Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of 2014

Unlike major news outlets & many of my friends, I've waited until the last possible moment to compile by best reads of 2014. My procrastination was merited, seeing as I just finished one of these books four days ago!

Of the 134 books I read this year, here are my top ten, with links to my review here or at the Morningside Muckraker, as appropriate. I've also noted the other books that won my rarely-given five-star rating on Goodreads at the bottom. What were your best reads of the year?

1. "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevin - I can't sing this book's praises highly enough, and it is the only book this year to win a place on my permanent favorites shelf.

 2. "An Untamed State" by Roxane Gay - although "Bad Feminst" was a close contender for this list, it didn't shake me to my core in the same way "An Untamed State" did.

3. "The Martian" by Andy Weir - great SciFi, even for people who don't usually like SciFi.

4. "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt - this book doens't need my praise, but I'll add my voice to the chorus clamoring over its magnificence.

5. "A Man Called Ove" by Fredrik Backman - though Ove is similar to A.J. Fikry, his story still hit me in the feels.
6. "Black Chalk" by Christopher J. Yates - a solid thriller with twists that will actually surprise you. I've been recommending to those who don't understand my disappointment with the predictability of the twists in "Gone Girl."

7. "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" by Haruki Murakami - a wonderful entrance point to Murakami's work.

8. "Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson - only so low because it was added so recently I haven't fully absorbed it or had a chance to experience its staying power yet.

9. "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy - I'm picky with my classics, but I was surprised at how readable and enjoyable I found this tome.

10. "We Were Liars" by E. Lockhart - mostly for how widely I've recommended this book, and how much fun I had with the audio.

My other five-stars, in no particular order:

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson

I'm usually a bit wary of books in verse. Poetry isn't my preferred genre, and novels in verse tend to fly by a bit too quickly when I read them. But Jacqueline Woodson's "Brown Girl Dreaming" received too many rave reviews to ignore. After she handled the racist joke that marred her acceptance of the National Book Award with perfect grace and dignity, I bumped this book up to my must-read list & got the audio from Overdrive.

As I mentioned in my brief Goodreads review, this book is entirely deserving of all of the accolades it has and will receive. Woodson's prose is simple and elegant. She tells her life story from her infancy in Ohio, to her time with the grandparents in South Carolina, to her move to New York with her mother. She writes of her four siblings, her cousins and other relatives, growing up during the Civil Rights movement, and finding her passion for writing at a young age.

Despite the verse, there's still a definite story of a young girl growing up in a rapidly changing world. The simplicity of the poems belies the universality of her experience. One poignant poem describes how she went by Jackie in school to avoid having to write a 'q' in cursive on the board.  Who hasn't gone to desperate lengths to avoid embarrassment in front of peers? For young writers, her story inspires. Her older sister was the smart one, Jacqueline had to work hard to succeed in school, but she just kept writing. Clearly, it has paid off.

Verdict: Affirmed. If you're looking to diversify your reads, this is a great place to start. Though marketed as middle grade, adults will enjoy this quick, deep read. Additionally, Woodson does the excellent audio narration herself, ensuring you'll hear the poems read as she intended.

"Brown Girl Dreaming" written and read by Jacqueline Woodson, published on August 28, 2014 by Penguin Audio.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 12/26/2014

Happy holidays everyone! This weekend, I'm listening to (& LOVING) "Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson, and switching between my Christmas present books - "The Little World of Liz Climo" by Liz Climo and "The World of Ice & Fire" by George R.R. Martin. And I'm already thinking of what will make my list of the top 10 of the year!

Just a few year-end links today:
  • This list of the best new & used bookstores in DC has some good spots, but it's missing my favorite, Books for America.
  • The Huffington Post compiled a master list of which books were recommended the most on various best of 2014 lists.
  • Gawker's list of the best things read by contributors in 2014 includes short stories and articles with books.
  • The New York Times compiled their list of best books read this year, old or new.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Belzhar" by Meg Wolitzer

When I saw the author of "The Interestings" was releasing a new YA book, I was quick to add my name to the long wait list for "Belzhar" on Overdrive. It's an entertaining and moving piece of fiction, but unfortunately, it didn't stand up to Meg Wolitzer's adult work.

Jam is at the Wooden Barn, a special school for students who have experienced trauma, after the loss of her boyfriend. She winds up in "Special Topics in English" with four other students for a semester-long exploration of the work of Sylvia Plath. Soon these five students are experiencing strange things while completing their school work. This proves to be both exactly what they need, and what may prevent them from moving on from their traumatic experiences.

I loved "The Interestings" for how well it captured the complexity of relationships as we grow older - how people grow together and grow apart, how group dynamics shift over time, how changes in our individual personalities can shape our relationships with others. "Belzhar" purported to be about a group of adolescent students navigating impossible loss, but lacked the depth of relationship exploration that made "The Interestings" so vivid. The strengths of "Belzhar" lie in its exploration of loss at a young age and how different people process different types of loss.

