26 March 2014

Reprise: Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I'm off to Nashville, y'all. Home of the imitation Parthenon, country music and my husband's extended family, among other things. I'm trying really hard to post twice a week to the blog, so what follows is my original review of Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, which I first read book back in August 2012.  I'm updating this review to include some information about the audio book, which I have recently listened to.  When I first read Bernadette, which I really liked, I claimed that it was the right book for me at the right time. Now, however, I might go so far as to say that it was simply the right book, full stop.  A book that I liked a couple of years ago has now become one of my favorite audio book experiences.  I absolutely loved it and I had several moments where I lingered in my car long after reaching my destination, just to stay immersed in the story.

Summary (from Goodreads): Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom. 
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic. To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.

Oddly enough, I don't think this summary does much for the book, but two of the blurbs on it really work for me. Garth Stein says that it is "a compassionate look at family dysfunction, the paralysis of genius, and good old-fashioned parental love" and Jonathan Franzen "tore through this book with heedless pleasure." I had just finished reading a slew of YA books, I was hungry for some adult fare, and I had just a big enough gap of time to let myself indulge in some bookseller's guilt. That's right. I read a book that was already published, albeit recently (two weeks ago). 

Structurally the book is cobbled together, ostensibly by 15 year old Bee, from various emails, letters, and notes, with occasional first-person interjections from Bee to give a sense of cohesion. Usually I hate this kind of narrative structure, but the informality of the novel makes for a surprisingly good pairing. The epistolary excerpts are all written to, from, or are tangentially related to Bernadette, and my favorite parts were either those written by the heinous Audrey Griffin, Bernadette's neighbor and gnat-nemesis, or the ones Bernadette herself writes to Manjula Kapoor, the woman in India whom she hires to be her outsourced personal assistant.

You know how sometimes a book can come to you at just the right time and you really click with it?  And that same book, if you'd read it a month ago or a year in the future, might not have resonated with you at all?  That's how I feel about Where'd You Go, Bernadette. For whatever reason, I read this book at the right time and had so much fun doing it, but I also had the sense while reading it that if I'd come at it another time I would have simply put it down, unfinished.  Parts of it are incredibly funny, and I loved the send-up of the Seattle scene, that certain brand of parenting characterized by the "gnats," east coast elitism, Microsoft, the MacArthur genius grant, people's deep earnestness to be PC and inclusive, and everything else.

Is it realistic? Heavens, no! But I can forgive a book a good many things if it makes me laugh. There were lots of parts that I enjoyed but oddly enough I only dogeared one section. It's from a letter Bernadette has written to Manjula, asking her to make a Thanksgiving dinner reservation for her family. Clearly Bernadette realizes that it's pretty outlandish to email a person in India to call a restaurant in her own neighborhood for a reservations, so she gives equally outlandish reasons for doing so:
"There's always this guy who answers the phone...and he always says it in this friendly, flat Canadian way. One of the main reasons I don't like leaving the house is because I might find myself face-to-face with a Canadian. Seattle is crawling with them. You probably think, U.S./Canada, they're interchangeable because they're both filled with English-speaking, morbidly obese white people. Well, Manjula, you couldn't be more mistaken.
Americans are pushy, obnoxious, neurotic, crass--anything and everything--the full catastrophe as our friend Zorba might say. Canadians are none of that....To Canadians, everyone is equal. Joni Mitchell is interchangeable with a secretary at open-mic night. Frank Gehry is no greater than a hack pumping out McMansions on AutoCAD. John Candy is no funnier than Uncle Lou when he gets a couple of beers in him. No wonder the only Canadians anyone's ever heard of are the ones who have gotten the hell out. Anyone with a talent who stayed would be flattened under an avalanche of equality. The thing Canadians don't understand is that some people are extraordinary and should be treated accordingly. 
Yes, I'm done (26-27)."
Bernadette is full of rants just like that. I kind of love her, and I kind of want to slap her, but I don't see those things as being mutually exclusive. This book is both wry and funny with a postmodern, sly humor. I can't think of any truly great comps, but it falls somewhere along the spectrum of Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang, Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You, and Rachel DeWoskin's Big Girl Small. It's not a book that has tremendous lasting power, and I'm a little surprised that it clicked so strongly with me in the moment, but like the Stones said, if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.

