Thursday, November 3, 2016

"The Girls" by Emma Cline

FTC Disclosure: I received an e-ARC of "The Girls" from the publisher through NetGalley for review consideration. I ordered a print copy through my Book of the Month Club subscription. 

I was thrilled to see Emma Cline's debut novel "The Girls" as an option for my July Book of the Month Club book. I'd heard the buzz around this loose retelling of the Manson murders focusing on the girls who flocked to the cult leader, and was excited to dig into it.

As I mentioned in my Goodreads review, the infamous cult setting may generate the buzz, or at least be the piece that will stick in many readers' minds. But it was the writing kept me enthralled. The novel opens on Evie, a grown woman, recalling the summer of 1969, when she was only 14 and fell in with the group living at the ranch, then largely unknown to the larger world. For Evie, it is not the leader, Russell, who attracts her, but Suzanne, a 19-year-old who first allows her into the group. 

The ranch and its inhabitants are interesting, but Cline shines when she writes about the mundanities of growing up. Evie's parents have divorced and she is distant from them both as they each look to build their own romantic relationships. Perhaps most tragic is the dissolution of Evie's relationship with her best friend since childhood, Connie. Cline captures the end of their friendship, rendering it familiar as a natural casualty of growing up. Anyone who has experienced the havoc that can be wrecked by teenage girls will relate to the incident of their final confrontation, a scene that stands out as one of the most touching and well-crafted in the novel. 

Verdict: Affirmed. As other reviews have noted, it's the coming of age story that shines in this novel that happens to be set alongside one of America's most infamous cults.

"The Girls" by Emma Cline, published June 14, 2016 by Random House.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

"Behold the Dreamers" by Imbolo Mbue

FTC disclosure: I received an e-ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I checked out the audiobook from my library through Overdrive. 

Ah, this book. I tore through the audio, supplementing with the e-ARC when I couldn't listen. 

"Behold the Dreamers" is the story of Jende and Neni Jonga, a couple who immigrate to the United States from Cameroon. They came to New York City to pursue the American Dream, like so many immigrants before them. We meet Jende as he is on his way to interview for a job as a private driver to Clark Edwards. Unfortunately, Edwards is an executive at Lehman Brothers, and it is the eve of the company's collapse. As the two families' lives intertwine, the reader can see the ruin hurtling toward them, and the country. 

This is the first novel I have read that is set during the 2008 recession, and it captures that moment well. Even more so, it captures an immigrant experience with sincerity and an impeccable relatability. The Jongas' story is just one of many immigrant narratives, but certain elements are familiar in many such narratives. From their confusion and frustration navigating the broken immigration system, to their constant struggle to find work that will allow them to save while still supporting their family both in the US and in Cameroon, to their re-evaluation of the American Dream and how they can make it work for them - their story highlights the everyday struggles and the overarching system through which immigrants must fight.

The characters are well drawn, and the ways they fit into each other's lives are compelling and drive the story on. The relationship between Neni and Edward's young son, Mighty, is particularly touching. Each character makes their own mistakes. But they feel like honest, real-people mistakes, not mere plot devices. You will almost certainly disagree with some of these characters' choices, but you understand how they have been driven to make them. To top it off, the ending was both not what I expected going into the novel, and entirely satisfying, a difficult & rewarding balance to strike. 

Verdict: Affirmed. There are many well-deserved reasons to praise this debut, but I expect the characters and ending will stick with me above all. 

"Behold the Dreamers" by Imbolo Mbue, published August 23, 2016 by Random House. Audio narration by Prentice Onayemi, published August 23, 2016 by Random House Audio.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

"A Very Special Year" by Thomas Montasser

I stumbled upon this tiny novel in a list of books about books, which is a link I will always, always click on, despite seeing many repeats (most of which I loved, of course). I was pleasantly surprised to find a new one on this list - and I apologize now that I didn't save the list! But anyway, this book, newly translated from German, is an adorable, quick read.

Valerie's aunt has disappeared, so she has been summoned to take care of her aunt's bookshop. Valerie thinks business background will help set the shop to rights & put her accounts in order. Yet, while working at the shop, she frequently finds herself lost in a good book. As she meets the shop's patrons and settles in to life as a reader, she tries to puzzle out what her aunt's plans were all along. 

This was another single-sitting read. More importantly, it is beautifully written & will call to the book lover in any reader. There's a tiny mystery tucked into the pages, a mysterious book that seems to appear at opportune moments in readers' lives. Valerie encounters it, and has to puzzle out its meaning as well. This novella is definitely recommended as a gift for other readers in your life. 

Verdict: Affirmed. A quaint and charming book celebrating the joys of reading. It's a lovely read for an afternoon when you're looking for a break.

"A Very Special Year" by Thomas Montasser, translated by Jamie Bulloch, published August 9, 2016 by Oneworld Publications.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

GUEST POST: "The Wall of Storms" by Ken Liu

I'm excited to share a special guest post from one of my former law school peers, Tochi Onyebuchi. I had the honor of working with Tochi on the Morningside Muckraker, and he is an incredible writer in his own right. He has had fiction published in Asimov's, Ideomancer, and Panverse ThreeHe publishes his non-fiction writing at Boy Boxes Bear and tweets @TochiTrueStory.

Here, he reviews Ken Liu's "The Wall of Storms," the second installment in the Dandelion Dynasty. Please note, this review contains SPOILERS for the first book, "The Grace of Kings."

Sequels bear outsized burdens. They’re tasked with enriching a world introduced in their predecessor, deepening it while enlarging it, marking continuity, ensuring they carry the same genetic material while insisting on their own newness, their own uniqueness. Ken Liu’s debut was wuxia War and Peace. How was he going to top that? And what did that even mean?

"The Grace of Kings" ended with functionary-cum-bandit-cum-rebellion leader Kuni Garu betraying his former friend, the Achillean Mata Zyndu. By the novel’s end, Kuni, now Emperor Ragin, was poised to bring about a new era of rule to Dara, defined by fairness and justice. Mapideré’s tyranny was over. The epoch of divisions had ended. Rebellions extinguished, peace was imminent. But the novel’s ending aptly foreshadowed much of what would follow, confirming the suspicions of any reader who suspected that peace was an illusion.

"The Wall of Storms" is a bigger, better novel than "The Grace of Kings" and may be the best fantasy novel I’ve read in the past five years. Emperor Ragin’s two wives, his first love Jia and a woman he admires and adores in equal and different measure, consort Risana, work both in concert and at cross-purposes to assist and in some ways influence Kuni Garu in his governance of the Empire of Dara. The battle plays out not just in the administration of empire but also in the question of which of Kuni’s children will succeed him as ruler. Erudite, first-born Timu? His immediate younger sister Théra who struggles to stake her claim in a landscape still dominated by men? Or Phyro, the charismatic, battle-eager second-son? Fara, whose mother, a third woman, died in childbirth, is Kuni’s youngest daughter.

Additionally, a terrifying force from the north threatens what fragile peace Kuni has been able to bring about in an empire still wounded from recent war.

Despite its panorama, "The Grace of Kings" was Kuni’s story. "The Wall of Storms" multiplies its foci. Perhaps the most meaningful addition to the cast comes in the form of Zomi Kidosu, a young woman revealed to be a pupil of Luan Zya’s and who enters the capital at the novel’s opening to take part in the Imperial Examinations that grant posts in the Dara administration, a set-piece that triggered rather apocalyptic flashbacks of the Bar Exam. Zomi’s story is also an early indication of another of this book’s successes.

