Monday, August 31, 2015

Book Review: The Library at Mount Char

From Goodreads:
Carolyn's not so different from the other human beings around her. She's sure of it. She likes guacamole and cigarettes and steak. She knows how to use a phone. She even remembers what clothes are for. 

After all, she was a normal American herself, once. 

That was a long time ago, of course—before the time she calls “adoption day,” when she and a dozen other children found themselves being raised by a man they learned to call Father.

Father could do strange things. He could call light from darkness. Sometimes he raised the dead. And when he was disobeyed, the consequences were terrible. 

In the years since Father took her in, Carolyn hasn't gotten out much. Instead, she and her adopted siblings have been raised according to Father's ancient Pelapi customs. They've studied the books in his library and learned some of the secrets behind his equally ancient power. 

Sometimes, they've wondered if their cruel tutor might secretly be God. 

Now, Father is missing. And if God truly is dead, the only thing that matters is who will inherit his library—and with it, power over all of creation. 

As Carolyn gathers the tools she needs for the battle to come, fierce competitors for this prize align against her. 

But Carolyn can win. She's sure of it. What she doesn't realize is that her victory may come at an unacceptable price—because in becoming a God, she's forgotten a great deal about being human.
I seriously can't believe this is a debut.  It is SO imaginative, so original, and so unique.  The characters are original and the story line is just insane.  It's one of the first books I've read in a long time where I just had absolutely no idea where it could be leading.  In terms of fantasy, I usually gravitate towards the more medieval settings of high fantasy, but this one is set in our world.  I would compare Carolyn and her siblings to the Weasleys - a magical family that is thrust into the world of regular Americans and has no idea how to fit in.  But a twisted, psychotic, totally unhinged version of the Weasleys.  I don't want to say too much and reveal anything, but if you like having no idea what will happen next, this is a book you need.  And the fact that this is Hawkins' first novel is amazing, because the writing is spot on.  The perfect blend of funny and horrific.  I think the Neil Gaiman comparisons I've read are spot on, but this is more brutal than any of the Gaiman I've read.

Entertainment Value
Well, I stayed up till 2AM finishing this one, so you can certainly say I was entertained.  I couldn't stop listening.  Because the book is so dark, there were times when I felt like my brain maybe needed a break, but I just couldn't stop.  It's funny and has its moments of lightheartedness, but it's also a very dark book with its fair share of violence.  I can't wait to see what else this author writes - he's definitely on my must-read authors list now.

Yes, yes, yes, a million times yes.  This is maybe the best book I've read this year.  It's everything I didn't know I loved.  My words of caution are that it is violent and gruesome (if you can't handle Game of Thrones, maybe skip this one) and has its fair share of bad language.  It's not family listening.  Don't put it on in the car while you drive your kids to school or share it with your grandma.  But if you can handle some violence (including a scene or two of violence with animals) you absolutely must read this.  And when you're done, message me and let's discuss!

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

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Discovering Books as an Adult, Part 2: Finding the Right Setting

In Part 1 we talked about how to find the time to read if it's not already part of your life and how important it is to set reasonable expectations of yourself, without comparing to other readers.  Now let's talk about where you're going to do your reading and how to create an environment that makes reading easy.

