Wednesday, October 19, 2016

book review: Spot 12 by Jenny Jaeckel

The basics: Spot 12 is Jenny Jaeckel's graphic memoir of her experience giving birth and the months following, when her daughter Asa was in intensive care. 

My thoughts: The premise of this book sounded right up my alley. Since I gave birth (26 months ago now), I've stayed interested in parents, particularly mothers, talking about the transition into parenthood. I was curious to see how Jaeckel's transition was similar and different given her daughter's health problems.

Unfortunately, I found Spot 12 to be more of journal than a memoir. The language was mostly simplistic and recounted events. I kept waiting for Jaeckel to offer more insight or hindsight, but it didn't happen. I was yearning for wisdom.

I think a few of Jaeckel's style choices contributed to the emotional disconnect I felt with Jaeckel's story. First, the memoir is entirely black and white and doesn't play much with the shape and size of cells. I prefer my comics to push the medium farther in terms of color and shape aesthetics. Second, the text rarely interplayed directly with the graphics. Too often, I found myself wondering why the images were there or why they were associated with that text. Lastly, Jaeckel chose to depict all the characters as animals and give them cutesy names. I found both distracting and at times confounding.

I'll be honest, Jaeckel and I look at the world very differently, and I wish she would have explored more of her choices and viewpoints to offer her perspective. She was against vaccination, but she glosses over it with a single sentence, which I found maddening. She references a family friend who "regularly visits the unknown" and claims to have talked to Asa. I'm willing to go on these journeys with an author, but I want more context and reflection to help make sense of them. I actually found the afterward to be the most interesting part of the book, as Jaeckel gives an update for this American release on where she and her family are now.

Rating: 2 out of 5
Length: 116 pages
Publication date: October 7, 2016
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Want to read for yourself? Buy Spot 12 from Amazon (no Kindle edition) or Barnes and NobleWant more? Visit all the stops on the tour (spoiler: lots of other people really liked it!), visit Jenny Jaeckel's website, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

On reading guilt

I've been feeling guilty about my reading this year. I'm not reading as much as I was. I have bright spots, particularly when I travel for work and remember how much time in the day there is after a long day of work when I'm not playing with and taking care of a two-year old. This summer, I felt the shift as my reading became predominantly audiobooks, boosted by a nanny share that required a lot of driving (by Des Moines standards) two days a week. I realized I rarely picked up an actual book or my Kindle to read. I'd get back in the groove with one book, but then I'd lose my momentum again when I finished it.

When classes started, I found myself so stressed and intellectually exhausted that I often chose music in the car instead of my audiobook. I have been listening to the same audiobook since August 13th. I like it, but it is heavy, and I'm not always in the mood to listen to it. This weekend I finished a mystery by one of my favorite mystery writers. I started it August 9th, as I planned to read it on the flight from Shanghai to Dallas. I read a little on that flight, but mostly I watched tv. Recently, I went days without even opening my Kindle. I pick it up many times a day: I carry it up to bed each night, I bring it back down in the morning. I put it in my purse each day when I leave the house, and return it to the couch with me when I get home. But I don't read.

Lately I feel overstimulated. I'm really happy, but I don't have enough time to enjoy all the things I enjoy as much as I want to. I love my two-year-old, and even though part of me was dreading the terrible twos, they haven't hit yet. He has his moments of course, but I choose to focus on the amazement I have about all he is learning. His vocabulary is exploding. He knows his colors. He's learning numbers and letters. He's learning to put together phrases and rudimentary sentences. He's wonderful and exhausting, and I can't wait to see him when we're apart, and then I look forward to bedtime so I can have some 'me' time.

I love my job too. I'm in my sixth year there, and I love it even more each year, as I have the freedom to explore new ideas and ventures, and I keep morphing my job to include even more of the things I enjoy. I work in higher education, where a traditional work day is not a thing, particularly during the semesters. I bring home work with me. I answer emails from my phone at night. I cannot do my job the way I want to do it forty hours a week. And I'm okay with that because my job invigorates me, and I feel good about the work I do. I have a spouse who works a very different schedule than I do, which leads to a lot of solo parenting (for both of us.) I love the one-on-one time with Hawthorne, but it means there's less time for just me.

