Friday, April 30, 2010

Bits & Pieces

I have no Friday Finds this week (I know- what's up with that?) so in lieu of a list of new books I wanted to share some news and other interesting stuff with you.

China Miéville won an unprecedented third Arthur C. Clarke Award for his novel The City and The City, published last year by Random House. Here's my review of the book, and what happened when I met him at a reading. He's an amazing writer and a true gentleman- congratulations, China!

He's also got a new book coming out in June, Kraken. A story about a sect of squid worshippers and a giant squid that disappears before the eyes of scientist-protagonist Billy Harrow, it sounds like a departure from what he did in The City and The City- and like a lot of fun.

Tomorrow, May 1, is Free Comic Book Day. Comic book stores nationwide will be conducting giveaways of samplers and short comics on a first-come, first-served basis. You can go to the official website for more information about participating stores near you. I know I'll be up early on Saturday to troll the comic shops of Harvard Square for freebies- and to bring them back for you in an upcoming giveaway.

Finally, Jeremy, fellow Boston bibliophile and writer of the great blog Philobiblos, alerted me to the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair, happening today and tomorrow at Boston University. Click the highlighted link above for official information and if you're in the area, I hope you get a chance to check it out. I'm planning to attend Saturday!

Finally, and nothing to do with books, Saturday is also the annual Harvard Square May Fair. If you're around, it's going to be great weather and the fair is always a good time with food, music and lots to see and do.

What are you up to this weekend? Hopefully I have some new finds for you next week. Have a great time whatever you end up doing.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Special Feature: National Poetry Month Blog Tour-Interview with Ellen Steinbaum

For my contribution to the National Poetry Month Blog Tour, I have for you today an interview with Boston-area poet Ellen Steinbaum, Pushcart-nominated author of Container Gardening and Afterwords.

1. Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been writing? Who or what influences your work? What poets do you love to read?
I have always been a writer. As a child I wrote a family newspaper (which was a little pathetic since I was an only child, so there wasn't much news, but I persisted). For much of my life I wrote magazine and newspaper articles and then later found myself drawn to the idea of what I could do with poetry that I couldn't do with prose.

Influences include my teacher, Ottone Riccio, and contemporary poets like Linda Pastan, Gail Mazur, Ruth Stone, Marie Ponsot, and Dorianne Laux who combine "the materials at hand"--details of daily life--with careful craft.

I also love the work of Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, and Richard Wilbur who does rhyme so elegantly that it looks effortless. Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman--two very different poets whose work intrigues me. And the sound of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems is so wonderful. Keats...Mark Doty...Wislawa Szymborska...Edward Hirsch. Yeats. Yehuda Amichai. Octavio Paz. So many--depends whose work I've read most recently. And two friends whose poetry I greatly admire and enjoy, Susan Donnelly and Patricia Smith.

2. What is your approach to or style of poetry? Do you think it's important to have a style or define yourself within a movement? Does it limit or expand what you can do?

Obviously, when you write poetry you're going to be aware of what other poets are doing and of the long tradition you are part of. But my concern is more on doing my own work than on figuring out where I fit in. I'm just concentrating on writing in an authentic voice and trying to make it as clear and true and precise as I can.

One thing I do want to mention is what I visualize as almost the collaboration between poet and reader. I know there are poets who feel that the poem exists only as they intend it to, but I don't entirely. I believe the poet has his or her intentions, but readers come to the poem with their own set of attitudes and experiences and so what the poem is varies a little from reader to reader. It becomes at some level a combination of the original intent and the received thing.

It's a huge gift to a poet to have readers willing to bring themselves fully and respectfully to the work. It's humbling. I am always grateful when readers tell me that my work has meant something to them.

3. Onto the poems themselves, which I loved. My favorite poem in the book is probably "Gathering," about using shells collected by speaker's aunt to mark her grave. Can you talk about some of the themes in this lovely poem?

Thank you! I am writing this, actually, on the birthday of that very dear aunt. Primarily what I was thinking about when I wrote that poem was how the small pieces of our lives that, at some point, have real meaning to us, get lost to ourselves and to others. They just melt away, the way we forget where the stones were from. We think we'll never forget this experience, and then we forget, though of course something of it remains with us. And when the stones and shells are someone else's, they show how impossible it is to really know another person's life. No matter how close you are to that person, there are always mysteries.

4. In the first poem, "Standing at the Shore," the moment described- people on the beach, children rooted but striving for freedom- starts as "soft"- "the same soft moment"; later, it's "that messy instant." Why the change? Is the moment soft and messy at the same time?

The softness, I guess, is the light just at dusk, the quiet on the beach, and everyone concentrating on standing there and looking good for the photograph. At least the adults are feeling that. But the children always have another agenda. While the adults are thinking about preserving the moment, the children are busy living it, squeezing the juice out of it.

But I hadn't actually thought about that before. (This is why I knew it would be fun to answer your questions--they make me think of new things about my work and about poetry in general.) What I was thinking about--or at least what I thought I was thinking about when I wrote this was time and impermanence, which is probably what I am often thinking about when I write.