This novel is driven by women. With Jia, Risana, Théra, Gin Masoti, Zomi, and eventually the general of a ghastly invading force from the north, the preeminence of women in the narrative of the Dandelion Dynasty continues Liu’s project of upending those conventions of epic fantasy formerly taken for granted. It is one of the book’s wonders that the copious world-building and depictions of wartime research, the flashbacks, the theological ruminations, even the philosophical and linguistic analysis of Ano logograms do not prevent the book from being anything but eminently readable.

In "The Grace of Kings," Liu gave us wuxia writ large: an authorial perspective that dived from the tops of trees to examine individual lives, then ascended on thermal drifts to catalog the strategic placement of armies poised for battle. In "The Wall of Storms," Liu’s authorial viewpoint continues to dance.

The result is panorama and heartbreak in equal measure.

"The Wall of Storms" is its parent’s child, but as the stories people of Kuni’s generation tell their children are turned into wisps of myth, the world is being remade yet again, new, unique, its fashioners able to stand and fascinate all on their own.

"The Wall of Storms" by Ken Liu, published October 4, 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

"A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara

It's been a while since I finished this book and I still don't know how to wrap my head around it or put into words my exact feelings about it. Luckily, many many others have tried.

On its face, it's the story of four friends living in New York City. It follows them through life and love as they grow and their relationships change. But centrally, it's the story of Jude St. Francis, a man with a horrific past who has nonetheless grown to find three devoted, loving friends. I will quibble with those, including the author, who describe this as a book of male friendship. That's certainly a theme, but it's a love story at its heart, and an exploration of how to love someone who doesn't know how to accept it. 

Haunting and beautiful and gripping and tragic. There are so many words for this book and they're all still inadequate. Yanagihara has a gift for describing the most traumatic, grotesque, staggeringly painful events in beautiful prose. Even when the events are too much to bear, the beauty of the prose pushes you on to the next page and the next. 

Verdict: Affirmed. I can't recommend this book highly enough, but I also want to warn that the subject matter is heartbreaking and tragic.

"A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara, published March 10, 2015 by Doubleday.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

"Shadowshaper" by Daniel José Older

Apologies for the break in scheduled programming. Coming off from a month of much-enjoyed, post-bar funemployment & jumping back into working life was quite an adjustment.

Sierra's a pretty normal girl living in Brooklyn, looking forward to summer break with her friends. Sierra can also draw, and then call spirits to embody her drawings and bring them to life. And it turns out this power is pretty important to save her ancestors' life work. Soon she's tracking zombies and other Shadowshapers all over New York City to get to the bottom of her powers, and her family's strong connection to spirits around them.

I don't know why I waited so long to read this book, but at least I have a shorter wait now for the sequel. Sierra is a great heroine, and the magic system built around Caribbean mythology feels fresh and original. The secondary characters are intriguing and believable, and I can't wait to see more of them in the rest of the planned trilogy. Finally, Daniel José Older writes a New York City that feels real, capturing the different neighborhoods well. 

The audiobook is also excellently narrated, and I can't imagine having read the book in another form. Anika Noni Rose embodies Sierra perfectly.  I listened in a single sitting & I can't wait for new installments. 

Verdict: Affirmed. This is a fresh, inspiring new YA trilogy, and anyone who likes the genre should check it out. 

"Shadowshaper" by Daniel José Older, published June 30, 2015 by Arthur A. Levine Books. Audio narration by Anika Noni Rose, published November 1, 2015 by Scholastic Audio.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

"Rich and Pretty" by Rumaan Alam

This book feels mostly mis-marketed. Its summer release, its light & happy cover, its description of two best friends living enviable lives in New York City all scream light-hearted beach read. It is not light, and not overly happy. There are stakes in this story of childhood BFFs Sarah and Lauren figuring out how their friendship works now that they are adults living separate and rapidly diverging lives. 

It's not an incessantly light, happy book, but it is a true one. Alam describes the ins and outs of deep friendship with ease and intimacy. How you can love someone while you also hate their flaws more than you could with a blood relative or partner. How you can understand someone better than they understand themselves, but still be surprised by their decisions and actions. How you want what is best for your friend, but have to support them even when they don't listen to you. Sarah and Lauren navigate their changing friendship as they grow older, reaching different stages of their lives at different times. They decide what and when to tell their best friend, and what to keep to themselves.

The core friendship is portrayed honestly and truthfully. Though, unfortunately it really is all the book has. There isn't much of a plot, and even time passes strangely. We check in with Sarah and Lauren weekly, then monthly, then after years go by without any real reason for the acceleration of time in the second half other than the absence of a true plot or stakes that would prevent such and acceleration. But neither does a plot exactly call for it. It was nice to check in with the characters at these points in their lives, but I wish they had felt more deliberately chosen or the pacing structured more consistently. 

Alam's writing is solid, with interesting descriptions and turns of phrase. The audio narration is good, though I would have preferred two narrators as the book shifts from Sarah to Lauren. It was sometimes difficult to determine whose thoughts I was privy to at any given moment, particularly because there is no indication of a new chapter beginning that I noticed. Overall, it was worth the listen for the deep character study, despite its structural flaws. 

Verdict: Jury's Out. In a year of strong reads, it's not going to make my top 10, or even 20. But I enjoyed getting to know Sarah and Lauren and think book clubs would find a lot to discussing in their different lives. 

"Rich and Pretty" by Rumaan Alam, published June 7, 2016 by Ecco. Audio narration by Julie McKay, published June 7, 2016 by HarperAudio.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

"Re Jane" by Patricia Park

Back in April, I read "Jane Eyre" for the first time, just in time for Charlotte Bronte's 200th birthday. This was even more well-timed than I had originally thought, as publishers have also been putting out some new Jane Eyre-inspired works. See also, "Reader, I Married Him" and "Jane Steele." "Re Jane" is the incarnation I chose to read, and it turned out to be an excellent choice.

Our Jane is half-Korean, half-American, living in Queens with her uncle and his family. She works in his uncle's store and is trying to figure out what to do after her post-college job falls through. Frustrated with her strict home life, she applies to and accepts a job as a nanny for Devon, the adopted Chinese daughter of two professors living in Brooklyn. Ed Farley, Devon's father, catches her attention. Through this job and ensuing developments leading to a trip to visit her extended family in South Korea, Jane discovers who she is, comes into her own, and decides what she wants from her life - much like the original Jane Eyre, though in a much more modern ending.

This book gave me so many conflicted feelings that I had a friend start reading it while I was still halfway through so I'd have someone with whom to discuss these feelings/rant. Devon's mom Beth is treated completely unfairly for much of the book. She is a feminist, women's studies-focused professor, and this is commonly a topic of derision throughout the book. The underlying feminism in "Jane Eyre" was what won me over on that novel, despite plotting and character issues, so to see the issue disparaged in a retelling was extraordinarily frustrating, and even felt downright disrespectful to the spirit of the original at times.

