Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review: Tell The Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

When June's Uncle Finn dies, she knows her life is changed forever.  Finn was the only person who truly understood her, the one person she could always count on.  He's died from an illness so terrible that no one is willing to talk about it.  And not a single person can understand her grief.  That is, no one understands until a stranger approaches June - a stranger who knew her uncle and seems to have some idea about what June is going through.

The writing in this one is stunning.  As a coming of age story, I've struggled a bit in classifying it as either YA or adult, but I think I'm going to come down on the side of adult fiction.  I think it make an amazing crossover for YAs, but after reading an interview with the author, I can see why she classifies it as specifically adult.  It has a teenage protagonist, but it deals with very adult relationships and, as the author says in the interview, the adult characters are as developed and detailed as June's character.

Entertainment Value
This is definitely a character-driven novel.  In this case, it works perfectly, because the writing really carries the story well.  You want to keep reading to get more of the beautiful words and learn more about the characters.  I read this over Christmas at Luke's Grandpa John's house and couldn't get enough of it.

I definitely recommend this one, both for fans of character-driven adult fiction and for YA fans.  And of course to anyone who loves a good coming of age story.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Labor Day Book Club Discussion

This month my book club was lucky enough to be chosen to read and screen the book and movie versions of Labor Day by Joyce Maynard.  We threw in an extra book club meeting to discuss the book and next week we'll be going as a group to see the movie.  We were all pretty thrilled at the chance for extra book and movie time, and our meeting was definitely epic.

To celebrate the book, we all brought Labor Day-themed treats: potato salad, chips and dip, glass bottles of Coke, and hamburgers.  After discussing the book, we finished up with a peach apple cobbler (close enough).  Were I a better host, I would have taken more pictures, but I was way too busy enjoying myself and stuffing my face to spend lots of time documenting our delicious spread.

As far as our discussion went, it was a stimulating night.  Some of us liked the book.  Others were on the fence.  And some just flat out didn't like it.   Our discussion ranged from the way parenting is portrayed in the book to the sex and romance (and the awkwardness of our narrator's puberty).  We used the discussion guide that was included in the back of the book and it provided a great range of topics - not that we needed much prompting as we all had strong opinions.
Saturday we've got plans to meet up to see the movie.  I think we're all interested in seeing how the romance between Adele and Frank will be portrayed in the movie and if we'll still be getting the story from Henry's perspective.  One thing we agreed on is that we didn't necessarily pick up on the "sexy" vibe that the book's blurb described.  We'll all be interested to see how that angle is shown on film.

Thank you so much to Harper Collins for providing us with copies of the book and tickets to the movie, as well as some snack money!  Be looking for my movie post early next week!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Book Review: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

If you're the average internetter, I feel like I don't really have to explain Hyperbole and a Half to you, but I will anyway.  It's a web comic, drawn and written by Allie Brosh, who is mostly hilarious but also occasionally also very deep and moving (see her posts on depression) and even intellectually edifying (see The Alot).  Basically I'm just one big Allie Brosh fangirl.  So when the book came out, I knew I had to get a copy.  And I was in luck because my lovely friend Joyce, who drew my name in a Christmas exchange, got it for me!

It's humor, and if you're read my blog for a while, you'll know I don't review humor the way I do other books with a separate section for writing and entertainment value.  They're too mixed up in each other for separate reviews.  In this case, I find Brosh absolutely hilarious and I have yet to come across a person who doesn't (if you don't, please leave a comment and tell me why!).  I was laughing so hard as I read that Luke came in to see what was going on.  And then he got sucked in and we read several out loud together.

At first I was thinking that I had read all of the cartoons before on Brosh's website, but it turned out that there are ten brand new ones included.  All of them are amazing, but my favorites are still the two on depression and anything she writes about her dogs.  The Simple Dog is pretty much my favorite ever.  Definitely check out Brosh's website and if you enjoy the cartoons then you'll want to get a copy of the book as well!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review: St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves

This was my second Karen Russell read of 2013.  I read and loved her second collection, Vampires In the Lemon Grove, and had heard this one favorably reviewed as well.  Like Vampires in the Lemon Grove, I heard comparisons to George Saunders, who became one of my favorite authors last year.  If I recall correctly, Rebecca Schinsky mentioned on the BookRiot podcast that it was her favorite from Russell.  So all signs pointed towards excellent.

Equally as impressive as Vampires In the Lemon Grove, which won raves from me early last year.  The fact that it's the author's debut only makes it more impressive.  She has such a unique voice and, while the comparisons to Saunders are apt, she definitely has her own style.

