Monday, August 19, 2013

book review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

The basics: Orphan Train is the story of two women and their unlikely friendship (if you want to run for the hills at the beginning of that description--hear me out.) Molly is almost eighteen, which means she is almost aging out of the foster care system. Desperate to have her own copy of her favorite book, she steals a copy of it from her school library. Her punishment is fifty hours of community service. Her boyfriend's mother, who works as a housekeeper for a 90-year-old-widow, arranges for Molly to help the woman, Vivian, go through the boxes in her attic. These boxes hold memories of the journeys of Vivian's life, when she was sent on the orphan train from New York City to Minnesota many years ago.

My thoughts: The reality of orphan trains depresses me. While I welcomed the chance to learn more about this dark part of U.S. history, I'm grateful Kline interspersed them with Molly's modern scenes. It also helped to know Vivian somehow not only survives but thrives. It would be easy for this story to come across as hokey, but Kline balances hope, the darkness of reality, and pain beautifully.

Admittedly, I was more captivated by Vivian's journey because it was so mysterious. As Vivian becomes a main character in the contemporary part of the story, I was thrilled. I'm fascinated by the wandering paths our lives take, and Vivian's is a majestic one.

The verdict: Orphan Train is an emotional read, and I sobbed through the last twenty pages. Kline makes the orphan train experience come alive through Vivian, and her joint portrayal of Molly's life in foster care is a sobering reality of how close we still are to that dark history.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: April 2, 2013
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

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

Want more? Check out all the tour stops, visit Christina Baker Kline's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

Now tell me: Have you read other novels by Christina Baker Kline? Which one should I read next?

 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, August 13, 2013

book review: Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet

The backstory: Years ago, I used to discover new authors by browsing the new releases in the library and seeing which covers grabbed me. I had as many successes as failures, and my shift toward finding life-minded readers has certainly improved my success with books. Yet I still think fondly of those authors I discovered my old-fashioned way, and Kelly Braffet is one of those authors. I recall bringing home Last Seen Leaving and sitting down on my the screened-in porch to read it before dinner. I was up until the wee hours of the morning finishing it, and when I returned it to the library the next day, I picked up her first novel, Josie and Jack. Imagine my delight when I saw that seven years later, there's finally another Braffet novel to read!

The basics: Save Yourself is the story of two sets of siblings: Patrick and Mike Cusimano are still reeling from their father's arrest and conviction for killing a child while driving drunk. They live in their father's house, along with Mike's girlfriend, Caro. Across Ratchetsberg, a tiny town outside Pittsburgh, Layla Elshere, the oldest daughter of a local church leader has turned Goth and tries to befriend Patrick because of what his father did. Her little sister, Verna, begins high school and is tormented.

My thoughts: Save Yourself is filled with both unlikable characters and characters making self-destructive, yet understandable, decisions. Braffet shifts the narration among the main characters beautifully, and I welcomed the opportunity to better understand these complicated, well-developed characters. As I read, I always had the sense that anything could happen and it would work with these characters and their choices. As a reader, I love to place my entire trust in an author. The characters and their world were so well-formed, and their behavior was so often reckless, I read with a sense of foreboding. There's an eeriness to this novel I adored.

Favorite passage: "She often prayed for the strength to stop eavesdropping, but God never gave it to her. Maybe because the things she learned left her less baffled by the mysteries around her."

The verdict: Save Yourself is a captivating character-driven novel. Braffet is a brave and bold storyteller, and both are on full display in her latest novel.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: August 6, 2013
Source: publisher

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

Want more? Visit Kelly Braffet'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, August 8, 2013

three more mini-movie reviews

Between the more leisurely pace of summer (and my aversion to its heat) and giving up satellite, I've been watching a lot of movies (both with and without Mr. Nomadreader.) Here are my brief thoughts on some recent ones.

