Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book Review: Sharp by David Fitzpatrick

I've discussed my own depression on the blog before, and it's obviously a topic that means something to me personally.  I was particularly interested to see this memoir from David Fitzpatrick that chronicles his depression, self-mutilation, and resulting years spent in mental hospitals.  It's not as common to hear men describe themselves as self-injuring and it's much less common in an adult male.  Given his experiences, which lasted into his thirties, I knew he would have a unique take on depression and cutting.

This came with an endorsement from Wally Lamb, who is a hit or miss author for me.  Similarly, Fitzpatrick's writing had its highs and lows.  Overall, I wasn't just hugely impressed with the quality of the writing.  Fitzpatrick writes like you'd expect the stereotypical MFA to write.  It came across as trying too hard and forced.  There were wonderful moments, but the heavy-handed literary-ness of it turned me off.

Entertainment Value
Who wants to say they were entertained by the story of someone else's devastation and heartbreak?  Kind of hard to rave about how fascinating you found it, but in this case it is true.  Fitzpatrick has a really unique take on the issue of depression, cutting, and hospitalization because of his age and gender.   It's a great look at the disease and stigma of mental illness from a very original point of view.  To me, that made the book worth reading.

I think if you are interested in the topics of depression and mental illness as told through personal experience, you should give this a try if only to read Fitzpatrick's unique story. The writing could have been less forced in places, but I don't think it takes away from the value of the story.  It's also a good read for fans of grittier memoirs.

Thank you to TLC for providing me with a copy to review.  Click here to see a list of all the blogs participating in this tour.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Book Review: The Dinner by Herman Koch

On a night like any other, two couples meet for dinner to discuss some recent events involving their fifteen year old sons.  Over the course of the dinner, we begin to realize, with growing suspense and disbelief, that the boys have committed a horrible crime and are now the subjects of a police investigation.  We also grow to increasingly suspect that our narrator is not as innocent as he seems to be.

Another great addition to my string of literary fiction featuring an unreliable narrator.  And if I were forced to pick a favorite, I would probably choose this one.  I think it's probably the most literary of all of them.  It's compact and doesn't require a huge time commitment, but it packs a huge punch.  I think the slow reveal of character was my favorite part.  Each of the four main characters is so deep and so dynamic, and those aspects are slowly revealed over the course of the book. 

Entertainment Value
In addition to being well-written, the story is engrossing.  For a book that takes place over the course of a single evening, it was remarkably consuming.  I couldn't wait to see what would be revealed next and found it as suspenseful and horrifying as any thriller I've read recently.

If you don't typically read literary fiction, but you're interested in giving it a try, this is a great book to start with.  It doesn't fall into the plotless stereotype of literary fiction by any means.  The pacing is perfect.  And I can't rave enough about how fascinating the characters are.  I think regular readers of literary fiction will also enjoy it, as will those who love thrillers.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Audiobook Review: I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman

This is my first Chuck Klosterman, and after reading it I can't believe I waited so long to read him.  He's a pop culture essayist, for goodness' sake.  There are few things I enjoy more than pop culture and essays. Thankfully, I got the opportunity to review this one through Simon and Schuster's audiobook division.  I'm going to use the publisher's description found on Goodreads this time: 
In I Wear the Black Hat, Klosterman questions the modern understanding of villainy. What was so Machiavellian about Machiavelli? Why don’t we see Bernhard Goetz the same way we see Batman? Who is more worthy of our vitriol—Bill Clinton or Don Henley? What was O. J. Simpson’s second-worst decision? And why is Klosterman still haunted by some kid he knew for one week in 1985? 

