Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Review: Walking on Broken Glass


Author: Christa Allan
Title: Walking on Broken Glass
Description: Leah deals with her dysfunctional marriage and the loss of her baby by drinking. At the opening of this novel, she decides that she can’t spend the rest of her life drunk, and she makes the decision to check herself into a rehab center. This book centers on Leah’s rehab program and what happens when she returns home.
Review source: Free on kindle
Plot: Nothing is contrived or easy here. Leah’s relationship with her husband is teetering on the brink of divorce. Her rehabilitation isn’t pretty or effortless. This is a Christian novel in that Leah takes finding her higher power seriously, although the author doesn’t make Leah’s embrace of Christianity easy either.
Characters: Leah, her husband, and her best friend are the main characters, and they and the supporting characters are all real people with good and bad qualities who do good things and who also turn around and fail once in a while.
Writing style: Told in brutally honest first person.
Audience: Certainly anyone who is struggling with substance abuse—or with the death of a child or another tragedy—would empathize with Leah. Chick lit readers in general would probably enjoy this well-written book, if they didn’t mind the spiritual content.
Wrap-up: This isn’t the type of book I normally read, but I was engaged from the outset with Leah’s struggle to turn her life around. 3.5/5*

Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012 Follow up: Book Meme


1. Best book of 2012?  Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. I am always put off by the titles of his books. Another one is Too Late the Phalarope. What the…?

2. Worst book of 2012?  Jennifer Johnson is Sick of Being Married by Heather McElhatton. It was a Library Thing Early Reviewers book that I didn’t even review here, lest someone accidentally pick it up.   

3. Most Disappointing Book of 2012?   The Art of Racing in the Rain. It was pretty well received by the critics, but I was surprised at how much I hated it.

4. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2012?   Wife 22. Loved it, loved it!

5. Book you recommended to people most in 2012?   Probably Quiet by Susan Cain. I recommended it to all my introvert friends, and also to extroverts to get some insights into understanding us introverts.

6. Best series you discovered in 2012?   If Timothy L. O’Brien writes any more detective novels featuring Temple McFadden, they will definitely be on my reading list!

7. Favorite new authors you discovered in 2012?   Laurie Frankel, Joshilyn Jackson, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Melanie Gideon, Timothy L. O’Brien.


8. Most hilarious read of 2012?   I don’t usually read books that I call “hilarious,” but there are some honorable mentions here. I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, which is alternately funny, bewildering, crude, and outdated. Also, Eloisa James’ Paris in Love was funny in a gentle way.

9. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2012?   There were several this year that I devoured as fast as I could, but I’ll give the edge to A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson.

10. Book you most anticipated in 2012?   Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. I anticipated it so much that it almost couldn’t avoid disappointing me once I finally read it, though I did enjoy it. (Review coming soon).

11. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2012? Leaving Mundania by Lizzie Stark. And just for the record, I’m  sick of the “head missing” type of book cover shot. Let’s move on, people, there’s nothing to see here.

12. Most memorable character in 2012? Dr. Annick Swenson from State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.

13. Most beautifully written book in 2012?  Cry, the Beloved Country.

14. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2012: Probably Quiet. It helped me to embrace my introversion.

15. Book you can't believe you waited UNTIL 2012 to finally read?   Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton.

  

Other book highlights
I wrote a dissertation. That’s almost a book J
I still love Library Thing and Paperback Swap. Goodreads not so much. I wasn’t impressed with the kerfuffle they had this year and how it was handled. I’ve stopped posting reviews on Amazon, though.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Book Review: Here Today, Gone to Maui


Author: Carol Snow
Title: Here Today, Gone to Maui
Description: Jane is excited to get to accompany her boyfriend Jimmy on a business trip to Maui, but he behaves oddly when they arrive and before long, he disappears altogether. In the midst of her grief, the police have to investigate the disappearance, and another woman shows up claiming that her boyfriend Jimmy has also disappeared. Hijinx ensue.
Review source: This was a book club book.
Plot: It didn’t ring true to me. Jane is responsible and obsessive about planning, but her boyfriend is commitment-phobic and sort of a loser (though he owns his own business).
Characters: The main character was believable except for her desire to be with this loser. The other girlfriend suits him much better, meaning that she is totally annoying.
Writing style: Breezy chick lit.
Audience: Folks who would like mystery-tinged chick lit.
Wrap-up: Book club prompts me to read many books I wouldn’t normally read. Some are winners, and some are losers. This one was somewhere in the middle. It was a quick read that didn’t leave much of an impression. 3/5*

Sunday, December 23, 2012

2012 in Reviews: My best reads of the year


I read 138 books this year (and wrote a dissertation). Here are the standouts:
Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson
Collapse by Jared Diamond
Smashed by Koren Zailckas
Still by Lauren Winner
Leaving Mundania by Lizzie Stark
Some assembly required by Anne Lamott
In the heart of the sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone
Autobiography of Mrs.Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield  
Perfume by Patrick Suskind
City of falling angels by John Berendt
Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace
Tiny beautiful things by Cheryl Strayed