5. In the first part of the book, dominant themes include loss, memory and history, and the poems are deeply personal. In the second, the tone is somewhat more political with mentions of wars, terrorism and allusions to first-world privilege; still, the poems are rooted in day to day life. In the third section, there's a hint of menace as we move from the past through the present and into the future- an idea that the future is a dark place. Can you talk about this progression? Is there optimism as well or is it all bad news?

I didn't think of it as menacing, but rather just as life with its certainty of pleasures and sorrows. When I named the book Container Gardening, I was thinking of how we construct our own little universes to live in. Partly they're private, built out of our own experiences. Partly they are touched by the larger world we live in, and that's where the political poems come in.

But then--and I guess this is that third section--we take those pieces and go forward with our lives into whatever happens next. And we hope that some of what happens will bring us joy. And we know that some of what will happen is bound to bring us sorrow, simply because we are mortal beings connected to other mortal beings. And all we can do, I think, is muddle through the best we can. There's a Jewish saying I read once about the idea that at the end of our days we will be called to account for every fruit we did not taste in its season. That is often in my mind and I hope that's what that third section is about, the sense that with all the certainty of sadness, we still can--must- notice the joy. As the last words of the last poem say, "rest within the wonder/of this gift."

Thank you so much for agreeing to participate! You can see this interview reposted tomorrow at the blog for the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Visit Ellen at her site,

Don't forget to visit Serena at Savvy Verse and Wit for all the dates and stops along the National Poetry Month Blog Tour and thanks to Serena for hosting this great event!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

REVIEW: Blame, by Michelle Huneven

Blame, by Michelle Huneven. Published 2009 by FSG. Fiction.

For me, Blame was one of those books I enjoyed a lot when I first finished it, and then enjoyed less and less as time went by.

The story focuses on Patsy MacLemoore, a woman from the wrong side of the tracks with a drinking problem, who falls in with the privileged Sharp family in 1980s California. One night, drunk, she accidentally kills a mother and daughter; she goes to prison; she comes out. Then, for years to come (and, she anticipates, the rest of her life) she seeks redemption, first through a tentative friendship with the man whose family she killed, then through a picture-perfect marriage to the upper class man of her dreams. But nothing is what it appears.

Like I said, I enjoyed the book while I was reading it. It's a page-turner for sure, full of breathless suspense and a supposedly killer plot twist. Just to warn you, if you don't want to know what the twist is, don't read the blurb on the back of the book like I did (hint: her name is deeply ironic). But even the blurb didn't give it all away and there are surprises in store no matter what. The best part of the book for me though was watching Patsy's transformation through prison and after as she tries to put her life back together, build relationships and figure out her place in the world. Her challenges and thoughts seemed realistic and I found it easy to care about her.

The problem with Blame for me wasn't that I didn't enjoy it when I read it, but it was like cotton candy- five minutes later I was thinking about something else, and it's taken me all this time to get around to reviewing it. The truth is right now I'm working up to writing my review for Yann Martel's new book and I needed an easy one to crank out. Lame, no? Blame is a fine example of popular fiction and readers of so-called "women's fiction" and suspense lit will enjoy it. I think it would be a good choice for book clubs as well as Huneven shows a lot of insight into womens' psychology and the psychology of addiction, creates complex characters and poses some challenging moral questions about the depth and extent of accountability. For me it wasn't a masterpiece but it was entertaining and I think it would appeal to lots of readers.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Reading: Peter Carey at the Harvard Book Store

Last night I was lucky enough to get to see Australian author Peter Carey read from his latest novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, at a reading sponsored by the fabulous Harvard Book Store.

Carey began by talking about Alexis de Toqueville, the French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America, his observations on the young United States published in 1835 and 1840. Toqueville was the inspiration for the book and for the character Olivier de Garmont, a French aristocrat and child of survivors of the French Revolution, who comes to America with his servant Parrot to observe the American prison system. Carey then read segments from the book and took questions.

He was a fun speaker, by turns smart, snarky and charming, and did a funny, engaging talk and reading. In the Q&A period, we learned that the first Australian edition of Oscar and Lucinda was printed on "toilet paper" and that no, he has not seen the movie.

Carey is also the author of a bunch of nonfiction and 11 novels including two Booker Prize winners, Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang. Before the release of Parrot and Olivier I was thinking about writing an Author Appreciation about him but since I've only read Oscar and Lucinda it would be a little difficult. In lieu of that, here's an excerpt from my review:
Carey does an amazing job with Oscar and Lucinda. The writing itself is gorgeous, literary and loaded- more like a nineteenth century love story than one written in the nineteen-eighties. I like that he chose a style that reflected the time and place of the story's setting rather than a more modern style. It's a wonderful throwback to the days when characters were rich and nuanced and novel structure more formal and stylized. It's also highly readable, with an engaging plot and characters you come to know well and care for. Carey evokes his settings beautifully as well; Australia comes across as an anarchic frontier of gamblers and predators, victims and saints. The action keeps going right to last sentence, and I didn't want it to end. I wish every book could be this good!
So yeah, even though it's the only book of his I've read, it's one of my favorite books ever, right up there with Possession, so that has to count for something.

