Monday, July 27, 2015

Audiobook Review: Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

From Goodreads:
The fascinating lives of the characters in Almost Famous Women have mostly been forgotten, but their stories are burning to be told. Now Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise, resurrects these women, lets them live in the reader's imagination, so we can explore their difficult choices. Nearly every story in this dazzling collection is based on a woman who attained some celebrity—she raced speed boats or was a conjoined twin in show business; a reclusive painter of renown; a member of the first all-female, integrated swing band. We see Lord Byron's illegitimate daughter, Allegra; Oscar Wilde's troubled niece, Dolly; West With the Night author Beryl Markham; Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, Norma. These extraordinary stories travel the world, explore the past (and delve into the future), and portray fiercely independent women defined by their acts of bravery, creative impulses, and sometimes reckless decisions.
I'm usually drawn to short stories with a somewhat fantastical twist, along the lines of George Saunders or Karen Russel, but heard so many amazing things about this collection of historically inspired stories that I couldn't pass it up.  It wound up being everything the reviews said and more.  I loved the author's voice and felt like she managed to capture multiple, diverse characters and make them each original and separate from the others.  Characterization is short stories is hard, because you only have thirty or so pages to get to know the characters.  Bergman doesn't let that limitation stop her from creating rich, complex characters who leap off the page.

Entertainment Value
You'll want to read this one with Wikipedia open and a pen in hand.  The uniting idea behind this collection is that it features women who were close to fame, although not necessarily famous in their own right, or women who achieved a bit of fame, but aren't the ones we learn about in school.  Every single one of the stories was fascinating and I spent quite a bit of time after each one looking into the background to find out all I could about the story's subject.  I added several biographies to my TBR list as a result.  Even if you're not interested in the history behind the stories, I still think readers will be pleased with how well-drawn each of these stories is.  There's something to grab you in each selection and, when put together as a whole, make a beautiful tapestry that showcases both the author's talent and the experience of being a woman throughout history.  I couldn't stop listening.

No complaints here - I liked the narrator's voice and thought that, like Bergman, she did a great job of creating a unique voice for each story.  That's not to say that she overacts or employs cheesy accents - each story sounds natural and fluid, and I appreciated her changes in intonation to give a different sound to each narrator.

I highly recommend this one to any short story fans.  I'll be watching all of Bergman's future publications, as well as adding her backlist to my TBR.

Thanks to the Free Library of Philadelphia and Hoopla for providing me with an audio copy!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Mini-Reviews: Recent FYA Book Club Choices

From Goodreads:
Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary--including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police--with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane--deny.

Doctor Who meets Sherlock in William Ritter’s debut novel, which features a detective of the paranormal as seen through the eyes of his adventurous and intelligent assistant in a tale brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre.
This one is just an absolute delight to read in every way.  It felt familiar, but not in a cliched way.  I liked that the series seems, so far, to be somewhat episodic, which is exactly what appeals to me about the two tv shows used to blurb the book: Doctor Who and Sherlock.  I love getting a complete story at once, knowing I can look forward to sequels and maybe a continuing story line, but with a fully formed story as well.  The characters are fun and quirky and the story made for compelling reading.  I did figure out the "who done it" very early on.  And while I appreciated the familiarity of the characters, I felt like they were pretty soundly influenced by Doctor Who and Sherlock.  You could easily replace Jackaby with either and not miss a beat - but for me that wasn't problematic.  It's meant to be fun and fanciful and it completely lived up to that expectation.  I highly recommend it and can't wait to read the next book in the series, which comes out in September.

From Goodreads:
Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be. 
The first three quarters of this book were absolutely beautiful and captivating.  I loved the friendship between Dante and Aristotle.  I loved how open Dante was about his identity and sexuality, even though it led him to danger.  His character is so well drawn - he's full of such exuberance and just so very much himself that he can't help but show it to the world.  And I enjoyed reading about a friendship with an unrequited romance.

I felt like the end caved to the pressure of having a message.  It became more on the nose regarding the issue of homosexuality and, I felt, made a point about acceptance rather than honoring the characters, who were already diverse and nuanced and showing a unique and accepting friendship that didn't need a romantic element.  While I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I felt like the ending was somewhat forced.  I was also disappointed by the 1980's setting.  There were few cultural references and, were we not occasionally reminded of the era, I never would have noticed it didn't have a contemporary setting.  There didn't seem to be much of a reason to set it in the 80's other than for novelty, but the author didn't follow that novelty through consistently.  

Overall, I think it's worth reading, but it lost some entertainment value (and writing value) for me when it became more of a message book and less consistent in terms of characterization.

A big thanks to my public library and my college library for providing me with copies of these two!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Scanning the Backlist (4)

It's been so long since I've done one of these!  I really thought I had posted at least one this year, but it looks like the last time I updated my backlist was back in October.  This is a list of backlist books I've added to my TBR list based on authors I've tried recently (or not so recently).

