Where has the time gone? Relatedly, I have an almost-sixteen-month-old and it will be December this week. Wow! This time last year, I made a book bucket list. And I actually read all five books! With a few extra days off this week, I decided to make a pile of all the 2015 releases I want to finish before the end of the year. It's laughably tall. Impossibly tall. I hope to read some of them this month and all of them eventually, but I already know it will never happen because there are always more books, so I'm giving myself the freedom to pick and choose from that stack as I see fit (especially as it involves two chunksters.)

I'm constantly setting, breaking and revising reading goals. I spend a lot (too much?) of time thinking about what kind of reader I want to be. I'm not claiming I have the answer for all time, but I have a good answer for now:
  1. I want to read what strikes my fancy, while keeping an eye on the prize lists. I don't want to force myself to read prize listed titles I'm not interested in or feel guilty for not reading entire lists. 
  2. I want to read more than I do now, and I know part of that is always wanting to be reading the book I'm currently reading (or listening to.) 
  3. And I want to (eventually) make my life goal of reading every title longlisted (or shortlisted or that wins) the Baileys Prize (formerly Orange Prize.) 
I will probably never manage to read all twenty longlisted books between their announcement in March and the announcement of the winner in June, but if I shift my focus to reading all of the lists going back to 1996 in whatever order strikes my fancy, I might have better luck. I started this approach this month, and I've had fairly good luck with it in November, so I'm sharing my 2015 Baileys Backlist Bucket List to see if anyone wants to join me in reading any of these six titles in December:

  • What Was She Thinking by Zoe Heller
  • Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
  • What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn
  • The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
  • The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey
  • Official and Doubtful by Ajay Close
If it continues to work well for me, I'll share 4-5 titles each month.

Now tell me: 
  1. Want to join me with any of my 2015 Baileys Backlist Book Bucket List picks?
  2. What's on your 2015 Book Bucket list?
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, November 25, 2015

book review: My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life

The basics:  "In the fall of 2009, the food world was rocked when Gourmet magazine was abruptly shuttered by its parent company. No one was more stunned by this unexpected turn of events than its beloved editor in chief, Ruth Reichl, who suddenly faced an uncertain professional future. As she struggled to process what had seemed unthinkable, Reichl turned to the one place that had always provided sanctuary. “I did what I always do when I’m confused, lonely, or frightened,” she writes. “I disappeared into the kitchen.”"--publisher

My thoughts: I am not typically someone who reads cookbooks. I may skim through and read recipes, but I have never before read a cookbook cover to cover. Admittedly, My Kitchen Year is not a typical cookbook. It is filled with recipes, but there are also lots of other things in it: breathtaking photographs (of food, nature and city), memoir vignettes, and Tweets (yes, Reich's actual tweets.) It feels like more of a memoir than a cookbook, but with 136 recipes, it's hard to argue.

I suppose if you're looking for just a memoir, this one might be a little thin, but I adored the chronological journey with Reichl. I felt as though I started it at the perfect time: autumn, when the book begins. The day before I ventured into Reichl's autumn, Des Moines got its first snow of the year, and it suddenly felt like winter. When I reached spring, I was tempted to stop reading and wait for spring, but I was enjoying myself too much. Part of the fun for me was knowing Recihl's country house is where Mr. Nomadreader grew up. The familiar faces and sights were an extra special delight to see in this book.

Reichl cooks the way I like to cook, except she has a lot more time and patience for it than I do. We both value local, seasonal and fresh ingredients. We share very similar kitchen staples. Most of the recipes in this cookbook wouldn't require me to go to the store. Yet as much as I liked the kind of food, I was most enchanted with how Reichl writes recipes. They're in paragraph form, and I learned so much from them. She carefully (and succinctly) explains the why in each recipe. This book made me enjoy reading recipes because they weren't merely lists of instructions. Perhaps most importantly, Reichl often offers multiple suggestions for igredients in a single recipe. These recipes aren't rigid--they're about highlighting superb seasonal ingredients and taking ownership of your home kitchen:
"Most cookbooks, I though as I reached for an orange and began to squeeze it for juice, are in search of perfection, an attempt to constantly re-create the same good dishes. But you're not a chef in your own kitchen, trying to please paying guests. You're a traveler, following your own path, seeking adventure. I wanted to write about the fun of cooking, encourage people to take risks. Alone in the kitchen you are simply a cook, free to do anything you want." 
That description might strike fear in the hearts of some. It energized me. My Kitchen Year is filled with delicious recipes, but it's also a cookbook to make your own. I've never been a big fan of baking, and I realize as I continue to find my voice, that I don't like the science of it. I like the uncertainty of cooking without recipes or cooking from recipes you're modifying even though it's the first time. Not every meal at our house is a success, but the joy when one is is worth any mediocre bites.

