Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Backlist Book Club: Affinity discussion

It's the last day of the month, which means it's time to discuss The Backlist Book Club July read. I did manage to finish Affinity in time, but I'm still processing and articulating my thoughts about it. I'll post a review next week, but in the mean time, there is much to discuss! If you haven't read Affinity yet, be warned: spoilers abound!

Feel free to join in conversations and strings that interest you--and please pose more questions in the comments too. If you'd like to follow the discussion today (and perhaps for a few days), please consider subscribing to future comments so you don't miss any. Tune in tomorrow to see what you voted on for our August pick!

1. Which character was your favorite?

2. What surprised you most in this novel?

3. What disappointed you in this novel?

4. To whom would you recommend this novel?

5. Let's talk about the twist. Did you see it coming? Did you like it? Did it change your thoughts on the book?

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, July 29, 2013

book review: Death Angel by Linda Fairstein

The backstory: Death Angel is the fifteenth (!) mystery in Linda Fairstein's Alexandra Cooper series. I've read (and loved) them all. (A series note: while you could enjoy this mystery if you haven't read others in the series, the personal storylines likely won't be nearly as satisfying to new readers.)

The basics: When the body of a young homeless girl is found in Central Park, detectives Mercer Wallace and Mike Chapman, along with prosecutor Alexandra Cooper, work quickly to identify her and figure out if there's a connection to a series of cold cases in New York City's lowest crime area.

My thoughts: Fairstein's mysteries all feature a deep history of one aspect of New York. In Death Angel, it's Central Park, something most readers think they're familiar with. When Fairstein is at her best, which she certainly is in Death Angel, the New York history is as riveting as the mystery (or in this case mysteries) itself.

I discovered this series in the spring of 2003 (when several books had already been published), and I've been reading the for ten years. It's challenging to strike the right balance between the comfort of the familiar and feeling new. Death Angel is the perfect combination of the two. There are the classics of a Fairstein novel: Alex takes a trip to her Martha's Vineyard home, New York history, sexual/romantic tension between Alex and Mike, Jeopardy!, and work tensions in the DA's office. Here, they feel fresh and comforting. While the pace of Alex's personal life is sometimes slower than I'd like, as I read Death Angel, I was shocked to realize Alex is now only a few years older than I am. So little time has passed in this series because each mystery covers only a few days or weeks. Over the years, these novels have taken place in different seasons and at different times of years, but in reality, only a few years have passed.

The verdict: Death Angel is Linda Fairstein at her very best. The mystery is compelling and surprising, the history and detail of Central Park is fascinating, and the developments in Alex's personal life make this long-term reader and dreamer very happy. Most importantly, all three fit together beautifully in this well-crafted, entertaining and spellbinding mystery.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 385 pages
Publication date: July 30, 2013
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Death Angel from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Linda Fairstein'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!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday Salon: Is This July?

It's a little after 9 a.m., and there's a chill in the air...in July. I'm in absolute heaven with these record-setting low temperatures. We have all the windows open, and I find myself wandering from room to room, enjoying our open house immensely. I hope the weather is just as divine where you are!

What I'm reading now
I'm hoping to finish Affinity this afternoon or tomorrow. I'm enjoying it immensely, but I've having trouble concentrating for very long when reading in print. (I don't blame the book.) Affinity is the Backlist Book Club pick this month, so I'll be reviewing it promptly as we're set to discuss it Wednesday.

For the first time ever, I'm racing through audiobooks more quickly than print or ebooks. I have developed an addiction to Candy Crush Saga, and I feel less bad about playing when I'm also listening to an audiobook.  I'm also listening while running errands, fiddling around the house, cleaning, and at the gym. I'm currently listening to Lauren Graham's debut novel Someday, Someday, Maybe, which she narrates herself. Up next: something from the ridiculously large stack of books. For as hard of a time as I'm having reading in print lately, the list of books I want to read next is far too long.

Backlist Book Club
It's a big week for the Backlist Book Club! Wednesday we're discussing Affinity, our July selection. You have a few more days to vote for our August selection. The votes are really tight between three titles: Small Island by Andrea Levy, On Beauty by Zadie Smith, and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The winner will be announced Thursday. Look for the September voting to begin on August 15.

