Wednesday, February 29, 2012

World Book Night! I'm a Book Giver!

I'm so excited to announce I've been chosen as a Book Giver for World Book Night, coming up on April 23. And I got a great book to give away- Tim O'Brien's masterpiece The Things They Carried. This book, made up of short stories and vignettes about the Vietnam War, is an American classic and one of the best books about any war. It's required reading!

I haven't yet been assigned to a bookstore or library for pickup but you can be sure I'll keep you up to date on all the happenings.

What about you? Are you participating? What book will you be giving away?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

REVIEW: The Swimming-Pool Library, by Alan Hollinghurst

The Swimming-Pool Library, by Alan Hollinghurst. Published 1989 by Vintage International.

William Beckwith is a 20-something, wealthy gay man who leads an idle, self-centered life in the London of the 1980s; he works out at an all-male gym, sleeps around and just generally enjoys himself. He's having a relationship of sorts with Arthur, a working class black man who shows up on Will's doorstep in trouble at the end of the first chapter. And he meets Lord Nantwich, an elderly version of himself, who would like Will to write his biography. Nantwich served in Africa in the heyday of British colonialism. Although he and William meet by chance, he knows something about Will's family and has chosen him for this project for a very special reason.

The reader follows Will's adventures through the clubs, movie houses and back alleys of London thanks to Hollinghurst's fluid, beautifully composed prose. There is a great deal of graphic sexual content; Hollinghurst's refrains of body parts and sexual actions reminded me of Oscar Hijuelos's books, where the erotic content forms a kind of musical background to the plot. Slowly some important things emerge though. William falls in love with Phil, a closeted man admired by other members of Will's club, but Wills narcissism is challenged when Phil turns out to be not the blank slate Will imagines him. As he gets to know Nantwich, facts emerge that cause Will to question his fitness for the task of writing about the man, and other facts come out that make Will view the man himself in a different light.

Starting out almost as a thriller, The Swimming-Pool Library turns into a kind of coming of age story, where everything changes and then nothing changes. Hollinghurst ends the story on a note of comical hope, if that makes sense; William's grown up a little but he's essentially the same. The book dragged for me now and then in places, and I missed the near complete absence of female characters (Will's world is very male-centric) but overall I was quite taken with Hollinghurst's smart, agile writing and the intriguing mysteries of the changeable, meandering plot. I would certainly recommend the book to literary readers and I look forward to reading the other two Hollinghurst novels in my collection.

Rating: BACKLIST
I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.

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

Monday, February 27, 2012

Musing Mondays: Series?

This week’s musing asks…
Do you read books that are part of a series?
Do you collect all the books in the series before starting? What if the series is brand new, and the only book that’s been published so far is Book one? As subsequent books in the series are published, do you go back and re-read the preceding books?
I do read books that are part of series; lots of things are considered series that I never would have thought were, so I think just about everybody does! The vast majority of books I read are stand-alones though.  I don't collect them all before starting because half the time I don't know that I'm reading a series, and when I do, I'd rather try the first volume first. Oftentimes though I'll stop after reading the first book. I've never gone past the first book in the Lord of the Rings (actually never got past The Hobbit), or the Millennium Trilogy (violence, thwarted romance, dead women, financial scandal, blah blah blah- I get it). So I don't look for them, and I don't often finish them, but I don't mind them. It kind of bothers me how much emphasis there is on series in young adult literature. A story isn't just worth reading if it's at least three volumes long!

More Musing Monday at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Salon: Slouching Towards March

I can't believe February is almost over. I mean, I know it's the shortest month but really? Is it really almost March? Yesterday at work I bagged the first St. Patrick's Day items of the season and Wednesday was Ash Wednesday which means Easter is coming up. And Easter means spring, so that's good, right?

I finished Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming-Pool Library last night; it was a good book, thoughtful and rich and interesting. I'll have a full review this week. It's not one that I want to linger. I started Simonetta Agnello Hornby's The Nun, about a young girl sent to an Italian cloister against her will in the late nineteenth century. It bears some resemblance to Sarah Dunant's wonderful Sacred Hearts. I've read a few good reviews of The Nun lately and decided to get in an extra Europa Editions book this month. Next up is Three Weeks in December, by Audrey Schulman, whose event I'm going to this coming Friday evening.

