Thursday, April 28, 2016

"The Book of Speculation" by Erika Swyler

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

For some reason, when I read descriptions of this book, the circus and eerie, magical elements of this book didn't jump out at me. What I remembered about the descriptions was mainly that Simon is a librarian in a small town, living in a crumbling house, who is given a mysterious book. All true, but far less interesting than this book actually is.I missed the parts that would have made me read this much, much sooner - namely, that it alternates between the present-day and the past, with the portions set in the past taking place in a traveling circus that has implications for the main character, his family, and his book.

So, Simon is in the present, tracing the history of this book & worrying about his sister who recently returned home after running away with a circus herself. Back in history, we meet the crew of a traveling circus and the young "wild boy" who comes to live and perform with them. This wild boy is trained by the circus's fortune teller, who warns him against the young, enchanting "mermaid" who entertains spectators by holding her breath. Simon tries to make the connections and figure out how his family came to be in this book. In the past, the circus reels from new developments among its members. As Simon pieces together the history of the book & readers figure out how the traveling circus is connected, Simon must figure out how to avert disaster in the present that stems from his family's history.

This quirky book sparkles with magic lying beneath the surface. It sneaks up on the reader - I didn't realize I was dealing with a bit of magical realism until it had already ensnared me and had me pondering odd coincidences and warnings of tarot cards on their own terms. The audio narration was excellent, with Ari Flaikos capturing Simon's frustration, bewilderment, and curiosity throughout the novel, even when listening on 1.5 speed. This was just the audiobook to take my mind off finals while walking the dog & I'm glad I finally got around to it.

Verdict: Affirmed. I only wish I had gotten to this dark, offbeat family saga sooner.

"The Book of Speculation" by Erika Swyler, published June 23, 2015 by St. Martin's Press. Audio narration by Ari Kliakos, published June 23, 2015 by Macmillan Audio.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte

Similar to my experience with "Pride & Prejudice," I somehow made it through high school & college without ever reading "Jane Eyre." We did "Wuthering Heights" my senior year, and I wasn't a fan, so I never went back to the other Brontes. Oops. On Charlotte Bronte's 200th birthday, I (& my DC book club) figured it was time to check out this classic.

Gothic novels still aren't really my thing - the melodrama, the random ghosts and spirits, the nature-as-a-perfect-mirror-for-characters'-emotions all grate on me as I read. I'd also be fine if they cut out the first third of the book and started with 18-year-old Jane instead of annoyingly precocious 10-year-old Jane. But despite these faults, I still found a lot in Jane Eyre to appreciate.

First and foremost, Jane's feminism is great. Compared to other 19th-century novel there are few allowances that need to be made for conventions of the time. Instead, Jane can and will take care of herself, stay true to what she wants, and recognizes that women need as much "exercise for their faculties" as men. I'm talking exclusively about Jane Eyre - the other female characters and their stations in life warrant a more thorough discussion than I'm willing to tackle in a short blog post the week before finals. But Jane, as irritating as I found her as a child in the several chapters, is an admirable heroine who I am glad to have spent time with.

The men in her life? Not so much. I'm not a fan of any of them. I'm Team Jane-Runs-Her-Own-School-Like-A-Boss, and not Team Rochester (and definitely not Team St. John, though I'm not sure that's even worth mentioning). But our book club had a good time discussing whether Rochester is really that great & what her other options could have been. Jane gets to do her own thing, and if her own thing is being with Rochester, I have to be OK with that.

Finally, the last third of this book had twists that just kept coming. I knew some pretty basic plot elements going into this novel, but there were enough unexpected turns that I tore through the last hundred pages or so. Even the points that seemed so unlikely was redeemed by the interesting twists and plot developments they brought along. I'm not sure a re-read would deliver as pleasurable an experience, though, since the late twists redeemed a lot of the earlier, more boring bits.

Verdict: Affirmed for a first time read, but Jury's Out on whether I'll re-visit this on my own.

"Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte, originally published October 16, 1847. I read the Puffin Classics edition published in 1994 in print and the free Kindle version published May 12, 2012. I also listened to a small amount of the Susan Ericksen narration, published February 3, 2015 by The Classic Collection.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

"The Expatriates" by Janice Y.K. Lee

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.

When I saw the description of "The Expatriates" on NetGalley, I knew this was a book for me. Intimate portrayals of three American women living abroad? Yes. Their stories intertwine? Even better.

Mercy, Margaret, and Hilary live in Hong Kong. Mercy floundered after graduating from college, and found herself pursuing work in Hong Kong when she was priced out of New York City. Margaret lives with her children and husband and is struggling to cope after tragedy besets their family while on a trip to Korea. Hilary moved to Hong Kong for her husband's job, and is feeling the weight and strain on their relationship of their inability to have children. In the surprisingly small Hong Kong expat community, these women interact and their lives become inextricably intertwined in unexpected ways.

Lee does a great job getting into the heads of these three women, drawing out their unique personalities that shape how they address the same concerns and challenges. With women at different stages in their lives, the reader sees different expat experiences that accompany different life stages. The novel offers a peek into a the world of Americans living abroad, and into the touching, heartbreaking private moments in the lives of these three women. The audio narration is also on point, bringing each of these characters to life.

Verdict: Affirmed, an enjoyable read, and a great pick for book clubs.

"The Expatriates" by Janice Y.K. Lee, published January 12, 2016 by Viking. Audio narration by Ann Marie Lee, published January 12, 2016 by Penguin Audio.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

"Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg" by Irin Carmen and Shana Knizhnik

As a female law student, and at RBG's alma mater nonetheless, I am embarrassed by my previous lack of knowledge regarding Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I knew her as an admirable, inspiring Justice, but hadn't given much thought to her career prior to the Court beyond vaguely assuming it was impressive. "Notorious RBG" set me straight.

RBG has dedicated her career to advocating for women. She argued six gender equality cases before the Supreme Court, winning five of them, and was an architect of the legal fight for true gender equality. It's an issue about which she still cares deeply, as can be seen in her ringing dissents. Full of facts and fun trivia (RBG took a European Literature course taught by Vladimir Nabokov, author of "Lolita" while at Cornell!), "Notorious RBG" provides insight into RBG's life, both public and private.

The authors are a journalist and the founder of the Notorious RBG tumblr, who was a law student at the time. They write simply - middle school children could read, understand, and be inspired by this biography. Yet, adults will still learn from RBG's life and be entertained by the authors' light approach. RBG's briefs and opinions are helpfully annotated for the non-legal reader, and the authors interviewed dozens of people close to RBG including former clerks, colleagues. They even fact-checked with RBG herself.  Readers with a legal background may find it too simplified, but I found the conversational tone & lighthearted approach made for a fast, enjoyable read.

Verdict: Affirmed. If you also have an embarrassing gap in your RBG knowledge or are looking to be inspired by an incredible, history-making figure, check this one out.

"Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg" by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, published Oct. 27, 2015 by Dey Street Books.