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, July 19, 2013

a pair of audiobook reviews: My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor & Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures

narrated by Rita Moreno

The basics: Sonia Sotomayor, the newest U.S. Supreme Court justice, writes about her life until she became a judge.

My thoughts: I didn't know much about Sonia Sotomayor going into this memoir. I knew her appointment to the Supreme Court was historic because she was the first Hispanic on the Court, as well as only the third woman. Something you may not know about me: when I was younger, I wanted to be a judge. I was convinced I could tolerate a few years as a lawyer if I had to, but I was destined for being a judge. Clearly, that didn't happen, but I delighted in Sotomayor's childhood dream of becoming a judge too. She has perseverance I don't, and I appreciated her methodical approach to everything. She's unbelievably driven and inspiring.

Favorite passage:  "You cannot value dreams according to their odds of coming true. Their real value is in stirring within us the will to aspire. That will, wherever it finally leads, does at least move you forward."

The verdict: Sotomayor's drive is even more remarkable given the circumstances of her childhood. If I didn't know differently, I would have a hard time believing her career trajectory was true. Sotomayor is an inspiration. Her spirit, intelligence, dedication and loyalty are admirable. That I finished this memoir on the day DOMA was struck down was truly a blessed coincidence. I marveled at the impact on history this little girl from Hunt's Point is making, and she's nowhere near done yet.

Audio thoughts: Sotomayor narrates the introduction, and it was the perfect set-up to this memoir as it gave me a glimpse of the woman herself. She also explains her hesitation to share her story and her decision to end the book when she first becomes a judge, in 1992. As the audio shifted to Rita Moreno's narration for chapter one, it was initially slightly jarring, and I missed Sotomayor's voice. Soon, however, I adjusted, and I adored Moreno's narration. So much of Sotomayor's early history features Spanish, and Moreno's narration made me feel apart of it. She nails Sotomayor's introspective nature and reads with beautiful emotion at her moments of triumph, defeat, sadness, and celebration.

Rating: 5 out of 5 (book); 5 out of 5 (narration)
Length: 353 pages (12 hours and 27 minutes)
Publication date: January 15, 2013
Source: purchased at Audible

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy My Beloved World from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

narrated by Molly Ringwald

The basics: Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, Emma Straub's first novel, is the life story of Laura Lamont, born Elsa Emerson in Door County, Wisconsin. Elsa flees Wisconsin and heads to Hollywood, where she dreams of stardom.

My thoughts: I have a soft spot for Midwestern tales and Hollywood tales, so this novel is right up my alley. After thoroughly enjoying Emma Straub's short story collection, Other People We Married (which I seem to have not reviewed--for shame!), particularly "Fly Over State," which perfectly captured my feelings about moving from New York to Iowa as an academic, I was eager to see her tackle a historical novel. There's a quietness to Laura's story I enjoyed. She certainly faces her fair share of tragedy (and mercifully, some success too). This delicateness stems from the movement of time, I think. Straub doesn't dwell on those moments of sorrow, instead she moves Laura's story along.

The verdict: Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures is a lovely historical novel. Straub's characters shine brightest here, and my eagerness to see where and how Elsa would become Laura continued as Laura navigated life in Hollywood.

Audio thoughts: I have mixed thoughts on Molly Ringwald's narration. At times it felt very cold. I did feel she improved as the book went on--her voice worked better for older Elsa than younger Elsa. Overall, it was an average audio performance. It didn't enhance my enjoyment of the book, but it didn't detract from it either.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (book); 3.5 out of 5 (narration)
Length: 320 pages (9 hours and 36 minutes)
Publication date: September 4, 2012 (it's in paperback now)
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Emma Straub'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!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Thursday TV: Orange is the New Black, Season One

Thursday TV is a semi-regular feature where I talk about TV....on Thursday. Feel free to grab the button and post your own Thursday tv posts on your blog too!

After meaning to read Piper Kerman's memoir Orange is the New Black since I first read an excerpt of it in Marie Claire in 2010. I finally squeezed it in audio in advance of its premiere on Netflix last Thursday. (It was fabulous--if you haven't read it, I strongly recommend the audio narration by Cassandra Campbell!) So how does the show measure up?