This morning I woke up before Hawthorne, and I decided to come downstairs and read a book instead of reading Facebook on my phone in bed. I finished a book last night, so I logged into Goodreads, determined to pick one (or more) of the books I'm currently reading, but likely haven't picked up in awhile, I saw that I've read 73 books so far this year. Something in my brain clicked, and I asked myself, "why are you feeling guilty about not reading again? 73 books by mid-October isn't terrible." It isn't. It's more than most of my friends (who aren't book bloggers) will read this year. It's down from the past two years, but when I look farther back (thanks, LibraryThing!), I see I read 94 books in 2013 and 2010, and only 83 in 2010. Am I reading as much as I think I should be? No. Am I reading as much as I want to be or as much as I think I should be? I'm not sure, and I think that's where the guilt comes in.

I don't think of myself as an ordinary reader. This blog has been such a big part of my life for the last nine and a half years. I've surrounded myself with super-readers, first here in the blogosphere, and then on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Goodreads, Snapchat and now Litsy. Reading has felt like a competitive sport many times over the years. At first, that was a good thing. This community made me read more, think more about what I read and why, and push myself to read more challenging books. At times, all this challenging has made reading feel like an obligation.

Lately I spend more time thinking about reading (or not reading) than actually reading. I love the way books take me to different times and places. I love the way books take me inside people's minds to help me better understand the world, other people, and make me more empathetic. I like to be pushed, but I also like to be entertained. My job is pushing me a lot right now. My child is pushing me right now. Parenting him takes more patience and intellectual energy than it used to. So I find myself gravitating more toward the entertainment side of reading. It's also why I often pick up the remote control after Hawthorne goes to bed. I grew up loving to read, but I also grew up watching a lot of television, and there is a lot of great television to watch too.

Because I'm reading less than I want to, or less than I'm used to, I find it makes picking which book to read or listen to next much more challenging. Every book I choose, means a certain number of others won't get read. It's as though I live in fear of choosing the wrong book and missing my next favorite book. Book guilt is exhausting. I don't have all the answers, but I do have one special challenge for myself. Each day, I will find fifteen minutes to read. Part of me can't believe I have to make this a challenge. Some days it won't be a challenge, and I hope it won't feel like one either. As a kid, I remember summer reading challenges and thinking, 'what's hard about that?'  This challenge isn't hard, but it is a shift of mindfulness. I'm off to start my challenge right now, as long as Hawthorne has at least fifteen more minutes of sleeping. If not, there's always lunch, or after work, or after he goes to bed.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

book review: All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker

The backstory: I saw Wendy Walker speak at ALA in June. I started All Is Not Forgotten the morning I heard her speak, as I figured it would be a good book to read during a conference--something that would keep my attention, but that I could put down while I was busy attending programs and events. I was right on one of those.

The basics:  "It begins in the small, affluent town of Fairview, Connecticut, where everything seems picture perfect. Until one night when young Jenny Kramer is attacked at a local party. In the hours immediately after, she is given a controversial drug to medically erase her memory of the violent assault. But, in the weeks and months that follow, as she heals from her physical wounds, and with no factual recall of the attack, Jenny struggles with her raging emotional memory. Her father, Tom, becomes obsessed with his inability to find her attacker and seek justice while her mother, Charlotte, struggles to pretend this horrific event did not touch her carefully constructed world."

My thoughts: From the beginning, All Is Not Forgotten skillfully straddles a line between realistic fiction and slightly futuristic fiction. The controversial drug Jenny receives doesn't yet exist in this form, but it doesn't seem very far from reality. This set-up allows Walker to tell a cautionary tale, but this novel is much more than that. Through Jenny's parents, who have a beautifully fractured, realistic marriage, Walker is able to show two different, but understandable perspectives. Simmering below the surface of this novel are themes of female autonomy I wish Walker would have explored more.

It's hard to speak about All Is Not Forgotten without giving too much away, but I'll speak generally about some of the things I liked best about this novel, aside from the wide-ranging cast of characters and its small town setting. The narrator is perhaps my favorite part of this book. The reader doesn't know who the narrator is right away,  and even once you learn the identity, there are more interesting intersections that make this more of a psychological thriller than an ordinary thriller.