Directly opposite to the original, the characters in this book and their arcs eventually won me over. Jane here is naive, and young, and frustrating at times. Yet, she grows throughout the books, and because of her rough starting point, her growth feels both authentic and hard-earned. Her best friend Nina is strong, and independent, calling Jane on her nonsense. But most importantly, she also has real flaws. Like Rochester, Ed Farley's pretty lame. Devon is a well-drawn child, growing into a young adult with all the accompanying fits and growing pains. Unfortunately, the audiobook narrator here does a real disservice to Nina and Ed, giving them grossly exaggerated (probably made worse by my listening on double speed), stereotypical accents that distract from the story and their character development. So if that's a thing that will bother you, read this one in print.

Ultimately, the ending brought this up from a 2.5 star review to a really solid 4. Without spoiling the ending, I felt that it stayed true to the feminism inherent in "Jane Eyre," adapted to a modern age and new setting.

Verdict: Affirmed. Another great, gossipy summer read with deeper underlying themes. Stick with the characters, even when they're at their most frustrating.

"Re Jane" by Patricia Park, published May 5, 2015 by Pamela Dorman Books. Audio narration by Diana Bang, published May 5, 2015 by Penguin Audio.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

"Britt-Marie Was Here" by Fredrik Backman

FTC Disclosure: I received an eARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I checked out the audiobook from my library through Overdrive.

Fredrik Backman knows how to pull on all my hearstrings. He did it first with "A Man Called Ove," and now he has done it again with "Britt-Marie Was Here." I can't wait to get off the holds list for "My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry," so I can complete my Backman trifecta.

"Britt-Marie Was Here" is the story of Britt-Marie, a woman who is at a crossroads in her life after the conclusion of her marriage. Her life was previously structured around and defined by caring for her husband, so without those daily routines and responsibilities, she is adrift. But her personality does not lend itself well to idleness or relaxation. She marches into an unemployment center, and winds up with a job in the small, economically devastated town of Borg. As the recreational director for the village, she comes to know its quirky inhabitants and find a place for herself amid their lives.

Like Ove, Britt-Marie has a certain amount of the curmudgeon in her, though not quite as strongly as Ove. She is slow to let others into her life, but once she does, she is a fierce protector and advocate for them. She takes her job seriously, and is able to find new loved ones to care for to replace what she lost in the disintegration of her marriage. Perhaps best of all, the ending was utterly different from "Ove," and delightfully ambiguous and fulfilling (as I mentioned in my spoiler-tagged Goodreads review). Britt-Marie was a wonderful character with whom to spend an afternoon, and I look forward to seeing her pop up again in "My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry."

Verdict: Affirmed. I'm officially here for all the Fredrik Backman books, and can't wait for his next.

"Britt-Marie Was Here" by Fredrik Backman, published May 3, 2016 by Atria Books. Audio narration by Joan Walker, published May 3, 2016 by Simon & Schuster Audio.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

"Stars Above" by Marissa Meyer

I was so happy to get back to the Lunar Chronicles world with this collection of short stories. As I discussed in my review of "Fairest," Meyer has a gift for unveiling backstory in a way that stays true to the characters in the main series. This collection of stories follows in that vein, showing how the characters we know from the Lunar Chronicles came to their lives at the start of the series, or what happened to them after.

The standout story for me was "The Little Android," a retelling of "The Little Mermaid." In the vein of the Lunar Chronicles, though, our mermaid is an android working on rebuilding and renovating star ships, who falls in love with the human in charge of her projects. It stays true to the Hans Christian Anderson version, so don't expect the happily ever after from Disney. Mech6.0 will remind readers of Iko, and invoke questions of sentience and personality that were touched on in the main series as well.

"The Keeper" and "Something Old, Something New" will delight fans of the series, as they take place before and after (respectively) the action of the main series, giving new glimpses into characters we know and love. "The Mechanic" was particularly disappointing, as it's just Cinder and Kai's meeting from Kai's point of view - with virtually no new information or insight from the perspective flip. Rebecca Soler returns for her stellar audio narration, and overall this is a worthwhile story collection for Lunar Chronicles fans.

Verdict: Affirmed for fans of the series. Some of the stories have been published previously, but the collection was a nicely rounded set of stories for those looking to revisit this world.

"Stars Above" by Marissa Meyer, published February 2nd, 2016 by Feiwel & Friends. Audio narration by Rebecca Soler, published February 2nd, 2016 by Macmillan Audio.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

"The Swans of Fifth Avenue" by Melanie Benjamin

FTC Disclosure: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I checked out the audiobook from my library through Overdrive.

In my junior year of high school, we studied Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." I was wowed by Capote's masterful use of language and his ability to wrap me up in a story I wouldn't otherwise have picked up. We also watched the film "Capote" to get a sense, though fictionalized, of the man behind the book and how involved he became in the case. I have been intrigued by Capote himself ever since.

Enter "The Swans of Fifth Avenue," and the opportunity to get another glimpse, again fictionalized, into a different chapter of Capote's life. During and after the publication of "In Cold Blood," Capote was a high society darling, a fixture on the New York City social scene. He befriended the most beautiful, powerful women, gaining their confidences and attending their parties and vacations. He later betrayed them by revealing their secrets in a short story published in Esquire. This novel tells the story of his intimate friendships with these women and the falling out over the story. 

Benjamin crafts her novel out of the truth, building lives and personalities out of the public records left behind by these women. She also helpfully includes specifications on what she fictionalized and what is documented truth at the conclusion of the novel. Shining above all is the relationship she portrays between Babe Paley and Truman, providing glimpses into both of their innermost thoughts about the other so the reader can see how these very different people formed the perfect odd couple. 

Cassandra Campbell and Paul Boehmer do the narration on the audiobook, though as the novel features a close third-person narrator, I found the dual audio to be a bit confusing. Campbell's portrayal of Capote's nasaly drawl was a bit grating at times, but otherwise the audiobook was an enjoyable format for this novel.

Verdict: Affirmed - for readers looking for a gossipy summer read complete with scandal and betrayal, or a glimpse into NYC's elite in the late 1960's to mid 1970's.

"The Swans of Fifth Avenue" by Melanie Benjamin, published January 26, 2016 by Delacorte Press. Audio narration by Cassandra Campbell and Paul Boehmer, published January 26, 2016 by Random House Audio.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

"Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal" by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

FTC Disclosure: I received an ARC of this book from the published in exchange for my honest review.

If you have kids, you may know Amy Krouse Rosenthal for her children's books. You may not know she also writes charming memoir-ish non-fiction for adults. Her newest, "Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal" came out last week & was a delight and ponder this morning in my favorite coffeeshop.

Krouse Rosenthal's first memoir-ish book, "Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life" collected witty, endearing observations about the author's typical, everyday life. She emphasizes that she has not had anything extraordinary occur in her life that would typically result in a memoir. Instead, she chronicles the quotidian thoughts and experiences to which much of middle class America can relate. That was back in 2005.

Now, over ten years later, Krouse Rosenthal has returned with a similar sentiment in a new format. Her first book was alphabetized entries; her new book is organized, textbook-style, around thematic subjects you'd find in school. Textbook here has a double meaning: the book takes author-reader interaction to a new level, inviting readers to text certain messages to a specified number while they're reading for accompanying sounds, to participate in a poll, or to share an experience or suggestion with Krouse Rosenthal and other readers. The book's website houses readers' submissions and the text responses in case you're not able to text from your own phone. If I'm being honest, I vacillated between thinking the texting was gimmicky and enjoying it. But the music composed for the end notes was beautiful and quite fitting, so it left me thinking of the text participation on a good note.

