Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Review: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

From Goodreads:
Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.

After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.

Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.
 History isn't always my go-to in terms of non-fiction.  I'm much more likely to pick up something science, medical, psychological, or sociological than I am to pick up a strict history text.  That said, something about this one just called out to me and I am so very glad it did.  It's certainly one of the best non-fiction works I've read this year and I'd venture to guess that it'll wind up on my top ten overall list for the year.  It's just brilliantly done.

I was hooked form the author's opening note, before the book even begins.  She makes a point to tell us that the book contains "no invented dialogue.  Anything that appears between quotations comes from a book, diary, letter, archival note, transcript, or...from stories passed down by her descendants."

One of my biggest problems with historical non-fiction, particularly works that purport to read like popular fiction, is that the author embellishes, intentionally or unintentionally, and that the facts take second place to the story.  This is certainly not a problem for Abbott.  Her research is intensive - there are almost fifty pages of notes at the end and a complete bibliography over ten pages long.  There is not a single bone to pick in terms of research, accuracy, and attention to nuanced details.  Abbott clearly did her research and let that guide the book.

Entertainment Value
In addition to what I've said above regarding the attention to historical detail and the intensity of research, I could not put this book down.  The four women profiled are absolutely fascinating.  Abbott had no need to deviate from historical fact because the facts are just so very compelling.  The lives of these women are extraordinary.  I can't even begin to start telling you how intriguing and compelling their stories are, and Abbott tells them in a way that reads like a narrative, while staying true to her research.  I'm so impressed with the way she was able to avoid creating any dialogue outside of historical record, but the book still manages to read like something straight out of fiction.

I've already recommended this to the Nesties as a group and to individuals who I think will enjoy it, and it's one that I'll be pushing hard whenever anyone asks me for a non-fiction recommendation this fall.  It's just remarkably well done.  I think it will appeal not only to history buffs, but also to those who enjoy historical fiction and biography.  And of course, it would be a great choice for anyone with a particular interest in the Civil War.  We're only looking at three months till Christmas, and I think this is an excellent option for gift-giving.

Thanks to TLC for having me on the tour.  Click here to see the full list of bloggers participating.

What I Read in September

Reader Friends, this was an absolutely abysmal reading month for me.  In fact, I had to go all the way back to June of 2013 to find a month where I read as few pages as I did this month.  I only read 9 books this month and only one in physical format.  Because analyzing my reading statistics is what I do for fun, I've determined two main causes for the reading slump I didn't even realize I was in until I counted up September's stats.

One reason I've fallen behind in reading is yoga.  I'm spending anywhere from forty-five minutes to two hours a day working out, including weekends.  I live a half hour from the gym, so that means up to three hours a day are being spent going to the gym and exercising.  It also means I'm more tired at night and can't stay awake past midnight reading when I've got a yoga class early the next morning.

I am totally fine with the impact this has had on my reading.  (FYI: I'm planning another post about yoga soon, with some information and links on how I got started, since so many people responded that they're interested).  This is the first time in my life that my exterior life, particularly the functioning and strength of my physical body, has been anywhere close to as important as my interior life.  I've spent 30 years focusing on developing my mind and personality and accepting myself on the inside, so I'm overdue for spending some time developing strength in my physical body.

However.  The other reason I've fallen behind is a bit less noble.  What happened this month is that Netflix acquired every season of Criminal Minds.  And I acquired the Netflix app on my telephone.  Addiction is not even the word for what I'm caught up in.  I watch Criminal Minds on my phone during every.spare.second.  Doing the dishes, cooking, brushing my teeth, ANYTHING that doesn't require my full attention has been done to a soundtrack of Criminal Minds.

I've devoured three and a half seasons this month and there are nine seasons total, so you can do the math.  I may have a few more slow months ahead of me before I finish.  Since I almost always eschew television for reading, I'm giving myself a pass for a while to enjoy this series for as long as it takes.

All said, I read less than usual this month (for me) but I thoroughly enjoyed almost everything I read:

The Hidden Girl by Louise Millar
The Reason I Jump by Naoshi Higashida
The Good Girl by Mary Kubicka
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
One Kick by Chelsea Cain
Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong by Joyce Carol Oates
Reality Bites Back by Jennifer L. Pozner
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
V-Wars, Volume 1 by Jonathan Maberry

What did you read this month?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review: Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV by Jennifer L. Pozner

From Goodreads:
Nearly every night on every major network, “unscripted” (but carefully crafted) “reality” TV shows routinely glorify retrograde stereotypes that most people would assume got left behind 35 years ago. 
In Reality Bites Back, media critic Jennifer L. Pozner aims a critical, analytical lens at a trend most people dismiss as harmless fluff. She deconstructs reality TV’s twisted fairytales to demonstrate that far from being simple “guilty pleasures,” these programs are actually guilty of fomenting gender-war ideology and significantly affecting the intellectual and political development of this generation’s young viewers. She lays out the cultural biases promoted by reality TV about gender, race, class, sexuality, and consumerism, and explores how those biases shape and reflect our cultural perceptions of who we are, what we’re valued for, and what we should view as “our place” in society. 
Smart and informative, Reality Bites Back arms readers with the tools they need to understand and challenge the stereotypes reality TV reinforces and, ultimately, to demand accountability from the corporations responsible for this contemporary cultural attack on three decades of feminist progress. 
Very well done in terms of research and documentation.  I'm a huge stickler for showing where your information comes from in non-fiction, and Pozner does a great job of this.  You can tell that she has put a lot of time into her research and analysis of reality TV.  Not only is the research done well, the analysis is spot on and done with humor and wit.  It's dense at times, but very readable and the tone makes it fun.

