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the Big Apple.

10 Jan

I ended 2012 with two slightly older books – one from the beginning of 2012 and one from…oh, a couple of years ago? I brought both of them with me on my NYE travels, and finished them both before I got where I was going (I had a long, long layover).

Cascade

This cover catches my eye every time I see it. I had it from the Library, but couldn’t really bring myself to start it (who knows why?). When I did – I was surprised. It is not at all what I thought it would be, and in a great way. The story is of a young woman who hastily marries a man in her small town in order to save her father and his beloved theater from bankruptcy in the small, small town of Cascade. She is a painter and had been looking forward to a successful career in New York City before giving up  her dreams and moving home. Settling into her new domesticated routine in the small town, a door-to-door salesman comes a’calling – a young jewish man who also happens to be a highly trained and highly skilled painter. The two (of course) find themselves in a precarious (and lovely) friendship. There is SO much more to this story – more than love – a story of a town about to be destroyed (flooded, as it sits in a valley by a river that needs expanded), a woman’s quest to pursue her artistic career, a desperate husband, a murder…

heroicmeasures

Heroic Measures is an old favorite of my bookrep friend. It is slim, and odd. In a pleasant sort of way. Taking place mostly in a fifth story walk-up in NYC, this is the story of a lovely old couple and their beloved dog (dachshund). The couple is thinking of moving to a smaller place with less stairs, and have their apartment on the market. The day of the open house, poor dog gets very ill and they must rush her to the vet. Narrated alternately by the couple and the dog, set in post 9-11 NY, this book is a lot more dramatically and tensely charged that I would have imagined. It is one of those books where you just feel on-edge and involved. It was a captivating, swift read.

Two Books, No Zombies.

28 Dec

My reading streak continues! Two excellent books this week – one young adult and one post-apocalyptic.

shadow-bone

I hadn’t read a YA book in ages. Literally MONTHS. And this was floating around my house, getting moved from one stack to another (my copy has the most boring brown cover). One of my co-workers at the library came in one day RAVING about  it, so I decided to give it a go. So terrific. Set in an imagined Russia, full of dark magic and a love story you can root for (or maybe two?) – this would be perfect for anyone who loved Crewel, Matched, Scorpio Races

dogstars

Here is another one that has been in my stack for months and months. I picked it up once, read about 15 pages and thought “this is TOO weird.” But then. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen it on so many Best Of lists, heard such wonderful reviews from the podcasters I listen to, that I thought I’d give it another go. And I’m so glad I did – I ended up really, really liking it. Here is the set-up: The world has been wiped out by a super-flu and the devastating blood disease that followed it. Hig and his faithful dog Jasper are among a handful of survivors, and the two of them have staked out a somewhat safe harbor in a small airport in Colorado. They have one neighbor – a gun-wielding tough guy named Bangley. Hig, a pilot, decides about a third of the way in to get in his little plane and leave his safe harbor, searching for a voice he heard on the plane’s radio over three years ago. The writing style is different – choppy, tangential sometimes, staccato. And given my recent obsession with The Walking Dead, I half expected zombies to attack as I turned every page. But there are no zombies. And it is lovely. I cried, I cheered. There are a lot of things to really like about this story (if you can give it a little time to get into).

Love & Sexy Wheelchairs.

23 Dec

These three books are the reason no one is getting Christmas gifts from me this  year. To end the year with three books in a row that I couldn’t put down…that must be a good sign for 2013. Here they are:

13330767The News From Spain directly followed Snapper, so I guess that makes it four books in a row that kept me spellbound. I have never read such lovely and perfect stories in all my life. And I would never, ever call myself a short story reader (Alice Munro is my only exception). I was not expecting to love this book so much, but since I finished it I have thought back to it a zillion times. Her writing is…well…amazing. At one point I thought “Oh, I’ll just write this bit down that I like.” I’m not someone who usually writes bits down. And the ‘bit’ that I liked ended up being darn near the whole story. What I like about this book, what makes it better/easier than a book of short stories, is that each story is loosely bound to the others. Not in the sense that characters reoccur, or places or events, but in that each story involves the news from spain. That phrase works its way into each story – boldly, slyly, seamlessly – and has good reason to be the title of each. It’s mostly perfect.

mebefore you

I enjoyed The Last Letter From Your Lover. I didn’t love it, I wasn’t thrilled by it, but I read it and thought it nice. So I wasn’t particularly thrilled to start Me Before You. And I wasn’t particularly excited about the promise of a great love story involving a young girl and a quadriplegic. In fact, I thought it sounded like a rotten idea for a story. BUT IT WAS GREAT. It was so great. I laughed out loud, I almost fell in love with that moody quad Will too. Such a surprise. My grandmother and mother are in a mother/daughter book club, and the entire group of women raved about this book (their book club had been given advance copies, as the book doesn’t come out until next week). I think this book will be everywhere – WalMart, Target, bookstores – so it will be hard to miss. Don’t write it off because the plot line sounds dreadful, it’s not!

