Thursday, March 31, 2016

"All the Birds in the Sky" by Charlie Jane Anders

I wanted to like "All the Birds in the Sky" more than I did - but I still liked it well enough. There was so much hype around this book, maybe I was doomed to be disappointed (though "The Library at Mount Char" surpassed all its hype). Some of it was self-imposed, because I love Anders's short story "Six Months, Three Days." If you haven't read it, and like science-y fiction set in the present, definitely go check it out.

"All the Birds in the Sky" is the story of Patricia and Laurence, two outcasts who became friends at a young age and go on to hold the fate of the world in their very different hands. Patricia is a witch, in touch with the natural world and the magic side of things. Laurence is into technology, builds a two-second time machine, and generally handles the science side of things. Both are massively misunderstood by their parents and peers at a young age, and this drives them together in childhood.

Life goes on to separate them over time, but they encounter each other again in San Francisco. The novel covers both their childhood adventures and their adult encounters, culminating in their quests to save the world. At times these quests are in competition, at others they cooperate. Honestly, it's a bit hard to follow and even feels somewhat haphazard once it gets to that point in the novel. Had the book started with them as adults, I probably would have put it down. But the first chunk, with Patricia & Laurence as children gave me a solid grounding in them as characters & cultivated an interest in their relationship, such that I was invested enough to see it through.

All this sounds like I didn't like the novel - I did. It was an enjoyable reading experience, but it hasn't stuck with me enough to make this a resounding recommendation.

Verdict: Jury's out. If you're interested in something a bit different that blends science fiction & fantasy, check it out. Just beware it can feel a bit uneven.

"All the Birds in the Sky" by Charlie Jane Anders, published January 26, 2016 by Tor Books.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"The Girl From Everywhere" by Heidi Heilig

FTC Disclosure: I received an e-ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

This young adult novel had a little bit of everything - time travel, adventure, romance, history, and pirates. It was combined in a fun, fresh narrative with solid heroine, and I simply could not put it down.

Nix travels with her father, adventuring around the world and through time in their ship, the Temptation. As a Navigator, her father can use any map to travel to the place and time it was drawn, real or fantastic. But each map can only be used once. Nix longs to learn to Navigate herself as a means of protection - her father seeks a specific map that may undo Nix's very existence.

At the heart of this novel is Nix's complicated relationship with her father. She has traveled with him her entire life, but never felt that she was at the center of his world. She feels she is simply a tool in his quest to return to her mother's time. Yet surrounding her is the crew, encountered and brought on board throughout their travels. These crew form her family of sorts, and her relationships with them are a captivating element of the novel.

I appreciated the way the author explored the world - Nix knows how her world works, the ins and outs of the maps. But she doesn't actually know how to Navigate, and the reader learns details and specifics along with her. Heilig's writing is simple and direct, but occasionally she turns a sharp, beautiful phrase. This book is marketed as young adult, but I think a mature middle grade reader could handle it - there's just a first kiss and the beginnings of a not-yet-annoying love triangle. I recently saw that Heilig is working on a sequel to this novel & I can't wait to read it!

Verdict: Affirmed. This novel created a new world nestled within our own, and I can't wait to see where Nix & the crew Navigate next.

"The Girl from Everywhere" by Heidi Heilig, published February 16, 2016 by Greenwillow Books in the US and March 3, 2016 in the UK by Hot Key Books.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

"Ways to Disappear" by Idra Novey

I read this slim little novel the morning it was due back to the library. Clocking in at just over 250 pages (with big type & not too much text on the page), it was a delightful read over two cups of tea before my day got started.

Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda carries a suitcase into a tree one day and disappears. When her American translator Emma hears of her disappearance and heads to Brazil to help Beatriz's two children find their mother. Emma has visited Beatriz previously and feels a strong connection to "her" author that is inexplicable to her boyfriend in America. Emma works with Beatriz's son and tries to work around Beatriz's daughter, experiencing parts of Brazilian society with which she had no prior contact.