And the standouts of the standouts, my top ten reads for the year, in no particular order:
A Grown up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson. This is one of those family secrets/chick lit novels, but incredibly well-plotted and well-written.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. My list this year is split between literary heavy-hitters like Patchett, and unknowns (at least to me) like Jackson, Gideon, and Frankel.  I feel sort of lame falling back on the bestsellers, but I guess that they are bestsellers because people like them. I didn’t love this book quite as much as Bel Canto, but it still amazed and enraptured me. Another literary big shot is Marilynne Robinson, whose Home also makes this list. I didn’t like Gilead, but Home struck much closer to home (ouch) for me, with its story of family estrangement in a small-town preacher’s family.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett is the ultimate bestseller fallback, but it had me in tears.
My reading life by Pat Conroy is the only non-fiction book to make the list this year, though there are several in the honorable mentions. I can’t resist Conroy’s voice, especially when he writes about himself.
Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel also had me in tears. A terrific novel about love, loss, and networked culture. Another author new to me is Vanessa Diffenbaugh, whose novel The Language of Flowers portrays two damaged people who are drawn together by their love of flowers and their knowledge of their meaning.
Lincoln conspiracy by Timothy L. O’Brien is the only mystery to make this year’s list. It’s here by virtue of the historical detail and the fascinating cast of characters, though the ending was a little weak.
Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton is a classic I picked up thanks to my book group. Profoundly moving and memorable for life.
Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon was probably the most enjoyable book I read this year. A discontented wife decides to take a closer look at her marriage by participating in a marriage study—thereby becoming “wife 22”—but finds herself drawing closer to her email correspondent who is conducting the study.

Book Review: Blood Men


Author: Paul Cleave
Title: Blood Men
Description: The main thing you need to know about Edward Hunter is that his father is in jail for murdering prostitutes—lots of them. Edward has tried to move on from his father’s arrest and the subsequent destruction of his family, and has created a nice, normal life with a wife who he loves and a little girl. Then he and his wife accidentally end up in the middle of a bank robbery, and his wife becomes an innocent victim. Frustrated by the seeming indifference of the police, Edward initiates contact with his father to see what other options might be open to him as the son of a serial killer. From there, things just get wilder.
Plot: Unique and gripping. Even though he is driven by the quest for vengeance and he (and the reader) have no idea how much violence he is capable of, Edward is a sympathetic main character. A couple of twists at the end left me reeling.
Characters: The main characters are Edward, his father, and the detective who is assigned to the case.  Lots of nasty bad-guy types as fodder.
Writing style: It’s a thriller and fits the genre well—one of those books that actually affects you physically, so that you’re gripping the book a little harder and breathing a little more quickly as you read.
Audience: Probably should stick with the thriller crowd. There was some pretty graphic violence and overall, the book was really dark. Not my usual type of read, but worthwhile.
Wrap-up: Don’t pick it up unless you can handle some shocks to your system. 4/5*

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book Review: Acqua Alta


Author: Donna Leon
Title: Acqua Alta
Description: Set in Venice, this is a police procedural mystery featuring an art historian who is beat up by thugs while her lesbian lover is in the other room. Within days, a museum director is dead, and Commissario Brunetti realizes the two incidents are connected.
Review source: the Penguin cornucopia
Plot: This was one of those books that I’d probably not pick up on my own. Things it had that I didn’t like:
1) police procedural—If I have to read about how someone does his job, let it be a librarian
2) series—if I don’t already read it, I probably don’t want to start
3) modern day mystery—probably because I don’t especially like guns (note: there aren’t many guns in this book)
4) art—if there’s crime, at least let it be a crime of passion. 
Credit: Fotopedia.com
4a) Chinese vases-- the most boring possible type of art.
5) mafia connections—in Italy, who else is there to be the bad guy?
Characters: There was a lot of shock over the idea of a lesbian couple. Other than that, none of the characters made a very strong impression on me.
Writing style: Straightforward. It was a pretty short book.
Audience: people who read this series
Acqua alta (Fotopedia.com)
Wrap-up: It was a happy circumstance that I picked up this book at the same time I was reading City of Falling Angels. I really enjoyed reading fiction and non-fiction about Venice side by side. It sounds like a truly awful place, unless you like walking everywhere in boots that, no matter how high they are, are too short to keep the water from pouring in. Yuck! 2.5/5*

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Book Review: Postcards from Cedar Key


Author: Terri DuLong
Title: Postcards from Cedar Key
Description: Berkley, a fortysomething chocolatier, relocates to Cedar Key to find out why her mother had deserted her for a summer when Berkley was five. As she begins to build her life on the island, she makes friends, falls in love, and learns more about what her mother dealt with forty years ago.
Review source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Plot: The main plot is this question of Berkley’s mother. Fairly early on, Berkley meets a person who could sit her down and tell her the story. Does this happen? Noooooo, we have to wait and wait and wait, and even endure a snowstorm enforced delay, just so the book could be the requisite 300 pages instead of about 10.
Characters: This book is one of a series, and the characters from the other books all crowd their way in here. Even by the end of the book I couldn’t place most of the names because these characters were useless in this book. Berkley was pretty annoying, especially in the early going. Her boyfriend was too good to be true. (no flaws, of course. Well, there was one flaw, but you could tell it was because the author thought to herself, “I need to give him a flaw.”)
Writing style:  Pretty annoying. For one thing, she can’t stop talking about Angell & Phelps chocolate in Daytona. I get it. You like their chocolate. Or did A&P pay for each mention? Also, I didn’t get much of a sense of the place of Cedar Key. I’ve been there, and it is beautiful. This author is way more into the people of Cedar Key, who I don’t know, and who I imagine are like people everywhere else.
Audience:  Middle-aged women who want a cute middle aged Englishman to fall in love with them on an island.
Wrap-up: Meh. 2/5*

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Book Review: Charlotte Street


