Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman

This Beautiful Life is a "ripped from the headlines" story about a family that is deeply affected by a sexting scandal.  When fifteen year old Jake forwards an email containing a video of a schoolmate performing pornographic acts to his best friends, he doesn't realize that he'll set off the latest public sexting scandal as the video goes viral.  The book deals with the effect of this scandal on Jake, his parents, and his adopted sister.

The writing in this one is splendid.  I've seen comparisons to Lionel Shriver (author of We Need To Talk About Kevin) that I think are deserved.  This is more character study than is usually presented in straight up women's lit, so it wasn't exactly what I was expecting.  However, the literary value in the story was a good surprise.  I appreciated that the author went deeper than the obvious shock value and addressed issues beyond the obvious issues of privacy in the age of electronics and teen sexuality.

Entertainment Value
Again, I expected the typical women's fiction, Culturally Relevant Moral Issue Book, and was pleasantly surprised at the direction this one took.  For me, seeing the family fall apart after this scandal was more interesting than the scandal itself.  I also appreciated that the author included a sympathetic male teen.  We're not led to see Jake as some kind of sex fiend or exploitative monster - he's just a teen boy who got an email that he didn't know how to respond to.  I think our culture is as hard for teen boys to navigate as it is for girls and we don't always get the male perspective.  We worry about how early sexualization affects girls, but this showed how harmful it can be for boys as well.

I think this one is definitely worth picking up.  It's also quite short - I read it in two sittings - and accessible for a variety of readers.  The multiple narrators really take the book out of the realm of women's fiction for me and make it something that will appeal to a wider audience.

Thank you to TLC for letting me be a part of this tour.  Click here to find a list of the other tour hosts.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review and Giveaway: Agorafabulous by Sara Benincasa

“I subscribe to the notion that if you can laugh at the shittiest moments in your life, you can transcend them. And if other people can laugh at your awful shit as well, then I guess you can officially call yourself a comedian.”

Sara Benincasa is a comedian who has certainly dealt with some awful things in her life.  Her panic attacks began as a teenager and as a college student developed into full-blown agoraphobia.  This memoir takes a humorous look at her very difficult experiences and how she has overcome some very serious difficulties with her sense of humor intact. 

I, personally, found the book to be hilarious. I really enjoy good humor writing, and this memoir is certainly a good example of the genre.  I would compare Benincasa's writing to Jen Lancaster or Laurie Notaro, although she's dealing with a much more serious topic.  Despite dealing with mental illness, the book is lighthearted and easy to read.  I highly recommend you pick up a copy if you enjoy humorous memoirs.

William Morrow, the publisher of the books, has graciously offered to give a signed copy to one of my readers.  All you have to do is leave a comment with your name and contact info (email or twitter).  I'll choose a winner with a random number generator and William Morrow will send you a signed copy of the book.  I'll leave the giveaway open for a week, so look back next Monday for the winner!

For a sample of Sara's hilarious work, check out this YouTube video.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Savannah Book Festival

I meant to post this earlier in the week, but haven't had a chance until tonight.  Last weekend I was lucky enough to get to make the trip to Savannah for the Savannah Book Festival with Crystal, her husband Adam, and our friend Andrea.  The highlight of the trip for me was meeting Pat Conroy, who is one of my all time favorite Southern authors.  I picked up copies of My Reading Life and The Prince of Tides and was able to get both signed.

Tybee had their Mardi Gras parade on Saturday and these ladies were all part of the Beach Chair Brigade.  It was so hilarious.

Dolphin float

Goat wearing a feather boa

Me and Pat!!!!!

He smiled at me ::swoon::

Walking on the beach

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Presidential Challenge: James Madison

Bet you guys thought I had forgotten all about this challenge, right?  I think my bad experience with the Thomas Jefferson biography really turned me off for a while, but Jacki and Jennie got me motivated again.  Jennie was even kind enough to send me her copy of James Madison by Garry Wills when I had trouble finding anything to read.

This wasn't the engrossing read for me that John Adams by David McCullough was, but it was a huge improvement over Thomas Jefferson and His Demons.  I liked the writing, although there were a few places that needed some copy editing.  It was much more accessible and I felt like the author did a much better job of highlighting the relevant aspects of Madison's career. 

Madison himself was something of a wishy-washy President, frequently changing his mind on major issues.  His Presidency is also defined by the War of 1812 as well as the country's interaction with Napoleon during the years following the French Revolution. 