I've only just started Parrot and Olivier and while I'm certainly enjoying it, it's much too early to say more than that. It's received some great reviews so far, including one by British author Ursula K. Le Guin, so I'm pretty optimistic that it'll end up being a favorite of mine, as well. I'll definitely keep you posted!

Here's my signed title page from Parrot and Olivier; I also brought nice copies of Oscar and Lucinda and True History for my Booker Prize collection. What I didn't bring was the copy of Oscar and Lucinda I actually read, a battered paperback with a taped-on cover and coffee stains. When you get books signed, what would you rather bring- the book you read or a pristine copy for collecting? I almost regret not bringing my reading copy but then again, does it matter that much?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Graphic Novel Monday: Kimmie66, by Aaron Alexovich

Kimmie66, by Aaron Alexovich. Published 2007 by Minx, an imprint of DC Comics.

Kimmie66 was the next in my to-be-read pile of Minx comics, a defunct series produced by DC Comics and aimed primarily at adolescent girls. Due to lack of promotion and (some would say) general lack of quality, the series was discontinued the year it started, and while it's readily available in most libraries, it's hard to find Minx books in stores these days. I've reviewed two other titles in the series (Token and Confessions of a Blabbermouth) and hope to get to all of them eventually.

Kimmie66 is set in a futuristic, slightly dystopian world where people spend most of their time in online communities called lairs and invent detailed personae and lives there. Books and libraries are virtually nonexistent, non-holographic movies are called "flatties" and crossing between lairs can get you imprisoned. Telly is a teenage girl who idolizes a beautiful older girl who goes by the online moniker Kimmie66. Kimmie66 has announced that she's going to kill herself; distraught, Telly decides to go online to find her. What happens next is something no one expects, probably least of all Kimmie66 herself.

Going in, it's important to understand that none of the Minx books are what I'd call serious graphic literature in line with Persepolis or Fun Home. They're fluffy books for teens, sometimes light and fun and sometimes, as with Kimmie66, darker and heavier. Kimmie66 is about the dark side of online culture and that coupled with themes of suicide and loss make it one of the more serious books in the series. Having said that, I liked the twists and turns in the plot, and even if I couldn't quite get into the characters I found Telly to be appealing and easy to relate to. I also like author and illustrator Aaron Alexovich's outlandish artwork; its energy does a lot to keep the story moving. There's some food for thought here and I think Kimmie66 would be a fine easy read for a teen but it wasn't engaging enough for me to recommend to adult readers.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sunday Salon - Newburyport Literary Festival

On Friday and Saturday, the town of Newburyport, Massachusetts, again hosted its annual literary festival. The event kicked off Friday night with a dinner, and Saturday included a lengthy roster of readings and discussions. Saturday was a gorgeous day in this beautiful seaside town dotted with lovely homes, rolling hills and a picturesque waterfront and it seemed like everybody was out and about for the festival.

The highlight for me was attending a recording of the Books on the Nightstand podcast, with
stars Ann Kingman and Michael
Kindness. They spoke for an hour or so on how they started the podcast and then each talked about four books they recommended to book clubs and finished with their signature "Books We Can't Wait for you to Read" segment. They chose The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, by Michele Young-Stone, and Sue Miller's new novel, The Lake Shore Limited. Both sounded great!

It was a really great day. Later, my husband and I explored one of Newburyport's two indie bookstores, its used bookstore and a large antiques mart selling used books. I walked away with two Margaret Atwood first editions- The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake, and the latter was signed! I'm not an obsessive collector of first editions but I could hardly pass those up!

Today? I'm enjoying Peter Carey's new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, and working my way though Dmitry Zlotsky's wonderfully bizarre Monster: Oil on Canvas. I'm going to pick a short book out of my TBR pile for a "quick hit", probably The Dolly Dialogues. What are you reading today?

More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday Finds- A Stack and an e-Book

In the stack we have:
Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance, by Sholem Aleichem,
In a Free State, a Booker Prize winner by V.S.Naipaul, both from my trip to Raven Used Books. I love that place; it's a little basement used bookstore but it's like the TBR pile I haven't brought home yet.

A quick trip to Million Year Picnic, a favorite comics store, yielded three great comics by women:
Mercury, by Hope Larson,
Robot Dreams, by Sara Varon, and
A Mess of Everything, by Miss Lasko-Gross. I was a fan of her last book, Escape from Special; this is the sequel.

Beaufort, by Ron Leshem, about the Israeli Army, An American Type, by Henry Roth, and In the Company of Angels, by Thomas E. Kennedy, came via Bookmooch.

My friends at Random House were nice enough to send me an advance copy of Gary Shteyngart's new book, Super Sad True Love Story, coming out in July. Thank you!

The e-book? Dmitry Zlotsky's Monster: Oil on Canvas, a truly strange comic novel about conjoined twins and the woman they love, an orphan with two hearts. I have to finish that one in the next week or so, so you'll have the review soon. I can't wait to tell you more.

More Friday Finds at

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

REVIEW: The Halfway House, by Guillermo Rosales

The Halfway House, by Guillermo Rosales. Published 2009 by New Directions. Literary Fiction. Translation.