Masterfully blending cultural analysis with self-interrogation and imaginative hypotheticals, I Wear the Black Hat delivers perceptive observations on the complexity of the antihero (seemingly the only kind of hero America still creates). I Wear the Black Hat is a rare example of serious criticism that’s instantly accessible and really, really funny. Klosterman continues to be the only writer doing whatever it is he’s doing.
I was so impressed with Klosterman's essays.  For some reason I had it in my mind that Klosterman would lean so far to the left that I'd be alienated from his opinions.  Instead, I found myself totally caught up in his analysis of villainous pop culture icons.  Despite the fact that he is an atheist and I'm a fairly conservative Christian, we share a lot of common ground in regards to our views on villainy, which surprised me.  I really appreciated that he could come from such a different place than I do, and yet express himself in a way that I could relate to and understand, even when I disagreed.

Entertainment Value
Again, I really appreciated how relatable Klosterman's essays were, even on topics that I wasn't well-versed in.  I feel like I learned more about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal from his essay about Clinton than I have from any other source.  The same with OJ Simpson.  I think these essays will appeal to older readers who remember these events clearly and to younger readers who have no memory of them.

Klosterman narrates the audiobook himself, which, in my opinion, is always ideal, especially in this genre.  When you're listening to an essay, especially one written in a very conversational tone, hearing the author's voice inflection can really affect the meaning of what you're reading.  You catch the author's intended sarcasm or irony in a way that ensures you get his intended meaning, not just an interpretation of a random voice actor.

Read it.  In the week or so that I had it playing, I found multiple real life applications for Klosterman's ideas.  One that stood out in particular was a fairly intense online discussion among the Nesties about the controversial Rolling Stone cover featuring the Boston bomber.  Klosterman had some very interesting ideas about true villainy versus perceived villainy and why we lionize some and villainize others.   I highly recommend it on audio particularly.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book Review: Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

Kate Parker has an obsession with statistics - specifically safety-related statistics.  She has built her life around following the statistics that give her and her son Jack the best chance of staying safe.  And it's no wonder she's obsessed, because she seems to have lived an incredibly unlucky life.  Her parents died in a tragic car accident on the night of her wedding.  Years later, her husband was brutally murdered in a home invasion.  Now Kate's in-laws are threatening to use her emotional instability to take custody of her son.  During this crisis, she meets a man named Jago, a probability researcher, who thinks he may be able to solve Kate's problem by giving her increasingly dangerous "projects". 

I was quite impressed with the quality of writing, particularly for a thriller.  I shouldn't have been so surprised, given it's an Atria title and I've always had great experiences with their selections.  A lot of times I find that it's hard for an author to do something new in the thriller genre, but Millar pulls it off well in this one.  I made it to the last fifty or so pages with no idea where the author was taking me, which is a major plus in any thriller.

Entertainment Value
Again, the fact that I was still guessing at the end was huge.  Another good test of a thriller is whether or not it keeps me up at night reading - and this one did.  It was the perfect vacation read for me.  

I consider this one a success, particularly for fans of the psychological thriller who want something a bit different.  It's also almost all psychological, so blood and gore are basically non-existent.  There is a fair amount of bad language, so be warned up front, in addition to all-around creepiness.  It has my summer read stamp of approval.

Thank you to Atria and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book for review.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

This is yet another feather in my cap of wonderful short story collections for the year.  I've had Karen Russell on my TBR list for a while, and this one has good reviews.  I'm thrilled I gave it a chance. Here's a selection from the publisher's description that gives a brief overview of each story:
A dejected teenager discovers that the universe is communicating with him through talismanic objects left behind in a seagull’s nest.  A community of girls held captive in a silk factory slowly transmute into human silkworms, spinning delicate threads from their own bellies, and escape by seizing the means of production for their own revolutionary ends. A massage therapist discovers she has the power to heal by manipulating the tattoos on a war veteran’s lower torso. When a group of boys stumble upon a mutilated scarecrow bearing an uncanny resemblance to the missing classmate they used to torment, an ordinary tale of high school bullying becomes a sinister fantasy of guilt and atonement. In a family’s disastrous quest for land in the American West, the monster is the human hunger for acquisition, and the victim is all we hold dear. And in the collection’s marvelous title story—an unforgettable parable of addiction and appetite, mortal terror and mortal love—two vampires in a sun-drenched lemon grove try helplessly to slake their thirst for blood.
I was so impressed with the quality of these short stories.  The unifying theme reminded me a lot of George Saunders' Tenth of December, which I reviewed earlier this month.  Each story has some small twist to it that brings it into the realm of the paranormal.  I hate to use the word paranormal, because it implies vampires and ghost hunters and a less literary quality.  These stories are just twisted enough to be outside of reality, while still maintaining a definite literary bent.

