Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Book Reviews: The MeetCutest, A Book NOT about Wolves, and Black Hair Love.

June 15, 2017

Morning, all! Just a few books to talk about this week, because I had some re-reads not worth re-hashing am thiiiiis close to finishing my daytime book and my nighttime book. (You know I have my reading groove back when I’m making excuses for a low number!)

So what do we got? Let’s look!

DimpleWhen Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Menon (2017, Simon Pulse, 380 pages, ebook). This book is the book to read this summer and believe me when I say Sandhya Menon is the new John Green – YA Whisperer Extraordinaire! I hope she’s half as prolific because I can’t wait to get my hands on her next story…and I just finished her first! The story is about two American teens whose (uh, somewhat) traditionalist Indian parents have arranged for them to be married – if all goes well when they meet. Dimple kicked herself for not realizing why her parents suddenly caved and allowed her to go to computer programming camp, and Rishi just about wants to kill himself for blurting out his intentions to spend the rest of his life with Dimple the second he meets her. Turns out Dimple wasn’t aware of the deal-io. And on it goes. It’s the meet-cutest, even if it does feel annoyingly teenagery at times, and a little heavy-handed on the foreshadowing. It all balances out, though, because Dimple and Rishi click from (almost) the first moment, and its in the funny, laugh-out-loud moments that Menon’s writing really shines. That, and she really knows how to write secondary characters – not a skill you really hear talked about, partly because not a lot of people really know how to excel at it. All in all, it’s wonderful debut novel and I will definitely be following Menon’s career with interest. 3 1/2 of 5 stars. (That cover, though! 5 of 5 stars for cover art!)

HistoryOfWolvesHistory of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund (2017, Grove Atlantic, 288 pages, used hardcover). Trigger warning for sketchy-as-hell student/teacher relationships, and child abuse. In small town Minnesota (the book flap describes it further as being part of the lakes region of Minnesota, but is there part of Minnesota that isn’t the lakes region? Seriously?), Linda/Maddie lives with questionable parents in a hut that is part of a counter-culture left over from her maybe-parents commune days. History was so hard to read because relationships were never clearly defined – between characters, places, causes, nothing! It wasn’t even clear whether this was by design. So I wasn’t sure if Linda’s blurry AF relationship with her parents and miserable home life was responsible for why she kissed her teacher, or was jealous when a fellow student started rumors that she had gone all the way with their history teacher – an awkward man who later fled because they found out he was fired from his last job in California for pedophilia. As that story line was falling apart, Linda is hired by the weirdo neighbors across the lake to babysit for their toddler, Paul. You know from the beginning that something horrible is going to happen to Paulie – and I thought from the teacher story line that it was going to be sexual abuse – but it wasn’t, and the No Good, Terrible, Horrible Thing was a bit of a let down when I finally found out what happened. I mean, it was awful, sure; it just wasn’t the shock it was built up to be. Yeah, this novel was a hot mess, through and through, in need of a much stronger editor. Solid ideas, they just all fell to the earth and fizzled. 2 of 5 stars.

YouCantTouchMyHairYou Can’t Touch my Hair, by Phoebe Robinson (2016, Plume Books, 285 pages, library paperback). This was nominated as a Goodreads Choice for Humor last year, and YOU GUYS! I am both bummed it didn’t win, and horrified it had to go up as humor! Yes, Robinson is a comedian, and yes, she glossed all her essays with humor, but I think that’s all mostly because there isn’t anything close to “I’m Laughing Because It’s All Funny Because It’s So True It Hurts” – in either an awards category or life profession. There were essays about hair and beauty as the title suggests, but also how Robinson is too black to be white, and too white to be black. She’s the post-Soul aesthetic defined, and I LOVE it. I love her! I can’t believe I hadn’t run across so much as her name before. Bottom line: you should all read her book, see her in person if you can, and help me track down any- every- thing else she has done. 4 of 5 stars.

InvisibleLifeOfIvanIsaenkoThe Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko, by Scott Stambach (2016, St. Martin’s Press, 326 pages). Lauded as the next coming of The Fault in Our Stars, I was so excited to sit down and read Ivan! I knew it was going to be sad, but Holy Moses. Ivan is beset by every mean trick the universe could bestow. He was born without both legs, without his right arm, and with only a thumb and the first two fingers on his left hand. He has a connective tissue disorder, making it hard to talk, and leaving his features flat, making him not only hard to look at, but like he’s even more handicapped than he is. Oh, and when another person at Mazyr’s Hospital for Gravely Ill Children (in the Ukraine that cares for 30 children crippled by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster) dares to fall in love with Ivan, SHE DIES TOO. We know this from the first page – a choice that rankled with me every step of the way. I wanted to hold out hope, no matter how foolish. I needed to believe. Without that bit, even with Nurse Natalya who is the only friggin ray of sunshine in a thousand mile radius, everything was so. unflinchingly. bleak. I’ve read a lot of bleak stories, you guys. I can handle a lot. If I have hope. This…it was interesting. I wanted to change the outcome. So even though it was bleak, there was an undeniable intrigue and sneakery and brilliance that crackled throughout and drew me to the story. I couldn’t put it down because of it, and, honestly, it’s what kept me turning page after page. Without it, I’d have ditched. So…I guess brilliance trumps hope. Who knew? 3 of 5 stars.

There you go! What are YOU reading this week? What do I need to add to my shelves this summer?

Book Reviews: Found legends, all the nonfiction, and a quiet SK story.

June 8, 2017

It’s been ages since I’ve posted book reviews! Since I’ve finally found my reading mojo, I have so many books stacked up to choose from! Rather than try to squeeze them all in, I’m going to pick and choose…

JaguarsJaguars Ripped my Flesh, by Tim Cahill. (1987, Vintage, 320 pages, eloan). It’s a catchy title, I have to admit. And a jaunty little adventure book, if you’re looking for very short stories into the wild. But don’t expect high-faluting, serious-minded forays into the jungles. The title is meant to be funny and ironic; a nod to when men’s magazines all went overboard with their tabloidy stories. Cahill argued then (and then demonstrated via his books) that what men really wanted to read were honest-to-god travel stories. No fanfare needed. Okay, so I’m not the intended audience, but still – meh. 2 of 5 stars. And that’s generous.

