Wednesday, April 30, 2014

book review: Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest

The basics: Save the Date, the debut memoir from Jen Doll, chronicles her life as a frequent wedding guest and bridesmaid.

My thoughts: I've been a fan of Jen Doll for years as she's written for The Atlantic, New York, and The Village Voice (among many others.) I've always found her writing strong and insightful, yet given the title and cover, I expected this memoir to be filled with more humorous anecdotes than insight. I was pleasantly surprised, as Save the Date isn't the memoir I expected, but it's still one I enjoyed immensely.

There is plenty of humor throughout Save the Date, but over all the tone was much more thoughtful, and it's often both:
"You should give him a chance." 
"You think?" This was not the first time I'd been given this advice. There were plenty of paired-up couples in my life who seemed to see me as a hard-hearted ballbuster who never opened up, who refused to even consider anyone less than some idealized form of man. In truth, I knew that my heart, though deeply crusted on the outside with a protective layer of sarcasm and revenge schemes, was as welcomingly pliable as any of the hearts of the married twosomes I'd seen in wedlock." 
The memoir is largely chronological, but because the emphasis is on Doll's personal growth and ideas, particularly surrounding friendship and romance, more than the weddings themselves, the chronology matters less than the emotional timeline. As I read, I found myself growing closer to Doll and thinking of her as a friend. She writes with admirable candor, and at times I found myself simultaneously marveling and wincing at her honesty and actions. I found myself emotionally invested and wishing for a happy ending for Doll. When I turned the last page, I already missed her wry observations and humor.

Favorite passage: "And there are times when you'll do anything so you can later say you did, because when all is said and done, the party favor you'll take home with you is the story."

The verdict: Save the Date made me laugh and cry. Most importantly, however, it made me ponder so much about friendship, relationships, marriage and life. Doll is a bravely honest writer, and I loved how much she opens up in this pitch-perfect memoir.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 327 pages
Publication date: May 1, 2014 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Jen Doll's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

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, April 29, 2014

book review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

The backstory: Burial Rites, the debut novel by Australian author Hannah Kent, is shortlisted for this year's Baileys Prize. It's also one of my book club's May picks (we meet every other month and read two books.)

The basics: Set in Iceland in 1829, Burial Rites, is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a woman sentenced to die for murder. In this time before prisons, Agnes is sent to live with a family of two daughters on a farm to await her execution.

My thoughts: Burial Rites is based on real people; Agnes Magnusdottir is the last person to be executed in Iceland. I'm a big fan of fiction based on real people and real events, and this story is a fascinating glimpse into another time and place. Kent allows multiple voices to narrate this novel, which adds depth to the characters and events. It's an intentionally complicating look at a deceptively simple story.

There is a mystery at the heart of the narrative, but I'd stop short of calling it a mystery. This novel is, however, filled with intrigue and captivated me from its opening pages. While the question of how and why Natan was murdered (and perhaps by whom) is a compelling one, but it didn't drive the narrative for me. Instead, the characters are the focus here. Much of the action surrounds Agnes, but as fascinated as I was by Agnes, I was even more fascinated by the family forced to take her in.

Kent's writing is atmospheric and fluid. I felt it captured the mood, time and place beautifully, but I never found myself moved by a particular passage. The writing carried the story, but it didn't make me stop and marvel at the language.

The verdict: Burial Rites is an enchanting, atmospheric novel. It transported me to Iceland in the 1800's. It's certainly an accomplished debut novel, particularly for such a young writer (Kent was born in 1985), and I'm eager to follow Kent's career from here.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 353 pages
Publication date: September 10, 2013 (it's in paperback now)
Source: library

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

Want more? Visit Hannah Kent'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, April 21, 2014

book review: Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen

The backstory: Still Life with Bread Crumbs was longlisted for the 2014 Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction. It's also one of my book club's selections for May (we meet every other month and read two books.)

The basics: Rebecca Winter is a famous photographer who was once also rich. Now she finds herself forced to sublet the Manhattan apartment she loves and rent a quaint cottage upstate.