The Cabin in the Woods

When I told Mr. Nomadreader I wanted to watch The Cabin in the Woods, he was surprised and excited, as horror is not my favorite genre, and it is one of his. But the very reason I wanted to see (and ended up loving) The Cabin in the Woods is that it's so smart. There's certainly something in it that will terrify everyone, but it's not terror for terror's sake. It works because it's brilliant and inventive. It pays homage to the genre's history, but it offers a delightfully fresh take on it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Source: Netflix

Spring Breakers

At the end of a particularly bad day, I was in the mood for an escapist movie and several glasses of wine. Spring Breakers was the perfect antidote. The story of four friends, three who rob a restaurant to pay for their Spring Break trip. As in Kids, Harmony Korine's first film, there's an attempt to shock the audience. The film worked for me for two reasons, and they're both casting. The four young girls seem particularly young because they're actually playing characters around their age. To see them acting recklessly and without inhibition is both invigorating and refreshing, even as their behavior is appalling. It's James Franco, however, who really makes this film. His performance is fabulous, and a role that could be ridiculous and campy feels authentic.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: Redbox

End of Watch

Shot in a documentary style, from the perspectives of the cops and criminals both, End of Watch follows partners and best friends Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena on and off duty in Los Angeles. I'm a huge fan of cop dramas, and End of Watch is a good one. What keeps it from being a truly great one is its similarities in style to Southland, one of my all-time favorite tv shows. There's the same tension here, but without the prolonged storylines of characters, there's not the same level of buy-in. Pena and Gyllenhaal are both outstanding and believable as both cops and best friends.

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, August 7, 2013

mini audiobook reviews: Dreaming in Chinese, The Obituary Writer, and Someday, Someday, Maybe

Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows, narrated by Catherine Byers

Fallows, a linguist, begins learning Chinese in preparation for moving to China with her husband. Dreaming in Chinese is part travel memoir and part lingual study of the language. If you already know a lot (or perhaps even a little) about the language, this book may not have even travel to keep your interest. If, however, you know little about the Chinese language, this book is fascinating. I now better understand how and why Chinese native speakers speak English. And it reaffirmed my belief that I do not have the patience or fortitude to actually learn Chinese myself. If you opt to read this one, don't listen. The narration is pretty awful: Byers is an over-anunciator, which works well in some parts, as this is a book about the nuance of language, but it's distracting at others time. Byers doesn't bring any warmth to the travel parts, nor does she bring any nuance to the epiphanies, in language and culture, Fallows shares. Most annoying, there are numerous mentions of mentioning a key visual element as though the listener is looking at it. I switched to print to finish this one, and I was glad I did.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (audio: 2 out of 5)
Source: purchased

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood, narrated by Tavia Gilbert

Tavia Gilbert masterfully distinguishes between the two narrators: Claire, a pregnant young mother who is living in the DC suburbs and is obsessed with Jackie O. on the eve of JFK's inauguration, and Vivien, the titular obituary writer, who lives in Napa Valley in 1919. The two women are seemingly unrelated, but I wasn't fazed by this, as both stories were equally compelling. The Obituary Writer is one of those great novels that grew on me more as I listened. I liked it from the beginning, but I loved it by the end.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Source: library

Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham, narrated by Lauren Graham

Florinda at the The 3R's Blog convinced me to listen to this one. Set in the mid-1990's, Graham tells the story of aspiring actress Franny. The glimpse into the hard years was fascinating, but I equally loved flashing back to 1995, when checking your answering machine meant finding a payphone to call it yourself. Franny is a delightful character, if not annoyingly self-deprecating at times. Graham narrates it beautifully, and I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, despite its predictability.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (audio: 4.5 out of 5)
Source: purchased

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, August 6, 2013

three mini-movie reviews

Between the more leisurely pace of summer (and my aversion to its heat) and giving up satellite, I've been watching a lot of movies (both with and without Mr. Nomadreader.) Here are my brief thoughts on some recent ones.