This strength leads to my next complaint - the book's twist, while not unexpected, greatly shifts the theme of the book away from loss. The rest of novel is spent driving home this new theme around writing. I do think that my figuring out the twist early on speaks to how carefully Wolitzer constructed the book. The hints are there from the beginning, if you look, and it ensures that the twist isn't just a plot device to make you gasp. But while the plot elements were there, the thematic elements weren't. The book's abrupt thematic shift wasn't predicated on any hints that writing was important, so the ending felt disjointed and overwhelming.

Verdict: Jury's out - it's predominantly a good book, but the ending cheapened the power of its thematic exploration of how we cope with loss.

"Belzhar" by Meg Wolitzer, narrated by Jojeana Marie. Audio published by Listening Library on October 14, 2014.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 12/19/2014

I finally turned in my last paper of the semester yesterday, so today I am treating myself to a day at home catching up on reading for fun. Bring on the tea & good books! I'm reading Amy Pascale's "Joss Whedon: The Biography" in print & have to finish it today since it's due back to the library in a few days. I also started reading "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss aloud with Kyle in the evenings, and it's been a great way to unwind together. Finally, I'm listening to "Fangirl" by Rainbow Rowell, which has been charming and I expect to finish today or tomorrow.

A short list of links today so I can get back to reading!

  • For each tweet or facebook post with #GiveABook, Penguin Random House will donate a book to children in need. They've now upped their goal to 35,000 books.
  • Macmillion CEO John Sargent posted an open letter to authors and illustrators regarding their ebook pricing deals.
  • Exciting "Americanah" casting news.
  • The Huffington Post made a list of books they're looking forward to in 2015 - get on the hold list at your library now!
  • Texts between Harry Potter characters, in case JK Rowling's new writing on Pottermore isn't enough to sate your eternal Potter appetite.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Three Serviceable Audio Books

During exams I race through audiobooks and make zero progress on reading anything but my casebooks. Although I had a fairly condensed schedule this semester (only two exams, on the first and third days of the exam period), I still made it through five audio books in rapid succession. Two were quite good, and reviews are forthcoming as I compile my thoughts into something coherent. The other three were just fine. Not bad, but not worth deeper reviews.

Since I don't have many substantial thoughts on either, I'm collecting them here. Note that they have nothing in common beyond my reading them in succession.

"The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases " by Michael Capuzzo, narrated by Adam Grupper, audio published on October 10, 2010 by Simon & Schuster Audio

I discovered "The Murder Room" in the best possible way - a recommendation from a fellow book lover. Waiting in line for the restroom at a Barnes & Noble, I began chatting with another woman about the books we were each holding, and somehow that conversation resulted in an emphatic recommendation of the book. The non-fiction true crime book discusses the creation and successes of the Vidocq Society, a group of top criminal investigators from around the world who gather regularly to discuss, and attempt to solve, the coldest cases. The book discusses many of the group's cases alongside the stories of its founders and a very interesting discussion of the development of criminal profiling and other investigative techniques. While the content was intriguing, the formatting wasn't ideal for audio. The book jumps back and forth between cases in a way that made it difficult to recall which case was being discussed at any given time. Maybe the structure is clearer in print, but that combined with the narrator's slight tendency toward the sinister at what felt like odd moments made this book just average for me.

Verdict: Jury's out. Fans of true crime and mysteries should definitely look into it, but others probably won't be interested.

"The Wishing Spell" written and narrated by Chris Colfer, audio published on July 17, 2012 by Hachette Audio

In addition to sticking to audio, I also take advantage of the opportunity to catch up on my middle grade TBR list, since the simpler plots are easier to pick up and put down in between cases. I had been intrigued by the premise of Chris Colfer's book, the first in a series. Two twins find themselves transported into the Land of Stories via a book of fairy tales given to them by their grandmother after their father's death. In the Land of Stories they meet many of the characters from their favorite fairy tales while trying to gather the ingredients to a spell that will take them home. I wanted to like the book - I love new takes on fairy tales. But this was a bit too simple, the similes both too plentiful and too obvious, and the plot line a bit predictable. What's more, the siblings didn't seem to have significant differences in their personalities beyond Connor's being "bad" at school and Alex being "good" at school. Colfer's narration was fine, if a bit over-acted at times. Nothing too distracting though, and kids will probably appreciate the different voices he uses for each character.

Verdict: Jury's Out. Kids who haven't read deeply into fairy tale re-tellings yet will find a lot that's entertaining here, but there isn't anything that makes this stand out for adults. There's nothing bringing me back for the other two that have already been released.

"Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)" by Christian Rudder, audio published on September 9, 2014 by Random House Audio

I had wanted to review this for Muckraker, but upon finishing I just didn't have enough to say about it. One of the founders of OkCupid digs into data collected through social media sources and explains what can be discovered through such massive data collection. Sites we thoughtlessly use every day are collecting huge piles of information about us. Rudder argues that this data has untapped potential for exploring how people really behave and what motivates them, while adequately acknowledging the limitations of this data. I was particularly inspired by his chapter on how Twitter may actually be improving the use of language, rather than destroying our ability to communicate. The only big BUT is that a lot of these studies were released before the book's released or during the promotion. If you follow sociology and psychology news (even just through io9), a lot of this will be studies you've already read.