Andrey Kurkov signs my book
Christopher Boucher
Speaking of book events, I went to a fabulous one this past Friday. Back Pages Books, a local indie, hosted Melville House authors Christopher Boucher (How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive) and Andrey Kurkov (Death and the Penguin; Penguin Lost; The Case of the General's Thumb). What a great night with two authors of unconventional books.

I haven't read Boucher's book yet but I know I'll get to it soon. I adored Kurkov's Death and the Penguin and look forward to the next two. I picked up Penguin Lost at the event and have The Case of the General's Thumb coming to me soon as well. I enjoyed listening to Kurkov's take on how penguins and Soviets are similar (both, he said, are used to rigid civil structures and don't know how to operate outside of their group) and thoughts on the decline of literary culture in the former Soviet countries. He noted that Novy Mir, the leading literary magazine, had, at one point, a circulation of 3 million; today it's 3,000. And he said that fully half of all the books bought in Russia are bought in Moscow. Food for thought!

Today? Who knows. I really have no idea! I hope you have a great Sunday whatever you get up to.

More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday Finds: Some Really Cool Stuff!

Got some finds to tell you about this week, as usual!

I got a galley of Katherine Howe's second novel, The House of Velvet and Glass. It's historical fiction set in the 1930s and 1940s and looks really interesting.

I finally picked up The Thorn and The Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story, by Theodora Goss. It's a love story told in an accordion book from the perspective of both the male and female characters. It looks beautiful!


I got Tirra Lirra by the River, by Jessica Anderson,  after reading a review on the terrific blog Kinna Reads. You should read Kinna's blog for sure- she has great recommendations and insights all the time. The book is about a woman looking back on her life and sounds to be poetic and lovely.

I don't have a cover image, but my friend gave me her galley of Cat Daddy by "My Cat From Hell" host Jackson Galaxy. If you follow me on Twitter you know I have a cat from hell (I love her to pieces when she's not slicing and dicing me to pieces) so I am really interested in this book! I can't wait to read it and tell you more about it.

That's it for me! What did you find this week? See more finds at ShoudlbeReading.wordpress.com.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

REVIEW: The Baker's Daughter, by Sarah McCoy

The Baker's Daughter, by Sarah McCoy. Published 2012 by Crown. Fiction.

If you read and enjoyed Sarah's Key and/or The Book Thief, you will find yourself on very familiar ground with Sarah McCoy's second novel, The Baker's Daughter. Set alternately in World War 2-era Germany and present-day El Paso, The Baker's Daughter tells the story of two women and their search for love and independence and happiness.

In the past-tense story, teenage Elsie Schmidt, the daughter of a baker, is a loyal German engaged to Josef, an older Nazi officer she hardly loves. But her family needs the engagement for the family's protection; in the Germany of the Nazi era, loyalty to the Reich is everything and even the appearance that one is questions the Reich is enough to bring an entire family under suspicion. Josef can shield them from scrutiny, but Elsie does start to question the Reich, and she has a secret.

In the present-tense, Reba is a reporter engaged to Riki, a border agent; she's interviewing Jane, Elsie's daughter and the proprietress of her own German bakery, about German Christmas customs. Along the way she hears Elsie's incredible story. Reba's relationship with Riki is troubled and uncertain; she wears his engagement ring on a chain around her neck but won't commit to marriage- yet. Then, she receives a great job offer at a paper in San Francisco. It's a big career move, but will that city's organic-food restaurants and wine country feel like home the way Texas does? In the mean time, Elsie takes ill and Jane makes a surprise decision.

The Baker's Daughter is going to be a natural choice for book clubs. Elsie and Reba both find themselves at difficult crossroads at different points in the novel and each must make heartbreaking choices. McCoy raises questions about loyalty and rebellion and brings in the issue of immigration alongside the Nazi persecution of the Jews, bringing up lots of ideas ripe for discussion. She's also written a very solid, enjoyable novel about two fresh and interesting women. I wasn't crazy about the past-present structure of Sarah's Key but I think McCoy does a really good job of investing both stories with urgency and feeling. She certainly kept me turning the pages!  I'd recommend The Baker's Daughter to readers looking for an engaging page-turner with winning characters at its center and lots to talk about to boot.

And there are even recipes at the back of the book! Yum!

Rating: BACKLIST

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

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

REVIEW: The Long Song, by Andrea Levy

The Long Song, by Andrea Levy. Published 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Literary Fiction.