GirlFromEverywhereThe Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Helig. (2016, Greenwillow Books, 464 pages, ebook). This was a deal of the day, and I’d been hearing good things from reliable YA crowds – the ones who read what I read. So I gave it a whirl. And it was decent – not phenomenal like the Daughters of Bone series I had just finished, and that probably didn’t help much – nothing was going to be “good” after finishing that. I can see how the voice here would draw people in and plenty would like Helig’s writing style and the flow of the story. The characters were interesting and well developed. The plot – a ship that can sail anywhere, anywhen if it can follow a map it’s never used before – is brilliant. For me, it was just lacking that oomph to make it special. 3 of 5 stars.

SeriouslySeriously, I’m Kidding, by Ellen DeGeneres (2011, Grand Central Publishing, 241 pages, used hardcover). I’m glad I read it – I love seeing how celebrity’s books translate from their physical world of acting to the medium where your ability to communicate in words (and negative spaces) rules the day. It’s an interesting shift. Ellen managed quite beautifully, as I’d suspected and hoped, but…her stories, while amusing, seemed surface-y to me, and were on the extremely short side. Each story took me about two minutes to read. Not exactly the in depth memoir I’d wanted. So I’m glad I tore through this one, but mostly for the experience of having done so. 2 of 5 stars.

FoundlingThe Foundling, by Paul Joseph Fronczak (2017, Howard Books, 368 pages, ebook). I bought this ebook on a whim after seeing it advertised and recognizing it from my TBR. It’s the story of a couple whose newborn was stolen from the hospital, and of another little boy who was abandoned half a country away, on the sidewalk in front of some stores. The FBI decides the toddler was that newborn, the family is reunited and all was well. Except all was not well, because that boy grows up and discovers not only his story, but that he was not the baby they thought he was. Genealogical mystery unraveling ensues. And you know me – I’m a huge genealogy nut! This book was so my jam. It was written well; well-paced, interesting, yes – a little whiny at times, but I thought Fronczak had good cause. I tore through it, wanting to know how it played out. Definitely worth the money I shelled out. If you’re into true crime, this is definitely worth your time and your dollars. I highly recommend. 4 of 5 stars.

AmiableAmiable with Big Teeth, by Claude McKay (2017, Penguin, 352, hardcover). I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for a fair review. One of my two bachelor degrees is in African American Studies, so I was beyond pleased when I found out I was selected to win the new novel based on the manuscript by Claude McKay found in 2012. McKay was instrumental in the Harlem Renaissance, one of the greatest periods of creativity this country has ever had the joy to behold. That’s not to say a lot of the pieces produced during that time were joyful in nature; many focused on the need for African Americans to rise up, become financially mobile, break free from the tyranny of social injustice, both here and abroad. Amiable is the story of the Harlemites in-the-know working to help liberate Ethiopia, after Mussolini has invaded. The book is a satire and fun is poked at the political machinations of the different factions, fighting over  a piece of the pie, and arguing loudly over the “right” way to fight for it. If you like The Sellout by Paul Beatty, or pieces from the post-Reconstruction era, this is what you want. 3 of 5.

GwendyGwendy’s Button Box, by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar (Cemetery Dance Publications, 175 pages, hardcover). I was a little wary as I started; I wasn’t a big fan of Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy, and I haven’t read anything else by Richard Chizmar. But this, a Castle Rock novella, ended up being…well, if not exactly classic Stephen King, pretty close. From a world next door, if you like. It’s a quiet story, one filled with dread and a slow build to the finale. I’ll tell you how quiet it was – I could have read this at full dark and not been afraid. It’s the horror of what the human race will do to each other…with a little bit of magic thrown in. The ending was a bit anticlimatic – given events that happened at the start of the novel, I was expecting something a bit grander. But, I suppose it will do. I’m glad I read it. I’m not sorry I spent both my money and my time on it. But I can’t say the story changed me one way or another. 3 of 5 stars.

Book reviews: The week with all the balance – two must-reads, two huge misses.

January 12, 2017

Rumor has it that The Morning News is releasing their Tournament of Books finalists this morning! I tried working my rooster tee into my work ensemble today, but since things are kinda shaky at ThePlaceThatShallNotBeDiscussed, I decided to go a safer route. Which is to say you can imagine both my excitement (PARRRTAY!!!) at the imminent prospect of having a shorter list of books to focus on, and saaaaadpanda that the list wasn’t out when I started drafting my post. Instead of geeking out, I’ll tell you about the books I read this week.

shrillShrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, by Lindy West (2016, Hachette, 272 pages, digital copy). I had been hearing good things about this book since long before it was published. Which is why I probably had such a hard time getting my hands on a copy. I jumped when I saw it come up as a deal of the day right around Christmas. (Merry Christmas to me! I got allll the digital books!) West has all the cultural criticism acumen of Roxane Gay and the creativity of Tina Fey, plus the whip smart advantage all my favorite people have of being able to call it like she sees it in such an undeniable way. For those who are seeking to empower their best selves, or maybe just looking for a little hope, a little cultural criticism right now, this is what you need to pick up. As in, I will be buying a full-price copy to loan out to everyone. THAT kind of No kidding, I mean it. 5 of 5 stars.

ihateinternetI Hate the Internet, by Jarett Kobek (2016, We Heard You Like Books, 288 pages, e-loan). I picked this up because it was on the TOB longlist. In many ways, it’s a novelization along the same lines of Shrill – speaking out against the needless hate and bigotry swamping our culture – but it focuses on the Internet as Vehicle Supreme, the inevitability that foiling it will fail, and, well, does it all in third person. I couldn’t find my footing. The entire thing felt hopeless. I have enough hopeless in Real Life right now, Kobek, I don’t need another heaping plateful. It felt gimmicky and cheap as opposed to a sardonic wake-up call that I think it was supposed to be. 1 of 5 stars.