Verdict: Affirmed if the topic is interesting to you. Bonus points for a book that translates charts, graphs, and tables into audio descriptions very well.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 12/12/2014

Now that my exams are done, I can get back to reading paper books. I'm halfway through "Yes Please" by Amy Poehler, and hoping to finish today to get it back to the library. On audio, I'm listening to "Hollow City" by Ransom Riggs, the sequel to the delightfully strange "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children."

Some links to click through this weekend:

  • Buzzfeed rounds up 19 Sci Fi & Fantasy novels by women of color. It added several to my TBR, as did this follow up with even more standalone fantasy novels.
  • Margaret Atwood's 10 rules of writing were particularly interesting since I got to see her in person last week at the 92nd Street Y!
  • Paste Magazine collected the 30 best covers of 2014
  • Book Riot shared some literary things that should exist - I'd really like the "War & Peace" advent calendar, please!
  • At the Toast, "How to tell If You Are in a Baby-Sitters Club Book."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Tiny Beautiful Things" by Cheryl Strayed

After listening to "Wild," and being completely blown away, I immediately checked "Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar" on Overdrive. I was just as impressed, enamored, and fulfilled by this collection of advice columns as by Strayed's memoir.

Strayed was the advice columnist anonymously penning the Rumpus's "Dear Sugar" column for two years. Through this role, she gave heartfelt advice to readers facing problems ranging from complicated to simple, unusual to common, specific to broad. Her advice invariably transcends the context in which it is given, as Strayed draws from her personal history to give the best advice she can. Like in "Wild," Strayed lays her personal history bare, sharing stories of her marriages, her children, her volatile relationship with her father, the death of her mother, drug abuse, and theft.  Yet whatever walk of life you tread, you will find something in her advice that speaks to you. Above all else, Strayed encourages readers to be the best version of themselves, striving for a life of truth, self-care, and compassion for others. No matter the trouble you're facing, this broad principle is applicable and her advice will resonate.

Reading this book is like being wrapped in a word-hug as Strayed soothes the fears you didn't know you had. She doesn't shy from giving tough love when required, but couches it in the most comforting of tones. She narrates the audiobook herself, ensuring that her tone of voice is exactly that she intended when she initially wrote the piece (a subject I occaisionally pondered when listening to "Wild"). Most impressive, she avoids judgement toward her letter-writers, addressing their situations as manifestations of the troubles we all face, whether self-caused, imposed by others, or produced by something larger.

I'm bummed that "Dear Sugar" appears to have gone dormant, but look forward to flipping through the archives to read the columns that didn't make it into this book.

Verdict: Affirmed - whether you feel emotionally adrift or like you have everything together, this collection of advice will give you a fresh perspective on whatever ails you.

"Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar" by Cheryl Strayed, published by Vintage Books on July 10, 2012.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 12/5/2014

With finals underway, I've only had time to start Chris Colfer's "The Land of Stories: The Wishing Well." It's been pretty meh, honestly, but it's light enough to listen to before bed when I'm trying to turn off the law-school thoughts.

'Tis the season for best of lists & gift guides! Some links below that are sure to grow your TBR & holiday wish lists:

  • Left Bank Books in St. Louis put together lists of books (broken out by genre) and articles "intended to provide some history and context for the recent protests" around the failure to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
  • Jacqueline Woodson wrote a piece for the New York Times responding to the racist joke made at her expense by Daniel Handler at the National Book Awards.
  • Toni Morrison announced a new book coming out next year. I can't wait!
  • Apparently the Chinese government doesn't like puns.
  • President Obama went book shopping during Small Business Saturday, and here's what he bought.
  • Longreads picked their top long-form articles from the year.
  • These gift guides for book lovers from WiseBread and Buzzfeed had gifts I hadn't seen before. Buzzfeed also had a collection of t-shirts for book lovers that would also make great gifts.
  • Finally, the best of 2014 lists from The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and NPR. (Bonus points to NPR for their fun, interactive format.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

November Reviews at the Morningside Muckraker

After a brief publication delay in observation of "A Day of Silence for Michael Brown" and to collect student pieces for a special section focusing on Ferguson, the Morningside Muckraker Issue 8 is out today. I am particularly proud of the hard work that went into this issue and encourage you to check it out.

My last set of reviews for the year include "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage" by Haruki Murakami, "Bad Feminist" by Roxane Gay, "The Fever" by Megan Abbott, and "Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography" by Neil Patrick Harris. Check them out here!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 11/28/2014

I should be reading my casebooks exclusively, with finals on Dec. 8 and 10. But I also have book clubs Dec. 7 and 14! I'm reading "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" by Michael Chabon in print for DC book club and just started "Belzhar" by Meg Woltizer in audio.