My thoughts: I've previously read two of Quindlen's novels: Rise and Shine and Every Last One. I read Rise and Shine when it was first released and before I started blogging, but I loved it. I had decidedly mixed feelings about her last novel, Every Last One, and admittedly I was hesitant to pick up this novel until it was longlisted for the Baileys Prize. For me, this novel falls somewhere between the other two.

Rebecca Winter is a wonderfully honest character. Quindlen deftly introduces her to the reader as both the public persona and the private person:
"Talking about art requires artists to sound purposeful and sure of themselves, but she’d never felt that way. Over the years she’d made up a lot of reasons because people didn’t seem to like the arbitrariness of the reality. They also didn’t believe that she’d simply photographed what was already there—a bottle lying on its side with the puddle of olive oil shimmering along its curved lip, a handful of greasy forks glistening in the overhead lights, and, of course, what was later called Still Life with Bread Crumbs, a vaguely Flemish composition of dirty wine glasses, stacked plates, the torn off two baguettes, and a dish towel singed at one corner by the gas stove."
This passage exemplifies the perfection of the novel's title, which I didn't really understand when I started the book. It also illustrates the tension between the public and private, a theme that runs throughout the book, most strongly with Rebecca, but also with each character. This novel constantly answers the question of how the story behind the scenes compares to what people think is happening. In this sense, the novel is not as simple as it could appear. Quindlen's writing is lush, but there is depth to this seemingly simple story I quite appreciated. It was a fast read for me--I finished it the day I started it, but it was also a novel I savored. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Rebecca and the quirky characters she befriends upstate (plus the family and friends she's known before her sojourn.

Part of me loved this novel, and as I read I couldn't help but think I would love this novel even more if I read it later in life. I'm very much looking forward to my book club, which includes women of many ages, discussing this title next month. I'm curious if those closer to Rebecca's age than I am will indeed love this one more than I did.

Favorite passage: "It’s a funny thing, hope. It’s not like love, or fear, or hate. It’s a feeling you don’t really know you had until it’s gone."

The verdict:  Still Life with Bread Crumbs is a well-written, engaging piece of character-driven fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed the day I spent with this novel, but I ultimately wasn't wowed. As much as I liked the time I spent with novel, I was somewhat disappointed when I turned the last page--both that this reading experience had come to an end and that the end itself was rather lackluster. This novel is good, but I wished it would have been great.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 252 pages
Publication date: January 28, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Still Life with Bread Crumbs from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Anna Quindlen'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!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

book review: Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today's Best Women Writers

The basics: Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today's Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon, brings together an impressive group of contemporary female writers from a variety of genres to share their experiences giving birth. The essays are as varied as the women who write them.

My thoughts: Admittedly, before I got pregnant (and even early on in my pregnancy), I shied away from birth stories. Rarely do I favor ignorance, but in this case, I was scared of labor and childbirth, yet I knew I would be going through it, and I wasn't ready to deal with it. At some point in my pregnancy, I became eager for birth stories. I'm still frightened, of course, but I find comfort in imagining myself in a variety of different scenarios, both the positive and negative.

I'll be honest: this collection of essays often veers to the negative and sad. There are some heart-breaking stories told in these pages. I shed many, many tears as I read, yet even the most heart-breaking essays, I found a sense of comfort and kinship with the writers. These strong, beautiful voices moved me with their tales of the times before, during and after birth. To combine such intimate details about life, birth, and new motherhood with beautiful language is a true gift.

Favorite passage:  "I suppose we are always alone in our pain, but we are rarely positioned appropriately to view the isolation accurately. Most of the choices with which we are presented in childbirth are secondary to the one most important in practice we must be prepared to labor alone, even in the company of others, even with the brilliantly blinding help of loved ones. Perhaps the debates regarding child birth are so he did because in the end it’s one woman’s experience, not a shared cultural phenomenon. It’s you and your pain; it’s you and it’s your baby.” --Sarah A. Strickley

The verdict: This collection is superb. While some essays are objectively better than others, only one rang hollow for me. While I connected more deeply with some than others, I appreciated and gained something from each one. I'll be giving this book to many, many pregnant friends in the years to come.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 321 pages
Publication date: April 15, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today's Best Women Writers from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or 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!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

book review: The Poet by Michael Connelly

The backstory: I've been racing through Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels and loving them. I decided to read all of his novels in the order in which they were published rather than just the Bosch novels. The Poet is the first non-Bosch mystery.