(end of original review)
The audio book is read by Kathleen Wilhoite, and I'll be honest with you: I didn't like her at first. Not at all.  By the time I came to the end, however, I was very impressed with Ms Wilhoite's rendering of the various characters (a few New Zealanders not withstanding). I laughed out loud so many times when listening to this book, which I expected since I laughed many times while reading it.  What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the number of times I wanted to cry while listening to it, since the book didn't have that effect on me at all. I was also completely caught up in Bee's excitement over things, and with Bernadette's anguish over the Twenty Mile House (you'll just have to read/listen to know what I mean) and the sheer ridiculosity, for lack of a better word, that just keeps on building and building until that particular bubble bursts. 

Seriously, I ended up loving this book on audio, to the point where I actually gave it a 5-star rating on Goodreads. I rarely do that. Hachette has recently lowered the price on the unabridged audio to just $14.99, so I bought one for myself and I encourage everybody who loves audio books to rush out now and buy it for yourself at that price. 

The only caveat I have for the audio is that if you're listening to it without having read it first, you will have to really pay attention to the epistolary parts: in other words, who is writing to whom. I occasionally skimmed over that in the book and had to go back to look things up, which is clearly more difficult to do with an audio.  

So, I'm curious.  Any of you readers have different experiences when reading vs listening to a book?  I know I read differently when I'm reading an e-book vs a physical book, so I guess it shouldn't come as quite the surprise to me that listening and reading engage different parts of the mind. 

24 March 2014

Three Mini Reviews: Literary Fiction

Well, I had three lovely mini-reviews all written out to my satisfaction.  I had them saved and ready to post on Monday morning. And now they're all gone.  I am supremely unhappy with Blogger and Google. To say that I am feeling quite put out would be to engage in careless understatement.  But I will try to retrieve them from my memory, if not from my bloody computer, and re-create them for you.

The whole reason I was doing three mini-reviews is because of how little time I have left in March: I have to go to Boston on Sunday for the Boston Gift Show for work, I have to drive to Albany on Tuesday to talk about books on the radio with the good folks at WAMC, and then on Wednesday I leave for Nashville for four nights with my husband to visit Vanderbilt, Ann Patchett, Parnassus Books, and my husband's nephews, not necessarily in that order.

Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi is one heckuva novel.  I started reading it back in January during Tika's minithon and became enthralled. Oyeyemi takes the Snow White fairy tale as a jumping off point for exploring a small 1950s town in Massachusetts. Boy, our narrator, has just escaped a terrible living situation in New York City and has gone off to seek her fortune on the train. Her narrative voice reminded me quite a bit of Katey Kontent's from Rules of Civility. In other words, she is self-assured, a little less worldly than she'd like her readers to think, bright, a little grating, a wee bit unreliable, and perhaps just the tiniest bit on the make.

Boy marries a man and becomes stepmother to Snow, a beautiful child. But when Boy has a daughter of her own, Bird is born with dark skin and it becomes clear to Boy that her husband and step daughter are Passing for White. This revelation unleashes the inner wicked step-mother in Boy, and the rest is mostly history. Oyeyemi stands things on their heads, the entire time stunning the reader with peerless prose. What is identity? What is beauty? What does it mean to be the fairest of them all?

I was so impressed with this book that it became my store's March selection for its signed First Editions Club.  But don't just take our word for it: read this review from the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review and see why other readers can see the rising international literary star that is Helen Oyeyemi.

I feel similar warmth towards Dinaw Mengestu's new novel, All Our Names, which I also first started reading at the same minithon as Boy, Snow Bird. Before I say anything about the novel, I first have to quote from The Millions: "A MacArthur genius, a 5 Under 35 awardee, and a 20 Under 40 recipient all walk into a bar and take a single seat because it's one person and his name is Dinaw Mengestu." Seriously, why aren't you reading him?  He is, without a doubt, the hottest ticket writing in the English language today.

Isaac (which may or may not be his real name), an immigrant from Ethiopia, by way of Uganda, and Helen, his social worker in a small unnamed college town in the American midwest of the early 1970s, are our two narrators.  They may or may not be in love; they are certainly a couple, but being in love implies a passion that neither one is really capable of showing, at least not there, at least not then. Isaac may or may not have been involved with the government overthrown in Uganda; Helen may or may not be deluding herself that life is satisfactory for her and that she and Isaac have a future together.  Very little is what it seems on the surface of this novel, and that's the brilliant subtlety of Mengestu's writing. He writes between the spoken and the unspoken. His characters live between present and the past. And their lives are haunted by the living and the dead.