The verdict: My Kitchen Year is unlike any cookbook I've read. I loved the recipes, and I read each one. I loved the candor Reichl uses to talk about a difficult professional situation. I loved the pictures in the book, both of the recipes and nature. And I even loved the tweets placed in the same chronological timeline as the recipes. My Kitchen Year might be a cookbook, but it reads like a food magazine, and I'll definitely be asking for my own copy for Christmas.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: September 29, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Ruth Reichl'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, November 24, 2015

audiobook review: My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

narrated by Debra Winger

The basics:  "Gloria Steinem had an itinerant childhood. When she was a young girl, her father would pack the family in the car every fall and drive across country searching for adventure and trying to make a living. The seeds were planted: Gloria realized that growing up didn’t have to mean settling down. And so began a lifetime of travel, of activism and leadership, of listening to people whose voices and ideas would inspire change and revolution."--publisher

My thoughts: I've been fascinated by Gloria Steinem for a long time, as she was one of those public figures I just always seemed to know about. Yet I remember when I discovered she was born in 1934 and couldn't believe it. Not only did she seem younger, but it made her achievements that much more impressive; she was that much more ahead of her time. For someone I feel like I know so well, for the sheer number of years she's spent in the spotlight, when I heard about this memoir, I realized how little I actually knew about Steinem.

I've always been a fan of asking "where are you from?" I love to hear people's origin stories. Part of it is because I've always felt somewhat nomadic. We moved around what felt like a lot in my childhood, and I continued to move around a lot in my early adulthood. I've also been blessed to travel a lot all of my life. I love to make connections with people and places. (The modern equivalent: seeing mutual friends on Facebook, delights me when unexpected friends also know one another or find one another.) So a memoir about Steinem's 'itinerant childhood' and her life on the road seemed to combine three fabulous things. And it is all of those things, but it was also surprisingly dull at times.

Even as I listened, I felt early on this memoir would be inconsistent, and it was. As I tried to figure out why, I didn't think it was all because of my high expectations. I imagined listening to this memoir as someone mostly ignorant of Steinem and her work, and I imagined that person would ask, "but why should I care? Who is this person?" As a reader, I gravitate more toward fiction than non-fiction, so I don't need fame or glory to be interested. I do, however, need the details. At times, it felt like there wasn't enough Steinem in this memoir. She told stories, but I wanted more insights into her thoughts and reactions. The structure of this memoir is also somewhat odd. At times it felt more like vignettes than a cohesive narrative. I don't believe memoirs need to chronological, but this one jumped around too much, and the reasons weren't always clear. What most kept me from loving this memoir, however, is the lack of name dropping. Steinem rarely shared names or even any identifying details (to make the guessing fun.) These stories needed the context to make them more interesting.

The verdict: I know I'm being hard on My Life on the Road; it's a good book, but how could it not be given the subject and Steinem's writing chops? I can't get over my disappointment that it wasn't great. It had moments that delighted me, but it had too many moments that bored me.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 9 hours 27 minutes (304 pages)
Publication date: October 27, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy My Life on the Road from Amazon (Kindle edition.) 

Want more? Visit Gloria Steinem'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, November 23, 2015

book review: Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy

The backstory: Liars and Saints was shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize.

The basics: Liars and Saints is the story of the Santerre family. Over four generations, the novel covers World War II to the present (when this book was published in 2003.)