Honestly I find it hard to say a lot about Madison because I didn't find him all that interesting as a President.  The parts of the book that appealed most to me dealth with the war itself and the strategic mistakes Monroe made.  I've also always had a special place in my heart for the Battle of New Orleans ever since an amazing lecture in Trey Berry's American Heritage course in college.  The comparisons between The War of 1812 and the Vietnam War also brought back a lot of good Dr. Berry memories. 

I'm looking forward to my next Presidential Challenge read, which will hopefully be The Last Founding Father.  Booney, Jacki, and Jenny have all raved about it, so I'm looking forward to diving in, assuming I can find it at the used book store that is!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review: What Happened to Hannah by Mary Kay McComas

Reader Friends, you know I like the whole family drama trope, and I especially love the small-town-family-drama trope, so this one seemed like a natural for me to read.  It's about Hannah who runs away from home as a teenager to escape an abusive family.  Fifteen years later, she receives a call from the boyfriend she left behind who is now the sheriff.  He tells her that her mother has died, leaving an orphaned niece who is counting on Hannah to take custody and keep her out of the foster care system.  Hannah has to return to the small town and face her family secrets as well as her unresolved feelings for the sheriff.

I hate to have to say it, but the writing was just abysmal.  The dialogue (and Hannah's internal dialogue in particular) was just completely unbelievable.  It was trite and sappy and stilted.  Not at all what I was expecting, even from fairly straight up women's lit.  It read like a bad romance novel, which, I suppose, is exactly what it was, although it was really trying to be more on the women's lit side of things.  The characters were all static and one dimensional and the foreshadowing was so heavy that the big "secret" was blatantly obvious from the beginning of the book, as was the resolution.  I was also really annoyed by some major editing errors, like the appearance of a church "Alter Society" rather than "Altar Society". 

Entertainment Value
This is one of the books that fully illustrates why I have a two part rating system.  The writing was indeed terrible, but I still couldn't put the book down.  I knew what the secret was, but I still wanted to finish the book and find the resolution that I saw coming a million miles away.  It was a good, mind-numbing beach read - the plot was intriguing enough to keep me interested and the writing was poor enough that I didn't have to expend much brain power.  I also read a good bit in the car on the way home from Savannah and it made for a good road trip book too.  I can't say I really cared deeply about the characters, who were all pretty stock, but the plot was decently paced and kept my interest for the most part and it didn't require much concentration.

I can't really say I recommend this one because the writing was just not that good.  I'd say if you're on vacation and this is on the shelf in the beach house you're staying at and you have nothing else to read, it's worth picking up.  Otherwise, you can probably do better with some Jodi Picoult or Anna Quindlen.

Thank you to TLC for sending me the book for review and feel free to click here and see the rest of the reviewers on the tour!

Also, click here for information on Book Club Girl's live interview with the author on Wednesday, March 14th, at 7 PM.  

Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

 This one has been making the blog rounds for a while, so I won't spend too much time on summary.  It's the story of a woman who has a rare form of amnesia that causes her to forget the last 20 or so years of her life every night when she falls asleep.  When she wakes in the morning, she remembers herself as a single woman in her 20's and it shocked to find that she is actually married and approaching 50.  As Christine begins to journal about her daily life in an attempt to remember her past, she realizes that she can't trust her husband or any of the people closest to her.

Excellent!  When I saw that Dennis LeHane blurbed this book as engrossing and suspenseful, I knew it would be good.  Watson does an amazing job with slowly building the suspense in this novel.  It's very Hitchockian in tone.  And I love that, just like with LeHane's books, I had no idea where the story was headed.

Entertainment Value:
Again, I was hooked from the beginning.  I usually don't read for hours on end on the weekends, but I did on Saturday when I finished this one.  I just couldn't make myself put it down.  It was so engrossing that I didn't even realize I had spent hours reading it until the room got dark.  I prefer psychological thrillers to action-based thrillers, and this one really delivered on that level.  It's not necessarily fast-paced, but it's compulsively readable.

I highly recommend giving this one a try, even if you aren't typically a fan of thrillers.  It's a smart book with lots of twists and turns that will keep you guessing.  It's suspenseful, but not something that I think would turn off readers who don't like horror - not gory and not something that'll keep you up at night - but an amazing rainy day read.

Book Review: Delicacy by David Foenkinos

First of all, I must point out that this is a movie cover - possibly the first movie cover I've ever found tolerable.  I like the shot, I love Audrey Tatou, and it doesn't look all movie-like.  Plus there's just a tiny blurb about the movie itself on the cover.  AND, I am pleased to know it's a movie because I liked the book and, like I said, love Audrey Tatou, so I'll have to hunt it down.  It's the story of a young widow's second chance at love with an awkward, slightly geeky co-worker.