The verdict: All Is Not Forgotten is an utterly gripping thriller. I read it compulsively. As I reached its conclusion, however, I realized the thrills were likely gone. In this sense, the novel is authentic and realistic--it's characters feel like real people. While I appreciate the novel's conclusion in this sense, for such a twisty ride, I was midlly disappointed there wasn't one more twist. Ultimately, it's a book that is thrilling, engaging and thought-provoking, but it's not one that will likely stick with me. Looking for a book to devour in a day or on a flight? All Is Not Forgotten won't disappoint.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: July 12, 2016 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy All Is Not Forgotten from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Wendy Walker at ALA, June 2016
As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

book review: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

The basics:  "Twenty-two, and knowing no one, Tess leaves home to begin her adult life in New York City. Thus begins a year that is both enchanting and punishing, in a low-level job at “the best restaurant in New York City.” Grueling hours and a steep culinary learning curve awaken her to the beauty of oysters, the finest Champagnes, the appellations of Burgundy. At the same time, she opens herself to friendships—and love—set against the backdrop of dive bars and late nights."--publisher

My thoughts: I am not often a reader who makes much of first lines. I don't know if that's a trait unique to me, or a result that the first lines of books I read aren't remarkably good or bad. But when I started Sweetbitter, I read the first paragraph, put the book down, added it to my favorite passages, and texted it to Mr. Nomadreader:
"You will develop a palate.
 A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again."

Would you believe me if I told you it only got better from there? It's true. The first sentences cement Danler as a food writer, but while this is indeed a novel foodies will adore, it is so much more. To call it a coming of age novel is to sell it incredibly short. This novel isn't one just for foodies or those seeking a coming of age tale. It's a Great American Novel. Or a Great Novel. It's accessible, but literary. It's fun but has depth of language and emotion. It's astonishingly good, and I look forward to rereading it frequently.

Favorite passage:  "It’s an epidemic with women your age. A gross disparity between the way that they speak and the quality of thoughts that they’re having about the world. They are taught to express themselves in slang, in clich├ęs, sarcasm—all of which is weak language. The superficiality of the language colors the experiences, rendering them disposable instead of assimilated. And then to top it all, you call yourselves ‘girls.’"

The verdict: Sweetbitter is one of those rare books I wanted to spend every moment reading, but I never wanted it to end. Danler both transported me to the New York City restaurant world and into a deeply authentic emotional, personal place. To do one is a success; to do both is a triumph. Sweetbitter is one of my favorite books of 2016, and it's a rare title I'll recommend to both dedicated readers and those who make time for a book or two a year.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 368 pages
Publication date: May 24, 2016
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Sweetbitter from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, August 8, 2016

book review: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

The backstory: I've adored Jacqueline Woodson's books for kids and young adults for many years, and when I heard she had a novel for adults coming out this summer, I squealed.

Seeing Jacqueline Woodson speak at ALA in June was one of the highlights of the conference for me (picture below.) She spoke at the same time as John Lewis, and I debated which one to go see. I chose Woodson because I haven't seen her speak before. I was lucky enough to have John Lewis as my Congressional Representative for many years, and I (not foolishly I hope) expect I'll have other chances to hear him speak again.

The basics: Another Brooklyn is the story of August and her memories of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970's and 1980's.

My thoughts: Another Brooklyn captivated me from the first page. There is a sparseness to Woodson's prose in this novel that is poetic. I savored this book and hung on every single word. It's easy to do, as much of the novel is told in vignettes, which make up chapters. As I reader, I got the sense Woodson labored over each word, yet it had a beautiful flow. It showed restraint, yet it captures so much more than words.

Necessarily, the novel is told with the wisdom of age, and these brief passages (taken from different parts) beautifully showcase the way Woodson tells this story with the wisdom of age but the emotion of youth:
"Our legs got long. Soemthing about the curve of our lips and the sway of our head suggested more to starngers than we understood."
"One day, I'd have full breasts, hips, and large hands. One day, my body would tell the world stories beneath the fabric of my clothes." 
I read this novel in the span of a few hours, and while I read it, I fully lived inside its pages. It's one I will think back on for many years to come, both for Woodson's writing, as well as the power of how she tells such a big story with so few words and pages.

Favorite passage: "When you're fifteen, pain skips over reason, aims right for marrow. I don't know how long I stood there staring at them, watching Jerome slip his hand from Sylvia's, watching Sylia inch away. Where're you heading? When you're fifteen, the world collapses in a moment, different than when you're eight and you learn that your mother walked into water--and kept on walking."

