Tag Archives: books

Book review: The Radleys by Matt Haig

25 Jan

Rowan and Clara Radley don’t know they’re vampires. Their parents, Helen and Peter, have kept the family secret for seventeen years, abstaining from their old, instinctual practices and raising their children as if human blood is not a part of their natural diet.

And everything is fine, until Clara decides to become a vegetarian, forsaking the meat that keeps her base desires at bay, until one moment, at a high school party, when she commits a devastating and life-changing act.

As funny as it is clever, The Radleys is fast-paced, heartfelt, and unique.  The darkness here is lighter than in Haig’s fantastic previous novel, The Dead Father’s Club, but his talent for rummaging around in the shade shines through nevertheless.

A quick read, but a worthwhile one, The Radleys shows just how intimate and complex – how bloody – the hidden corridors of the human heart can be.

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This book was published by Free Press in December in 2010. For more information, visit the author’s hilarious website. If your natural instinct is to purchase this book from an independent bookstore, as an affiliate of IndieBound who makes no money whatsoever from this gig but continues nonetheless, I encourage you fulfill that urge here. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I received from the publisher.

Book review: A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

17 Jan

Robert Goolrick isn’t from Wisconsin, but he should be. His descriptions of the Wisconsin winter landscape are so dead-on, so poetic, so well-written, the state should send him a certificate of achievement. (Or maybe I should print him one up in Word? No?)

In Goolrick’s novel, A Reliable Wife, the oppressive winter white of the fields and hills surrounding Ralph Truitt’s farm house is almost another character in itself. When mail-order bride Catherine Land first arrives at the homestead, the light from the snow is literally too much for her eyes. This sense of a deadening world right outside the window, coupled with the blindness that accompanies both bright light and love, are dual themes the carefully crafted story rides on, twisting around several fresh and unexpected turns as it flows.

Dark, sexual, and mysterious, this book would be an excellent choice for mystery fans looking for suspenseful, intriguing plot lines with a literary bent. This is superb writing, but it’s Goolrick’s mastery of pace and character development  that make this an engrossing read.

Every wife turns out to be someone other than her groom thought she was. The person this wife turns out to be, a person with an agenda much more sinister and complex than love or security, is the driving force behind the story. But as with any marriage, the truth – the darkness, the consequences, the redemption for many sins – is far more complicated than that.

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This book was published by Algonquin Books in 2009. For more information, including an excerpt from the opening chapter and an interesting video interview with the author, visit the book’s website. For more information about the author and his other novel, visit the author’s websiteClick here to purchase this book from an independent bookseller and to get me through the harsh Wisconsin winters as an IndieBound affiliate. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on my own copy of this book.

Book Review: Good Eggs: A Memoir by Phoebe Potts

14 Jan

Good Eggs: A Memoir by Phoebe Potts was what every graphic novel memoir should aspire to be: touching and poignant and funny, sad and hopeful, with a truth all its own, with a voice that takes as much from the visual aspect of the drawing on the page as from the writing itself.

Potts’ book might have been called Infertility: A Love Story, not because there’s anything to love about infertility and not because Potts loves the numerous painful processes she and her husband endure for many months, but because she tells her story with love. In showing the reader her desire to be a mother, she shows also the underbelly of being in a family, the difficulties of growing up and finding one’s calling in life, the complicated road toward faith (in Potts’ case, Judaism), and of the myriad ways that we disappoint ourselves and others. Her honesty, rendered openly in her drawings, reveal a tender soul, a loving person, and most heartbreaking, someone who would make a great mother.

Recommended for fans of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel or Blankets by Craig Thompson, for anyone who likes an intimate view of another person’s “normal” life, for women struggling to get pregnant (or in pain over simply not being pregnant, capabilities aside).

Potts’ book is beautiful. Good Eggs is, very simply, a good egg.

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This book was published by Harper Collins in 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. For a cool sneak-peek slide show of the inside of the book, stop by the Huffington Post. If you’d like to purchase this book from an independent bookstore and support me as an IndieBound affiliate by sending a few eggs my way, by all means, do so. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on my own copy of this book.

