Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Book Review: Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

From Goodreads: 
A high school music festival goes awry when a young prodigy disappears from a hotel room that was the site of a famous murder/suicide fifteen years earlier, in a whip-smart novel sparkling with the dark and giddy pop culture pleasures of The Shining, Agatha Christie, and Glee.
Incredibly well done.  I have absolutely no complaints in terms of the writing.  I felt like the author took a setting I'm unfamiliar with (high school music festival) and made it something immensely relatable, through characters that I had nothing in common with.  If that sounds like a feat, it's because it is.  My high school experience and myself as a high-schooler was so far removed from these teens, but they are written in such a way that I found myself  connecting with them regardless of our differences.  I particularly fell in love with Rabbit, one of a set of twins.  While his sister is the outgoing star of the show, Rabbit is more serious and reserved.  I loved that the twins roles are reversed right away and the way that their character dynamics shift when Rabbit is suddenly the popular twin.

Entertainment Value
Yes, yes, yes!  Such a fun story to read!  Things move along at a fast pace, the characters are compelling, and I loved the plot twists and turns.  Several delightfully unexpected events occur that left me particularly stunned/moved/thrilled.  It was definitely a pleasure to read and something that I had a hard time putting down.

The one negative in terms of entertainment value for me is a bit of a spoiler - nothing major, but I'm going to type it in white to avoid spoiling anyone who wants a totally pure reading experience.  Highlight from here to see the spoiler: Two characters engage in a "happy" affair, which is one of my pet peeves in books.  I don't like affairs that we're supposed to root for, that are "romantic", or that don't show any of the devastating consequences.  So that took away a bit from my ability to enjoy.

I highly recommend giving this one a try.  The coming of age aspects reminded me a lot of Tell The Wolves I'm Home, so I'd recommend it to fans of that one for sure.  I also think anyone who participated in vocal or instrumental music will love it, as will fans of twisty, delightfully dark and funny mysteries.

Thanks to Netgalley for providing me with a copy to review.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

From Goodreads: 
Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. 

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard. 
The writing in this book is absolutely stunning.  It's a book that you can enjoy reading just for the beauty of the words.  The setting (Iceland) is so perfectly drawn that I felt like I was there.  The way the author uses her words mimics the landscape itself - sparse, but full of life and beauty.  And the characterization is just stunning.

Entertainment Value
This is definitely a character-driven novel.  Plot-wise, nothing moves very quickly.  It's more about getting to know each character, but Agnes in particular, than it is about fast pacing or shocking revelations.  The truth about the murder Agnes is to be executed for is revealed slowly and without salacious detail.  The real draw to the story is in exploring Agnes as a character and in seeing her prepare for death.  Her guilt or innocence are secondary to her development as a character.

It's an absolute must-read for fans of character-driven literary fiction.  It's got a stunning setting, but the biggest thing for me was in really grasping who Agnes is and how she's coping with the knowledge that she will be executed.  As I mentioned above, it's not fast-paced and there are no jaw-dropping revelations, so if you're looking for a mystery or a thriller, this probably isn't the right choice.  But it's beautifully written and was exactly what I was looking for in a character-driven novel.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book Review: One More Thing: Stories and More Stories by B.J. Novak

From Goodreads:
B.J. Novak's One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories is an endlessly entertaining, surprisingly sensitive, and startlingly original debut collection that signals the arrival of a welcome new voice in American fiction.

Across a dazzling range of subjects, themes, tones, and narrative voices, Novak's assured prose and expansive imagination introduce readers to people, places, and premises that are hilarious, insightful, provocative, and moving-often at the same time.
Since these are supposed to be humorous short stories and vignettes, I'm reviewing the writing and entertainment value together, as I typically do for humorous books or essay collections.

Unfortunately, this was a flop for me.  I found a few of the stories ("Julie and the Warlord") to be entertaining and original, but for the most part I was bored.  I kept thinking surely the next story would be better, but it just never got there.  I don't think I laughed out loud at any of the stories, and most of them were less than entertaining.