Entertainment Value
It was just that little bit of twisted-ness that appealed to me in these stories.  I was totally sucked in.  They're literary, but I think easily accessible and will appeal to a wide variety of readers.  I couldn't wait to see where each story was going and I was thrilled when I got there.

I think this is another great book to start with if you're new to short stories  Russell's are very readable and enjoyable, but also very true to the traditional short story format.  I've got a copy of Russell's novel Swamplandia! on my shelf and I definitely plan to read it before the year is out.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Audiobook Review: Rabid by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

The subtitle for this pretty well sums it up: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus.  This book traces the disease and it's import to human culture from the earliest written references to the invention of a vaccine to the disease's relationship to popular modern culture and its focus on zombies, vampires, and werewolves.  It's a pretty comprehensive look at the science and cultural impact of the disease from Ancient Greece and Rome through today.

One issue with listening to a book like this as opposed to read it is that I don't get a good idea for the author's research methods.  I can't see if there are footnotes, in-text citations, or any kind of bibliography.  For me, seeing an author's sources is really important in a book like this, so I feel like it's hard for me to evaluate the writing without any knowledge of how the author handles this.  I can say that it's accessible for a wide audience, including someone like me who isn't a science scholar or medical professional.

Entertainment Value
I found certain portions more interesting than others, as will be the case in any book that covers this broad of a topic.  I was most interested in the ancient and Medieval cures people tried for rabies and in the analysis of how rabies played a role in developing the mythos of werewolves, vampires, and zombies.  I was less interested in the detailed scientific information, but still glad the book included it.  When I'm reading or listening to a work like this, I want to feel like the author has a grasp on all aspects of the subject, and that certainly shows in this book.

The narration was fine.  Like I mentioned above, I wish I had been able to get a better sense of the author's research methods and use of citations/bibliography, but that's not really possible with an audiobook.

If you like non-fiction, especially cultural histories, popular science, or medicine, this is a good one to read.  It's detailed and not an easy read, but I think most readers who are willing to invest the time and attention required will find it wothwhile.  I recommend reading it in print, though.  I found my attention wandering when I tried to listen as I did other things and I really missed seeing the author's research.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Book Review: Hopeless and Losing Hope by Colleen Hoover

Purchased through Barnes and Noble
Reviewed via NetGalley

I'm going to go with the publisher's description on these - I've had a hard time coming up with my own while avoiding spoilers.  Basically both books have a similar description because they tell the same story.  One book is told from the female point of view, the other from the male.  I'm using the publisher's description of Hopeless as found on Goodreads for both:
Sometimes discovering the truth can leave you more hopeless than believing the lies… 
That’s what seventeen-year-old Sky realizes after she meets Dean Holder. A guy with a reputation that     rivals her own and an uncanny ability to invoke feelings in her she’s never had before. He terrifies her and captivates her all in the span of just one encounter, and something about the way he makes her feel sparks buried memories from a past that she wishes could just stay buried. 
Sky struggles to keep him at a distance knowing he’s nothing but trouble, but Holder insists on learning everything about her. After finally caving to his unwavering pursuit, Sky soon finds that Holder isn’t at all who he’s been claiming to be. When the secrets he’s been keeping are finally revealed, every single facet of Sky’s life will change forever.
I have to say that despite how much I enjoyed the reading experience, I found the writing to be problematic in both books, but particularly the second.  I think this is largely because I was so involved in the story during the first that I didn't pay as much attention to the writing.  When I read the second, just a few months later, I already knew the story and how it would turn out, so I was much more affected by the problems I had with the writing.

