Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Choose Your Own Adventure Book Club (Adventure 1)

My book club has been meeting for over a year now and we've tried lots of different methods for choosing our books.  When we first started and we didn't know each other as well, we just let one person pick each month.  As we got to know each other better, we started just tossing ideas around.  Then we participated in a six month experience as Book Club Girl ambassadors and chose a book each month from a pool of available titles provided by Harper Collins.

All experiences were good, even when we didn't like the book, but we realized that while we'd discuss the group read for a bit, we spent the majority of our time just talking about everything else we'd been reading.  We have fairly diverse tastes, but there are places of overlap for all of us, so we'd spend hours at each meeting (our meetings are EPIC in length) just talking about books.

We decided after finishing Book Club Girl that we were all feeling pressured in our reading and guilty when we didn't get the assigned book finished.  I should mention here that we are also all in our local FYA Book Club chapter, so we were working with two required books each month.  I'm also in a church group that meets weekly to discuss a book we choose together and of course I've got review commitments here.  It all added up to less enjoyment of the books because we felt pushed to read them.

HAVING to read steals joy, so we came up with a plan.  We'd each brainstorm a list of reading prompts/themes and write them on slips of paper.  Then we'd put them all in my lovely Tardis cookie jar.  Each month we'd choose one prompt and could read anything in any genre that fit that prompt.  At book club we'd just discuss whatever we chose that month as appropriate for the prompt - along with anything else we've read that is amazing.

And so begins the tale of the Choose Your Own Adventure Book Club.  I'm going to post each month what our prompt was and what we each chose, because I'm proud of how clever we are and because it makes for a great book list.  For our inaugural month, we chose "Guilty Pleasures."  Here's the list of what we read:

I spent the entire month waffling between Lace by Shirley Conran, about four elegant sophisticated women living it up in the big city, written in the 80's, and, I was assured, full of scandal and reality-defying escapades,

and Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife by Linda Berdoll, a continuation of Pride and Prejudice that I've heard is absolutely bawdy and terribly written.

Unfortunately I wound up reading neither, since I spent a huge portion of the month with my niece and nephews and just ran out of time and energy for reading something racy and poorly written.  Rest assured, I will still read both of these in my own good time.

Rachel chose For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund.  She's a huge fan of Persuasion and Jane Austen retellings, so this was right up her alley - especially since she thought it was set in space.  It is actually not at all set in space, but she did like it enough to take the second book in the series home with her from my shelf and I've added both books to my TBR list.

Courtney read The Duff  by Kody Keplinger.  We had a book club outing to see the movie and she enjoyed it enough that she decided to indulge herself with a read of the novel, about a teenage girl who struggles with her feelings for a boy who referred to her at one point as the DUFF: Designated Ugly Fat Friend.  It's a YA Contemporary and everyone who had read it seemed to be in agreement that it's awesome.

Halina's guilty pleasure was a reread of a book called Gamer Girl by Mari Mancusi.  She'd read it and loved it, but wanted to try it again to see if it lived up to her memory.  It's about a manga fan who is an outcast at school, but finds herself falling in love in an online game similar to Warcraft.  It's earned a fair share of single stars on Goodreads, but Halina loved it anyway, which made it the perfect guilty pleasure.

And Stephanie is a sucker for rock stars and Wuthering Heights retellings, so she read Catherine by April Lidner.  It's pretty much as it sounds - Wuthering Heights but with Catherine's family owning an exclusive club and Heathcliff as a rock star in the making.  She loved it and it also inspired a great discussion about coming to books (WH in this case) as a teenager versus as an adult and how that affects your reading.  Our conclusion was that the WH type story of obsessive love needs to be read as a fifteen year old girl to be seen as romantic - and that most of us who read it as fifteen year old girls full of angst and longing still love it to this day.

So that's the Choose Your Own Adventure Book Club list of guilty pleasures.  Stay tuned for next month when we'll be reading things from the prompt "Not a novel" - which would include anything from non-fiction to poetry to graphic novels to drama.  I've got quite a list going already!