Novey's prose shines above all else. The lyrical language takes what could be a madcap adventure and turns it into a beautiful, reflective narrative. Unusual in my reading life, this was also striking prose that read fairly quickly. All of this culminates in a delightful, unique novel that I'm glad I picked up. I can't wait to see what Idra Novey writes next.

Verdict: Affirmed, for readers looking for something fun & a bit different.

"Ways to Disappear" by Idra Novey, published February 9, 2016 by Little, Brown and Company.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"Pretty Baby" by Mary Kubica

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 local library through Overdrive.

I loved Mary Kubica's debut thriller, "The Good Girl." So, when I saw her follow-up on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to request it. Then life got in the way, but I am glad I finally made time to listen to this novel on audio. As I mentioned in my brief Goodreads review, "Pretty Baby" is not the thriller I expected after the "The Good Girl," but a quieter psychological mystery. There weren't any big twists. Instead, I enjoyed getting to know the three main characters and figuring out what makes them tick.

Heidi first sees Willow struggling with a young baby on a subway train, and then again at a library. She reaches out to try to help the young girl without knowing anything about her or her history. Heidi's husband Christ is suspicious of Willow, and questions his wife's decision to bring her into their home. The narrative rotates between the three, gradually giving readers access to each character's past and motivations. The audio narration features three different narrators who bring distinct voices to each character to great effect.

Willow and Heidi's narratives were compelling throughout the novel, while Chris's lagged initially. In particular, Chris's subplot with his seductive co-worker felt a bit out of place, but I guess it gave him something to do and think about for the bulk of the novel. Structurally, it gave him a reason to miss his wife's psychological trauma until an opportune moment in the plot, though there's probably a better way to handle this. Where Kubica shines is showing how different people interpret the same events and others' actions, projecting their own concerns and troubles into the lives of others.

Verdict: Affirmed, if you know this isn't the fast-paced thriller it's marketed as, but an unsettling, intriguing psychological drama.

"Pretty Baby" by Mary Kubica, published July 28, 2015 by Mira. Audio narration by Cassandra Campbell, Tom Taylorson, and Jorjeana Marie on July 28, 2015 by Blackstone Audio, Inc.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

"Barbara the Slut and Other People" by Lauren Holmes

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 local library through Overdrive.

This debut story collection was a joy. I read it, or really listened to it, quickly, all in one sitting on a Wednesday morning while snuggling with my dog & waiting for my packed day to begin at noon. (This is the benefit of having a school schedule that concentrates classes and meetings in the afternoons, but a dog who wakes up at 7am - lots of lazy morning read time.)

It opens with "How Am I Supposed to Talk to You?" the story of a college-aged woman returning to Mexico to come out to her mother, who she has not visited in years.  As the main character sells Victoria's Secret underwear on the beach with her mom and meets her mother's new boyfriend (who doesn't know her mother speaks English), she struggles to figure out her place in her mother's life, and where this relationship fits amid the other close relationships with her life. From this story, I was hooked.

The two standout stories for me were "My Humans," about a relationship from the vantage point of the couple's dog, and "Desert Hearts," about a recent law school graduate who pretends she's a lesbian to get a job selling sex toys. Each story in this collection has a unique perspective to offer, and many center, or at least touch, on 20- and 30-somethings' relationships & sex. Holmes has a funny streak that brings an extra element of truth & reality to her stories.

Verdict: Affirmed. For people looking to try short stories, this is a fresh, fun collection that will serve as an easy & enjoyable entry point.

"Barbara the Slut and Other People" by Lauren Holmes, published August 4, 2015 by Riverhead Books. Audio narration by Jorjeana Marie, published August 31, 2015 by Tantor Audio.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

"The Library at Mount Char" by Scott Hawkins

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

If you follow me on Goodreads, you may have seen me gush about this fantastic gem of a novel. My exact mid-book quote was "This is the most wonderful, weird adventure of a book I've read this year." The second half delivered, and I will be shocked if this book isn't on my best of the year list. When I finished it on audio, I wanted to go out and buy a copy and start reading it in print immediately (and can finally do so since it comes out in paperback today!).

