Thursday, March 31, 2016

audiobook review: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

narrated by Graham Halstead and Julia Whelan

The basics: The first in a new young adult trilogy, A Study in Charlotte follows Charlotte Holmes, a descendant of Sherlock Holmes, and Jamie Watson, a descendant of Dr. Watson, as students at a Connecticut boarding school.

My thoughts: I typically file Sherlock Holmes under the "things I simply don't really like--but people with similar taste always seem to love." And I haven't read a young adult novel in several years. So what made me pick up a young adult Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery? Brittany Cavallaro's Twitter bio.

Despite not really caring for most adaptations or appropriations of Sherlock Holmes I've encountered, I really like the smart ways Cavallaro uses Holmes. Most importantly, she makes Holmes and Watson real people. Sometimes I have to remind myself my favorite characters aren't real people, and after so many years and iterations, doesn't it seem like Holmes and Watson were real? I also liked that Charlotte is a teenage girl. She's appropriately flawed, but she is also badass. She shares many of the traditional Sherlock Holmes traits, including his predilection for opiates. And it works.

While this novel is in many ways a fascinating character study with traces of a family saga for the Holmeses and Watsons, the mystery at the center of it is pretty clever. Someone is staging crimes to look exactly like the famous crimes the original Holmes and Watson solved. Someone is framing Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson. I suspect fans of Sherlock Holmes will spot the clues before they're explained, but those unfamiliar with them will make sense of them through Jamie and Charlotte's dialogue.

Audiobook thoughts: One small quibble--part of the reason I opted for the audio was because I find myself gravitating toward multiple narrators. I kept waiting (and waiting) for Julia Whelan to narrate. I don't know if I would've expected Charlotte to get a turn telling the story simply because I knew there was a female narrator or not, but we don't hear from Charlotte until the very end. It works well within the story, but as a listener, knowing there were two narrators made me wonder when the second narrator would appear.

The verdict: I thoroughly enjoyed this audiobook, and I'm curious to see where Cavallaro goes in the next two volumes in the trilogy. The story is engaging, the characters are cleverly constructed, and the mystery was compelling.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 8 hours 41 minutes (336 pages)
Publication date: March 1, 2016
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy A Study in Charlotte from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Brittany Cavallaro'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, March 30, 2016

audiobook review: First Ladies from NPR

The basics: NPR edited together stories about first ladies over the years, including interviews with the more modern ones.

My thoughts: American Wife, a fictionalization of Laura Bush's life, is my favorite novel, and I'm fascinated by the unlikely journeys we take in life. I think the journey to first lady (or first gentleman, one day) is one of those that is the biggest leap, and is the most fascinating. When I saw this one available at my library, I eagerly downloaded it. It wasn't quite what I expected, but I enjoyed it.

For such a short audiobook, I feel as though I learned a lot, but it was somewhat uneven. I wished for more first ladies to be featured, but because NPR was pulling from their archives, they're somewhat limited. The early first ladies were featured in interviews with their biographers, and I was eagerly adding to my TBR as I listened. As we move through history, I was glad I opted for audio, as some news stories featured historic recordings of the first ladies. It was fascinating to hear their voices. The more modern first ladies were all featured in interviews they gave, and I appreciated that.

Because I am a frequent NPR listener and have been for many years, I'd heard some of the stories before. Some, however, were from more than thirty years ago, and it was nice to see them get new life in this way. While I enjoyed the in-depth interviews with Barbara and Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama, I feel as though I already know them so well, and I found myself wishing for less of them and more of the first ladies I don't know as well. I could say the same about Roslyn Carter, the only first lady I've had the privilege to spend a day with, but her interview was so frank and thoughtful, I was glad it was included.

The verdict: First Ladies is a nice collection of stories about many first ladies. It inspired me to seek out more information about many of the women featured, as well as information on those who weren't.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 3 hours 35 minutes
Publication date: Feburary 3, 2015 
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy American Chronicles: First Ladies from Amazon (no 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!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

book review: Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear

The backstory: I started reading the Maisie Dobbs series in 2010 (it began in 2003), and it's one of my favorite mystery series. The last title, A Dangerous Place, was a bit of a departure for the series, and it my least favorite in the series, so I approached Journey to Munich with cautious optimism it would delight me.

My reviews of other Jacqueline Winspear novels: Maisie DobbsBirds of a FeatherPardonable LiesMessenger of TruthAn Incomplete RevengeAmong the MadThe Mapping of Love and DeathA Lesson in SecretsElegy for EddieLeaving Everything Most LovedThe Care and Management of Liesand A Dangerous Place.

The basics: It's 1938, and the German government is willing to release a particularly valuable British prisoner to a family member only. Coincidentally, the prisoner's daughter looks a lot like Maisie, so she's enlisted to travel to Munich and retrieve this stranger.