  What's your favorite guilty pleasure read?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

From Goodreads:
Despite constant efforts to declutter your home, do papers still accumulate like snowdrifts and clothes pile up like a tangled mess of noodles?

Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo takes tidying to a whole new level, promising that if you properly simplify and organize your home once, you’ll never have to do it again. Most methods advocate a room-by-room or little-by-little approach, which doom you to pick away at your piles of stuff forever. The KonMari Method, with its revolutionary category-by-category system, leads to lasting results. In fact, none of Kondo’s clients have lapsed (and she still has a three-month waiting list).

With detailed guidance for determining which items in your house “spark joy” (and which don’t), this international bestseller featuring Tokyo’s newest lifestyle phenomenon will help you clear your clutter and enjoy the unique magic of a tidy home—and the calm, motivated mindset it can inspire.
First of all, before anything, I have to say that this description in no way prepares the reader for the total and complete craziness that makes up this book.  It is probably one of the least sane books I've read.  From a Western point of view.  I mean I'm sure plenty of Easterners also think Kondo is crazy, because she clearly is, but many of my side-eye moments could very well be attributed to living in the US versus China.  I'll go into more detail below, but just be aware if you pick this up as a Western reader, you are going to have some of your own eyebrow raising moments.

The book was originally written in Japanese and translated to English, which is the first important distinction to make.  That said, I think the translator did a lovely job and I feel like I really got the message Kondo intended for me to get: throw it all away.  The premise of the book is that if you get rid of the majority of your possessions, you won't have to spend much time tidying because there won't be anything left to tidy.  That's simplifying, but you get the idea.  She's extreme in her views, but I actually found some very helpful ideas here, if I'm honest.  A few that I've put into practice since reading the book:

  • Take every item you are evaluating for disposal off the shelf, out of the drawer, etc.  Physically pick up and hold each item.  So rather than just glancing into my closet, I took out every long-sleeved shirt and laid it out on my bed before evaluating them one by one.  It's easier to find problem items (damaged, not frequently used, etc) when you're looking closely at each piece and easier to part with an item when it's already off the shelf.
  • Don't keep anything that doesn't bring you joy.  I've personally amended this one a bit, because I'm a homeowner with a husband and pets and a house and not every home item brings me joy (I'm not swooning over my ironing board) but there are some things you need to have anyway.  This is an example of an Eastern vs. Western difference.  In Japan, particularly in cities where KonMari works, everyone lives in teeny-tiny apartments.  I live in a decent-sized home and can own a bit more "stuff" without having to consider it "clutter".  So my version of this rule was to toss anything that doesn't bring me joy or serve a specific purpose.
  •  Rather than being mad at yourself for having bought something and never used it, remind yourself that the purpose the item served was to bring you joy when you purchased it.  Even if it's a shirt you never wore, you experienced the pleasure of browsing and choosing it and it's fine to let that item go if it no longer brings you pleasure.
Entertainment Value
Ok, this is where the crazy part comes into play.  Kondo is pathological about throwing things away.  She has these stories about cleaning obsessively as a child that illustrate that this isn't just a normal interest in "tidiness".  That said, I thought her personality really made the book shine.  She's crazy, but in a way that's really fun to read.  

You can also really see her Eastern mentality in her ideas about the feelings of household items.  Socks need to be folded rather than balled up because they work hard on your feet all day and can't rest well if they're in balls.  You should thank each item of clothing as you remove it for the hard work it put in that day.  Every morning you should touch your houseplants and thank them for providing oxygen.  That kind of thing.  I'm honestly not sure how much is quirk and how much is cultural, but I personally will not be putting any of those suggestions into practice.  I will also not be kneeling and introducing myself to each building I enter or expecting to break out in acne after cleaning because my body senses that I'm purging.  I did, however, find them adorable to read about and could totally imagine Kondo doing each one.