I took The Long Song for review a while ago and I knew I'd get to it eventually because it was a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, and I have to say I was seriously impressed with this multifaceted, engrossing novel.

Set in Jamaica on the cusp of the end of slavery, Andrea Levy tells the story of Miss July, a slave in the household of one Caroline Mortimer, an English widow come to Jamaica. Caroline Mortimer, always referred to by her first and last name, is a comic figure, an emblem of the ridiculous and the absurd. She takes a shine to July, calls her "Marguerite" and makes July her personal servant. Along the way, they get through the Baptist War, see the end of slavery in Jamaica and learn to live with each other in the new era of freedom.

But don't mistake The Long Song for a feel-good novel about relationships between whites and blacks, or one in which the blacks teach the whites some lessons about life. Politics and social realities may change but attitudes change but little. July, whose white Scottish father raped her black Jamaican mother, finds that she is in a peculiar position in the complex racial hierarchy of the island, where how much white blood someone has determines their social standing among blacks and women try to "raise their color" by sleeping with white men. July falls in love with a white man, Robert Goodwin, who appears to be passionately devoted to her. He talks a good game but eventually he shows himself to be no better than July's own father when it comes to his true esteem for her.

I really loved The Long Song. I love how Levy made Caroline Mortimer sympathetic at first, then gradually shifts into satire and absurdity, and I love how she shows the different characters and events with respect for all- or mostly all. I could understand why the characters did what they did, and how their actions seemed right to them even when they seemed very wrong to me. The characters are complex people- there are no cartoon saints and no cartoon villains in this book. The narrator, the elderly July, is funny, irascible and just ever so slightly unreliable, and her voice makes the book the delightful, thoughtful and fascinating wonder that it is. Literary and popular-fiction readers will enjoy this book and I recommend it highly.

This book counts towards the Complete Booker Challenge.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, February 20, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Last week I finished three books:
  • Varamo, by Cesar Aira, which I loved to bits and pieces,
  • Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling, and
  • The Baker's Daughter, by Sarah McCoy, which I enjoyed and which I think you will, too.
This week I'm still working on Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming-Pool Library, a story about a wealthy gay man in 1980s London getting to know an older gentleman who wants the younger man to write his biography. In the mean time he's juggling lovers and loves. I also started The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt, which I'm loving. I want to spend all day with this hysterical gallows-humor Western but alas, I cannot. I love that it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. So far it's delightful.

Find out what others are reading at One Person's Journey Through a World of Books.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sunday Salon: Books and Chocolate

Ever have one of those weeks when you kind of can't remember what you did, either because you were so busy you lost track or so inactive there's nothing to talk about? Last week was a little bit of both for me! My husband was away on a business trip to Brussels and I was working late or not working at all. He left on Valentine's Day so our celebration of that holiday was delayed basically until today and for the rest of the week I was either so busy or so not busy that it's hard to figure out just exactly how I spent last week! I did decide to dive back into my quilting- an hour a day is the goal- and finished up Sarah McCoy's rather good novel The Baker's Daughter. Think of it as Sarah's Key crossed with The Book Thief, set in World War 2 Germany and present-day Texas. I liked it a lot and I think it will be popular with fans of both novels. She even includes some recipes. I'll have a full review this week.

But, I finished the book on the bus on the way to the airport to meet my husband yesterday, so when I arrived and had an hour to wait for his flight, I had nothing to read. Naturally I felt compelled to visit the airport bookstore and purchase something to keep me occupied. The selection was not great, but I picked up The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt, and even though it was described as a picaresque and I normally hate picaresques, I am over the moon about this book. It's a Western, which I normally don't think of myself as liking, and it's hilarious, dark and crazy all at once. Love. It makes me want to read my Charles Portis stash sometime soon, but March is Science Fiction Month for me so those will have to wait.

While my husband was in Belgium I asked him to check out Cook & Book, a beautiful bookstore in Brussels recently featured in a Flavorwire article on the 20 Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World.  He did, and he brought me back the French version of a Julia Wertz graphic novel and a small zine actually published here in Massachusetts! He also brought me back some Neuhaus chocolates, which may be the official chocolate of Boston Bibliophile now.

So today the plan is hang out with my husband, eat some Belgian chocolates and read. And maybe do some housework or something, but really I'm going to try to keep that to a minimum! Of course I always say that and then reality in the form of my huge laundry pile and tumbleweeds of cat hair sets in. What are you up to today? I hope you have a great Sunday whatever it is.