Author: Danny Wallace
Title: Charlotte Street
Description: Jason Priestly (not that Jason Priestly) has quit his teaching job and gone through a bad breakup with his girlfriend when he spots The Girl on Charlotte Street. As he helps her with her packages, he is left with her disposable camera when she departs in a taxi. Spurred on by his friend Dev, Jason develops the photos in order to find clues to The Girl’s identity.
Review source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Plot: It’s sort of cute the way Jason gets clues to the locations of the various photos from friends and acquaintances. One recognizes a restaurant, another spots a distinctive watch on someone’s arm, and so on. Jason even runs a newspaper contest to identify a tricky spot. Jason’s relationships (with Dev, his ex, his new friend Abbey, his old friend Zoe, and former student Matt) are also important to the plot.
Characters: At heart, the book is about a directionless thirty-something bachelor finding some direction. Jason is a likeable enough fellow, although he does pull some dastardly moves over the course of the story.
Writing style: For the most part, I like Wallace’s writing style (I also read and reviewed his non-fiction Join me earlier). He does tend to get hooked on a cutesy line and totally overkill it. For example, the fact that Jason’s flat is next to a building that people think is a brothel but isn’t is mentioned literally every time the flat is mentioned, and it’s not funny the first time. Same thing for Jason’s name. It’s not important that he shares his name with a TV star, so why is it mentioned so often? Why not just give him his own name?
Audience: This is sort of a toughie. I think chick lit readers would like it, although it’s by a guy and about a guy. Sort of literary fiction, I guess.
Wrap-up: Maybe I’m coming across a bit critical here, but I really did like the book, especially the last 20% or so. 4/5*

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Book Review: Wings


Author: Aprilynne Pike
Title: Wings
Description: One day Laurel discovers a lump on her back. A few days more and the lump has … sprouted? Sure enough, she appears to be blossoming wing-like appendages. It’s hard enough to be the new kid in high school without turning into a freak, so she hides the wings from everyone but her new friend David. Soon enough other mystical occurrences leave her wondering about her identity, her parents, and her destiny.  
Review source: kindle book was free on Amazon at one point.
Plot: This book has one of those odd plots where two separate books seem to be stitched together. Book #1 (first half) is the coming-of-age novel. “oh, what is happening to me? Flowers are growing from my back. I am a freakazoid.” Book#2 is a non-stop action novel. “My father will die if I don’t escape from these bad guys, save both my friends’ lives, and rush this healing potion to him by sunrise.”
Characters: The book is a love triangle, with Laurel, David, and Tamani, the mysterious fellow Laurel meets at her family’s old homestead. These characters are all engaging, though the secondary characters—even the bad guys—are pretty forgettable.
Writing style: Not much stands out except the constant agonizing over which boy is right for me. Curse you Twilight and Hunger Games!
Audience: YA girls.
Wrap-up: I seem to have been reading a lot of YA recently, considering that it’s not one of those genres I tend to go after. I always feel sorry for those genres, since I never know how much I’m giving stars to the book vs. taking stars away for the genre. Anyway, enough agonizing. A pleasant enough 3/5*.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Book Review: Be Amazing


Author: Maggie Koerth-Baker 
Title: Be Amazing: Glow in the Dark, Control the Weather, Perform Your Own Surgery, Get Out of Jury Duty, Identify a Witch
Description: Published by Mental Floss, that magazine of really smart trivia that totally scratches my itch to know bizarre facts about everything under the sun. This book is a collection of short (generally 2 pages) accounts of little known facts under the guise of teaching you how to do them. For example, in order to perform your own surgery, you need: one pocketknife, intestinal fortitude. That sort of thing.
Writing style: Entertaining and witty, but there is no connection between the entries, so it was sort of like reading an encyclopedia straight through.
Audience: trivia buffs
Major ideas: the world is an awesome weird place.
Wrap-up: If you can’t get enough of Uncle John’s BathroomReader, this is the book for you! 3.5/5

Friday, November 9, 2012

Book Review: City of Falling Angels


Author: John Berendt
Title: City of Falling Angels
Description: This book was my choice for this month for our book group. I had read Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, his book about Savannah. This book is about Venice.  
Source: The nice folks at Penguin
Writing style: Berendt has a unique style. He writes about places, but he really mostly writes about the people who make places unique. I felt like his book on Savannah got off track when it became more about the murder than the city. This book doesn’t fall into that trap. Berendt still writes about the interesting people who give Venice its character, but he doesn’t let any of them run away with the book.
Audience: People who enjoy reading about places or literary nonfiction.
Wrap-up: I really enjoyed this book. No one does this Berendt thing in quite the same way as Berendt does, so it makes his books (he has only written these two) special. It didn’t make me fall in love with Venice, but it did make me wish I had the skill that Berendt does to pry peoples’ interesting stories out of them. 5/5*

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Book Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much


Author: G.K. Chesterton
Title: The Man Who Knew too Much
Description: This is a collection of short detective stories.  It really reminded me of Sherlock Holmes—written around the same time, very much centered around deduction, etc. Not being much of a Holmes fan, I’m not sure why Holmes was so successful and Horne Fisher (Chesterton’s detective) not so much. Maybe Chesterton is too topical; the stories are very much late nineteenth century Britain.
Review source: As one of those hoary classics, this book was free on kindle.
Characters: Horne Fisher is the detective and he is the only character who is in all of the stories, although there is a Watson-type fellow who shows up now and again.
Writing style: Typical for the era… requires a bit of concentration, but rewarding if you stick with it.
Audience: Chesterton fans, Holmes fans, those who like detective short stories.
Wrap-up: I read ‘em one at a time on the treadmill and they kept me going pretty well. 4/5*

