Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Review: The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

From Goodreads:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the best loved novels of the twentieth century. But for the last fifty years, the novel’s celebrated author, Harper Lee, has said almost nothing on the record. Journalists have trekked to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee, known to her friends as Nelle, has lived with her sister, Alice, for decades, trying and failing to get an interview with the author. But in 2001, the Lee sisters opened their door to Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills. It was the beginning of a long conversation—and a great friendship.
 
In 2004, with the Lees’ blessing, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, sharing coffee at McDonalds and trips to the Laundromat with Nelle, feeding the ducks and going out for catfish supper with the sisters, and exploring all over lower Alabama with the Lees’ inner circle of friends.
 
Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practiced. As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their story, Nelle helped make sure she was getting the story—and the South—right. Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family.
 
The Mockingbird Next Door is the story of Mills’s friendship with the Lee sisters. It is a testament to the great intelligence, sharp wit, and tremendous storytelling power of these two women, especially that of Nelle.
I'd be remiss to review this without sharing with my reader friends that there is some controversy around this book.  Upon its acquisition by Penguin in 2011 and again at its release in 2014, Harper Lee's lawyers issued a statement on her behalf saying that she had not agreed to participate in the writing of this book and that Mills, the author, took advantage of Lee's elderly sister, Alice, in order to get the information she uses to write the book.  USA Today has a pretty balanced article on the whole issue that you can read here.

My own brief thoughts: I really, really want to believe that Lee was not taken advantage of.  The fact that I wanted this book to exist so badly may have influenced my decision that I don't have an issue with the author's publishing it.  But here are a few legitimate reasons believe support that:

  • If the book isn't just complete fiction, and there's no reason to believe that it is - no one has claimed any of it is untrue, then it's evident that Lee was not avoiding Mills as she later claimed.  
  • Close friends of both Lee sisters who don't have anything to gain financially from the sale of the book verify that Lee had given her permission for Mills to write the memoir and that Mills respected all stories Lee wished to be off the record.
  • Lee has had numerous problems in the past few years with lawyers and managers and family members making statements on her behalf.  Evidence I've seen points to Lee being in a position where she's relying on others to speak for her - others who DO have a financial stake in keeping information about Lee within the estate.
To be fair, I do have to say that I think it's sad that Mills' relationship with Lee has deteriorated this badly and that the book about a sweet friendship is tainted by the controversy.  I wonder a bit if Mills and Penguin might have waited to publish the book after Lee's death, in order to be sure to respect Lee's wishes.  But it's a hard issue.  Because historically and literarily, Lee is hugely important.  If the world hadn't largely ignored the wishes of many authors who make up the literary canon, we'd be without some of the most important works and historical context for that canon.  Basically, what I'm saying is that while I, with my limited amount of knowledge, can imagine that the publisher or author may have handled things differently, I'm glad this book exists.  On to the review!

Writing
I've read many critiques of the writing in this book, and while I understand where the reviewers are coming from, I think it's important to understand that this book is not purporting to be a biography of Lee.  And if you're looking for in depth analysis of her life and works, you will certainly be disappointed.  It's not high literature and it's nothing near a portrait of Lee's life.  It does focus a lot on Mills herself and many of the stories she shares are mundane.  For me, this wasn't a problem.  I knew from the beginning it wasn't a tell-all and I was fascinated to know what Alice and Harper Lee's day to day lives were like.  I loved the stories about feeding ducks and stopping for coffee at McDonalds.  Don't expect a thrilling or super-revealing story.  Expect exactly what the book claims to be - stories about Alice, Harper, and their friendship with Mills, and I think you'll be satisfied.

Entertainment Value
Again, I just loved this book.  I thought it was charming and sweet and I particularly appreciated how careful Mills is to avoid sharing anything Harper Lee requested be off the record, even if that means we don't get any exciting or scandalous inside scoop.  I think Mills does a great job of respectfully portraying how Alice and Harper have spent the later years of the lives.  She also does an amazing job of showing us Monroeville, AL, their home and the basis for TKAM's Maycomb County, and the ways it has changed since Lee was a child.  My love of all things Southern and small town really drew me to this aspect of the book.  

Overall
I thought it was absolutely charming.  I hate that it has caused hard feelings, but I think it's a valuable book that's worth reading if you're a fan of Harper Lee.  It's also just a great story about small towns, older people, and the changes they've seen as the world has progressed.  The author portrays Lee in a very positive light and refrains from sharing anything unsavory or critical regarding her or her family. 