Above all, Krouse Rosenthal excels at capturing the random thoughts and feelings we all have as we go about our daily lives, and in celebrating the quirk and whimsy and serendipity that surround all of us. Reading her books reminds me to enjoy the tiny, happy moments in life, and "Textbook" encourages you to celebrate some of them with her and others.

Verdict: Affirmed. This and "Encyclopedia," are fast, enjoyable reads for someone looking for a break from deeper, depressing works & for something that may encourage a new spring in their step.

"Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal" by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, published August 9, 2016 by Dutton Books.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

"Spinster" by Kate Bolick

FTC disclosure: I received a copy of this book through Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review. I checked out the audiobook from my library through Overdrive.

Back in July I read & loved Rebecca Traister's "All the Single Ladies." Craving more reflective, feminist non-fiction, I decided it was finally time to get back to "Spinster," a book I had requested from Blogging for Books when it originally came out. I unfortunately got waylaid at the time with school and work and such, and then stupidly left the book in DC when I went back to NYC. Luckily, my hold came in on the audiobook just as I found the print copy, and good reading times were had by all.

Kate Bolick reflects on her own life and her great literary influencers in "Spinster." The novel is mostly memoir with some literary criticism thrown in. She structures her reflections on her life around discussions of the great literary women who have shaped her personal development - Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edith Wharton. If you're only a little familiar with these ladies, or maybe even haven't heard of them, don't be scared off. Bolick does a great job contextualizing them in both their own time and her own life, quoting from their work, sharing their biographies, and basically making sure readers understand why and how they impacted her.

At the heart of the book, though, is Bolick's gradual decision to reclaim spinsterhood, and revel in being an unmarried woman. Along the way she gives readers an intimately personal look all aspects of her life - personal and professional, and how various encounters and milestones shaped her outlook. Skimming the reviews on Goodreads, it seems the people who were disappointed with this book expected it to be something that it's not. Bolick's book is deeply personal, reflective, with a literary frame. If you're looking for broader cultural discussions, turn to "All the Single Ladies." If you'd like a more introspective examination of one woman's decision on how to live her own life, this is an excellent memoir.

Verdict: Jury's out - Just make sure you know what you're getting into. If you're not interested in learning about historical literary ladies alongside deep introspection, this isn't going to be a book for you. If that sounds like your feminist cup of tea, though, this is an excellent book.

"Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own" by Kate Bolick, published April 21, 2015 by Crown. Audio narration by Kate Bolick, published April 21, 2015 by Random House Audio.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Listening Lately: 8/4/2016

In the lead-up to the bar exam, I was cramming all day and breaking only to walk the dog. This made for some great audiobook listening time. I read through these three titles in the week before the bar & would recommend all three as good summer reads. Bonus points for all because they'd make great book club picks as well.

"The Girl from the Garden" by Parnaz Foroutan
I studied Persian in college & am always on the lookout for novels set in/around Iran. Here, Foroutan tells the story of a Jewish family living in Iran in the early 1900's, as remembered by its sole descendant who now lives in Los Angeles. The framing device was a bit clunky at times, but the story told in flashbacks was beautiful and heartbreaking. Rakhel and Khorsheed are two sisters-in-law trying to make their place in their husbands' family. Rakhel has been unable to conceive, and thus give her husband his long-desired heir. Khorsheed is able to get pregnant, and their close friendship while living in such close proximity makes Rakhel's burden that much harder to bear, pushing their family to drastic measures to find a way forward.


"A Bollywood Affair" and "The Bollywood Bride" by Sonali Dev
I had read such great things about this romance-literary fiction crossover that I was excited when I saw my library had its audiobook in stock just before the bar. Dev excels at telling the stories of Indian families straddling life in India - both traditional and modern elements, with life in the US. She brings out the points where the cultures clash and how Indian expats make their own community and bring their own traditions to the US. "A Bollywood Affair" is the story of a woman, married at 4 to a husband she doesn't remember, who is in the US to get an education and earn her husband's respect. Her brother-in-law travels to the US to find her and secure a divorce for his brother before his new wife, who he married at an appropriate age, gives birth to their child. "The Bollywood Bride" tells the story of a famous Bollywood actress who travels back to the US for the wedding of her dear childhood friend, even though it means confronting people she has not seen in decades due to family secrets she wants to keep hidden. Both novels have a romance at their center, but delve far more deeply than a traditional romance novel into the familial and cultural issues that drive the plots. These would be great bridge books if you're interested in trying out romance, if you want to have your book club dip a toe into the romance waters, or if you're looking for literary fiction with strong love stories at the core.


Sunday, July 31, 2016

"Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by J.K. Rowling

There will be spoilers for the original seven in this review, but I have whited out spoilers from "Cursed Child."

A true child of the Harry Potter generation, I picked my reserved copy of "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" up at midnight and started it as soon as I got home. The fact that I fell asleep 100 pages in speaks to the fact that I'm not the energetic high schooler I was when "Deathly Hallows" came out, and that the bar exam was earlier the week and I still haven't fully recovered from that ordeal.

So I finished the last two-thirds this morning, and my feelings are decidedly mixed. As I noted in my Goodreads review immediately after I finished, this series was an enormous part of my childhood & I'll likely continue to be eager for new installments, and consume them in whatever form they take, problematic as they may be. And in that sense, "Cursed Child" fulfills its responsibilities. We're back in this magical, surreal, bewitching world, with the characters we know and love. For the most part, they behave like the aged versions of themselves that I had envisioned. Ron's dialogue is particularly good, as is McGonagell's. We get a new adventure with the new generation and friendship takes center stage. It's lovely. 

The original seven were inspired by Rowling's grief over her mother's death, and that grief and love of a child for an absent parent is inseparably woven into the main series. Now we have an older author, an established parent with three children in contrast to the single mother of a young daughter coping with her own grief who penned the original series. The change in life circumstances is apparent in the new installment, focusing heavily on parent-child relationships from the parent's perspective. We see both Harry reflecting on his trouble relating to his son Albus, and Albus reflecting on his trouble with his famous dad. We knew this was going to be the central relationship in the story & it felt like the truest element. I'm not a parent myself, but it seems a natural progression given the course of Rowling's life and how heavily it influenced her first books. On the whole it is this theme that allows for adequate comparison of this installment with the rest of the series, and that makes this play worthy of inclusion. 

But there are some problems. And this discussion of the problems necessarily involves spoilers, so highlight the next paragraphs if you've read the book and/or don't mind being spoiled. Stop here if you don't want to be spoiled (especially if you're reading on the mobile device, because I'm not sure whether the white-text spoilers will display as white text on the mobile site). Know that I'm glad I read it, but felt it didn't quite live up to the main series.

First, Draco. Building off my previous comments, Draco did not feel realistic. He starts the play in an uneasy position with Harry, much as we left him in the epilogue. They can be civil for short periods, but that pretense falls apart with extended time together. Then, their sons disappear together for a second time, and in just a couple pages of dialogue they have decided to be friends for their sons' sake. I believe this is the type of thing parents can and will do for their children. This just should have taken longer. At least Ron's discomfort and inability to let the past die easily feels true. 