I didn't pick up on this as I was reading the novel, but when Mengestu was at my store last week, he touched on the parallels between America and much of Africa during the early 1970s.  Both places had just undergone periods of major upheaval in the previous decade--the Civil Rights era of the US, the anti-colonial movement in much of Africa--and yet those years were also marked by hope and idealism. By the time the 1970s rolled around, the hope had given way to disillusionment in both places.

Mengestu's new novel is also a pick for my store's signed First Editions Club.  I couldn't have been prouder to welcome him to South Hadley.

I first requested a copy of Violet Kupersmith's short story collectionn, The Frangipani Hotel, when I heard that the author was a 2011 graduate of Mount Holyoke College. My interest stayed piqued, however, once I delved into the stories themselves. Kupersmith takes traditional ghost stories of Vietnam and re-creates them in a modern setting.The blend of supernatural lore and the country's history wouldn't be complete without the presence of that other, all-pervasive specter: the Vietnam war.

Most of the stories take place in Vietnam, either the countryside or in Ho Chi Minh city, and while the ghosts take many forms, they seem comfortable interacting with Vietnamese and visitors alike. The blend of creepiness and whimsy is balanced perfectly, and I love what publisher Cindy Spiegel writes in the note to the reader at the front of my advance reading copy: the spirits are "as ordinary as the neighbor next door, and yet they carry with them the weight of history in the Vietnamese immigrant experiences and are informed by a rich storytelling tradition."

I don't read much horror, and this isn't Horror with a Capital H anyway, but the more subtle, slowly-get-under-your-skin variety. If you've read the excellent story collection by Yoko Ogawa called Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, you'll have an idea of what to expect, but whereas those stories weren't really rooted in the specific culture of Japan, Kupersmith's are richly evocative of the atmosphere of Vietnam.

NB: I read all three of these books in advance reading copy form, which were provided upon my request from the publishers: Viking, Knopf, and Spiegel & Grau, respectively. The first two books are available now and the last one will be published on April 1, 2014. No foolin'. 

20 March 2014

Book Review: The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals

You know how sometimes you see a book cover, or you read a title, or occasionally you see the two in tandem, and you think, "I've got a good feeling about this"?  Well, that is precisely how I felt upon seeing this book for the first time.  I mean, just look at it.  How can a book with a title and cover like that not be just the most delicious thing?

It turns out that my expectations for what this book contains and what it actually contains are two very different things. The title is so ridiculous that I was expecting a lot more humor, quirky situations, a great ensemble cast of characters, and perhaps an ending whose poignancy would take me by surprise. Basically, I was expecting something rather like Oscar Wilde meets The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  What I got was a lot more like Thomas Hardy meets The Remains of the Day, but with fewer pages. Which is obviously still a pretty good thing, but not what I happened to be expecting.

The novel opens at a picnic in the village of Narberth in Wales in 1924. So far, so good.  It's been a little quiet, a little awkward, as Wilfred doesn't have much experience with young ladies, and he's never seen a butter-yellow dress such as the one Grace is wearing. He's been brought up properly, so he knows he cannot let his gaze linger on inappropriate places on her person, and yet for the life of him, he yearns to know how she can take that dress off, it's so fitted around the bodice, with no buttons going up the back.  Grace catches him off-guard, staring at her, and instead of asking what he really wants to know (which is clearly improper), he instead asks her to marry him. Uh, oh.  Worse, Grace says yes.

Awkward, that. And by the time Wilfred muster up the courage to tell Grace that he didn't actually intend to propose, and that it's ridiculous to get married after going on one picnic, Grace has told her parents, and the whole village knows.

Clearly author Wendy Jones has laid the perfect groundwork for a comedy of manners, but she takes the book in an entirely different direction. I'm not saying that Wilfred Price is devoid of humor altogether, but it is definitely not a distinguishing characteristic of this novel. It's far more a tragedy of predestination, where the characters' secrets are burdens that can never be lightened and whose utter lack of birthright, by dint of gender or class, dictates the course of their lives.

Grace is pregnant after being raped but knows she cannot go to her parents or the magistrate about it, so  marriage to Wilfred would be her saving grace. Wilfred has fallen in love with somebody else who lost her fiancee in the Great War, but not only is he honor-bound to marry Grace now, his and his da's livelihood depend on it. You see, in a village like Narberth and for miles around, no righteous family would trust their dearly departed loved ones to a man who abandoned his own fiancee and her baby.

More than anything, Wilfred Price is a novel about limited horizons and a time when what your neighbors thought of you was more important than pursuing your own happiness. It's a good novel but overall a pretty sobering one. The jacket flap tells me that the producers of Downton Abbey have optioned the rights to this novel to create a mini series, which I look forward to viewing.