Entertainment Value
As much as I loved these stories, I wasn't quite as entertained by them as I was by Vampires in the Lemon Grove, something that could very well be due to the maturation of Russell as a writer and the development of her voice.  But that doesn't mean that I didn't love these stories.  I am particularly fond of the slightly off-kilter elements of magical realism that present themselves in each story.  Beautifully done.

It's a must-read if you love short stories, enjoyed Tenth of December or Vampires In the Lemon Grove, or are a fan of magical realism.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Book Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker

I won't even lie, I read this one only because I saw it reviewed with a Downton Abbey shout out.  And, of course, I'm willing to read anything that is rumored to be reminiscent of my current favorite show.  I'm not really into the whole Pride and Prejudice thing, but I was willing to overlook that aspect since, you know, Downton.  Basically, this is the servant's version of P&P.  Thankfully for me, it's not just a retelling of the original story.  It's definitely it's own unique story, just set against the backdrop of the classic.

While I was impressed overall with the quality of the writing, I felt like there was a digression during the last quarter or so of the book that was utterly unnecessary.  As long as the action stayed around Longbourn and concerned the main characters, I was loving it.  It was this weird backstory portion regarding one of the main characters that I was less interested in.  It felt like two different stories and took me out of the great story that I was interested in for the first three quarters.  I suppose that's also an entertainment value comment, but I felt like it made the book feel in need of a good edit and maybe some killing of the author's darlings.

Entertainment Value
Despite my dislike of the flashback/back story portion of the book, I still found it to be captivating.  I loved that the bare bones of the original story are present, but that the author really gives us a completely original story with the servants.  And it definitely had the upstairs/downstairs, Downton Abbey-esque feeling I was hoping it would.

I recommend it to fans of historical fiction, fans of the original or of retellings of the original, and those who are as obsessed with Downton as I am.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Book Review: Chasing Utopia by Nikki Giovanni

Even though I'm far from being the expert on poetry in my family, I do like to occasionally dabble in what I'd consider to be "popular" poetry or "easy" poetry or "does not require interpretation"poetry.  I'll just have to cross my fingers that my poet brother doesn't read this post.  I know he'd disapprove and encourage me to try something harder, but poetry remains one genre that very seriously intimidates me.

Anything beyond the most basic, accessible to the common man poetry goes right over my head.  While I'm probably over-confident in all other areas of reading and comprehension, contemporary/modern poetry is hard for me.  But that doesn't mean I avoid all of it.  I have a few trusted poets with styles that even I can understand.  Giovanni is one of these and I try to read her work whenever I have the chance.

Her latest work, Chasing Utopia, is a prose and poetry hybrid, dealing with family, food, and friends.  I'm honestly somewhat on the fence regarding how I felt about this one.  It definitely wasn't my favorite work of Giovanni's.  Like I said, I'm really insecure in my knowledge of modern poetry, but several of these poems didn't feel very considered to me.  I was looking for a deeper meaning, but just finding surface sentiments.

Of course, a few selections did jump out at me as being particularly lovely.  My favorite took one of her older poems and showed how she had originally written it and then compared it to her final edited version, alongside her thoughts on editing poetry.

Overall, I think it's another good book to read if you're looking for an introductory point to poetry.  If you're overwhelmed by the depth of modern poetry and find yourself, like me, lost as to the deeper meanings, Giovanni is a great place to start.  But I'm not sure I'd recommend this book over some of her others, Acolytes or Love Poems to name a few.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

What's Making Me Happy This Week (10)

I spent pretty much all week sick with the flu, so I don't have much to cover this week.  I spent the majority of my time sleeping, but I did manage to fit in a few other activities.

Thank the Lord for the Lifetime Movie Network, which made me very, very happy this week.  I spent an easy half of the week watching movies about spurned lovers and evil nannies, which is basically heaven for me.  When I'm sick I have a hard time concentrating on books.  If I start reading, I just fall asleep.  I need just enough stimulation to keep me awake without actually having to think, which is basically the exact recipe for a Lifetime movie.  Three words: Tainted Love Tuesday.  I may even have a few left on the DVR to watch this weekend...

Frozen greek yogurt.  Oh man.  This is my new addiction, especially the vanilla bean flavor.  And perfect for a sore throat.  It's super soft and creamy, and I'm pretty much in love.

What about you?  What's making you happy this week?

