Thursday, January 29, 2015

Book Review: Clear the Clutter, Find Happiness by Donna Smallin Kuper

From Goodreads:
Finally, a way to get rid of the clutter -- and keep it away -- without making the process a full-time job! Organizing and cleaning expert Donna Smallin shows you how to enjoy the happy, healthy, inviting home you long for with hundreds of time-saving tips and solutions to your clutter and cleaning problems. Her approach is manageable and simple, helping you focus on the things that will make the biggest difference with the least amount of effort and time. You'll discover small, quick routines that will keep your spaces clean and clutter-free over time, as well as lots of things that you can do to introduce order and serenity in just one minute! Clear away the clutter once and for all, and enjoy the happiness you'll find hiding underneath!
Not much to report here.  The way the book is laid out is very simple with one or two tips on each page.  The tips themselves are just a sentence or two long, so not a lot in terms of quantity of writing or any requirements for a particular level of quality.  They're de-cluttering tips, so Shakespeare is not wanted or needed.

Entertainment Value
I really, really love books that make me want to throw things away.  Especially at the beginning of the year or as the seasons change.  It's just so refreshing to get rid of junk.  This book completely succeeding in boosting my desire to get my chaos under control and, most importantly, throw a bunch of stuff out.  A few things I took away from the book that have helped as I've cleaned out my room and bathroom this week:

  • Recognize that you've changed as a person and only keep objects that mean something to who you are now.
  • Ask yourself, "If I were moving would this be worth packing/unpacking?"
  • Make it easy to put things where they belong.
  • Start with the biggest items and then move to the smaller ones.
For me, this meant getting rid of piles of magazines, old shampoo/toiletry/makeup items, and creating a clear path to my closet, dresser, and hamper.  I'm already feeling lighter and more organized and I've only done the master suite!

If you're looking for some quick inspiration and motivation, this is the ideal book to read.  It's quick and easy to read, without any unnecessary frills.  The simplicity of putting one or two tips on a page really keeps things moving.  I like that you could just choose to enact one page's principles each day if you choose, or you can read the whole thing and decide which ideas to put into action as a whole.  If you're looking for something quick, short on words (more organizing time!), and motivational, I think this is a good choice.

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: Small Victories by Anne Lamott

From Goodreads:
Anne Lamott writes about faith, family, and community in essays that are both wise and irreverent. It’s an approach that has become her trademark. Now in Small Victories, Lamott offers a new message of hope that celebrates the triumph of light over the darkness in our lives. Our victories over hardship and pain may seem small, she writes, but they change us—our perceptions, our perspectives, and our lives. Lamott writes of forgiveness, restoration, and transformation, how we can turn toward love even in the most hopeless situations, how we find the joy in getting lost and our amazement in finally being found.

Profound and hilarious, honest and unexpected, the stories in Small Victories are proof that the human spirit is irrepressible.
It's Anne Lamott, so I'm not sure that a whole lot needs to be said about the quality of her writing.  Her reputation as a brilliant author is completely deserved.  She's one of a very few who can write about universal truths in a way that feels new and refreshing.  Thoughts that may be cliched when coming from other authors or that aren't entirely original become new and exciting and inspiring when Lamott writes them.

Entertainment Value
Again, the novelty she brings to classic truths and the openness she has about her own life make this an exceptionally fun book to read.  I rarely cry while reading, but this one had me tearing up in a few places, particularly the essays where she talks about forgiveness and how her sibling relationships have changed as an adult.  I couldn't stop reading and devoured it in two sittings, but it would also be a great book to read slowly here and there.

It's definitely a must-read and I can only imagine it'll have a place on my end of the year best of lists.  Just a delight to read, and, although Lamott is a Christian and many of these thoughts revolve around God and her relationship to Him, I think it's broad enough to encompass a wide range of spiritualities and denominations.  The only thing I can think of that might prevent you from reading is that several of these essays have appeared in other places.  I hadn't read them, so it was all new to me, but if you follow her writing you may have already read some of them.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Authority is the second, and Acceptance is the third. 
     Area X—a remote and lush terrain—has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer. 
     This is the twelfth expedition. 
     Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself. 
     They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything. 
     After the disastrous twelfth expedition chronicled in Annihilation, the Southern Reach—the secret agency that monitors these expeditions—is in disarray. In Authority, John Rodriguez, aka “Control,” is the team’s newly appointed head. From a series of interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and hours of profoundly troubling video footage, the secrets of Area X begin to reveal themselves—and what they expose pushes Control to confront disturbing truths about both himself and the agency he’s promised to serve. And the consequences will spread much further than that. 
     It is winter in Area X in Acceptance. A new team embarks across the border on a mission to find a member of a previous expedition who may have been left behind. As they press deeper into the unknown—navigating new terrain and new challenges—the threat to the outside world becomes more daunting. The mysteries of Area X may have been solved, but their consequences and implications are no less profound—or terrifying.
I know that's a super long description, but I wanted to include a bit of information about all three books and the only way to do that was to use the description from Area X, a collection of all three books.