Some links to kick off your weekend:
  • The Ferguson library stayed open to support the community this week when many other community resources shut down. Book Riot collects ways to support them.
  • The Guardian profiles National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson, whose victory was unfortunately "marred by a racist gaffe."
  • For something a little different, Vulture profiles an NYC institution" the Strand Book Store.
  • William Shatner is kickstarting a book [via The Guardian].
  • A copy of Shakespeare's first folio in excellent condition was found in a small French library.
  • A good friend said this is what she imagines my home will eventually look like. A girl can dream!
  • published two lists that added titles to my TBR: great standalone fantasy novels and exceptional books of 2014.
  • Finally, Audible is having a big sale - over 300 titles are priced at $4.95, some lower if you have the Kindle version through Whispersync. Best of all, it's NOT members-exclusive. I picked up "Bitter Seeds" by Ian Tregillis and Daniel Abraham's "The Dragon's Path."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"Wild" by Cheryl Strayed

Confession: Ever since Oprah named "Wild" to her book club, I  avoided the book like the plague. A book about a women finding herself while escaping her problems by hiking through California? Didn't sound like my cup of tea. I tend to prefer my heart-wrenching reads to be fictional. I was so. completely. wrong.

Luckily, an NYC book cub member & dear friend picked it for our end-of-the-year read. I will read whatever my book clubs pick, regardless of personal interest, so I checked out the audiobook from NYPL and was eventually blown away.

The book started out rough. As Strayed laid the groundwork for how she ended up hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (at a particularly low point in her life, she found a guidebook and decided to give it a go) and set out on her trek, there were plenty of opportunities for eyerolls. And I hit all of them. She never packed all her equipment and tried to lift her fully-packed backpack before she left? Eyeroll. She didn't know how to work many pieces of her equipment? Eyeroll. She didn't even know why she brought certain pieces of equipment? Eyeroll. She never serioisly considered there might be ice in the mountains she intended to hike? Eyeroll. I thought that at best, her lack of preparation was foolish and short-sighted. At worst, she is endangering others who might be inspired by writing an entire book about how she went in unprepared and turned out just fine.

Yet as I continued to listen-read, Strayed took more ownership of her mistakes. She never claims that what she did was a good idea, and clearly points out where she went wrong and what she should have done instead. While everything works out just fine in the beginning of her hike, she frankly writes of her dangerous encounters with wild animals, losing the trail, and encountering potentially-predatory men as a woman hiking entirely alone. She does not sugarcoat her experience, and her recounting is all the stronger for it.

Strayed had a rough upbringing, her mother passed away, and her marriage fell apart. She takes responsibility for the problems that were of her own making, while embracing those that weren't as part of what shaped her nonetheless. She intersperses these stories of her pre-trail life with her experience hiking the trail. What emerges is an honest discussion of one woman's experience. She isn't looking for sympathy, but empathy. She is willing to share her story in case it may help others who feel similarly set adrift amid their own personal struggles - and maybe they won't have to lose toenails hiking the PCT in the process.

Verdict: Affirmed. This book is so much better than I gave it credit for. I should've known better than to doubt Oprah - she hasn't led me wrong on a book pick yet.

"Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" by Cheryl Strayed, published by Vintage Books on March 20, 2012

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 11/21/2014

I've been listening to "The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases" by Michael Capuzzo, narrated by Adam Grupper. I'm still working through "The Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2014" on ebook, and about to start "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" by Michael Chabon for DC book club.

Literary Links:

  • Jonathan Franzen announced a new book to be released September of 2015.
  • EW names 50 books every kid should read.
  • Elon Musk's book recommendations.
  • Kirkus listed their best fiction books of the year this week - I added a bunch to my TBR list.
  • Ursula K. LeGuin gave a fantastic acceptance speech at the National Book Awards this week - transcript here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Tender is the Night" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald is having a moment. Maybe it's on the way out now, with the release & eventual fizzling of "The Great Gatsby" movie last year, but tales of the jazz were still interesting enough to my DC book club that I was able to entice them to read "Tender is the Night" for our October pick. Besides, to my memory, I have never read a book with a protagonist sharing my name, and that sounded interesting.

First, it's weird reading about someone with your name who is not a whole lot like you. Nicole & Dick Diver are an enigmatic power couple - an invitation to their house is basically a fast pass to the cool kid's table. Rosemary Hoyt, a young actress vacationing with her mother in the French Riviera, is invited into their world, and eagerly tries to make her way into Dick's heart. Underneath the glamour is a whole big mess of interpersonal drama and mental health issues that made for a deeply engaging, if unevenly paced, novel.

The pacing was slow at first - a point F. Scott recognized when providing advertising suggestions to his publisher - but picks up toward the end of the first part and doesn't slow down. Like "Gatsby," "Tender is the Night" is full of beautiful prose, even for a character-and-plot reader like myself. It shares broad themes with "Gatsby," as well: marriages in flux, class struggle, and disillusionment. Though longer, and admittedly less of a tight read, "Tender is the Night" felt more personal than I remember "Gatsby" being.