abundanceThe Abundance: Narrative Essays, Old and New, by Annie Dillard (2016, Ecco, 304 pages, digital). This was another Deal of the Day grab, and I was so looking forward to it. Personal essays are some of my favorite indulgences; they can go in any direction and seem so much freer than any other writing – even fiction, at times. I’d read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and thought maybe I’d enjoy Dillard’s non-fiction more. So now I’m left hoping I like Dillard’s non-fiction about writing, specifically, because I still have one of those books on my TBR at home, and nothing else seems to be working for me. Her writing is sparse, and yes that’s a stylistic choice that can work…but not here, and not for me. When I read books about nature, I want to feel connected. It’s especially frustrating for me as a reader if I know the author was there, in that actual scene, and limited themselves to these few words. I feel everything and write so much of what first comes to mind; I have a hard time understanding why people won’t use 50 words instead of 10. Nature writing…that particularly seems to me like the point is immersion itself. How are we so understand the scene if what we get is “The hill was tall and bare.” So the subject matter was interesting, in a fashion, but Dillard’s writing style was rather frustrating for me. 1 of 5 stars.

uglywonderfulthingsAll the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood (2016, Thomas Dunne Books, 346 pages, digital). YOU GUYS. THIS BOOK. So many feelings! It’s not going to be for everyone, I get that. (There’s a bit of a Lolita angle that could be read in places.) But for me it was one of those magical reads that I couldn’t suck down fast enough. Greenwood created characters so believable and real that I just couldn’t get enough. It read for me as less Lolita and more of a Bone Gap setting, meets Constellation of Vital Phenomena heartbreak and spectacular, detailed characterization, and the survivory feeling of Homecoming. All some of my favorite books, so you can see how this just blew my socks off. My one hang-up was the way the Wavy-and-Kellen drama stalled a bit three-quarters of the way in. There was a lot of the same-old going on, and I needed either a bit to be excised, or some movement added. Kind of like how The Office was at its best when it was a comedy that used all of its talent for a variety of sketches, before it turned into the Jim-and-Pam show, I liked the story so much better when it showed the resourcefulness of Wavy as she faced all of her challenges, before it settled into the Wavy-and-Kellen show. Not that that kept me from reading as fast as I could, delighting in the sense of foreboding that never once left. 5 of 5 stars.

Okay, have I stalled long enough? Will the TOB brackets be posted…? And whose job is it to keep me sane until they do? HALP!

Book reviews: the one where I slay all the challenges.

January 6, 2017

Welcome to the first book review Thursday of 2017! I can’t remember exactly when I made Thursday my duly designated day for book reviews last year, but it seems to work out nicely, so I think I’ll try to stick to it for now. If it stops working, we’ll revisit the format. But for now, let’s press on!

Since the new year is still brand new, and because most of the past month has been spent festivity-ing with my sister, I’ve slacked a bit when it comes to spending quality time with my books. If I’m home, I tend to be cooking or talking or playing games with Kim and the fam. And if it’s time for bed, I usually manage to get in a page or two before my eyelids get very heavy. This is all an apology for “only” having two books finished to review for you. I’ll try to do better, boss.

difficultwomenDifficult Women, by Roxane Gay (2016, Grove Press, 260 pages, hardcover). I picked this up – okay, really because I’ll pre-order anything Roxane Gay publishes: fact. But also because it satisfies both the collected stories written by a women and the micropress challenges from BookRiot‘s READ HARDER challenge. Because my personal rules for the challenge mean I can only check-off one challenge for each book read, I chose the short stories challenge. (I have my eye on Irenosen Okoje’s forthcoming Speak Gigantular for the micropress.) Short stories usually aren’t my jam. If you tell me they’re linked – like these – you’ll get a much better chance of getting me to jump into the pool. Ms. Gay’s writing, as always, was impeccable. Voice might not be the most critical of the holy triangle [voice, characters, plot][which, uh, is there a MOST critical?], but if it was, you’d find me hard-pressed to find someone who could wield her instrument with as much precision and beauty as Gay. The stories center around women of difficult natures, nasty women if you will, and how they have earned their badges of honor. These women are survivors, all. Many of them have stories that will make you cry – one of them quite literally, and you figure out how to do that quietly at two in the morning. 2. a.m. So you should pick the book up, with a pack of tissues – and highlighters and pens and your most critical eye. Because stories like these are even more important right now. 5 of 5 stars.

sunisalsoastarThe Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon (2016, Delacorte Press, 348 pages, hardcover). This book, too, satisfies both the #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge, and one of the ReadHarder challenges. Santa gifted this to me after he remembered how much I enjoyed (most of) Nicola Yoon’s debut novel last year. (That ending, though – so problematic.) This YA novel was certainly written a bit tighter; Yoon has grown into her voice and knew when to jib the plotline and when to jab. There were several decision points towards the end where her plot could have jumped the tracks and gone in bad, cliche places, but she saved it. It was satisfying to watch her avert the crisis. Because she is certainly a talented writer who knows how to make her characters jump into life, who isn’t afraid to play with stereotypes, and bonus points for all the hair tropes she touched on. Usually a novel with so many small, choppy sections with shifting points of view will bug, but it worked for me here. When more than a few side characters (and yes, inanimate objects and philosophical ideas, too) had had a turn narrating and we still hadn’t had any white characters, I started getting nervous every time I started reading a new section. I wanted so badly for this jewel of a book to smash it out of the park without a single one. And you know what? Yoon pulled it off in the most spectacular way. There’s a challenge for that in READ HARDER, for those who are playing along. Yoon is quickly becoming a go-to YA author of mine, and I can’t wait to see where she goes next. 4 of 5 stars.

What are YOU guys all reading this week? Is everyone’s reading energy all kickstarted from their holiday bookish haul, like mine?