More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday Finds: Lots of Books

So last Saturday was my birthday and I got a pile of crime novels from my husband including
  • The Goodbye Kiss, and Bandit Love, by Massimo Carlotto (Europa Editions) and
  • Kismet; One Man, One Murder; Happy Birthday, Turk!, by Jakob Arjuni (Melville House).
Wandering around the bookstores of New York over the weekend I also picked up Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, by Lynda Barry, a book of inspiration and comics about bringing out your artistic side. I love anything Lynda Barry does.

I've been a fan of hers since middle school and I just love her to pieces. I found it at Forbidden Planet in Union Square.
Poem Strip, by Dino Buzzati, a racy Italian graphic novel type book from NYRB Editions. Looks intriguing. I picked it up at McNally Jackson in Soho.

I also found Margaret Atwood and A.S. Byatt first editions for my collection and saw but did not buy many other lovely bookish things in the rare book room of the Strand bookstore. I was pretty conservative in my purchases all things considered! New York is truly a treasure trove of delights for the reader!

What did you add to your pile this week? More Friday Finds at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

REVIEW: Stay Awake, by Dan Chaon

Stay Awake, by Dan Chaon. Published 2012 by Random House.

I received a copy of Stay Awake via LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

Dan Chaon's latest book, a creepy, crackling collection of short stories, will definitely keep you up past your bedtime. Chaon's novel Await Your Reply (link is to my review) was one of my favorite reads last year; a breathtaking, page-turning, stomach-churning suspense fest, I flew through it in about two days, and I had high expectations for his new book.

And those expectations were by and large met. If you were a fan of Await Your Reply you'll love this collection of edgy and just plain messed-up tales filled with dysfunctional, haunted, sad, confused and unhappy people in unhappy situations. It sounds miserable, I know, but Chaon's pared-down, just-enough style makes these stories riveting. My favorite stories were the first and last; in the first, "The Bees," Gene is a man with a secret who tries to make a go of traditional family life in the suburbs. When his past keeps bubbling up, an unwitting tragedy engulfs the family. In the last story, "The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands," an omniscient narrator alternates between a solitary man and the adult children he once tried to kill. It's haunting and written like a poem; it gives me chills.

Chaon's writing is so hard to define; it's not quite horror but it's more than literary suspense. He creates vivid characters and settings, sometimes with terribly unsympathetic figures at the center of twisted and strange narratives- but no stranger than real life. In the story "I Wake Up," a young man named Robert is contacted by a woman calling herself Cassie and claiming to be his sister. She tells him bizarre tales of their childhood and other siblings but refuses to meet in person or send a photograph. Something about her stories doesn't quite add up, but Robert gets drawn in anyway and she forces him to think about the one person he wants to forget. Who needs caffeine with writing like Chaon's?

Rating: BUY

Stay Awake: Stories
by Dan Chaon

Powells.com
 I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales. 

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from LibraryThing.com.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

REVIEW: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling. Published 2011 by Crown Archetype. Audiobook narrated by the author. Nonfiction. Memoir.

After Tina Fey's Bossypants was such a success last year (and continues to sell well, at least where I work), Mindy Kaling's memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) became the "it" celeb memoir of the 2011 holiday season and on. And I can see why. It's funny, cute and entertaining- like Kaling herself.

I listened to the audiobook version of Kaling's book, narrated by herself and a couple of other "character" voices. Kaling, a writer for and star of the TV show "The Office" recounts her high school and college years in New England (she grew up in the Boston area and attended Dartmouth College), post-college years making a go of comedy in New York City and her Broadway success with "Matt and Ben," a play she co-wrote and starred in with her best friend Brenda Withers. After the play, she moved to Hollywood and hit the big time with "The Office," a hit show based on the British TV show of the same name originally created by British comedian Ricky Gervais.

I don't watch "The Office" and while I know Kaling has legions of fans (one tweet from her was enough to sell out her Harvard Book Store appearance within hours), I guess I kind of don't get it. Based on the book alone, Kaling seems like a perfectly nice, perfectly ordinary young woman with a great job in Hollywood but not much else to distinguish her from all the other nice, ordinary, funny people out there. She's funny, and makes some insights about life and love but she also struck me as sheltered and princessy. Her lifetime of struggle with body image issues is a major theme but I have to admit a certain lack of sympathy for a woman who describes herself as "chubby" and then reveals she's a whopping size 8. That may count as fat inside a Hollywood bubble but that's not where most of us live. Or the standard by which we should evaluate our health and physical fitness.