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Book Review: Mother, Mother by Koren Zailkas

Writing this one today to satisfy the demands of one of my favorite Reader Friends, Joyce.  Hey Joyce, I'm finally writing the review!

I was torn about whether or not I wanted to read this one.  On the one hand, I had seen it on several lists of books about crazy mothers (love) and comparisons to Gillian Flynn's writing (also love).  On the other hand, I've tried Zailckas' memoir and didn't finish it because I just wasn't feeling it.  When this one showed up on yet another list of books about twisted families (obsessed much?  For the record, my family is astoundingly normal) AND on FLP's site, I decided to go for it.

It's about Violet, who has found herself in a locked psych ward after a night she can't remember.  She knows she took hallucinogenic drugs, but she's sure that her mother isn't telling the truth when she says Violet attacked her brother, Will.  She also blames her mother for driving away her older sister, Rose, who she hasn't heard from in months.  She's desperate to protect her brother from her mother's schemes, but the family appears picture perfect from the outside and Violet's word is hard to take seriously, given her experimentation with drugs.  With Violet locked away and Rose out of the picture, Will finds himself at the center of his mother's machinations, but Violet is determined to bring the family's secrets into the light.

Did writing happen in this book?  I didn't notice because STORY.  Which, honestly, is exactly how I like my thrillers to be.  I don't want to be busy noticing your clever turn of phrase or extraordinarily detailed characterization, I want to be consumed by the plot and wondering what will happen next.  And this one provided just that.  So no, nothing jumped out at me as far as writing goes, but that was a good thing in this case.

Entertainment Value
I was totally hooked.  I read it in two sittings because I just couldn't put it down.  It wasn't predictable (at least for me) and I had several moments of being shocked, which is just what I was looking for.  I'm not sure that I liked it as much as I liked Gillian Flynn's books, but it was close.  Despite the similarities, I think Zailckas has done something original and unique with this book and it establishes her as an author I'm interested in based on its own individual merit.

I recommended it to Joyce before I even finished it, and, now that she's read it, she's told me she's passed the recommendation along as well.  If you like Flynn, if you're fascinated by twisted family dynamics, or if you're a fan of thrillers, this is a great one to read.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Two worlds collide in this stunning tale of magical realism set amongst the Jewish and Syrian immigrant communities of New York as the 19th century comes to an end.  It's the story of a golem, a creation of dark Kaballistic magic, sworn to serve and obey a master who dies on the boat ride from Europe.  Alone and lost in New York, her path crosses with a Jinni, a fire creature from the Middle East, who has found himself likewise bound to an unknown wizard and stranded.  Their friendship is unlikely but intense, until circumstances tear them apart and each must face the magic that created them.

Words fail me.  This is some of the most beautiful writing I've read in quite a while.  And, even more mind blowing, it's a debut novel.  It's an amazing way to start my new year of reading.  As beautiful as the story is, the actual highlight of the novel is the writing itself.  It's just stunning.  

Entertainment Value
It took me a while to get into the story.  I was intrigued, but not captivated.  The amazing writing kept me going, though, and I'm so glad it did.  Because the story took off and I couldn't put it down.  The characters are the highlight here.  The main characters, but also the supporting characters, have the most rich back stories and are so beautifully developed.

Such an amazing, beautiful book.  I can't say enough good things about it.  I've been raving about it for days to my friends because I just can't stop talking about it.  It reminded me so much of The Night Circus and also The History of Love.  Do yourself a favor and read it right away!

Thanks to TLC for providing me with a copy to review.  You can click here to see the other blogs participating in the tour.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

MiniReviews: Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders

After reading and falling in love with Tenth of December, the first thing I did with my new FLP account, having let it lapse for a few months in the summer, was put these on hold.  Reading them cemented Saunders as one of my all time favorite short story authors.

Of the two, I preferred In Persuasion Nation, which center loosely around our consumer-based society and pretty brilliantly skewer modern mores.  That's not to say that Pastoralia isn't brilliant, because it is, but it wasn't my favorite of the two.

And of course, I don't think either live up to Tenth of December, which was my favorite.  But they are both excellently done and deserve reading, especially if you're a fan of the short story.  Missing out on George Saunders would be a tragedy.  I can't recommend him highly enough.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

What's Making Me Happy This Week (9)

It's a new year and I want to keep this little weekly meme going.  Some of these are a bit older than I'd intended, but they're still making me happy.

Book Recommendations for People You Hate
This was pretty hilarious and, I thought, spot on.

Top Ten Best Short Stories Ever
The best think about this link is that several of the stories have links to the story itself, so you can read it online.  Some of my favorite short story authors are represented too: Joyce Carol Oates, George Saunders, Stephen King.