The Halfway House is a staggering short novel by Cuban writer Guillermo Rosales, and one of his only surviving, published works. A gifted writer who committed suicide in Miami in 1993, Rosales' book was first published to high praise in Europe and appears in English for the first time in this edition, translated by Anna Kushner.

Clocking in at just over 100 pages, the story is about a middle-aged man, a writer named William Figueras, living in a boarding house for the mentally ill and disabled. The house is nominally in Miami, though it seems to be located in a less-trafficked corner of Hell, where all manner of mistreatment and humiliation occur on a daily basis. Residents aren't fed enough, they live in squalor, and fights and sexual abuse are commonplace. The owner steals their money, and the staff are sadistic and unchallengeable. Dumped there by relatives unable or unwilling to care for them, there is no recourse, and no escape. William knows how wrong and how intolerable the conditions are, and plans an escape with Frances, a fellow inmate and woman with whom he shares a budding romance.

It's a heartbreaking, challenging, disturbing work, and unfortunately probably not that far off from reality- and I can't say it has a happy ending. It's also a beautiful piece of literature, with vivid, sad characters and more suspense than you might think could be packed between its covers. It would be a wonderful choice for the reader of literary fiction looking for something a little edgy and a little different, or for readers interested in issues of the mentally ill. It may not make you smile but it may change the way you look at the world- and what more can a book do than that?

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

REVIEW: Solar, by Ian McEwan

Solar, by Ian McEwan. Published 2010 by Random House.

Click here to buy Solar via I'm an IndieBound affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

Solar, Booker-prize-winning author Ian McEwan's latest novel, is a satire of science, academia and a certain type of aging Lothario- the faded celebrity. Michael Beard is a middle-aged, portly British scientist, a Nobel Laureate whose life, when we meet him, is on the downswing. His latest wife flaunts her infidelities with their contractor, he works at a depressing sinecure anticipating the end of the world via global warming and none of the young scientists he works with appreciates or respects him. Then, as tends to happen in McEwan's novels, something unfortunate happens to someone out of the blue. All of a sudden, everything changes, and all of his problems are solved at once.

Beard's career takes off as he develops a new method for harnessing solar energy. He's able to take revenge on his wife's lover. He becomes celebrated and loved. But all is not well, and the reader is left waiting to watch the train wreck to come- the moment when Beard's lies and frauds come together to destroy him. Beard's personal turpitude and messiness reflects his moral chaos; he gains vast amounts of weight, he lives in squalor and seeks to deprive his lover of the child she desperately wants. Food is Michael Beard's one true love, the only thing that comforts him and never deserts him, never cheats or lies or betrays. Take, for example, his loving description of one classic of the American family restaurant: "lozenges of orange-colored cheese dipped in batter, rolled in bread crumbs and salt, and deep-friend, with a creamy dip of pale green. Perfection, and in such quantity."

Michael Beard is not an easy man to like, and since the novel is told from his unreliable point of view, not liking him will mean not liking the book. I wasn't crazy about Beard, but I saw the book as a satire and Beard as a clown, albeit an unfortunate one set to live out his days in McEwan's cruel and merciless universe. I love McEwan's writing; pages turn effortlessly and the prose is slick and glossy. I wanted to see that moment when Beard's house of cards collapses and I like the way McEwan defies expectations when it does. Relatively mild in terms of violence and horror, Solar would be a great first McEwan; fans of his will enjoy the black humor and satire. Either way, it's a sharp-eyed winner of a novel.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Musing Mondays - "Best Books"

Your regularly scheduled Graphic Novel Monday will return next week.

Musing Mondays2

Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about the ‘best’ books'.

Last week I had you all to suggest your top 5 books – and I was surprised by just how different all your choices were! There’s no real question this week, except to look over the list and consider it. Do you agree with the choices? Is it more worth of a “Best Book” title?

I didn't participate in last week's Musing Mondays, so I'm going to just list my top five books and talk about what makes a book a "best book" for me- then I'd love to hear your thoughts, too.

My top five, in no particular order:

  • Possession, by A.S. Byatt
  • Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood
  • My Father's Paradise, by Ariel Sabar
  • Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey
  • Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte.
Most of these won't come as a surprise for regular readers. But why? Well, for me, a best book has to combine all of the major appeal factors- great writing, strong plot, vivid characters and fully-realized setting. All of these books do all of these things. Possession takes my breath away; Alias Grace is a marvel; My Father's Paradise is a beautiful true story; Oscar and Lucinda makes me cry; Jane Eyre was the formative novel of my younger years. There are lots more I could name- A Walk in the Woods, Cosmos, and on and on (I have 38 books listed as "Favorites" in my LibraryThing account), but virtually every one meets the criteria above. Looking over the list on Rebecca's site, there are a lot of great books there- and some I'd disagree with, too! But that's bound to happen.

Musing Mondays is hosted by Rebecca at Just One More Page...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sunday Salon- Long Weekend

Well it's Patriot's Day Weekend here in Boston and that means one thing- tomorrow is the Boston Marathon, a day when athletes and their supporters get out to run and line the streets to cheer. When I was in college, Marathon Monday was always the first day of our spring break and the Marathon itself went right past campus, so bunches of us would cheer the runners as they passed by. Current students of my alma mater still do that every year.