I've heard from others that this is a great collection to listen to, so maybe on audio, hearing Novak's voice and the voices of the various celebrities who join him in the reading, I would have enjoyed the stories more.  As it was they just fell flat.  As one of my fellow book club members pointed out, they felt like the ideas for stories, but not like completed products.  My personal opinion is that it isn't worth the time.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Finding Time to Listen to Audiobooks

Photo Courtesy of LibAmanda

I posted recently about listening to bookish and non-bookish podcasts during my commute each day, but I didn't really mention the amount of time I spend listening throughout my day.  When people ask how I read so many books, I'm always sure to mention what a big role audiobooks play for me.  I listen to at least one, sometimes two or three, each month.  If you're looking for a way to incorporate more reading into your life, here are a few of my favorite ways to make time to listen.

1.  While Commuting
Whether you ride a train, drive yourself, or walk to work, this is prime audiobook listening time.  Even if your commute is short, you can work in a book over the course of a month or so.  And if you include time spent running errands, it adds up quickly, at least for me.

2.  While Doing Housework
If anything can ease the drudgery of housework, it's an audio book.  Here's my favorite trick for listening to audiobooks while cleaning, especially if you're using a phone as your listening device: Stick your phone in an empty juice glass.  It makes the perfect speaker system and you can carry it around with you as you work.  You could always just use earbuds and an armband or your pocket, but I hate earbuds and prefer to have more freedom to move when I'm cleaning.

3.  While I Sew/Craft
I don't like to sit still.  And I'm a huge fan of multi-tasking.  So while I'd never sit down and do nothing but listen to an audio book, I love being able to feel like I'm accomplishing something while I'm being entertained.  Since I like to sew and craft, the two are a perfect fit.  I use my juice cup trick again for easy listening.

4.  While Doing Lady Things
Nothing ultra personal here, don't worry.  But as a lady, I spend an hour or so a day on hygiene/beauty tasks.  Things that don't require 100% of my attention, and lend themselves to listening, like shaving my legs, putting on/taking off makeup, doing my eyebrows, painting my nails, etc are the perfect time for getting in some chapters.

And as a bonus, I'll give you a few more ways to work in listening time that don't work for me, but might for you:

  • Exercising: I swim, so it won't happen till I get a waterproof MP3 player (hint, hint - Christmas gift) but it's a great time for listening if you're on a treadmill or track
  • Walking the dog: I tried, but I feel guilty for not giving the puppies my attention while walking.  Obviously, they need me to converse with them or their feelings get hurt.
  • Grocery Shopping: I feel weird about having headphones in at the grocery store, but if you don't, go for it!
  • Waiting in line/at the doctor's office: Again, I feel weird about headphone use in public and I'm worried I'll miss something important.  But it would be a good time for listening if it didn't make me feel weird

 How about you, Reader Friends?  When do you listen to audiobooks?  And how do you feel about wearing headphones in public places?  Am I being weird for no reason?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Book Review: The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

From Goodreads:
Until the moment he receives a frantic call from his father, Daniel believed his parents were headed into a peaceful, well-deserved retirement. They had sold their home and business in London and bid farewell to England, setting off to begin life anew on a remote, bucolic farm in rural Sweden.

But with that phone call, everything changes. Your mother's not well, his father tells him. She's been imagining things-terrible, terrible things. She has had a psychotic breakdown and been committed to a mental hospital.

Daniel prepares to rush to Sweden on the first available flight. Before he can board the plane, his father contacts him with even more frightening news: his mother has discharged herself from hospital and he doesn't know where she is. 

Then his mother calls:
"I'm sure your father has spoken to you. Everything that man has told you is a lie. I'm not mad. I don't need a doctor. I need the police. I'm about to board a flight to London. Meet me at Heathrow."

Caught between his parents, and unsure of who to believe or trust, Daniel becomes his mother's unwilling judge and jury as she tells him an urgent tale of secrets, of lies, of a horrible crime and a conspiracy that implicates his own father.
I was impressed.  The Nesties have strongly recommended Smith's other books, and I've had an interest in them, but it took this one to get me to break down and give him a try.  We've got an unreliable narrator, the potential for either serious mental illness or a deep conspiracy, and family drama - all my favorite things.  At first I was really put off by the style of the writing.  We have our narrator, Daniel, who tells the story in straightforward fashion.  But his standard narration is broken up by the story being told to him by his mother.  Her portions don't include quotation marks, so it took me a while to catch on to the difference between Daniel's first person narration and his mother's first person  narration to Daniel.  It was tricky for a while distinguishing between the two, but once I was familiar with each voice, I could tell them apart with no problem.