It's a hard book to describe, and not knowing much about the plot served me well. It added to the general sense of wonder and mystery that permeated the book. But for the curious, a baseline plot: Carolyn lives in the Library with Father, who adopted her and her eleven siblings. Each sibling studies intensely under Father's instruction, specializing in a different area of study. They do not mix their studies. Yet recently, Father has gone missing. Carolyn must go to America, as the sibling who can acclimate best to Americans' customs and habits, and try to discover where he went and what are the implications for the Library and her siblings.

That summary makes the book sound far more linear and clear than it is, though. Hawkins drops you into the story, and you gradually learn about the siblings, their specializations, and the world they inhabit. Hence the sense of wonder and mystery. There's a great big dose of adventure and action, even if you don't always know how it connects to the Library right away. As the novel drives on, everything comes together in a tight, impeccably plotted conclusion.

Verdict: Affirmed. I loved this book & can't wait for others to read it so we can discuss. I look forward to reading what Scott Hawkins does next. Audio narration is also on point.

"The Library at Mount Char" by Scott Hawkins, published June 16, 2015 by Crown; audio narration by Hillary Huber, published June 16, 2015 by HighBridge.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

"So You've Been Publicly Shamed" by Jon Ronson

In "So You've Been Publicly Shamed," Jon Ronson explores a timely, highly-relevant topic as more and more people post more and more about their lives on the internet. He delves into the phenomenon of mass-internet shaming that seems to be ruining people's lives more and more frequently.

Ronson's book opens with several stories that will be familiar to internet users - a woman whose racist tweet went viral while she was out of contact on an airplane and had lost her job before she landed; another woman whose disrespectful photograph of an inside joke spread outside her Facebook friends and also cost her her job; a race car driver whose sexual escapades were made public and who managed to save his reputation. Through these stories and historical and psychological research, Ronson examines why and how societies shame and what effect that shaming has on its targets and on society itself.

The subject matter itself is fascinating. Layered on top of this is a compelling narrative structure. Ronson set out to investigate an instance of public shaming, and ended up delving far deeper. He thought he was telling one story: how someone came to be publicly shamed and what happened to their life after. In researching and telling this story, his belief in the benefits of public shaming were shaken to their core. He admits he has personally participated in internet shaming and felt justified in doing so. Over the course of researching and writing this book, Ronson changes his mind on the utility of public shaming and recognizes the harm it does to the target and society. His frankness about the changing of his own mind adds extra opportunity for readers to reflect on their own internet use and beliefs around this topic. The book ends with a compelling call to reflect on what shaming accomplishes and for a shift toward more respectful, compassionate dialogue that goes broader and deeper than a single viral incident.

Verdict: Affirmed. This book is a must-read for any internet user - the more of your life that you put online, and the more you participate in the internet as a discussion forum and society of its own, the more important and relevant this book is to your life.

"So You've Been Publicly Shamed" by Jon Ronson, published March 31, 2015 by Riverhead Books.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

"Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness" by Susannah Cahalan

Our book club was looking for a short, quick read after "Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides. One member suggested "Brain on Fire" and it was quite the hit. Several members read it in a single day.

Susannah Cahalan was a successful journalist with the New York Post when she suddenly lost her mind at age 24. Over the course of just a couple weeks, she went from living independently in her Hell's Kitchen Studio to a functional commitment to the epilepsy ward of New York University Langone Medical Center. Doctors came and went, trying to figure out what was causing her fits, outbursts, hallucinations, and severely impaired speech and movement.