Snow White and the Huntsman
I am not one who is caught up in fairy tales or modern re-tellings, but I was curious to see this feminist version, and I'm glad I did. The film is escapist fun. The three leads, Charlize Theron, Kristen Stewart, and Chris Hemsworth (whom I lovingly call the talented Hemsworth), are fantastic, and they strike right the balance of seriousness and silliness. They're appropriately over the top at times, but it's never distracting. The entire film is a visual feast, and I was utterly entranced with it while I watched. Is it one that will stick with me for a long time? No, but it was entertaining, fun, and I'll gladly see the sequel.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: Redbox

Your Sister's Sister
If you're looking for a classic independent romantic comedy, Your Sister's Sister is it. The conceit sounds like too much: after Jack's (Mark Duplass) brother dies, his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) sends him to her family's island cottage to refresh. Unbeknownst to Iris, her lesbian sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is there mourning the end of her seven-year relationship. After a night of drinking, Jack and Hannah have sex, and Iris comes up to surprise Jack the morning after. In the hands of less capable actors, particularly Blunt and DeWitt, who are equally fabulous and completely believable as sisters, perhaps it would be. There are some moments where the film strives too hard, but overall, it's a delightful love triangle of sorts, and it's examination of family, friendship and love are poignant and honest.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: Netflix

Skyfall

It's fair to say I am not a huge fan of action movies. I get bored, even with beautiful action scenes, if there's not enough of a satisfying emotional story. Skyfall delivers on both counts. The stunts and travel scenes are majestic, but the emotional core of this film lies in Bond's backstory, and it's haunting and intriguing.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: library

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, August 5, 2013

book review: Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel

The backstory: When I read Susanna Daniel's debut novel, Stiltsville, I gushed that "it's the most emotionally engaging novel I've read in quite some time." It not only made my top ten of 2010, it came in at number two. Given my love for Stiltsville, I was eager to see Daniel return to Miami with her second novel, Sea Creatures.

The basics: In 1992, Georgia's college admissions consulting business has failed. When her husband Graham doesn't receive tenure at Northwestern, they move back to her native Miami, where a friend of Graham's has offered him a job studying hurricanes. Their three-year-old son Frankie hasn't spoken for eighteen months, but there seems to be no medical reason why.

My thoughts: I foolishly sat down to start reading Sea Creatures before work one morning, and it was a struggle to not call in sick. One again, Daniel's writing captured me from the opening page. It's the first print book to capture me with writing and character since I read Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland last month.

Georgia narrates her story from the future, which gives an air of importance to all of the novel's events. There  is also a poignancy to her story, one that perhaps only reflecting on the events yet to come for the reader. The result is a brilliantly plotted, masterful contemporary novel. When I turned the last page, I was in awe of how much Daniel fit into the novel. Each character, even the minor ones, are fully formed. Parts of the novel feel like an epic, as Daniel fills the story with past, present and future.

Favorite passage: "People speak of strength in times of crisis, as if strength were some great beast that swoops in to gird us, to repair our voices and limbs when it seems they might fail. But to this day, I don't know exactly what we mean when we speak of strength."

The verdict: Sea Creatures is the best book I've read in 2013. It's a beautiful, intelligent, and heart-wrenching novel, and I hope it becomes a modern classic.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: July 30, 2013
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

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

Want more? Visit all the tour stops, visit Susanna Daniel'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, August 1, 2013

The Backlist Book Club: The August 2013 pick is Half of a Yellow Sun

The August 2013 Backlist Book Club selection is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The votes this month were pretty close, with one exception: there was very little love for Kate Grenville's The Idea of Perfection. Admittedly, that title is perhaps the least well-known of the four. Here's the full voting breakdown:
  • Half of a Yellow Sun 38%
  • Small Island 31%
  • On Beauty 23%
  • The Idea of Perfection 8%
Half of a Yellow Sun won the Orange Prize (now Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction) in 2007 and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006.

Here's how The Backlist Book Club works:
You have all month to read the book. After reading last month's pick later than anticipated, I actually enjoyed having the opportunity to discuss the title before reviewing it. I haven't decided if I'd like to review it before or after the discussion, so stay tuned. On Saturday, August 31, I'll host a discussion of the book here. The Twitter hashtag is #BacklistClub. Participate as much or as little as you like. If you'd like to post about The Backlist Book Club, grab the button and go!

Are you in? Get the book! Buy Half of a Yellow Sun from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's website.

What's coming next? The August vote for The Backlist Book Club will post Sunday, August 18. Voting will go until noon on Saturday, August 31.



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!