As for me, Marathon Monday is a day when I traditionally hide in my house and try to stay away from all the fuss, not being one for crowds at all. Conveniently enough, my house stocked full of wonderful books to read. I'll be finishing up Dorothy Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding and Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil.

I got to see Martel read on Thursday, the highlight of a week of bookish events. He was just wonderful and listening to him made me want to go read Life of Pi all over again. There was also the so-called Saturday Salon this past Wednesday, a luncheon in Boston I attended along with Dawn of She is Too Fond of Books. It was hosted by Amy MacKinnon, Elyssa East and Delia Cabe and included a host of authors like Lynne Griffin and Holly LeCraw, as well as local book industry honchos and more. It was held at Boston's lovely Parker House Hotel and it was a really good time. Yesterday my neighborhood, Harvard Square, held the "Bookish Ball," a day of bookshopping in this bookstore-rich area. I went to Raven Used Books, which has this just awesome selection of literary fiction, and Million Year Picnic, a comic shop, to pick up some novels both graphic and normal. Today there are two readings I'm interested in attending, Holly LeCraw at the Concord Bookstore and Katherine Howe at the Wellesley Free Library; we'll see where I end up!

Where are you going to end up today?

You can read more Sunday Salon here.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday Finds- Some Common Themes

Four new finds this week, all of them terrific.

In a Dark Wood, by Marcel Möring, is one I've had my eye on for a while and finally I decided to pick it up. It's a post-Holocaust novel set in Holland and loosely based on Dante's Inferno.

The rest are two post-Soviet novels and one volume of post-Soviet short stories. The novels are The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight and Broken Glass Park, both of which I received for review, and the short stories come in Katherine Shonk's book The Red Passport. Obviously the first two will take priority but I'm looking forward to all of them. And after reading some stories and weeding some books last weekend, I feel entirely justified in having bought (remaindered) another volume of stories.

What did you add to your collection this week? You can find more Friday Finds at

Thursday, April 15, 2010

REVIEW: Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show, by Frank Delaney

Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show, by Frank Delaney. Published 2010 by Random House. Literary Fiction.

I read this book courtesy of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

A long and rambling and colorful and wonderful novel about a father who runs away in pursuit of an actress, a son who journeys off to find him and the charismatic, scandalous and traitorous family behind it all, Frank Delaney's novel Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show is a bittersweet trip through 1930s Ireland- its highways and byways but most of all its countryside and its people, whose central mystery isn't even revealed until the end, and much less ever solved.

It's 1932, and Ben MacCarthy lives with his parents on a small farm. His parents have a happy marriage but his father becomes infatuated with Venetia Kelly, a beautiful traveling performer with a knack for ventriloquism. He abandons the family and Ben's mother sends him on a quest to find him. 1932 was a critical year in Ireland, the year of a crucial national election, and Ben's quest crosses his path not only with that of a flamboyant and powerful theatrical family but an ambitious, unscrupulous and possibly criminal would-be politician, Kelly family patriarch Thomas Aquinus "King" Kelly. What happens next will change all of their lives forever.

Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show is so much more than a family suspense story. Delaney mixes stories of love, personal redemption, ambition, friendship, murder, deception and tragedy with Irish legend, politics and history and throws in figures like Eamon de Valera and W.B. Yeats as supporting characters for good measure. He tells the story with charm and loquacity, employing frequent digressions and foreshadowing to reinforce his narrator's emotional state. It all comes together beautifully in the end, when he reveals why, and to whom, he's telling the story.

It's addictive, page-turning reading full of bluster and heartbreak, love and longing, humor and sadness. I'll admit it lagged a little for me in the middle; there was a lot of talk and it wasn't always clear where it was going, but Delaney has written a very Irish book in a very Irish style of storytelling enriched by the historical details, mythology and descriptions of theatrical life. I think a lot of different kinds of readers will enjoy Venetia Kelly; it's literary fiction for a summer's day with fascinating characters, a vivid setting and a strong narrative voice.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

REVIEW: Asta in the Wings, by Jan Elizabeth Watson

Asta in the Wings, by Jan Elizabeth Watson. Published 2009 by Tin House Books. Literary Fiction.

Asta in the Wings is one of the best books I've read in a while.

Jan Elizabeth Watson's novel is about a little girl, seven year old Asta Hewitt, who lives with her mother and her older brother Orion in a house in Maine. She's never been to school- she's barely even been outside the house, believing her mother's stories about plagues and holocaust. Then one day her mother doesn't come home from work, and she and Orion venture outside to find her. What follows blends Asta's wonder at the outside world with her fear (and ignorance) of it. It's not long until the adult world intervenes in Asta and Orion's fate, as the details of their life with their mother unfold alongside their new lives. The children eventually find the beginnings of a new life, with the hope that they won't have to leave the old one behind entirely.