The verdict: Woodson is a deeply gifted writer and storyteller, and both talents are on full display in Another Brooklyn. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: August 9, 2016 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Another Brooklyn from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Jacqueline Woodson at ALA, June 2016
As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

book review: Killer Look by Linda Fairstein

The backstory: Killer Look is the eighteenth mystery in Linda Fairstein's Alexandra Cooper series. I've read them all and reviewed a lot them.

The basics: Each Alexandra Cooper novel offers some piece of New York to serve as a backdrop. In Killer Look, it's New York Fashion Week. The hook is the apparent suicide (and possible murder) of a very high profile fashion designer.

My thoughts: Fairstein has been ending the most recent novels with wonderful (or terrible, given we have to wait a year for the next installment!) cliffhangers, and as with novels past, Killer Look opens very soon after the events of the last novel, Devil's Bridge. Alex is not yet back at work, which is a big difference from the rest of the series. Naturally, she still finds a way to help Mike and Mercer with this case.

I won't say I necessarily missed the courtroom element of this case, but I did miss seeing Alex in her element. Given the events of the last book (vague spoilers), she has a lot to recover from, and given the timing of this book, she is nowhere near done recovering. I appreciated Fairstein's dedication to the realities of surviving, but it was soemtimes slightly boring or annoying to see Alex so weak. The case itself was quite interesting, even if there were few suspects. The clues were good ones, and, as always, I enjoyed the glimpse behind the scenes in New York City. Perhaps the biggest enjoyment in this novel was seeing Mike and Alexandra moving towards some kind of new normal.

The verdict: Killer Look isn't Fairstein's best outing, but it is quite good. Reading an Alexandra Cooper novel is always a joy, as it feels like spending time old friends. These characters have been in my life for fifteen years now, and it was wonderful to spend time with them. The last scene packs a big surprise, and, once again, made me wish the next installment would come more quickly.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 392 pages
Publication date: July 26, 2016 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Killer Look from Amazon (Kindle edition.) Better yet: start from the beginning with Final Jeopardy (Kindle edition--only $6.99.) 

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

audiobook review: Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson

narrated by Tavia Gilbert

The backstory: Girl Through Glass is on the 2016 First Novel Prize longlist.

The basics: Told in alternating chapters, Girl Through Glass is the story of a young girl's coming of age at the highest levels of New York City ballet in the late 1970's, and where she is now, a dance history professor somewhere in Ohio. While it appears to be a simple narrative at first, it soon becomes clear there are many mysteries between the 1970's and today for the reader to discover.

My thoughts: Over the years I find myself less drawn to traditional coming of age stories, so I was excited to see this one offered two timelines, a narrative technique I enjoy. As is often the case with such a structure, I find myself trying to fit the pieces together as I read. The biggest challenge of dual narratives are what to revela when, and while I took issue with a few of Wilson's choices as I read, I admit I can't come up with a better way to tell this story.

As I read, I found myself enjoying the modern store of Kate more. It's not surprising, as I'm dranw to tales of academia, and this Kate makes some spectacularly bad and fascinating choices, which did make me curious about how she to that point. At times, the earlier storyline was just as interesting, but it moved at a slower pace in the beginning.

One of the biggest successes of the dual narrative was Kate's ability to offer context and academic insight into dance. To do so in Mira's teenage years would have weighed it down, and this knowledge helps elevate this novel to much more.

Audiobook thoughts: I've enjoyed Tavia Gilbert's narration in the past, and I mostly enjoyed it here. I found a couple of her pronunciations odd. The name of one character was so unique to me, I grabbed a print copy at the library to see how it was spelled, and I was surprised to see it was a name I'd always heard pronounced differently. From that point, I found the character's name distracting. Overall, her performance was mostly straightforward, with a few voices thrown in for some characters. It's hard to tell if the novel's foreshadowing was due to Gilbert's narratino or the words itself. Ultimately, I liked this one on audio, but I don't know that I'd recommend it over the print.

Favorite passage: "I know there is never only one version of the past. We resurrect the past to suit the needs of the present."

The verdict: Girl Through Glass is not a novel whose storyline swept me away, but it was a novel I can't stop thinking about, both its substance and its structure. It's a book I enjoyed reading as much for its construction as for its plot, which makes me very excited for what Wilson will write next. The interwoven storylines of this novel are complex, and while not always perfectly executed, both are interesting and feature dynamic characters.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 10 hours 12 minutes (309 pages)
Publication date: January 26, 2016
Source: personal copy

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Girl Through Glass from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Sari Wilson's website and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

book review; The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The backstory: The Sellout won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and has been longlisted for the 2016  Booker Prize. It was also a 2015 New York Times Notable Book (including being honored as one of the five best fiction titles of the year) and a contestant in the 2016 Tournament of Books.

