Showing posts from January, 2016

book review: Weathering by Lucy Wood

The basics:  "Pearl doesn't know how she's ended up in the river--the same messy, cacophonous river in the same rain-soaked valley she'd been stuck in for years. But here her spirit swirls and stays . . . Ada, Pearl's daughter, doesn't know how she's ended up back in the house she left thirteen years ago--with no heating apart from a fire she can't light, no way of getting around apart from an old car she's scared to drive, and no company apart from her own young daughter, Pepper. She wants to clear out Pearl's house so she can leave and not look back."--publisher

My thoughts: When Weathering came out in the UK last year, many predicted it would be longlisted for the Baileys Prize. It wasn't, but when it finally was scheduled to come out in the U.S., I was still curious to read it. I picked it up not knowing what it's about, as both the title and cover are ambiguous. If I had read the basic description, I might have realized this b…

Sunday Salon: Authors on NPR

These days, I tend to listen to NPR in slow bursts, mostly while I'm in the kitchen cooking or cleaning. I've started relying on the NPR One app, which predicts what stories you're interested in, but it also lets you search by topic and show, as well as mark the stories you think are interesting (and skip those you don't.) I also welcome the ability to rewind and fast forward. After using the app for several months, it finally seems to get that I really like stories about fiction (big surprise, right?), but it's been such fun this week to hear interviews with three authors whose books I've enjoyed this month. I read a lot of interviews with authors, but there's something so fascinating to me about hearing them speak. Here are links to those interviews in case you want to take a listen to:

Tessa Hadley, Family Bonds Are Never Bland In 'The Past' (my review of The Past)
Helen Ellis,  Frisky, Subversive 'American Housewife' Practices Shock And A…

book review: The Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

The basics:  "On a rainy, cold day in November, young Victor--a nomadic, scrappy teenager who's run away from home--sets out to join the throng of WTO demonstrators determined to shut down the city. With the proceeds, he plans to buy a plane ticket and leave Seattle forever, but it quickly becomes clear that the history-making 50,000 anti-globalization protesters--from anarchists to environmentalists to teamsters--are testing the patience of the police, and what started out as a peaceful protest is threatening to erupt into violence. Over the course of one life-altering afternoon, the fates of seven people will change forever: foremost among them police Chief Bishop, the estranged father Victor hasn't seen in three years, two protesters struggling to stay true to their non-violent principles as the day descends into chaos, two police officers in the street, and the coolly elegant financial minister from Sri Lanka whose life, as well as his country's fate, hinges on ge…

First Thoughts: Tournament of Books 2016

I'm a huge fan of the Tournament of Books, and yesterday we finally got the "shortlist." It's seventeen titles, so it's still quite long, but it's a list that excites me much more than the last few years, even if my three top novels of 2015 didn't make it.

What's I've Read
Thankfully, I've already read three of the titles: Fates and Furies, which I loved; The Spool of Blue Thread, which was good and fine but not spectacular for me; and The Story of My Teeth, which has flashes of brilliance and an abundance of ambition, but it wasn’t particularly enjoyable to read.

What I Haven't Read
That leaves me with fourteen books to read by mid-March if I want to read the entire bracket. Realistically, it's unlikely, but many of the titles I've been meaning to read, and the Tournament of Books may push me to do so. I hope to find time for: The Turner House, The Sellout, The Tsar of Love and Techno, The Invaders, The Sympathizer, The Whites, and…

book review: The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee

The basics: The Expatriates is the story of the large American expatriate community in Hong Kong, and it's centered around three different women: Mercy, a young Korean-American and recent Columbia graduate adrift in Hong Kong; Hilary, a wealthy housewife struggling to have a baby; and Margaret, a happily married mother of three.

My thoughts: Longtime readers of this blog know how much I love to travel vicariously through reading, so I was excited to explore Hong Kong's expatriate community in The Expatriates. The novel certainly delivers on armchair travel, but the reading experience was much deeper and richer than that. It offers so much more than an escapist read set in an exotic world of wealth. The three female narrators are both the heart and backbone of this novel. Each woman is unique, fully realized, and wholly human. I found sympathy with each, but I also found reality in their faults.

Although a smaller part of the novel, I found myself enchanted with Lee's depict…

book review: My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

The backstory: My experiences reading Elizabeth Strout have been uneven. I liked Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize, but I didn't love it, mostly because I wanted more of a novel feeling than interconnected short stories. I was not very fond of The Burgess Boys, despite "beautifully detailed prose and richly developed characters." My review for Amy and Isabelle hasn't posted yet, but it was my favorite Strout to date. Until My Name Is Lucy Barton. Update: My Name Is Lucy Barton has been longlisted for the 2016 Baileys Prize.