It's true that you can read anywhere and I see lots of recommendations for people to make time for books by reading in waiting rooms or in line at the store.  Those are great ideas, but they don't typically work for me.  I can't handle just a page here and there - if I'm going to read, I want to sit down and get into the book.  So the first step is to acknowledge your preferences and go with them.  If you'd rather just read a page here and there, stick a book in your purse and go wild every chance you get.  But if you're more like me, reading may be something that's more of a ritual.  Some ideas to consider:
  • Indoors or outdoors?  In the South, it's hot three quarters of the year.  We have some nice days, but most of my outdoor reading takes place in the fall, winter, and early spring because that's the only time it's comfortable to be outside.  While I love reading on my porch, with a view of the river behind my house, it's just not practical for large chunks of the year.  Your situation may be different.  I do have a cozy little porch nook set up for reading during the parts of the year that it's not sweltering.  
    • Pro tip: If you ARE into reading outside, put together either a reading spot or a reading basket you can carry with you.  I'd stick in a fuzzy blanket or quilt for sitting on, an extra pair of sunglasses, and some sunscreen.  When you're ready to go, grab your book and your reading basket and head to the nearest park or yard.
  • Set up a comfy spot.  If your preference is for indoor reading, think about where you're most comfortable.  For me, it's in bed, but for others it's hard to read in bed without falling asleep.  It should be a spot where you can relax and, if possible, have some expectation of quiet from those around you (I realize this is easier said than done in homes with children, but as I have no children, I don't have great advice for how to handle kids + reading.  Check out We Still Read for their Pro Tips on reading with kids).  
    • Pro tip: Just like reading outdoors, I like having some reading accessories stored in my reading spots (by my bed and in the living room).  I have two fuzzy blankets, one in each spot, for snuggling, a basket of fuzzy socks, as well as bookmarks and pens stored nearby for easy access.  
  • Minimize distractions.  I like to listen to either instrumental music or white noise while I read.  I have a white noise app on my phone (TM Soft's White Noise) and a Spotify playlist of reading music.  
    • Pro tip: Step away from the internet.  Put your phone down, turn off the computer, resist the urge to check Facebook or Instagram and concentrate on your book.  Even if it's just for a few minutes.
    • Pro tip #2: Read in a room without a TV.  I'm pretty good and tuning out distractions, but I have a really hard time avoiding the lure of TV when it's around.  I don't have a TV in my bedroom and I think that's one reason I do make so much time for reading - without a TV there to tempt me, it's easier devote an hour or two to a book before bed.
  • Treat yourself to something yummy while you read.  It doesn't have to be sweets or something fattening, but it's nice to reward yourself for making time for your brain with a cup of coffee or tea.  And it does tend to help stave off the sleepiness, if you're prone to snoozing mid-sentence.
My way may not be the best way for everyone - keep in mind that the main thing about coming back to books or coming to books for the first time as an adult is that you don't get caught up in what anyone else says you should or shouldn't do with your reading.  For me, having a special spot with reading aids nearby makes it a pleasant ritual that brings me peace.  I like the idea of having a designated time, space, and spot for reading, but I'm a huge fan of rituals for everything - morning, bedtime, eating, I like things a certain way.

Any suggestions you'd add for setting up a reading spot/choosing where to read?

Book Review: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

From Goodreads:
For years, Aziz Ansari has been aiming his comic insight at modern romance, but for Modern Romance, the book, he decided he needed to take things to another level. He teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg and designed a massive research project, including hundreds of interviews and focus groups conducted everywhere from Tokyo to Buenos Aires to Wichita. They analyzed behavioral data and surveys and created their own online research forum on Reddit, which drew thousands of messages. They enlisted the world’s leading social scientists, including Andrew Cherlin, Eli Finkel, Helen Fisher, Sheena Iyengar, Barry Schwartz, Sherry Turkle, and Robb Willer. The result is unlike any social science or humor book we’ve seen before.
 My introduction to Aziz was on Parks and Rec, where he plays one of my favorite characters.  When I saw he was writing a book, I knew I'd need to read it.  And then a segment was featured on This American Life and it was hilarious.  So when I had the chance to review it, I jumped on it.  It's as hilarious as I thought it would be, but is backed up with solid research.  It's written with a sociologist and while it reads much more like humor than academics, the research they've done is fascinating.  (And horrifying - the intricacies of dating in the age of text messaging make me want to cry).  If you think Ansari is funny or if you are interested in how relationships work with today's technology (from texting to Tinder to Facebook) this is a good choice.

Entertainment Value
Hilarious.  It's a must read if you're a fan of Ansari's or a fan of his brand of humor.  My mistake here is that immediately before I read the book I listened to all of his stand up albums.  Unfortunately, the materials crosses over a lot.  Jokes that he makes in his shows tend to show up word for word in the book.  That made the read a bit less compelling for me, although the sociological aspect was new and the general tone is (somewhat) cleaner than his acts.  The two run together in my mind enough that I don't want to say for sure it's a clean book you can listen to with your kids in the car, but I can't think of anything offensive off the top of my head.

I highly recommend reading it.  The author mixes humor and research perfectly and the topic itself is fascinating.  I think the biggest thing I would change would be not to have his stand up acts so fresh in my mind.  That made it a bit repetitive.  We did purchase an audio edition for my library, which I think would have been a fun way to experience the book, since Ansari reads it himself.  At some point in the future, I'll be making a point to listen.

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

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Audiobook Review: When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

From Goodreads:
When America entered World War II in 1941, we faced an enemy that had banned and burned over 100 million books and caused fearful citizens to hide or destroy many more. Outraged librarians launched a campaign to send free books to American troops and gathered 20 million hardcover donations. In 1943, the War Department and the publishing industry stepped in with an extraordinary program: 120 million small, lightweight paperbacks, for troops to carry in their pockets and their rucksacks, in every theater of war.