Book review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

4 Jan

If one day you told me, “You can be a powerful queen and ruler, you can have riches beyond imagining, you can possess an exceptional brain, a confident manner, a loyal nature, a brave soul, and gifts for both pageantry and persuasion, but…you must also withstand being misunderstood as a seductress, a succubus, and a whore for 2,000 years and counting,” I might have some inkling of what is was like to be Cleopatra. (I might still also agree to the bargain.)

In her 2010 biography, Cleopatra: A Life, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff peels away the dual layers of time and history to reveal the multi-faceted woman behind the myth, and in doing so, she has written an excellent book.

For any lover of non-fiction, this is a rich and engaging read, but Schiff’s real talent is making Cleopatra’s story as accessible as fiction. Accompanying Cleopatra from the time she ascends her throne at age 18, through years of uncertainty and triumph, through both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, until her suicide (which did not happen the way you think it did) at 39, Schiff offers a portrait of a real woman. An accomplished writer, with a clear sense of pitch and timing, Schiff renders her subject matter not merely interesting, but downright fascinating.

That Cleopatra was a complicated and compelling woman is undeniable. That her true story – rather than the one that has endured – is just as complex is a riveting and welcome surprise.

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This book was published by Little, Brown, and Company in 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. To purchase this book from an independent bookseller and to marginally support me as an affiliate of IndieBound, please follow this link and pat yourself on the back. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on my own copy of this book.

Listen, Let Me Suggest a New Year’s Resolution for Your Reading Life

27 Dec
So, do y’all have any New Year’s Resolutions for your reading life?*

If having a books resolution sounds a little insane, I feel you. But here you are, reading a book blog, so there’s that. And anyway, I like to think of resolutions as flexible guidelines, ideas that influence choices, rather than unbreakable rules. Perhaps the mere act of thinking about how you’d like to improve or change your reading life will help you think about it differently.

So, what if you resolved to contact authors and writers when you read something you love?

We all love getting fan mail. And I’m not talking about the fan mail where you have to have your burly Marine friend pay the sender a late-evening visit, but the good kind — the kind that makes you smile and renews your faith in people and burns 100 calories all at once.

I’ve been doing this for years. I remember the day I was so enthralled with Lauren Grodstein’s fantastic novel, The Monsters of Templeton, that I called in sick to a former job. When I finished the book, I immediately went online, figured out how to contact her, and sent her an email telling her just what I’d done with my day, and how much her book meant to me. She replied, and I smiled, my faith renewed in people, and burned 100 calories at once, because that’s good karma.

Since then, I do this as often as I can. It never “goes anywhere” — I haven’t been sent autographed first editions, or invited to any private launch parties, or recommended to anyone’s agent — but that’s not the point, is it? I don’t even use my blog email address, because it’s not about the blog, or even me.

It’s about telling someone they made a difference in my life. That’s all I want any resolution to be.

*I started this particular category of resolution last year. Inspired by a friend’s 100 Great Books project, I made my own list of 98 books I wanted to read. Why I couldn’t make it to 100 might have something to do with why I’ve only finished 9, but that’s another tale for another therapist’s couch. This time around, I’m resolving to read more of the books I own and fewer from the public library. As soon as I finish emitting a keening wail, I’ll figure out why the hell I chose to do this. So, you know, it’ll be awhile.

Best Books of 2010

23 Dec

I read 83 books in 2010, less than usual, but that happens sometimes.

In honor of my spare year, I’m doing likewise with my round-up, because the cream really rose to the top.

Here are the highlights. Happy reading, and Happy New Year!

My favorite book of 2010:

The Boys of My Youth by Joann Beard

Honorable mentions for 2010, in no particular order:

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Petty Magic by Camille DeAngelis

Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Captain America, and the New Face of American War by Evan Wright

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Favorite character of the year?

Miranda from When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

(Links from book titles will bring you to purchase details through IndieBound.org, which supports independent bookstores. I’m an IndieBound affiliate and could potentially receive a  small kickback from your purchase, but trust me, that never happens. You should support your community anyway. Links from author’s name will bring you to author’s websites, or the next best thing.)

Book review: Google’lize Your Life by Jeff VanDrimmelen

20 Dec

When I first received Jeff VanDrimmelen’s book, Google’lize Your Life, I was terribly excited. The book whispered, “Do you want to Google’lize your life?” Predictably, I screamed, “Hell yes!”