Entertainment Value
I will confess that reality TV is one of my weaknesses.  Especially the Real Housewives.  It's the one thing I miss about having cable, since we turned ours off last month.  I've also been known to revel in the drama of America's Next Top Model, Project Runway, and the "documentary" shows of TLC (Sister Wives!).  Of course I know that much of it is staged and directed, but I haven't given much thought to it, outside of regarding it as mindless entertainment.  So when I saw Roxane Gay mention this in Bad Feminist, I knew I needed to try it.

It wound up challenging a lot of my ideas about just how mindless the entertainment is.  I hadn't every really spent time considering the racist and sexist undertones of reality programming, but this book really brings to light how troubling many aspects of the programs I enjoy are.  And while I can't say that I'll be giving up reality TV altogether, I'll certainly be viewing it with a more discerning eye.

I highly recommend this for fans of reality TV as well as those who are interested in racial, sexual, and body image issues in popular culture.  It's absolutely fascinating and the author's sense of humor makes it fun rather than dry.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book Review: The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

From Goodreads:
In a desperate bid to escape the trenches of the Eastern front, Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier, marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met, in a marriage of convenience that promises ‘honeymoon’ leave for him and a pension for her should he die in the war. With ten days’ leave secured, Peter visits his new wife in Berlin and both are surprised by the passion that develops between them.

When Peter returns to the horror of the front, it is only the dream of Katharina that sustains him as he approaches Stalingrad. Back in Berlin, Katharina, goaded on by her desperate and delusional parents, ruthlessly works her way into Nazi high society, wedding herself, her young husband, and her unborn child to the regime. But when the tide of war turns and Berlin falls, Peter and Katharina find their simple dream of family cast in tragic light and increasingly hard to hold on to.

Reminiscent of Bernard Schlink’s The Reader, this is an unforgettable novel of marriage, ambition, and the brutality of war, which heralds the arrival of a breathtaking new voice in international fiction.
The writing here is absolutely stunning.  I first heard about this last month in Library Journal and was thrilled to find it available on NetGalley.  It's just beautifully done.  I'm blown away by how the author uses such sparse language to convey the deepest emotions.  It was on the Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist alongside Americanah, Burial Rites, and The Goldfinch, along with several others (the winner was A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing).  The Undertaking rightfully earns its place there in my opinion.  I'll be dwelling on this one for a while.

Entertainment Value
I absolutely devoured this one in two sittings.  It's not long (approximately 300 pages) and it's made up of lots of short, terse dialogue.  There's plenty of action and the story and characters are enthralling.  I couldn't put it down.  That said, it is by no means an easy read.   It's set in World War II Germany and Russia and we get unrelenting and brutal violence on all sides.

As much as we want to root for our main characters, we're continually reminded of their heartlessness when dealing with Jews and Russians.  Then, as the tide of war turns, we see them face the brutality they enacted on others in unflinching detail.  We aren't spared any amount of suffering, from starvation to violence, to rape.  It's hard to get through, and readers don't have hope of a happy ending to pull them through, since we know how things end for the Germans.

While the story itself is wonderful, it's our German characters who completely captivated me.  They're both monsters and average citizens.  We forget for a moment who they are and hope that they will find success and happiness, only to be shocked by their casual disdain for human life around them.

And if you're hoping for redemption, it's not to be found.  What will stay in my mind is the way that our characters, as much as we liked them, don't have a redemptive moment.  They only feel guilt when they are themselves treated as they have treated others.  And we're left to wonder whether or not their guilt is genuine or based only on their sorrow for their own suffering.

This is bleak in so many ways.  The writing itself, blunt and sparse, echoes the cold and desolate setting of the Russian front.  And our characters themselves resemble both the style of the novel and the setting.  They are alternately cold and hostile and warm and human in ways that will challenge the reader's own empathy.  I hope that some of you will read this and discuss it with me, because it's one that I need to talk about.  It's beautifully done and will appeal to those who enjoy literary and historical fiction.

It gets my wholehearted endorsement, with the caveat that it is brutal.  It's not for those who are put off by cursing or violence and it does contain unflinching scenes of rape.  It depicts the realities of war in a way that I found haunting but beautiful and a reflection of humanity that I am anxious to discuss with other readers.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: The Friend Who Got Away edited by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell

From Goodreads:
Losing a friend can be as painful and as agonizing as a divorce or the end of a love affair, yet it is rarely written about or even discussed. The Friend Who Got Away is the first book to address this near-universal experience, bringing together the brave, eloquent voices of writers like Francine Prose, Katie Roiphe, Dorothy Allison, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Hood, Diana Abu Jabar, Vivian Gornick, Helen Schulman, and many others. 
Some write of friends who have drifted away, others of sudden breakups that took them by surprise. Some even celebrate their liberation from unhealthy or destructive relationships. Yet at the heart of each story is the recognition of a loss that will never be forgotten. 