#NonFicNov: Week 3.

November 17, 2016

After my massive rally last week in breaking my reading slump, I slowed the pace down a bit this week. Depression and anxiety can be a bit of a roller coaster ride. Also, my taste in books ran a little…um…shall we say macabre? Still seemed better than real life. But before I get into just how sprinkled my life is with inspiration sayings and true crime books, let’s take a moment to give thanks for our sponsors.

nonficnov2016

#NonFicNov – which I plan for and look forward to year-round – is made possible by our wonderful reading community. This year Doing Dewey is hosting, along with Sarah at Sarah’s Bookshelves, Rachel at Hibernator’s Library, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, and Julz at Julz Reads. They have some lovely giveaways and book reviews going on, so go say hello! I’d also like to give a special shout-out to Kim over at Sophisticated Dorkiness. Kim is Non-fic November, for those who don’t know, and she’s still recovering from a huge, no-good, very bad Something right now. If you could all go love on Kim a little and send her the happiest thoughts, it would mean a lot to me. We’ve all been laid flat by grief at one point or another and I wish I didn’t know, but I do. I know I’ll be keeping Kim tucked into the back of my reading brain this month, raining some love down on her.

(Maybe I should try a little more indulgent self-care this week, because this past week self-care looked like basking in the glow of things even more horrible than our current affairs – true crime and lots of it!)

book210Crash Detectives: Investigating the World’s Most Mysterious Air Disasters, by Christine Negroni (2016, Penguin, 288 pages, paperback). I am a terrible flier. I work in aviation and it’s a bit like watching how sausage gets made – you lose your appetite for it just a little bit. I know all of the things that can go wrong, and in every sense imaginable. (I also see how rarely that happens, but why aren’t those the facts that run through my mind when I’m taking off on an adventure?) Negroni does a fantastic job of walking the layperson through the ins and outs of aviation without losing the narrative to tedium. While she focuses on how, exactly, we could fail to find Malaysian Airlines flight 370, she also looks at other missing aircraft and crashes. It was very compelling reading, both for the looky-loos and aviation nuts. The fact that the book was written by a kickass female investigative reporter in a male-dominated field? Bonus points. 4 of 5 stars.

book211Conviction: The Untold Story of Putting Jodi Arias Behind Bars, by Juan Martinez and Lisa Pulitzer (2016, William Morrow, 384 pages, library ebook). I needed a book so engrossing I could forget about the real world, and hoo boy did Conviction deliver! I didn’t follow the Jodi Arias trial much while it was unfolding. I remember it happening, but I wasn’t particularly shook. When I saw the double episode of Snapped! that featured the crime, I was reeled in. So of course I checked out this new true crime account written by the prosecutor and one of the better known collaborators, Lisa Pulitzer. I raced through every page with my mouth agape, marveling over Arias’s misplaced confidence in herself. She truly thought she could get away with her appalling crime. Tales like this one are why men and women are scared of the proverbial crazy boyfriend/girlfriend. Truly, truly insane. And wickedly fun reading. (Although “fun” doesn’t quite feel right, ya know?) 5 of 5 stars. Because for a few days, I forgot we even had an election.

book212The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium, by Michele Elam (2011, Stanford University Press, 308 pages, paperback). I was a bit amazed that Elam dared to play so boldly on W.E.B. DuBois’s title The Souls of Black Folk – I mean, that’s about as anthemic as you can go. And yeah, it’s clever, but those are shoes to fill! It put me off reading the anthology of essays for nearly a year. But you guys – Elam’s got game. Her writing was evocative as the artwork she chose for the cover, and tied to pop culture and history throughout in ways we are both constantly aware of and completely ignorant of at the same time. Racism just won this dang election, and I needed to completely immerse myself in writing about how far we’ve come and what we can do to keep moving conversations and awareness in the right direction. 4 of 5 stars.

book213The Killer Book of Serial Killers, by Thomas and Michael Philbin (2009, Sourcebooks, 345 pages, library ebook). I told you my reading selection was a bit shocking this week. This true crime book wasn’t a deep analysis or portrayal of any one crime, but more of small glimpses into a wide array of crimes and the people who committed them. It was fluff designed to carry me away from the drama in real life, and it worked. Though I think I might have burned through my ability to wade through any more for quite awhile. 2 1/2 of 5 stars.

We’ll see what this next week brings. I’m looking for something a bit more inspirational after a week spent pillaging and burning. I have a book about the founding mothers of the country (screw you, patriarchy), and we’ll see what else catches my eye. Just so long as it’s bright and shiny!

#NonficNov: Week 2.

November 11, 2016

“Katie,” I can hear ya sayin’, “- it’s not time for book reviews. It’s time for your Five Things.” But you guys, I don’t think I can handle even five things today. Not with any sort of good cheer or absence of teeth gnashing. Or, even abject horror. So I’ll just plan to stay hidden in my books a little bit longer. Say…four years or so.

With that being said, it’s #NonficNov Week 2! [Look: I summoned an exclamation mark and everything. I’m rallying.] Not only did I join a few of my friends for the challenge, but I seem to have broken my reading slump, too. I slammed my way through six books this week. How you like them apples?!

nonficnov2016

But before we get to the which, let’s talk about the what and the who, shall we? In November, with more purposeful selection, I balance out my reading for the entire year. And it’s all because of the movement hosted by our wonderful reading community. This year Doing Dewey is hosting, along with Sarah at Sarah’s Bookshelves, Rachel at Hibernator’s Library, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, and Julz at Julz Reads. They have some lovely giveaways and book reviews going on, so go say hello! I’d also like to give a special shout-out to Kim over at Sophisticated Dorkiness. Kim is Non-fic November, for those who don’t know, and she’s still recovering from a huge, no-good, very bad Something right now. If you could all go love on Kim a little and send her the happiest thoughts, it would mean a lot to me. We’ve all been laid flat by grief at one point or another and I wish I didn’t know, but I do. I know I’ll be keeping Kim tucked into the back of my reading brain this month, raining some love down on her.