I read the edition with the cover at the top of this post, and the accompanying introduction from Charles Scribner III was what every introduction should be. It avoided spoilers, providing only a history of the novel itself. Knowing that F. Scott spent nine years writing it while his wife, Zelda, was in and out of mental institutions affected how I understood the book. Maybe it was the introduction setting me up for it, but I can see where F. Scott poured his experience and his complicated love for his wife into this novel. I've added Zelda's only novel, "Save Me the Waltz," to my TBR after it was mentioned in the introduction as a counter-perspective to F. Scott's view of their marriage presented here.

F. Scott's portrait of the Divers' marriage is beautifully written, capturing the complexity, intensity, and adoration between these troubled characters. I think I'll re-visit this novel periodically, and look forward to learning more about Zelda, F. Scott, and their story and history beyond Jazz Age legends.

Verdict: Affirmed, for fans of the jazz age, marital dramas, and beautiful writing. And obviously, any fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 11/14/2014

Just finished "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed on audio this morning, so I'll have to pick something new for my train ride home this weekend. Still working on the NPH autobiography in print, and "The Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2014" in ebook.

Literary links:

  • Amazon and Hachette have reached an agreement.
  • The Guardian reports on a letter campaign by authors to support persecuted writers around the world.
  • A debate rose across the bookternet this week after the Atlantic published a piece imploring readers to "Finish That Book!" A Book Riot contributor replied "Reading is Not a Chore." Which group do you agree with?
  • Penguin Random House announced National Readathon Day, which will take place Jan. 24 from noon to 4pm and raise money for the National Book Foundation. What a wonderful idea!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi's memoir on her time teaching English literature courses while she lived in Iran is a heartfelt introduction to modern life in a country about which few Americans know a great deal. That being said, as both a lover of literature and a student of Persian (Farsi) for four years, I expected a bit more from this much-beloved novel.

The memoir opens as Nafisi recounts the underground literature course she taught in her home with seven young women. The first part gives the reader glimpses of these women's various personalities, and a sense for how they came together. Peppered throughout the narrative are descriptions and analyses of Nabokov's "Lolita," with stories of its reception in Nafisi's classes and connections to her life and those of her students. It's an interesting approach, but one that felt a bit thrown-together. The passages didn't flow in and out of the narrative as well as I would have liked, so the transitions felt abrupt and jarring at times.

The memoir then goes back in time, with two passages in more-or-less linear chronology. The first, on the revolution and the cultural aftermath is interspersed with "The Great Gatsby," and the third, on the Iran-Iraq War discusses Henry James. Perhaps because it is the work with which I am the most familiar, I felt the Gatsby section to be the strongest, with smoother transitions, clear metaphors and analogies, and anecdotes to which I could more easily relate. In contrast, as someone who knows very little about Henry James, the literary passages and analogies in that section fell flat. They often distracted from the more interesting descriptions of life in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, without adding to my understanding of the everyday experiences of a Tehrani during that time.

The final section returns to the underground book group, interspersed with analogies to Jane Austen's novels, primarily "Pride and Prejudice." I have not read any of her work, though I intend to at some point, so this section left me skimming the literary passages as I tried to avoid spoilers while still grasping the larger point of the analogy. Admittedly, this is a less-than-ideal reading strategy, and any dislike for this part is my own fault.

Nafisi's carefully-constructed portraits of her students and acquaintances make this book worth the read. Her descriptions of students supporting the regime are fair, indicating an impressive empathy for those with whom she disagrees. Nafisi demonstrates a strong command of language, and my Kindle edition is filled with highlighted passages that I am excited to discuss.

Verdict: Affirmed, for book lovers eager to learn more about Iran shortly pre- and post-revolution. However, you'll have a much greater appreciation for the literary analogies if you read the reference literary works prior to this.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 11/7/2014

I cleaned out my "Currently Reading" in Goodreads yesterday - finally accepted that I'd have to start "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" and "Cuckoo's Calling" over again if I want to finish it. Instead, I am moving through some great library books - "Bad Feminist" by Roxane Gay on audio, "Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography" in print, and still working on "The Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2014." Unfortunately, I have a big paper due Sunday, so I'm not sure how much reading I'll actually be able to do this weekend!

Bookish links to kick off your weekend:
  • The Guardian writes about the lives & livelihoods of booksellers in South Sudan.
  • Good news for fans (unlike me) of Jeff VanderMeer's "Annihilation" - you're getting a movie!
  • If you've been waiting for the legal-go-ahead to sell your Sherlock Holmes fan fiction, SCOTUS has got you covered.
  • The Atlantic covers the recent success of women writing SciFi & gives some background on their historical rise and fall. [via Book Riot]
  • Thanks Matt for sharing this page of first editions with authors' annotations that will be auctioned off on Dec. 2.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Under the Egg" by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Theodora’s grandfather dies suddenly, and with his last words he tells her to look “under the egg” for a treasure. Left to look after her eccentric mother in their dilapidated town house in Manhattan, Theo could really use that treasure to make ends meet. Her grandfather’s instructions set her off on a mystery involving lost works of art and her grandfather’s personal history.

