Tuesday, April 18, 2017

book journal: Little Deaths by Emma Flint

The backstory: Little Deaths, Emma Flint's first novel, is on the 2017 Baileys Prize longlist.

The basics:  "It's 1965 in a tight-knit working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, and Ruth Malone--a single mother who works long hours as a cocktail waitress--wakes to discover her two small children, Frankie Jr. and Cindy, have gone missing. Later that day, Cindy's body is found in a derelict lot a half mile from her home, strangled. Ten days later, Frankie Jr.'s decomposing body is found. Immediately, all fingers point to Ruth."

My thoughts: When the Baileys Prize longlist was announced, the title I was most excited to see was Little Deaths. It got a lot of pre-publication buzz, and it was billed as feminist literary crime fiction based on a true story. I love all of those things. It was the first longlist title I picked up, and as eager as I was to read it, I found the pace very slow. The title alerts us that Frankie and Cindy die, yet they don't die on the page for some time. Immediately, speculation is on Ruth. Ruth is a complicated woman who is judged unfairly, but in ways that are familiar.

Part of my issue with this novel is wrapped up in what it is and what it is not. Fair or not, Little Deaths is billed as a crime novel, and while it is, undoubtedly about a crime, I would not classify it as a crime novel. The focus isn't on solving the crime. Instead the focus is split on exploring Ruth's life after the death of her children and on a reporter Pete Wonicke, who takes an unhealthy interest in the case and Ruth. I found his character odd and his actions increasingly bizarre (and not in an interesting way.)

Overall, the book didn't have enough narrative momentum for me. I wasn't sure where I was supposed to focus. The killer (to me) clearly wasn't Ruth, but Flint doesn't spend enough time exploring suspects. To be fair, the fact the police don't do this work because they're focused on Ruth is pivotal to this story, but it's also very dull. Part of me hoped for an ambiguous resolution, but instead Flint chose an incredibly disappointing approach that made me not much care for this novel that didn't accomplish nearly enough with its execution.

Favorite passage:  "He stopped at the next corner and wrote down the details and found his fingers itching to describe Salcito’s heavy walk, his lost expression. But he told himself he would not do that because it was unnecessary. It was unprofessional. When, in fact, he did not want to make this man human. He was not a character in a story to be identified with: he was a possible witness, a possible accessory, a possible killer."

The verdict: I found the pace of Little Deaths too slow and the mystery to be so glaringly obvious I was embarrassed it's billed as crime fiction. Flint explores a fascinating story, but I think it would be better executed on film.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: January 17, 2017
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Little Deaths from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

book journal: Marlena by Julie Buntin

The backstory:  Marlena is Julie Buntin's first novel.

The basics:  "The story of two girls and the wild year that will cost one her life, and define the other’s for decades."

My thoughts: Marlena consumed me as I read it. It opens in the present day, where we meet Cat. This glimpse into the present felt brief, but I soon realized the real action of this novel is in the past. Initially, I found myself hungering to return to the present, which is at least partly do to my fascination with knowing how things end because figuring out how characters move from the past to the present (or future) fascinates me. But as this novel went on, I found myself much less invested in present Cat, which surprised me.

Buntin is a gifted writer, and she made me love reading about teenage angst in a way I haven't enjoyed in years. She made me prefer a teen storyline to an adult storyline. At times, she even made me remember my teen years with fondness, "Everyone has a secret life. But when you're a girl with a best friend, you think your secret life is something you can share."

Favorite passage: "The truth is both a vast wilderness and the tiniest space you can imagine. It's between me and her, what I saw and what she saw and how I see it now and how she no now."

The verdict: Buntin is at her best writing about the past, and that rightly constitutes most of this novel. While I enjoyed seeing where Cat was, it didn't feel as authentic. I wish Buntin would have delved more into the present or left it out, as it muddied an otherwise extraordinary narrative. As much as I liked Marlena, this novel made me fall in love with Julie Buntin as a writer, and I can't wait to see where she goes next.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: April 4, 2017
Source: publisher

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

Want more? Read this beautiful essay, "On Making Things Up: Some True Stories About Writing My Novel." Visit Julie Buntin's website and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, March 27, 2017

book journal: City of the Lost and A Darkness Absolute by Kelley Armstrong


A brief timeline of my relationship with Casey Duncan:

Summer 2016: I keep reading and hearing about City of the Lost, the first in a new mystery series set in Canada featuring a woman named Casey Duncan. I should read that. It sounds really good.

September 2016: Oh, right, City of the Lost. Let me check that out from the library.

October 2016: [receives an early copy of A Darkness Absolute] Wait, the second Casey Duncan novel comes out in February? I should really read City of the Lost. [reads City of the Lost.] I should really write a review of City of the Lost before I start A Darkness Absolute. [Decides the temptation to pick up A Darkness Absolute is too strong.] [Reads A Darkness Absolute.] [Tells Mr. Nomadreader to buy City of the Lost for his mom's birthday.] I should write my review of A Darkness Absolute even though it doesn't publish until February.

March 2017: It's March already? Should I just wait until the third Casey Duncan novel is out? Hmm, no word on when that will be, I'll go ahead and write about Casey.