Now that we know who to thank for these feast, what was I nibbling on this week?

book204The Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, by Donald Sturrock (2010, Simon & Schuster, 655 pages, used paperback). I have been working on this book forever! Seriously – months! And that for me is practically years. I found it in great condition at my favorite used bookstore and grabbed it for a dollar or two, not knowing how widely acclaimed it is or how dang readable. It really was a wonderful read. The fact that it took me so long to finish had nothing to do with how compelling Dahl’s life was (I am even more fascinated than when I started, moreso than even when I had just finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), or the quality of the writing (Sturrock seemed to get Dahl in a way most biographers wouldn’t have been able to, in my opinion) – it’s just that the book was long and when I read at night, I’ve been falling asleep in approximately two pages, every single time. So it takes a girl awhile to make her way through 655 of them. If you like biographies or you’re looking for a peek into home life of a Royal Air Force pilot or want to chew on how such a gifted children’s author could at times be a world-class jerk, I highly recommend. 4 of 5 stars.

book2051 Dead in Attic: Post-Katrina Stories, by Chris Rose (2005, Simon & Schuster, 158 pages, ebook). I bought this on a whim – okay, not really. More as a reward, I suppose. I’ve been coveting this collection of essays for awhile, and it didn’t disappoint. Each was just a few pages long, just enough to capture a few thoughts or a the heart of some cultural flashpoint in the days, weeks, and months after Katrina leveled New Orleans. For those who engage in community politics, and are interested in social justice, this is just the ticket. I wish some of the essays had been fleshed out more – ultimately, it’s what kept me from recommending everyone go buy the book outright – but there was enough there to keep me reading. If you see it in a used bookstore, grab it. If you can borrow a copy, do it sooner rather than later. I just wouldn’t spend my finite book dollars on a brand-new copy. 3 1/2 of 5 stars.

book206Liar, Temptress, Solider, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, by Karen Abbott (2014, Harper, 513 pages, paperback). I got this book for Christmas last year, and have been working my way up to it. At one point, we had talked about doing a read-along, particularly with #NonFicNov in mind. All the awards it won? Were for a dang reason! Liar was one of those rare non-fiction books that read like a spy thriller, bouncing back and forth in omniscient third-person narrator that I love so much, tantalizing the reader with hints and allegations as facts build up to stories of these four amazing women. It made me proud to be a woman, and small in the million things I complain about and take for granted. You have got to read this if you’re at all interested in war stories, espionage, feminism, or being a person. 4 of 5 stars.

book207Blindsided: Surviving a Grizzly Attack and Still Loving the Great Bear, by Jim Cole (2010, St. Martin’s Press, 304 pages, ebook). I splurged. I needed some escapism this week, and everyone who knows me knows that animal attacks – as silly as it is – are my version of celebrity gossip. You know it shouldn’t entertain you and you shouldn’t rot your brain reading it, but sometimes you can’t help it. This book served just that purpose. It wasn’t greatly written, but the gore levels were sufficient that I was distracted from the real-life circus around me. (I told you I was a terrible person.) If you like reading about animal attacks, it’s good enough to borrow. Most notable is how after two bear attacks Cole can still be as dedicated to preserving the great bear and its habitat as he is. He isn’t just all talk. 2 of 5 stars.

book208The Elephants in My Backyard, by Rajiv Surendra (2016, Regan Arts, 288 pages, ebook). I can read memoirs centered around just about any adventure or anyone’s life – it’s a supertalent of mine. This story was particularly interesting not because I’ve seen Mean Girls, in which Surendra starred, but because it was about his quest to get in touch with his Indian and Tamil routes in order to better his chances at starring in the film adaptation of Life of Pi. The movie doesn’t quite work out – and neither did the memoir, considering I’d been hoping it would serve as a poor man’s version of Eat, Pray, Love – but the tale itself was interesting. It could have been fleshed out a bit more…or maybe what I wanted was to lose even a little the sense that Surendra was conscious the entire time that he was crafting a tale, writing, writing, scripting, writing… It wore on me after awhile. But at least he had many adventures with which to pull from. 3 of 5 stars.

book209The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, by Elyn Saks (2007, Hachette, 340 pages, ebook). I’d been saving this ebook deal of the day for #NonFicNov and flew through it. Memoirs about mental health struggles are smack dab in the middle of my wheelhouse. I liked that Saks portrayed her constant struggle; it wasn’t just a one-hurdle memoir and now the beast is slain and shall never rise again sort of deal – because that’s not how mental health ever plays out in real life. It’s something you constantly question and face down and battle. I was a little less thrilled with the no-medicine message in the beginning, even if Saks was careful to explain it was foisted upon her and she was glad to have corrected those beliefs since then. That’s dangerous – especially given its responsibility as a mental health memoir. 3 of 5 stars.

There you go. I’m continuing my romp through terrible-for-me-but-terribly-entertaining reads with a book about the Jodi Arias murder, and I’m also slowly making my way through Crash Detectives, about how aviation experts determine how a crash happened based on the data available afterwards. Fun happy reads that have nothing to do with why I’m not sleeping at night. Heh. Next I’ll have to scourge my brain with the illustrated Little House biography and wholesome cookbooks or something. Because good lord, Katie.

Still. There are weeks you get through however you can, and these is one of those if ever there was one.

Book Reviews: Survival stories of all shapes and sizes.