My main problem was that the characters aren't believable.  Holder, particularly, talks to Sky like he's a middle aged therapist, not a teenage boy.  I don't know many people who have the insight into human behavior the way Holder does, much less 18 year old boys.   It struck me in Hopeless, but I could look past it because of the entertainment the story was providing.  In Losing Hope is was a huge distraction.

The story line itself is also pretty far-fetched.  There are a TON of huge coincidences that lead the main characters throughout the plot.  I can typically suspend my disbelief pretty well, but, again, I found it much harder to do once I already knew where the story was going.

Entertainment Value
This is where the books shine.  I read Hopeless in a day and Losing Hope in two.  I found the story to be engrossing and, even though I found myself rolling my eyes at the characters' emotional maturity - especially given their back stories - I loved them both.  The plot is somewhat predictable, but not to the point that I guessed every twist and turn.  I had a great time reading Hopeless, and also enjoyed Losing Hope.  I think already knowing the story really affected my enjoyment of Losing Hope.  I probably wouldn't read another "series" that is the same book from two points of view.

The book does come with a trigger warning, which make be something of a spoiler, but I feel is necessary for a review.  Sexual abuse of a child plays a large role in the book and readers should be aware of that from the beginning. I highly recommend reading either book, but maybe not both.  I'd characterize both as Contemporary New Adult.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a review copy of Losing Hope.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Book Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

I was so excited when I saw this was available on the Free Library of Philadelphia website.  It's an intensely in-depth expose of Scientology, it's use of celebrity funding and promotion, and the abuses it has been charged with.  The research is incredibly deep - Wright conducted interviews with over 200 members, both celebrities and church officials.  The first section is a detailed look at L. Ron Hubbard's life and the foundations of the church.  The next two sections contain more information about the alleged church abuses and the cult of celebrity that surrounds the church.

There's a reason Wright has a Pulitzer to his name.  I was highly impressed with the quality of the writing and the depth of research that went into this book.  Wright has obviously put a huge amount of time into making sure his research is flawless - all of his sources are cited and detailed for further reading.  In addition, he writes in a style that is easy to read and flows well.

Entertainment Value
As in-depth as the research is, Wright's book is still accessible for the general reader.  If you can read an article in Time Magazine, you'll be fine reading this book.  I was completely captivated with the history of the church, and the implications Wright draws regarding the celebrity involvement.  And I have to say, if I didn't trust Wright's research and skills as a journalist, I would be hard pressed to believe the events described in the book.

I think a basic interest in cults/religions, this history of Scientology, or current events is a prerequisite for reading this one.  It will also appeal to fans of investigative journalism in the style of Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven.  I highly recommend it.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Book Review: The Black Box by Michael Connelly

I should have posted this review months ago, but I'm still way behind in my review postings.  I'm finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel though - not working has given me a good opportunity to catch up.  

This book is the eighteenth installment of Connelly's Harry Bosch series.  Bosch is a hard-boiled detective in Los Angeles.  In this book, he investigates a cold case that he first encountered during the riots of 1992.  It was passed off to a Riot Crimes Task Force, but Bosch suspects that the journalist's murder wasn't a part of the riots, but has deeper links to the US Military.  

I'm going to be honest here, I wasn't all that impressed.  I just didn't relate to Harry Bosch at all.  He seemed like the typical, stock detective with some unresolved personal problems who doesn't always play by the rules.  If you've seen Law and Order or read any other detective novel, you've read Harry Bosch.  

Entertainment Value
Again, I just wasn't feeling it.  In fairness, this could be the result of jumping into the middle of series.  I just didn't care about the crime, the victim, or even Bosch.  He has an interesting relationship with his daughter, but it wasn't described deeply enough to make me truly care about him.  Again, were I reading this book as the eighteenth in a series, I might feel differently.