Part medical mystery, part personal discovery, Susannah rebuilds the month she doesn't remember from video footage from the epilepsy ward and writings and recollections from her friends, family, and doctors. Her journalist background serves her well, and its fingerprints are seen on her investigative skills and writing style. We know she survives, because she went on to write the book, but the book still manages to maintain a sense of mystery around the cause of her illness & the extent to which she will recover. The writing is fast-paced and easy to read, letting the fascinating subject matter shine through. Cahalan's breaking down of medical terms and concepts so that the average reader can understand them is particularly impressive.

Verdict: Affirmed. This was a hugely popular book club pick, with nearly everyone finishing it! As we're all close enough to Cahalan's age at the time, much of the book hit close to home. Quite a few of us were thoroughly spooked by the time we finished the book.

"Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness" by Susannah Cahalan, published November 13, 2012 by Free Press.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

"Winter" by Marissa Meyer

The conclusion to The Lunar Chronicles lives up to the rest of the series, even though it's considerably longer. The rest of the review will have spoilers for the rest of the series, so read no further if you want to avoid them.

"Winter" brings the fight to Luna, and it really is a book of war. This war has been brewing since "Cinder," and I admire Meyer's ability to bring everything to a plausible head in just four books (and a prequel novella). Even so, I was a bit bored by the battle scenes, but that's a personal preference more than anything else. I would have liked to see them summarized and edited down, especially since the book is so long already, but I can see how other readers would appreciate the detail and explanations of exactly how it all comes together.

Winter has a focus character is interesting, as her refusal to use the Lunar gift is driving her mad. She's aware of this, and her internal struggle with her madness and how it impacts those around her is a central theme. It's also a great counterpoint to the struggles Cinder has with her decision about whether, when, and how to use her gift. There's a lot to unpack with this particular version of mind control, and it's a strong example of what elevates this series above a standard YA series.

Like the earlier entries, this book also does a great job tying in the threads and characters readers know & love from previous books. Wolf has a particularly strong arc this novel, as he faces his Lunar trainers/captors/army superiors again and must cling to his humanity in the face of renewed conditioning.

Of course there's a happily-ever-after ending, these are fairy tale re-tellings after all. I didn't think "Winter" was the strongest installment in the series, but it was a fitting conclusion and gave a satisfying resolution to all characters and plot lines. At this point, I'd be more interested in prequels of the generation before this than a continuation of the main plot.

Verdict: Affirmed. The series is well worth your time, as I've said in every review so far. I highly recommend it for fantasy, science fiction, and fairy tale fans. Audio narration is great on the entire series, and the story lends itself well to that format.

"Winter" by Marissa Meyer, published November 10, 2015 by Feiwel and Friends. Audio narration by Rebecca Soler, published November 10, 2015.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"The Turner House" by Angela Flournoy

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

Despite the very favorable buzz around this book last year, and the generosity of the publisher in approving my review copy request, I didn't get around to this book until recently. And what a shame!

"The Turner House" is the story of the 13 Turner siblings and their mother & family matriarch, Viola. As Viola ages and faces moving in with her eldest son, the family must decide what to do with her house on Yarrow Street in Detroit. This is the home in which they all grew up, but it is 2008 and it is now worth a tiny fraction of its outstanding debt. Each sibling has their own life, family, and problems with which to cope. 

Flournoy balances these distinct narratives and melds them into a cohesive whole. The novel bounces in time, telling siblings' stories and connections to the house, and that of the relationship between Viola and her husband Francis. This gives the novel a sprawling, epic feel within its 350 pages, and offers readers a glimpse into the history of Detroit. This portrait of a family is well drawn - the individual members are interesting in their own right, and the family dynamics and squabbles ring true.

Verdict: Affirmed. Out in paperback today, this book will resonate strongly with readers of literary and historical fiction, and those who enjoy inter-generational tales. The audio narration by Adenrele Ojo is also excellent, if that's your preferred format.

"The Turner House" by Angela Flournoy, published April 14, 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Audio narration by Adenrele Ojo, published April 15, 2015 by Blackstone Audio, Inc. Paperback published March 1, 2016 by Mariner.