My thoughts: This series has been slowly progressing toward World War II for quite some time, and the first time I saw this cover, it took my breath away. The thought of Maisie in Hitler's Germany is intriguing, and I was willing to forgive the perhaps too convenient coincidence that this man's daughter looked like Maisie. (To be fair, Winspear does make a strong case through her characters that no other women are trained and able to do the job other than Maisie, which does make sense in its time and place.) There is an immense amount of tension that builds as Maisie heads to Munich. Much of the novel feels like a spy caper or a thriller.

One of my favorite things about this series has always been the balance of mystery and character development, and Journey to Munich excels at it. After the last two in the series (and the time jump in between), part of me felt as though I needed to get to know Maisie again, and Journey to Munich provides that opportunity. Maisie is still a changed woman, but there are some lovely flashes of the old Maisie in this new one.

Favorite passage: "She was surprised at how easily she was finding her way around, as if the geography of a place were another language and she was developing her ear for the sounds, oft-used words, and the way in which movement echoes speech."

The verdict: Journey to Munich was a triumphant return to the Maisie Dobbs I know and love. Not only is it a satisfying mystery and thriller in its own right, but it sets the stage for an intriguing next step, both for Maisie and the world, as World War II looms. Perhaps I most appreciated the pacing of this novel, as Winspear seems to have one mystery be the heart of this novel, when really, there's much more at play than I first suspected.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 309 pages
Publication date: March 29, 2016
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Journey to Munich from Amazon (Kindle edition.) Haven't read this series yet?--start at the beginning with Maisie Dobbs.

Want more? Visit all the tour stops, visit Jacqueline Winspear'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!

Monday, March 21, 2016

book review: The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

The backstory: The Book of Memory is on the 2016 Baileys Prize longlist.

The basics:  "Memory, the narrator of Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory, is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, after being sentenced for murder. As part of her appeal, her lawyer insists that she write down what happened as she remembers it. The death penalty is a mandatory sentence for murder, and Memory is, both literally and metaphorically, writing for her life. As her story unfolds, Memory reveals that she has been tried and convicted for the murder of Lloyd Hendricks, her adopted father. But who was Lloyd Hendricks? Why does Memory feel no remorse for his death? And did everything happen exactly as she remembers?"--publisher

My thoughts: The Book of Memory was one of the novels I most anticipated this year. The premise is downright beguiling. Gappah's background is as a lawyer, and I loved that she infuses law in this novel without writing from the point of view of a lawyer. The first few chapters of this book read like a crime novel. Gappah expertly reveals shocking details that made me aware of false assumptions I made and raised my curiosity about Memory and her story.

Soon, however, the novel slows down. Memory writes of her past and present well. She must dive into her childhood, of course, to understand her relationship with Lloyd, who bought her from her parents when she was nine. She must write about her life before Lloyd, as she struggles to understand why her parents sold her. This backstory offers wonderful insight into life in Zimbabwe, but some of the detail felt unnecessary. At times, Gappah didn't dig deep into the lives of the minor characters to make it seem essential to the story.

Memory uses sly humor discreetly. Casual readers may not pick up on Memory's misunderstanding of English language and its pop culture, but careful readers will delight in it. As a reader, I enjoyed these moments and appreciated their subtlety, but I also longed for a perspective other than Memory herself. I wanted a different perspective too.

The verdict: The premise of this novel is wonderful, and while it shines at times, the execution was uneven, and too many moments dragged. Overall, I found it to be disappointing because of its moment of greatness, but those moments have me excited for Gappah's next novel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: February 2, 2016
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Book of Memory from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Petina Gappah'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, March 15, 2016

book review: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The backstory: The Turner House was a 2015 National Book Award finalist, a finalist for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, a 2015 New York Times Notable Book and named a National Book Award 5 Under 35.

The basics:  "For over fifty years the Turners have lived on Yarrow Street. Their house has seen thirteen children get grown and gone—and some return; it has seen the arrival of grandchildren, the fall of Detroit’s East Side, and the loss of a father. But when their powerful mother falls ill, the Turners are called home to decide their house’s fate and to reckon with how their past haunts—and shapes—their future."--publisher

My thoughts: The Turner House is a book I expected to adore. The premise and setting excited me. I picked it for my book club, which meets later this month. And while I liked it, and I'm quite curious to see what Flournoy writes next, I wasn't wowed. When I sat down to write this review, I was surprised to see I didn't highlight a single passage. I knew I had complicated thoughts about this novel, but I hoped to have some passages to back up my claims.

The Turner House is at its best with its richly drawn characters. Each felt so real, which is impressive given the large family. Their interactions with one another were dynamic, and Flournoy skillfully lets this novel feel like it belongs to all the Turners, even as we spend most of our time with only a few of them.

Where The Turner House fell flat with me was the haint. It felt like part magical realism and part symbolism, but it didn't feel as authentic as the rest of the novel, and because it's introduced so early and featured so prominently, it's hard to avoid. I often struggle with magical realism, and the introduction of the haint had me rolling my eyes. It's hard to stay invested in fiction once my eyes start rolling. And yet, I did because other parts of the novel are so good.