If you've seen an Audrey Tatou movie, especially Amelie, that will give you an idea of the writing style.  It's not a very dramatic story, it's more mundane, but it's quirky and cute and full of little pieces of everyday life that the reader can identify with.  In an early chapter the author says that if the book were a movie, the main character, Natalie, would be played by Audrey Tatou, which is a spot-on comparison (and funny since she winds up playing Natalie in the movie version).  It's just that kind of lighthearted, quirky look at the everyday aspects of grief and falling in love.

Entertainment Value
I think it's a book that will require a certain type of reader to really enjoy it.  It's very...French...and very quirky and unique.  I'd compare it to an independant film.  People who appreciate the author's quirky sense of humor and enjoy short chapters interspersed with random information will enjoy it.  Those looking for a more traditional romance probably won't.  I've also seen comparison's the Nick Hornby's writing style and I'd agree with those.  If you enjoyed About A Boy, I think this would be a good one to try.

I really liked it.  It matched my sense of humor and the characters were realistic and likable.  It's a fairly short read and not too heavy.  Definitely worth giving it a try.

Thanks to TLC for including me on the tour for this one.  You can see the list of others participating in the tour here.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

In My Mailbox (32)

Sorry for the unintentional break, Reader Friends.  I went off to the Savannah Book Festival and didn't prepare any posts in advance.  I figured I'd post from the festival, but I was having so much fun that I completely forgot.  Hopefully, I'll get a post up tomorrow about the festival with pictures.  For now, here's what's in my mailbox:

From TLC for review:

From TLC for review:
From Hyperion for review:

I also got some packages in the mail this week with some awesome gifts:

A "Dog tested. Dog approved" travel blanket from Subaru and Klout.

A box of Valentine's goodies from my friend Siobhan.

And a copy of Attachments by Rainbow Rowell from Siobhan!

And of course my loot from Savannah.  I think I contained my spending admirably:

My Reading Life and The Prince of Tides, both of which I got signed!

In case you can't read it, it says "To Julie: For The Love of Words, Pat Conroy".  Details and pictures from the signing to come tomorrow!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Top Ten Books That Broke My Heart

I don't usually do Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by the Broke and the Bookish), but I love today's prompt, so I'm joining in.  Here are the the top ten books that broke my heart a little to pieces.  I'm not going to write much about them because of spoilers, but feel free to look them up using the Goodreads link I've included.

1)  Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.  I literally forgot to breathe during the last chapters of this one.  And it's one of my all time favorite books.

2) Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. And don't even get me started on the movie. 

3) Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.  Notice a trend?  All of my favorite books are also books that tore me up.  This one is about sisters, which is a subject that will always get me teary.

4) The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson.  Another book where the sister relationship killed me.

5) Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.  Tea Cake!  That is all.

6) Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.  A friendship story that makes me cry every single time. 

7) A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.  Another story of friendship and someone who knew his life mattered.  Sigh.

8) The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.  This is the only memoir on my list, but it will break your heart.  Didion perfectly captures grief over the loss of a loved one.

9) Maus by Art Spiegelman.  The only graphic novel on my list and an amazing work.  Another one of my all time favorites.

10) The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.  Beautiful story of life-long love and the writing will blow you away.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Book Review: Killing The Black Dog by Les Murray

Here's something you should know about me, Reader Friends, and I've mentioned it before, but now seems like an apt time to go into a little more detail: I have depression.  Depression can take many forms, and I am "lucky" in that mine is episodic.  I am not depressed all the time, but when my brain chemistry is off I am severely depressed.  It's not only hard to understand if you haven't experienced, I find it hard to explain when I'm not experiencing it.  When I'm in a depression, my mind is fuzzy.  I'm not depressed right now and it sounds ludicrous to me that I would be so sad (for absolutely no reason) that I can't get out of bed or feed my pets or take a shower.  But that is exactly what happens when I am having a depressive episode.  For those who don't know, I had one over the holidays this year.  It was ugly and long and I honestly don't remember a lot of it, which is the nature of my depression.  It tends to happen every two or three years. 

I'm back now, though and doing much better.  I don't say that for everyone to be like "oh poor Julie, we didn't know!" or to get internet hugs or anything - it's just an explanation of why I'm reading a lot of depression-related books right now.  I also think it's really important to normalize depression.  I do feel embarassed and ashamed when I have an episode of depression, and I think the only way to stop feeling that way is for people who suffer from it to be open and honest about it just like you would with any other sickness.  It doesn't mean I give out details to everyone I pass on the street, but I try not to cover it up or treat it as something shameful.  I take medication to balance my brain chemistry just like someone with a thyroid condition would take medication to balance their thyroid levels.  And, for me, that works most of the time.