October 27, 2016

I’ve barely read this month as I try to bust through this slump, but the ones I did read have had a certain theme, no matter how it was framed: survival. And I do love me some survival stories.

book203Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday, by Christine Reilly (2016, Touchstone, 232 pages, library hardcover). I can’t remember how I heard about this book, but I instantly fell in love with the language. The writing was melodious without sacrificing narrative motion, or getting too mushy. The survival theme here was how love for your family (real and created) lasts through changing iterations of selves and relationships throughout the years, with one screwball family standing for us all. I’d still borrow rather than buy, but a solid 3 of 5 stars for me.

book202The Girl in the Well Is Me, by Karen Rivers (2016, Algonquin, 224 pages, hardcover). I stumbled across this at my used book stores, although I bought it from the slim “new books” section they like to tease me with. I read the back of the book and had to have it: after accepting a dare from new “friends” in her new town, Kammie falls down a well and gets stuck – with her arms pinned to her sides, which was a bit much for my claustrophobia to be honest. It’s well-written for the middle school set, both keeping the plot and the philosophical issues at an age-appropriate level and also asking the readers to reach a bit and they explore an adult survival situation. I’m tucking this one aside for my girlies. It might be a bit young for my 7th grader, but she’s in a slump of her own (and loves disaster books right now), and my 5th grader would love it, but she’s only into graphic novels right now. Perhaps this will be a read-aloud book? 3 of 5 stars.

book201Kids of Appetite, by David Arnold (2016, Viking Books, 352 pages, hardcover). I was chomping at the bit to read this book as soon as I first heard whispers that Arnold was writing it. His debut novel, Mosquitoland, was one of my favorite reads – and I’m still not over the fact that Mim isn’t real. So I had high hopes about Kids, a band of homeless orphans who “adopt” Vic, a teen who flees from his mom’s house with his father’s ashes after her new boyfriend asks to be her new husband. The group adventures around the city, fulfilling a list of love-errands left in a cryptic note by Vic’s dad before he died. It read as trite as it sounds at time, and was a bit forced. The characters were cute and quirky – but caricatures most of the time. There were a few genuine bits, but not nearly enough, and it all felt loosely strung together. Honestly, the story read more like a first draft. And so fell my heart. I’m really hoping this was a sophomore slump. I’ll pre-order Arnold’s next…but with a bit more cautious optimism. 2 of 5 stars.

book200Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett (2016, Harper, 336 pages, hardcover). You guys, I bought a lot of hardcovers this month! Shame on me! (Although not really.)(But kind of.) And this one was even a special signed first edition. Because Ann Patchett! I adore her writing. State of Wonder and Bel Canto and This Is a Story of a Happy Marriage – all on my favorites of favorites of favorites list. So I saved Commonwealth to read on the airplane while visiting my sister, thinking it would make the ride fly by (see what I did there?). But the story, well, it sort of fell flat. It read to me like  a Turner House that didn’t trip my bells and whistles. It was another story about how a family survives and renegotiates relationships and love and betrayal and all the juicy, mundane, every day, once in a lifetime minutia… I just couldn’t connect. Wrong book at the wrong time, I suppose. 2 of 5 stars.

book199El Deafo, by Cece Bell (2014, Harry N. Abrams, 233 pages, paperback). I bought this graphic novel for Bee-girl because she can’t read them fast enough – and I like feeding that addiction. I’d heard glowing reviews of this story about a young girl who loses her hearing after an illness, and has to be the New Girl at several New Schools with a weird (to elementary school kids) and obvious Disability. The writing and illustrations were top-notch. I loved that not only was Cece’s disability discussed and handled in many different ways and settings, but so many other important issues were subtlely broached. Cece and her best friends get into arguments; Cece has a blowout with her mama; the teacher doesn’t handle a situation correctly, leaving Cece puzzling over how to handle it. Bee loved the book, and I think I would have loved it more were I a ten-year-old, I still read it start to finish in one sitting. I highly recommend for your upper elementary to younger middle graders. It’ll talk about stuff they need to hear without getting it from preachy parents, because Mooooommm! 4 of 5 stars.

book198Fobbit, by David Abrams (2013, Harvill Secker, 384 pages, used paperback). I heard so many good things about this book back when it came out, and read the two books it was up against in that year’s Tournament of Books, but I never got to Fobbit. And now I’m mad that I didn’t until now! It’s a wickedly sharp and funny and eviscerates a side of war rarely depicted – even in these oddly anti-war years. If you’re into war movies or political shows – say, Wag the Dog or House of Cards – then this is for you. If you want to read how to smartly skewer people and weaponize your words, also worth your while. 3 1/2 of 5 stars.

And that’s it. For, like, October. I told you – I’m slumping bad. But there’s hope. Even a bad slump has to end sometime…

Mini Reviews: War, Missing kids, and Smuggled immigrants.

July 7, 2016

It’s Thursday! I feel like we haven’t had a “normal” Thursday in awhile, and so we’ll get back to our regular programming: book reviews! Let’s see what we’ve got…

Book147The Leaving, by Tara Altebrando (Bloomsbury, 2016, 432 pages, hardcover). I took a risk and bought this during one of Kim and I’s many trips to the bookstore(s). It has a very Katie premise: six kids disappear during their first day of kindergarten. Eleven years later, five of the kids come back…with no memory. The plot unfolds like The Maze Runner or 5th Wave. Very teen sci-fi/drama. It didn’t cross over well. I couldn’t connect to the characters. Altebrando wrote down, rather than opting for rich description that teens could tangle themselves in and be lifted up, unawares. I couldn’t get lost in the story and didn’t really care what happened. A total miss for me, but I could see it very much being Gracie’s cuppa tea. 2 of 5 stars.

Book141The Small Backs of Children, by Lidia Yuknavitch (Harper, 2015, 224 pages, ebook). I had been lusting after this book since before it came out, and one day it was an ebook deal of the day. $1.99 cannot be beaten! It’s a solid story, one that belongs on my War-torn Eastern Europe Tales shelf. It tells the story of a small girl who barely survives a bomb and flees into the woods, and the American photographer who was there to snap a picture of the incident – that, and the fallout that happens to both (and a few others wrapped up in their stories). The writing didn’t feel as natural, and so the flow wasn’t as readable as, say, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena or Sara Novic’s Girls at War, but I would still borrow it sometime if you’re interested in these kinds of tales. 3 of 5 stars.