Theo is a charming, astute protagonist whose seriousness is balanced by her new friend Bhodi, the daughter of two celebrities in the entertainment industry who must constantly hide from the paparazzi.  Theo’s eccentric, reclusive mother bent on solving a math equation, their shrill tea-saleswoman neighbor, and a neighborhood full of intriguing neighbors round out the cast. Fitzgerald avoids reducing any of these characters to mere caricatures, instead providing each with a back story and depth.

“Under the Egg” is “The Goldfinch” for middle grade readers, with a hint of “The Da Vinci Code.” Not being a parent, I’m not sure what would-be censors will make of a couple discussions of paintings with bare breasts & a brief mention of breast feeding, but I hope it won’t stop too many parents from handing this one to their kids. It’s a thoroughly entertaining mystery, and it definitely peaked my interest in lost works of art.

Verdict: Affirmed for fans of art history, mysteries, or solid middle-grade fiction.

Under the Egg” by Laura Max Fitzgerald, published by Dial Books for Young Readers on March 18, 2014.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 10/31/2014

I'm starting "Tender is the Night" by F. Scott Fitzgerald in print for tomorrow's DC book club meeting, working on "The Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2014" edited by Daniel Handler in ebook, and listening to "The Throne of Fire," the second book in Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles in audio. What're your weekend reads?

Lighter on the book-ish links this week:

  • LeVar Burton reading "Go the F*** to Sleep" for charity, with a link to Samuel L. Jackson's performance of the same.
  • Mental Floss collects recipes from 16 famous authors, including Edgar Allen Poe's eggnog and Emily Dickinson's gingerbread.
  • At the Huffington Post, this list of seven fairy tales for grown-ups added a few titles to my TBR list.
  • Finally, for Halloween, the blog lists twelve books featuring witches.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

October Reviews at the Morningside Muckraker

Today's reviews are up in my Booked column in the Morningside Muckraker's October issue, out today. I look at titles you might have noticed in my Friday Reads & Links posts: "City of Lies" by Ramita Navai, "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel, "As You Wish" by Cary Elwes, "Everything I Never Told You" by Celeste Ng, and the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews.

Check them out here.  While you're there, don't miss the other great pieces in this issue!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 10/24/2014

I'm enjoying "As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bridge" by Wesley himself, Cary Elwes on ebook (thanks to publisher Simon & Schuster for the e-ARC to review for the Muckraker!). I have just 25 minutes left on the audio of "Everything I Never Told You" by Celeste Ng, and am (still!) alternating between the last hundred pages each of "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" and "The Secret Wisdom of the Earth." The use of language is so wonderful in both that I don't want to rush to finish either.

Some reading-related weeks to kick off your weekend:
  • After tweeting earlier this week about how sad I would be if there wasn't a book store in all of the Bronx, I was pleased to see this morning that the Barnes & Noble there was able to renew its lease for two more years.
  • The Atlantic looks into data from Facebook on favorite books from around the world. 
  • I'm not a big horror reader, so the lists of scary books to read during October are mostly a miss for me. Book Riot took a cool approach, though, and suggested four books that take place in the afterlife that added a few titles to my TBR list.
  • The New Yorker published a piece on "A Canticle for Leibowitz" providing some context about the novel & author Walter M. Miller, Jr. that I appreciated.
  • Speaking of the lives of SciFi authors, the blog featured a lovely piece on SF legend Ursula K. Le Guin.
  • Potter fans rejoice: we're getting a new short story from J.K. Rowling on Halloween featuring Dolores Umbridge.
  • Finally, the Guardian rounds up the best children's books about ducks.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"Annihilation" by Jeff VanderMeer

I had such high hopes for this book, due to rave reviews from the likes of and io9. I am pretty bummed that to be disappointed. To be fair, I expected this to be a post-apocalyptic science fiction book. After reading, it’s much closer to horror.

In my defense, the back cover summary made it sound like post-apocalyptic SciFi – 11 expeditions have ventured into Area X, the first of which found paradise. The rest met various gruesome ends. Expedition 12 is about to head out to explore the mysterious area lurking beyond the border. I’d love to be more specific, but the book doesn’t have named characters or provide any meaningful background, even as the story unfolds. I never got the context that could have saved the novel for me.

The novel is set up as a mystery, but never has the payoff of a solution. Instead, strange elements are introduced, abandoned, returned to, subverted, and abandoned again. There’s a tunnel that’s also a tower and possibly alive, a lighthouse that draws expedition members for no apparent reason, hypnosis that doesn’t seem to work like real-world hypnosis, and a main character who may be glowing or losing her mind or both. The mere 195 pages are filled of descriptions that manage to leave you without a clear picture of what is being described. Basically, there’s a lot going on without anything to tie it all together.

VanderMeer does an excellent job creating a creepy atmosphere – I couldn’t read it before bed once the main character really got to exploring the strange landscape. Yet, as the tiny novel progressed, my general confusion displaced any lingering fear I might have had.