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Book Review: Boy21


Author: Matthew Quick
Title: Boy21
Description: Finley is the only white boy on his basketball team, and basketball is at the center of his life, along with his girlfriend Erin (who he breaks up with every basketball season so he can concentrate). One night, his coach—who he always obeys without question—asks him to mentor a new kid, a phenomenal basketball player whose parents have been murdered. Although Finley knows this new boy could take his starting spot on the team, he becomes friends with him; he calls himself Boy 21 and claims that his parents will soon return from outer space to take him back to his home planet.
Review source: ALA
Plot: Finley and Erin are Irish, and both of their families have connections to the Irish mob. Finley is torn between being a true friend and fighting for his place on the team, and as they approach college, both Finley and Erin must decide how to escape the dead-end neighborhood they live in.
Characters: The characters here, both main and supporting, are nicely written. Erin might be just a little too perfect a girlfriend, but otherwise, they come across as real. For me, the sign of well-drawn characters is that they grow  throughout the novel, and make difficult decisions based on the characters they are.
Writing style: This is a YA book; while emotions are intense, and characters face difficult situations, it is appropriate for teen readers.
Audience: Teens, especially those who enjoy books about sports, though adults will enjoy it aw well.
Wrap-up: A sports book that escapes its genre to become more than a cliché. 4/5* Note: Quick is also the author of Silver Linings Playbook; a movie based on it will open at Thanksgiving. Though I've not read the book or seen the movie, I'd recommend it just based on this book.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Now What?


I am coming to the end of a long, long road, the path to a Ph.D.  Amid all the excitement of accomplishing this goal, probably the most time-consuming of my life to this point, I’m starting to spend some time wondering how I will spend my time once I don’t have to be reading book after book about rhetoric and composition and revising, revising, revising. Before Vincent was born, the great joy of my life was playing the French horn, and I was pretty good at it. I was a member of the best small-city municipal band in the world, and played in a college/community orchestra. I got called for gigs at churches and community theater fairly often. I loved it. After we moved to Florida, though, I lost all of that. The only municipal band that I have found here, well, the hearing aids prevent precise tuning, I’m afraid. There is a pretty good community wind ensemble, the Hollingsworth Winds, but they already have 12 horns and I feel like a complete outsider. I imagine that those same 12 horns are on call for the Imperial Symphony, which I probably wouldn’t be good enough for anyway. I suppose I could play with the Southeastern wind ensemble, but I don’t feel like I fit in there, either. Here’s what I really need. A fairly decent pianist, and a fairly decent violinist who are willing to meet with me once a week and practice the Brahms horn trio --just for fun. Apply below!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Book Review: Glow


Author: Amy Kathleen Ryan
Title: Glow
Description: Two spaceships left a deteriorating Earth to colonize New Earth. Both were equipped with all they would need for a decades-long journey, but one was secular and one was religious. Kieran and Waverly were born aboard the secular ship, the two oldest of the next generation of space colonists. After years of no communication from the other ship, their ship, the Empyrean, was attacked and the girls were taken captive. The story is told from Waverly’s point of view, as she struggles to rescue her mother and to return to the Empyrean, and from Kieran’s as he struggles for control of the ship after the adults leave to rescue the girls.
Review source: ALA
Plot: The plot was pretty interesting. The idea of separating colonists by religious belief was a new one to me, and it certainly comes into play. Because the book is the first in a series, though, basically nothing is resolved at the end.
Characters: I’ve heard this book referred to as “the next Hunger Games,” and it certainly seems like that author had it in mind as she chose her characters. We have the main character, a girl, who is quite tough, and two boys who like her. Neither of the boys are especially sympathetic, as they fight one another for control of the ship.
Writing style: One of the main reasons I’m not a science fiction fan is that the authors can never seem to tell a story in a reasonable amount of time. Other genres, they can manage it! But sci-fi, even a three-book series is short. I don’t like books that don’t resolve.
Audience: It’s a YA, sci-fi, Hunger Games clone.
Wrap-up: As I mentioned, I’m not a big sci-fi fan, so I’m not going to go out looking for the next book in the series. 2.5/5*

Friday, October 5, 2012

Part of a Meme

Just to switch things up:

What was the last book you…
• borrowed from the library? Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Thaler & Sunstein. Then I realized I had it on my bookshelf!
• bought? The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings, for our book group
• cried over? Goodbye for Now. A five-star read
• disliked and couldn’t finish? Don’t remember the title. It was a Harlequin cowboy romance that I picked up at ALA
• read & loved? Cry, the BelovedCountry—another one for the book group

• got for review? The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle, from netgalley

• gave to someone else? The LincolnConspiracy by Timothy O’Brien
• stayed up too late reading? I never stay up late


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Book Reviews: Goodness Gracious Green & The Glory of Green