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


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mini-Reviews: Book Club Choices (Blankets, Fangirl, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, and Porotofino)

Every year I swear that THIS is the year I will keep up with reviews.  I read, on average, 3 books each week, so it should all come out well in terms of staying on top of my reviews.  I post three books reviews a week and one or two discussion posts and everything is great.  In theory.

But I always hit this point at the end of the year where I realize I'm so far behind and I have so many books left to review that there aren't enough days left to review them all.  And because I want to start the new year with a clean slate, I'll be cramming several book reviews into each review post for most of the rest of the year in order to really get as many completed as I can.  I took out blah books that I had nothing to say anything about, but was still left with a bunch that I feel like my readers NEED to know about.

So here we have the first collection of mini-reviews - books that I read for my FYA book club, my regular book club, or in my mission group that you need to know about.

Blankets by Craig Thompson, read for book club
Wrapped in the landscape of a blustery Wisconsin winter, Blankets explores the sibling rivalry of two brothers growing up in the isolated country, and the budding romance of two coming-of-age lovers. A tale of security and discovery, of playfulness and tragedy, of a fall from grace and the origins of faith.
This one earned a spot among my very favorite graphic novels, alongside Maus and Persepolis.  It's the story of a young man who grows up in a conservative family who meets a girl at church camp and falls in love for the first time.  The book focuses as much on his spiritual journey away from and possibly back to faith as it does on his first experiences with romance.  It's stunningly beautiful, in terms of art and writing, and on my wishlist for Christmas this year.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, read for FYA Book Club
Cath is a Simon Snow fan.

Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan...

But for Cath, being a fan is her life—and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.

Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.

Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words... And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.
It's Rainbow Rowell and it's a romance set in college, so there's not really much of a question about whether or not I'll love it, right?  This is EXACTLY the kind of New Adult I'd like to see more of.  It has the college setting, but it's filled with normal kids.  No one with an over-abundance of angst or tattoos or reckless living.  It's MY college experience.  The characters struggle with homework and where to sit in the cafeteria and how to connect with roommates they don't share much in common with.  And of course there's the college romance, which I could totally identify with, having met Luke in college.

It was fun and quirky and just a delight to read.  As far as the fanfic element is concerned, I was worried that I would find it off-putting.  I don't read or write fanfic and it's not something I'm really interested in at all.  I didn't find it to be problematic or something that took me out of the book or kept me from identifying with the characters.  Even if you're not into the world of fandoms, I think you can still appreciate the story and characters - and if fandoms are your thing, well you'll really love it!

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton, read for FYA Book Club
Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava—in all other ways a normal girl—is born with the wings of a bird.

In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and naïve to the twisted motives of others. Others like the pious Nathaniel Sorrows, who mistakes Ava for an angel and whose obsession with her grows until the night of the Summer Solstice celebration.

That night, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air, and Ava’s quest and her family’s saga build to a devastating crescendo.
I almost didn't read this one.  It was down to just a day or two before our meeting, I was sick, and I had just picked it up from the library.  I didn't know if I'd finish it and I wasn't even sure I would like it or what it was about.  I hadn't ever heard of it.  HOW have I never heard of this?  Why is the entire book blogging community not singing it's praises?

It's absolutely stunning.  I'm partial to magical realism in the first place, but this is one of the best I've read in quite a while.  It has all the whimsy of Sarah Addison Allen combined with the darker elements of The Golem and the Jinni and the amazing writing seen in The Night Circus.  There were even moments where I could see echoes of Big Fish.  Basically any magical realism that I have fallen for, I saw reflected here.  It is beautiful and if you are a fan of good writing, great characters, or magical realism you simply must read it.