John Ratey
I am 99.9% sure that it was Kelly from The Well-Read Redhead who recommended Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain to me.  It was an excellent read and really inspired me to make regular exercise a part of my schedule.  I've since added Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization to my TBR.  It's a title that wouldn't normally grab my attention, but I trust Ratey's science and decided to give it a try.

From Goodreads:
In Go Wild, Harvard Medical School Professor John Ratey, MD, and journalist Richard Manning reveal that although civilization has rapidly evolved, our bodies have not kept pace. This mismatch affects every area of our lives, from our general physical health to our emotional well-being. Investigating the power of living according to our genes in the areas of diet, exercise, sleep, nature, mindfulness and more, Go Wild examines how tapping into our core DNA combats modern disease and psychological afflictions, from autism and depression to diabetes and heart disease.
Dana Reinhardt
Obviously I picked up We Are the Goldens because of the title.  I just couldn't pass it up.   It didn't disappoint as a YA issue novel, full of angst and woe and drama.  So I was happy to review Reinhardt's backlist and discover that I already own a copy of one of her earlier books, Harmless.
From Goodreads:
There was a man. He had a knife. He attacked us down by the river.

It was just a harmless little lie.

Anna, Emma and Mariah concoct a story about why they're late getting home one night—a story that will replace their parents' anger with
concern. They just have to stand by it. No matter what. Suddenly the police are involved, and the town demands that someone be punished. And then there is the man who is arrested and accused of a crime that never happened.

Jennifer Vanderbes
Vanderbes is another author I discovered during my early days of blogging, but who has stayed in my mind as an author to watch.  I loved Strangers at the Feast, so I was excited to see that she had authored a second book that has been on my TBR list for a while.  Like Dana Reinhardt's books, I somehow failed to make the connection until I started doing research for this feature.  Although technically The Secret of Raven Point isn't backlist (it's her most recent title, published after Strangers at the Feast), I'm still considering it backlist since it's several years old.

Juliet Dufresne is a hard-working and smart high-school girl who aspires to make a groundbreaking scientific discovery like her hero Marie Curie. Life in South Carolina with her father, stepmother, and her brother Tuck is safe and happy. But when war breaks out in Europe, Tuck volunteers and serves in Italy—until he goes missing. Juliet, already enrolled in nursing school, is overwhelmed by the loss of her brother, so she lies about her age and enlists to serve as a nurse in the army, hoping she might find him.

Shipped off to Italy at the age of seventeen and thrust into the bloody chaos of a field hospital, Juliet doles out medicine, assists in operations, and is absorbed into the whirlwind of warlife. Slowly she befriends her fellow nurses, her patients, the soldiers, and the doctor who is treating the little-understood condition of battle fatigue. Always seeking news of her brother, her journey is ultimately one of self-discovery.

Ana of California/Anne of Green Gables Giveaway Winner!

The winner of my Ana of California and Anne of Green Gables giveaway is Cynthia!  Cynthia, I've sent you an email - send me your address and I'll pass it on to the publisher!  Thank you again to Penguin for sponsoring this giveaway!  Click here to see my review of Ana of California.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Contemporary YA Mini-Reviews: Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan and All the Rage by Courtney Summers

From Goodreads:
In the wake of the devastating destruction of the luxury yacht Persephone, just three souls remain to tell its story—and two of them are lying. Only Frances Mace knows the terrifying truth, and she’ll stop at nothing to avenge the murders of everyone she held dear. Even if it means taking down the boy she loves and possibly losing herself in the process.

Sharp and incisive, Daughter of Deep Silence by bestselling author Carrie Ryan is a deliciously smart revenge thriller that examines perceptions of identity, love, and the lengths to which one girl is willing to go when she thinks she has nothing to lose.
I hate to even say it because I really loved Carrie Ryan's Forest of Hands and Teeth books, but this one was a major letdown in terms of quality of writing.  It's just not very good.  The characters tell us they think/feel one way and they act in a completely different way.  And it's not that they're meant to be unreliable.  Our main character can't stop loving the boy she hates and plans to destroy, but it's not as conflicted as it is contradictory.  She tells us over and over how she'll do anything to bring him down, but spends half the book fawning over him.

I'm also less than impressed with the plausibility that Frances met both Libby and Grey on a luxury cruise and became such immediate friends with Libby that she's able to impersonate her for the next four years and became so intimately in love with Grey that those same four years fail to diminish her love, even though she holds him responsible for the deaths of everyone she cares about (and was, you know, fourteen when they met and spent maybe a week getting to know each other).  And do not even get me started on how convenient it is that Frances is even on that luxury cruise to begin with, since all we hear about her family is that they struggle financially.  There are so many lucky conveniences and coincidences here that it becomes laughable.

I really wanted this to be great because it seemed like a great idea for a story and because of my love for Carrie Ryan, but I think it was pretty spectacularly disappointing.  I don't recommend it.