My thoughts: For years I've been saying I want to read all of the Baileys Prize longlists, but I don't actually do it, so I started a new project to at least make some progress to that lofty goal. (If I actually continue to make progress, I'll write a post about my plans.) Liars and Saints reaffirms why I have that goal. It's a book I had never heard of, by an author I somehow never heard of. Once I started reading it, I discovered she is someone so many of my bookish Twitter celebrity people adore. And with good reason. I'm such a fan, I checked out her other three adult books (one novel and two short story collections) from library when I finished the first chapter. (She also writes the Apothecary series for juveniles.)

From the moment I heard this book is a four-generation family saga and saw it's less than three hundred pages, I was curious. I gravitate towards books that are ambitious in scope but relatively short. Meloy more than delivers, and she does so in quite an interesting way. Even as I finished, I awed at how much Meloy includes in this story. I felt so connected with each of the Santerres, even as time passed and there were more of them. I adored both Meloy's writing and storytelling here. Her writing is succinct and stunning. There's an urgency to her writing that made me want to read this novel compulsively. To cover so much time in so few pages, choosing the moments to share and those to not is critical, and I never felt as though I was missing out on what anyone was doing. In that sense it felt like an actual family saga. After all, how many moments in our lives would be worth noting in a family history?

Perhaps my favorite part of this novel was how Meloy wrote about faith. The Santerres are Catholic, and through different characters, Meloy was able to show the Catholic church and modern Catholicism from a variety of angles. Meloy made me both understand why and how people are devout Catholics and question the church in complicated ways. This duality is hard to pull off, and I admire Meloy's ability to embrace complicated ideas in a way that invites the reader to wrestle with them.

Favorite passage: "Clarissa had always had a sense of possibilities, of many versions of life available to her, and now she seemed to be stuck with the one."

The verdict: Liars and Saints is an extraordinary novel about family, faith, and secrets. I loved the time I spent with the Santerres, and I can't wait to read Meloy's other books.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: June 17, 2003
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Liars and Saints from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Maile Meloy'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!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

book review: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

The backstory: Nora Webster was on the 2014 Folio Prize shortlist, a 2015 Carnegie Medal finalist, and a 2014 New York Times Notable book. I previously liked The Testament of Mary by Toibin.

The basics: Nora Webster's husband dies, leaving her a young widow with four children, no job, and financial challenges in 1960's Ireland.

My thoughts: It's the second book I've read by Toibin, and only in hindsight did I realize both feature strong, conflicted female narrators. Nora Webster is a fascinating woman. As I think about it, my mind is filled with cliches to describe it: quiet, haunting, evocative. It is all of those things. It's a book I appreciated perhaps more than I enjoyed. There's a timeless, classic quality to it. It's set mostly in the 1960's, and Toibin captures the essence of the time and place so beautifully one might think it was written at that time.

Nora Webster is a character-driven novel. It's one I enjoyed the time I spent while reading it, but it wasn't one I thought about much when I wasn't reading. I dipped in and out of it and it took me almost a month to finish. The writing was strong, but I was surprised to find I didn't highlight a single passage. Perhaps because Toibin's writing was at its best in the quiet moments. For a novel about the death and aftermath of a young spouse, it's devoid of the theatrical grief. From inside Nora's world, the reader sees the small moments, such as struggling to find something to say to well meaning visitors, and making the financial decisions, more clearly than what she cannot process or move through initially. This duality is at the heart of the novel's power, but it's also what made me able to set this novel down for days on end in favor of other things. I always came back, and I enjoyed this novel, but it's not one with a narrative urgency.

The verdict: Nora Webster is a quiet, haunting novel of one woman at a place and time. She's a fascinating, complicated character, and I enjoyed glimpsing into her world.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: October 7, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Nora Webster from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Colm Toibin'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!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

audiobook review: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

narrated by Carrie Brownstein

The basics: Carrie Brownstein, a writer, musician, and actress, tells the story of how she got into music, her early experiences with bands, and her time with her best known band, Sleater-Kinney.