Here's the premise: "Casey Duncan is a homicide detective with a secret: when she was in college, she killed a man. She was never caught, but he was the grandson of a mobster and she knows that someday this crime will catch up to her. Casey's best friend, Diana, is on the run from a violent, abusive ex-husband. When Diana's husband finds her, and Casey herself is attacked shortly after, Casey knows it's time for the two of them to disappear again.

Diana has heard of a town made for people like her, a town that takes in people on the run who want to shed their old lives. You must apply to live in Rockton and if you're accepted, it means walking away entirely from your old life, and living off the grid in the wilds of Canada: no cell phones, no Internet, no mail, no computers, very little electricity, and no way of getting in or out without the town council's approval. As a murderer, Casey isn't a good candidate, but she has something they want: She's a homicide detective, and Rockton has just had its first real murder. She and Diana are in." In short: Casey solves murders in a dystopian reality 

The verdict: If you're been meaning to read City of the Lost, do it. If you haven't, why the hell not? Buy it from Amazon (Kindle version.) You might want to buy A Darkness Absolute (print, Kindle) while you're at it. If you're like me, you'll want to start it as soon as you finish City of the Lost.

Kelley Armstrong, you're working on #3, right? I eagerly await it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Pages: 416 & 400 pages
Publication dates: May 3, 2016 & February 7, 2017
Source: library and publisher

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

The 2017 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist: A U.S. Reader's Guide

I've been slowly working on this post for two weeks, but it's finally here: my 7th annual Women's Prize for Fiction U.S. Reader's Guide! Longtime readers knows this prize, known for most of its history as the Orange Prize, is my favorite literary prize. The longlist announcement is always one of my favorite moments of the year, and it shapes my reading for the months and years to come. I didn't make predictions this year, partially because the prize announced it was trimming the longlist from its traditional length of twenty titles to only twelve. (The judges ended up with sixteen titles on the longlist.) For the seventh year in a row, I'm offering my thoughts on the longlist along with information on when U.S. readers can access these titles (see my U.S. Reader's Guide for the longlists in 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.

The Ones Available in the U.S. Now

Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood
Little Deaths by Emma Flint
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
First Love by Gwendoline Riley (out Tuesday)
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

The Ones Coming to the U.S. Later This Year

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (August 22, 2017)
The Power by Naomi Alderman (October 10, 2017) (no U.S. cover yet)
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (June 6, 2017)

The Ones We Hope Make Their Way to the U.S.

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
Midwinter by Fiona Melrose

My Thoughts
If I think about my excitement for the titles included here (Linda Grant!) instead of all the wonderful books that didn't (Ann Patchett), I'm really excited for this list. Many of these books have been on my TBR for far too long (ahem, The Mare), and I'm thankful for this push to read them. Some are not yet out but have been on my radar already. Others are new to me with this list (The Power, a premise that delights me.) And a few intrigue me but are terrifyingly long (for me), but I hope to find the time to dig in to Barkskins and The Sport of Kings.  I'm slowly making my way through the longlist, and I'll be posting my thoughts on these sixteen books as I take the time to read them.

Now tell me: what title are you most excited to see on this year's longlist?

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

book quickie: The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson by Rosanna Bruno

book quickie: when I want to talk about a book, but I don't have much to say

Here's the description for this book: "America’s favorite recluse just got a life! With her distinctively funky drawing style and insightful wit, artist Rosanna Bruno presents a cross-generational Dickinson for the 21st century."

This book is a collection of different things, some of which shine brighter than others, and some of which I'm certain I didn't fully understand the references because of my limited knowledge of Emily Dickinson. It's fun, funny, and clever. It's also pretty short and could be read in a single sitting. It left me wanting more.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 96 pages
Publication date: March 7, 2017
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Friday, March 24, 2017

book journal: Moral Defense by Marcia Clark

The backstory:  Moral Defense is the second legal mystery in Marcia Clark's series featuring Samantha Brinkman, a Los Angeles defense attorney. I loved the first, Blood Defense (my review.) I also loved Clark's first series, featuring Los Angeles prosecutor Rachel Knight.

The basics: Blood Defense ended with a lot of information, and Moral Defense picks up those storylines, while featuring the murder of a father and brother, and the attempted murder of the mother. Samantha is serving as the legal advocate for Cassie, the daughter who was not harmed in the crime.

My thoughts: Moral Defense features three  storylines, each one involving a different client. Two are holdovers from the first book, while Cassie's story is new and is the primary plot. The central mystery is who killed Cassie's family. All three storylines were interesting, and Clark is so good at incorporating expected and unexpected twists. I found myself somewhat let down by the Cassie storyline, partly because the most satisfying (and unexpected) twist isn't the last one. That storyline peaked a little too soon and lost momentum. I wish it would have wrapped up a bit more quickly. Still, it was compelling and entertaining.

Meanwhile, I found the two lingering storylines chugged along for most of the novel only to peak at the end. As I finished this novel, I once again found myself eager for the next one (out in August). It's hard to talk about this novel without spoiling all or part of it, but I'll vaguely say: once again Clark drops a bomb in the closing scene that will definitely shape the next novel. Clark is pushing this series along in fascinating ways, and I'm excited to see where the storylines for Samantha and the three supporting characters go next.