After finishing this book, I was chatting about it on GoodReads. A very astute reader mentioned that she viewed the haint as symbolic of "the legacy of racism/slavery following the family through generations. The father tried to escape by moving north to Detroit, but it followed him there, and continued to torment his son. The father tried for a new start - "There's no haints in Detroit!" - but he was wrong. You can't escape the continued "haunting" of institutionalized racism, which continues to affect future generations." It's seemingly so obvious, I can't believe I didn't think of it, except I found the haint so distracting, I didn't take the time to think about it in this way. And I love this idea, but I also realize I prefer my symbolism to come from the narrative itself. I don't know which Flournoy intended, but I do know I would have a very different reaction to this novel if the haint weren't in it.

The verdict: There's a lot to enjoy and think about it The Turner House. I didn't love it as much as I hoped to, largely because of the haint, but Flournoy is clearly a writer to watch, and I'm excited to see what she writes next.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: April 14, 2015
Source: library

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

Want more? Visit Angela Flournoy'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, March 8, 2016

The 2016 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist: A U.S. Reader's Guide

The 2016 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist is finally here! Longtime readers knows this prize, known for most of its history as the Orange Prize, is my favorite literary prize. The longlist announcement is always one of my favorite moments of the year, and it shapes my reading for the months to come. Last week I predicted the twenty-one titles I thought would make the longlist. I correctly guessed six of the titles. For the sixth year in a row, I'm offering my thoughts on the longlist along with information on when U.S. readers can access these titles (see my U.S. Reader's Guide for the longlists in 2015201420132012, and 2011.

The Ones I've Read

The Ones Available in the U.S. Now

  • A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
  • Ruby Cynthia Bond
  • The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (available for Kindle now, coming in print July 5, 2016)

  • A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton
  • Whispers Through a Megaphone by Rachel Elliott (available via Audible)
  • The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah
  • Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy

  • The Anatomist's Dream by Clio Gray (available for Kindle)
  • At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison
  • Pleasantville by Attica Locke
  • The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
  • The House at the Edge of the World by Julia Rochester (available for Kindle)
  • The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild
  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The Ones Coming Soon to the U.S.

  • Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett (March 22, 2016)
  • The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney (August 9, 2016)

My thoughts
I'm thrilled to see that of the three titles I've read, all were 4.5 or 5 star reads for me. I hope this trend continues and that this year's judging panel has similar tastes to me. Many of these titles were on my TBR. Most were on my longer list of predicted titles. There's nothing I'm suprised to see, which leaves me most surprised to not see Fates and Furies. Alas, I'll have to stick to rooting for it in the Tournament of Books instead. I'm also disappointed to not see Under the Udala Trees.

First up? Probably The Book of Memory or Pleasantville, both of which are currently sitting on my dining room table waiting to be read. 

The short list will be announced on April 11th. The winner will be announced June 8th.

Now tell me: which title are you rooting for? Right now, I'm rooting for Girl at War. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it, either in print or on audio.

update predictions post

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, March 2, 2016

2016 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist Predictions

It's almost time for the most exciting day of the year (for me)! On Tuesday, March 8, the 2016 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 20-title longlist will be announced. Part of the fun is guessing which titles will make the longlist. Last year I correctly predicted only five titles. How will I fare this year? Check back Tuesday for my U.S. Reader's Guide to find out.

The Baileys Prize is given to a novel written by a woman, originally in English, and published in the UK between April 1 of the last year and March 31 of the year the prize is awarded. Only the UK publishing date matters. This year, books had to be published between April 1, 2015 and March 31, 2016.

My Predictions
As always, there are far more than twenty novels I think could (and/or should) be longlisted. There were some tough decisions to make, and I certainly don't envy the judges! I chose a mix of debuts, books already listed for other prizes, books that seem to be under the radar, and books from former winners, shortlisted, and longlisted authors. I even included a 21st title because I just couldn't decide. Here are my selections, alphabetically by title:

  • After Birth by Elisa Albert (a 6-star read)
  • At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison
  • The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah
  • Borderlines by Michela Wrong
  • Girl at War by Sara Novic (a 5-star read)
  • The Green Road by Anne Enright (shortlisted in 2012 for The Forgotten Waltz and longlisted in 2008 for The Gathering)
  • In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie
  • Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams
  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
  • The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien (longlisted in 2003 for In the Forest)
  • Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt (shortlisted in 2009 for The Invention of Everything Else and longlisted in 2011 for The Seas)
  • My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (shortlisted in 2000 for Amy and Isabelle and longlisted in 2014 for The Burgess Boys)
  • The Past by Tessa Hadley (longlisted in 2008 for The Master Bedroom and in 2011 for The London Train)
  • Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
  • Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
  • We That Are Left by Clare Clark (longlisted in 2005 for The Great Stink and in 2010 for Savage Lands)
  • The Words in My Hands by Guinevere Glasfurd
Now tell me: Which title(s) do you hope make this year's longlist?

Update: Find my take on the longlist in my 2016 Baileys Prize U.S. Reader's Guide.

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!