In short: it's lewd, shrewd, brilliant, hilarious, tragic, haunting and beautiful. The first few episodes are remarkably close to the memoir. The writers made some smart decisions about reordering sequences and flashbacks  that make it better tv, but almost everything in the first few episodes will be familiar to someone who has read the book. After a few episodes, however, Orange is the New Black goes off the rails in some beautiful and haunting ways. Piper Chapman (as she's known in the series) truly stops being Piper Kerman and becomes Piper Chapman, and it's delightful to see. I can't help but see some of Nancy Botwin (Weeds creator Jenji Kohan adapted Orange is the New Black) in Piper Chapman, and that's a good thing for this series.

Perhaps what I loved most about the first season of Orange is the New Black, however, is the broad cast of characters and actresses who portray them. If you're looking for meaty parts for women on television: look here. Here are women of all shapes, sizes, ages, sexual orientations, races and lifestyles. The ensemble cast is huge (one reason I'm glad I watched the first season--thirteen episodes--in three days), and there is not a bad performance on screen. If this show isn't nominated for a slew of awards, it will be a shame. The Screen Actors Guild, at the very least, should be standing in line to recognize a cast this broad and strong.

Orange is the New Black toys with ideas of right and wrong, and good and evil. What makes these themes so successful and complex here is how the writers explore these themes not only among the inmates, but also among the prison guards and the prisoners' families. There are some obvious characters we're not meant to like or root for, but I couldn't help finding myself cheering for even the most despicable characters at times, particularly in the later episodes. This show pushes the boundaries beautifully, and even as I root for my favorite characters, part of me wants them to fail too--because it might be that much more interesting. That's a remarkable feat possibly only with a wonderful combination of storytelling and acting.

It's rare I want to start watching a season as soon as I finish, but I'm eager to start Orange is the New Black again. Perhaps because I read the book, I came in with certain assumptions or ideas about where the story was going. Regardless, knowing how many twists and turns the first season held, I want to go back and see where all of the characters begin to fully appreciate it.

Needless to say, I'm eagerly awaiting season 2, but I'll enjoy watching season 1 a few more times before it comes around.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Source: It's only available via Netflix streaming (for now)

If you've seen all of season one and want to chat with spoilers, please let me know!


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, July 17, 2013

book review: Godiva by Nicole Galland

The basics: Godiva is fictional retelling of the infamous Lady Godiva, her husband, and best friend Lady Abbess Egdiva.

My thoughts: I'm particularly fascinated by old, old history. There's something about trying to imagine life more than a few hundred years ago that challenges my mind. This phenomenon is at least partly attributable to my lack of knowledge about the actual history of these time periods, but Lady Godiva is a name I've heard for years and was curious to learn more about someone who definitely fulfills the bumper sticker, "well-behaved women rarely make history." Nicole Galland, a new-to-me author, makes Godiva come alive from the novel's first pages. I love dynamically drawn historical characters based on real people, and Godiva is a delightful one.

What I liked and appreciated about this novel even more, however, was how lively Galland drew the setting. Often I struggle with how to picture the world in old historical fiction, but as I read Godiva, I was so caught up in the story, I never stopped to ask myself if I was making false visual assumptions. Throughout this novel, I felt like I was watching a movie almost as much as I was reading a book, and this sensation is not normal for me.

The verdict: Godiva is a fun, adventurous, and fascinating historical romp. Galland brings both Godiva and the time period to life in a beautifully visual novel.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: July 2, 2013
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Godiva from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit all of this tour's stops, visit her website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

audiobook review: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

narrated by Cassandra Campbell

The backstory: Orange is the New Black has been adapted into a Netflix original comedy by Jenji Kohan (of Weeds.)

The basics: After graduating from Smith College, Piper Kerman was seeking adventure. She opted to stay in idyllic Northampton, Massachusetts, and she started dating Nora, an enchanting lesbian who turned out to be part of an international drug smuggling operation. Piper briefly participated too. Five years later, federal agents arrest her, and she must go to jail for fifteen months. Orange is the New Black chronicles her time in a women's prison.