I enjoyed the book club discussion with Connelly a lot.  He had a lot of insight as a writer and seemed to genuinely be interested in what his readers want.  I really admired that.  I think my obsession with reading books in order may have caused some of my issues with this book.  I didn't connect with the story or any of the characters, and I strongly felt like I was jumping in the middle of a story I didn't know the beginning to.  

I think, from the little I know of the hard-boiled detective genre, that Connelly is one of the best.  I think if you're a fan of the genre (and I'm not), this is an important series to read and be familiar with. But if you're not already a fan of the genre or of the series, I don't recommend jumping in with this one.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Book Review: Genius by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen

I was so excited about the chance to review this book (thank you, NetGalley).  It's a graphic novel that follows a stalled physicist who is battling feelings of inadequacy and mental stagnation, along with feelings of incompetence at home in his relationships with his teenage son and his father-in-law.  His contentious relationship with his father-in-law takes a turn when his father-in-law reveals that he knew Einstein and was trusted with one of Einstein's last secrets.

With this being a graphic novel, I think the art was equally as important as the writing.  The two work well together.  I thought the family dynamics were especially well captured both in writing and in images.  I wasn't necessarily blown away by either, unfortunately.  Nothing particularly wrong with either, but nothing particularly unique or impressive.

Entertainment Value
I feel like the real appeal of the book lies in the relationships, particularly those between Ted, our main character, and his son and between Ted and his father-in-law.  I also found Ted's job issues, his feelings of stagnation and creative block, to be especially relatable.

I highly recommend this as a cross-over book.  I think it will appeal to both adults and teens and has points that will appeal and relate to a wide range of ages.  It's an easy read, but has some deep thoughts about science, the creative process, and family.

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

Monday, July 8, 2013

Audiobook Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders

This book was a big deal for literary short stories when it was released earlier this year, which obviously meant I had to read it.  I was able to get it on audio through the Free Library of Philadelphia, and I couldn't have been more pleased.  In fact, this is one of my favorites of the year so far.  Each story is set in a seemingly mundane and typical world, but there are small twists that make each world infinitely more detailed than they seem at first glance.

I couldn't be more pleased.  This is actually my first experience with George Saunders, but it definitely won't be my last.  He did an amazing job of taking everyday life and making slight changes that show humanity in a totally different light.  It gives each story an insight into the human experience without being moralistic or directly preaching to the reader.

Entertainment Value
It's the twist I love in short stories, and I was provided with them in abundance in this collection.  I found it to be compulsively listen-able and looked forward to my daily commute as a chance to enjoy the stories.  I even found myself listening in bed at night on more than one occasion.  It's literary, but not in the sense of lacking plot.  Each story moves quickly and is, I think, accessible for most readers.

I certainly enjoyed listening to the stories on audiobook, but I will also plan to read them in print at some point in the future.  I feel like I may have gotten even more out of them had I had the opportunity to read at a more leisurely pace and stop to reflect at various points.  None of that, however, is a reflection of the narration itself, which is just fine.

If you like literary fiction or short stories, it's an absolute must read.  I think it could also interest those who are fans of "twist" endings, vaguely dystopic settings, and the slightly macabre.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Book Review: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

Noa P. Singleton is on death row for the murder of her father's girlfriend and her unborn child.  Just weeks before her execution date, the mother of the murdered girlfriend visits Noa and offers to try to have her sentence commuted to life in prison in exchange for an explanation for Noa's actions.  As Noa tells her story over the course of the weeks leading up to her execution, we learn that things are not as cut and dry as they appeared to the jury who found Noa guilty.

This is a debut novel, but you'd never guess from the writing.  I was very impressed with the quality and style exhibited by the author.  It certainly deserves the blurbs you'll find on the back from authors like Herman Koch.  Noa is my favorite type of unreliable narrator.  You truly can't tell if she's lying or telling the truth.  And Marlene, the mother of the murdered woman, is equally intriguing.  I think the author managed to capture the ethical dilemma presented by the death penalty, as well as the morally ambiguous decisions that juries face, in way that make the reader thing without providing the author's opinion or moral lecturing.