Comprising 1,200 different titles of every imaginable type, these paperbacks were beloved by the troops and are still fondly remembered today. Soldiers read them while waiting to land at Normandy; in hellish trenches in the midst of battles in the Pacific; in field hospitals; and on long bombing flights. They wrote to the authors, many of whom responded to every letter. They helped rescue The Great Gatsby from obscurity. They made Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, into a national icon. When Books Went to War is an inspiring story for history buffs and book lovers alike.
Based on the cover alone, I probably wouldn't have picked this one up, even though I'm a fan of books about books and books about WWII.  I can't really even say why, but it just doesn't look like something I'd enjoy.  Thankfully, Jackie from We Still Read convinced me to give it a try anyway.

Well done.  I love how Manning has taken an aspect of WWII that I never knew existed (the creation and dissemination of special editions of paperbacks for soldiers) and explored it in vivid detail.  She's done her research flawlessly and you can tell she knows everything there is to know about the subject.  There's aren't a lot of personal narratives included, but there are plenty of quotes and a larger-scale focus than could be examined if those personal narratives were included.

Entertainment Value
I think this is intended for a fairly niche audience.  It's perfect for those who love books and are interested in WWII history.  Those who are wanting an overview of the war will be disappointed, as will those who are looking for personal stories.  That said, readers who find themselves intrigued by the intersection of books, the publishing industry, and world history will devour it.  I loved learning so much about something that I never even knew existed - the Armed Services Editions of popular books - and how it impacted troops during the war.  It also provided me with a new obsession in terms of collecting books - I MUST own an ASE.
No problems with the narrator.  I like non-fiction on audio and this was no exception.  It's something that captured and kept my attention during my commute.  Not wanting to stop listening is always the mark of a good book and this one fit that bill.

Definitely recommended to fans of publishing history, books about books, or those with a special interest in WWII.  If you're not super into books about books or a more intense look at a single aspect of the war, this may not be the right choice.  I loved it and have had the occasion to recommend it to several like-minded reader friends.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Comics Friday: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

From Goodreads:
Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! All these and more await in this brilliantly subversive, sharply irreverent epic from Noelle Stevenson. Featuring an exclusive epilogue not seen in the web comic, along with bonus conceptual sketches and revised pages throughout, this gorgeous full-color graphic novel is perfect for the legions of fans of the web comic and is sure to win Noelle many new ones.

Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren't the heroes everyone thinks they are.

But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona's powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit.
My book club has our own little informal lending library, so when Rachel got this one, it immediately made the rounds.  I think it was one of the fastest pass-arounds we've had, because all of us loved it and were excited to read it.

First of all, it's just beautiful to look at.  I love Stevenson's style (you may recognize the similarities to the cover of Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, which was drawn by Stevenson) and use of color throughout.  It's just a pleasure to see and experience.  I'm not a graphic novel or comics expert, but I know that the art style is what immediately either draws me in or cases me to pass something by, and this one had a visual appeal I couldn't resist.

Not only is it pretty to look at, it's also so new and original.  There are so many twists on the typical superhero cartoon that make it refreshing and exciting.  Our hero is actually a sidekick, and not just any sidekick - the sidekick to a supervillain.  And that supervillain?  Has a secret love for the "hero" of the novel, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, his onetime best friend.  And do not even get me started on how much I LOVE that Nimona is a shapeshifter who could choose to take on any form, but keeps returning to the form of a girl, and not a traditionally beautiful girl.  I feel like Stevenson subtly subverts all of the traditional superhero tropes, but does it in such a lighthearted way that it never feels like an attack on comics stereotypes.  Instead it feels like a natural extension.

This is one that I'm eventually going to need to own myself in print, just so I can pull it off the shelf and thumb through it every now and then and enjoy its beauty.  I highly recommend finding a copy in whatever format and giving it a try.  It's a great starting point for those who are new to comics or for those who have read a lot of comic and graphic art, but are looking for a new spin on an old format.

Thanks to Rachel for passing her copy around to all of us!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Book Review: How to Write a Novel by Melanie Sumner

From Goodreads:
Aristotle “Aris” Thibodeau, age 12.5, is writing the Great American Novel.  According to Write a Novel in Thirty Days! it shouldn’t be that hard—all she needs to do is write what she knows. Conveniently, Aris’s world is full of people who are more fun to write about than live with, like her single mother, Diane.  Diane is an adjunct English professor who flirts with unemployment more than her dates, and, regrettably, does not know the difference between hair that looks messy and hair that is messy.  Aris knows that if Diane would just accept that the perfect man is already under her nose—Penn MacGuffin, handyman, nanny, and self-described PMI (“Positive Male Influence”)—their lives would change for the better. After all, nothing gets a novel off the ground like a budding romance.  But when a random accident exposes Aris to a dark part of her family’s history, she’s forced to confront that fact that sometimes in life—as in great literature—things might not work out exactly as you hoped. 
Yesterday I posted about a book with a misleading blurb, so it's appropriate that I post today about one with a perfectly descriptive blurb.