From stories about friendships that dissolved when one person revealed a hidden self or moved into a different world, to tales of relationships sabotaged by competition, personal ambition, or careless indifference, The Friend Who Got Away casts new light on the meaning and nature of women’s friendships.  
Written especially for this anthology and touched with humor, sadness, and sometimes anger, these extraordinary pieces simultaneously evoke the uniqueness of each situation and illuminate the universal emotions evoked by the loss of a friend.
Done well across the board.  I enjoyed each story and identified with so many of them.  There's a good range of styles and stories, which I think will lend a broad appeal to various readerships.  There's something for everyone represented here.

Entertainment Value
Obviously, this is probably going to appeal to a mainly female audience, although there are a few stories that cross genders and sexualities.   Within the female demographic, however, I think there's going to be a broad range of readers who will find the topic interesting and who will be able to identify with the subject matter.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one and think it would make for great book club discussions.  I personally identified with the idea of a female friendship lost and grieved in the way that one might grieve the end of a romantic relationship and spend years wondering what might have been.  My personal friend who got away is someone I haven't spoken to in years, but who I still think about and wonder how we could have saved the relationship.  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Book Review: One Kick by Chelsea Cain

From Goodreads:
Kick Lannigan, 21, is a survivor. Abducted at age six in broad daylight, the police, the public, perhaps even her family assumed the worst had occurred. 
And then Kathleen Lannigan was found, alive, six years later. In the early months following her freedom, as Kick struggled with PTSD, her parents put her through a litany of therapies, but nothing helped until the detective who rescued her suggested Kick learn to fight. Before she was thirteen, Kick learned marksmanship, martial arts, boxing, archery, and knife throwing. She excelled at every one, vowing she would never be victimized again. 
But when two children in the Portland area go missing in the same month, Kick goes into a tailspin. Then an enigmatic man Bishop approaches her with a proposition: he is convinced Kick's experiences and expertise can be used to help rescue the abductees. Little does Kick know the case will lead directly into her terrifying past…
Chelsea Cain is one of my favorite thriller authors.  I think she does a great job of creating flawed characters that the reader can truly root for, but believe at the same time.  I mean, within limits - this is thriller writing, so yeah, we do have to suspend our disbelief a bit.  She also does a great job of creating creepy, loathsome villains.

Entertainment Value
This is where the novel shines.  I read the entire book in one sitting, staying up till 2 AM to finish. I'm not typically one to sacrifice sleep for reading, so it says something about how much I was into the story.  Loving the characters was just part of the pleasure - the book is also fast-paced and keeps the reader (or at least this reader) on the edge of her seat.  Lots of fun, particularly with Kick, who knows how to do everything except take care of herself.  And I loved her relationship with both her birth family and the family of her own creation.

If you like Chelsea Cain, then you definitely have to try it.  I also recommend it to fans of the thriller genre.  In addition, I think it's worth giving a try if you're not looking for anything ultra-dark or intense.  And by that I mean you're not going to get anything darker than the typical fare from shows like Criminal Minds or Law and Order.  It does center around a child pornography ring, but there are no descriptions of child porn or abuse, just the knowledge that that is what is going on.  If you're particularly squeamish about the subject, it may be one to avoid, but, again, you won't be exposed to anything not seen on the typical network hour crime drama.

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Book Review: A Call to Action by Jimmy Carter

From Goodreads:
President Carter was encouraged to write this book by a wide coalition of leaders of all faiths. His urgent report is current. It covers the plight of women and girls–strangled at birth, forced to suffer servitude, child marriage, genital cutting, deprived of equal opportunity in wealthier nations and "owned" by men in others. And the most vulnerable, along with their children, are trapped in war and violence...
Throughout, Carter reports on observations of women activists and workers of The Carter Center. This is an informed and passionate charge about human rights abuses against half the world's population. It comes from one of the world's most renowned human rights advocates.
Well done.  No complaints with the quality of writing and certainly none with the research and documentation.  The Carter Center is well known for its humanitarian work and all of Carter's statistics and research are backed up with their data.  This isn't a critique of the writing, but it reads more like a collection of essays and less like a cohesive work, which isn't what I was expecting.  That said, it certainly didn't hurt the quality of the writing in the least.

Entertainment Value
I found it fascinating, but I think it's going to be one that you need to come to with an interest in the subject matter.  Carter covers all his bases with various world religions, politics, and the violence faced by women at home and around the world.  It's incredibly engaging and accessible to the lay person, but if you don't have an interest in current world events and the way they affect women, this may not be something you want to pick up for fun.  It's not a difficult read, but it's also not a light read.