My thoughts: I used to own more than one Sleater-Kinney album. They were band I desperately wanted to like. I pretended I liked them because I thought they were so cool, but I'm older and wiser than I was in the 1990's as a teenager, so I'll confess: despite many attempts, I do not really like Sleater-Kinney's music. But I still like the three of them and would love to just hang out and chat. All this is to say, my interest in this memoir is not the music, so I was somewhat disappointed that it's mostly about the music. Despite this knowledge, I still really liked this memoir.

Brownstein is a wonderful writer. This isn't a revelation, of course. She's been writing songs for many, many years. She co-created and writes Portlandia. Still, she balances the tension of writing a memoir about her time with Sleater-Kinney beautifully to appeal to fans of a variety of levels. Those familiar with the music will appreciate the insights into how certain songs came to be and will revel in the details of specific shows. I was less familiar with the music (despite my attempts), but by writing so well about the music, Brownstein helped me clarify (and come to terms with) why I don't really care for Sleater-Kinney's music.

Audio thoughts: I'm glad I opted for this book on audio. Brownstein's narration shines throughout but there were many times I had trouble imagining a particular scene on the printed page instead. As a bonus treat for audio listeners, there's a lovely interview with the audiobook producer and Carrie at the end.

The verdict: Brownstein is a fine writer, and I admired her bravery in this memoir. Her insights into the life of a touring musician were fascinating, but it was her insights into her life that shined brightest for me. If you're a fan of Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia, feminist memoirs, or Carrie herself, make time for this one, even if it focuses mostly on the music. As I listened to this book, I found myself trying, yet again, to listen to Sleater-Kinney on Spotify. I still don't like the music, but I did appreciate listening to songs after hearing Brownstein's insights into them.

Rating: 4 out of 5 
Length: 7 hours 4 minutes (256 pages)
Publication date: October 27, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl rom Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more?Follow Carrie Brownstein 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, November 16, 2015

book review: All Dressed in White by Alafair Burke and Mary Higgins Clark

The backstory: All Dressed in White is the second in the Under Suspicion series, following The Cinderella Murder. The series follows Under Suspicion, a television news special focused on unsolved cold cases.

The basics: The cold case at the center of All Dressed in White follows the disappearance of Amanda White on the night before her wedding day. Did she run away or did something terrible happen? Laurie and her crew reunite the entire wedding party, plus Amanda's now divorced parents, at the same hotel in Palm Beach, Florida.

My thoughts: While I loved the concept of The Cinderella Murder and enjoyed reading it, I was disappointed with the resolution but curious to read the next book. I both enjoyed the reading experience of All Dressed in White more, but it's also a better mystery. There's a cozy element to this book, in that I never felt like anyone was in danger, even knowing that a killer might be among the group. Still, the mystery in this book is what makes it such a great read. The possibility of Amanda walking away leaves a certain hope alive, for some of her friends and family as well as the reader. As more details are revealed, Clark and Burke manage to keep the tension of both possible outcomes not only possible but likely.

The verdict: Although the resolution itself was somewhat unsatisfying, as there was no big shocking moment (which I like in a mystery), this book was a delightful page turner. I thoroughly enjoyed the wide cast of characters, the exploration of Amanda, a fascinating character, and the setting. If you're looking for a fun, escapist read, All Dressed in White is a great choice. If you don't mind the events of the previous book (and its precursor, I've Got You Under My Skin), being spoiled, you can jump right in with this book and enjoy it.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: November 17, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy All Dressed in White from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Mary Higgins Clark's website and like her on Facebook. Visit Alafair Burke'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, November 3, 2015

audiobook review: Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

narrated by Karen Cass

The backstory: Crooked Heart was longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Prize.

The basics:  "When Noel Bostock – aged ten, no family - is evacuated from London to escape the Blitz, he ends up living in St Albans with Vera Sedge - thirty-six and drowning in debts and dependents. Always desperate for money, she's unscrupulous about how she gets it. Noel's mourning his godmother, Mattie, a former suffragette. Brought up to share her disdain for authority and eclectic approach to education, he has little in common with other children and even less with Vee."--publisher

My thoughts: Now that I spend almost as much time listening to audiobooks as I do reading print books, I often find myself wondering how much the format impacts my reaction. As I listened to Crooked Heart, I found myself thinking something I can't recall ever thinking while reading: I'd rather watch this story on screen. As in, I would gladly put down this book and watch the film or miniseries version instead. Would I have thought that if I read it? I can't know. Was it the audio production that made this story seem more cinematic than destined for the page? I don't know.