The basics:  "Lucy Barton, a writer, married with two young children, is in the hospital in New York City due to an infection from a simple appendix operation. (Her medical condition is incidental—it’s not about the illness). Her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in years, comes from Amgash, Illinois, to visit her, and sits by her bedside, reminiscing about people she and Lucy know from Lucy’s childhood, before Lucy went off to college…

book review: American Housewife by Helen Ellis

The basics:  "A sharp, funny, delightfully unhinged collection of stories set in the dark world of domesticity, American Housewife features murderous ladies who lunch, celebrity treasure hunters, and the best bra fitter south of the Mason Dixon line."--publisher

My thoughts: I knew from the first line of the first story in this collection that it was exactly what I needed to be reading: "Inspired by Beyonce, I stallion-walk to the toaster." I was hooked. I devoured this collection in a single morning. I read voraciously and was rather despondent when I finished. I didn't know what I could possibly read after that could stand up to Ellis's voice (my only option was to pick up something completely different.)

While the stories in this collection have some similarities and share some common themes, my reading experience was filled with surprises and delight. I read with glee.

Favorite passage: "You are so bad!" is Southern Lady code for: That is the ta…

Sunday Salon: Baby, It's Cold Outside!

I adore winter, but our current weather is getting a bit too cold for even me. When I woke up this morning, it was below zero, with windchills making it feel like it was -25. It's the perfect day to stay inside and read. Or clean, which should be done, but I doubt it will be done. I'm treating myself to the forthcoming twelfth Maisie Dobbs mystery, Journey to Munich, which I started earlier this week and hope to finish today.. My review won't post until March 29th, the book's release date, but it's a gripping read. I hope to finish during Hawthorne's nap(s) today, even though it means my next Maisie experience is back to being too far away..

I'm having a fantastic reading and blogging year so far. Despite January being my busiest month at work, I've managed to read seven books already this month, and I hope to finish the eighth today. I've also been keeping up with the blog and posting every day, at least partially thanks to the large review backlog…

review rewind: The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne

Two years ago, The Dogs of Littlefield was longlisted for the Baileys Prize. At the time, there was no U.S. publication in sight, despite the fact that Berne is an American author. I'm thrilled to report it's finally coming out in the U.S. Tuesday, so I'm reposting review in support of its American publication, with updated links to buy it.
The backstory: The Dogs of Littlefield was longlisted for the 2014 Baileys Prize. Suzanne Berne won the Orange Prize in 1999 for her first novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood(my review.)

The basics: Set in the idyllic (fictional) town of Littlefield, Massachusetts, famous for its place on the Ten Best Places to Live in America list, as well as its disproportionately high number of psychotherapists, The Dogs of Littlefield explores the characters of this town through their own eyes and through the eyes of Dr. Clarice Watkins, a cultural anthropologist spending a year in Littlefield as a visiting scholar. Soon after she arrives, dogs start g…

book review: Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present & Future by Lauren Redniss

The basics:  "A dazzling fusion of storytelling, visual art, and reportage that grapples with weather in all its dimensions: its danger and its beauty, why it happens and what it means."--publisher

My thoughts: In the manner of a stereotypical Iowan, I am fascinated by the weather. I often have a hard time believing my corner of the world can have such variance in temperatures every year. When it's below zero, I can't fathom the stifling heat of summer (and vice versa.) To live in a place where weather impacts my life in so many ways, I fear I've forgotten so much of the science of weather I learned in school. I hoped Thunder & Lightning could help fill in those gaps and teach me about weather. Lest you have that same misconception: it's not really what this book is about.

I'm also fascinated by people who live at places with more universal temperature extremes (always hot or always cold) or those who lack the four seasons. There's some of that her…

book review: The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela

The basics:  "It’s 2010 and Natasha, a half Russian, half Sudanese professor of history, is researching the life of Imam Shamil, the 19th century Muslim leader who led the anti-Russian resistance in the Caucasian War. When shy, single Natasha discovers that her star student, Oz, is not only descended from the warrior but also possesses Shamil’s priceless sword, the Imam’s story comes vividly to life."

My thoughts: The novel opens with the character of Natasha, and I connected immediately with her. Admittedly, I'm drawn to female academics, but she was richly drawn and mysterious: "I preferred the distant past, centuries that were over and done with, ghosts that posed no direct threat. History could be milked for this cause or that. We observed it always with hindsight, projecting onto it our modern convictions and anxieties." I wasn't particularly surprised when this novel jumps into the past, as Natasha is a professor of history, but it took me much longer…

book review: Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

The backstory: I read Samantha Hunt's first novel, The Seas, when it was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2011. At the time, I said, "Despite Hunt's somewhat ironic assertion that "details make a story even as unbelievable as mine believable," neither the details nor the narrative made this novel believable, yet it couldn't compel me to suspend belief and enter its world either." But I loved Hunt's writing, so I was curious about Mr. Splitfoot, her latest novel.