To love Asta in the Wings you have to love Asta, and I did. Watson evokes affection for Asta that never lapses into pity, because the girl, with her intelligence, resilience and loyalty, carries an optimism that makes the reader believe in her and share her faith in herself and her future, if not exactly that of her family. She's not angry at her mother- she's too innocent for that, and Watson leaves that to the reader anyway. But even the reader's anger is held off because Watson keeps Asta's mother at a distance. Loretta Hewitt is a faded beauty obsessed with old movies; she keeps the children isolated and she says it's for their own good but we never really learn why. Since we don't really know whether she is driven by cruelty or delusion we don't know whether or not to pity her.

She writes the book in the first person, from the adult Asta's point of view but her more worldly voice rarely breaks in; instead we have to see the world through her child's eyes and what we see is a wonder. I read Asta in the Wings in a couple of days; I found it difficult to put down and was sad to see it end. I'd suggest it to literary fiction readers and all readers of coming-of-age stories; it's beautifully crafted and compelling, though not particularly light. It's also very optimistic and ends on a bittersweet note of hope. I loved this book. Loved, loved, loved. You will too!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Graphic Novel Monday: Unholy Kinship, by Naomi Nowak

Unholy Kinship, by Naomi Nowak. Published 2006 by ComicsLit. Paperback.
Click here to buy Unholy Kinship via I'm an IndieBound affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

Unholy Kinship
is an eccentric and slightly disturbing little book about two sisters and the mystery surrounding their mother's illness, their father's death and the fate of the young women themselves. Younger sister Luca is the paid caretaker of her older sister Gae, struggling with an unnamed mental illness; their mother is dormant in an asylum, catatonic for years.

Before these tragedies befell the family, Luca and Gae's parents were psychologists deep in controversial research about the relationship between humans and primates; now, monkeys come to Luca in her dreams and speak to her. Are they real or a fantasy? Are Gae and her mother really sick or medicated into a stupor by the menacing doctors and nurses surrounding them? What's really going on here?

This short little book, easy to read in a sitting, is a trippy voyage down a strange rabbit hole. The dreamlike art does much of the work in creating the hallucinatory atmosphere; much of the book is washed out in grays, pinks and purples that make the reader feel only half-conscious, like someone just awoken from a deep dream. It also does most of the storytelling as it's rich in detail and little of the space is occupied by dialogue. A sort of somnambulist pall hangs over the story, and the women, as the most vivid and "normally colored" sequences are of the brief moments the sisters share outside their claustrophobic home.

Unholy Kinship is an unusual graphic read, and not one that I'd suggest to a newcomer to the genre; the experienced reader looking for something different might really enjoy Swedish artist and author Nowak's strange and not-entirely optimistic book. I enjoyed it but I can't say it was a favorite; what I liked best was that artwork. There is some sexual content but little profanity; religious figures are presented as creepy, ill-willed villains, and there's no happy ending. I'd suggest the book to fans of movies like "Donnie Darko" or the 80s TV series "Twin Peaks"- it's like an art-house film set to paper and panels. You might even want to play a little Angelo Badalamenti while you're reading.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Salon- Finishing up the Read-a-thon

After a pretty average week, I was glad to settle into the 24-Hour Read-a-Thon yesterday; my goal was to read at least two stories or essays from a stack of anthologies, with the secondary goal of weeding out a few. It struck me that I had a lot of them sitting around that I had never even touched, and that dipping into a few might not be a bad idea.

So if you came by to visit yesterday, you know that my day was interrupted by another visit to the hospital thanks to my cat; when I got home I decided to throw in the towel and just watch TV. Today I think will be a slow day and so I'm going to work on reading a few things from some of the books I didn't get to, and work on finishing up Solar, Ian McEwan's absolutely compulsively-readable novel.

My cat is making his own visit to the (kitty) hospital tomorrow, to get a melanoma and some skin anomalies removed; he should be fine by the end of the day.

Tell me how something so cute can be the source of such unhappiness?

More Sunday Salon here.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Read-a-Thon: The Results

So after I got home from the doctor's today I didn't do any more reading.

But I did get some things done today. I read two stories each in Paris Stories, The New Weird, Rasskazy, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, The New York Stories of Edith Wharton and four from Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame. I decided to weed the last two; I didn't like the stories I read and I'm not interested in reading more. I'm giving The New Weird to my husband; I started two stories that I didn't finish and decided I'm done with that one, too. But I really enjoyed Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, and look forward to reading more.

After I got home I tried to read some other things but nothing was holding my attention and I decided the thing to do was to relax and watch some TV.

I did read some more of Solar while I was waiting to pick my prescription though- so all is not lost!

I want to thank all the nice people who commented all day and cheered me on. I appreciate it, and I promise to do better next time!

Read-a-Thon: Update

Well, this day hasn't gone the way I planned.

After an extended break for lunch and a little book shopping, I returned and read two short stories in The New Weird and The New York Stories of Edith Wharton. However, yesterday my cat scratched me (yes, again) and I had to take another break to go to the hospital to get the scratches checked out, and get some antibiotics. But I'm home now, and recommencing the read-a-thon.

I'll update again in a few hours. Happy reading!