One of the blurbs for this book compares it to both Where'd You Go, Bernadette? and the Rosie Project - and this is pretty much the only time I've ever fully agreed with the comparison.   It's got the quirky, lovable characters and precocious children of Bernadette, with the fluffy ease of reading of The Rosie Project. It's definitely one that requires a bit of suspension of disbelief in the incredibly intelligent and well-spoken children, but the author addresses it in an offhand way and didn't keep me from enjoying the book.  I think the author walked the perfect line between creating unbelievably quirky characters and delightful, unique characters.

Entertainment Value
I listened to all nine hours of the audiobook over the course of two days, which should tell you something about how much fun it is.  The audiobook narrator does an excellent job, but I think it would come across equally well in print.  I loved the Northwest Georgia setting and mentions of Lookout Mountain and other familiar places.  And Aris is one of the best child characters I've read since Bee in Where'd You Go, Bernadette.

It's a shame how my positive reviews never end up being as detailed as my negatives, but it's only because I run out of great things to say without repeating myself.  This is a delightful book that has all the charm and fluff one could ask for while dealing with some hard issues as seen through the eyes of a girl on the cusp of adulthood.  I highly recommend picking it in whatever format you can get your hands on - it was a total pleasure to read.

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Book Review: The New Neighbor by Leah Stewart

From Goodreads:
In the tradition of Zoe Heller's What Was She Thinking? Notes on a ScandalThe New Neighbor is a darkly sophisticated novel about an old woman's curiosity turned into a dangerous obsession as she becomes involved in her new neighbor's complicated and cloaked life.

Ninety-year-old Margaret Riley is content hiding from the world. Stoic and independent, she rarely leaves the Tennessee mountaintop where she lives, finding comfort in the mystery novels that keep her company, that is, until she spots a woman who's moved into the long-empty house across the pond.

Jennifer Young is also looking to hide. On the run from her old life, she and her four-year-old son Milo have moved to a quiet town where no one from her past can find her.

In Jennifer, Margaret sees both a potential companion in her loneliness and a mystery to be solved. But Jennifer refuses to talk about herself, her son, his missing father, or her past. Frustrated, Margaret crosses more and more boundaries in pursuit of the truth, threatening to unravel the new life Jennifer has so painstakingly created and reveal some secrets of her own.
As soon as I read the blurb's comparison to Zoe Heller's What Was She Thinking, I requested a copy of this one from NetGalley.  Unfortunately that comparison seems to be a bit...overambitious.  It's not that the writing here is bad, it's just not great and it's definitely not something I'd characterize as literary in the way I would Heller's novel.  It's straight up women's fiction - decent women's fiction, but certainly not what I'd consider a work of literature either.  The author does a fine job and could easily blend in with Kristin Hannah, Barbara Delinski, or Jodi Picoult.  There are mysterious pasts explored in both the present and during Margert's time as a nurse in World War II, but the real meat of the book is focused on the characters' emotions and relationships.  My only critique in terms of the quality of writing is that I found several plot trails to be extraneous to the story as a whole.  She starts going interesting places with Jennifer's new Megan, her potential alcoholism and oppressive husband, but this thread never really leads anywhere and just fizzles out at the end.

Entertainment Value
My real problem with the book lay in what I felt like was a misleading blurb.  Phrases like "darkly sophisticated" and "dangerous obsession" just do not describe anything found in the book.  Had I known it was straight up women's fiction, I probably wouldn't have chosen it.  The description of a dark novel, a thriller, a book with danger and the comparison to Heller's What Was She Thinking are what drew me to request the book.  Nothing even remotely dangerous happens here.  There is no crime committed, just a curious, lonely old lady who fancies herself a detective.  No one is ever in danger of anything other than having a secret past exposed and potential gossip.

It's really not that the book itself isn't successful for what it is - women's fiction with two relationship-based mysteries.  I enjoyed the read, particularly the portions set in the past, but I felt like I spent the entire book waiting on a sense of danger, dread, or suspense that never came.  I kept thinking at any moment I was going to be introduced to larger stakes for the characters or an unforeseen twist, but it plays out as you would expect with no surprises or twists.

It's a fine book and if you're a fan of women's fiction, it's worth a read.  But don't go into it expecting dark psychological drama or any form of suspense/dangerous stakes.  The book is about relationships and what the truth means to different characters and how they choose to face their pasts.

It does get bonus points for being set in and around Sewannee, Monteagle, and Chattanooga - all places I know and love.

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