HattieLastly, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. This is the new Oprah 2.0 book club pick. And I love the cover. It also fits into my interconnected-short-story trend of late, because each chapter bears the name of one of Hattie’s twelve children. They are not linear, you jump around in time a bit and I was never exactly clear on the order in which the children go, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Through each child (usually an adult child) we learn a little bit more about Hattie. If anyone has ever read an Oprah book – I’d tell you that this is just what you’d expect her to pick. Sort of a Their Eyes Were Watching God/The Color Purple/Beloved  mix of fiction. It’s heavy. And it’s depressing. But I read it straight on through and didn’t notice the time flying by. So while I can’t positively say that I loved it, I can certainly say that I was caught up by it.

Best Litpicks of 2012

11 Dec

I love this time of year. You can hardly turn around without seeing some “Best Of” list, and I always spend lots of time poking through the book ones. Not very many of my Top Ten come up frequently – but these were the books I Very Much Loved this year. Strangely, it was exactly 10, so I didn’t have to cut any.

best2012

  1. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carla Rifka Brunt.
  2. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.
  3. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.
  4. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
  5. The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
  6. Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith
  7. Crewel by Gennifer Albin
  8. Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson
  9. Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann
  10. The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy

Runners up included: Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman, Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen, The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, Art of Hearing Heartbeats Jan-Philipp Sendker, Perla by Carolina De Robertis, and Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan.

AND, I just finished one that will surely be on my list for 2013:

KimberlingSNAPPER

I loved, loved this slender novel (novel in stories?) about Nathan Lochmueller; birdwatcher, romantic, unwitting rebel rouser. This novel made me desperate to move (back) to Indiana, paint my jeep in glitter paint and wallow around in the mud with a pair of binoculars and a long stick with a mirror taped to the end. I’ve been back twice already to re-read my favorite chapters. It’s not due out until April, so I’ll probably post about it again.

Twists.

6 Dec

I always forget how busy the holiday season is – I never get through as many books as I’d like. But here are two from last week that are worth mentioning:

secretkeeper

I have an interesting relationship with Kate Morton’s body of work. By that I mean that usually I think they are too long, too detailed, too…I don’t know. But I always LOVE the twists at the end. Enough that I am willing to slog through 400+ pages of rolling English countryside and creaky old English buildings just to see what happens. And this one was much better than the last (The Distant Hours). The other thing that is either nice or annoying is that all of her works have the exact same feel – if you liked one, you’ll surely like all the others. The Secret Keeper opens with a 16yr old girl, hiding in a tree house at her country estate, who witnesses a stranger approach her mother. And sees her mother kill him (with a knife). Fast forward to years later, the young girl is now in her sixties and a famous actress. As her mother lies on her deathbed, our heroine decides finally to delve futher into her mother’s history and figure out what that murder was all about. Cue twists and turns.

mirrored-world

Madonnas of Leningrad was a big hit. A big Russian/Revolution/Art/Intrigue sort of a hit. So I was excited to get my hands on her newest. I am generally a sucker for good Russian stories (my favorites include City of Thieves, Sashenka, Kitchen Boy) so you’d think this would be right up my reading alley. However. I didn’t LOVE it like I thought I would. The writing is a bit choppy, the characters a bit dull (at least the main two women) and I found myself wishing it was over. And given how short it is, I was surprised it took me so long to finish. The story is of a young girl, Dasha, who is sent to live with her cousin Xenia and her husband. When Xenia loses the child she struggled to carry, when her husband dies in an untimely accident, she goes a bit crazy. Starts giving away all of her possession and money to beggars on the street and finally disappears. This is the story of her decline, and what happens after she is found.

Thankful for some time to read…

25 Nov

Nearing the end of this long holiday weekend, I find myself wishing for just a little more time to read. I still have a half dozen or so books that I am wanting to dig into. Here are the three books I read this week. All are fiction (shocking!) and all of them I liked.

Of all three – this was my favorite. Something about the cover makes me think of Story of Beautiful Girl, which I loved so much I can’t explain, and I was hopeful that this story would at least be in that same ballpark. Tom and Isabel live on an island off the coast of Australia – Tom is in charge of maintaining the island lighthouse and the two are the only people on the small island. Isabel has suffered a series of miscarriages and finds herself in the depths of a dark depression. Then one day, a little dinghy washes up onto their shore containing a dead man. And a live baby. And Isabel convinces Tom not to report it, but to bury the man and raise the baby as their own. You can probably imagine the gist of the storyline (and that the baby’s real mother is looking for her) and where it will go, but I thought it was nicely done. I read a lot of reviews on Goodreads that claimed that there are no likable characters in the book – and I would almost nearly agree. At one point or another I hated nearly every player in the story. But I think that’s human.