This was the first warning sign. (You get pretty familiar with warning signs when you are an obsessive organizer and someone who uses obsessive organization as a way to manage your chronic anxiety.) Yet I decided to ignore this, and also the fact that I’ve been using Google products since Gmail first came out in 2004 – eons, in internet years – and probably didn’t need the advice.

Yet I stick with these tools precisely for the same reason, I assume, VanDrimmelen wrote an entire book about them: they work. And because I’m a more productive person thanks to these products, because I value their consistent simplicity, and because I can never consume enough information about the things I love, I was interested in the little hacks and tweaks that might take me to the stratosphere.

And that was a great plan, except that Google’lize Your Life didn’t rock it, at least not for me.

To his credit, VanDrimmelen writes in an easy and accessible way that would benefit any Google beginner, and I would recommend his book to anyone who is unfamiliar with Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Tasks, especially if they’re looking to get a lot out of a straightforward productivity system.

However, my major complaint is that the screen shots for Google Tasks that VanDrimmelen provides in-text don’t match any screen shots in real life. I don’t know how he’s getting his Tasks list to look like this, and he doesn’t tell me. I would have loved to access this feature, and was greatly disappointed when I got online and found I couldn’t expand my Tasks this way. (So disappointed, in fact, that I’ve put off writing this review so that I could calm down enough to assess it fairly.)

Google’lize Your Life is a good starting point for people who are considering the basic Google products. It’s just not enough for someone who has already Google’lized to the power of Google, with a big Googly smile on her face.

Update: A day after this post was published I received an email from the author. To access the canvas view of Google Tasks, log into Gmail and follow this address: https://mail.google.com/tasks/canvas. Thanks, Jeff!

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This book was elf-published by the author in 2010. For more information, visit the Google’lize website. This book is not currently available through independent booksellers. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I received from the author.

Book review: You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin

6 Nov

No one ever tells you what a bloodbath marriage can be. Of course everyone says it’s hard, and you hear all these comments about how it’s a slog, how it’s unimaginably difficult, how crazy it can make even the most sane. But you never really believe all of that, because it’s hard to grasp when you’re on the outside, and it’s hard to imagine when you don’t really want to. You’re too busy being sure nothing will change after it happens. You’re too confident you’ll be the couple that rises above.

But it’s true. All of it. Some days it’s all you can do to wake up next to your spouse and resist the urge to hold a pillow over their face, or yours. Sometimes, even though you’d never admit this to anyone, you consider simply not showing up and doing all you can every day. There are fantasies of what it used to be like when you were Independent George, or what it could be, daydreams about freedom from everything heavy or unmanageable, thoughts that stay a little too long and detail a little too carefully the loopholes in the sheer hard labor that marriage requires.

Victor Aaron, the main character in You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin, is a man who has forgotten completely these truths. He sees the marriage he shared with his dead wife, Sara, as “a perfect, if tumultuous, duet between two opposite but precisely matched souls.” Until one day, he discovers a series of notecards Sara wrote as part of a couples therapy session, detailing the major shifts in their 30-year relationship, and the tectonic plates of Victor’s beliefs start to slip apart.

Peppered with a cast of characters who possess real depth and variety, You Lost Me There is a cornucopia of the complexities of what it means to be human – how our memories can betray us, how our bad habits can bog us down and hold us back, how our connections to other humans can break us utterly and yet still set us free.

Baldwin knows marriage, and it’s a little heartbreaking to read, if you know it, too. But his terrific writing, coupled with his amazing ability to splice scenes so that we are watching two characters in a conversation while one is experiencing something different in his head, save this novel from being overly sentimental, or even too bittersweet. 

For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, this is a nuanced portrait of one man’s grief and of his journey towards, through, and out into the other side of change.

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This book was published by Riverhead Books in August 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. You can also listen to the prologue by watching the book trailer. If you’d like to purchase this book and support independent booksellers at same time, click the IndieBound link that follows, and as always, happy reading. 

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FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I borrowed from the public library. 

Book review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

22 Oct

I get really tired of explaining that I’m busy, stressed, and yes, tired. Almost as much as you get tired of hearing it, I assume, especially because who isn’t busy, stressed, and tired, and who isn’t tired of hearing about it from others?