Verdict: Dismissed. Though this is the first in a trilogy and later installments may provide the answers I was waiting for, I have no desire to proceed any further into this convoluted series. Some members of the DC book club were fans though, so if a horror novel that leaves most to your own interpretation sounds intriguing, check it out.

Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer, published by FSG Originals on February 4, 2014. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 10/17/2014

I am powering through "The Secret Wisdom of the Earth" by Christopher Scotton in preparation for Hachette's Book Club Brunch this Saturday. They sent attendees an ARC of the novel, scheduled to be published next January, so that we can discuss with the author during one of the sessions. Also, very, very excited to see Edan Lepucki & Maureen Corrigan. On audio, I wrapped up "Magic Bleeds," the fourth Kate Daniels novel, and unfortunately the last one my library has on audio or ebook, despite there being seven books out right now! On ebook, I'm still working on "Reading Lolita in Tehran" for NYC Book Club.

Some bookish links to kick off your weekend:
  • Booker news is everywhere! First, the winner was announced - congratulations to Richard Flanagan for "The Narrow Road to the Deep North." If you're interested in reading the shortlist, the Guardian has a nice round-up of the authors' inspirations for their novels.
  • The Guardian also announced the winner of the Not the Booker Prize, which went to Simon Sylvester's "The Visitor."
  • The shortlist for the National Book Award was also announced this week. Lots of good picks there.
  • Brooklyn Magazine published a thoughtful list of best books by state (though I'm skeptical of a list that doesn't put "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" for New Jersey).
  • Book Riot introduced me to Literary Starbucks.
  • The Huffington Post produced a list of writers with dachshunds.
  • Finally, though this is an older piece, the Telegraph wrote a lovely profile of the late author Eva Abbotson. I read and re-read "The Secret of Platform 13" over and over as a child.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock" by Matthew Quick

First, trigger warnings for suicide & abuse. This is a novel that deals heavily in those issues, and does so remarkably well. If you've heard of Matthew Quick, it's likely as the author of "The Silver Linings Playbook," so you know he does a good job creating realistic, relatable characters coping with mental illness and therapy-inducing traumatic life events.

Basic set-up: Leonard has decided he's going to kill himself and Asher Beal on his 18th birthday, but first he wants to give a gift to each of his four friends - a Bogart enthusiast, a Persian violin-prodigy, a home-schooled evangelical, and his teacher Herr Silverman.

This novel initially had me struggling to overcome my own assumptions and predispositions. It took me several chapters to begin to empathize with Leonard because, frankly, he's just so angry at everyone around him. Noah Galvin's narration captures a snide, angry adolescent so well that the character really grated on me as I got into the first-person narration.

As Leonard continues to relate his story, he includes flashbacks to how he met each of his four friends. He begins to make sense, both as a justifiably angry character, as you learn what has pushed him to the brink, and in his judgments of those around him. When he belittles his peers as sheep, mindlessly finding him strange and hating him for it, I realized I was doing the same thing as those peers. Sure, following strangers around cities (one of his pastimes) isn't ideal behavior, but his reasons are heartfelt and benign. He doesn't have strong role models, nor enough positive peer influences, to direct his curiosity into more productive channels. It's hardly entirely his fault he's ended up so bitter and destructive at 18.

Galvin's audio narration captures Leonard perfectly. He's predominantly cutting and derisive, but occasionally a spark of of fear or concern breaks through. Galvin's tone shifts for these few sentences, and you believe his performance as a teenager who, while harboring deep-seated anger, is also scared and lonely. The audio narration enabled me to see beyond Leonard's anger and stick with his story to find out what motivated his utter loathing for most other people, which in turn re-shaped my opinion and understanding of him as a character.

Verdict: Affirmed. If you can stick with the novel through the opening burst of anger, it's well worth your read, and Leonard is well worth your empathy. Thanks SYNC for another great pick!

"Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock" by Matthew Quick, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on August 13, 2013. Audio narrated by Noah Galvin, published by Hachette Audio on August 13, 2013.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 10/10/2014

I'm still working on the Murakami in print, but took a break for "City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran" by Ramita Navai since its library due date was rapidly approaching (and may have passed...I'll finish it this weekend, I promise!). Listening to "Magic Bleeds," the fourth in the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. I have been absolutely tearing through this series in audio, and definitely recommend to fans of urban fantasy/paranormal romance. Finally, working on "Reading Lolita in Tehran" in ebook for my NYC book club.

Some literary links to kick off your weekend:

  • Congratulations to French author Patrick Modiano for winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Don't feel too bad if you haven't heard of him, many of his books have been out of print in English for a number of years.
  • You can relive your youth with the Book It! Alumni program - Pizza Hut is giving out free personal pan pizzas to adults who participated in the program when they were students.
  • The New York Times ran a piece criticizing its own coverage of the Amazon/Hachette dispute for taking sides.
  • J.K. Rowling set the Twitter-verse abuzz earlier this week with an anagram puzzle related to the "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" film. The link has the answer, so here's the puzzle if you want to take a stab on your own: "Cry, foe! Run amok! Fa awry! My wand won't tolerate this nonsense."
  • Finally, Book Riot had two great round-ups of recommendations this week: novels set in the Jazz Age and thrilling non-fiction. Anything catch your eye?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dual Review: "Anne of Green Gables" and "I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You"

SYNC, a fantastic summer program which I’ve previously discussed, paired L.M. Montgomery’s classic “Anne of Green Gables” with Ally Carter’s contemporary “I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You” as one of their free audiobook sets this past summer. The SYNC pairs gain an added depth when read/listened to in concert, so I’ve reviewed them together. Unfortunately, this is the first pair from this summer that has been disappointing.