The basics:  "A biting satire about a young man's isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty's The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant."--publisher

My thoughts: The first ten percent or so of this book had me thinking, "this may be the most provocative and brilliant thing I've ever read." I should remind myself when I get that excited about a book that early, it's nearly impossible to sustain. The Sellout is undeniably brilliant, and I see why it has received such acclaim, but for me as a reader, it was brilliant but flawed.

Part of my issues from it inevitably stem from my issues with many examples of satire. I find satire best in small doses. I don't know that I would consider The Sellout a straight satire, which is part of the problem I had with it. Parts of it read like a more straight-forward comedy, parts read like a contemporary literary novel, and parts read as beyond absurd (I know, the tension between absurdity and reality is central to satire, but in this novel, it felt inconsistent.)

The opening scene would be a brilliant short story. Despite a few other standout scenes, nothing ever matched the book's' opening for me. Overall, I found the social commentary much more compelling than the story itself.

Favorite passage:  "Like all people who believe in the system, he wants answers. He wants to believe that Shakespeare wrote all those books, that Lincoln fought the Civil War to free the slaves and the United States fought World War II to rescue the Jews and keep the world safe for democracy, that Jesus and the double feature are coming."

The verdict: Paul Beatty is clearly a brilliant and talented writer, and I'm glad I read The Sellout for the parts I enjoyed most, as well as the parts that made me think. Despite its strengths, of which there are many, I also found too many flaws that tempered my enjoyment, if not my appreciation, for this novel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: March 3, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Sellout from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The 2016 Booker Dozen: A U.S. Reader's Guide

It's here! I find myself enjoying the Booker Prize longlist even more now that it's also open to U.S. authors. And this year is a good one. Each of the titles intrigues me enough to read it, and none are over 500 pages!

The Ones I've Already Read

The Sellout by Paul Beatty (3.5 stars)--I need to review this one still!
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (4.5 stars)

The Ones Available in the U.S. Now

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (only $5.99 for Kindle!)
The North Water by Ian McGuire
Hystopia by David Means
The Many by Wyl Menmuir
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

The Ones Coming to the U.S.

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee (February 21, 2017)
Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy (October 18, 2016)
All That Man Is by David Szalay (October 4, 2016)

The Ones We Hope Make Their Way to the U.S.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Total page count: 3886
Page count for me to complete the Booker Dozen: 3374

My Plans:
I have several long flights coming up next week (I'm off to Asia!), so I'll be loading my Kindle with all of the currently available titles. First up? Hot Milk because I so adored Swimming Home, and I've been meaning to read more Deborah Levy.

Now tell me: What book are you most excited to see on the longlist? What book are you most surprised to see left off?

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

audiobook review: The Assistants by Camille Perri

narrated by Jorjeana Marie

The basics: The Assistants, Camille Perri's debut novel, is the story of Tina Fontina, a thirty-year-old who serves as the executive assistant to Robert Barlow, the CEO of Titan, a media conglomerate. What begins innocently soon spins a big scheme to falsify expense reports to pay off the student loans of assistants throughout the company.

My thoughts: As I wrote the basics above, I kept trying to come up with a description that made it sound like a book I would actually want to read. I didn't know much about this novel when I downloaded the audiobook from my library, and I think that's the way to go into it. It's a quick listen, and I found it entertaining, funny and surprisingly insightful. In that way, the book sneaked up on me. I was enjoying the story, as it was clearly diverting from reality into delightfully reckless fictional insanity, when I found myself wowed. Perri has absolutely written an entertaining novel, but it packs a wonderful punch without feeling like an idea novel.

Audiobook thoughts: Jorjeana Marie was a delightful narrator. At first, I found her voices for other characters to be slightly over-the-top, particularly Robert, but I soon grew to enjoy them. She reads in a somewhat confessional tone, and I thought she captured Tina perfectly. The tone of this novel is key to its enjoyment, and Jorjeana Marie delivers.