So on balance I liked her book, and I enjoyed listening to her tell her own story; I just didn't think that story was anything special. She's fun in a Tina-Fey-lite kind of way, but if you enjoyed Bossypants I would think about why you enjoyed Bossypants before deciding to pick up Everyone. If you liked Fey's comedy and career highlights, you'll enjoy Kaling's; if you liked Fey's book for her maturity and smarts as well as her laughs, you might be more like me and find that Kaling's book has a little less to offer but is amusing enough nonetheless.

Rating: BEACH

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

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

REVIEW: The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress, by Beryl Bainbridge

The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress, by Beryl Bainbridge. Published 2011 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction.

Well, I guess it had to happen sooner or later- I read a Europa I didn't like.

At first I thought I was just going to DNF The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress, celebrated British author Beryl Bainbridge's posthumously published novel about two strangers on a road trip to California just before the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. The first time I tried to read it, I found it dull and confusing. Bainbridge tells the story with less than the minimum exposition; heavy on dialogue and internal monologue, we don't know much about why an American widower Washington Harold and an English girl named Rose are looking for one Mr. Wheeler. Little by little, we find out some, but I was still left with more questions than answers.

So I put it down for a while and picked it up again, determined not to be defeated. And I wasn't, at least in the sense that I finished it. I still don't understand much about what happened.  I wonder if this minimalist style is typical of Bainbridge's writing; this is the first novel of hers I've read. Whatever else you can say though, it's definitely not for me.

I did enjoy some things about the book. I liked the gentle accumulation of detail and her strange relationship with Harold. I liked the contradictions that often occurred between what one of the characters says and what he or she is thinking. And their rambling adventures and the people they meet along the way have a darkly comic picaresque quality that is kind of fun. On the whole though, not really one for me. Maybe you'll have better luck!

This is my second Europa for 2012's Challenge. I'll probably read The Nun next.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Musing Mondays: Favorite Romance or Love Story

This week’s musing asks…
What is your favorite romantic book –or book that includes a love story? (an adult romance, young adult, kids’ story, anything)

My favorite love story is probably Possession, A.S. Byatt's novel with two sets of romances, one in the present and one in the past. And actually it's more like three, if you count the love triangle at the heart of the past-tense romance. Other favorite love stories of mine are:
  • Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell,
  • Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, and I don't care what anyone says about it being ridiculous, etc.; also
  • A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot, set after World War I and about a woman's determination to find out what happened to her lover,
  • The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje, the book so much better than the movie, and
  • Persuasion, by Jane Austen, a more grown-up look at the marriage plot than most other Austens.
More Musing Mondays at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sunday Salon- Happy Birthday to Me (Yesterday)

Well yesterday was my birthday and I was lucky enough to spend it in NYC with some of my best friends including my husband of course. He was in town doing a talk at Columbia University's journalism school and so we got to spend the weekend before and after enjoying the city. We met up with my friends from college for part of the day, and while Saturday night was more laid back than what we expected, I had a great time. I always enjoy any time Jeff and I get to spend in New York; it's different every time, even when we hit a lot of the same places. We went to some of my favorite bookstores- The Strand and McNally Jackson- as well as a new-to-me used bookstore near the Strand called Alabaster. Fun fun.

Last night after a light dinner I saw the awful news about the death of singer Whitney Houston. I loved her music and I'm very saddened by her premature passing. It's a tragedy. She leaves behind an incredible musical legacy and will be missed.

As far as reading, I started reading An Ermine in Czernopol but I don't know if I'm going to finish. I brought it along with The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst; I'm enjoying that book a lot more even if it does have a lot of graphic sexual content. Of course when Edmund White blurbs a book and remarks on the amount of sex (he called it "so literary and so highly sexed") maybe it's time to dial it down just a little. But I think it's what makes a book a Hollinghurst, at least from what I've heard.

And today? I'll continue with Swimming-Pool and organize the books I received as birthday gifts. It was a Crime Novel Birthday for me; I got two by Massimo Carlotto and three by Jakob Arjouni. I also got the box of Penguin book-cover postcards, a gift certificate to Powell's and several blank notebooks. And a new winter coat, and a tote. So I can read, carry my books around and look cute doing it. Ha!