From Goodreads:
The sheriff’s son, Kellan Turner, is not the golden boy everyone thinks he is, and Romy Grey knows that for a fact. Because no one wants to believe a girl from the wrong side of town, the truth about him has cost her everything—friends, family, and her community. Branded a liar and bullied relentlessly by a group of kids she used to hang out with, Romy’s only refuge is the diner where she works outside of town. No one knows her name or her past there; she can finally be anonymous. But when a girl with ties to both Romy and Kellan goes missing after a party, and news of him assaulting another girl in a town close by gets out, Romy must decide whether she wants to fight or carry the burden of knowing more girls could get hurt if she doesn’t speak up. Nobody believed her the first time—and they certainly won’t now — but the cost of her silence might be more than she can bear. 

With a shocking conclusion and writing that will absolutely knock you out, All the Rage examines the shame and silence inflicted upon young women after an act of sexual violence, forcing us to ask ourselves: In a culture that refuses to protect its young girls, how can they survive?
I truly enjoyed my read of this one - enough that I basically gobbled it up in one sitting.  My only break was on the drive from my work computer (where I stayed late reading) to the house.  Summers does a truly excellent job of capturing teen voices and dealing with incredibly difficult subject matter.  I fee like there are a lot of people who could be reached with the platform she's developing and I'm pleased to see that she's using it to promote empathy and understanding.  Another aspect of the story that I loved was the interracial romance and the way it wasn't addressed as the "issue" of the book.  My one complaint would be that there were elements that were very similar to both Cracked Up to Be and Some Girls Are.  That didn't stop me from inhaling it and it doesn't stop me from recommending it to readers of contemporary YA as well.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Comics Friday: March, Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

From Goodreads:
After the success of the Nashville sit-in campaign, John Lewis is more committed than ever to changing the world through nonviolence - but as he and his fellow Freedom Riders board a bus into the vicious heart of the deep south, they will be tested like never before.

Faced with beatings, police brutality, imprisonment, arson, and even murder, the young activists of the movement struggle with internal conflicts as well. But their courage will attract the notice of powerful allies, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy... and once Lewis is elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, this 23-year-old will be thrust into the national spotlight, becoming one of the "Big Six" leaders of the civil rights movement and a central figure in the landmark 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Last year I reviewed the first book in this series - click here to see that initial review.

I was so excited when this one came out, so I have no rational explanation for why it took me so long to finally pick it up.  Once again, I was blown away.  The story is remarkable, all the more so because its biographical.  I am continually amazed that we live in an era where we get to hear these amazing stories from civil rights leaders who are still living.  I'm inspired and moved by John Lewis's story and his dedication to the civil rights movement.  The art itself is beautifully done.  I have nothing critical to say, but would only add that, as with the first book, this is essential for any high school or public library.  It's an amazing way to introduce history to students and adults in a time when the civil rights movement is particularly important.  

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Audiobook Review: Bad Faith by Paul Offit

From Goodreads:
In recent years, there have been major outbreaks of whooping cough among children in California, mumps in New York, and measles in Ohio’s Amish country—despite the fact that these are all vaccine-preventable diseases. Although America is the most medically advanced place in the world, many people disregard modern medicine in favor of using their faith to fight life threatening illnesses. Christian Scientists pray for healing instead of going to the doctor, Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish mohels spread herpes by using a primitive ritual to clean the wound. Tragically, children suffer and die every year from treatable diseases, and in most states it is legal for parents to deny their children care for religious reasons. In twenty-first century America, how could this be happening?

In Bad Faith, acclaimed physician and author Dr. Paul Offit gives readers a never-before-seen look into the minds of those who choose to medically martyr themselves, or their children, in the name of religion. Offit chronicles the stories of these faithful and their children, whose devastating experiences highlight the tangled relationship between religion and medicine in America. Religious or not, this issue reaches everyone—whether you are seeking treatment at a Catholic hospital or trying to keep your kids safe from diseases spread by their unvaccinated peers.
Offit lived up to all of my non-fiction requirements: well-cited research, objective point of view, and a style that keeps the reader interested and wanting to hear more.  He does a particularly great job of combining data, statistics, and analysis with personal stories told in a relatable way.  I particularly appreciated the sympathy with which he portrays families whose children have been harmed or killed because of religious beliefs regarding healthcare.  He's careful not to demonize parents or make them monsters.  Instead he portrays them as people who have misunderstood and misapplied beliefs to tragic results.  He doesn't agree with them or their beliefs and makes a great argument for more legal involvement in issues like vaccination, but he also doesn't villify them.

Entertainment Value
The topic in general is just fascinating to me.  I love the intersection of religion and medicine and the exploration of fringe beliefs.  As a Christian, I was pleased to see that Offit doesn't attack the beliefs of others, but presents arguments that would appeal to those who have very fundamental religious beliefs.  He's very respectful in addressing issues of faith and mentions in his introduction how much his study of the subject led him towards a greater respect for Judeo-Christian beliefs.

If you're interested in the anti-vax movment, fringe beliefs, or the intersection of faith and medicine, this is an absolutely must-read.  Offit is respectful and remains unbiased throughout, but also provides the listener with a great summary of the problem being faced while including personal stories to illustrate the damage that can be caused.