Book143Because You’ll Never Meet Me, by Leah Thomas (Bloomsbury, 2015, 344 pages, library ebook). I have certain niches of YA literature that I can’t pass up. Kids with some sort of medical or emotionally related issue – my jam. Kids who are isolated, especially in the woods? I will knock you over to get to it. This book combined the two and so I snapped it up…and then paused. It’s a decent read – said protag is isolated because his body is “allergic” to electricity (it causes him to go haywire, have headaches, auras, and seize all over). His doctor puts him in touch with a pen pal who has a pacemaker. The two write rambling letters back and forth – this is where I sort of fell out of love with the story. The premise was great, and I get why some people really enjoyed the book (debut literary awards and everything), but I didn’t think Thomas really sounded authentic writing teen boys’ voices. They just sounded a bit off to me. And so I was partially disconnected the entire time I was reading. And that sucked. 2 1/2 of 5 stars.

Book144The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota (Picador, 2015, 468 pages, library ebook). This is the story of illegal immigrants who have fled to the suburbs of London, cramped in a small flat and working as day laborers. The stories of who and why they are were fascinating and unfolded a layer at a time, always hinting at more – more you had to work for, be patient for. The unfolding was a beautiful, well-told, natural-feeling thing. There was subtlety and realism on every page. I am a very picky reader (you’re shocked, I know), and I gloried in this. I don’t often read immigration stories from the Indian sub-continent, but I need to read more. This very nearly tore four stars out of me. I held back only because I didn’t fall in love with any of the characters, even if I was rooting for several of them.  3 1/2 of 5 stars.

Book145The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson (Random House, 2016, 496 pages, library ebook). When I read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, I was charmed. I loved lonely Major Pettigrew and cheered his every move. Naturally, I held similar expectations going into The Summer…and found myself drowning. Too many characters thrown at us for once, too many confusing living situations, and the characters edges were a bit muddled. The characters sort themselves out, even if nothing else does. Everything else was a bit mucky, if only from the residue. I’m afraid the charming feeling wasn’t present – at least not for me. I wanted a slow pace, and though that was there, it was too bogged down. Simonson is not my favorite author for this sort of book, I’m afraid. If she wants to write a character piece with a tighter focus, I’ll be back. Otherwise… 2 of 5 stars.

Book146A Murder Is Announced, by Agatha Christie (1950, 288 pages, paperback). This was a fun re-read for me, great comfort food for after my surgery. It’d been on my To Be Re-Read list for ages and I found the perfect time to indulge. It’s not my first re-read and I’m happy to say that it held up well again. I remembered just enough about the who-dunnit and forgot enough about the why to keep me turning pages. Charming, all the way through. The dated bits were easy enough to overlook (though I am very cognizant that that won’t be the case for every one). Miss Marple never lets me down! If you like mysteries and you haven’t had the pleasure, you should try her. This was my first Miss Marple story, and so naturally I suggest this title as your jumping in point. 5 of 5 stars. (Still.)

Book147The End of Everything, by Megan Abbott (Reagan Arthur, 2011, 246 pages, ebook). I’ve read a few Megan Abbott books (my favorite still being Dare Me), so I grabbed this when it was a $1.99 Deal of the Day. It was a decent read, though not her best. I’d lump it in with my Teen Girl Goes Tragically Missing novels, subset: Those With Nostalgic 1970s Feel. It entertained and kept me turning pages, though not that quickly or investedly. I paused, even, in the middle to read another book, going back to finish when the second book was done. So it’s good, but either borrow or grab it on sale. 3 of 5 stars.

And there you go! I’m still working on some good ones. I’m still working on Long Ghosts of Small Children, and I’m devouring A Study in Charlotte. I’ll have those and more mini-reviews for you next week. Promise!

The Mini-Review with all the distractions.

June 2, 2016

I took a bit of a reading break this week. Not really on purpose – I just found a book that I was really enjoying, one that accomplishes what no book ever does: it made me want to read slower. I wanted to stop and savor things as I went along. Yeah, SheWhoReadsMoreThan150PagesAnHourWhenReadingDownhill – she wanted to stop and taste the words and so she only finished one book this week. And she was more than okay with that!

(Pssst – Light spoilers ahead for The Fireman, Kim. Look away! Look away!)

Book131The Fireman, by Joe Hill (2016, William Morrow, 768 pages, hardcover). I had a copy of the book pre-ordered since Barnes&Noble announced such things were possible. N0S4A2 had hit all my buttons so hard they were mashed into the console, fully cementing Joe Hill as one of my must-have authors. I had enjoyed Horns, but had loved the stuffing out of his latest. So much so that I was a little worried whether The Fireman could ever stand up to the hype I was building.

I started Fireman the day it came out, almost two weeks to the day from when I finished. For someone who has been known to read an entire shelf during readathons, this was a bit unusual. And at first, it wasn’t even for the right reasons. Fireman does start out a bit bogged down in first and second gears. The backstory take a little while to knit together, and even more so than that, it was the cast of characters that sounded a bit muddy. Characterization has always been one of Hill’s strong points, and so…I worried. I dallied. I realized I had made it past the first 50 pages of the book (my fears that the jacket copy gave away too much officially retired if it had already all been covered), but still wasn’t feeling the hook? I was nearing panic folks.

And then Harper’s crazy (Ex)(ish)Husband mistakenly slips and uses the word “gun” for “chain” and, welp, we were off to the races. With that one sentence, Joe Hill finally set the hook down around his trap and quit trying to manage the story. Once he stopped fussing so much on what we knew, it all seemed to sound so much more natural. He quit saying instead of showing and I felt like he was finally being himself once he let Harper flee headlong into the plot.

It was like rolling down the windows and cruising along a favorite scenic highway, when all your favorite songs have started after a worrisome bunch of commercials. Things were clicking. I was happy to shut the lights off each night (okay, that might be overstating it a bit) and still have more story left for the next day. I never went so far as to ration off the story, but I did enjoy how endless my stores felt. Not that I didn’t gulp sections – there were plenty of moments when I emailed my sister and told her in bold, all caps that I had just read THIS SECTION!! and to hurry along. (It didn’t matter that I knew she hadn’t started yet; I knew that when she did get to that section, she would remember my enthusiasm and it would be like we had read along.)