I liked this book. I liked the characters. I liked the story. I was engaged. But I felt like so many of the stories were incredibly visual. I had no trouble picturing it, but I wanted to see it. Perhaps its partially because this novel felt heavy in dialogue. At times, it felt like a script, and my mind kept picturing the Masterpiece adaptation. Reading about Noel and Vee wasn't quite enough for me--I wanted to see them interact with one another.

The verdict: Improbably, Crooked Heart is both wicked and heartwarming. It's humorous and naughty, and even as its characters are up to not good, there's an appropriate lightness. This novel doesn't shy away from the realities of war, but it does find the humor in it.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 8 hours 17 minutes (288 pages)
Publication date: July 28, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Crooked Heart from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Lissa Evans'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!

Monday, November 2, 2015

book review: The Crossing by Michael Connelly

The backstory: Michael Connelly is my favorite mystery writer. Last year, I read all twenty-seven of his novels. I was thrilled to finally have a new one to read.

The basics: The Crossing features both of Connelly's long-running main characters: now retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch and his half-brother, criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller. When Haller's client is charged with the brutal murder of a woman, he suspects a set-up and manages to convince Bosch to solve the case as he would if he were still a homicide detective.

My thoughts: The titular crossing is meaningful on two levels. First, it comes from a piece of dialogue between Bosch and Haller:
"What's the biggest problem with the prosecution's case?" 
"Right now?" 
"Based on what you read." 
Bosch took a drink while he thought of an answer and composed it properly. "The crossing." 
"Motive and opportunity."
The crossing in this novel is particularly important and intriguing because it's so mysterious. It also signifies Bosch's crossing over to what he, and most of law enforcement, sees as the dark side: working for the defense. This struggle continues throughout the book, and it serves as an interesting source of tension between Bosch and Haller. It reinforces the central tensions of both men: working for the greater good, while not always being good, and in very different ways. All while seeing things with vastly different lenses.  

If you haven't already read these series, I wouldn't start with this one because you're missing so much backstory. Could it be read as a standalone? Yes, the mystery is that good. But the layers of intrigue between these two characters wouldn't be as meaningful. If you have the time, start with The Black Echo.

Favorite passage: "You know, she had this theory," he said quietly. "She always said that the motivation for all murders could be dialed back to shame." "Just shame, that's it?" Maddie asked. "Yeah, just shame. People covering up shame and finding any kind of way to do it. I don't know, I think it was pretty smart."

The verdict: The Crossing is classic Connelly. It's a brilliant police procedural filled with clues. It's a fascinating exploration of Bosch and his continued struggles with life, work, and fatherhood. As much as I loved the mystery, I was proud to figure out the last piece of the puzzle before Bosch. I also appreciated the camaraderie and struggles, professionally and personally, with Bosch and Haller. They're a fascinating pair, and I love seeing them together, even as I'm always glad when Bosch is the primary character.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 400 pages
Publication date: November 3, 2015 
Source: publisher

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

Want more? Visit Michael Connelly'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!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Introducing: My Reading Hall of Fame

For many years, I've thought of my 6-star reads as my Hall of Fame. Those are the books that are so good and that I love so much, I break my own rating scale and give them the off-the-charts rating of 6 stars. After finishing Lauren Groff's divine Fates and Furies, I realized there are quite a few authors whose work I have loved enough to rate more than one of their books 5-star reads, and that's perhaps more valuable to me than a single 6-star read. For years, I've loved following an author's career and reading entire backlists. So, I decided to keep track of these authors, who have written more than one book I've rated 5 stars (or 6 stars.) I'll copy this post and update it as needed on my new Hall of Fame tab, which also includes my 6-star reads.

Authors' names link to all blog posts about the author, including all book reviews. Titles link to my review of that title.

(in alphabetical order)

1. Burke, Alafair
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!