My thoughts: I have a bizarre fascination and fear of prison. Not that I have a urge to break the law to begin with, but I am a poster child for doing all I can to avoid ever going to jail or prison. The first chapter of Orange is the New Black is armchair adventure at its best: Piper and Nora travel the world, visit exotic places, and part of me started thinking--maybe it would be all worth it. What makes Piper's story so unfortunate (admittedly, she did the crime, and she was forced to do the time) is its timing. Piper wasn't arrested immediately after the crime. To have federal agents show up at your door years later is jarring ,and it instantly made Piper sympathetic to me. Even worse, when she decides to take the plea and serve fifteen months rather than risk a trial and potentially face far more time, part of her plea agreement is to testify, and that testimony is also postponed for years. Even after she has accepted her fate, she can't begin her prison time. Once this backstory is out of the way (and honestly, at the time, I was heartbroken the adventure was already over!), the real heart of this memoir begins.

Kerman is a gifted writer, and at times her prose reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert (which I mean as a complement: both of Gilbert's memoirs are among my favorites because she writes about pain with such exquisite grace.) I expected Piper to tell her story, and let's be honest, she's my demographic more than most of her prison peers. What I didn't expect was to grow to root for and care about so many of the other inmates. At times the stories sound like bands of sororities. They're a beautiful joining together of women both against a common evil and for a common good. There's an inspiring sense of innovation in how these women find ways to transform the ordinary objects they have into functional, useful things. There are tragic stories, too, it's not an entirely uplifting memoir, of course. Ultimately, that's what I loved most about it--it's a story of survival. As with most survival tales, it requires the right combination of positivity, reality, and perseverance.

Audio thoughts: Cassandra Campbell is my favorite audiobook narrator, and this performance was particularly brilliant. She artfully captured the voices of so many different women in the prison.

The verdict: Orange is the New Black was an unexpectedly poignant memoir about women banding together to face adversity. Don't be mistaken, there's plenty of dark here too, but Kerman expertly paints portraits of the inmates' individual and collective humanity; this memoir excels because it doesn't shy away from the good and bad decisions of its inhabitants.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (the book); 5 out of 5 (audio production)
Length: 352 pages (11 hours 14 minutes)
Publication date: April 6, 2010
Source: purchased at Audible

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Orange is the New Black from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Piper Kerman'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!

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Backlist Book Club: It's Time to Vote for our August 2013 read!

Can y'all believe it's the middle of July already? I'm currently devouring our July Backlist Book Club pick, Affinity by Sarah Waters. Look for my review later this week! It's time to start voting for our August pick. The theme I've selected for August 2013 is Orange Prize winners. I'm still (slowly) working my way through all of the winners, shortlists and longlists, and this pick will help me with that ongoing project. I'm excited about the prospect of all four of these much-beloved modern classics, so I'm eager to see which one y'all most want to read! As always, voting will be open until noon (Central time) on July 31, and I'll announce the winner on August 1. I'll review the title in mid-August and host a discussion on August 31. Without further ado, here are the options:






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, July 10, 2013

book review: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

The backstory: Flight Behavior was shortlisted for the 2013 Orange Prize for Women's Fiction.

The basics: Dellarobia is a young, married mother of two in Appalachia. When Monarch butterflies are discovered in the woods behind their home, their land becomes a spectacle of sorts.

My thoughts: There's a fabulous moment in Center Stage (one of my all-time favorite films) when Peter Gallagher's character says "I need to see the movement, not the effort behind it." That sentiment perfectly fits my thoughts on Flight Behavior: As I read, I saw the effort behind the novel rather than the novel itself. I don't necessarily mean that as a criticism. Flight Behavior is a novel I quite enjoyed, but it wasn't one that swept me away. I never felt the characters were real people, but they were well-formed. I didn't feel Flight Behavior was set in actual Appalachia, but rather an idyllic version of it. Still, I loved the experience of reading this novel. Kingsolver's prose was fluid and beautiful. This novel is filled with long sentences, long paragraphs, and long chapters. I found myself wanting to read it in bursts, and as I finished each chapter, I closed the book and pondered it for awhile. It wasn't a classic page turner, as I didn't care as much about what happened as I did why Kingsolver makes the choices she makes: I cared more about her motivations as a writer and the message than I did about the characters.