It's not every day that you come across a work of genre fiction, especially science fiction, that's more focused on writing and characterization than it is on plot or action.  This one definitely succeeds in the quality of writing category and particularly in the area of character development.  I'd argue that the point of the books is not the crazy goings-on in Area X but how each character responds and changes as a result of his or her experiences.  I think it would also be very easy to make a case for Area X itself as a character, as opposed to just a setting.  Incredibly well done and a pleasure to read.

Entertainment Value
This, I think, is where things will be a little bit trickier and less amazing across the board.  I, personally, was thoroughly entertained by each book and found Annihilation and Acceptance particularly difficult to put down.  That said, I don't think that this is a series that will appeal to all science fiction fans or to all literary fiction fans.  Unlike the typical science fiction book, this one isn't as focused on action and plot movement, which may make for a slower read.  It also doesn't wrap every mystery up in a neat bow at the end - there are lots of unanswered questions.  In terms of literary fiction lovers, I think the complete weirdness may not appeal.  This series is absolutely bizarre, full of moments that will just completely jolt you and, for the reader who prefers realism, may cause a few too many eyebrow lifts.

That said, I found both the elements of literary fiction and science fiction to be perfectly combined into an absolutely engrossing series.  I wasn't bothered at all by the questions that remained at the end of the book - they've remained on my mind in the days after I finished Acceptance, which is always a good thing.  It's the kind of mystery that lead me to seek out other reviews and blogs covering the series to see how others interpreted the parts that aren't spelled out explicitly.  I love when an author can capture my interest that fully and then let my imagination do the work.  I also enjoyed the craziness of the plot itself and was absolutely enthralled with the world of Area X.

For me, this is the perfect combination of literary and genre fiction.  It had the elements that I love from literary fiction combined perfectly with the elements I love from science fiction.  The second book, Authority, read a bit slow for me, but it reflected what was happening at that point in the story.  I recommend this to those who can enjoy a crazy setting/plot with elements of the bizarre, but who also enjoy quality writing and don't need to have every question answered.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Book Review: Dear Committee Members by Julia Schumacher

From Goodreads:
Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His star (he thinks) student can't catch a break with his brilliant (he thinks) work Accountant in a Bordello, based on Melville's Bartleby

In short, his life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies. We recommend Dear Committee Members to you in the strongest possible terms.
This book was laugh-out-loud hilarious.  I loved the novelty of the story being told through the letters of recommendation our narrator is forced to write for various co-workers and students.  I'm all about a good epistolary novel and this one was perfection!  I thought it was witty and fun and wished it was twice as long - which is probably a good sign that it's just the right length.  Always better to wish for more of a book than to wish for less, right?

Entertainment Value
Again, hilarious.  I think it will especially appeal to anyone in academia, anyone who attended a small liberal arts school, and anyone who majored in English.  I loved the budget cuts the English department faced, while the Economics department lived in the lap of luxury - during my senior year as an English major, my department had to deal with the effects of the Business School's fancy new building being built - while we met in conference rooms or professor's homes.

I can't say enough about how funny this book is and what a blast it is to read.  I do, however, think that it may have a limited appeal - those who have no English/Creative Writing in their background and who haven't worked in academia may not find it as humorous.  It's full of in-jokes about working in a college, dealing with Millennial students, and the liberal arts/humanities setting.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Comics Friday: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

From Goodreads:
'It came from the woods. Most strange things do.'

Five mysterious, spine-tingling stories follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss.

These chilling tales spring from the macabre imagination of acclaimed and award-winning comic creator Emily Carroll.

Come take a walk in the woods and see what awaits you there...
I went into this one knowing nothing but that it was reviewed as a super creepy collection of dark fairy tale-type stories.  I love fairy tales, especially dark ones, and I love graphic novels, so this was a perfect combination.  I honestly didn't go in expecting to be creeped out because it's just drawings, right?  And they're done in the same style as the cover - largely simply silhouettes with a very basic color palette, so we're not talking about horrific or graphically violent images.  

I was completely delighted to discover that the reports of how creepy this book is are not exaggerated.  In fact, the simplicity of the drawings really added to the creep factor.  It reads really fast, of course, and I couldn't put it down.  I wanted to devour it slowly, but I just couldn't stop reading.