Second, and most critically, this play has plotting issues, especially in light of the rest of the rest of the series. One of the things that makes the original seven such a joy & a masterpiece is Rowling's careful and diligent plotting. Most notably, she lays the groundwork for the horcruxes in "Chamber of Secrets," but there are also countless smaller bits throughout - seeming throwaway characters who pop up later with renewed significance, a certain diadem that takes on new meaning once readers know what they're looking for, etc. 

Delphi is an aberration. There is nothing from the original series that led us to believe Voldemort had a child. And that's a pretty big reveal, for someone who knows her world and her characters as well as Rowling. She knows their histories and their futures, but she left us no clues to this massive reveal. Further, the point in the timeline into which it is was inserted, at the Malfoy Manor before the Battle of Hogwarts is incongruous as well. We saw Bellatrix then, when the gang was briefly held prisoner in the basement, and there was no reference to a current pregnancy or recent birth. But if Bellatrix were to have had Delphi prior to the Battle, she should have been either fairly far along in a pregnancy or have had a baby somewhere in the house. 

If this was something Rowling had been planning all along, I cannot believe she would not have laid some small detail there for readers to find and ponder. Its absence makes it seem to me that the other two playwrights approached her with vague ideas of Voldemort's daughter and time travel, and how cool it could look on a stage rather than a screen, and she shoehorned their ideas into the existing timeline, instead of adhering to the histories she has already written for her characters. When the plotting was such a central feature of the original books, its abandonment here is conspicuous and disappointing, a disservice to fans who followed her breadcrumbs so closely they were able to identify all seven horcruxes before the publication of the last book

Third, and finally, there are distracting technical issues. I understand fully that this is a play intended to be seen live, not read on the page. But the playwrights, Rowling included, also knew the vast majority of fans would be consuming it as words on a page, so it is not unreasonable to hold them to the expectations inherent in producing a new printed, written installment in the most popular book series in history. There are moments where the other playwrights' writing pokes through in the stage directions. Most notably, on pg. 249 (of the US edition) there is a stage direction "This is almost a Spartacus moment" that is so out of sync with Harry Potter-style writing that I had to put the book down and Google. Luckily, it is the only such direct reference, but its significance bears discussion.

One of the elements that has made the series endure is its lack of dated elements - though we have a clear timeline with years, the lack of technology and pop culture references prevents the books from getting mired in a specific moment, so readers of all ages can read them unbound from the details that would typically place a work in a specific period. So a Spartacus reference stands out like a sore thumb, and made me, a reader who admits to only a basic understanding of what exactly that references means, feel left out and confused by a world that previously had been entirely accessible among its own pages. Rowling's writing is, of course, full of allusions and inspirations from countless mythologies, but those are bonuses to those who study them or bring such knowledge with them. Picking up on them is not necessary to one's understanding of the story. A stage direction in the sparse text of a script with a direct reference that goes over some readers' heads or prompts them to put down the book for a quick Google is leaving some of us out. And that's a bad feeling, one that Rowling avoided for seven books, whether intentionally or not. It makes it clear that this is a different type of work, and sets it apart from the original seven in an unfortunate way.  

On a much smaller note on the stage directions, there were several that seemed to direct how the audience was to feel at a given moment. For example, "VOLDEMORT comes through the back of the stage, and across it, and walks down into the auditorium. He brings death with him. And everyone knows it." (p. 294 of the US edition). Maybe the direction is referring to the actors on stage, but given that Voldemort has descended from the stage into the audience, that seems unlikely. Such a blanket description of the intended mood in theater struck me as either presumptuous if intended as an actual direction for the actors, or alternatively failing to show the reader of print rather than tell. 

See,that specific spoiler-y example is also a direction immediately prior to a scene cut, though it's a scene cut that doesn't actually change place or time from the one preceding it. So it would seem a cut made only for the dramatic tension of the reader of print. And if some decisions are already being made for the sake of the print reader, more attention could have been paid, confusion avoided with the addition of an extra stage direction or two, and more atmosphere built rather than simply stating the hoped-for feeling exists. 

I'm grateful that Rowling is providing us with more from the world of Harry Potter, and perhaps my expectations were unreasonably high. But I'll also argue that Rowling earned our high expectations in delivering an unparalleled fantasy series with a reach unlike anything that came before it, and then meticulously guarding her intellectual property and making careful decisions about how and when to expand the series and its surrounding world. It's a shame that there are parts of this story that distract too much to fully include it on the same level as the original seven.

Verdict: Jury's out. I'm happy I read this, and glad it exists to some extent. But more care could have given to devoted readers on a number of levels, and the incongruities are frustrating. I'm still hopeful, though, that the Harry Potter fandom will pick up on something that laid the groundwork for this that I simply missed.

"Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by J.K. Rowling, published July 31, 2016 by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

"The Fireman" by Joe Hill

Joe hill's "The Fireman" was a terrible book to read in the final countdown to the bar exam. It was too compelling, too intriguing, too good at keeping me on the edge of my seat. So, it'll likely make a great summer read for anyone not trying to stay motivated in the home stretch of bar prep.

The world has been beset by a plague called Dragonscale, where the infected develop scale-like markings on their skin until they spontaneously combust. No one knows where the infection started or how it spreads, and people are panicking. Harper is a nurse who spends her days caring for the infected. She made a suicide pact with her husband in the event they become infected.

Harper's plans change, though, when she learns she's pregnant and becomes infected in quick succession. Now she has to figure out how to survive long enough to give birth to her child. Rumors are circulating of a man who has learned how to control the Dragonscale so that he does not ignite, and that he might even be able to control the fire and use it for his own purposes. Harper sets out to find the Fireman & figure out how to live long enough to give her baby a chance at life.

Joe Hill is Stephen King's son, and the influences are apparent in the best ways. He writes a tight thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat. It's got horror elements, but in the sense of King's "Under the Dome," where the paranormal is a pretense to examine humans & our responses to panic as the true villains. Though it's a horror thriller by genre, the action-packed sequences were my least favorite, and the book would have been stronger if it had minimized those to focus on the interpersonal dynamics.

Harper is a wonderful protagonist - strong, determined, and believable. Kate Mulgrew (from "Orange is the New Black" and reading & narrating her own excellent memoir, "Born with Teeth") does the audio narration and truly brings Harper to life. I could not think of a better match, and highly recommend the audio format specifically. Harper finds a cohort of like-minded individuals, and watching her navigate among the various personalities is the true core of the novel. Mulgrew's distinctive voice gives the reader the clear feeling of being inside Harper's head, evaluating the other characters and the world around her as she does.

Verdict: Affirmed. If you're an SFF fan looking for a fast-paced summer read, definitely check this one out.

"The Fireman" by Joe Hill, published May 17, 2016 by William Morrow. Audio narration by Kate Mulgrew, published May 17, 2016.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

"Shrill" by Lindy West

I've been casually bumping into the work of Lindy West online for a few years, without realizing it was coming from the same incredible, inspiring woman. I first heard from her on This American Life, when she confronted an Internet troll who impersonated her deceased father to harass her. She is also a vocal critic of rape jokes as comedy and the founder of the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign. Her recent memoir expands on these stories and her work as a fat acceptance advocate and journalist.