If you go into this with a sense of fun, I think it's certainly entertaining to read and also has some genuinely great ideas for de-cluttering.  I do think most Western readers will need to go into it realizing that Kondo works in much smaller spaces than most Americans live in, especially suburbanites like me, and that we may not be required by necessity to be as ruthless as she is in purging.  It's also going to appeal largely to those who aren't afraid of throwing things away.  If you're already nervous about getting rid of stuff, this could very well bring on a panic attack.  It is a super fun book to read, though, and I do feel like I was inspired to clear out some excess in my life.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: Homemakers by Brit Morin

From Goodreads:
Over the past three generations, the rules of homemaking and our very notions of what a homemaker is and does have radically changed. We are still a nation of makers, but we are crafting and creating beyond the home, in both the analog and digital worlds. And in the next ten years, "making" and "homemaking" will evolve further. Tomorrow's women will find themselves actually manufacturing everything from decor to clothing, from right inside their homes.

In Homemakers, Brit Morin, founder of the wildly popular lifestyle brand and website Brit + Co., reimagines homemaking for the twenty-first century. While today's generation thrives in the virtual world, they like to work and create in the physical world. Morin inspires you to combine the best of analog and digital, to help you reconnect with your inner creative child-the one who used to love to draw, to build, and to play-to make your home a more creative, functional, and beautiful place.
The writing here is fine, although, to be honest, there's not that much of it.  Or at least that much of it to judge as far as quality goes.  That's not a criticism, because it's exactly what you'd expect from this kind of book - heavy on pictures, how-tos, and infographics.  Pretty to look at and fun to experience, but not a lot of text, with the exception of captions and lists.

Entertainment Value
This has a lot of valuable information on the basics of homemaking and is presented beautifully with lots of images and graphics, rather than blocks of text.  I especially the list of recommended apps included with each chapter and the look at upcoming technology that will change how we live, work, and play.  If there's a downside, it's that most of this information can honestly be found online without the purchase of the book.  It's nice to have and I'm still debating whether or not to keep my copy as a reference or pass it on to the library.  It's super pretty and I love all of the information, but it's a chunky book and, like I said, doesn't have anything in it that I couldn't easily find on Pintrest.

I thoroughly enjoyed the read, but I think this may be one that I'd recommend you check out from the library rather than buy - unless you have a particular spot in your heart for pretty Pintrest-like style images.  It would make a nice coffee table book, or if you collect home-decor/fashion books.  While I'm not sure it's a must-own, it did inspire me to follow Brit + Co online and gave me some great ideas for my house.

Thanks to Harper Collins for providing me with a copy to review!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?
If you haven't heard about this one, I feel like you must be living under a rock.  Or at least avoiding the "books like Gone Girl" craze.  I feel like you can't review this book without saying the words "Gone Girl", although the books are honestly quite different.  They're similar only in that both are psychological thrillers with a slow building tension followed by a surprise ending with plenty of red herrings thrown in to keep you guessing.  I should probably just C&P this paragraph and add it to every single psychological thriller I read because I do tend to gravitate towards them and you absolutely cannot avoid a comparison if you publish in the genre.

That said, the writing here stands on its own without needing to be compared to anything else.  It's full of characters who are so difficult to like, but who you just can't stop reading about.  They're all perfectly loathsome, and still perfectly believable, because they're horrible in very normal ways.  The plotting moves quickly, but the tension builds slowly in a very smart way.  Having an unreliable narrator totally works in this case.  And the ending is terrifying in a very Hitchcockian sense.

Entertainment Value
I was totally caught up in the story and in learning what was Rachel really saw and what she only imagined.  It kept me up late, which is the mark of a good thriller, and I was guessing until the last few chapters.  Completely enthralling and something that I think most people will find themselves happily caught up in.

If you're a fan of unreliable narrators, psychological suspense, slow building dread and tension, or, yes, if you're looking for something similar to Gone Girl in its domestic setting and love to hate characters, this is the book for you.  Nothing stuck out to me as particularly graphic, but there is some violence and language, if I recall correctly.  Obviously, it wasn't anything I found over the top or offensive or even memorable.

Thanks to my local library for providing me with a copy!

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Book Review: Behind Closed Doors by Elizabeth Haynes

From Goodreads:
An old case makes Detective Inspector Louisa Smith some new enemies in this spellbinding second installment of New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Haynes's Briarstone crime series that combines literary suspense and page-turning thrills.