Author: Judy Christie
Title: The Glory of Green, Goodness Gracious Green, 
Description: Books 2 and 3 in the Green series, set in rural Louisiana. Lois has determined to keep the paper and stay in Green, but the good ol’ boy brothers who sold her the paper are experiencing sellers’ remorse and have filed suit to get the paper back. Meanwhile, mysterious fires at the paper are causing damage and frightening the staff.  In book three, a wedding opens the book, but a tornado hits Green during the reception, causing death and destruction and unsettling the town for months afterward. Lois and the News-Item staff rally to keep their town alive.
Review source: ALA
Plot: Small-town life.
Characters: The characters continue from the previous book. Many of Lois’ co-workers at the newspaper have small subplots of their own, and Lois becomes aware of the needs of the local migrant community.  
Writing style: Folksy.
Audience: Christian chick-lit.
Wrap-up: I’m enjoying this series and reading about Lois’ growth as a Christian. Book three has been my favorite in the series so far. Both books 3/5*

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Review: Cry, the Beloved Country


Author: Alan Paton
Title: Cry, the Beloved Country
Description: An old priest from rural South Africa goes to Johannesburg to find his sister and his son, with whom he has lost touch. Transplanted from their rural lives, they have succumbed to bad company, temptation, and poverty. While the sister agrees to return to their small village to raise her son, the priest’s son, Absalom, has suffered a different and heartbreaking fate. Meanwhile, a rich white landowner finds that his son has been murdered in a burglary gone bad.
Review source: This was a book group selection.
Plot: I pretty well described the plot above, but the plot is barely important compared to the characters and the writing.
Characters: Stephen Kumalo and uJarvis, Absalom and Arthur, are white and black, young and old, poor and rich. They are both richly drawn characters and representations of South African people.
Writing style: This book is literally beautiful. It’s just poetry.
Audience: everyone.
Wrap-up: One good thing about the book group is that it gets me to read some classics that I should have read by now, but just haven’t, somehow. This book surpassed its reputation and all of my expectations; it was lovely, and it broke my heart. 5/5*

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Book Review: The Lincoln Conspiracy


Author: Timothy O’Brien
Title: The Lincoln Conspiracy
Description: Washington D.C. police detective Temple McFadden happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time; he sees a man murdered and ends up with a couple of documents that two powerful, clever, and possibly lethal men want really bad. Lincoln has just been assassinated, and Booth shot, but the Capitol is still buzzing with the aftermath of the crime and the challenges of reforming a nation after the Civil War. When the documents appear to have information about Lincoln’s assassination, McFadden decides to keep them and try to discover why people are so eager to get them.
Review source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Plot: I love how O’Brien brought in actual historical characters; the research here seemed meticulous and the characters interact with “real people” in an entirely believable way (check out the story of Elizabeth Keckley).  There are plenty of plot twists; it took me awhile to figure out what was actually going on, but O’Brien ties it all together by the end.
Characters: The characters are probably the reason I enjoyed this book so much. I loved the main character and his wife and their friend Augustus; McFadden seems to have devoted friends all over Washington, and they all add color to the story.
Writing style: O’Brien keeps the plot moving but doesn’t neglect character or historical detail to do it.
Audience: Mystery fans, Lincoln buffs, those who like historical fiction.
Wrap-up: You can probably tell I like this book an awful lot. I would read any books in this series that O’Brien writes in the future.  5/5*

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review: Perfume


Author: Patrick Suskind
Title: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Description: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in eighteenth-century France with two unusual traits. First, he has no scent (this leads all of his foster mothers to reject him); second, he has the best sense of smell in history. He can smell anything , anyone; he remembers every smell; he desires to create new scents and perfumes and learns everything he can about them. Unfortunately, this, combined with his lack of human emotions, leads him to take, well, rather extreme steps to collect scents that he covets.
Plot: This isn’t a mystery, nor is it a thriller. The best I can describe it would be that it is the book that results when the author asks himself, “What if there were a person who cared only about what he smelled?”
Characters: All of the major characters in the book are repulsive. Grenouille himself does not seem human.
Writing style: What I really enjoyed about this book was the description of smells of all sorts. In this way, it seemed to do for smells what Ann Patchett does for music in Bel Canto.  In other words, sometimes an author can write about one specific thing in a way that seems revelatory to me, and that’s what Suskind does here. Also, I was really interested in the details about perfume creation in the eighteenth century.
Audience: Literary fiction.
Wrap-up: I was riveted by this book for the writing, not for the characters, which is usually the case with me. 4/5*

Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Review: Witches (YA)


Author: Rosalyn Schanzer
Title: Witches!: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem
Description: A nonfiction account of the Salem witch trials, written for grades 6-10.
Source: ALA
Writing style: Documentary, and incorporating primary source material from time to time. There are some accounts of torture and stories of supposed devil-worship that might bother some kids (or their parents).
Major ideas: The author speculates about what might have caused the witch hunts, but she does not go out on a limb to assert any radical theories. She tells the story chronologically and points out—rather subtly—the opportunities that people had to make moral choices and the outcomes of those choices.
Wrap-up: This was an engaging tale of a truly horrifying period in America’s history. I should also mention the scratchboard illustrations, which I thought lent some sophistication to the book. 3/5* (just because I’m not the target audience)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Book Review: Orwell's Luck (YA)


Author:  Richard Jennings
Title: Orwell’s Luck
Description: The narrator (we never learn her name) finds a partially paralyzed rabbit on the morning paper on New Year’s morning, and determines to care for him until he is healed. This rabbit appears to have some special qualities, however. He may be communicating with her via the daily horoscopes.
Review source: ALA
Plot: Pretty cute. Will the rabbit send a message? Will the rabbit survive?
Characters: Orwell, the rabbit, is significantly the only character in the book who actually has a name. Everyone else has a role: the mom, the dad, the sister, the cat, the dog, the neighbors.
Writing style: Ostensibly narrated by a twelve year-old girl, this narrator is extremely well-spoken with a wide vocabulary. She is also thoughtful, entertaining plans at various points in the narrative to be a detective, a veterinarian, and a philosopher.
Audience: I’d estimate 5th – 9th grades. It was a one-hour read for me, and I enjoyed it.
Wrap-up: Pick it up if you enjoy clever, thoughtful YA lit, or if you have a middle-schooler who loves animals, reading, or both. 4/5*