But I digress. (See? Busy, stressed, and tired.)

So when one of my dearest friends told me I should The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – that it’s just the mental break I’m looking for – I just shrugged. I’d tried to read it before, of course. I doubt you could be a person interested in books and somehow magically avoid hearing about The Hunger Games trilogy over the past few months. But when I picked it up last year, I couldn’t get past the first 20 pages. I wasn’t expecting fantastic writing – my standards adjust accordingly when I know I’m reading YA, though there’s really no reason they should – but beyond that, I was totally uninterested in the story. I seem to recall I gave it a try because a reviewer I like and respect said it has everything: action, adventure, romance, suspense. But I didn’t see it.

Turns out, I just hadn’t read far enough. Or, I wasn’t busy, stressed, and tired enough, which is more likely.

The writing is still not fantastic. But the plot grabbed me this time. And this past Sunday, five hours after cracking the first page, I finished it pretty satisfied. (Satisfied enough, in fact, that I couldn’t wait to borrow the next two books from my friend, and instead went out and bought  Catching Fire and Mockingjay the next day. Catching Fire isn’t as gripping, but you know how it is when you’re having a busy, stressful, and tiring week.)

I do think The Hunger Games deserved to win every award it won when it first came out. I know nothing about Suzanne Collins – I don’t even know if she’s written other books – but her mastery of plot and pacing is clear here.

If I had one complaint, it’s that I dislike Katniss, the main character. This opinion seems to go against the grain of all of the Hunger Games devotees out there, but like that’s ever stopped me. I find Katniss to be obnoxious, self-centered, and overdone. Of course, this book was written for teenagers, and I was nothing if not obnoxious, self-centered, and overdone at that age, so perhaps I will cede a point to Collins, again.

The Hunger Games is not great literature. And thank god. If I never read anything The New Yorker would snub its nose at, I wouldn’t know greatness when I finally picked it up.

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This book was published by Scholastic in September 2008. The Hunger Games   For more information about the author and the trilogy, visit Scholastic’s website here. If you’d like to purchase The Hunger Games, or the following two books in the trilogy, please click the IndieBound link below in support of independent bookstores.

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FTC disclosure: This review was based on my own copy of this book.

Inside Petty Magic (plus book recommendations!): An Interview with author Camille DeAngelis

5 Oct

I could not be more pleased to tell you my dear friend has a book coming out today. Petty Magic by Camille DeAngelis is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and I’m not just saying that because I like her and because she sends me cookies, t-shirts, absinthe lollipops, and all other manner of cool things you will never enjoy.

But obviously, our friendship creates a conflict of interest for me in reviewing her book. Shockingly, as I get older and – I don’t know how this happened — more professional, I care about things like conflicts of interest. So I won’t be getting into the hows and whys and the omg run out and buy this book right nows of a review, but I will be getting into a slew of questions, because this girl can still hook you up:

Your previous novel, Mary Modern, was inspired by a photograph of your great-grandmother, and what it would be like if you could communicate with her. Petty Magic also has a fantastical storyline, yet it’s also grounded in a very real way. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

In 2007 all I had was Fawkes & Ibis (the curiosity shop where Eve’s love interest works; I had cannibalized an earlier manuscript) and the bare-bones premise: old witch makes herself young again so she can go out to bars and seduce men. I knew it would be loads of fun to write, but initially I thought it was only meant to be a short story, and (for now anyway) I write short stories only for my own amusement.

Meanwhile, I’d been working on another novel idea—written thirty or forty pages and had done quite a bit of  research—and I’d shown the first chapter to my best writer friend. We were on a walk in the Silvermines, a rather spooky set of mountains in County Tipperary in Ireland, and he was saying that he liked the chapter and that it felt very fast-paced, like a novella—and I groaned because I knew then that the thing I was working on wasn’t going to pan out. [Editor's note: read Camille's blog post about that weekend here]

Then I told him my little idea about a randy old witch, and he said there was a novel in that for sure. I’m telling you where I was when I committed to the idea because I think it actually flavored the story—the following year I did a bit of traveling in the Harz Mountains, where the Grimm brothers collected their fairy tales, and had that same eerie feeling as we walked through the evergreen forest in the rain and fog.