Fascinating, challenging, and very well composed.  I have to confess that I'm not very educated on the Carter administration and what was or was not accomplished while he was in office.  I will say, however, that I highly respect the opinions he puts forth in this book and his efforts to educate the public on social justice issues while maintaining his faith and respecting the faiths of others.  I recommend it if you're interested in women's issues, current events, or social justice issues.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Review: The Hidden Girl by Louise Millar

From Goodreads:
Hannah Riley and her musician husband, Will, hope that a move to the countryside will provide a fresh start. Hannah is desperate for a baby, and she hopes that this new life will allow her to realize her dream of adopting a child . . . and revitalize her marriage. 
Yet when the worst snowstorm in years comes to Suffolk, Will is working in London and Hannah is cut off in their remote village, obsessively scrambling to turn the tumbledown manor into the perfect refuge for a child. 
Life in Tornley proves to be far from idyllic, however. Hannah has spent her professional life doing the right thing for other people. As she starts to uncover a terrible crime, she realizes she can no longer do that without putting everything she's ever wanted at risk. But if Hannah does nothing, the next victim could be her . . .
 Again with the Gone Girl cover rip-off?  This is the second (click here to see the first) domestic suspense/thriller I've read that just blatantly goes for the Gone Girl look.  It kind of aggravates me because this book could really stand on its own.  It's well done (which I'll get into below) and only vaguely reminiscent of Gone Girl.  The rip off cover is totally unnecessary.

This is genre work, but it's well-done genre work.  I read Millar's Accidents Happen last summer and I was excited to see this one come out given how much I enjoyed the first.  Once again, Millar does a great job of building slow, psychological suspense.  The horror elements all take place in the mind, delivering a fantastically unreliable narrator (the one element resembling Gone Girl).  I really enjoyed the interspersing of Hannah and Will's backstory with the drama of the present.

Entertainment Value
Loved it!  I was completely captivated by the story and by Hannah and Will's emotional experiences surrounding the adoption of a child.  I had some inklings about the mysterious happenings before the big reveal at the end, but it honestly didn't have any effect on my enjoyment of the story.  If you're a fan of the domestic suspense/thriller genre, you really need to give Millar's books a try.  They're fun and easy reads and completely engrossing.

My one small quibble is with Hannah's relationship with Will.  I don't want to reveal anything spoilery, but I felt like he had some really questionable character qualities.  In the end, however, I think Millar did a good job of showing how real couples work out difficulties.

I highly recommend that you give this one a try if you're a fan of the genre.  It's dark, but not as dark as Gillian Flynn's books.  Still, it provides some edge of your seat moments and some back and forth-ing on whether or not our narrator is in her right mind, which always makes for a fun read.  In terms of violence, gore, and general discomfort, this is a rather easy read.  If you're hesitant to read Flynn because of the graphic nature of the writing, this might be an alternative.  That said, there is some violence, and the vague discussion (not depiction) of sexual violence that might bother some readers.

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

Monday, September 15, 2014

Flings: Stories by Justin Taylor

From Goodreads:
In a new suite of powerful and incisive stories, Justin Taylor captures the lives of men and women unmoored from their pasts and uncertain of their futures.

A man writes his girlfriend a Dear John letter, gets in his car, and just drives. A widowed insomniac is roused from malaise when an alligator appears in her backyard. A group of college friends try to stay close after graduation, but are drawn away from-and back toward-each other by the choices they make. A boy's friendship with a pair of identical twins undergoes a strange and tragic evolution over the course of adolescence. A promising academic and her fiancée attempt to finish their dissertations, but struggle with writer's block, a nasty secret, and their own expert knowledge of Freud.

From an East Village rooftop to a cabin in Tennessee, from the Florida suburbs to Hong Kong, Taylor covers a vast emotional and geographic landscape while ushering us into an abiding intimacy with his characters. Flings is a commanding work of fiction that captures the contemporary search for identity, connection, and a place to call home.
I loved Taylor's style in these stories.  They're so well done.  Of course I had favorites ("Sungold" being my favorite), but the collection as a whole is just lovely.  Several of the stories connect in small ways, and those connectors gave the whole work a sense of unity.  The length of each story varies, but I feel like Taylor did a great job of ending each story at an appropriate moment.  Nothing feels too long or too short for its own unique effect.

Entertainment Value
I'm such a fan of short stories and I knew this collection would be great based on the review I had seen before reading it.  I wasn't at all disappointed.  It has all of my favorite elements of short stories - just enough character building that you are invested in the story and, of course, the little twist at the end that makes it mean something.  I'm not always a fan of connected short stories, but I feel like it worked really well in this case.  If you aren't a fan of short stories, you might not find this to be a particularly enthralling read, however.  It's definitely on the literary side and much more think-y than plot-y.

If you like short stories, you must give this one a try.  It's full of snapshots of everyday modern life and the uncertainties we all face.  I'll definitely be going back through my copies of Best American Short Stories to find his other works, which I'm almost positive have been included at least once.