 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a weird one. Parts of it reminded me of Goodbye for Now, which I talked about in an earlier post. Sort of techy-nerdy-scholarly. My friend Mary likened it to Harry Potter, and I can see what she means. Ok so here is the plot: a young man/graphic designer goes to work for Mr. Penumbra, working the late night early morning shift of the 24 Hr store. He notices that a strange bunch of elderly scholars come in asking for bizarre old books that seem to be written in code. He generates a computer program that translates the code and finds a pattern – and in doing so he finds himself in the middle of a secret society. He also falls in love with a girl who works for Google. Eh. I give it 3 stars out of 5. It was fast and suspenseful. But if I was going to recommend a book that revolves around advancing technology – I’d go with Goodbye for Now (I liked the plot line so much better).

 

Oh, Per Petterson. This was recommended to me by a friend – a friend who said that it was his favorite, even over Out Stealing Horses. To be 100% honest, I never finished Out Stealing Horses. So I thought I’d check this one out. From the Library, of course. And I flew through it in a morning. I have a huge soft spot for characters who love books. They could be pot-smoking, beer-drinking, fisticuffians and secretly read Kerouac and obscure Jack London titles and I will be in love. And so that is how I felt about Audun – the hero of this book. We follow him through five years of his life – 13 to 18, and you can kind of imagine the type of story it is. His father was an alcoholic and left them a long time ago, his sister ran off with a man that Audun suspects beats her, his younger brother drowned. His mother works and struggles and his friends are similar. I really enjoyed it.

 

Three Mysteries?

2 Nov

I had a busy week of reading – and all three, I think, can be called Mysteries. All of them were good – not GREAT – but solidly enjoyable.

This one is older. And by that I mean maybe last year or the one before. I heard about it on that Books on the Nightstand podcast, and both commentators were saying it’d been on their list forever and they were both going to move it to the top of the stack. So I thought I would too. It was kind of weird. The very beginning reminded me of Sarah Waters’ spooky Little Stranger – WWII era London, a young boy dealing with the slow death of his mother and his father’s quick new relationship. So, like any good hero, he finds solace in books. Fairy tales, mostly. And then he gets sucked through a portal in the stone garden of his estate. Weird, right? He makes his way through this alternate world, encountering many Fairy Tale legends (but all with a weird, sick twist – like Snow White, who is mean and fat and the Prince who woke her up left her because she was so horrid) trying to find the King, who supposedly has a “Book of Lost Things” that will help him return home. I think there are definitely people who would love this kind of book – maybe not so much me.

I’ve been hearing about Bernadette for a long while. In fact, I was number 149 on the Library wait list (I caved and bought it). And…isn’t the cover great? It is sort of just how I picture Bernadette. I’m having trouble writing something that accurately sums up the story, I’ve written and deleted a handful of things. Basically, Bee (the 15yr old daughter of Bernadette) comes home with all A’s from her preppy Prep school – ready to cash in on her parent’s promise to give her whatever she wants. She decides that they should take a family cruise of the Antarctic – and neither parent says no. Bernadette, who has problem interfacing with people, disappears shortly before the cruise ship is set to sail. There is a lot more – more antics, more humor, more background – and the novel is at once a coming of age story and a case file on the missing mother. I gave it 3/5 stars….but it was a fast and entertaining read.

Of the three, this was the one I think I liked best. Set in a small town in the hills of West Virginia, A Killing in the Hills is the story of Belfa Elkins and her daughter Carla. It opens with a bang – three bangs – as Carla witnesses three old men get shot in the small-town diner. Although she doesn’t tell her mother (the small town’s prosecuting attorney), she sees and recognizes the shooter’s face. There are a couple of layers to this seemingly straightforward mystery – 1) a dark terrible secret in Belfa’s past 2) a growing drug/prescription pill problem in the small town 3) Belfa’s best friend’s battle with cancer. All of these plot lines, I thought, were interesting and sort of darkly mysterious and grief-stricken. I can’t say that I was completely shocked by the final twists, but I enjoyed it and flew through it. Still 3/5 stars though – I’m feeling tough on books this week.

I’m off to a wedding in Nashville now, and am (as usual) bringing a large suitcase filled mostly with books. Hopefully I’ll have some great things to say next week.