Entertainment Value
It's definitely a page-turner, but with a literary bent.  It's been compared to Gone Girl in several reviews and I think it's a fair comparison, especially in terms of having morally ambiguous and not necessarily sympathetic characters.  It's a good example of a literary work with excellent writing that also reads quickly and easily.

If you liked Gone Girl, if you like unreliable narrators, and if you like morally ambiguous books that may lead you to re-evaluate your beliefs, this is a good read.  I'd also compare it to Herman Koch's The Dinner, which I also enjoyed.

Thank you to TLC for providing me a copy of the book to review.  To see the other sites on the tour, click here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What I Read In June

So, July already!  June has just flown by for me.  I did a lot less reading at the beginning of the month, mostly because I was finishing up things at work and adjusting to being a lady of leisure.  I did better towards the end of the month and I'm still on track with my goal of 130 by the end of the year.  This month, I read:

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
Gulp  by Mary Roach
Quiet: The Power of Introvers In A World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
The Ocean At The End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber
Pain, Parties, Work by Elizabeth Winder
The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

Total books read in June: 7
Total books read this year: 73
Total pages in June: 2174
Total pages this year: 21,495

This is also a pretty good point to evaluate how I'm doing with my goals for the year.  52 Weeks to An Organized Home is still happening, and being home all day has given me LOTS of time to work on it.

As far as my reading goals go, as I said above I'm on track for reading 130 books this year.  I'm not doing great with my goal of browsing more.  I've only gone to the store once to buy a book I found while browsing and I still haven't read that book yet.  I need to work on that one.

I'm also not doing well on my goal of reading books not published in 2013.  I'm still over-requesting new releases from the library and NetGalley and not reading enough older books.  I need to catch up on my Best American reads and my Presidential Challenge reads too.  Geeze, I'm not doing so well...I need to keep reminding myself of my goals - I had to look up my January post to even remember what they were.

Any words of motivation?  How did you do in June?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Book Review: The Ocean At The End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

So many of the Nesties rave about Gaiman fans that I jumped at the chance to give him a try.  While this is my first book by Gaiman, I've seen and enjoyed his writing on episodes of Dr. Who.  This is a short novel that reads like a dark fairy tale for adults.  Our narrator has been away from his hometown for many years, but returns as an adult to attend a funeral.  He feels compelled to visit his boyhood home, and the house at the end of the lane where his friend Lettie used to live.  Once there, he begins to remember a magical past and a dangerous evil that he and Lettie faced as children.

 I was impressed with the quality of writing, just as I expected to be.  Gaiman captures the mood perfectly - it starts off innocent and child-like and quickly becomes dark and sinister.  The protagonists are all well developed and interesting, especially Lettie.  I also think Gaiman does a great job of combining the fantasy elements of his story with the real world.  His magic system is intricate, but he doesn't waste too much time describing exactly how things work.

Entertainment Value
While I really appreciated the quality of writing, I was less impressed by the entertainment value.  It took me quite a while to really get into the story and then I lost interest again before it was over.  It's not that the story wasn't well-developed and I liked the protagonists, but the antagonists just did nothing for me.  I was mostly just confused and wanted more development in terms of explanation for motivation for the antagonists.

That said, I did enjoy the middle of the story and experienced some of the deliciously creepy moments I was hoping for - just not as many as I had expected.

I'm not sure this is the best Gaiman to start with.  My friends who are friends are all raving over it, but I've heard responses similar to mine from those who aren't familiar with him as an author.  It's great in terms of writing, but I just wasn't as excited about it as I had hoped.  I'll definitely read the author again, based on the quality of writing.

Thanks to William Morrow for providing me with a copy of this book to review!