Prior to reading "Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman," I didn't know that West writes extensively about her life as a fat woman. She is reclaiming the word "fat" as a simple descriptor, rather than a source of shame (it is her preferred term, and so the one I will continue to use throughout this post), and working to combat the many negative stereotypes and harmful slights and insults suffered by the overweight. I also didn't realize that the same woman was behind the three works I mention above. In her memoir, West traces how she came to be he outspoken advocate she is today - how she grew out of and worked to overcome intense shyness, how she developed her views, came into her voice as an advocate, and honed her skills as a journalist and pundit. She shares openly from her personal life, speaking of her marriage and the death of her father with courage and great love for her family. West writes and narrates her audiobook with wit, crass metaphors, and deserved pride in the woman she knows herself to be

At the heart of "Shrill," though, is a call to arms. Women, fat people, and really all marginalized people, need to be supported and recognized as fellow humans, not shamed for whatever feature society has arbitrarily deemed unacceptable. She writes about being a woman and being fat specifically because these are the communities of which she is a part. Her underlying message of acceptance and understanding, though, is one that we would all do well to take into all facets of our lives. 

Verdict: Affirmed. West is a force to be reckoned with, and a woman whose work I hope more will discover. I can't wait to see what she does next. 

"Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman" by Lindy West, published May 17, 2016 by Hachette. Audio narration by Lindy West, published May 17, 2016 by Hachette Audio. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

"All the Single Ladies" by Rebecca Traister

FTC disclaimer: I received a free e-ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I checked out the audiobook through Overdrive from my public library. 

Since I finished them both, I have been recommending Aziz Ansari's "Modern Romance" and Christian Rudder's "Dataclysm" together. They tackle the same topic, modern dating, in different research-based ways. They're basically the same book, but the former is told with more anecdotal, focus group-style social science and the latter is told through big data. You can read one and get the message of both if you're not up for two books on the same topic. But now, I've found the better complementary read to either of those books - Rebecca Traister's "All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation." Sure we're all dating differently with the rise of technology, but more and more women are also living alone and this is having profound effects on society. And maybe it should be having even more.

Traister explores the history of and recent increase in women embracing their singledom and living lives independently, whether by choice or circumstance. She discusses how this segment of the population has always existed, and how it is experienced differently in different demographic groups (while acknowledging that her interviewees skewed toward the college-educated). She discusses how women today come to live single lives for a variety of reasons - from conscious choice to unintended circumstances to a messy mixture of the two. The book covers a lot of ground. And she does this all without shaming anyone for their life choices or path. She shares stories from, and advocates for, all women, providing a vehicle for understanding and methods of supporting everyone's life choices. 

Most importantly, Traister explains how longstanding policies assume everyone aspires to marriage, or explicitly incentivize coupling up. She provides alternatives and policy goals to be pursued to ensure that women who do live alone are able to prosper. She convincingly makes the point that this segment of the population is growing and shows no signs of stopping. As a nation we should embrace them and get out of their way, making sure they have the resources they need to live healthy, happy lives, no matter the ultimate shape they take.

Verdict: Affirmed. Everyone should check out this book for an update on the state of women in America and how we can better support all women in their life choices. 

"All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation" by Rebecca Traister, published March 1, 2016 by Simon & Schuster. Audio narration by Candace Thaxton, published March 1, 2016 by Simon & Schuster Audio.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

"Three-Martini Lunch" by Suzanne Rindell

As someone who made time to read every day throughout both undergrad and law school, I shrugged off people who told me bar prep was different. Undergrad and law school had scared others off from reading, too, and I had survived both with my love of literature and insatiable urge to read in any spare moment fully intact. What I hadn't anticipated about bar prep, though, is the sheer lack of down time, and even spare moments. There is so much to cram into my head that a spare moment should be spent with a handful of flashcards, not a few pages of a novel. Nonetheless, my dog needs walks, which means I need audiobooks. If there are good bar prep podcasts out there, I definitely do not want to know about them.

"Three-Martini Lunch" by Suzanne Rindell was recommended by several book podcasts and blogs while I was still in New York, and I'm sorry I can't remember any of them as I write this. Set in 1958 New York City, it tells the story of three 20-somethings whose lives are intertwined with the publishing industry. Cliff wants to be a writer, Eden wants to be an editor, and Miles wants to find out more about his father while working as bike messenger for the publishing houses. The novel explores each of their own identity issues as their lives intersect and they interact with one another - Cliff is the son of a famous editor, Eden is navigating the male-dominated industry as a young Jewish woman, and Miles is an African American man working through his sexual identity while trying to learn of his father's past.

The characters are all well-developed and interesting. Cliff is the least so, but his perspective is something of a linchpin without which the other two would seem only glancingly tangential. Miles is by far the most interesting, and the novel could have stood on its own with only his narrative. But I'm generally a fan of rotating narrators. It ultimately served this novel well, particularly with respect to the setting. Rindell showcases the city through the eyes of three young people who each experience it very differently. From Greenwich Village to Harlem, the novel portrays the different neighborhoods and communities throughout the city in their own lights, cognizant of what people feel at home in each and why.

Verdict: Affirmed. In addition to the excellent story, each character has their own narrator, and all performances shine. Rebecca Lowman in particular does wonderfully as Eden, which comes as no surprise since she has a history of excellent audio performances, including "Fangirl" and Rainbow Rowell's other novels.

"Three-Martini Lunch" by Suzanne Rindell, published April 5, 2016 by G.P. Putnam's Sons. Audio narration by Will Damron, J.D. Jackson, and Rebecca Lowman, published April 5, 2016 by Penguin Audio.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

"The Nest" by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's debut novel "The Nest" is exactly the type of novel I like for a summer read. Engaging, but not so engrossing that I can't leave it for my millions of summer plans (or bar prep this summer); interesting characters who are still familiar enough that they don't merit close investigation or consuming reflection; and above all, enjoyable & stimulating without weighing me down with intellectual insights. I recognize that could very easily be read as a list of backhanded compliments, but I really did enjoy this novel.

The premise: four siblings are awaiting the day when they receive an inheritance from their father, which they affectionately refer to as the nest. One of the siblings is involved in a horrific car accident months before they are all set to receive the inheritance, and their mother decides to use the funds to pay off the expenses and hush money the accident requires. The other siblings are miffed, as each had their own plans for their inheritance, and must now figure out how to navigate their rich people problems without the tidy sum of money they had come to expect.

None of the siblings' problems are life or death, and they are all of their own making - living beyond their means, taking out loans without telling their partners, failing to sustain a livable income or honor contractual obligations. They are nonetheless serious, and the types of things that will reasonably weigh on their minds as they figure out what to do in the wake of their brother's accident and the ransacking of their trust fund. The four siblings were each unique, and I particularly appreciated Sweeney's definition of each in part by how they relate to the others. Siblings as close or as intertwined as these do not develop their identities in isolation, and Sweeney captures that perfectly. She also does a great job capturing the wealthy, or want-to-be wealthy depending on the character, New York City setting. The novel lacks the grit or stakes of a novel dealing with true life-or-death problems, but still remains compelling and interesting for its accurate depiction of the problems of those who probably consider themselves upper middle class, but whom the rest of the country would likely consider upper class.

Verdict: Affirmed. If you're looking for a light beach or summer read with a bit more heft than your average chick lit, check this one out. It's great on audio if you're looking for a dog-walking read as well.

"The Nest" by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, published March 22, 2016 by Ecco. Audio narration by Mia Barron, published March 22, 2016 by HarperAudio.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

"Egg & Spoon" by Gregory Maguire

Thanks to Audiobook SYNC for providing yet another great audiobook! Though this one's download period is up, they'll be giving away two titles per week through August 17, 2016, so check in every Thursday to see what's new. 