For right now I'm relaxing over a leisurely breakfast with the New York Times book review section, and adding to my TBR pile in the process. They have a great write up of Audrey Schulman's new novel from Europa Editions, Three Weeks in December, and Francine Prose wrote a nice appreciation of British author Edward St. Aubyn and his new book, At Last. I'm adding that and his earlier Mother's Milk to my wishlist now. Who says no one reads traditional review sources anymore?

What are you up to today? I hope you have a great Sunday. More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Friday Finds- The Ban Has Been Lifted

So my book-buying ban is officially lifted- my birthday is tomorrow. And... well, it was time to lift it.

I picked up Dirty Snow, a crime novel by Georges Simenon set just after World War 2 in France. I have never read him and I think this book will be fun. From the NYRB website:
Nineteen-year-old Frank Friedmaier lives in a country under occupation. Most people struggle to get by; Frank takes it easy in his mother’s whorehouse, which caters to members of the occupying forces. But Frank is restless. He is a pimp, a thug, a petty thief, and, as Dirty Snow opens, he has just killed his first man. Through the unrelenting darkness and cold of an endless winter, Frank will pursue abjection until at last there is nowhere to go.
The Art of Healing Heartbeats, by Jan-Philipp Sendker, has been described as good trashy fun from the great publisher Other Press. From their site:
A poignant and inspirational love story set in Burma, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats spans the decades between the 1950s and the present.  When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be…until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience, and passion that will reaffirm the reader’s belief in the power of love to move mountains.
My Twitter pal author Steve Himmer recommended Alexis M. Smith's novel Glaciers, fresh from the wonderful Tin House Books. From the Tin House site:
Isabel is a single, twentysomething thrift-store shopper and collector of remnants, things cast off or left behind by others. Glaciers follows Isabel through a day in her life in which work with damaged books in the basement of a library, unrequited love for the former soldier who fixes her computer, and dreams of the perfect vintage dress move over a backdrop of deteriorating urban architecture and the imminent loss of the glaciers she knew as a young girl in Alaska.
And if you don't follow Steve on Twitter, you really need to. He's a really nice guy and his book The Bee-Loud Glade is pretty neat, too. Look for him @SteveHimmer and tell him I say hi.

What did you add to your pile this week? See more Friday Finds at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

REVIEW: The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey

The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey. Published 2012 by HarperCollins. Literary Fiction.

So, I wasn't sure I was going to review The Flight of Gemma Hardy. I think it's really hard to rewrite a classic- Gemma is a retelling of Charlotte Brontë's immortal Jane Eyre- and I don't think the book is bad. I guess I just don't get it though.

When you start to rewrite a classic set in another time and place (Livesey sets Gemma in 1960s Scotland as opposed to early nineteenth century England), there are some things to consider. You have to consider how closely you want to hem to the plot points of the original. There are advantages and pitfalls to how you carry off the plot in relation to the original. Hem to closely, and it's boring- the reader already knows what's going to happen, so why keep reading? Stray too much, and you risk disappointing the fans. The author has to carry off what's important in a way that feels fresh but not be a slave to what's not. Most importantly, for the new book to be a success, the author has to create a truly original, engaging heroine (or hero), and the new heroine has to do the things she does not because that's what happened in the original but because that's what she'd do. The best example of the classic-rewrite that I've read, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary (a retelling of Pride and Prejudice) carries it off without a hitch. While I thought it's mostly pretty solid,  Gemma Harding has some shortcomings for me.

The book is set mostly in the Orkney Islands; the dominant feeling is cold and gloom. Gemma Hardy is an orphan living with her dead mother's family, who despise her. They send her away to a Dickensian nightmare of a boarding school and from there she winds up as a governess at a Scottish estate, where she falls in love with the lord of the manor. Can such a love ever be? There are secrets and lies, and Gemma has some self-discovery to do, too. So if you know Jane you know already you can tick off the plot points pretty easily. Gemma herself is reasonably sympathetic and her journey is interesting to see unfold.