On to my review.  A few things you should be aware of in this book: The "black dog" Murray refers to in the title is depression.  Winston Churchill referred to depression as his "black dog", and Murrary appropriates it in his book.  This book is half depression memoir and half poetry relating to Murray's depression.

Beautiful.  The whole thing, including the prose memoir in the first half of the book, is very lyrical, which is natural given that Murray is a poet.  I really enjoyed taking a look at depression through the lens of poetry.  It's something that I haven't had the experience of doing before and I think Murray is an excellent introduction.  Because the first half is a memoir, it eased the transition into straight up poetry, which I always find daunting.

Entertainment Value:
Obviously, the book is about depression, so it's not a happy, rosy, frothy story by any means.  It's really not even a story - it's reminiscences on a very serious mental illness.  However, Murray's story is also hopeful and insightful for those who suffer from depression or those who want to understand depression.  At the end, Murray makes peace with his episodes of depression and feels he has killed the black dog - he finds that for now he is cured.  The poetry is melancholic, but again, hopeful.  I found myself having to read the poems over and over to fully understand them, but I think that is the nature of poetry.

This is a great literary look at depression.  It's also short and, I think, accessible to readers who are willing to put in some effort.  Here's one more interesting tidbit: my older brother is a poetry professor and editor in chief of 32 Poems literary magazine.  He's my go to source for all things poetry-related, so I texted him when I started this to ask if he likes Les Murray.  Turns out, he's currently corresponding with Murray.  It was another case of literary kismet and I got to pass on word to Murray through David that his poetry was meaningful to me. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Book Review: Spin by Catherine McKenzie

My streak of good books continues!  Spin is the story of a young woman who, at thirty, is still waiting for her dream job as a writer for a music magazine.  She blows the one chance she has by showing up to the interivew drunk.  However, when Hollywood's latest "it girl" goes into rehab, the magazine editor offers Katie a second chance by paying for her to enter rehab and report on the celebrity.  Katie thinks it'll be an easy job, but when she develops a real friendship with Amber (the celebrity) and realizes she may actually need to be in rehab, things get more complicated.
Loved it.  It's chick lit, true, but much better than most.  The characters are multi-dimensional and not always likable.  The pacing is spot on, and, though not always believable, the plot is intriguing and to-the-moment in theme.  It's not literary fiction, of course, but I think it's very successful as a chick lit novel.

Entertainment Value
This one is definitely worth suspending your disbelief for.  It's a fast read (I read it in two nights and it's close to 500 pages) and the plot will keep you moving.  I cared about all of the characters and what would happen to them - during the day I was anxious to get home and read the end.  To me that's one mark of a good book. 

I recommend giving it a try, especially if you're looking for a high quality, easy, light read.  The characters are relatable and the plot is fun.  Even though the book deals with some heavy subject matter regarding addiction, the tone overall is light and upbeat.  It's a feel-good book and idea for reading on the beach or while travelling.  The author has another book out, Arranged, that I'll definitely be looking for.

Thanks to TLC and Harper Collins for sending me a copy to review!  Click here to see a list of the other bloggers on this tour.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Book Review: The Fault In Our Stars

It was kind of kismet that brought me to this book.  I hadn't planned on reading it.  The cover didn't really inspire me (and still isn't a favorite by any means) and I'm not a longtime fan of John Green's.  I don't know what Nerdfighteria is or a hanklerfish or any of those inside jokes.  I read Will Grayson, Will Grayson and just thought it was ok (sorry, heresy, I know).  But I just so happened to think of it while grocery shopping and walking through the magazines.  Randomly, the grocery store not only had the book, but had one of the signed copies that John Green apparently spent days working on.  Since it was signed and since it was random that I thought of it and it was there, I bought it.  Kismet!

I have to say, I was really amazed by the writing in this one.  I found it truly superior to much YA fiction.  There were a few issues for me with believability, however.  I just had a hard time believing how witty and fast the dialogue moved among the teenagers, especially during some very emotional moments.  It's kind of like Gilmore Girls - I love the show and think the writing, especially the dialogue, is amazing, but I don't believe that anyone can be that "on" all the time.  Same here.  Despite that, I am seriously impressed.