I don't think the book description really does justice to this madcap fairy tale mash-up & retelling. Gregory Maguire takes the outlines of a prince & pauper identity swap and adds Baba Yaga to create the delightful, fresh "Egg & Spoon."

Elena is the pauper, a poor Russian girl living with her dying mother while her brothers are away. Ekaterina is the prince, a wealthy girl traveling by train to meet the nephew of the Tsar when she meets Elena during a pit stop. The set-up getting them to swap places was the dullest part of the book. It really took a while to get everyone situated and put all the necessary plot elements in place. During parts 1 & 2 out of 11 on audio, I considered abandoning this book for fear it would never get any more interesting then two girls comparing their vastly different lives in unsurprising ways.

I'm glad I waited it out. Ekaterina meets Baba Yaga after their switch, and things really pick up. Baba Yaga is a time-traveling, child-eating witch living in a house that walks around on chicken legs. She brought levity and wit to the story, generally keeping things interesting even when the plot itself wasn't moving too far along. As they work to reunite and swap places, Ekaterina and Elena learn about themselves, and ultimately embark on a mission with Baba Yaga, the Tsar's nephew, and a few other characters to figure out what exactly is wrong with the magic in Russia. The girls grow and learn more about themselves along the way, of course. Like Sam in "Every Last Word," this book's  SYNC-paired-audiobook, they come into their own and learn to see themselves in new lights, capable of more than they had previously believed.

Verdict: Affirmed. Even though the book felt clunky at times, with some less-than-deft maneuvering of characters from place to place, it turned out to be a really enjoyable read. For fans of Gregory Maguire generally, fantasy, or fairy tale retellings specifically, "Egg & Spoon" is worth checking out.

"Egg & Spoon" by Gregory Maguire, published September 9, 2014 by Candlewick Press. Audio narration by Michael Page, published September 9, 2014 by Brilliance Audio

Thursday, June 9, 2016

"How to Make White People Laugh" by Negin Farsad

Negin Farsad does social justice comedy, a thing she invented to use humor to bring people together. As an Iranian-American Muslim women, she uses her own identity crises as the basis for her comedy and as a launching pad for her message of inclusion and cross-cultural understanding.

I was fortunate enough to see Farsad speak at Politics & Prose on her new book "How to Make White People Laugh." You may also know her as a TEDFellow, or for her films "The Muslims are Coming!", "Nerdcore Rising", or "3rd Street Blackout". Her talk at Politics & Prose pulled heavily from her book, though she presented it like a stand-up comedy routine. It was one of her first events on her book tour, and I found her answers during the Q&A particularly entertaining and endearing, especially when she spoke of her parents. I chuckled along & happily picked up her book.

I didn't realize just how heavily her talk pulled from the book until I was reading and recognized many of the jokes verbatim. And then I watched her TED Talk from 2013, recognized the jokes & general direction, and realized it's basically the introduction to her book. But as I read on, I cared less and less. Negin's comedy is comprised of poop jokes and cursing and heartwarming moments by turn. There's a little something for everyone. And her message is inspiring and important. It boils down to getting to know each other a little better, so that society can become more accepting and understanding of everyone. She puts herself on the front line of this mission, using humor and her personal story to humanize Muslims to white, mainstream America.

Verdict: Affirmed. Pick your medium - whether you watch her TedTalk, read this book, or see her perform, Negin Farsad's social justice comedy is worth checking out.

"How to Make White People Laugh" by Negin Farsad, published May 24, 2016 by Grand Central Publishing.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

"Every Last Word" by Tamara Ireland Stone

This book was another great selection from the Audiobook SYNC. It was paired with "Egg & Spoon" by Gregory Maguire, with the mutual theme of "girls who seem to be nearly overcome by their situations, only to discover the power of their own voices." I haven't listened to "Egg & Spoon" yet, but I can't wait to compare it to "Every Last Word."

Samantha is the girl at the heart of this story, and her "situation" is purely-obsessional obsessive compulsive disorder. As a high school junior, she hides her mental illness from everyone except her family. Especially from her best friends, the Crazy Eights, who are the most popular girls in school. At the beginning of the school year, she meets Caroline, someone who Sam didn't think she'd ever hang out with. Caroline, in turn, shows her the Poet's Corner, a hidden room where a group of students meet to share their poetry. Sam hides her new group from the Crazy Eights, even as she begins to like who she is with them more than with her best friends. "Every Last Word" is the story of Sam figuring out where her friends, priorities, and mental illness fit into her personal identity and the type of person she wants to be.

This novel has been praised for its accurate, accessible portrayal of OCD, and I can only second that praise. I liked Sam, I rooted for Sam, and I got to learn something along the way. Yes, I suspected some plot points were coming, but they were well-executed and made fro a compelling read once they came to fruition (as I noted in my Goodreads review). Most importantly, Stone folded Sam's OCD into the story in an organic way: it's central, but not the only thing happening in Sam's life or the plot of the book. Sam deals with the same identity and friend struggles that most teenagers run up against, her OCD is just additional problem she has to deal with that's slightly more unique than her others. 

Verdict: Affirmed. For general readers of YA or anyone curious to know more about OCD through a novel, this is a great pick. 

"Every Last Word" by Tamara Ireland Stone, published June 16, 2015 by Disney-Hyperion. Audio narration by Amy Rubinate, published June 16, 2015 by Ideal Audiobooks.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"The Crown" by Kiera Cass

Despite my mixed reviews of the previous books in The Selection series, I was excited to get off the holds list quickly for the final installment. With graduation and moving back to DC permanently, it was perfect timing for a light read. Like the rest of the series, this book has a lot of problems, but still kept me reading.

First, the good: The audio narration is excellent, as always. The premise of this book is absurd, but juicy and entertaining if you're not expecting something with substantial depth. The world is intriguing, and my biggest complaint throughout the series is that not enough was done to flesh out the world and provide it with a proper history. It's nice to see America and Maxon as adults.

But, two large complaints: Eadlyn goes from being insufferable in the first book to being a completely normal, compassionate human in this book. There is no growth, she just does a fairly complete 180. In my last review, I predicted she'd grow, but we don't actually see that happen. She's just suddenly a better person, despite this book picking up exactly where the last left off.

Similarly, the ending is almost completely unfounded in anything that came before. These books did not adequately explore the political machinations of this world, and the last two installments are particularly bad at it. Ending the book with a large political decision from Eadlyn misses the point of what these books turned out to be - they were about the dating game, not the politics (much to my great disappointment). If the books were going to center primarily on the Selection, that's what the ending should have focused on as well.

Verdict: Jury's Out on the series, dismissed on this installment.  If I had known how it ended at the outset, I probably wouldn't have started. Yet, I can't bring myself to fully dismiss this series, because it kept me listening for all five books. I was clearly engaged enough to keep requesting them from the library, despite the many bothersome bits. In the end, though, I ended up disappointed in the ending, and really books four and five entirely, as they reflected much of my problems with the series as a whole. If you're interested in the series, I recommend sticking to just the first three.

"The Crown" by Kiera Cass, published May 3, 2016 by HarperTeen. Audio narration by Brittany Pressley, published May 3, 2016 by HarperAudio.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle" by Katie Coyle

I loved the first book in this duology, "Vivian Apple at the End of the World," thanks to AudiobookSYNC. Luckily, its sequel, "Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle" was available in audio from my library through Overdrive. I checked it out immediately, and like the first, I finished it in a day.