Ten years ago, 15-year-old Scarlett Rainsford vanished while on a family holiday in Greece. Was she abducted, or did she run away from her severely dysfunctional family? Lou Smith worked the case as a police constable, and failing to find Scarlett has been one of the biggest regrets of her career. No one is more shocked than Lou to learn that Scarlett has unexpectedly been found during a Special Branch raid of a brothel in Briarstone.

Lou and her Major Crime team are already stretched working two troubling cases: nineteen-year-old Ian Palmer was found badly beaten; and soon after, bar owner Carl McVey was found half-buried in the woods, his Rolex and money gone. While Lou tries to establish the links between the two cases, DS Sam Hollands works with Special Branch to question Scarlett. What happened to her? Where has she been until now? How did she end up back here? And why is her family--with the exception of her emotionally fragile younger sister, Juliette--less than enthusiastic about her return?

When another brutal assault and homicide are linked to the McVey murder, Lou's cases collide, and the clues all point in one terrifying direction. As the pressure and the danger mount, it becomes clear that the silent, secretive Scarlett holds the key to everything.
I fell in love with Elizabeth Haynes when I read Into the Darkest Corner, but somehow she fell off my radar until recently, when I rediscovered her while working on my Scanning the Backlist series.  I grabbed a copy of Under a Silent Moon to read in preparation for this one and absolutely fell in love with the series.  Behind Closed Doors is the second DCI Louisa Smith story, and I picture a bright future for the series.  Haynes was a crime analyst before she was an author and it really shows in her attention to detail and depiction of a working crime unit.  I found the story to be both believable and intriguing and she kept me guessing for the majority of the book (although I do have to admit that I figured things out by the third quarter).  As far as crime writing is concerned, I'm highly impressed - I think she meets all the criteria for superior style in the genre, particularly where realism is concerned, but also in creating flawed but sympathetic characters.

Entertainment Value
Again, exactly what I'm looking for in crime writing.  I'd definitely put her on the same tier as Karin Slaughter or Jo Nesbo.  In some ways she's a bit less gritty than they are, but she does deal with sexual themes and I'd caution readers who are uncomfortable reading about sexual violence.  If you are a fan of crime writing and police procedurals, you won't find anything here that's more graphic than what is common for the genre.  While you could certainly read this as a standalone, I think it works best as the second book in a series.  There are some characters who recur and whose backstory is added to by reading Under a Silent Moon.

Highly recommended for fans of contemporary crime fiction in the vein of Slaughter and Nesbo.  My only caution is to readers who are offended by language or sexual violence, neither of which I'd consider extreme in this book, but which do appear.  My suggestion is that you start with Under a Silent Moon but have Behind Closed Doors ready and waiting because you'll be itching to read more about Lou!

Thanks to TLC for having me on the tour.  Click here for a list of other bloggers on the tour.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Comics Friday: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

From Goodreads:
In her first memoir, Roz Chast brings her signature wit to the topic of aging parents. Spanning the last several years of their lives and told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents, and a narrative as rife with laughs as it is with tears, Chast's memoir is both comfort and comic relief for anyone experiencing the life-altering loss of elderly parents.

When it came to her elderly mother and father, Roz held to the practices of denial, avoidance, and distraction. But when Elizabeth Chast climbed a ladder to locate an old souvenir from the "crazy closet"--with predictable results--the tools that had served Roz well through her parents' seventies, eighties, and into their early nineties could no longer be deployed.

While the particulars are Chast-ian in their idiosyncrasies--an anxious father who had relied heavily on his wife for stability as he slipped into dementia and a former assistant principal mother whose overbearing personality had sidelined Roz for decades--the themes are universal: adult children accepting a parental role; aging and unstable parents leaving a family home for an institution; dealing with uncomfortable physical intimacies; managing logistics; and hiring strangers to provide the most personal care.
I've been holding out for this one for what feels like forever.  My library system doesn't allow for interlibrary loans within the first six months of a new publication and my branch almost never purchases comics or graphic novels.  After what felt like forever, I was finally able to place a hold on a copy at another branch and have it sent to me via ILL.  It's been nominated for/won a ton of prestigious awards, so I was anxious to have my turn with it.