The basics:  "Ruth and Nat are orphans, packed into a house full of abandoned children run by a religious fanatic. To entertain their siblings, they channel the dead. Decades later, Ruth’s niece, Cora, finds herself accidentally pregnant. After years of absence, Aunt Ruth appears, mute and full of intention. She is on a mysterious mission, leading Cora on an odyssey across the entire state of New York on foot. Where is Ruth taking them? Where has she been? And who — or what — has she h…

book review: The Past by Tessa Hadley

The backstory: Tessa Hadley has been on my 'meaning to read' list for years.

The basics: Four adult siblings, along with their children and one new spouse, gather at their country house for a three week vacation.

My thoughts: Part of me has a hard time reading novels set at different temperature extremes than the one I'm currently experiencing. It's hard for me to remember how much I dislike the heat of summer in the middle of an Iowa winter (and vice versa), but Hadley made this summer country house come alive. The omniscient narrator is filled with wisdom, and I marveled at Hadley's ability to juggle so many characters in ways that left each one fully formed. It's a challenge to introduce a relatively large cast of characters so quickly, including those not present, but I was never confused about which sibling was which or whose children belonged where.

As rich as the descriptions and insights were, Hadley is also a gifted writer of dialogue:
"--You should…

alt-ToB 2016: Under the Udala Trees v. The Story of My Teeth

I'm thrilled to be judging the first match-up in the 2016 alt-ToB (Alternative Tournament of Books.) This tournament stemmed from the Tournament of Books discussion group on GoodReads, which is not affiliated with The Morning News Tournament of Bookswhich will happen in March. Please join us over at Goodreads to discuss all the match-ups, and follow along with the alt-ToB brackets.
When I saw I was tasked with comparing The Story of My Teeth and Under the Udala Trees, my first thought was to try to find the similarities between them. Both are the second work of fiction by a young woman whose first work of fiction received acclaim. (Luiselli’s first novel Faces in the Crowd was a National Book Award 5 Under 35 pick, while Okparanta’s story collection Happiness, Like Waterwas a Young Lions Fiction nominee.) Both women were born in other countries but now live in the United States. Both women set this book in the country of their birth. After reading them, I’ll add that both are t…

Sunday Salon: 2016 Reading Goal

In 2016, I'm trying to keep it simple. I have one reading goal. Only one. It's a big one, but I want to read 150 books. The most I've ever managed (since I started keeping track in 2009 was 139 (in 2014.) Last year I managed 130, which is 2.5 books a week. Pledging to read twenty more books in 2016 means I'm pledging to spend more time reading. I don't want to just to the number by reading short books or avoid reading long books (more than I already do for other reasons.) I know some days, weeks, months and seasons mean I read more or less. By 11:59 p.m. on December 31, 2016, I hope I can celebrate reading 150 books.

How I'll Do It
Over the past few months, I've noticed some days I find every possible minute to read and can read a book (of about 300-350 pages) in a single day, if I have nothing else to do besides go to work. Yet some days I don't pick up a book and manage to spend quite a few minutes doing nothing. Sometimes my brain is too tired to rea…

2015: By the Numbers

All week I posted about my favorite books of 2015: Hawthorne's board books, comics, mysteries, nonfiction and fiction. I loved breaking down the categories this way, as it's so hard for me to rank books from different areas. I also discovered some interesting patterns in my reading:

All thirteen of my favorites were written by women. Only two of my thirteen favorites were written by authors I'd read before (Laura Dave & Lauren Groff, both in my Hall of Fame.) Seven of my thirteen favorites were fiction debuts.Three of my thirteen favorites were audiobooks.Nonfiction:
Half of my ten favorites were written by women.All ten were written by authors I'd not read before.Six of my ten favorites were audiobooks.Mysteries: Half of my ten favorite were written by women.Eight were written by authors I'd read before.Only one was an audiobook.Overall Numbers:
I was reading until late on New Year's Eve, but I managed to hit my goal of 130 books read in 2015. I'…

Best of 2015: Fiction

Welcome to Day Five of My Best of 2015 Reading Round up! As always, my Best of the Year lists cover what I read in 2015, which includes books published in any year. Today, I'm sharing my favorite nonfiction. Yesterday, I shared my favorite nonfiction. Wednesday I shared my favorite mysteries. Tuesday I shared my favorite comics. Monday I shared Hawthorne's favorite board books. (Want to look at past year's lists. They're all linked here.)

13. Outline by Rachel Cusk (my review)
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. Outline is a beautiful, thoughtful, engaging novel. I love the idea of it, and I loved the time I spent with it. 
12. Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum (my review) Anna Benz is a bored American housewife who has been living in the suburbs of Zurich, Switzerland with her Swiss husband for ten years. They have three c…