Coyle picks up the second book where the first leaves off. Vivian & Harpreet have figured out the mystery behind the rapture, and now they're on a mission to do something about it. (Keeping things vague to avoid spoilers!) Where the first installment was a mystery, this one is an action-packed adventure story. It's fast-paced, with one development coming right after another so the story just barrels along at a delightful, engaging breakneck speed.

All the characters from the first who are still around make their way into the second in natural, sometimes surprising, ways. It's great to check in with the full fascinating cast, but watching Vivian develop into a strong young woman who is determined to continue taking charge of her life and the situation around her remains the highlight of this series. I also appreciate the central relationship between Viv and Harp as two strong women who support each other and become each other's found family amid a chaotic backdrop.

Verdict: Affirmed. If you like the first, move straight on to the second for a fast-paced adventure that wraps up the story nicely.

"Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle" by Katie Coyle, published September 1, 2015 by HMH Books for Young Readers. Audio narration by Julia Whelan, published September 28, 2015 by Dreamscape Media.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

"The Big Picture" by Sean Carroll

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Thanks to Dutton Books, I had the opportunity to read something a little outside my norm - a book on science & philosophy, proposing a unified theory of physics and the meaning of life. "The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself" came out this past Tuesday, May 10, and tackles a big subject matter in a fairly approachable way.

I don't have the background in science, philosophy, or theology to critique Sean Carroll's argument and theory on any of those terms. I'm just a lay reader who was looking to read something very different from the legal texts I'd been cramming for my finals. That mission was accomplished. What I can do here is comment on how well he communicated his theory to me, a relative layperson to science. (Most of daily interactions with science come from reading hard science fiction, for your reference.)

Carroll, a CalTech physicist and ardent atheist, has developed a theory of the world that he calls poetic naturalism. This theory takes naturalism, the idea that the laws of nature are all there is in the world (i.e. no supernatural/other realm), and adds the additional gloss that for there only being one world, there are many ways to describe it and how we choose to do so matter. That gloss is the "poetic" part. In Carroll's own words, "Poetic naturalism strikes a middle ground, accepting that values are human constructs, but denying that they are therefore illusory or meaningless...The meaning we find in life is not transcendent, but it's no less meaningful for that." To develop this theory, he provides a primer on the development of key scientific theories and thought, from basic physics with Newton and Einstein (and even further back) to modern quantum physics.

For the most part, Carroll succeeds in making his theory accessible to readers. He does a fantastic job laying out the context and scientific developments throughout history that have brought the scientific community to its present theories and understanding. I could follow along and understand his argument without needing to Google much. There were, though, a few points were he presumed a basic level of scientific understanding or agreement with scientific methods that did not seem adequately developed. For example, he tosses around the term "spacetime" in the first part of the book without adequately explaining what it means. I had some ideas from Dr. Who, but I'm guessing that's not exactly what he meant, and had to read a bit on Wikipedia before I could continue.

More broadly, Carroll's base level of inquiry seems to be primarily what is useful to a scientist attempting to understand the world around him or her. That viewpoint makes sense given his life's work, but lay readers searching for a life's meaning in a different personal context may not be wholly convinced by his theories and arguments. Nonetheless, it's an engaging read, and readers will walk away with a better understanding of physics, irrespective of their personal views on the meaning of life.

Verdict: Jury's Out - if you have a basic level of understanding of science and a general interest in philosophy informed by science, definitely check this out. If that's not the lens through which you view the world, you may still learn a good chunk about science from this book, but you're not likely to be convinced by the unifying theory.

"The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself" by Sean Carroll, published May 10, 2016 by Dutton Books.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"Vivian Apple at the End of the World" by Katie Coyle

Due to finals, I've been listening to more podcasts while walking the dog than audiobooks (they're shorter, so less temptation to continue listening once I get home). But last Thursday (5/5) was the first day of AudiobookSYNC, a fantastic program from Audiofile magazine that provides teens (& anyone else over the age of 13) free pairs of audiobooks - one new and one classic - every week for the summer. So I downloaded the first pair, and the "new" title got me right back into audiobooks with a compelling story & fantastic narration. Best part - this book is still available until Thursday, 5/12 when new titles come out - so go download it now!

"Vivian Apple at the End of the World" by Katie Coyle tells the story of the rapture, and those left behind. 17-year-old Vivian doesn't believe her Believer parents who tell her the rapture is coming. But when she comes home from a party and finds two holes in her ceiling and no parents, she has to confront her new reality. But something seems off about her parent's disappearance. Along with her best friend Harpreet and a new crush Peter, she sets out to find the family members who may not have been raptured, and figure out what's actually going on.

I listened to this audiobook from start to finish the day it came out. It's a quick story with clues to the mysteries at the center doled out well - enough to keep me interested, but still guessing. There are twists I didn't see coming, but didn't feel out of place, which is always a hard line to walk. But best of all is watching Vivian come into her own. She describes herself pre-rapture as meek, with the superpower of blending into the background. Post-rapture, she knows she must take control of her life if she wants to survive and get to the bottom of everything happening around her. Since the novel is told from her point of view, the reader sees her grappling with overcoming her timid nature and learning to assert herself.

Verdict: Affirmed. Recommended for YA fans, especially those who like post-apocalyptic works. I went straight on to the sequel & downloaded the book this was paired with as well. Can't wait to start both.

"Vivian Apple at the End of the World" by Katie Coyle, published January 6, 2015 by HMH Books for Young Readers. Audio narration by Julia Whelan, published January 22, 2015 by Dreamscape Audio.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

"The Ramblers" by Aidan Donnelly Rowley

Along with "The Expatriates," "The Ramblers" was my other read during finals. I like to read lighter books when I'm focused on other things & both fit the bill. Like "The Expatriates," "The Ramblers" focuses on three characters whose lives intertwine in a large city. Here, though, how their lives intersect is not as unexpected & the plot and prose ramble a bit more.

In New York City, Clio faces a decision about where she wants her relationship with her boyfriend to go. Her best friend & roommate Smith is still reeling from the break up with her ex while coping with her sister's upcoming wedding when she meets Tate, who is coming off his own separation from his wife. The novel follows these three 30-somethings over the course of a week or two as they figure out how they got to this point in their lives & where they want to go from here. 

The first half of the book had me hooked. I liked the main characters, and the secondary cast was intriguing. Rowley gets New York City, so the book is littered with allusions that will ring true to anyone familiar with the city. Unfortunately, once the stage was set, the pace slowed. It's possible this was intentional, given the title and the message Rowley is trying to share about this time in her characters' lives. Yet, days stretched out to dozens of pages more than felt necessary for characters I already knew. Multi-page descriptions of characters' morning routines
are a pet peeve of mine. It wasn't enough that I put down the book, or even to make me dislike it as a whole. It was just enough that things dragged & I wasn't as compelled to pick it up again as I was at the start. 

Verdict: Jury's out. It won't be the first book I recommend to someone looking for lighter literary-ish contemporary fiction, due to the pacing issues. But it's probably make a long list, especially for readers interested in the privileged NYC setting.

"The Ramblers" by Aidan Donelly Rowley, published February 9, 2016 by William Morrow.