I couldn't forget about Jane thought- Gemma isn't different enough or a strong enough character for that- and the book seems more interested in the plot than in the character development.  I found the central romance to be tepid and under-drawn; I wish I'd gotten to know Mr. Sinclair better. I didn't really understand his "secret" and wished for a little more drama on that point.  I found Gemma's "growth" to be kind of shallow; in the end it seemed like she didn't really learn anything or grow except to discover that she could be as unethical as the man she loves. So it wasn't perfect for me and I wished for a little more heat with regards to the romance, but I have no doubt that Gemma will do very well with womens' fiction readers and most literary readers. If you're a Jane Eyre fan it's definitely worth checking out anyway.

Rating: BACKLIST

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from HarperCollins.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

REVIEW: The Little Russian, by Susan Sherman

The Little Russian, by Susan Sherman. Published 2012 by Counterpoint. Literary Fiction.

I haven't been reading a lot of Jewish books lately; a few still cross my desk every now and then, and among them was The Little Russian, the story of Berta Alshonsky, the daughter of a grocer from a small village called Mosny in Ukraine. It's 1897 when the story opens; her family has sent her to Moscow to be the companion of a relative; there, she becomes used to the glitter and wealth of the city and faces a harsh awakening when she returns home. Soon though, she falls in love with a dashing and rich young man named Hershel. They marry and though they live comfortably for some time, Hershel's secret activities put the family in danger. Pogroms, always a threat, worsen with the outbreak of the Great War and the revolution; the family's status and conditions deteriorate quickly and Berta finds herself making decisions and doing things she never thought she would as a lady of leisure.

I enjoyed reading The Little Russian. The action flows quickly and the setting and characters are vivid and engaging. Knowing some of the basics of Jewish culture will help the reader with some of the details but I don't think most readers will be left adrift overmuch. Berta is not an easy woman to like but she becomes a woman to admire as she struggles to keep herself and her family afloat, enduring some very painful losses along the way. The love story between Hershel and Berta is also very moving and Sherman creates a really frightening portrait of the upheavals and chaos of the Russian Revolution and World War I. Overnight, status, property, everything about a person could be stripped away; Berta musters resources she never knew she had to help her family survive.

I would definitely recommend The Little Russian to readers of Jewish books and those interested in the effects of war on women and families. I didn't love it but I liked it and found myself turning the pages rapidly to find out what was going to happen next to this difficult but determined woman and her brood. It's an intelligent, enjoyable book with genuine suspense and even a happy ending.

Rating: BACKLIST

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

Monday, February 6, 2012

Musing Mondays- Super Bowl Sunday!


 This week’s musing asks…

Did you do any reading in lieu of watching the football game, yesterday, or were you foregoing reading to watch the game? If you read a book (or books) what did you choose?

I watched the Super Bowl! I live in Boston- our team was playing, so I watched, and what a boring, underwhelming game it was. My husband and I, and our visiting friend Phil of Read Irresponsibly, hung out with my husband's parents and had chili while we watched. Of course for me "watching" is a relative term; while I was technically in the room and looking at the television, I didn't understand much of what was going on and my mind was on the books in my bag even if my eyes couldn't be!

More Musing Mondays at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sunday Salon- A Break and a Fresh Start

I actually got kind of tired of reading this week. I finished From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, an entertaining read by debut author Alex Gilvarry, and looked at some of the books in my to-read-next pile and felt sort of deflated. So I took a few days off from reading. This month, February, I'm dedicating to review obligations. I have over a dozen to read, only a few of which I'm sure I'll get to, including
  • The Long Song, by Andrea Levy,
  • Varamo, by Cesar Aira,
  • An Ermine in Czernopol, by Gregor von Rezzori,
  • The Mighty Walzer, by Howard Jacobson, and
  • A Man of Parts, by David Lodge.
I've stopped accepting pitches until further notice. I'm just happier when I read books I pick out for myself and the fact that I have to more or less force myself to read review books shows that it's not really what I want to be doing. I want to hear from the publishers and publicists I already know; I'm talking about the random stuff that comes in.  I still get lots of the "I know you're not accepting pitches but you should accept mine" variety, which really puzzle me. If you read my review policy long enough to process that I'm not taking pitches, what do you honestly expect me to say?

Four of the above are books that I specifically requested, and that's different from accepting a pitch. And of course some offers are too good to refuse.

I've rebounded from my reading slump with Andrea Levy's outstanding The Long Song. Now everyone is telling me to read Small Island, her earlier book. Have you read either or both? What do you think? I'm really impressed with her ability to create empathy in the reader for characters whose actions are understandable and awful at the same time. I took this book for review a long time ago; I'm sure the publicist who sent it to me thinks I'm never going to review it. I am! This week most likely!