I'm so glad that I kept track of this one and got my hands on it as soon as I could because it is just so well done.  I fell in love with Chast's parents and their quirks and foibles, and fell equally in love with Chast herself.  My parents aren't as old as Chasts, but I do recognize many of her dilemmas in caring for them as something that I will one day need to deal with - and also see in the care of my grandparents.

One thing that sets Chast's experience apart from my own is her fraught relationship with her parents throughout her entire life.  Her parents seemed ambivalent about her presence in their lives and, her mother in particular, was overbearing and controlling, while her father dealt with many anxieties and fears.  I was fascinated to see the way these family dynamics played out in Chast's own feelings and emotions regarding providing intimate care for parents who didn't always care well for her as a child.

I was, in particular, shocked to read that Chast worried about the cost of her parents' care and its effect on her inheritance.  I'm not sure if the close nature of my family or the fact that no one has any significant wealth to distribute plays a role, but I found myself both appalled and intrigued by Chast's forthrightness regarding her issues surrounding the inheritance money.  While it's not something I could identify with or truly sympathize with, I thought it was brave for her to include something so personal in her memoir, knowing that it might be seen as cold-hearted.  I appreciated her honesty in presenting all of her emotions, not just the caring, loving ones.

I definitely recommend this one and hope that if you read it, you'll let me know so we can discuss!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Book Review: A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell

From Goodreads:
In the waning days of 1999, the Alter sisters—Lady, Vee, and Delph—finalize their plans to end their lives. Their reasons are not theirs alone; they are the last in a long line of Alters who have killed themselves, beginning with their great-grandmother, the wife of a Jewish Nobel Prize-winning chemist who developed the first poison gas used in World War I and the lethal agent used in Third Reich gas chambers. The chemist himself, their son Richard, and Richard’s children all followed suit.

The childless sisters also define themselves by their own bad luck. Lady, the oldest, never really resumed living after her divorce. Vee is facing cancer’s return. And Delph, the youngest, is resigned to a spinster’s life of stifled dreams. But despite their pain they love each other fiercely, and share a darkly brilliant sense of humor.

As they gather in the ancestral Upper West Side apartment to close the circle of the Alter curse, an epic story about four generations of one family—inspired in part by the troubled life of German-Jewish Fritz Haber, Nobel Prize winner and inventor of chlorine gas—unfolds. A Reunion of Ghosts is a magnificent tale of fate and blood, sin and absolution; partly a memoir of sisters unified by a singular burden, partly an unflinching eulogy of those who have gone before, and above all a profound commentary on the events of the 20th century.
The writing in this book is just stunning.  It's my favorite kind of literary/historical/family saga mashup.  I'd certainly lean towards the side of literary, but it also has the aspects of historical fiction and family saga that I truly love.  The characters themselves are the show-stealers, particularly Lady, Vee, and Delph.  I particularly love their sister relationship and the way they care for each other in such unique and different ways.  The plotting is good and I was definitely into the story, but the characters are the main draw.  I love the way the author uses the "we" voice, so we're not jumping from sister to sister as narrator, or just getting to know one sister intimately and hearing about the others through her eyes.

Entertainment Value
I couldn't put it down.  It took me three days to read it and during those three days I carried it everywhere with me, just in case I wound up with a few extra seconds to spare.  As I mentioned above, the plot is entertaining and I love seeing the various family members and their histories, especially during the first and second World Wars, but what kept me reading was the relationship I felt like I developed with Lady, Vee, and Delph.  I really cared about each of them and couldn't wait to find out if they would really go through with their suicide plan.

I absolutely loved this one.  I think it has the best of all worlds - it's beautifully written, contains fascinating and complex characters, has historical touches and family drama, and keeps the reader entertained every step of the way.  I'd compare it to novels like Middlesex and The History of Love.  It also has touches of John Irving, which is never a bad thing to say about a book.