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Some of my Favorite Nonfiction


Today I’d like to highlight some of my favorite types of nonfiction. I mentioned one of my favorite nonfiction genres last time: booksabout competition.  They aren’t the only type of nonfiction I enjoy, though. I’ve also mentioned here some of my favorite Christian authors, and they often write in another genre that I enjoy, the spiritual memoir. Here I would mention Traveling Mercies and Girl Meets God as highlights.

I also enjoy reading accounts of travel, especially the sort of “western everyman set down in Asia” type of book typified by a title like Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan  by Bruce Feiler.  Another subgenre of travel books I love are trail books; the king of them all is Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, and I’m really looking forward to reading Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.

Being a trivia buff, I also enjoy reading books about trivia. A. J. Jacobs did a good job with The Know-it-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. (I’ve enjoyed his other books as well). In a similar vein are the books where someone tries something unusual and writes about it: Supersize Me (Morgan  Spurlock), Nickel and Dimed (Barbara Ehrenreich), Pledged, etc.

I’m looking forward to reading more nonfiction—let me know if you have any titles you think I’d love!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review: The Devil in Silver


Author: Victor LaValle
Title: The Devil in Silver
Description: Pepper gets into a fight one night, defending the honor of a girl he sort of likes. Because their shift is almost over and they don’t want to do the paperwork, the cops dump him in a mental hospital for 72 hours of observation, rather than arresting him. When he tries to fight his way out, Pepper is drugged into insensibility and wakes up a month later. Complicating matters is the mysterious patient who has an entire hall to himself and may be feeding on the other patients.  
Review source: Netgalley
Plot: This book is billed as horror, and at first it comes across like a typical horror novel (what IS that thing?) Somewhere along the way, though, it shifts, and becomes a musing on the nature of normalcy, the utter impersonality of “the system,” and the process of self-realization.
Characters: There are some pretty interesting characters here; Pepper, of course, but also his (are they really) friends Dorry, Loochie, and Coffee, and the other residents of the mental ward. Even the hospital personnel  come across as more than stereotyped caricatures.
Writing style: The character study in this book struck me as more successful than the horror aspect.  I’m not sure exactly how horrified we are supposed to be by the Devil, but he never seemed all that scary. Much scarier was the completely believable explanation for Pepper—completely sane—being incarcerated in a mental hospital indefinitely.
Audience: I’m sort of stumped here. Horror readers might like it, but I’d push it at folks who read literary fiction.
Wrap-up: After the cheap horror effects of the first few chapters died down, the book drew me in more and more. I’ll give it a solid 4/5*

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book Review: The Customer-Driven Academic Library


Author: Jeannette A. Woodward
Title: The Customer-Driven Academic Library
Description : Woodward’s contention is that as library tasks have become more specialized, the librarians have retreated more and more into their offices, leaving the library employees with less  training to do the crucial work of interacting with the customers.  
Writing style: Very readable, though the book isn’t about style but about ideas.
Audience: Academic librarians.
Major ideas: I’ve had this idea about university faculty as well. Although the naïve bystander might think that faculty are there to help students, I’ve learned that faculty are there to get tenure.  Woodward pushes this idea back on the library, and it’s a convincing argument. Although she doesn’t dwell on personality, I believe that most librarians are introverts, and are more comfortable not dealing with people as a major focus of their jobs. By indulging ourselves in this way, however, we run the risk of hastening the demise of the academic library; if the only workers anyone encounters are students, they will quickly begin to question why librarians are being paid to hide in the back rooms.
Wrap-up: This small book doesn’t contain all of the answers to the present library crisis, but it does present a persuasive argument that academic librarians need to spend more of their professional time interacting with students and faculty and less time indulging their penchant for the ivory tower. 4/5*

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review: Parting the Waters


 Author: Taylor Branch
Title: Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963
Description: An extremely detailed account of the rise to prominence of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his allies and detractors.  
Writing style: I’d call it “dry.” Lots of conversations reported verbatim. I can’t imagine the years of research that must have gone into the writing of this book.
Audience: Those interested in modern American history and the Civil Rights movement.
Major ideas: I have to admit, I didn’t know much about the early history of the civil rights movement. What I learned that surprised me: there was significant infighting among those who sought to improve conditions for African-Americans in the South, some civil, some not-so-much; MLK was often conflicted about which path to take; Kennedy wasn’t much for civil rights; sometimes I am just so ashamed of how people can treat one another.
Wrap-up: This book was on the Entertainment Weekly list that I’m trying to read through or I would not have picked it up—I would not read this book on my own. It was 922 pages of extremely detailed text and took me 3-4 years to read. So, it wasn’t my favorite read of the year, but I’m certainly not sorry I took the time to learn about this aspect of our nation’s history. 3/5*

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Thrill of Victory


You’ve probably noticed that the Olympics wound up last night. This results in me missing a lot of my reading time, therefore finishing fewer books, therefore writing fewer reviews. Or maybe you haven’t noticed because you’ve been watching the Olympics, not reading blogs. In case you didn't get enough competition--or in case you don't care about the Olympics but want something fun to read--here's a list of books about competitions that I've enjoyed over the years.