I hope you're having a great Sunday. I'd love to know what you're reading- or not reading. More Sunday Salon here.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Friday Finds- Finding A Few

Another light week in book acquisitions, which is fine. I got a couple of books in the mail but I'm still not buying a whole lot for the time being.

Frank Delaney's latest The Last Storyteller arrived for review. It's even a signed copy! I was a huge fan of Venetia Kelly's Travelling Show though I didn't quite succeed in finishing its sequel, The Matchmaker of Kenmare. The Last Storyteller is the third and final chapter in the story of Ben MacCarthy and his search for his elusive wife Venetia.

You Are Not Like Other Mothers is an opus coming in April from Europa Editions, written by German author Angelika Schrobsdorff:
When still a young woman, Else made two promises to herself: to live life to the fullest, and to have a child with every man she loves. So here, too, are the stories of Fritz, Hans, and Erich- husbands, companions, lovers, and emissaries of a world in which mean repeatedly prove inadequate. Here are the stories of Peter, Bettina, and Angelika, Else's three children, born to three different fathers. Here, too, is World War I, then the roaring twenties...here are are the ominous 1930s and the advent of Nazism, the dreadful racial laws, and for Else, a Jew estranged from her heritage, exile in Bulgaria...But Else will make a fatal mistake...
The blurb is longer (the book is a brick, too) but you get the idea. Sounds great, yes?

What's new on your shelf this week? More Friday Finds at ShouldbeReading.wordpress.com.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

REVIEW: Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner. Published 2011 by Coffee House Press. Literary Fiction.

Leaving the Atocha Station is a good book but its audience is going to be pretty small. It's a moody,  style-driven novel about a student living on a fellowship in Spain, writing poetry, doing drugs and negotiating relationships with women. It's told in the first person by Adam, the student, and covers his adventures and his thoughts about literature, politics and life. The 2004 Madrid bombings occur during his stay; he's a witness, though the events don't seem to shake him up very much. Mostly the narrative follows his adventures in an out of bed with a couple of girlfriends, around clubs, restaurants and galleries and through the thick tangle of his own thoughts.

I enjoyed the book as the self-consciously literary prose poem it is but it's short on plot and is more a series of reflections and moods and less a narrative, although the character does narrate a certain period in his life. Lerner does a nice job capturing the experience of being an American living abroad, the sense of alienation, the sense of detachment and foreign-ness that comes with living on the periphery of a place and a group of people. Adam tries to ingratiate himself into the local literary scene, something that only happens by chance as he attaches himself to a group of strangers at a bar who turn out to be artists, writers and gallery people. Through it all he never loses his sense of separateness and it's this that's communicated so beautifully to the reader.

So who's the right reader for this idiosyncratic book? The right reader is the kind who likes stylized, literary language primarily and doesn't need a lot of story to carry him- or herself along. The right reader probably also loved Tinkers, another literary prose-poem, although this book isn't quite in the same league as that Pulitzer winner. College students or recent graduates would probably like the book as it describes that very particular place and time of life with precision. It's a book about a state of mind, a sense of otherness and a lack of certainty about the future. I enjoyed the book to a point but I didn't love it; but I'm probably not the right reader.

Rating: BACKLIST

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

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

World Book Night!

Are you in?

World Book Night is an event during which people all over America and elsewhere are volunteering to give out copies of favorite books to strangers to encourage and promote literacy and reading in their community.

From the site:
We need book-loving volunteers to fan out across America on April 23, 2012! Just take 20 free copies of a book to a location in your community, and you just might change someone's life. Please sign up by Feb. 6 EST at midnight. 

The goal is to give books to new readers, to encourage reading, to share your passion for a great book. The entire publishing, bookstore, library, author, printing, and paper community is behind this effort with donated services and time. 

The first World Book Night was held in the UK last year, and it was such a big success that it's spreading around the world! Please volunteer to be a book giver in the U.S. Sign up now to be a book giver.

You choose books you'd like to give away from their list; I signed up for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as well as two backup choices. You should have read the book you're given away, and you should love it, so you can be a great evangelist for it.

It costs you nothing, and it might help someone else discover the joys of reading. It's such a great opportunity to spread the word about a book you love! Sign up today. You have until February 6 to volunteer!