The basics: When Jack McEvoy, a Denver newspaper journalist, hears his twin brother, a police officer, committed suicide, he doesn't believe it and starts investigating his death as a possible murder.

My thoughts: The best stand-alone mysteries are the stories that couldn't be told the same way if the usual crime-solver caught the case, and The Poet is a stellar mystery. Admittedly, I'm a fan of journalist-fiction, and McEvoy is a smart, savvy journalist (and character) to root for. In many ways The Poet is the best of both worlds: solving mysteries inside and outside of law enforcement. McEvoy has access to some clues that may have been missed, while he also relies on law enforcement at other times. The result is a compelling, compulsively-readable mystery I'm still marveling about. Fans of Connelly will enjoy a few delightfully subtle Easter eggs that those who don't know Bosch wouldn't even notice.

The verdict: The Poet may be Michael Connelly's best mystery yet. This mystery is twisty even by his standards, and I hope McEvoy (and other characters from The Poet) pops up in another Connelly mystery down the road.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 528 pages
Publication date: January 1996
Source: library

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

Want more? Visit Michael Connelly's websitelike 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!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

book review: Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter

The backstory: Eleven Days, the debut novel by Lea Carpenter, was longlisted for the 2014 Baileys Prize and shortlisted for the 2013 Flaherty-Dunnan Prize.

The basics: Set in May 2011, Sara's son Jason, part of an elite military unit, has been missing for nine days. Jason and his disappearance are national news. Carpenter tells the story in alternating voices of Sara, in 2011, and Jason, from the past.

My thoughts: Carpenter immediately drew me into this novel and Sara's narrative. The writing is lush and emotional. When the narration shifts to Jason (and the past), I was intrigued. Soon, however, I found myself longing for more Sara and less Jason, or rather less Jason not seen through Sara's thoughts. Structurally, Jason's narration struck me as a functional and intellectual plot device. It lacked Sara's emotionally authentic, and thus more compelling, voice.

Admittedly, this novel is the first one with a strong mother-son connection I've read since I found out I'm pregnant with a son. How much this new knowledge impacted by connection to Sara is difficult to say, but the passages in which she ponders his childhood moved me move than they might have before this knowledge:
"Art and writing: these were his early passions. And that pleased her; it somehow reinforced her sense of herself. It reinforced that she had not ever been owned by anyone--not a government, not a military, not a man. It also reinforced her dreams for what she wanted her son to be. She wanted him to be free from the demons that had come with what his father did, or at least what she knew of what he did. She didn't want a son who grew up to be familiar with words like Kalashinikov, katusha, or jezail--unless he learned them from a Kipling poem."  
The passage is beautiful in its own right, and it exemplifies so much of Sara's character and internal thoughts, yet I felt more like a mother character than I often do, rather than simply coming to understand her better.

Favorite passage: "Part of the blissful ignorance of not yet having had a first child is the belief that you might just be able to influence the course of their lives. Influence them to greatness. And away from danger."

The verdict: Eleven Days is a beautifully written, contemplative war novel, but it's also a novel concerned with themes much deeper and broader than war. Carpenter is clearly a talent to watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 289 pages
Publication date: June 18, 2013
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Eleven Days from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or 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!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The 2014 Baileys Prize Shortlist

The Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction shortlist was announced yesterday afternoon. While I only managed to read five of the longlisted titles before the shortlist announcement, none of those five made the shortlist. I hope this means I'm in for many treats as I make my way through the shortlist:



Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee (U.S. publication September 2, 2014)
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (U.S. publication September 9, 2014)
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I'm eager to read all six of these titles, and with the announcement of the winner two months away, I hope I'll have time to get to all six. I love the combination of three debut authors with three well-established authors, including one former winner. It's an intriguing shortlist, and I'm looking forward to digging in soon!