And along with the good, there were a few sections were the car would hit a pothole and shimmy a bit before getting back on track. The heavy-handed clues for one thing. Whenever the story slowed down to make it around the bend, it lost a bit of that magic it had when it was cruisin’ along. But most of the bends in the road were brilliant and extremely well-told. There’s the bit about the title – I can’t wait to have a good long discussion without someone about why Fireman? – and Hill’s penchant for strong female protagonists this past few books. But mostly it worked. His supporting characters were a good, hearty bunch. Renee, oh my god, I hope facking Renee gets a medal.

And then there’s this: two weeks ago, I thought I had the beginnings of a goodish bladder infection. I had antibiotics at home, treated it, it got better and then it didn’t. I kept reading. Tried a coupla different solutions. Went into the doctor, got new drugs, and still didn’t get any better. Yesterday I ended up in the emergency room and discovered I’ve had a kidney stone stuck near my bladder this entire time. THAT IS HOW GOOD THIS BOOK IS. It will distract you for two whole weeks while your body staves off a small asteroid. A story so good that you keep reading, through the morphine, despite the pretty colors on the wall.

A story that distracting, that good – that’s pretty good magic right there.

5 of 5 stars.

Mini book reviews: the one with all the paranoia.

May 19, 2016

Morning, all! It’s a stormy, rainy Thursday here, which means it’s the perfect weather to curl up with a book. If you can’t do that, the next best thing is to talk about books, so let’s see what books I’ve finished reading this week…

Book123A Fierce and Subtle Poison, by Samantha Mabry (Algonquin, 2016, 288 pgs, ebook). I found a deal and splurged on the ebook last week for Bout of Books because I still needed a horror story by a person of color for my Read Harder challenge. It might also be technically considered Young Adult, but I found it crossed over very nicely, mostly because of the way it played with local myths and legends in PR, turning the tale into an environmental scifi ghost story. One that’s quite readable, too. The ending wasn’t quite as satisfying as the set-up – the book definitely started out at 4 stars. Still worth curling up with it for an afternoon. 3 1/2 of 5 stars.

Book122Putting Make-up on the Fat Boy, by Bil Wright (Simon & Schuster, 2011, 219 pgs, ebook). I started reading this hilarious YA selection at the tail end of Bout of Books and thought it was extremely promising. Unfortunately, as soon as I wished out loud that it didn’t devolve into a puddle of classist and racist stereotypes, that’s exactly what happened. There was enough of the story strength left to get me through, but I wish we could have had a story about a high school gay man of color who plays with gender roles while storming a job at Macy’s make-up counter without reinforcing all the negative crap that’s already out there. I’ve read those stories and those characters. I was hoping Carlos Duarte would be as refreshingly different as first promised. 2 1/2 of 5 stars.

Book121Project X, by Jim Shepard (Knopf, 2004, 176 pgs, paperback). I sought out a copy of this and found a good deal on a used book in great shape (my favorite kind of book rescue), and also talked about it at length during Bout of Books. But there’s still the ending to discuss. What happens to Edwin and Flask’s plot to shoot up their school? Can they avoid bullies and trouble enough days in a row to pull it off? Will they go through with it? As I mentioned last week, Shepard accomplished the impossible and made me actually empathize with these poor beat-upon kids who chose the path of monsters. Who does that?! The ending fit perfectly, though it caught me a bit by surprise. I kept waiting for Shepard to stumble somewhere. He doesn’t. The psychological assessment of these kids and their supporting characters was as pitch perfect through the ending as it was during the setting of the story. Remarkably so. One last word of caution: even knowing the content of the story didn’t keep me from becoming mired in a funk while I was reading. 5 of 5 stars.

Book120Don’t Look Behind You!, by Peter Allison (Nicholas Braeley, 2009, 240 pgs, ebook). Okay, yes – not my typical read. But I needed a light-hearted palate-cleanser after so many heavy books. This collection of stories from the bush by safari guide Peter Allison was just the thing. It wasn’t as quality as his other collection, Whatever You Do, Don’t Run! – in fact, I’d bet most of these tales were culled from the first collection’s drafts – but it still kept me entertained. There are more stories about camp life (mechanical issues, political issues, staffing issues), but still enough stories about being stalked by lions and chased by elephants to keep you flipping pages. 3 of 5 stars.

Book119You, by Caroline Kepnes (Atria Books, 2014, 422 pgs, paperback). A bunch of my readerly friends from home tore through this a few months ago, and I remembered them raving about it. I read the first few pages and marked it down as To Buy Later. Right before our last 24-hour Readathon, I bought it in case I ran out of material. As in, I paid full price for the trade paperback. I (almost) never do that. You guys – you need to do whatever it takes to get your hands on a copy. Everyone calls this book and that book and 80 other books “the next Gone Girl“. I’ve grown tired of hearing it. But this book, this book actually has come closest to achieving the honor. It’s a mindtrip! I couldn’t devour the book quickly enough! The story kept getting turned on its head and it’s just…twisted! Twisted in a good, smart, deliciously written kind of way. There is one small plot twist near the end that felt a bit off, and the ending itself was so far off the mark from what I thought would happen, but it still fit the story. I finished the book completely emptied and satisfied. Even if I had shelled out full price for a hardcover, I still would have felt satisfied. It’s easily one of the three best books I’ve read this year. The only thing working against it is that now I’m paranoid that everyone is stalking me, knows my private emails, is plotting to kill me, and, you know, everyday things that won’t drive me bat-house bananas before long. 5 of 5 stars.

So there you have it! I’m looking forward to plenty of new books to tell you about next week, too. I’m half way through the excellently written and researched Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt, and I have new releases from Robin Wasserman and Joe Hill to dive into. Should be a good reading week!