The verdict: Flight Behavior is a thought-provoking novel concerned with climate change and science. This emphasis is both a strength and a weakness, as I found myself more engaged with the issues than the characters themselves. Kingsolver's writing shines brighter than the characters, but it's a novel I ultimately quite enjoyed, albeit for surprising reasons.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 448 pages
Publication date: 
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Flight Behavior from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit all the tour stops, visit Barbara Kingsolver's website, and like her on Facebook.

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

Monday, July 8, 2013

book review: The Queen's Vow by C.W. Gortner

The basics: The Queen's Vow is a historical novel about Isabella of Castile, from her young childhood through her reign as queen.

My thoughts: I'm typically a huge fan of historical fiction featuring strong female characters. Yet as I read The Queen's Vow, I struggled to articulate why I wasn't really enjoying it. I read it quickly, and I was impressed with Gortner's use of historical language. This was certainly not a novel guilty of having historical figures speak in modern vernacular. The novel, too, was firmly rooted in its time. Gortner writes with a rich detail about life in 1400's Spain, yet he doesn't treat the reader as dumb. He strikes a delicate balance in this regard. So what is it that kept me from truly immersing myself in this novel? I'm still not sure, but I know this: I didn't quite buy Isabella.

I'm not an expert on Isabella herself, so I won't speak to the historical accuracy of her character. I will, however, speak to Isabella the character. She wasn't particularly likable, which I'm fine with, but she wasn't particularly unlikable either. For a character who is the focus of a book, I typically like to haven a opinion on her. When the book begins, Isabella is a child, and her lack of temperament makes sense. Yet as she ages and accomplished extraordinary things, particularly for a woman of her time, it struck me that the action often happened around her rather than in her or through her. Admittedly, characters who sit by quietly and face inner turmoil over speaking up annoy me, and Isabella's 'gee whiz' attitude was particularly irritating to me. Again, I won't speak to the historical accuracy, as Isabella the character was acting like a woman of her time, yet I'm not convinced she acted as a woman of her status.

The verdict: Despite a strong historical setting and writing, I could never commit to Isabella as a character in this novel. As a character she felt flat, and as she is the focus of this novel, the novel as a whole fell flat for me.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 400 pages
Publication date: June 12, 2012 (it's out in paperback now)
Source: publisher via Historical Fiction Virtual Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Queen's Vow from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit all of the tour stops, visit C.W. Gortner's website, like him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, and follow him on Goodreads.

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!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sunday Salon: It's Great to Be Home

Have I mentioned how good it is to be home? I love ALA, the city of Chicago, and traveling, but I also really love my house. After one of the worst days of traveling in my life, it was particularly sweet to make it home this week. And a short work week with plenty of time for reading, watching television, films, and relaxing is exactly what I needed after being gone for four nights last week. After working yesterday, I'm also really looking forward to a "second weekend," as I'm off today and tomorrow.

What I'm reading: Now and Next
I'm currently enjoying Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (review coming Wednesday) in print. I'm glad to be reading it over the weekend because Kingsolver's chapters are long and involved. It's a wonderful novel to spend hours at a time with. I'm also listening to What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty on audio. It's one of my book club's picks for August, and, for once, I'm hoping to be done with both August picks in July. (We meet every other month and read two books.) The book is set in Australia, and I'm particularly enjoying having an Australian narrator. I am somewhat afraid, however, I will start randomly speaking in an Australian accent because I'm listening to it so much. As soon as I finish Flight Behavior, I'm moving on to the July Backlist Book Club pick, Affinity by Sarah Waters. Then I'm looking forward to three new releases: Godiva by Nicole Galland, Ten Things I Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler, and Tampa by Elissa Nutting.


The Backlist Book Club
The votes have been tallied, and the July pick for The Backlist Book Club is Affinity by Sarah Waters. I'll be reviewing it on Monday, July 15. Then on July 31, I'll host a discussion here for those who have read it. I'd love for you to join us!

What I'm watching: tv and film
Grey's Anatomy continues to dominate my television watching. I've in the midst of season seven right now. I've also started watching Big Brother (the guiltiest of my guilty pleasures) and Under the Dome. Now that we're satellite-free, I'll be watching Under the Dome even if I don't like it because I want to do all I can to support this new model: three days after it airs on CBS, it's available to stream through Amazon Prime. Thank you for being so forward thinking, CBS. I'm also really excited for the debut of Orange is the New Black on Netflix this week. I finished the audiobook last week (review coming Tuesday) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I watched only one film this week: Cabin in the Woods. Horror is not a genre I'm ordinarily drawn to, but I thoroughly enjoyed this smart film.