Thanks to TLC for having me on the book tour.  Click here for a link to all the tour stops.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Book Review: The Most Dangerous Animal of All by Gary L. Stewart and Susan D. Mustafa

From Goodreads:
Soon after his birthmother contacted him for the first time at the age of thirty-nine, adoptee Gary L. Stewart decided to search for his biological father. His quest would lead him to a horrifying truth and force him to reconsider everything he thought he knew about himself and his world.

Written with award-winning author and journalist Susan Mustafa, The Most Dangerous Animal of All tells the story of Stewart’s decade-long hunt. While combing through government records and news reports and tracking down relatives and friends, Stewart turns up a host of clues—including forensic evidence—that conclusively identify his father as the Zodiac Killer, one of the most notorious and elusive serial murderers in history.

For decades, the Zodiac Killer has captivated America’s imagination. His ability to evade capture while taunting authorities made him infamous. The vicious specificity of his crimes terrified Californians before the Manson murders and after, and shocked a culture enamored with the ideals of the dawning Age of Aquarius. To this day, his ciphers have baffled detectives and amateur sleuths, and his identity remains one of the twentieth century’s great unsolved mysteries.

The Most Dangerous Animal of All reveals the name of the Zodiac for the very first time. Mustafa and Stewart construct a chilling psychological profile of Stewart’s father: as a boy with disturbing fixations, a frustrated intellectual with pretensions to high culture, and an inappropriate suitor and then jilted lover unable to process his rage. At last, all the questions that have surrounded the case for almost fifty years are answered in this riveting narrative. The result is a singular work of true crime at its finest—a compelling, unbelievable true story told with the pacing of a page-turning novel—as well as a sensational and powerful memoir.
Very well-done.  I suggest getting this in print or ebook format as opposed to audio because some of the best evidence presented here is shown explicitly in ciphers and codes created by the Zodiac Killer.  The visual impact played a big role in convincing me that the author is probably correct in assuming that his biological father is the Zodiac Killer.  Was I convinced enough to find him guilty in a court of law?  Probably not - there's definitely room for reasonable doubt.  But I was convinced in my own mind that he is most likely correct in his assumptions.  The authors do a great job of presenting their evidence and backing it up with facts.

Entertainment Value
If you're a fan of true crime, this is a must read.  I think it can cross over, however, to fans of mysteries and thrillers as well.  It reads like a novel and will certainly keep your interest.  It's also not presented in the sensationalized way that true crime is generally perceived as embodying.

If you loved Serial, you will love this book.  It's a great story and has all the same conflicting information and subtle clues that could point in any number of directions.  And, like Serial, it has a somewhat open ending that allows the reader to decide how well Stewart has made his case.  There are entire Reddit forums devoted to this story and, if you enjoy the book, they're perfect for some internet rabbit holing.

Thanks to my local public library for providing me with a copy of this one!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Book Review: Single, Carefree, Mellow

From Goodreads:
Single, Carefree, Mellow is that rare and wonderful thing: a debut that is superbly accomplished, endlessly entertaining, and laugh-out-loud funny.

Maya is in love with both her boyfriend and her boss. Sadie’s lover calls her as he drives to meet his wife at marriage counseling. Gwen pines for her roommate, a man who will hold her hand but then tells her that her palm is sweaty. And Sasha agrees to have a drink with her married lover’s wife and then immediately regrets it. These are the women of Single, Carefree, Mellow, and in these eleven sublime stories they are grappling with unwelcome houseguests, disastrous birthday parties, needy but loyal friends, and all manner of love, secrets, and betrayal. 

In “Cranberry Relish” Josie’s ex—a man she met on Facebook—has a new girlfriend he found on Twitter. In “Blue Heron Bridge” Nina is more worried that the Presbyterian minister living in her garage will hear her kids swearing than about his finding out that she’s sleeping with her running partner. And in “The Rhett Butlers” a teenager loses her virginity to her history teacher and then outgrows him. 