NB: The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals, by Wendy Jones, was published in February 2014 in the US by Europa, though it has been available for some time in the UK already. I read a copy that was sent to me by the publisher at my request.

17 March 2014

Book Review: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I'm not sure why, but when I heard last year that Sue Monk Kidd would be publishing her novel in January of this year, I wasn't especially excited about it.  I'd read The Secret Life of Bees and liked it pretty well, so I'm uncertain where this feeling of disinterest stemmed from, other than after dissecting Kathryn Stockett's book, The Help,  I was a little leery of another one of those Southern novels where white women become the heroes in the story of black women's struggle. (Full disclosure: I loved The Help but I was fully aware after reading just how much the author had appropriated someone else's story in a not-so-nice way.)

But then I read a review of The Invention of Wings on Alice's blog, Reading Rambo, and it totally changed my mind about this book. For starters, Alice gave me a better understanding of what the book was about--I'd no idea, for example, that the Grimke sisters in this book were actual historical figures of great import in the abolitionist and proto-feminist movements. The thing is, these Grimke sisters did some pretty kick-ass things, so how is it that I'd never heard of them before reading Alice's review and then reading this book? In fact, I'm pretty sure my review here is mostly just gonna be a summary of the story and how much I liked it, so please read Alice's review to get a better sense of things. She's way funnier than I am and you'll enjoy it more. She's basically already said everything I want to say anyway, including excerpting one of the same passages that I'm going to use and commenting on how the Australian book cover is infinitely superior to the US one.

So, The Invention of Wings opens in Charleston in 1803 and is told in alternating points of view from Sarah Grimke, a daughter of one of the city's most prominent families, and Hetty/Handful, the little slave girl who is given to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. I don't know if it's white guilt, or our contemporary inability to truly grasp the horrors of slavery, or the general disinclination of writers to describe terrible things happening to children, but Sue Monk Kidd avoids the temptations to backpedal that other writers before have succumbed to.

In other words, she doesn't simplify the relationship between Sarah and Handful, even when they are children. In their own words:
Handful: "It was hard to know where things stood. People say love gets fouled by a difference big as ours. I didn't know for sure whether Miss Sarah's feelings came from love or guilt. I didn't know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It was never a simple thing (54)."
 Sarah: "I saw then what I hadn't seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I'd lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I'd grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There's a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it (115)."
Sarah's first act of defiance is to try to free Handful on the first night she's been given to her, but her family, who owned seventeen slaves in their Charleston house alone, not counting the ones working on their Low Country plantation, will not hear of it. Her second act of defiance is teaching Handful how to read, and these bold courses of action as a girl lay the groundwork for the woman she eventually becomes.

Handful, on the other hand, keeps a weather eye out for Sarah's mother, a rather harsh mistress, and learns at her mauma Charlotte's right hand how to sew and how to channel the feelings of rage and impotence that are a slave's birthright into something productive: making a story quilt and secreting money away to buy their freedom. Charlotte, clever and talented in equal measure, gets up to her own acts of defiance until one day she's caught, with truly terrible consequences.

Sarah's and Handful's chapters alternate seamlessly, and Kidd serves both voices well. Eventually both girls grow up and their lives take on radically different directions; Sarah's to the North, where she falls in with the Quakers, and Handful's to the new, radical African Methodist Episcopal church where both slaves and free blacks secretly work to create an uprising in Charleston.  Both moves turn out to be disastrous until each woman decides, with a certain grim determination, on the course of action she must take.

The book ends in 1838, twenty-five years before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law, and by the time Kidd concludes her story, there have already been many inroads made against slavery in the United States, thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts of one Sarah Grimke, upon whom half of this novel is based. While I wouldn't say that The Invention of Wings is particularly literary, it does exactly what literature is supposed to do: inform, entertain, disturb, and engulf the reader in a story that is not the reader's own. I loved this book and found it nearly impossible to put down. I unreservedly recommend it to anybody who likes historical fiction, novels with strong female characters, and stories with a true emotional heft.

NB: Viking published this book in January 2014 and I read an advance reading copy that was sent to me at the publisher's initiative.

14 March 2014

Book Review: Tease by Amanda Maciel

Holy cow. We all know that there are a lot of YA books out there that deal with teen suicide, and for good reason.  Amanda Maciel has done something a little bit different with her debut novel, Tease. In fact, she has done something daring: she's written a teen suicide book told from the point of view of one of the bullies, not the victim.  What kicks it up a notch is the fact that Sara, our narrator, is not all that sorry about what she did. Whoa. The fact that Maciel also manages to make Sara seem occasionally sympathetic? Double whoa.