Coming up on the blog this week:

  • a book review of The Queen's Vow by C.W. Gortner
  • an audiobook review of Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
  • a book review of Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
  • a couple of mini-film reviews
  • an audiobook review of Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub
  • a book review of Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti
Now tell me: what have you been watching, reading and doing this weekend?



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, July 5, 2013

book review: The Fifth Floor by Michael Harvey

The backstory: After devouring Michael Harvey's first mystery featuring ex-cop turned private investigator Michael Kelly in a day, The Chicago Way, I immediately picked up The Fifth Floor, the second in the series.

The basics: The titular fifth floor refers to the location of the Chicago mayor's office, a sure sign Harvey is once again tackling a story of political intrigue. When an old girlfriend asks Michael Kelly to track her husband, who works for the mayor, Kelly doesn't anticipate discovering a dead body while he does so. Soon he finds himself solving multiple mysteries, including this murder, stretching from the Chicago fire of 1871 to the present.

My thoughts: Rarely do I like to read two of an author's books back to back, let alone two in a series without a break, but before I had even finished The Chicago Way, I'd requested the other three titles in the series from the library. One of the things I love most about Michael Harvey's writing is the way he makes things that should be preposterous seem normal. He captures the essence of Chicago beautifully, both its treasures and its embarrassments. This novel beautifully explores the history of Chicago's fire, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This review is intentionally short on details because Harvey's books are best enjoyed knowing little when you begin. Know this: if you like mysteries, drop what you're doing and go get your hands on copies of The Chicago Way and The Fifth Floor--you'll want to start this one as soon as you finish the first one too. 

The verdict: Harvey seamlessly combines a rich portrait of Chicago's history with contemporary drama. The result is a densely and richly plotted contemporary mystery that is even better than The Chicago Way.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 290 pages
Publication date: August 26, 2008
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Fifth Floor from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Michael Harvey's website, like him on Facebook, 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!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

film thoughts: Flight and Zero Dark Thirty

There's a lot to like in Flight: Denzel as a alocholic, drug-taking all-star pilot, a delightfully cooky John Goodman has his drug dealer/fixer/enabler, and a compelling idea for a film. After a night of drinking and sex with a flight attendant, Denzel wakes up to chug a warm beer and do several lines of cocaine to wake himself up enough to fly. It appears to be his standard operating procedure. When things go wrong during the flight, he manages to land the plane and save almost all of the passengers, but when the TSA and airline start looking into what happened, his hero status is in serious jeopardy. What made flight turn from fascinating to unsatisfying for me was that it tried to hard: there were already plenty of areas of moral ambiguity and complicated situations playing out--but instead of allowing those to, the film takes an overly dramatic and simplistic turn that had me wondering if I was watching a made-for-tv movie. Denzel's performance is worth watching, but this film's premise deserved a less melodramatic script.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Source: library

I was somewhat ambivalent about Kathryn Bigelow's last film, Best Picture-winning The Hurt Locker. After thinking Jessica Chastain was one of the few bright spots in The Help, and I was thrilled to see her have more to do in a leading role. Zero Dark Thirty traces the real story of tracking down Osama bin Laden. It's a story we all know the ending too (although it did not yet have an ending when Bigelow began working on the film.) It's a challenge when you know the ending of a film to be invested--the journey becomes more important than the destination (I had similar issues with The Social Network.) While Chastain is unsurprisingly dynamite in the film, its pacing kept this film from being amazing. The climax assumes an ignorance in the audience, and the emphasis on the raid itself, which has been so well documented, felt slow and overly drawn out. It's tough to judge a film in this way, as I can imagine this film resonating more with future audiences less familiar with the details of its outcome. In that sense, it's a success: a poignant, electrifying glimpse into modern history. But to those familiar with the story's end, the first two-thirds of the film will likely be the most intense and suspenseful, as we ponder not the destination but the journey.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: Netflix

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, July 3, 2013

book review: Loteria by Matio Alberto Zambrano

The backstory: Loteria is the first novel by Mario Alberto Zambrano.