Thank you to TLC for letting me be on the tour (and my apologies for posting this late!).  Click here to see the other stops on the tour.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Something A Bit More Personal: Yoga Edition

I have to confess to you, Reader Friends, I have written and deleted this post about six times over the past four weeks or so.  I'm so anxious to tell you about this giant, life-changing thing that I've started, but it always comes out sounding cheesy and gushy and not at all how I want it to sound.  It's also fairly text heavy, but just trust that I've pared this down as much as I can.

I should start by saying that I have never been athletic.  I always knew I didn't like sports, especially team sports, but it wasn't until I quit homeschooling and entered into the hell known as PE that I realized I HATED sports.  And not just hated - was the actual worst at them.  That is not hyperbole.  The.actual.worst.  I was the last to finish laps, the only one to fail (multiple times) the President's Physical Fitness Test (even just saying those words gives me shivers), and the last one chosen for every team, every time.

That doesn't mean I was fat or out of shape though.  I played outside, rode my bike everywhere, swam (even competitively for a brief time), rode horses, and took figure skating and Irish dance lessons.

My struggle with weight began after I got married.  I had some health issues that forced me to go on several medications that caused serious weight gain.  In addition to those medications, I continued to eat like I have eaten my entire life - whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.  I was a size four when I got married.  I am now a size that I really don't feel comfortable sharing publicly.

I've spent the last year or so halfheartedly determining to lose weight.  I swam laps a day or two a week and saw a nutritionist to learn about more healthy eating habits.  Because I'm still on medication that causes weight gain, this helped to stabilize my weight.  I wasn't gaining any more, but I also wasn't losing any.

And then my friend Andrea from We Still Read got into yoga.  And I watched her make this incredible progress.  She wasn't out of shape at all to begin with, but you could just see her getting stronger on a basically daily basis.  She was doing these incredible acrobatic things and I was SO impressed.  For several months I basically just stalked her instagram (@southgazen) and told myself that maybe when I lost fifty pounds or so, I'd be able to try.

But it turns out, all it took was a bad case of cramps to give me the push I needed at the right time.  I texted Andrea to ask for a few yoga poses to ease cramps that someone my size and complete lack of physical ability could do.  And the ones she sent felt amazing.

Through some more texting, Andrea convinced me that I could go to class and no one would yell at me or tell me I'm not trying hard enough or do anything other than encourage me.  And it just so happened that my YMCA had a yin class (the BEST way to get into yoga for people who are scared and out of shape in my opinions) the very next day.  I quickly told some friends I was going to try the class, so I'd have the accountability of them asking how it went.

Ya'll the class was so perfect.  I try not to be all God all the time on here, but the way this has happened is really and truly nothing short of Divine Intervention.  Andrea sent me the right stretches, she convinced me to try the right class, and on the day I went they were doing a particularly delicious and (key word) EASY practice.  I was hooked.

Basically, since that day, I've become a complete and total yoga convert.  I'm currently practicing every day, attending two group classes each week, and doing at least three days of intense cardio each week.  For the first time, the weight loss is only the side benefit, not the goal.  The goal is to be better at yoga, which means I need to drop some pounds - which is has!  Twelve pounds in six weeks.

But here's the real kicker.  I'm kind of good at this!  I feel a bit uncomfortable even saying that, but I'm letting myself toot my own horn just this once.  My body can do things I never, ever thought a body this size could do.  In just a very few weeks, I've added so many physical skills to my inventory.  Even at my thinnest, I've never felt proud of what my body could physically do.  I have always been the non-athletic sibling in an athletic family and the weak link on any team.

So, maybe you can understand why it's hard for me to write this without getting chocked up.  It continues to blow my mind that I am actually enjoying working out.  That I've found a physical challenge that I can actually meet.  I'm still my regular bookish self, but I feel like I'm also a totally different self too.

Which is why, at twelve pounds under my heaviest weight, I have the most body confidence I've had in my entire life.  And, why I feel comfortable posting these pictures proudly!  If you follow me on Instagram (and you should - @julie37619) you've probably already noticed that yoga has taken over my feed.  Get used to it, because this is something I'm planning to stick with!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Book Review: The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

From Goodreads:
Born to a prominent Chicago judge and his stifled socialite wife, Mia Dennett moves against the grain as a young inner-city art teacher. One night, Mia enters a bar to meet her on-again, off-again boyfriend. But when he doesn't show, she unwisely leaves with an enigmatic stranger. With his smooth moves and modest wit, at first Colin Thatcher seems like a safe one-night stand. But following Colin home will turn out to be the worst mistake of Mia's life. 

Colin's job was to abduct Mia as part of a wild extortion plot and deliver her to his employers. But the plan takes an unexpected turn when Colin suddenly decides to hide Mia in a secluded cabin in rural Minnesota, evading the police and his deadly superiors. Mia's mother, Eve, and detective Gabe Hoffman will stop at nothing to find them, but no one could have predicted the emotional entanglements that eventually cause this family's world to shatter. 
Ok, before I start my review, I want to warn you that there will be spoilers in the Entertainment Value portion of the review.  Ya'll I straight up hated this book.  If it hadn't been an e-book, I would have thrown it.  There were several portions that I desperately wanted to quote, just to prove my point, but as I was reading a galley, I'll refrain.  Just know that you'll be getting spoilers if you read the Entertainment Value portion.