Read-a-thon: 2 Hour Meme

In this challenge we would like you to write a post on your blogs about your kick off strategy. What have you surrounded yourself with for these early hours of the challenge besides your books? Is there a coffee thermos, lucky book mark, snacks, pillow…. We want to know how you have prepared so you do not have to leave your cozy reading space (by the way – we’d like to know what is too…. (are you still in bed, a chair, the couch…..)

I'm in the den; I've surrounded myself with a few of the selected books, a cup of tea and a fluffy pillow. The tea is gone now but the books and pillow remain.

So far I've read four short stories from the anthology Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame, two from Rasskazy and two from Paris Stories. Some of the Frame stories are really short, some just one page. I'm not crazy about them and I probably won't read any more from this book. But I'm enjoying the others. I'm hoping that today will help me figure out which books I truly want to finish and which books I can weed. Either way I expect the TBR pile to be shorter after today! Next up is Good Evening, Mrs. Craven. See you back here soon!


Here we go! This is my first official Read-a-Thon. Click on the picture above to go to the main read-a-thon site.

The plan? I'll read starting at 9am going for as long as I can. I'll update every six hours or so, and take time to visit participating blogs every couple of hours.

Here's the stash:

I'll be digging into my short story anthologies; I'm going to read at least two stories or essays from each book and more if I want to, and I reserve the right to pick more anthologies from my TBR stacks if the mood strikes, because I know there are more around that I'd like to read. I've read some things from some of these books already but I promise not to cheat!

The list:
The Best American NonRequired Reading 2009, various
Love Begins in Winter, by Simon van Booy
The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, by Edith Wharton
This is Not Chick Lit, various
Good Evening Mrs. Craven, by Mollie Panter-Downes
Israeli Stories, various
Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia, various
The New Weird, various
German for Travelers: A Novel in 15 Lessons, by Norah Labiner
Best European Fiction 2010, various
Bitchfest, various

Other possibilities include
Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant,
Moral Disorder, by Margaret Atwood,
Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, by Maxim Shrayer
Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore
Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge, various
Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame, by Janet Frame
Bride from Odessa, by Edgardo Cozarinsky

Whatever I do, I'm shooting for two stories per volume at a minimum. I think I have a great day of reading ahead. What are you reading for the readathon? If you're not doing the readathon, what are you doing with this great day?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Friday Finds- Quality over Quantity

It's quality over quantity for this week's Friday Finds.

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden came from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. Thank you LT! Coming from Random House, this looks like a great literary mystery.

Another great-looking suspense thriller, Chevy Stevens' Still Missing, arrived from Macmillan. I started reading it and it's riveting. More soon!

Finally, I picked up The Patience Stone on one of my after-dinner bookstore runs. A Prix Goncourt winner by Atiq Rahimi, it promises to be a spellbinding literary read.

What's new for you this week? More Friday finds at

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

REVIEW: Eddie Signwriter, by Adam Schwartzman

Eddie Signwriter, by Adam Schwartzman. Published 2010 by Random House. Literary Fiction.

Eddie Signwriter is an artful, elegant novel from poet Adam Schwartzman, a writer originally from South Africa. The story centers around a scandal: a teenage love affair leads to the death of prominent community member Nana Oforiwaa, and young Eddie and Celeste are held responsible. Eddie goes to live with his uncle; a gifted artist, Eddie learns the trade of sign painting from a neighbor. But he can't get away from his past or his sense of guilt, and he flees northward through Dakar to Paris, where, hopefully, freedom and redemption await.

This is the kind of novel that readers of literary fiction wait for. Schwartzman has published three volumes of poetry and shows a real gift for both language and storytelling in this captivating little volume. I didn't know Schwartzman was a poet when I picked up Eddie Signwriter but I can't say I was surprised, given his ear for the cadences of spoken language and vivid description, of the settings, of Eddie's artwork and the delicate and complex emotional states of the characters. Themes explored include freedom, love and the power of art, as well as some politics I missed, but I'm guessing that this is the kind of book that will reward a second or a third read-through- which I plan to give it.

You can probably tell by now, but I loved Eddie Signwriter. I attended Schwartzman's reading at the Harvard Book Store last night and really enjoyed hearing him talk about his book- I only wish I had prepared a question of my own. When I think about what I love about the book, I think about the beautiful final scene between Eddie and his uncle where so much is said with so little, how regret and sorrow and love and redemption share the small space between them. I really hope Eddie Signwriter gets the attention it deserves, and finds the readers who'll love it as much as I did.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Working on the Blog - Statistics, Subjects and Tags

Although you may have to look closely to see, I did a lot of work on my blog last week, adding three important new indices on the left hand side:
  • I added a tag cloud for ratings, so you can see how many ratings I've assigned, and click to see what's got what,
  • I added a "publisher index" so you can see how many books I've reviewed for different publishers,
  • and I changed my regular "Tags" list to a "subject index," so you can see reviews or articles by topic.
I'm hoping that these features prove useful to visitors interested in learning more about what I really do here- who and what I read, and how I feel about it. I added the publisher tags and FTC and affiliate disclosures, and standardized the top line of each review where I list the publisher and date of publication to just about every review I've written since 2008. I also added notes on hardcover and/or paperback availability, but those aren't consistent. My arm was aching when all was said and done, and I didn't even get to 2007!