In other words, there were times that this book made me feel uncomfortable. Deeply uncomfortable. Since I don't believe that a novel about the bullying and resulting suicide of a sixteen year old girl should be comfortable, I say brava to Ms. Maciel.

The story, told in a call-and-response style, is all told from Sara's first person, present tense POV. I tend to dislike first person narratives, and I actively loathe present tense ones, and while it constantly chafed me while reading Tease, I do acknowledge that they serve the story fairly well. The chapters alternate regularly between January-March (when her bullying of Emma escalates) and July-November (when Sara is dealing with the legal aftermath of Emma's suicide), and each timeline progresses chronologically. The dialogue reads very true-to-life, with lots of "She was all, like, whatevs" and "beyotch" and "OMG" or "what a lame effing party"on every page.  I salute the author for capturing realistic teenspeak, but it drove me nuts.  I will never complain again about reading too-clever-to-be-believed teen dialogue from the likes of John Green again.

It's hard to pin down the real Emma, as we see her exclusively through Sara's eyes, but what we can conclude is that she's a transfer student who is very pretty. Sara is almost as hard to pin down, as she hides as much from the reader as she does from herself, but it's clear that she's troubled, generally unhappy, and completely in thrall to her alleged best friend, Brielle. I say alleged best friend because Brielle is a real piece of work, nasty and popular and beautiful and rich (of course), and they're together all the time, but it's apparent to the reader that there's not actually much love lost between them, even if it's not apparent to Sara just yet.

What's most maddening about Sara is her insistence that Emma's suicide is not her fault, and her resentment towards the dead girl is palpable.  What's more, for most of the novel, Sara seems to believe that she herself is the wronged party: Emma stole her boyfriend, Emma couldn't handle Sara's retaliation, Emma was too weak to understand high school is hard for everybody, and now everybody is blaming Sara for Emma's suicide.

It's a bold stance for the author to take, and as far as I know, an unprecedented one, but in the end it does seem to pay off. Every other book I've read that deals with teen suicide seems a bit too "pat" in comparison to this one. What it does make clear is that bullying is both pervasive and corrosive, and that there's no happy ending for anybody involved, on either side.

NB: This book will be published in May 2014 by Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins.  It also happens to be loosely based on an actual instance of bullying and suicide in 2010 in the small town where my bookshop is located, and the whole time I was reading it, I kept imagining what the parents of the girl who killed herself must think after reading this book.  It was one of the many reasons I was deeply uncomfortable during the course of this book. 

10 March 2014

Book Review: One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

Every time I read a Jojo Moyes book, I'm surprised how easily I get swept up in the drama of her characters. And believe you me, I do *not* self-identify as a reader of romantic fiction. One Plus One is a start-and-finish-in-one-day kind of read and it had all the right elements to be a very satisfying one, too: a maths geek nerd girl & a mascara-wearing teenage boy (and the bullies who target both of them), a large and slobbery black dog of indeterminate origin, a road trip, a man and woman from opposite ends of the economic spectrum, and a Good Samaritan gesture that changes all of their lives.

This novel provides a stark contrast between the lives of the haves and have-nots of England. Ed Nicholls (Mr. "I'm Not Rich" because he owns only two homes, two cars, but no private jet) pulls over to the side of the road one night to offer help to a woman stranded with her two kids, and it turns out to be Jess, who cleans one of his houses a few hours each week. 

They were on their way to Scotland for her daughter, Tanzie, to compete in a Maths Olympiad in a Hail-Mary move to win the prize money to pay for the 10% of tuition and fees for St Anne's school. She'd been given a scholarship covering 90%, but even at that, Jess couldn't come up with a downpayment on the remaining portion. She works two jobs, they live in estate housing, and every day the bullying from a neighbor escalates a little against her stepson Nicky, and it's only a matter of time before Tanzie becomes a target, too. She's afraid for her children, and each month she must choose which bills to pay because she cannot pay them all.

I'm sure you get the picture. Anyway, Ed sees them by the side of the road and offers, without really thinking it through, to drive them to Scotland. Which would be fine, except that Tanzie turns out to get carsick if she's in a car going faster than 40 mph, so what could have been driven in one day turns into three days as they make their way to Aberdeen on backroads, the two kids crammed into the backseat along with Norman the slobber hound with a terrible tendency towards flatulence. In other words, it's a situation primed for high drama and low comedy, and Moyes makes use of both. 