Portofino by Frank Schaeffer, read with my mission community
Some kids told lies to be special. Calvin told lies to be normal. The son of a missionary family, he looks forward all year to summer vacation in Portofino--especially since he'll once again have the chance to see his beloved Jennifer. But even in this seductive seaside town in Italy, the Beckers can't really relax. Calvin's father could slip into a Bad Mood and start hurling potted plants at any time. His mother has an embarrassing habit of trying to convert "pagans" on the beach. And his sister keeps a ski sweater and miniature Bible in her luggage just in case the Russians invade and send them to Siberia. Dad says everything is part of God's plan. But this summer, Calvin has some plans of his own. 
This is not one I would have ever picked up on my own.  To be honest, I still find the cover to be a total turnoff.  It looks boring and my heart sank a little when I picked it up from the library.  I'm so glad I gave it a try though, because it felt like I was reading the story of my life.  Frank Schaeffer is the son of theologian Francis Schaeffer, and this novel is considered to be largely autobiographical.  Calvin's story is told in such a delightful way, despite the serious challenges he and his family face in terms of his parents' dysfunction.  It's got a lot of church-based humor that I think will appeal to anyone who grew up evangelical, but it's also not conveyed in an insulting manner.  I felt like we were laughing together at some of the crazy things that go on in conservative Christian culture, not like it was being mocked.  It's super funny and a quick read, I highly recommend it, particularly to those who grew up with similar families.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Audiobook Review: A Good Marriage and Big Driver by Stephen King



Bob Anderson, Darcy’s husband of more than twenty years, is away on one of his business trips, when his unsuspecting wife looks for batteries in the garage. Her toe knocks up against a box under a worktable and she discovers she doesn’t know her husband at all, but rather has been living with a stranger. This horrifying discovery, rendered with bristling intensity, could be the end of what Darcy though was a good marriage…

AND

From Goodreads:
Tess Thorne, a famous mystery writer, faces a long drive home following a book signing engagement. Advised to take a shortcut at the suggestion of the event’s planner, Tess sets out for home, well after dark. On a lonely stretch of New England road, her tire blows out, and when a man in a pick up stops, it is not to help her, but to repeatedly assault her and leave her for dead. Tess survives, and she plots a revenge that will bring her face-to-face with another stranger: the one inside herself, capable of gruesome violence.
Each of these stories comes from the short story collection Full Dark, No Stars.  I liked the idea of something relatively short that I could listen to over the course of just a day or two on my commute, and the fact that these were both being made into movies also appealed to me.

Writing
I don't think I'd classify either as great works of literature, or even as my favorites from King.  They were pretty standard suspense/thriller fare - I wasn't surprised to see that Big Driver would be a direct-to-TV Lifetime "event."  It fits into Lifetime programming perfectly, in terms of being a fairly cliched story with over-the-top drama.  Obviously, I loved them both, but not because the writing was particularly impressive.  Without the length of some of his other works, the detailed backstories that really appeal to me as characteristic of King's best writing just weren't there.  Decent, but nothing to write home about.

Entertainment Value
This is where everything came together for me.  I loved the female protagonists in both books and their "every woman" personas.   They're just two regular ladies who are placed in terrible situations and have to make some incredibly difficult decisions.  They aren't super spies or trained assassins or possessed of some secret ninja background - they're just like you or me.  I also love a good revenge story, and both of these have some element of taking the law into your own hands when doing things the "legal" way just won't cut it.  Both stories are fairly over the top in terms of believability, but I wouldn't change that for anything.  I thoroughly enjoyed both of them.

Narration
Well done.  The narrator for Big Driver had an accent I couldn't quite place, and it threw me for the first twenty minutes or so, but once I got used to it I forgot all about it.  I have no complaints.  Then length of these was also perfect (around 3 hours) for a road trip or long commute.

Overall
Highly recommend both, especially if you enjoy a good suspense/thriller or vigilante justice.  Very satisfying and fun to listen to.

Thanks to Simon and Schuster for providing me with copies to review!
 
 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Review: Bibliocraft by Jessica Pigza


From Goodreads:
There is untold wealth in library collections, and, like every good librarian, Jessica Pigza loves to share. In BiblioCraft, Pigza hones her literary hunting-and-gathering skills to help creatives of all types, from DIY hobbyists to fine artists, develop projects based on library resources. 
In Part I, she explains how to take advantage of the riches libraries have to offer—both in person and online. In Part II, she presents 20+ projects inspired by library resources from a stellar designer cast. 
Whatever the quest—historic watermarks transformed into pillows, Japanese family crests turned into coasters, or historic millinery instructions worked into floral fascinators—anyone can utilize library resources to bring their creative visions to life.
Please take a moment and just imagine my excitement when this book showed up in the library to be processed.  I had been itching to get my hands on a copy since I'd first heard about it.  If you've followed me for any length of time, you know that there's nothing I love more than a good craft - especially one that involves books.  This is a total delight to page through, read in detail, and keep on the shelf.  I'm currently on the lookout for a copy to keep at home, because access at work just isn't enough.