Entertainment Value
In addition to my confusion over the two voices, I also had a hard time getting off the ground with this story.  The first quarter of the book dragged a bit and I wasn't totally into it.  That said, by the end of the first hundred pages I was hooked.  I stayed up way too late the night before a weekend trip to finish it, which is highly unusual for me, but I just HAD to know how it ended.  It's a book where the tension just continuously builds until the reveal at the end.  And I honestly had no idea which direction the story would take.  The ending was a complete shock, and one that made the slow start worthwhile.

For fans of psychological suspense, this is a must-read.  I'd compare it to books by Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott, although maybe not quite as dark.  I'd also say it reads like Until You're Mine, How to Be A Good Wife, and The Silent Wife.  It has some violence, some sex, and some bad language, but nothing that I'd consider extreme.

Thank to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Book Review: Design Your Life by Ellen and Julia Lupton

From Goodreads:
Design Your Life is a series of irreverent and realistic snapshots about objects and how we interact with them. By leading design thinker Ellen Lupton and her twin sister Julia Lupton, it shows how design is about much more than what’s bought at high-end stores or the modern look at IKEA. Design is critical thinking: a way to look at the world and wonder why things work, and why they don’t.

Illustrated with original paintings of objects both ordinary and odd,Design Your Life casts a sharp eye on everything from roller bags, bras, toilet paper, and stuffed animals to parenting, piles, porches, and potted plants. Using humor and insight Ellen and Julia explore the practical side of everyday design, looking at how it impacts your life in unexpected ways and what you can do about it. Speaking to the popular interest in design as well as people’s desire to make their own way through a mass-produced world, this thoughtful book takes a fresh and humorous approach to make some serious points about the impact of design on our lives.
Very well done from a writing standpoint.  I found the short chapters to be very readable and understandable, even to someone as ignorant about the world of design as myself.  I feel like both experts and neophytes can get something from this book, though, particularly because it is so cleverly done and so funny.  The author makes her subject, everyday items, interesting and appealing, and presents her design information in a way that's easily accessible to all readers.

Entertainment Value
As you can tell from my assessment of the writing, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  I'm interested in design, but have no knowledge, skills, or experience to base that interest on.  I was pleased with how easy it was to read this book and how I was able to grasp the concepts being presented, particularly as they were presented in a manner that was really enjoyable to read.

I thoroughly enjoyed my read and recommend it to anyone who has an interest in design.  It's definitely not going to appeal to everyone though - it's exactly what it says it is: a book about the design, function, and use of everyday objects.  A great read with very nice illustrations, but will appeal to a limited audience.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book Review: The Truth About Alice

From Goodreads:
Everyone has a lot to say about Alice Franklin, and it’s stopped mattering whether it’s true. The rumors started at a party when Alice supposedly had sex with two guys in one night. When school starts everyone almost forgets about Alice until one of those guys, super-popular Brandon, dies in a car wreck that was allegedly all Alice’s fault. Now the only friend she has is a boy who may be the only other person who knows the truth, but is too afraid to admit it. Told from the perspectives of popular girl Elaine, football star Josh, former outcast Kelsie, and shy genius Kurt, we see how everyone has a motive to bring – and keep – Alice down.
To be honest, the writing isn't something that I paid particular attention to in this book.  I find that's a common theme for me in reading and reviewing YA novels, particularly in what I'd consider the "Issues" subgenre.  Particularly in a book that's a short as this one, with a clearly defined message to be conveyed, there just isn't room for a lot of the stylistic devices that I'd look for in a longer book that isn't so issue-driven.

That said, there were no flaws in the writing that took me out of the story.  I liked the shifting perspectives and thought all of the characters were believable as teenagers.  It doesn't have the adultified teen speak that some YA novels fall prey to.  Overall, I was satisfied with the writing, even if nothing in particular jumped out at me as exceptional.

Entertainment Value
This is where books that fall into the "Issues" subgenre really shine for me.  It's one of my favorite types of book to read for pleasure.  I devoured this one in one sitting.  It's heartbreaking to see how things become so twisted for Alice, based purely on the small actions of her classmates.  Each characters tells a small untruth or fudges a bit, but Alice pays a huge price for those lies.  I was really moved by how easily this horrible thing happens to Alice, whose mother is too busy with her own problems to realize Alice is drowning.

Definitely worth reading, particularly for those who are fans of Contemporary YA books that focus on a specific issue.  It's a good look at how easy it is for the small compromises we make can impact people around us - and a great book for teens on the cost to others when you put fitting in or popularity above honestly.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review.