To be honest, I knew approximately nothing about “Anne of Green Gables” before I started it. The novel is set in Canada, where orphan Anne is adopted by the Cuthberts, a brother and sister who had actually wanted a boy to help with the farm. The book is a collection of her adventures and misadventures, taking a somewhat rambling approach to her various escapades that are connected by her growing love and admiration for her friends and found family.

Meanwhile, “I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You” takes place at a secret boarding school for teenage girls who are being trained as spies. There are many references to fictional covert operations connected to historical events by the girls’ family members and the school’s alums, plus pop culture references (including at least two Buffy the Vampire Slayer references, so bonus points there). Cammie is the daughter of the school’s headmistress and retells the story of meeting her off-campus, townie boyfriend as if she were debriefing her superiors.

The biggest trait these two audiobooks share are precocious main characters narrated in increasingly grating voices. In “I’d Tell You,” the audiobook narrator, Renée Raudman, whines much of the first-person text, and speaks in a lower-pitched, slower-paced voice for the love interest that makes the listener assume that he is a complete idiot, even when he says sensible things. But the worst disservice done by Raudman’s performance is that the high-pitched gaiety interspersed with a playful severity when things turn serious makes light of the character’s thoughts and feelings, as if they are mere trifles spoken by a frivolous girl. This is the opposite of what the character, a spy in training known for her ability to remain unnoticed, is supposed to be.

In “Anne,” the audiobook narrator, Colleen Winton, voices Anne so that she always seems on the verge of hysterics – from breathless wonder to hopeless depression, it’s all a bit overacted. Anne’s defining character traits include verbosity and propensity for hyperbole. Every time she speaks she rambles on about anything that comes to mind. This might be effective on a page as a block of text, but it’s a lot to take in aurally even before adding tone and inflection. When Winton trills through these thoughts, it sounds condescending and belittles the character’s legitimate thoughts and beliefs, especially in contrast with the extreme earnestness with which the non-dialogue portions are recited.

I may have liked these books had I read them in print without the narrators offering their infuriating takes on the characters. Each book looks at the importance of friendship to a young girl, and how first romance should inspire a young woman to be their best, rather than shrink in comparison to the object of her affection. Anne is a female version of Tom Sawyer, always up to mischief but with her heart in the right place. Her relationships with the Cuthberts who take her in is charming and well-developed, with each relationship illuminating the distinct personalities of each of her caretakers. Cammie is a young Buffy before the weight of saving the world has brought her down, focused on her friends and her mission, if a bit boy-crazy. Both make fine role models for young girls, especially if paired with discussions of their downsides. But the audio of each novel took away from the reading experience.

Verdict: Dismissed in audio, Jury’s Out on print. The juvenile plots don’t hold up well for older readers, though either would make a fine read for a middle school student. If you choose to explore them, stay far away from the audio.

Anne of Green Gables” by L.M. Montgomery, in the public domain. Audiobook narration by Colleen Winton, published by Post Hypnotic Press on May 30, 2013.
I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Haveto Kill You” by Ally Carter, published by Disney-Hyperion on May 1, 2006. Audiobook narration by Renée Raudman, published by Brilliance Audio on April 25, 2006.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 10/3/2014

I'm still reading "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" in print - this past week was so busy I haven't had time to sit down and spend the time with it that it deserves. I had to give up on the new Tana French - I should have started with the first in her series, and will pick back up properly, starting with "In the Woods" in the future. I started "Magic Bites," the first in Ilona Andrews's Kate Daniel urban fantasy series for something light & fun, and so far it it is fitting the bill nicely. Finally, I'm tearing through "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel in audio, though the print copy came in at the library for me at the same time. I'll likely have finished it in one form or another by the time you read this!

Some links to round out your week:

  • The Bookseller reports that nearly 3/4 of young people (aged 16-24) prefer print over other forms of books. I know I do.
  • Author Celeste Ng writes a lovely piece about her first bookstore - Waldenbooks in the mall. Plus, you can get her book "Everything I Never Told You" free in audio if you join the Ford Audio Book Club on Goodreads & add the novel to your to-read shelf!
  • Did you know there's a prize awarded for book collecting? [via Book Riot]
  • The National Book Foundation announced their 5 Under 35 authors, each chosen by a previous National Book Award Finalist.
  • Finally, this might be pushing literary, but it has to do with writing so it stays. Researchers in Sweden have been hiding Bob Dylan lyrics in their research for years.