I love your main character, Eve. She’s so feisty! Is there any Camille in Eve?

For me, the fun in making people up is giving them attributes you only wish you could have yourself—Eve is adventurous and supremely confident (to the point of arrogance; of course that’s not a trait I want for myself, but in fiction as in real life, ain’t nobody perfect). I do like to think I’ve grown more sure of myself in the three years since I began writing Petty Magic, though, so maybe I’m becoming a little more like Eve as I go along.

You’ve told me that you read several really interesting books as research for this novel. How does one even go about researching such wide topics as beldames, and World War II? Here’s your chance to geek out – any favorites or recommendations?

For a good overview of the female spies of World War II, I recommend Marcus Binney’s The Women Who Lived for Danger: The Agents of the Special Operations Executive and Sarah Helm’s A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII. I found Violet Szabo’s and Virginia Hall’s stories particularly inspiring; and of course I have to mention the love affair between courier Odette Sansom and her circuit leader Peter Churchill in occupied Paris. (They wound up getting marriedafter the war, although the marriage didn’t last.)

But if I had to pick the one most useful book, it would be Joseph Persico’s Piercing the Reich: The Penetration of Nazi Germany by American Secret Agents During World War II. I’d had no idea American spies had been so active inside Germany! The Office of Strategic Services was willing to send in their agents, while the Special Operations Executive (in Britain) was reluctant because they figured they’d be sending their men into certain death. And yet many of the American spies who had begun setting up networks within Germany survived the experience. Persico’s book is completely riveting.

What I read for Petty Magic has led to an even longer list of books I still want to read—like Mark Seaman’s Bravest of the Brave, a biography of F.F.E. Yeo-Thomas, the English spy code-named ‘the White Rabbit.’ His wartime activity includes more than one highly improbable escape (though he was usually recaptured, and the Nazis tortured him horribly every time he was brought back in). So needless to say Jonah’s inspired by Yeo-Thomas.

There are several other books on espionage and World War II I enjoyed and learned a lot from, and you’ll find the full list in the acknowledgments. I also read a bit about witchcraft and folklore— scholarly works, mostly—and those were indirectly useful because I wanted to subvert and reinforce those classic tropes at the same time.

On a different note, because this is a book blog and also because this is my blog: I know you’re a great reader and lover of books. Are there any books you’re an evangelist for?

I adore Angela Carter, and I really wish she were more widely read and appreciated in the U.S. I love The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus, and Wise Children, her last novel, is probably her best—(how often can you say that of a dearly departed novelist? although she was at her creative peak, dying of cancer in her early fifties)—and if you read it you will see just how much she has inspired me. ‘It doesn’t matter if what happens next spoils everything; the anticipation itself is always pure.’ Brilliant.

The other underappreciated writer I always gush about is Sheridan Le Fanu, the Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer whose vampire novella, Carmilla (in the story collection In a Glass Darkly), predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a good twenty-five years. I’ve been reading Le Fanu’s biography, and a real-life ghost story involving his wife is particularly compelling—there’s a definite theme, in his fiction and in his life, of the dead coming back to claim the living. So you see, he was a gothic character in his own right; after his wife died he became a recluse, and his neighbors called him ‘the Invisible Prince.’ I’ve all but put him in my new novel. Which leads me to your next question…

What are your plans for the future? Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now?

I’m working on a young adult novel, a ghost story set in Dublin in the 1860s, which may or may not turn into a trilogy. My immediate plan—once the Petty Magic publicity stuff has eased up—is to spend a few weeks in London and Edinburgh in November, wandering through graveyards and writing in pubs. I’m also taking a lot of notes for my next adult novel, which is probably going to be the most gothic thing yet.

Thanks, Camille! Not just for the interview, either.

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Petty Magic, which you can and should purchase for yourself and all your loved ones by clicking on the giant red IndieBound link below, was publishd by Crown today, October 5, 2010. For more information about Camille and her other books, visit her website. While you’re over there, check out her blog, which is not at all one of those author-blogs that only talks about the book that was just published. And to show your love for Petty Magic (and also to rock a very funny t-shirt or two), pop over to Camille’s cafepress store.

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