The writing in this one is just flat out bad.  The characters are stock, one-dimensional caricatures that aren't in any way believable as real people.  There was no point at which I connected with any of them or developed a sense of caring about their plights.  They were all horrible, even the ones we were supposed to like.  And I don't mean horrible in a good, Gillian Flynn way.  I mean horrible in a cardboard, stereotyped flat as a pancake way.

In addition to being populated with unbelievable and cookie-cutter characters, the plot itself is miserably slow.  I kept waiting for things to happen and they just never did.  If your book is going to spend a lot of time on the interior lives of characters, they need to be interesting characters.  If you can't come up with interesting characters, then give me some action, for heaven's sake.  This book has neither.

Entertainment Value (here come the spoilers)
So this is where I wanted to bring in quotes, but I feel bad doing that since I read a galley.  Instead, I'll just summarize the bizarre and frankly disturbing "romance" of this book.  I kept hoping for some twist that would justify things, but it never comes.

So basically, the gist of the book is that Colin kidnaps Mia.  First he stalks her.  Then he hits her, he holds a gun to her head and threatens to kill her, he chases her down in the woods, he terrorizes her, and he holds her against her will for months.

But he's really not a bad guy.  He grew up poor and loves his mama!  See, he's really not that bad?  And (this is really in the book) Mia starts to realize that she was really mean to him when he first kidnapped her and if she had had the opportunity she might have tried to kill him.  So it all comes out in the wash.

They fall in love and have tons of what the book portrays as consensual sex.  I feel the need to clarify to everyone who calls this a love story that if a man stalks you, kidnaps you, holds you against your will, threatens to kill you, and hits you, any sex had is not consensual.  Maybe you think it is because you're suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, but this book is sure to point out that Mia is in REAL LOVE and not suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.  It made me livid.  LIVID.

Of course the twist at the end reveals that the evil rich people were evil all along, the poor kidnapper had a heart of gold, and Mia had some complicity in the whole situation from the very beginning.  Which does not change the whole idea of whether or not the sex was consensual in my opinion.

And can we just discuss this sad little tacked on twist?  I think it was put there so that the book could get Gone Girl comparisons, and it obviously worked in many people's minds.  But it was two pages at the end of the book.  Seriously.  Two pages that felt randomly inserted into a story I already didn't care about that did nothing to change my opinions or make me rethink anything that had happened earlier.  It was just as dull and pointless as the rest of the book.

In case you can't tell, I am strongly recommending that you skip this book.  Having just had a great experience with another of the publisher's books (Little Mercies by Heather Gudenkauf), I don't want to write them off as a whole, but man this was a letdown, especially after all the raves I had read about it.

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

Monday, September 8, 2014

Book Review: Ghosting by Edith Pattou

From Goodreads:
On a hot summer night in a Midwestern town, a high school teenage prank goes horrifically awry. Alcohol, guns, and a dare. Within minutes, as events collide, innocents becomes victims—with tragic outcomes altering lives forever, a grisly and unfortunate scenario all too familiar from current real-life headlines. But victims can also become survivors, and as we come to know each character through his/her own distinctive voice and their interactions with one another, we see how, despite pain and guilt, they can reach out to one another, find a new equilibrium, and survive.

Told through multiple points of view in naturalistic free verse and stream of consciousness, this is an unforgettable, haunting tale.
I love the idea of YA novels written in verse.  I really and truly do.  What a great way to introduce teens who would never even glance at poetry to the form?  It makes for a great introduction and jumping off start that could lead to a love of poetry, in theory.  Unfortunately, I can't say that I'd use this book as an example.  The problem, and I've seen this in other novels in verse, is that there's no reason for this to be considered "poetry".  It's written just like prose, just with more page breaks.  There's nothing that sets this apart in form, voice, or content from any other prose.  I felt like the author wrote this as a short novel and then randomly inserted line breaks to make it "poetry".  Other than printing format, I'm hard pressed to come up with a reason to call this poetry, which really disappointed me.

Entertainment Value
In terms of being entertained, I have no complaints.  It's a young adult issue novel, which is my favorite type of YA, and it deals with hard topics.  There's nothing really exceptional either way.  I was entertained, I read it in one sitting, and I enjoyed it while I was reading, but it doesn't stand out to me as a must-read for young adults.  It's not one I'll be purchasing for the library or recommending to teen readers.  I hate to say it, but there's just better stuff out there.

Meh.  I was really disappointed in the writing.  It wasn't poetry (in my opinion) and it wasn't even exceptional writing as far as prose is concerned.  It entertained me and was a fine use of an evening, but it's not something that will stay with me or that I'll be passing on to others.  However, I seem to be one of the dissenters when it comes to Goodreads reviews, so feel free to click the link above and check out what others are saying.