The New Year's Goodreads Reading Challenge - I'm going for 150 this year.  Click here to see my profile/personal challenge page.

That's my list this week - what's making you happy?

Friday, January 3, 2014

2013 Recap in Statistics

Books Read in 2013: 150
Pages Read in 2012: 45,877
Worst Reading Month: June (read 6 books)
Best Reading Month: October (read 16 books)

In these, I use the Barnes and Noble website's current price listing for the format in which I read the book.  I count any books I purchased in 2013 towards the "amount spent" but I do not count any books purchased prior to 2013.  I've also added the $50 yearly membership fee for the Free Library of Philadelphia to my "spent on books" total.

Retail cost of books I read: $2160.13
Amount I spent on books I read: $85.19
Amount I saved by reading books I bought in previous years, review copies, and library copies: $2074.94 I've shocked even myself with that one!

Paperbacks: 39
Hardbacks: 19
Ebooks: 64
Audio: 28

Interestingly enough, this year I read more ebooks than print books (hardback and paperback combined).

Review copy from publisher/publicist: 12
Purchased in 2013: 6
Gifted: 5
Already owned: 7
NetGalley: 21
Edelweiss: 2
Borrowed: 2
Free Library of Philadelphia: 55
Review copy from TLC tours: 19

An overwhelming majority of my books read this year came from FLP - which means the $50 I spent on my membership has been totally worth it.

How about you, Reader Friends?  Anyone have reading statistics to share?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Book Review: The Longest Date by Cindy Chupak

Cindy Chupak, writer for Sex and the City and author of The Between Boyfriends Book, tackles the "longest date" of her life, her marriage, in this collection of essays.  The essays cover everything from the negotiations required in combining furniture to how to celebrate the holidays and everything else newlyweds go through in their first few years of marriage.  Chupak, as an older bride, also struggles with her fertility and suffers from miscarriages in some of these essays that take a more serious look at the trials of early marriage.

I found the writing to be very similar to what you would find on Sex and the City, which isn't a stretch seeing as the author wrote for the show.  Unfortunately that style, and therefore the style of the book, was just ok for me.  Like the show, I was never just blown away by the writing or its cleverness.  It wasn't bad necessarily, but it also wasn't anything that I've never seen before.

Entertainment Value
Again, I wasn't blown away, but I was entertained.  Chupak is definitely funny and has a great sense of humor.  I just didn't feel like she had a message that is new or unique.  It was pretty standard "isn't marriage funny" fare.  The essays where she discussed infertility and pregnancy loss stood out to me as the most original and earnest of the book and I enjoyed them greatly.

It's not a must read, but if you're looking for something light and fluffy with a bit of heart mixed in, it's not a bad choice.  It would also make a good wedding shower gift, if you're looking for something to buy a new or soon-to-be bride.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing a copy to review.

Reading Goals for 2014

Last year I set quite a few reading goals and didn't really live up to many of them.  I reached (and passed) my number goal of 135, but I didn't succeed in any of the others.  Because of that, I'm only setting two real goals for myself this year, but all of my reading is going to follow one major rule.  Every single book I read.  My theme for the year, the rule I'm going to follow is:

Read Whatever I Want. 

Period.  Whatever I want to read.  I'm not going to read anything on a deadline, except for a very few select reviews through TLC.  I'm not accepting books for review.  I'm going to purposefully avoid NetGalley and Edelweiss and not take on anything that I'm not interested in.  I'll be reading from my shelves and from my Goodreads list and I won't be taking on any "risky" books.  Like last year, the majority of my mediocre reads this year were review copies (see my stats post tomorrow for more details).  So this year, I'm turning it way down.  Like I said, it's my year of reading whatever I want.  I'm super excited about the freedom to read without any pressure.  

As far as my other two goals are concerned...

1) Read 150 books.  I made it to 150 without really even trying this year, so I'm going to go ahead and set it as my goal for this year.  It's not too much of a stretch, but I had more than exceeded my goal of 135 by early November, so this will hopefully be more of a challenge.

2) I'm re-attempting my goal of reading serendipitously this year.  Once a month I want to read a book that I found through browsing, either at the bookstore or at the library.  That's only 12 books a year.  The only rule is that it can't be something I put on hold or knew I wanted to read.  It's got to be something I find while walking the aisles.

And there you have it, Reader Friends: my reading rule and goals for 2014.  Are any of you setting any goals for the year?