The verdict: I love novels that entertain me and make me think, and The Assistants does both. It's the perfect balance of light and deep, and I enjoyed the time I spent with it. I listened compulsively, but it's biggest gift is how much I'm still thinking about it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 7 hours 49 minutes (283 pages)
Publication date: May 3, 2016
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Assistants from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Follow Camille Perri on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

book review: Chronicle of a Last Summer by Yasmine El Rashidi

The basics: Yasmine El Rashidi's debut novel is set in Cairo in three pivotal summers in modern Egyptian history: 1984, 1998, and 2014.

My thoughts: I admit, most of what I know about contemporary Egyptian politics comes from watching the documentary The Square, which is harrowing and amazing. El Rashidi has the daunting task of writing a novel about a time and place readers may or may not be familiar with. She attempts to address this problem through her narrator. We meet her in 1984 when she is a child trying to filter the different things she hears from friends and family members to make sense of them. Child narrators don't often work for me, but this one was successful. She served as a filter for the reader to learn the state of things, and this section also sets the stage to offer contrast to the coming sections (if you know anything about Egypt, that is not a spoiler.)

The second section was my favorite. I partially attribute it to the fact that the narrator, and perhaps El Rashidi herself, are about the same age. To see the summer of 1998 unfold was fascinating in three ways. In some ways, it's the most interesting piece of the puzzle of Egypt, as I knew the least about this time period. I am also drawn to narratives of college as a vehicle for deep thinking--to have that experience against that political backdrop moved me deeply. To view Egypt and our narrator in the year of 1998, which was such a pivotal year for me personally, as I graduated high school and I entered college, made me critically examine the world in 1998, including my own place in it. El Rashidi writes about this time beautifully:
"There isn't a language for what we are living. We need our own vocabulary, not just new forms of literature and art. He is teaching himself Russian because he thinks he might find answers, a language that speaks to all he feels about the politics of our times."
"She doesn't use the term Middle East because it is a creation of the British. To use it is to remain colonized. I used Middle East all the time. I nodded and made a mental note to be careful."
When the action shifts to the last summer, 2014, I was excited. I knew the most about this time, and I thought El Rashidi had set up the story beautifully. In some ways, this section disappointed. It was certainly a fitting end, but it felt less fully realized in some ways. Perhaps because we are still so close to the events, it did not offer the historical insight the other two pieces did. In a sense, the whole book is saying that: even if we understand how we got here, how did we get here? There aren't answers, of course. As I ponder why the third section felt like I let down, I think it tried to do much; it felt too convenient. Most of the novel felt like it was the story of one woman first and her country second. In the third section, I didn't feel as connected to our narrator. So many people and places get an ending, and I found myself wanting more of her present and future.

Favorite passage: "It seems that politics is at the foreground and background of everything yet not something that can be impacted in any way."

The verdict: Chronicle of a Last Summer is a beautiful glimpse into Egypt from the 1980's to the present. El Rashidi skillfully straddles the line of knowledge and emotion in a way that this book could be enjoyed by readers who know little about contemporary Egypt as well as those who know quite a bit. I'm drawn to short novels that do a lot, and Chronicle of a Last Summer is just that. El Rashidi showed immense restraint to tell such a large story in this way, and it makes me quite excited to see what she'll write next.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: June 28, 2016
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Chronicle of a Last Summer from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Follow Yasmine El Rashidi on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, June 27, 2016

book review: Blood Defense by Marcia Clark

The backstory: I thoroughly enjoyed Marcia Clark's prior mystery series, featuring Los Angeles prosecutor Rachel Knight: Guilt by Association, Guilt by Degrees, Killer Ambition, and The Competition. Blood Defense is the first in a new series featuring Los Angeles defense attorney Samantha Brinkman. (It also signals a change in publishers for Clark.) And yes, as her Twitter handle says, she's that Marcia Clark, who is still most famous for prosecuting O.J. Simpson for murder.

The basics: Blood Defense introduces Samantha Brinkman, a defense attorney struggling to make a name for herself. She appears as a defense expert frequently on a new talk show, but her office is in the heart of gang territory, and she lacks high profile, paying clients. That changes when she takes the case of Dale, an LAPD detective charged in the double homicide of Chloe, a starlet and his girlfriend, and Paige, Chloe's roommate.