Entertainment Value:
I couldn't put it down.  I have several of John Green's other books that I've not read yet and this made me want to devour them all immediately.  Despite the heavy nature of the book (I won't summarize here because you've probably already read a million summaries, but check out the Goodreads page if you've somehow missed them), or maybe because of the heavy nature, the book is compulsively readable.  I flew through it and loved every minute of the experience.  It's touching, witty, hilarious, and will make you cry your eyes out.

You must read this book.  Seriously.  I recommend it to everyone, but make sure you've got tissues handy and are in a place where you can ugly cry and laugh out loud, sometimes at the same time.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What I Read In January

Bossypants by Tina Fey
All There Is by Dave Isay
Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein
Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valenti
The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
Faith by Jennifer Haigh
Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Total books read: 9
Total pages read: 2265
Money saved by reading library books, review copies, and books I owned prior to 2012: $106.35

Friday, February 3, 2012

Book Review: All There Is by Dave Isay

I've been on a streak of really great books lately - and this is definitely one of them.  It's a collection of StoryCorps stories relating to love in three parts: love found, love lost, and love regained.  If you aren't familiar with StoryCorps, it's a nationwide movement to record the stories of everyday people.  If StoryCorps is in your town, you make an appointment and bring someone with you and ask them to tell you their story.  The stories are recorded and you get a copy and a copy goes to StoryCorps.  These stories were all collected as a part of the program and relate to love. 

StoryCorps did a great job with the transcripts of these conversations.  They are "written" because they're transcribed from verbal interviews, but the editing StoryCorps and Dave Isay have done is amazing.  While they are appropriate for the written word and read well (StoryCorps has removed the "um"s and "so"s and those kind of fillers), they also retain that oral-tradition feel.  You can really tell that you're reading a story that was told out loud, which is exactly what StoryCorps wants.

Entertainment Value
This is one of the happiest books I've read in a long time.  Even the stories in the "Lost" section are beautiful in an uplifting way.  The teller may have lost his or her love but the story celebrates the time they had together.  I cannot begin to say how sweet the stories are.  Some are truly amazing - like a couple who had the same initials and met when one got an email intended for the other.  Even though they lived on opposite sides of the world, a correspondence began that led them to love.  And that's just one story.  It's not a terribly long book, and it's great for reading a little at a time, especially if you need a  small pick me up fix.

You must read this book.  It's for everyone - there's no one who I wouldn't recommend it to.  It's an easy read and the subject matter is all uplifting.  It's not just a light, fluff book though, there are some very deep messages to be gleaned from the stories.  I also must point out the cover.  You can't see it very well in this picture, but it is adorable.  They look like polka dots on the pictures, but those colorful objects are actually little tiny embossed hearts.  I've got this one prominently displayed on my shelves because it's just so cute.

Thanks to TLC for sending me a copy to review.  Click here for a full list of all reviewers.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Book Review: Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein

I always think it's cool when I can really connect with an author who would normally be on a completely different page than I am.  Peggy Orenstein is as up front with her liberal tendencies as I am with my conservative leanings.  But if anything could bring us together it is feminism.  In this book (which is really more feminism-lite), Orenstein explores the impact that the girlie-girl culture is having on American children.  She examines everything from traditional fairytales to kiddie pageants to the sexualization of pre-teens.

Superb.  The reason I call it femism-lite is that much of is based on anecdotal evidence provided by the author.  She takes a trip to a Miley Cyrcus concert and speaks of her own experiences raising her daughter.  However, this makes the book (and the author's spot-on message) accessible to a much wider audience.  It's not bogged down with heavy theory and research, which is suitable for what the book is trying to accomplish. 

Entertainment Value
I couldn't put it down.  Because it is so accessible, you can breeze right through it.  It's not a very long book, but it certainly packs a punch.  It made me deeply consider long-held ideas about being a woman and raising children, especially daughters.  And it did so in a compulsively readable manner.  The fact that much of the book is anecdotal really lends it to fast reading, but the theory and thought behind those anecdotes still comes through.  I think this is a great introduction to some feminist theories for those who, like me, aren't ready for deep textbook-style theory. 

This one gets a strong recommendation from me.  I think any parent of a daughter should read it, as well as anyone who is interested in a starting out point for basic gender ideas.  It'll definitely make you think.  It's inspired some discussion among the girls on my book club, especially related to marketing for young girls.  A particular example that we've been discussing is that of the new girl-themed Legos.  When I was little, we were Lego-crazed.  All of our Legos looked the same and were packaged the same.  But now there are "girl" Legos, packaged in lavender boxes and with less building/more accessories.  I can't even begin to tell you how frustrated I was so see these in the store.  This is exactly the kind of issue examined in the book - it's a must-read!