Now tell me: who is your pick to win this year's Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction?

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, April 7, 2014

book review: Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons, and Love Affairs by Pearl Cleage

The backstory:  Longtime readers know Pearl Cleage is my absolute favorite author. See my raves about her novels: What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, I Wish I Had a Red DressSome Things I Never Thought I'd DoBabylon SistersBaby Brother's Blues, Seen It All and Done the Restand Til You Hear From Me. Any new writing from Pearl is a cause for celebration.

The basics: Things I Should Have Told My Daughter is a curated collection of diary entries from the 1970's and 1980's Cleage includes an introduction and a brief final commentary, but this memoir is essentially twenty years of diary entries.

My thoughts: It's incredibly intimate to read diary entries, particularly from someone I have admired for nearly twenty years. At times, reading these entries broke my heart. While Cleage is now incredibly successful, these entries go back before she was famous, and reading her self-doubt was haunting. I couldn't help but wonder how hindering my own moments of self-doubt are--and where will I find myself in twenty years?

One of the delight of this book was getting to know more about Pearl. One of my favorite anecdotes was her short-lived time in library school. I've long felt Pearl was a soul sister, and knowing she once thought seriously enough about being a librarian delighted me.

I think I enjoyed this book more than the average person because of my familiarity with Atlanta and its progressive activists from the last forty years. There's a special delight at hearing stories about the parents of my classmates from before we were born. Those not familiar with Atlanta power players may find themselves looking up unfamiliar names that are presented without context, but it's worth the extra time to marvel at Cleage's rich history.

Favorite passage: "I told Michael in Martinique that sometimes it doesn't matter if you're telling the same stories over and over. Most people don't have many to tell. Talking is just a way of having pleasant social intercourse with people and of establishing contact; and concern; and love."

The verdict: Things I Should Have Told My Daughter is a mesmerizing glimpse into a fascinating woman and her intriguing life. Atlantans, feminists, writers, and social activists will delight in the familiar names, locations, and emotions. I consider myself at least part of all four, and perhaps that makes me the target audience.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: April 8, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Things I Should Have Told My Daughter from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Pearl Cleage'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!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sunday Salon: Oh, Maisie!

Note: this post contains some spoilers about the plot events in Leaving Everything Most Loved, the tenth Maisie Dobbs mystery.

There is good news and bad news in the Maisie Dobbs world. The good news: Jacqueline Winspear's next novel comes out July 1st. The bad news: it's not a Maisie Dobbs novel. It is a historical novel about World War I, and I'm very much looking forward to reading it. Buried in the announcement about the paperback release of the last Maisie Dobbs novel, Leaving Everything Most Loved, and the new novel, The Care and Management of Lies, was a note that "Maisie Dobbs returns in a new series featuring the psychologist-investigator" in Spring 2015. What does that mean?

I've been pondering this revelation for several weeks now. In my review of Leaving Everything Most Loved last March, I said " it represents a dynamic turning point for the series, and I can't wait to see what Winspear cooks up for Maisie next." A new series is not what I expected, and I have some questions. What makes it a new series? If it's still about Maisie Dobbs, then why are there two series? What will we call the second Maisie Dobbs series? Will readers even realize it's a new series? Spring 2015 is a long time from now. I know more details will start to emerge before then, but in the meantime, I'm perplexed.

In the absence of real news, I've started creating Maisie Dobbs conspiracy theories. Some are realistic. Others are not. The first: a time jump. The Maisie Dobbs novels have been moving toward World War II for several books. With so many storylines of secondary characters tied up in Leaving Everything Most Loved, will Maisie come back from India in the 1940's or even the 1950's? Will she have met Bess Crawford there through a marvel in historical mystery time travel and open the doors for crossover novels? Will she come back with a baby? Will she come back with a husband? Will she come back a lesbian? Will she come back even farther in the future, perhaps the 1960's or 1970's?