Thank you to Megan at Spark Point Studio for providing me with a copy to review!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Comics Friday: Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughn

From Goodreads:
"Y" is none other than unemployed escape artist Yorick Brown (his father was a Shakespeare buff), and he's seemingly the only male human left alive after a mysterious plague kills all Y-chromosome carriers on earth. But why are he and his faithful companion, the often testy male monkey Ampersand, still alive? He sets out to find the answer (and his girlfriend), while running from angry female Republicans (now running the government), Amazon wannabes that include his own sister (seemingly brainwashed), and other threats. 
I've used the description and image of the first book in this series, but I'm going to be reviewing (spoiler free) the series (10 total) as a whole.

I reviewed Vaughan's Saga on here a few months ago and raved about the quality of the writing, particularly characterization.  This earlier work is not an exception.  I'm really finding that I enjoy his writing and sense of style.  Once again, in Y, the characters are fabulous.  I loved the variety as far as types of characters as well as the consistency and development of the recurring characters.  One of my favorite things Vaughan does in this series is that he somehow weaves in these incredibly meta moments, when the characters address exactly what the reader is wondering at exactly the right moment.

Entertainment Value
So great!  I was totally into this series and even convinced Luke to read them with me.  I wish my library had had them in the larger volumes because I would have torn through them faster, but it was also nice to stretch it out by knowing I had a comic I'd definitely enjoy waiting for me at the library each week.  In my attempts to use Fridays as my day for comics and graphic novels, I've come across some real duds, but I knew I could count on this one to consistently amaze me.

Beautifully done.  Fun to look at and paired to perfection with the writing.  I have absolutely nothing but good things to report.

This is such a great jumping off point for comics.  It's short enough (10 issues) that it's not intimidating and it's a self-contained story, so readers don't have to worry about back story and alternate universes and all of those things that completely overwhelm readers like me.  And it's already complete, so it can be read start to finish.  Particularly if you're already intrigued by post-apocalyptic settings, this would be an ideal comic to start with.  My only warning is that there is some sex and nudity, as in Saga, but, in a world without men, sexual violence is non-existent, which was refreshing.  I highly recommend this one.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Book Review: The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith

From Goodreads:
Set in a small coastal town in North Carolina during the waning years of the American Revolution, this incandescent debut novel follows three generations of family—fathers and daughters, mother and son, master and slave, characters who yearn for redemption amidst a heady brew of war, kidnapping, slavery, and love. 

Drawn to the ocean, ten-year-old Tabitha wanders the marshes of her small coastal village and listens to her father’s stories about his pirate voyages and the mother she never knew. Since the loss of his wife Helen, John has remained land-bound for their daughter, but when Tab contracts yellow fever, he turns to the sea once more. Desperate to save his daughter, he takes her aboard a sloop bound for Bermuda, hoping the salt air will heal her.

Years before, Helen herself was raised by a widowed father. Asa, the devout owner of a small plantation, gives his daughter a young slave named Moll for her tenth birthday. Left largely on their own, Helen and Moll develop a close but uneasy companionship. Helen gradually takes over the running of the plantation as the girls grow up, but when she meets John, the pirate turned Continental soldier, she flouts convention and her father’s wishes by falling in love. Moll, meanwhile, is forced into marriage with a stranger. Her only solace is her son, Davy, whom she will protect with a passion that defies the bounds of slavery.

In this elegant, evocative, and haunting debut, Katy Simpson Smith captures the singular love between parent and child, the devastation of love lost, and the lonely paths we travel in the name of renewal.
This one definitely falls into the literary subgenre of historical fiction.  It's just beautifully done, in terms of characterization and language in particular.  It's certainly more character-driven than plot-driven, but that serves so well to highlight the beautiful word choices and style.  The book is divided into three parts, each focusing on one of the women: Helen, her slave, Moll, and Helen's daughter, Tabitha and how each one's life affects Helen's father, Asa and husband, John.  It's simply beautiful writing.

Entertainment Value
Again, it's not plot-driven.  Things happen and events progress, but it's much more a character study, or a set of character studies, than it is a forward-moving story.  That said, I couldn't have enjoyed it more.  It's the perfect length and read quickly, despite the fact that it is more focused on character development than plot.

One really cool thing that this book does that I haven't read before is examine slavery during a Revolutionary War time period.  I've read plenty of books that address slavery during the Antebellum and Civil War eras, mostly set in the South, or focusing on the flight of slaves north, but I've never read a book that examines slavery in early American history.

This is a great choice if you're a fan of historical fiction with a more literary bent.  Those who enjoyed Hannah Kent's Burial Rites would probably also love this one.

Thanks to TLC for having me on the tour and providing me with a review copy!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Book Review: Little Mercies by Heather Gudenkauf

From Goodreads:
Veteran social worker Ellen Moore has seen the worst side of humanity; the vilest acts one person can commit against another. She is a fiercely dedicated children's advocate and a devoted mother and wife. But one blistering summer day, a simple moment of distraction will have repercussions that Ellen could never have imagined, threatening to shatter everything she holds dear, and trapping her between the gears of the system she works for.