Mayans and Magic

27 Oct

Ah I know it’s been a while since a last posted – but I HAVE been reading, I’ve also been traveling. The beginning of my continental wedding tour took me to Portland, where I spent many hours lost in the stacks at Powells – it really is amazing. I ended up buying two (used and old) books, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy and Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson. The first is the all time favorite of a past co-worker, and the second had a bit of a resurgence when Downton Abbey proved such a success. I haven’t read either yet. Here is what I HAVE been reading:

This is way outside my usual, but both of the Books on the Nightstand bloggers recommended it. It is very much a thriller – very much like Michael Crichton’s Outbreak, but with the added twist of the Mayan prophecy that the world will end on 12-21-12. The premise is that a mysterious and deadly virus begins in LA and quickly spreads…and the source can be traced to an ancient Mayan document that has just been discovered and sold on the black  market. The key to finding a cure may lie in deciphering the ancient text, so a team of scholars and doctors team up to try to beat the clock. It was good – initially I thought it was a little silly, but then I found myself at work thinking “if I can get through x amount of work, I’ll read one more short chapter.” So that’s something.

The cover on this one, I don’t love it. But. It came up on my library cue (finally) and I brought it home. A short while later, it was over. It really is a slender little book, and it was an IndieBound pick a few months ago. I have to say, I really liked it. It was like a mix of Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner, True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (one of my ALL TIME favorite winter books), and maybe two other things I haven’t quite nailed down yet. It is the story of a young girl who lives on an island with her parents. The island is so small, she says she can run around the whole thing in 58 minutes. They share the island with a handful of other misfits who are all seeking solace and solitude in the aftermath of the war. On the day the books begins, our narrator finds a dead boy washed up and frozen on the shore. And then we learn that her mother has “run away” – or in truth, disappeared and is assumed dead. The rest of the novel is the young girl trying to work out what happened to her mother, reminiscing about their life on the island, and ultimately deciding her future. It was really pretty good. I gave it 4/5 stars (as opposed to 3/5 for 12-21).

 

I have a large stack of things I’m eager to read – so hopefully the next post will be quicker in appearing.

 

Lies and Ghosts and Wild Bill.

28 Sep

Last night I finished Beautiful Lies by Clare Clark. It had TONS of promise – based on the true story of a politician’s wife in the late 19th century that had been living a double life – to all who knew her in London, she was born to a French well-to-do father and a Spanish mother and had been raised in Chile. But, turns out, she was born into a poor family in a bad part of London. Clare Clark tries to flush out the story – imagining what Maribel (the heroine/deceptor) has to hide and what would happen if her secrets were about to be discovered. My most general complaint about this book is that it was too long and covered too much history. Sounds impossible, almost? Well, let’s see…this novel covers the phenomenon of the Wild West (Wild Bill and Annie Oakley hit London), the rise of the Spiritualists and the spectacle of spirits appearing in photographs, the riots of the lower class, the Queen, and on and on. I almost think it would have been better if she’d just picked one or two subjects instead of trying to weave all ninety into the plot line. Too long. And though at first I liked Maribel, by the end I really didn’t. Maybe two stars out of five?

A Litpick and a Nitpick

17 Sep
I finally finished NW  by Zadie Smith – something I’d been so looking forward to. To be honest, not thrilled with it. I started it right away and found myself thinking “this is weird” and “this is confusing” and “what?” But. I guess it has its silver linings; three quarters of the way through I realized I actually LIKED some of the characters. I’d say this book is for a literary crowd. Kind of the type of thing I could see on a Contemporary Fiction syllabus at a liberal artsy small school. Not the best thing I’ve read lately.
Here is the best thing I’ve read lately:
I first heard about Tell the Wolves I’m Home when I read the most shining, sparkly review of it on my friend (fondly called New Elizabeth)’s Goodreads page (for those of you who aren’t on Goodreads, you should look into it!). She basically said it was one of the best books she’s read – and she reads so it means something. I kind of kept my eye on it, not wanting to buy it but hoping a copy would come my way. Sure enough, my best bookstore hook-up lent me a copy. On Friday. And it sat on my table until this morning. And it sits there now – done. And I didn’t even spend the WHOLE day reading – we went to the Royals game and did some front yard weeding.
I pretty much loved this book. I don’t know what it is about slightly dorky but entirely genuine adolescent girl characters that just get me every time – but the main character, June, completely won me over. I knew she would almost immediately when she sneaks into the woods behind her school, puts on an old medieval-esque dress and “renaissance” boots and pretends like she is living in the middle ages, alone in the woods. Something about that sort of ridiculously nerdy imagination and creative sense of self just makes me happy. The story itself is not entirely happy – I cried – but so very good. The premise is that Finn, our medieval girl June’s most favorite uncle, dies of AIDS in the first chapters of the book. He was the only one who understood June, who encouraged her and knew her heart. And June is devastated. At 14, she has been spared a lot of the more particular details, she knows only that her uncle had a “special friend” who is, it seems, the man who gave her uncle AIDS. Through a brilliant and touching series of events, June and this “special friend,” a Brit named Toby, form a delicate friendship that helps them both grieve the loss of Finn. It is much more complex than that – there are a whole lot of coming of age issues and family issues and a great art element. I loved it.