23 October 2012

Book Reviews: Vacation reading!

Image not mine. Found here
So many of my recent posts have been dedicated to travel that it feels really good to get back to a few old-fashioned book reviews. Here are the books that I started and/or finished reading while on vacation earlier this month:

1. Safekeeping by Karen Hesse. My coworker, Marika, gave me an ARC of this one with the suggestion that I might like it, and she was mostly right. It's the story of a girl named Radley, an only child who has almost everything, who is volunteering in Haiti when there's a presidential assassination and a coup d'etat back home in the US. She flies back home to New England right away, but when her parents don't show up at the airport to pick her up, she decides to make her way there on foot. It's a martial law scene of rampant looting and pillaging, and it's illegal to cross state lines without papers. Radley finally makes it to her parents' house but nobody is there and she's too scared to trust anybody enough to ask what happened. Eventually she starts walking north to the Canadian border and she meets another young girl on the run, and they form an uneasy alliance.  They make it to Canada with several near-misses and take shelter in an abandoned school house, where a lonely widow looks out for them without being too obvious about it--she doesn't want to spook the girls into running again.  After a few months, Radley sees news that the situation in the US is better and she gets safe passage back home again, where she discovers her parents have been dead since before she left Haiti.

The book is scattered throughout with Hesse's photographs, but I thought they were more a distraction to the store than an enhancement. The writing is serviceable and Radley is largely believable, but the book feels like it is three incomplete stories jammed together to make a full-length novel.  Fleshing the three storylines out and using better transitions than the photos would create a more satisfying read.

Attachments Attachments by Rainbow Rowell. This one I picked up because there's a distinct possibility that Reading Rambo would disavow all interwebs friendship with me if I didn't. It's a fun and light read of two friends who work at the same newspaper. Beth and Jennifer are smart and funny, and more than half of this book comprises their emails back & forth to each other. The internet is a newish thing at the time the book is set, which is why Lincoln also has a job at the paper. He's the IT guy who runs a crack programming team to avoid the Y2K problems and who is also the gatekeeper of all illegal email activity. Company email with suspicious words or phrases is flagged into Lincoln's email box so he can monitor it and give out warnings to employees who are abusing the no-personal-email rule.

Naturally he falls in love with Beth through her emails. He's a tall, dishy self-identified geek who lives with his mom and has a standing Friday night gaming date with his college buds. And Beth and Jennifer start to mildly obsess over Cute Guy, whom they spot from time to time at work but don't really know what he does. When he turns out to also be Nice and a Shining-Armor-Wearing-Knight, it's time to swoon. But wait--how can confess his love to Beth without seeming like a creepy, stalking-you-by-email loser? Ahh, good times.  A good beach read.

The Revised Fundamentals of CaregivingThe Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison. It seems interesting to me that in the last few weeks I've read two books and seen one very fine film about caregivers and their patients.  While this book was pretty good and I'm glad I read it, it was the one for which I cared least among the three. It's the story of Benjamin Benjamin, a man who is no longer a father or a husband, and Trevor, the young man with MD entrusted to his care. The cover compares it to Little Miss Sunshine, so I was sold on it.

The last 50 pages or so really made the book worthwhile for me--that's where I finally really clicked with the story.  The big reveal behind Ben's tragedy, when it finally comes, is almost anticlimactic and not very revealing at all.  Tragic, to be sure, but since the narrator natters on and on about every single little thing, I was expecting more than just those 3-4 explanatory sentences about the car and the cliff.

The Dinner by Hermann Koch. Holy crap, but was I ever unprepared for this book! I read an uncorrected proof with NO book description whatsoever--the opening chapter made me think it was set in L.A., featuring famous bougie-type people.  Couldn't have been more wrong. This book defines "unreliable narrator" and while it gets off to a slow start, before too long, it pretty much knocks you over the head with disturbing images and plot. It was totally insidious the way this book worked on me.  To say more would, I think, do a disservice to the reader. It's an anti-beach read, so that might explain why it took me so long to work my way through this slim book, but I mostly read it at night before falling asleep, which was a better atmosphere than reading it on a sunny beach.