The endgame is, I admit, fairly predictable, but that doesn't mean I enjoyed this book any less for the diversions it provides: the Spectacle Emergency, the Sandwich Breaks, the Facebook Hacking-as-Revenge Scene, and a rather nail-biting Situation Involving Tanzie, the Dog, and a Gang of Bullies. As the saying goes, I laughed, I cried, and in this case, I enjoyed being along for the ride. Reading this book was the perfect diversionary tactic before jumping back in to read all of the stuff I'm supposed to be reading for work.

I'll conclude with one excerpt that I think gives a good feel for the writing. It comes from one of Ed's chapters, after he's just enumerated at length some of the possible outcomes for himself if he got involved with Jess: 
And none of theses considered that Jess had actual kids, kids who needed stability in their lives and not someone such as he: he liked children as a concept, in the same that that he liked the Indian subcontinent -- that is, it was nice to know it existed, but he had no knowledge about it and had never felt any real desire to spend time there.  
And all this was without the added factor that he was obviously crap at relationships, had only just come out of the two most disastrous examples anyone could imagine, and the odds of his getting it right with someone else on the basis of a lengthy car journey that had begun because he couldn't think of how to get out of it were lower than a very log thing indeed.  
And the whole horse conversation had been, frankly, weird (p. 195). 
NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book provided at my request from my publisher's sales rep. It has already been published in the UK, but it will be published in July of this year in the US by Pamela Dorman Books, a division of Viking. 

01 March 2014

Last Month in Review: February 2014

I finished reading this book on March 1, but I read most
of it in February, so it goes here but doesn't get counted
Holy moly, I can't remember a month in my adult life when I've read fewer books than I read in February 2014.  Possibly not even in my youth, though I wasn't doing anything crazy like keeping track of the books I read each month back then. Most of that is because I had to read 50-100 pages of more than 15 books for work, so I read a *ton* of pages but finished very few of the books I started because once I read enough in one book to evaluate its literary content and suitability for my store's First Editions Club (FEC), it was time to move on to the next book. The good news is that most of the books I picked up to read were quite good.  The bad news is that I'll probably never go back now to finish them. C'est la vie.

So, let me share with you my whopping FIVE books that I've completed in February.  Bear in mind that one was an audio book and two were pieces of novel-length fan fiction. In other words, not a lot of books.

1. The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham.  This is one that I read for work and ended up finishing.  I loved the first 50 pages and thought they were quite wonderful, but then I settled into the meat of the book and found it to be okay. The thing is, though, with former Pulitzer prize winning authors, I pretty much have to read the whole book before eliminating it as a selection for our store's FEC, which is why I finished it. Do I recommend it?  Well, I definitely recommend the first 50 pages. You can probably stop reading after that point, though.

Image found here
2 & 3. Roman Holiday and Jewel of the Nile by Anna. Incidentally, I also read the third-but-incomplete installment of this trilogy, but fair is fair, so it doesn't count towards my reading goals this month. I've mentioned it before, but these pieces of Harry Potter fanfiction are quite peerless. They star Hermione (who, let's face it, deserves her own series) and her friends and various paramours. They're brilliantly plotted, extremely well written, and though there aren't many sex scenes, what IS there is pretty fabulous. If you love the Harry Potter books, and if you think Hermione is one of the best characters created in 20th/21st century literature, please consider reading Anna's work. She's one of the best fanfic writers out there (and there are millions): http://www.witchfics.org/anna/

4. Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston. This rather haunting novel is the story of a family whose son has been missing for four years. The mother, father, and remaining son are alive, but hardly what you'd call living, when the police call them to say that they think they've found Justin. What ensues is a heartfelt look at a family reunited against all hope, the psychological fallout for each family member, and what this worst and best thing means to their small Texas community. The real kicker though? For the four years that Justin was missing, he was living just across the bay with his abductor the entire time, and that might be the one thing that nobody in the family will ever be able to get over. This book is well written, with good pacing, and I liked it very much, despite constantly wanting more from the shifting perspective of the third-person narrator. This book won't be published until May 2014.

5. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner.  I listened to this book on audio, and while Christina Traister was a perfectly capable reader, she was not able to redeem the utter pointlessness of the story. If you're at all interested in reading my rants about the self-entitled, self-obsessed, and self-congratulatory artists and the misogynistic anarchists living in 1970s New York City, by all means, pleas check out my full review here