In snappy, glittering prose that is both utterly hilarious and achingly poignant, Katherine Heiny chronicles the ways in which we are unfaithful to each other, both willfully and unwittingly. Maya, who appears in the title story and again in various states of love, forms the spine of this linked collection, and shows us through her moments of pleasure, loss, deceit, and kindness just how fickle the human heart can be.
Very well done.  I was thoroughly impressed by the quality of writing in these stories, although I think the title may be a bit misleading.  The characters in the story are largely very specifically NOT single - they're almost all involved in some sort of infidelity.  The sheer amount of infidelity and the casual treatment of it overshadowed my enjoyment of the quality of the writing to some degree, but I'll address that below in Entertainment Value.  As for the writing, I did find it impressive and pleasant to read.  I particularly appreciated the recurring character of Maya and the changes she goes through over the course of the book.

Entertainment Value
As I mentioned above, I was not a fan of the portrayal of infidelity in many of the stories.  We see the acts of unfaithfulness from the point of view of the one who is doing the cheating, never from the point of view of a person devastated by unfaithfulness.  And honestly, it's just a topic that almost never sits right with me.  I just prefer not to read about it and probably would have chosen something else if I had known how much infidelity was so central to so many of the stories.  That said, I do think there was an honesty to the portraying of cheating and the ways it can become boring, dull, or prove to be disillusioning.

There's not a whole lot to like about many of the characters who populate these stories.  They cheat, they manipulate, they put their own happiness above everything and everyone else.  That said, likability is not a requirement for me.  I can actually really appreciated the nuances that can be found in unlikable characters and I'm happy to report that that is certainly the case here.  The characters do have depths and their circumstances reveal a great deal about human nature and relationships.  I'm glad I read it, despite the fact that I probably wouldn't have chosen it based on the amount of cheating that takes place.  It's short and easy to read and will appeal to readers who enjoy contemporary, realistic short stories in the same vein as Sex in the City, but with a bit more depth.

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

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Book Review: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

From Goodreads:
In this new anthology, Neil Gaiman pierces the veil of reality to reveal the enigmatic, shadowy world that lies beneath. Trigger Warning includes previously published pieces of short fiction--stories, verse, and a very special Doctor Who story that was written for the fiftieth anniversary of the beloved series in 2013--as well "Black Dog," a new tale that revisits the world of American Gods, exclusive to this collection.
Trigger Warning explores the masks we all wear and the people we are beneath them to reveal our vulnerabilities and our truest selves. Here is a rich cornucopia of horror and ghosts stories, science fiction and fairy tales, fabulism and poetry that explore the realm of experience and emotion. In "Adventure Story"--a thematic companion to The Ocean at the End of the Lane--Gaiman ponders death and the way people take their stories with them when they die. His social media experience "A Calendar of Tales" are short takes inspired by replies to fan tweets about the months of the year--stories of pirates and the March winds, an igloo made of books, and a Mother's Day card that portends disturbances in the universe. Gaiman offers his own ingenious spin on Sherlock Holmes in his award-nominated mystery tale "The Case of Death and Honey". And "Click-Clack the Rattlebag" explains the creaks and clatter we hear when we're all alone in the darkness.
FINALLY!  It's taken several tries, but I FINALLY get the appeal of Gaiman's writing.  I was less than impressed with The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Neverwhere, but I fell in love with this collection of short fiction.  I hadn't read anything of his other than novel-length books, so all of this was new to me, although some of it has been printed before.  This totally lived up to my expectations of Gaiman as a teller of creepy tales.  I even enjoyed the Dr. Who story, which I didn't expect as I'm not really a fan of fan-fiction.  Obviously, this was done by an expert and I appreciated the way he added to canon without making any changes.

Entertainment Value
Again, I feel like I finally get what all the Gaiman hype is about.  These are certainly well-written, but I think the largest appeal lies in how disturbing and engrossing each of these stories are.  Nothing here drags and even the stories intended for specific fandoms can be appreciated by all readers.  I really appreciated the creep factor present in many of the stories ("Click-Clack the Rattlebag" is my favorite) and found delightful fantasy elements in the stories that aren't as frightening.

This is a well-rounded collection with a bit of something for everyone, from fans of horror to fantasy to geekdoms.  Some stories are scary, some are funny, and some are moving, but all move quickly and keep the reader engaged.  My book club read this together, courtesy of Book Club Girls, and we all enjoyed it immensely despite having widely varying tastes in fiction.