The basics: 11-year-old Luz slowly fill the reader in on her life and family by journaling based on Loteria cards, a Mexican version of bingo that uses images rather than numbers.

My thoughts: Loteria is a complicated little novel. I say little because although it has 288 pages, I read it in about two hours, and I am not that fast of a reader. There are many short chapters and each one begins with a full-page image of a mostly relevant Loteria card. For much of the first half of this novel, I was confused. Zambrano doesn't introduce the reader to the story; he throws you right in. You have no context. Several times I found myself flipping to the publisher's description and wondering "did I miss that?" The more I read, however, the more details fall into place and Luz's writing makes more sense. I was glad I saved this novel for the airplane, as it was perfect to read in a couple of sittings over the course of an afternoon. There is a rich detail to this novel. As I was reading, I didn't know which details to savor or which were important. Consequently, I tried to hold as many in my brain as I could to try to make sense of the story.

Because I had no context to Luz's life and little idea who she was, where she was, or what was happening, I had a hard time getting invested. I continued to read with a sense of urgency, and Zambrano manages to build to a somewhat satisfying conclusion. After I turned the last page, however, I couldn't shake the feeling this novel would be better as a short story. There's a fascinating climax, but because I never felt I knew enough about Luz to really be invested in her story, the ending, as good as it was, left me feeling much of the novel was unnecessary. It didn't enrich the heart of the story. It's worth noting that Zambrano also infuses a fair amount of conversational Spanish. I know enough to figure out those parts, but it might add to the confusion for some readers.

The verdict: Loteria is a literary mystery of sorts. The reader must use the scattered clues left in Luz's journal to decipher who and what she is. While the climax is well done, this novel ultimately left me wanting either more--the perspectives of other characters too--or less of it

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: July 2, 2013
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Loteria from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Stop by other tour stops, visit Mario Alberto Zambrano's website, and like him on Facebook.

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

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

book review: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

The backstory: Curtis Sittenfeld's previous novel, American Wife, remains my all-time favorite novel.

The basics: Sisterland is the story of Violet and Kate, twin sisters who both are somewhat psychic. In adulthood, Vi has embraced her powers and works as a psychic. Kate, however, has disavowed her powers in an attempt to live a 'normal', happy life with her husband, a professor of science, and two children. When a minor earthquake hits St. Louis, Vi predicts a major one coming soon, and her prediction makes her an instant celebrity. Meanwhile, Kate shares a sense of Vi's prediction, while Jeremy does not.

My thoughts: I adore the way Curtis Sittenfeld writes. I was highlighting my e-galley compulsively as I read. She builds the world and her characters beautifully and honestly. She inserts beautifully detailed observations that stopped me cold:
"The feeling that gripped me in this moment was similar to what I imagined the relatives of an alcoholic must experience when they learn that their parent or child or sibling has gone on another bender: that mix of anger and disappointment and lack of surprise, a blend so exquisite, so familiar, it's almost like satisfaction."
In this novel, the action begins in the present day, but most chapters include key elements of Kate and Vi's life told chronologically before jumping back to the present. In this sense, the story unfolds slowly, but the significance of small moments are amplified by the reader's growing understanding. The action in this novel occurs in 2009, and once Kate has finished explaining how she and Vi got to the present, a future present voice begins popping up. I'm a huge fan of the future present, as it can offer minor, tantalizing clues about how and where the story will end. Sittenfeld uses the future present masterfully in this novel.

Favorite passage: "Do you think she's pretty?" Vi's voice was surprisingly vulnerable, and I thought how I had forgotten this part--how when you got together with someone new, you had to adjust to the ways in which they implicitly represented you. First you had to figure out what those ways were; then you had to determine whether you could put up with them."

The verdict: Sisterland builds slowly, and near the end I began to fear Sittenfeld had written a glorious set up to an ultimately disappointing novel. The last chapter, however, is a literary tour de force and could serve as a masterclass in detailed plot development free of gimmicks.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 416 pages
Publication date: June 25, 2013
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Sisterland from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Curtis Sittenfeld's website.

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