Favorite passage:  "Someday, people are going to care more about what we say and do than what we look like."

The verdict: Moral Defense isn't as accomplished of a mystery as Blood Defense, but it is an entertaining and thought-provoking read. It sets the stage for Snap Judgment (out August 29, 2017) beautifully. I'll be eagerly awaiting its publication.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 426 pages
Publication date: November 8, 2016
Source: Kindle owner's lending library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Moral Defense from Amazon (Kindle edition is only $1.99), but you should really start with Blood Defense (only $1.99 for Kindle!)

Want more? Visit Marcia Clark's websitelike her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, January 9, 2017

book journal: A Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan

This year, Mr. Nomadreader and I are starting a new tradition for our family: we hope to visit one new country each year with Hawthorne. Our family is complete, and I'm excited to be starting a new family tradition. Hawthorne will be two and a half next month (!), and we're ready to start showing him the world. Our first destination: Amsterdam, this spring. While we've been studying the guidebooks and planning our days, I've also been busy making lists of fiction I want to read that is set in Amsterdam, both past and present.

I've been intrigued by Chris Ewan's The Good Thief series, as each one is set in a different city, but our trip made me pick up his first in the series, The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam. The titular good thief is Charlie Howard, a novelist who writes books about a globetrotting thief named Faulks. He also secretly works as a thief himself.

There is a lot going on in this novel. In its opening pages, Charlie gets an intriguing offer to steal two monkey figurines to match the set's third (it's a classic see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.) It seems too good to be true, and predictably, things go terribly wrong. Thankfully, they go wrong in an incredibly fascinating and compelling way. As things are going awry in the thieving life, Charlie is also struggling with a key plot point in the manuscript of his latest novel he's submitted to his agent and confidante, Victoria. While the plot of his novel is interesting, and provides keen insights into Charlie's mind (as well as a few carefully placed similarities to the case he's working in real life), the star of this show is figuring out the thieving mystery.

Considering how much danger and death there is in this novel, it feels comedic at times (and partly farcical.) Ewan pulls off this tone well. While some of the twists in this novel are expected to those who are fans of mysteries, I got the sense Ewan wanted the audience to expect some of the twists, so when he pulled the real ones, I was even more surprised (and impressed.) This novel feels like a combination of homage and something new. Although it's his debut novel, he writes with the skill of his character, Charlie, who has been novels under his belt.

I chose this novel for both its location and its premise, and I thoroughly enjoyed both. Because we'll be in Amsterdam this spring, I took the time to look up some of the locations I wouldn't otherwise have done as I read, and Ewan seems to captures the ambiance and neighborhoods well. Most importantly, he ties the geography to the characters and mystery. I'll definitely be reading the next novel in this series, The Good Thief's Guide to Paris. Even if you're not heading to Amsterdam soon (or if you've already been), The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam is a fun, funny, engaging and twisty read.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: November 2007
Source: library 

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Chris Ewan's website and follow him on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, January 2, 2017

book journal: The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley

Books are one of my favorite ways of exploring new places and revisiting familiar places. When I travel, I've always loved to read books set in the place I'm visiting. This year, I'm leading a J-term travel seminar to Chiang Mai, Thailand. The course is the culmination of almost two years of work, and I'm spent a lot of time learning about Thailand. When our flights were finalized, I learned we're flying through Beijing both ways. I began seeking out books about China, and I was intrigued by Susan Conley's memoir about the two years she and her family spent living in Beijing. Conley is a novelist, and I'm drawn to memoirs written by fiction writers. Moreover, I wasn't necessarily interested in immersing myself in China; I wanted to see it through the eyes of a western woman so I could anticipate my own experience with culture shock. I sought answers to the questions I didn't even know to ask. I wanted insight into Chinese culture and the difficulty of adjusting to it.

There are many places in the world I can imagine myself living, particularly in the short term, but China is not one of them. I am intimidated of China and would be deeply uncomfortable living under its government's laws. Conley wasn't as reluctant as I am, but she was certainly trepidatious in ways I could easily relate to. I enjoyed joining Conley in her frustration and joys, be they related to China, parenting two young boys, or cancer.

While this is a travel memoir, it's more of a personal memoir. While in Beijing, Conley learns she has breast cancer. In that sense, this memoir is one of two journeys, but those journeys are inextricably linked. Conley doesn't isolate her thoughts on cancer, living in China, or any other part of her experience; this memoir is the story of two years in her life. I came seeking a book about Beijing, and while I got that, I got so much more out of reading this memoir. One of the highlights of this memoir was discovering Conley's close friendship with Lily King (I adored her last novel, Euphoria.) I think one of the reasons I love reading nonfiction by fiction writers is discovering all of their connections and friendships.

While living in Beijing, Conley worked on a novel that would become Paris Was the Place. It's premise intrigues me, and given how much I enjoyed Conley's writing in this book, I'm adding it to my list.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 280 pages
Publication date: February 2011
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Foremost Good Fortune from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Susan Conley's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!