Why the name "William Goldman" sounds familiar
John Feinstein specializes in following a sport for a whole season; I’ve enjoyed both A Good Walk Spoiled (about golf) and A Season on the Brink (about Bobby Knight at Indiana). Though they are both somewhat dated now, I’d recommend any book on sports that he writes.

I love William Goldman and would read just about anything he writes. He is the only person to have judged at Cannes and at Miss America  in the same year. Hype and Glory is the book he wrote as a result, giving behind-the-scenes dish on both competitions.

Word Freak is an insider’s look at the world of competitive Scrabble playing by Stefan Fatsis. He also has a couple of books on “real” sports like baseball (Wild and Outside) and football (A Few Seconds of Panic). 

Finally, my favorite book on competition was written by a personal friend, and I’m even in it! Don’t miss Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris (and look for his new book, coming out soon, on his adventures in micro-finance, The 1st International Bank of Bob, sure to be a fun read!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Book Review: Enchantment

Author: Thaisa Frank
Title: Enchantment
Description: Short stories. Depressing magic realism.
Review source: Publisher
Plot: There are dozens of stories in this book (50 or more?) so it is hard to identify an overarching theme. There are several stories, though, about being seen—people blending in to inanimate objects so they cannot be seen, or being forgotten as though they were never there. I would say that most of the stories are about broken connections between people.
Characters: Mostly from the women’s point of view. These stories are pretty short—many are just two or three pages—so not much time for character development, more like a snapshot.
Writing style: Dreamlike, detached… Many of the stories contain elements of the magical. I can’t remember that any of the stories had happy endings, so a sort of sadness pervades the book.
Audience: Literary fiction
Wrap-up: I read this book because I had read Frank’s earlier Heidegger’s Glasses. I’ll say upfront that I’m not much for short stories; I much prefer the extended narrative of the novel. Short stories become just dizzying to me, especially if I’m reading more than one at a sitting, as I did with this book. In addition, I just happen to be re-reading Olive Kitteridge now as well. So it was up against a Pulitzer winner. The difference between this book and Olive is that I get that feeling of sustained, connected narrative in Olive. There were some connected stories here, but the typography of the story titles made it difficult to figure out exactly how that worked. 2.5/5*

Sunday, August 5, 2012

My Favorite Christian Writers, Part 2

I know there are tons of Christian writers active now, but here are five of my favorites. Only two of them are primarily known for fiction (though Anne Lamott writes both fiction and nonfiction, it’s her nonfiction I’m especially fond of.)

Anne Lamott. I can’t say enough good things about Anne Lamott. She is like my brilliant and wise sister. She is always honest about herself and her feelings, which are usually the same feelings I have.  It’s hard for me to tell others why they should read her, because other people are not me and I don’t know if they would have this deep feeling of connection or not. Her best book: Traveling Mercies.

Lauren Winner is probably the Anne Lamott for people who are twenty years younger than me. She writes memoir and personal essay, and is open about her feelings and thoughts even when it makes her look not so good. She has less humor than Lamott, but writes more like a poet. To get started with Winner, try Girl Meets God.

Alan Jacobs is a professor at Wheaton College. His books range from scholarly (A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love) to popular (The Narnian). Whether he writes about reading, sin, C. S. Lewis, testimony, or some other subject, he is thoughtful, logical, and turns an elegant phrase.

Leif Enger’s masterpiece is Peace Like a River. The story of a boy pursuing his outlaw big brother along with his sister, who writes masterful rhymed couplets, and his father, who performs miracles.

Jan Karon may be the most popular author on this list. Her Mitford books and the Father Timothy books which followed create a world in which Christians act like Christians—near paradise! Lauren Winner gives Karon credit for moving her toward salvation. I usually laugh out loud at least once and wipe away at least one tear for every Karon book I read.

There are other well-known Christian authors who I greatly respect: Marilynne Robinson, Katherine Norris, Wendell Berry—but they don’t have my heart the way these few do. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Book Review: A Praying Life

Author: Paul Miller & David Powlison
Title: A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World
Description : It’s about prayer.  
Source: It was free on kindle. 
Writing style: Straightforward with lots of stories from the author’s family
Audience: Christians
Major ideas: Sometimes a book hits me at just the right time. I was praying, sure, and probably would never have picked this book up if it hadn’t been free. But it has actually prompted me to take some steps that I probably wouldn’t have taken on my own. 1) It convinced me that I need an accountability partner to make sure I follow through on what I intend to do and don’t just dismiss my missteps as “oops, it won’t happen again.” 2) It convicted me that instead of chewing my family out when I feel like they’ve fallen short of what I’d like them to do that I should pray—and mostly about my own attitude. 3) It reminded me that each of our lives is a narrative that God is writing. Prayer allows us to participate in that act of creation.
Wrap-up: If you want to be challenged in your prayer life, read this book. It will leave you with more than you came with. 4/5*

Friday, August 3, 2012

My Favorite Christian Writers, Part 1

You all know that I’m really interested in faith and literature, and that I love when authors can pull off that combination well, without coming off as sappy or clichéd. Everybody knows the famous Inkling authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and I’m a huge fan of theirs. Today I’d like to mention some of my favorite Christian authors who may not be quite as famous as these two.