All of this work got me thinking about some things. Wondering what publisher I've reviewed the most, I found out- surprise!- it's Random House, publisher of most crème de la crème literary fiction. I was surprised to learn how many Penguin imprints I read, and not surprised to learn I read lots of Macmillan, publisher of high-quality genre fiction like The Tricking of Freya and literary gems like Wolf Hall and Doghead. It was also interesting to see the number of smaller publishers I've read, if only one or two or three books each.

I tried to keep all imprints of a single publisher together but I broke up graphic novel imprints. DC Comics and Minx, for example, are owned by Random House but I listed them separately, and First Second is a Macmillan-owned imprint I listed on its own. I made this decision because it's more meaningful to me when it comes to graphic novels to see imprints separated from the parent company.

I was chatting with a fellow blogger about this project during the week and she asked me if I was going to index every mention of a book or just reviews. I'm going to stick with indexing just reviews, because if I'm trying to see (and show) what I'm actually reading, indexing mentions would water down the numbers and render them less useful. What do you think? There's always the whole indexing-authors thing, which is a little overwhelming to me to think about right now.

Another thing that occurred me was the possibility of re-running and/or revising older reviews, things posted in 2007 and early 2008, when I had basically no readers, to spotlight some older books and some more idiosyncratic reading choices. These were the books I read before I had the luxury of many review copies (although lots of my early reviews were galleys I picked up at ALA in 2007). I'd also like to get some mileage out of that stuff, have a reason to revise them and help me out on slow weeks. What do you think?

How do you organize tags and subjects on your blog? Is it something you think about much or not at all? When I started, I was happy just to post; all this other stuff would have overwhelmed me but it's fascinating to me to see how my own blog has evolved over time. What's happened with yours?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Graphic Novel Monday: Confessions of a Blabbermouth, by Mike & Louise Carey

Confessions of a Blabbermouth, by Mike & Louise Carey. Illustrated by Aaron Alexovich. Published 2007 by DC Comics/Minx. Fiction. Young Adult.

British high school student and blogger Tasha has her hands full juggling a new job on the school yearbook, avoiding bullies and dealing with her mother's weird new boyfriend and his daughter Chloe, who just started at her school. Chloe joins the yearbook staff, then the family goes on a trip to America, where the family secrets come spilling out.

Confessions of a Blabbermouth is another entry in the Minx series, a graphic novel imprint started by DC Comics to appeal to girls. This volume is written by the father and daughter team of Mike and Louise Carey and illustrated by Aaron Alexovich, who's worked on other Minx titles like Kimmie66 as well as the praised Serenity Rose for SLG. (A few weeks ago I reviewed another Minx title, Alison Kwitney's Token.)

Overall I thought Blabbermouth was a weak entry in the Minx series. I liked Tasha but the plot was a muddle- there's the yearbook, the blog, the bullies, the boyfriend, the secret- too much going on in too short a space. There is a major misdirection close to the end which struck me as incongruous and truly disturbing, and the big secret itself seemed hard to believe. I also wasn't crazy about the artwork as the characters seem to have two expressions each and their exaggerated faces struck me as unappealing. I think teen readers, and those just out of their teens, would probably enjoy it as funny nostalgia, and there are some laughs, but it's a pass for me.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sunday Salon- Happy Easter!

This past week was a little weird for me; my husband was away on business for a few days, and I spent lots of time stuck inside due to the incredible amount of rain we got in Massachusetts. I got a lot of work done, and a lot of around-the-house stuff, and spent time being thankful that I work from home!

Today I won't have much time to read, but what I do have will be spent with Gina Ochsner's The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight, which I got from the library. I know, I know- I have to read Solar but The Russian Dreambook takes priority because it's a library book and so comes with a deadline. I'm also reading Cassandra at the Wedding, a shortish novel in the NYRB Classics series, by Dorothy Baker. Cassandra was a Christmas present and I'm enjoying it.

My husband and I colored eggs yesterday; he did most of the work, including the pretty rainbow eggs. If you're celebrating Easter today, I hope you have a great time. I'm heading over to my inlaws soon to finish frosting cupcakes (I made coconut cupcakes for dessert, with cream cheese frosting) and have dinner with family and friends. Should be great!

UPDATE: He posted the "recipe" for the rainbow eggs in the comments if you're interested!

More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Friday Finds - A Sampling

A few of my Finds this Friday:

I got Ian McEwan's Solar first thing on Tuesday; I even braved the monsoons we were having in Boston to pick it up at my favorite local indie.

Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, arrived via Bookmooch; the person who sent it to me left a handwritten note on a stickie on the inside: "Phenomenal piece of literature. You will not be disappointed!" I'm looking forward to it!

Finally, I picked up (and had signed) Elyssa East's Dogtown and Brigid Pasulka's A Long Long Time Ago and Essentially True at the PEN/New England Awards this past Sunday. It was a good time and fun to say hi to Twitter pal (and winner) East.

Have a great weekend and if you're celebrating one of the holidays this weekend, enjoy!

Friday Finds is hosted at