Thanks to Book Club Girl for providing us with a copy to read! This closes out our six month adventure with the Book Club Girl program.  A huge thanks to Onalee and Harper Collins for the great opportunity and the wonderful books!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Review: Descent by Tim Johnston

From Goodreads:
The Rocky Mountains have cast their spell over the Courtlands, a young family from the plains taking a last summer vacation before their daughter begins college. For eighteen-year-old Caitlin, the mountains loom as the ultimate test of her runner’s heart, while her parents hope that so much beauty, so much grandeur, will somehow repair a damaged marriage. But when Caitlin and her younger brother, Sean, go out for an early morning run and only Sean returns, the mountains become as terrifying as they are majestic, as suddenly this family find themselves living the kind of nightmare they’ve only read about in headlines or seen on TV.

As their world comes undone, the Courtlands are drawn into a vortex of dread and recrimination. Why weren’t they more careful? What has happened to their daughter? Is she alive? Will they ever know? Caitlin’s disappearance, all the more devastating for its mystery, is the beginning of the family’s harrowing journey down increasingly divergent and solitary paths until all that continues to bind them together are the questions they can never bring themselves to ask: At what point does a family stop searching? At what point will a girl stop fighting for her life?

Written with a precision that captures every emotion, every moment of fear, as each member of the family searches for answers, Descent is a perfectly crafted thriller that races like an avalanche toward its heart-pounding conclusion, and heralds the arrival of a master storyteller.
I'm really pleased with the quality of writing here - it's certainly a more literary version of the suspense/thriller genre.  Despite being billed as the next Gone Girl, I think the somewhat literary take is really the only similarity other than genre.  This has a more traditional plot line, although there is some ambiguity about the family history and reliability of each character.  The characterization itself isn't as compelling as the storyline, which is fast-paced and intriguing, although I did truly come to care about Caitlin and her fate.

Entertainment Value
I devoured this, despite the fact that it wasn't quite what I expected it to be based on reviews.  I couldn't put it down and found it an easy book to race through.  The chapters are the perfect length for fast reading and for keeping you up all night with "just one more chapter".  I'd be so interested to read more from this author in either another thriller in the same vein or in a more literary follow up telling what happens to the Courtlands after the book ends.  I feel like the blend of literature and thriller captured here means he could go either way in the future.

If you're a fan of fast-paced thrillers and heart-stopping suspense, this is a good one to read.  I couldn't put it down and thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience.  Just don't go into it expecting it to be like any other book - it stands on its own and falls closer to the traditional thriller genre than many reviews reflect.

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

Monday, April 6, 2015

What I Read in March

We had so much fun in March this year!  The weather was just gorgeous and we spent a lot of time outside.  I went on my first Chattanooga hike with Luke and Dexter.


The best part, of course, was that during the last week of the month the children came for a visit.  We got to spend an entire week doing all kinds of fun things.  George and I went on our first Aunt Julie date to watch Luke's tae kwon-do practice and to get donuts.  We celebrated a Messianic Passover Seder, hosted by yours truly, who roasted her first lamb for the occasion.  

We dyed Easter eggs and told the Easter story to the children.  And of course we played endless rounds of Dutch Blitz, our new favorite game.

Tomorrow, my mom and I will leave warm and sunny Georgia, where we're already gearing up for summer, to travel to the Chicago area to babysit all three children for a week while David and Elisabeth go to the AWP conference.  Yes, that's right - all three children.  Surely two grown women can handle three small children, right?

This month's reading was also amazing.  Somehow I've managed to find plenty of reading time, which is just the way I like it.  In March, I read:

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman
I Can Barely Take Care of Myself by Jen Kirkman
Exquisite Corpse by Penelope Bagieu
The Bat by Jo Nesbo
Creepiosity by David Bickel
Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast
Rex Libris, Volume I by James Turner
The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone
Descent by Tim Johnson
Cockroaches by Jo Nesbo

What did you read in March?