Historical (i.e. they’re dead)
Charles Williams was another of the Inklings, probably the third best known. He is remembered today for his supernatural novels (War in Heaven is a good one to start with) and to a lesser extent, his Arthurian poetry. I wrote my Master’s thesis on his poetry, so that’s obviously my favorite of his works.

Madeleine L’Engle is best known for her Time trilogy; the first book, A Wrinkle in Time, won the Newbery medal. These three books aren’t all she wrote about Calvin, Meg, Charles Wallace, and their families, though; there are at least eight. Most of L’Engle’s books are for children or young adults, but she wrote for adults as well. Some of my favorites of her books are A Swiftly Tilting Planet, A Ring of Endless Light, and Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.  I was lucky enough to work in the Wheaton College Archives with their Madeleine L’Engle collection as an undergraduate; I came to love her as a person through her correspondence, even though I never met her.

Joe McClatchey
Walker Percy was a Southern writer who died in 1990. My favorite novel of his is The Second Coming. I was introduced to Percy by Dr. McClatchey at Wheaton, and after we read the book, I wrote to Percy and actually received a letter back from him. It’s probably worth something now, if I could find it!

Frederick Buechner isn’t dead that I know of, but he is another author I first read at Wheaton, so I’ll put him in this bunch to balance it out.  Buechner is another author I found through Dr. McClatchey. The Book of Bebb is my favorite of his works (actually it’s a tetralogy published in one volume). I never heard the Big Bopper again without thinking of this book. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Book Review: Albert of Adelaide

Author: Howard L. Anderson
Title: Albert of Adelaide
Description: This book is about a platypus, Albert, who escapes from the zoo in Adelaide and sets out to find the platypus paradise. He’s not quite sure how to get there, but he starts out nonetheless. Along the way, he meets the wombat Jack, the raccoon TJ, and an assortment of good guys and bad guys.
Review source: netgalley
Plot: I had this book in my to-read list. I can’t imagine what it was about a description or a review that would have made me want to read it. Basically, it was a western, with gambling, drinking, outlaws, and wanted posters.
Characters: Albert seems innocent and naïve at first (think the Madagascar crew set loose in the jungle), but he’s quick to want to punch, shoot, and pull out those poison spikes. The quick recourse to violence is not my style, but I suppose it fits with the western idea.
Writing style: Seen from Albert’s point of view, everything that happens is a new surprise. So there’s this naïveté joined with linear reporting (“Albert noticed that they were playing some kind of game with dice. He felt lucky.”)
Audience: ? People who like westerns about Australian mammals?
Wrap-up: This book was just a little too innovative for me. That, plus the idea of killing people as the solution when you can’t get along made this book not quite my cup of billabong tea. 3/5*.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Book Review: Paper Angels

Author: Billy Coffey
Title: Paper Angels
Description: Andy awakens in the hospital and gradually remembers the accident that put him there. His personal angel, the Old Man, seems to have left him at this worst time in his life. A hospital counselor asks him to talk through his box of keepsakes. Each keepsake is linked to a memory of a lesson Andy learned. As he reviews his life, Andy faces the question of where to go from here.
Review source: ALA
Plot: Short stories form vignettes of Andy’s past life, but are connected by the overarching narrative of his keepsake box.
Characters: Andy is a loner, having grown up orphaned. The angel that dogs his footsteps prevents him from forming lasting relationships (he doesn’t want people to think he is talking to himself). Other characters drop in and out of the story.
Writing style: The book kept me interested, but I would say it crossed the line into sappy more than once. The final “surprise” is pretty obvious from the beginning of the book. And I’m starting to get really tired of that kind of foreshadowing where the author drops in a name and a looming disaster but refuses to say what has happened until the end of the book. Wearying. Also, lots of preaching going on here. For every story, there is a lesson learned. Thunk.
Audience: Christian fiction, though it’s more that “life lesson” kind of thing than overtly Christian. Also the protagonist is a man, so if men are looking for Christian fiction, I'd recommend Coffey as the kind of author who won't overwhelm them with chick lit.
Wrap-up: Mildly enjoyable. 3/5*

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review: In Darkness

Author: Nick Lake
Title: In Darkness
Description: In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, a teenaged boy lies trapped beneath the rubble of a destroyed hospital. As he lies there, he remembers the events that have led up to his hospitalization, caused by a gunshot wound. He also has memories of another life—not his, but that of his country’s liberator, Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Review source: I think I picked up at ALA.
Plot: I was disoriented for a good while until I figured out what was going on with the flashbacks, etc. There are two plots running parallel: the modern day story of Shorty the teenage gangster in Cite Soleil and Toussaint’s story of liberation.
Characters: In Cite Soleil, teenage boys (and younger) are the drug lords’ henchmen, mostly because the young men die off so quickly that rarely does one make it to his twenties. In both modern and historical Haiti, there isn’t much room for idealism; even people who try to do good have to make some big compromises along the way.
Writing style: Shorty uses a lot of creole or Haitian slang, but it can be figured out.
Audience: I get the impression that this was meant to be a YA novel; if so, it’s got major profanity issues and would be a fairly difficult read for under-16. Totally works as an adult novel.
Wrap-up: Every once in a while I get fascinated by a topic, and Haiti is one that I can’t let go. I did some research on Haiti for grad school, now this book—and after I read this one, I just wanted to go out and read more about Haiti. So Mountains Beyond Mountains is on its way, and I’m going to read some Danticat as well, as a start. I know Julia Alvarez has a new Haiti book out as well.  Back to this one, though—4/5*