The artwork is absolutely stunning and the stories are delightfully scary.  I loved it and think it will have a great appeal for fans of spooky ghost stories and things that go bump in the night.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession by David Gann

From Goodreads:
Each of the dozen stories in this collection reveals a hidden and often dangerous world and, like Into Thin Air and The Orchid Thief, pivots around the gravitational pull of obsession and the captivating personalities of those caught in its grip. There is the world's foremost expert on Sherlock Holmes who is found dead in mysterious circumstances; an arson sleuth trying to prove that a man about to be executed is innocent; and sandhogs racing to complete the brutally dangerous job of building New York City's water tunnels before the old system collapses. Throughout, Grann's hypnotic accounts display the power--and often the willful perversity--of the human spirit. 
Another book written by a successful journalist that combines my favorite aspects of interesting stories and quality reporting.  Each of these essays concerns a certain type of obsession (although some are more successful at this than others - see below) and Gann has clearly and thoroughly researched each piece.  He presents each story in an unbiased manner, and includes lots of quotes from interviews conducted with those closest to each story.  A great combination of quality reporting and a style that keeps the reader interested.

Entertainment Value
For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to these essays.  There were a few, however, that I felt were really trying to fit with them theme of obsessions and not quite making it.  There were times when I felt like the author maybe didn't have quite enough material for an entire book and just grabbed whatever he had that loosely fit (most of the essays were published previously in various journals and magazines).  I have no problem with the essays being pulled from the author's previous writing, but some just didn't seem to fit at all.  My favorites were the ones that fit into the murder or madness categories.  Only a few didn't concern crime and those were the ones I felt the most jarred by.  They were interesting essays (a search for a giant squid or constructing tunnels under New York City), but I didn't feel like they connected well with the rest of the book.

As much as I enjoyed the essays, the narration left a fair amount to be desired.  I thought the reader was fairly monotone and, in the less interesting essays, verged on dull.  I'd probably recommend trying it in print instead of on audio.  That would also give you an easier way to skip past the essays that you may not enjoy as much.

I learned about this on Book Riot's list of books to read after listening to Serial and I think it fits into that category pretty well, particularly the first few chapters.  Again, I'd probably recommend it in print rather than on audio because I was fairly disappointed with the narration.  That said, if you're a fan of mysteries or true crime or intrigue this is a great book to check out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Book Review: Pilgrim's Wilderness by Tom Kizzia

From Goodreads:
Into the Wild meets Helter Skelter in this riveting true story of a modern-day homesteading family in the deepest reaches of the Alaskan wilderness – and of the chilling secrets of its maniacal, spellbinding patriarch.

When Papa Pilgrim appeared in the Alaska frontier outpost of McCarthy with his wife and fifteen children in tow, his new neighbors had little idea of the trouble to come. The Pilgrim Family presented themselves as a shining example of the homespun Christian ideal, with their proud piety and beautiful old-timey music, but their true story ran dark and deep. Within weeks, Papa had bulldozed a road through the mountains to the new family home at an abandoned copper mine, sparking a tense confrontation with the National Park Service and forcing his ghost town neighbors to take sides in an ever-more volatile battle over where a citizen’s rights end and the government’s power begins.

In Pilgrim’s Wilderness, veteran Alaska journalist Tom Kizzia unfolds the remarkable, at times harrowing, story of a charismatic spinner of American myths who was not what he seemed, the townspeople caught in his thrall, and the family he brought to the brink of ruin. As Kizzia discovered, Papa Pilgrim was in fact the son of a rich Texas family with ties to Hoover’s FBI and strange, oblique connections to the Kennedy assassination and the movie stars of Easy Rider. And as his fight with the government in Alaska grew more intense, the turmoil in his brood made it increasingly difficult to tell whether his children were messianic followers or hostages in desperate need of rescue. In this powerful piece of Americana, written with uncommon grace and high drama, Kizzia uses his unparalleled access to capture an era-defining clash between environmentalists and pioneers ignited by a mesmerizing sociopath who held a town and a family captive.
I love a good solid piece of investigative journalism, and Kizzia has delivered exactly that in this book.  He's found an incredible story set in an absolutely stunning locale and populated with characters that are so bizarre you know they have to be real.   In addition to having a fascinating and disturbing true story to tell, Kizzia has obviously done his work researching the family and their history and presenting all possible sides and angles, including those that are difficult to read (he conducts multiple interviews with Papa Pilgrim that are just chilling).  I can't say enough great things about how well the story is presented and how thoroughly Kizzia has investigated every angle.

Entertainment Value
I should start by saying that there is a special love in my heart for stories about crazy cults and religious ideas as well as any book that claims to investigate the dark side of a particular group of people, so it's like this was written just for me.  It also came on the heels of my addiction to Serial and it scratched some of that same itch for just totally having my mind blown with craziness.  I devoured this in just two sittings because I was so intrigued about where it would go and what would happen next.  The fact that this is non-fiction just made it all the more intriguing.

This has some hard material, so readers should be aware that there are depictions of domestic abuse and sexual abuse, although none that are graphic.  That said, it's a gripping true story and I think it will appeal to fans of true crime, investigative reporting, or just straight up crazy business.  It'll also be appearing on my upcoming list of books for Serial fans to read.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for providing me with a copy!