The first part makes for great reading if you're into reference materials or library services or just research in general.  It's got all kind of great ideas and information about sources for finding vintage patterns, graphic design, and public domain images to support any craft fixation, from embroidery to knitting to drawing to collage-making.

The second part contains sample crafts and directions for making them from well-known designers, bloggers, and artists.  It's incredibly beautiful to look at, and I think replicating each of the crafts would be delightful and easily accomplished for the average crafter.

The photography throughout the book is gorgeous and the book itself is a delight to hold and look at.  I can't say enough great things about the wealth of information available in the book and about the many rabbit holes I found myself falling into as I explored the websites and materials available through my own library.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Book Review: There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

From Goodreads:
After her work was suppressed for many years, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya won wide recognition for capturing the experiences of everyday Russians with profound pathos and mordant wit. Among her most famous and controversial works, these three novellas—The Time Is NightChocolates with Liqueur, and Among Friends—are modern classics that breathe new life into Tolstoy’s famous dictum, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Together they confirm the genius of an author with a gift for turning adversity into art.
Writing
I reviewed one of Petrushevskaya's other books (There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself) a year or two ago and had a hard time grasping the writing.  I wasn't sure if it was a cultural barrier or a translation issue, but I knew I wanted to try the author again.  Thankfully, I got my chance with this newest work in translation and I'm so grateful I gave the author a second try.  For some reason, these three novellas really clicked with me in a way that the short stories didn't initially.

First of all, these three stories completely delivered in terms of presenting a reader, even a reader as uneducated as myself, on the stark difficulties and bleak lives of Soviet-era Russia.  I was absolutely transported in terms of setting and mood throughout each story - I felt like a window was opened on a completely different reality than I've ever experienced and I got to get a taste of life in that time at that place.

The characters were also brilliantly drawn and produced a pretty wide spectrum of feeling, from sympathy to distaste, to revulsion.  I absolutely saw what the author was trying to do with each character in each story and she accomplished her goals with precision in terms of my being able to visualize each scene.

Entertainment Value
A huge theme running through each story, and from what I've gathered through all of Petrushevskaya's writing, is the utter bleakness of day to day live in the Soviet regime.  These are definitely not happy stories and the characters don't necessarily come out on top.  They can be hard to read because of that darkness.  I really got a lot out of comparing the darkness of Japanese short stories, which I've delved into a bit this year, with the bleakness of these Russian short stories.  The highlight for me was just how very Russian these stories feel compared to the eeriness of the Japanese stories.  While the outlook on life is somewhat similar, these stories delivered a less magical feel and concentrated more on the cold, bleak realities.

Overall
I highly recommend giving this one a try, particularly if you're interested in diversifying your reading to include works from other countries or works in translation.  This one is well done and provides a great look into a culture very different from our own.  It's well written and the stories and characters are captivating.

Thanks to Penguin for providing me with a copy to review!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Book Review: Last Train to Babylon by Charlee Fam

From Goodreads:
Who put the word fun in funeral? I can’t think of anything fun about Rachel’s funeral, except for the fact that she won’t be there.

Aubrey Glass has a collection of potential suicide notes—just in case. And now, five years—and five notes—after leaving her hometown, Rachel’s the one who goes and kills herself. Aubrey can’t believe her luck. 

But Rachel’s death doesn’t leave Aubrey in peace. There’s a voicemail from her former friend, left only days before her death that Aubrey can’t bring herself to listen to—and worse, a macabre memorial-turned-high-school reunion that promises the opportunity to catch up with everyone… including the man responsible for everything that went wrong between she and Rachel. 

In the days leading up to the funeral and infamous after party, Aubrey slips seamlessly between her past and present. Memories of friendship tangle with painful new encounters while underneath it all Aubrey feels the rush of something closing in, something she can no longer run from. And when the past and present collide in one devastating night, nothing will be the same again. 

But facing the future means confronting herself and a shattering truth. Now, Aubrey must decide what will define her: what lies behind… or what waits ahead.
Writing
Very well done, particularly considering that it's the authors first book.  Pacing and character development both proceed nicely.  I liked seeing how Aubrey's thoughts and feelings about Rachel change throughout the course of the book, as various events in their past are put into perspective.  I also appreciated that things didn't wrap in a neat bow for Audrey.  She and Rachel never reconcile and it's something she'll have to learn to live with.  I also appreciated that we didn't get a romantic happily ever after to tie things up perfectly.