If I were playing the odds (are there odds for such things?), I'd bet on a time jump and mostly new secondary characters. In many ways, it makes sense. It would give Maisie (and Winspear) the freedom to explore new things. Our old favorites could still pop up on occasion, but a time jump (plus the trip to India) would allow Maisie to have already developed new relationships. I would fully support this decision creatively, even as I would miss the characters I've come to know (and love) over so many books. What I'm having trouble fully supporting is the mystery behind what makes the series new. When can you tell me more, Jacqueline Winspear?

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!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

book review: The Last Coyote by Michael Connelly

The backstory: The Last Coyote is the fourth Harry Bosch mystery by Michael Connelly. Read my reviews of the first three: The Black Echo, The Black Ice, and The Concrete Blonde.

The basics: When LAPD detective Harry Bosch is placed on leave for hitting his lieutenant, he takes the time off work as his opportunity to try to solve the murder of his mother, which happened when he was eleven.

My thoughts: It's no secret I've been loving (and quickly devouring) Michael Connelly's mysteries the past few months. After The Concrete Blonde revisited the most infamous case of Bosch's career, The Lost Coyote tackles the most infamous case of Bosch's life: the murder of his prostitute mother. Taken together, these two novels could easily serve as an ending of sorts for this series; instead, Connelly uses them as a end and a beginning.

It's not an uncommon trope to have an unsolved case in a detective's personal life (in any media.) It was a pleasant surprise to see this case be the focus of an entire novel, and Connelly masterfully uses it to dig even deeper into Bosch.

The verdict: In many ways, this novel could almost serve as the end of a series, as Bosch digs deep into his history and his mother's secrets. It's both a gripping mystery and an incredibly satisfying conclusion to a mystery that began with this series. Even more than usual, I can't wait to see what Connelly does with Bosch next.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 383 pages
Publication date: June 1, 1995 
Source: purchased

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

Want more? Visit Michael Connelly's websitelike 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!

Friday, April 4, 2014

book review: Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill

The basics:  "Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all." (via publisher)

My thoughts: I've spent a lot of time thinking about Dept. of Speculation since I finished it in January. Typically, I like to write reviews soon after finishing novels, but I wanted to ponder this one. And even as I still am, I'm ready to start talking about this remarkable book.

First, I am officially a huge fan of Offill's writing. She's hilarious: "That night on TV, I saw the tattoo I wished my life had warranted. If you have not known suffering, love me. A Russian murderer beat me to it." She's wise: "For most married people, the standard pattern is a decrease of passionate love, but an increase in deep attachment." I read for the joy of her sentences as much as anything else. When I started this novel, I was enraptured and awed with her writing and unconventional structure (the chapters are vignettes of sort, and it takes some time for the plot to emerge.) I didn't particularly care where it was going, or even how it would get there; I knew I needed to be along for the ride. In a pinch, I suppose I would call this novel experimental, but it's also far more accessible than most experimental novels. Narrative structure aside, there is so much familiar material in the vignettes to enjoy. At times it read almost like a stand-up routine that ends up coming together.

While I loved the experience of reading this novel (and truly savored it), I was somewhat underwhelmed with it as a whole. I loved each of the parts, but I expected the sum to add up to something quite different. Perhaps because I called this novel experimental as I read (and spent so much time thinking about its structure), that I lost sight of trusting Offill and enjoying the journey on which she took me.

Favorite passage: "Three things no one has ever said about me:
You are very mysterious.
You make it look so easy.
You need to take yourself more seriously.

The verdict: Dept. of Speculation is a fascinating, thoughtful, slim novel. As I read, I was utterly enraptured. It was so good that when I was finished I was oddly disappointed because I wished the collection of so many moments of brilliance added up to a bit more as a whole. Still, it's a novel I'll continue to re-read for years to come, and I'll continue to savor the prose of Jenny Offill.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: January 28, 2014
Source: publisher

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

Want more? Visit Jenny Offill'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!