Not exceptionally written (or perhaps it was in the translation) but this book is dark and underhanded and extremely interesting. It's translated from the Dutch and will be published by Hogarth Press in 2013.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
ARC cover
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. This one is tied with The Dinner for the best book I read on vacation. Okay, imagine if Jasper Fforde had written The Name of the Rose and placed it in a 21st century setting. Throw in a secret society of bibliophiles that dates back to Aldus and the incunabula. Now populate it with a mysterious bookshop owner, a brilliant Google maven who believes the secret to immortality lies in unlocking the codes to traditional knowledge, and a fantasy-reading, computer programming bookseller who discovers than a venerable typeface might be the answer everybody is looking for.

Seriously, it's a trip to read. Very funny and clever. If you're at all interested in the history of printing and bookmaking, typography & design, mysteries, pop culture, or Google, give this book a spin.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Finished book cover

NB: Check out the difference in the ARC cover from the finished copy. The actual book cover glows in the dark and is really, really cool. Another reason to buy the physical book and not the e-book!

NB part deux: All of the books I read were in ARC format, and I either requested them from the publisher or they were sent unsolicited. 


  1. Michael, let me know if you want to borrow my copy to read!

  2. WooHoo!!! Thanks for the many suggestions. My local library will be busy locating them for me.

  3. I'm adding Penumbra to my WishList as well...you piqued my curiosity with The Dinner but I'm almost too scared to give it a go :p

  4. I loved "The Dinner" and put life (well dull stuff like ironing) on hold until I finished it. Going to order Mr P ASAP. Also enjoyed "Mr Churchill's Secretary" (thanks for the review), sometimes it's so good to have a lighter read and I am drawn to this period of history.
    PS My husband would KILL me if we had that many books - he doesn't get it - you are so lucky!

  5. Man, Do I wish I had another parallel life so that I could read all that I want to read! I do find comfort in the fact that you're reading so much "good" stuff.

    May I share with you what's been keeping me from reading and commenting on blogs lately?

    "This Restless Life: a study of Central Coast California parks through photography, interpretive collage and stories" is a book project of which I'm in the midst. If you have the time and the inclination, would you take a look at my short video at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1778487749/this-restless-life?ref=email to learn more about the project? If you like the project, would you share it with your network of friends and family? Thank you sincerely. (I have a link to the video at the top of my blog page too.)

  6. I need to read THE DINNER. I love everything Hogarth does and this sounds amazing!

  7. I recently read Mr. Penumbra myself. What a wonderful story! I think it will be one of the few books that I love enough to buy and re-read.

  8. Sounds like The Dinner and Mr. Penumbra are must reads. I do love that bright sunny color of the Penumbra cover.

  9. My dear Emily,

    YOU SAVED US! We have listened to OK For Today for the past few days of hard driving. I never wanted it to end. Thank you, thank you. Now today, as we head to the birding festival in Florida, we'll start the one we bought.

    I am also knee deep in Eudora Welty right now. I love her. Anyhow, we have reservations for the tour of her home and gardens, which I'll post on my blog. I can't wait and will be thinking of you.

    Thanks again,


    P.S. Book tour going well, especially when in conjunction with events. Had a lovely one and signing in Southern Pines, North Carolina through the Country Book Store.

    1. So glad you're enjoying the audio book. I loved that one, and I'm not lying. :)

      It's been a few years since I've seen Miss Welty's gardens, but I'll be in Jackson next month for a long weekend, so maybe I can go back again.

  10. Do you have any suggestions about how to promote my kickstarter book project Emily?

  11. Attachments was fun. I'm glad to have read it for a quick. light break. I have Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore on request from the library. I've been reading good things about it, but it might be too quirky for me, we'll see.


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