Entertainment Value
I do have to say that my hopes for the book included something a bit darker.  I'd probably classify this more along the lines of women's fiction than as true suspense, but in terms of women's fiction I think it definitely delivers.  I'd happily put Fam on a shelf with Jodi Picoult or Anna Quindlen.  I'd probably even place her with some more dark domestic dramas like Reconstructing Amelia or Joyce Maynard.  I blew through the book in two sittings.  It's completely captivating and the characters are believable and likable enough that you want to root for them, even if they drive you to frustration at moments.

Overall
If this type of domestic suspense appeals to you - centered around female friendships and how damaging they can be, or if you're fans of any of the books and authors I mentioned above, you'll definitely want to give this one a try.

Thanks to TLC for having me on the tour.  Click here to see a full list of tour stops.






Thursday, November 6, 2014

Book Review: GI Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

From Goodreads:
The “friendly invasion” of Britain by over a million American G.I.s bewitched a generation of young women deprived of male company during the Second World War. With their exotic accents, smart uniforms, and aura of Hollywood glamour, the G.I.s easily conquered their hearts, leaving British boys fighting abroad green with envy. But for girls like Sylvia, Margaret, Gwendolyn, and even the skeptical Rae, American soldiers offered something even more tantalizing than chocolate, chewing gum, and nylon stockings: an escape route from Blitz-ravaged Britain, an opportunity for a new life in affluent, modern America.

Through the stories of these four women, G.I. Brides illuminates the experiences of war brides who found themselves in a foreign culture thousands of miles away from family and friends, with men they hardly knew. Some struggled with the isolation of life in rural America, or found their soldier less than heroic in civilian life. But most persevered, determined to turn their wartime romance into a lifelong love affair, and prove to those back home that a Hollywood ending of their own was possible.
Writing
I hate to even start off with my critique of the writing because it isn't good.  I want to start off telling you that I enjoyed the book as a whole, which I did, and that I don't regret the time spent reading it, which I don't.  So just trust me that you should read my Entertainment Value portion too.  Unfortunately, this book completely did not do it for me in terms of quality of writing.

To begin with, and if you know me, you know how much I value this, the research is just not there.  Or if it is,, the reader doesn't get to see it.  No sources, no historical details, no citations or descriptions of how the research was conducted.  In the Acknowledgements, the authors state that their material came from interviews and from their own imaginations.  So, at best, we're talking narrative non-fiction/non-fiction novel here.

World War II is in the near enough past that this would have been a great place to include quotes from the women or documentation of their experiences, but none of that is explored.  Instead, we're given novelized versions of the women's lives.  It includes lots of dialogue, which I can only imagine is where the author's imagination came in.  Unfortunately the dialogue is stilted and juvenile.  My honest opinion is that the book as a whole reads on a Middle Grade level.  I'd compare it to one of the Dear America books that are popular among tweens, but with adult situations.

Having just finished Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott, I was doubly disappointed by the research and source material that was missing from this book.  I expected to read something along the same lines, but found that the book was focused more on the stories of the women than on historical accuracy.

Entertainment Value
So despite my diatribe above, I still actually enjoyed my read of the book.  I felt like I would have enjoyed it more if my expectations had been less influenced by the historical detail and research of my recent Karen Abbott read.  It's a quick read and the lives the women profiled lead are fascinating.  I really wanted happiness for each of them and wanted to know how their stories would turn out.  I read through in the course of just a few sittings, even though it's not a short book because I was into the stories and wanted to know the outcomes.  It's certainly accessible for readers of any age, although the women do deal with adult situations, like abuse and abortion.

Overall
I recommend it with reservations.  I think the style will suit readers who are looking for story-line and the feeling of reading a novel, as opposed to straight up history or biography.  It created good book club discussion and I think the audience is pretty broad for this type of work.  That said, I was disappointed by the lack of source material and the knowledge that portions were the invention of the authors.  I had hoped for a more biographical/historical work.  My fellow book club members generally agreed with me - they all liked the women and cared about their stories, but had hoped for a bit more in terms of the quality of the writing and the research.

Comparisons to Call the Midwife are, I think, extremely apt.  Had I come into the book with expectations more in line with a "based on the real story" theme, I think I would have enjoyed it more.

Thanks to Book Club Girls, a Harper Collins program, for providing me and my fellow book club members with copies of the book this month!