Meanwhile, ten-year-old Jenny Briard has been living with her well-meaning but irresponsible father since her mother left them, sleeping on friends' couches and moving in and out of cheap motels. When Jenny suddenly finds herself on her own, she is forced to survive with nothing but a few dollars and her street smarts. The last thing she wants is a social worker, but when Ellen's and Jenny's lives collide, little do they know just how much they can help one another.
Exactly what I want to see in women's lit.  Something ripped from the headlines that focuses more on the aftermath of the "event" and how it affects the main characters and their lives.  Gudenkauf does a good job of creating multi-dimensional characters you can sympathize with, but who are also believably flawed.  And the story itself moves quickly enough to keep the reader's attention.  There's nothing spectacular in terms of craft or language use, but that's not something I expect in this genre.

Entertainment Value
Well I devoured it in two days, so that says something, right?  The characters are compelling and "ripped from the headlines" is the perfect description for the plot.  It deals with a child left in a hot car, which was especially apt given the news stories from this summer in my area.  Hard to read at times, but very moving.  I was totally sucked into the story and couldn't stop reading.

If you are a fan of Jodi Picoult, you'll love Heather Gudenkauf.  It's not particularly mind-blowing in terms of writing, but it will make you think about how you consider and judge others.  And best of all, it's as engrossing as it can be, which makes it exactly what I look for in women's lit.

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

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What I Read in August

A lot has gone on in my life since late July and through the month of August.  The biggest thing was a trip to Chicago with my sister-in-law and the kids to help them while they moved.  I flew to Little Rock and drove the eleven hours to the Chicago area with Elisabeth, George, and Gemma, and then stayed for a few days to help move.  It worked out perfectly with my two week break between semesters.  The other big thing that's happened personally has been my new obsession with yoga.  My friend Andrea at We Still Read inspired me and I've been practicing every day since the end of July.  I've got a lot to say about it and the way it's impacted my body image, but I'm going to save it all for a big post another day.

Just this last weekend we made a day trip to the Atlanta area for Decatur Book Festival.  It was, as always, ridiculously hot and humid.  LJ and my friend Stephanie from book club joined me this year.

Beginning of the day.  Note the relatively non-red faces and my excitement at seeing Stephanie Perkins.

LJ, being my book sherpa.

This was after the two hour line for Stephanie Perkins.  In the direct sun.  In the middle of the day.  Needless to say, we were completely through after waiting in that line.  We made a lunch stop, ran by Little Shop of Stories, and Pinkberry and then went home.  Good times, but I'm way too old to spend that long standing in the sun.

What I Read:

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
That Night by Chevy Stevens
Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
The Three by Sarah Lotz
The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne
Y: The Last Man, Volumes 7-10
The Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Romeo and Juliet
Ghosting by Edith Pattou
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
The Bird Box by Josh Malerman
The Principles of Uncertainty by Maria Kalman
What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund
Rocket Girl, Volume 1 by Brandon Montclare
Little Mercies by Heather Gudenkauf
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Flings by Justin Taylor
The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith

So, yes, it was an amazing reading month for me.  Having two weeks off for the break between semesters really helped.  I've decided to go for 175 books this year instead of 135 as I had planned.

 What did you read in August?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Audiobook Review: Simon and Schuster's Shakespeare Full Cast Dramatizations

First of all, I cannot thank Lauren at Simon and Schuster enough for sending me copies of these five plays to review.  I am a HUGE fan of all things Shakespeare, but I haven't spent much time with him since Dr. Johnny Wink's Shakespeare course in college.  I don't think these really need plot summaries, as they're pretty much cannon, right?  So we'll just jump right in!

I mean, it's Shakespeare.  Do I really need to talk about how amazing the writing is?  I'll just say that every single time I watch, listen, or read one of his works I catch something new that reminds me of just how witty, smart, and delightful these are to read.  They're just so smart and so funny.  Even the tragedies have amazing comic moments.

Entertainment Value
Again, there's a reason these works have inspired countless spin offs and alternate takes.  They're classic stories that have informed every aspect of culture and it's because they're just so amazing.  Listening to each of these has made me want to find and consume all of my favorite iterations of Shakespeare - Romeo + Juliet, David Tennant's Hamlet, even Shakespeare in Love.

Y'all.  If you've only read these or seen the modern movies, you are seriously missing out on something amazing.  Shakespeare is meant to be performed and if you listen to these recordings you'll see (hear) why.  These are incredibly done.  I started them a little bit worried about my ability to follow them in audiobook format.  I was afraid that without seeing the characters or reading the play, I'd get lost as far as who was speaking.  When I've read Shakespeare, I've always done is very slowly to try to get everything I can out of it.  Visually it's easier to understand.  But I just wasn't convinced I'd be able to follow on audio.  Thankfully, my fears were completely unfounded.  Even the play I'm least familiar with (A Midsummer Night's Dream) was perfectly easy to follow.  These all have a full cast, music, and sound effects and are just beautifully done.

I can't say enough great things about these.  They're a treasure to own and something that I know I'll go back to again and again.  At two to four hours, they're perfect for a road trip.  I couldn't be happier with them!

Thank you again to Lauren and Simon and Schuster for providing me with a copy of each to review!