My thoughts: The mystery at the heart of this novel is who killed Chloe and Paige. The mystery drives the narrative and offers insights into Samantha's interior monologue. There are other small storylines featuring other clients on low or no-profile cases that offer a nice glimpse into the working life of a defense attorney, but the murders of Chloe and Paige is the focus. It's clear why Dale looks guilty, but it's satisfyingly murky if he actually did. There's plenty of circumstantial evidence, of course, but that leaves plenty of room for reasonable doubt. Samantha and her investigator, a hacker and former client, work hard to find other theories of the crime. Samantha struggles to both find another theory she can use in the courtroom and to figure out if Dale actually did it or not.

The verdict: I was ambivalent about Samantha as a character for most of this novel. I found the primary mystery quite compelling, but the final pages found me sitting with my jaw open, followed by squealing and immediately pre-ordering Moral Defense, the second novel in the series, which will be published November 8, 2016. I'm fully, ecstatically on Team Brinkman, and I cannot wait to see what she does next.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 400 pages
Publication date: May 1, 2016
Source: personal copy

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Blood Defense from Amazon (Kindle edition is only $5.99 and free for Kindle Unlimited readers!)

Want more? Visit Marcia Clark's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday Salon: Two Weeks in Review

The Sunday
Hello from hot and sunny Orlando! I'm here for the American Library Association's Annual Conference, which is once again proving to be an exciting and exhausting mix of work, fun, networking, book events and reading. My schedule calms down considerably tomorrow, so I hope to spend time drafting some of those reviews I keep meaning to write.

What I Read Last Week The Last Two Weeks
1. Since my last week in review, I finished Blood Defense by Marcia Clark. I am impatiently awaiting the second book in this series, Moral Defense, but I'm excited it's out in November. Two books a year? Yes, please!
2. I also finished The Assistants by Camille Perri on audio, which was entertaining and perceptive. It surprised me. I keep pondering it--in a good way.
3. I picked the new novel from one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, to read on the planes to Orlando, and I'm so glad I did. Commonwealth isn't out until September, but it is a masterpiece.
4. I'm currently devouring Wendy Walker's psychological thriller, All Is Not Forgotten, which comes out July 12th. Thanks to many shuttle rides between meetings and events (did I mention it's hot in Orlando?), I read half of it yesterday. I'm also listening to The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. It's fascinating, and I'm learning so much about Chinese cooking and culture.

What I Watched This Week
1. I'm almost done with season 2 of Grace and Frankie on Netflix. I really enjoy this show and its complex characters.
2. ALA is an exhausting conference, and by the end of the day, I want to lay in bed and watch a little tv to unwind from all the library and book talk. Watching the first two episodes of my long-running summer guilty pleasure Big Brother has been the perfect way to end my evenings. I'm disappointed at the identities of three of the returning players, as I read a report that included four very different people, but I am really excited about this year's twists (so far) and the new houseguests. 
3. On the plane to Orlando, I took a break from reading and watched the first two episodes of Blindspot. It was fascinating and entertaining. Unfortunately, the rest of the season isn't available to stream currently, but I hope it shows up somewhere later this summer.

The Best Thing I Bought This Week
In a clear sign of "I obviously spent too much money on Kindle books for awhile," my settlement from the Apple ebook case was almost $200. My jaw hit the floor. I decided to treat myself to a Kindle Paperwhite. I adore my Fire, but I don't always love it for reading text-based books. And I don't love having to charge it every night. My original Kindle is collecting dust on a shelf somewhere, and the Paperwhite is everything I miss about it and more. It's the perfect combination of e-ink and backlight. 

The Best Thing I Ate This Week
In a sign I don't remember many of my meals, I did say yes three times to the passed shrimp ceviche with avocado cream at a reception at Cuba Libre last night. I would have said yes again, but they stopped coming around.

What I'm Looking Forward to This Week
1. Hawthorne snuggles and kisses! I miss him so much, but this trip he is both aware I'm gone and asking for me. During a video chat with him Friday, He put his arms up indicating he wanted me to pick him up, and then he cried when I didn't. While I enjoy having some time to myself, and I love the excitement of this conference, I cannot wait to be back home with my boys.
2. While I'm here, however, I am excited to enjoy a few more loops on my hotel's lazy river. It is so relaxing, and it helps cool me off in this miserable heat.
3. This morning I'm off to hear the daughter of Margaret Mead speak. I'm fascinated by Mead, not only because Euphoria, Lily King's novel inspired by her, is one of my all-time favorites.

Your turn: tell me something great you watched, read or ate this week.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!